Women play video games. This is no longer some theory, agenda, or belief – it’s hardened fact.
Forty-two per cent, if you’re looking for more precise numbers. And, yet, gaming studios continue to ignore the desires of a huge chunk of their own demographic in favour of clinging on to old, outdated tropes of who their audience really consists of; the financial implications of alienating so much of their own audience having seemingly not crossed their minds.
There is change out there though. It may be slow, and cautious in its advance, but there’s a new frontier that’s been gradually developing at the edges of mainstream gaming; one that sees Emily Kaldwin, the protagonist at the centre of Dishonored 2, certainly loom large.
The stealth game sequel focuses in on Emily for good reason, too; being a natural hook through which to progress the original’s story. Dishonored 2’s director Harvey Smith reveals the idea for a second instalment came after the development of the DLC package The Brigmore Witches, which focused on painter and coven leader Delilah Copperspoon, the main antagonist of Dishonored 2.
Knowing that a return to the game would prove popular, Smith says: “For the new project, it was blue sky. I thought about picking up with Corvo, another plague and other ideas, but it just wasn't that exciting. Very early on in that process, the idea struck me that if we advanced the timeline by 15 years, we could position a story around Emily, losing her throne and being on the run from Dunwall.”
In fact, the idea of then adding Corvo – giving players the option of playing the game’s entirety either as Corvo or as Emily – was somewhat secondary, and there’s certainly the sense the game’s narrative is best served as seen through the eyes of its banished queen.
It’s very much her story: of a woman thrust onto the throne of Dunwall after her mother’s assassination, though only after her bodyguard and father Corvo Attano restores her rightful place in the face of deceit and corruption – marking the events of the first game. Now, Emily faces a new threat when Delilah Copperspoon arrives to the city and claims to be her mother's lost half-sister, and thus the true heir of Dunwall.
Yet, what's so immediately engaging about Emily is her complexity of emotion, rendered in a way that's so rare to see in mainstream titles; as lead narrative designer Sachka Duval explains, "she’s a strong female character; but at the same time she’s not a confident Empress, she doubts she will ever be as good a politician as her mother – and in fact she isn’t. She was born into this role and didn’t choose it."
The move towards creating more layered, relatable female characters was perhaps most notably seen in 2013's reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. Sure, Lara Croft in her traditional guise will always be a beloved staple in gaming; but she also exemplified the kind of one-note, tough gal hyper-sexualisation which has always dominated the industry. There is no getting around that implausible balloon chest, really.
But what both 2013's Lara Croft and Emily achieve is a clean break from those stereotypes and towards something more akin to a kind of everywoman role: hesitant, inexperienced, but with a steely determination to succeed against the odds and rise to greatness.
This kind of diversification is a great, if small sign of what the future might bring; part of what seems to be an important first push for awareness of gender disparity in gaming, specifically when it comes to major franchises declining to include female characters over multiple games.
There's certainly an evolving conversation on the subject; following Assassin's Creed Unity coming under fire for jettisoning female playable characters due to the extra workload (never mind that the most famous assassin of the French Revolution was, indeed, a woman), or Battlfield 1's claim that male gamers wouldn't find it believable that women fought in WWI – even though they did.
“It’s been incredible to watch, personally going from ignorance to caring about it; seeing others go through the same process; watching actual opposition rise up,” Smith notes. “It’s the latest wave in an ongoing tidal process, I hope. It seems strange to still be having these conversations in such a high-tech ‘advanced’ time period.”
What’s particularly refreshing about Emily's role in Dishonored 2 (or indeed Lara's in 2013’s Tomb Raider) is that these women aren’t presented as some kind of singularity in their environment; with Dunwall and Karnaca seeing you cross paths with both men and women equally as villains, guards, or allies. This a world filled to the brim with interesting, vibrant women who reflect their deeply personal concerns.
“Many of our female characters are in the process of finding out who they are and what they can be,” Duval mentions. “Delilah wanted to be a princess and a beloved daughter, but she was cast out of the Tower and had to live in the streets. Then she reinvented herself as a painter and a witch. Meagan Foster, our ship captain, is a woman who changed her name and her life, and probably will again. Not necessarily ‘making history’: but as historians recently demonstrated, the history women make often happens in the shadows.”
Indeed, though Dishonored is thoroughly a fantasy of steam punk grandeur, its Victorian inspirations still trickle through into how the game treats its own balance of gender equality; tracking the greater historical shifts in women's rights over the passing decades. Duval adds, “In Dishonored, one of the minor characters was dreaming of being a sailor but couldn’t because ‘alas she’s a woman’.”
“In Dishonored 2 you can see women soldiers, professors, thugs, scientists, politicians … but at the same time, some institutions like the Abbey remain built on gender segregation, and the witches’ coven is entirely female. It’s a world that still bears the scars of gender inequality. Delilah has a line that I love, where she warns [Emily] that one day she too might end up being burned like a witch for being a woman with power.”
If anything, Dishonored 2’s writing proves exactly how uncomplicated it is to create an engaging, immersive game world that doesn’t skimp on layered, relatable female characters. As Duval explains, “I really hope we did a good job building female characters with a strong personality, avoiding tropes like ‘she’s strong because she was hurt’, ‘she’s a fighter but she needs to show some skin’, etc.”
“Humour and retro settings are often a lazy excuse for sexism, racism, homophobia, but I think we proved it’s possible to do things differently. We can build a fantasy world that seems Victorian, and is fun, deep, dark and critical of society, without alienating most of our players in the process. The whole team has been very committed to this idea, going the extra mile to have all kinds of characters, even if that meant more models, more animations, more work.”
As Smith concludes, the reaction has made the work entirely worth the effort: “Many players are telling us that Emily is meaningful to them, and I hope people remember her and her adventure for years to come.”
Dishonored 2 is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC