IGN (which describes itself as “a leading online media & services company obsessed with gaming, entertainment* and everything guys enjoy”) recently published a piece called “Here’s Why Cortana is Always Naked.”
Cortana as she evolved from Halo: Combat Evolved to Halo 4
The piece is apparently following in the footsteps of Hideo Kojima’s hilariously overreaching explanation for why Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain‘s Quiet is so under-dressed. You see, Quiet breaths through her skin due to her exposure to a strange and rare parasite, which is a stupid plot device invented to justify her fan service-style overtly sexualized presentation. Kojima told gamers that they would “feel ashamed” for questioning why she was designed this way once we uncovered this brilliant plot twist. In reality, we quickly realized that this guy had a version of the same parasite. Let’s compare their fashion choices, shall we?
MGS 3‘s The End
Source: MGS Wiki
MGS 5‘s Quiet
The creators of Halo 5 had a slightly more plausible reason for making Cortana dress so skimpily. As franchise director Frank O’Connor explained:
One of the reasons she [chooses to appear without clothes] is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so that they’re on their guard when talking to her and she has the upper hand in those conversations.
It’s kind of almost like the opposite of that nightmare you have where you go to school in the nude. You’re terrified and embarrassed and she’s kind of projecting that back out to her audience and winning intellectual points as a result.
This makes sense. This Cortana is aware of the gendered and sexualized politics of the female body and the ways in which software creators (including the real world creators of Microsoft’s Cortana smart phone app) have often tapped into feminine tropes as a design element to make suggestions to users about how they should relate to a product. As an artificial intelligence, Cortana has apparently decided that this very human social construction was something that she could use to her advantage. And more power to her!
However, these explanations fail to account for one important sticking point: why is it that ALL of these games featuring female characters in support roles (with all of their various backstories, both ridiculous and logical) end up in the exact same place? Why is it that EVERY plot just HAPPENS to unfold in such a way that the female support character just HAS to be presented as a heterosexual fantasy object?
Of course, we all know the answer. Because these stories are also products being bought by consumers, and game developers assume that the consumers are heterosexual men who want to ogle fantasy objects.
And that would be fine. Except, of course, it is a mistake to assume that all or even MOST gamers fall into that category anymore.
It would be nice if, every once in a while, games companies tried out something new: new looks and new stories. The Mass Effect series’s Tali’Zorah, who has an origin story to explain why she must be covered head-to-toe in an environmental body suit that protects her body’s weak immune system, is an interesting example.
But we could imagine even more! How about female characters with different body types, different sexualities (and different genders developed in radically different cultures)? For example, let’s compare some of Mass Effect‘s alien companions:
Source: Mass Effect Wiki
Source: Mass Effect Wiki
Why does it just so happen that the companions we can choose from the beautiful and humanoid looking species are gendered female** while our companion from the hulking reptilian species is male? Sure we can pick a male or a female Shepherd to play as. But why can’t we form a close bond with, say, a female Krogon?
World of Warcraft does the same thing. The male and female bodies of certain races are so different that they look as though they belong to different species.
Some of the best sci fi literature has experimented with these ideas about alternative presentations that don’t conform to heterosexual norms of sexual attractiveness. There are tons of gamers out there who want something more robust then a story that exists to serve as an excuse to sexually objectify female characters. We want to see what it is like to experience relationships (friendships, romances, whatever) with different kinds of people.
Not that there is anything wrong with eye candy! But if the goal of EVERY STORY is to get us to Eye Candy Land the, well, we are going to get a lot of boring, unoriginal stories.
*No Oxford comma? They were already dead to me…
**I know, I know, the Asari race’s biology with regards to sexuality is more complicated than ours. But she registers to us humans playing the Mass Effect games as female.