*Spoilers for From Software’s Bloodborne (2015) ahead*
Yesterday was International Women’s Day 2019, and my mind can’t help but wander and consider the female characters that have gained cultural relevance in the gaming sphere. It goes without saying that concerns and critiques focused on the appearances and roles provided to female characters in games are well-documented, with hypersexualization and the championing of the male gaze, misogynistic affordances, and one-dimensional personalities and flimsy roles tightly revolving around male characters all having come to the fore – and rightly so!
Consequently, a few obvious examples that challenge some of these concerns quickly arose, including the legendary Samus Aran of the Metroid series, young Lara Croft of the rebooted Tomb Raider (2013-2018) series, angsty teenager Ellie of The Last of Us (2013), deliciously assertive Chloe of Life is Strange (2015), and the more recent example of gun-toting, no bullshit-taking cowgirl, Sadie Adler of Red Dead Redemption II (2018). However, I found myself interested in discussing a character that I feel is less synonymous with the canon of acceptable female characters in games, and featured in a title that contains varying quality in its representations of women – Eileen the Crow of FromSoftware’s critical hit Bloodborne (2015).
When first meeting Eileen, she’s a lonesome figure standing tall on a dim balcony near Yharnam’s sewers, predictably watching the day descend into a bloody night. Approaching her for the first time with my player-character, I was pleasantly surprised when her raspy yet cool voice, muffled under her plague doctor mask, welcomed me to the hunt. Clad in a black coat composed of ruffled crow feathers, arms tightly crossed, and her gaze never leaving the sight of the player-character, her intimidating stance only enhanced the warm sternness of her tone as she introduced herself. Eileen states that she is a ‘hunter of hunters’, a hunter that seeks out peers that have succumbed to their inner blood lust during the night of the hunt, releasing them from their beastly states with her much coveted weapon, the Blade of Mercy. The pairing of her introduction and welcome with her age quickly establishes Eileen as far older and wiser than the player-character.
As her story arc progresses, I noticed that despite her harrowing occupation, there’s a certain sensitivity expressed by Eileen throughout her relationship with the player-character, one that is reflected in her words of friendly encouragement and steely advice. Though this could be perceived as maternal in nature, fitting the theme of motherhood that permeates the game, I received her expression as falling more into the realm of a knowledgeable friend, or a reliable ally. This is particularly evident if Eileen’s arc is not completed and she subsequently becomes hostile toward the player, accusing them of embracing hunt-induced blood lust and abandoning their humanity – an interaction unlikely to occur if she perceived the character like offspring. Despite this potential conclusion to her story line which sees her become an unrelenting adversary, however, Eileen (and her aforementioned sensitivity) challenges the ‘tough’ female character stereotype that we see not only in games, but also in other media such as film.
Eileen successfully subverting the strong female character ™ stereotype is most explicitly depicted toward the end of her story arc, when she can be found heavily wounded and bleeding out atop the stairs of Yharnam’s grand cathedral. As she warns the player-character not to confront the enemy that has bested her, her demeanor softens – while this could be influenced by her dying state, the dissolution of her stony tone into one of concern signifies an expression of trust and care as opposed to peaceful resignation. If the player-character successfully defeats her adversary, she will lightly scold the player while humbly resigning herself to end of her own hunt, bestowing the player-character, her chosen successor (or depending on how you see it, mentee), with her hunter badge (i.e. unlocking her unique weapon). Thus, Eileen is written in such a way that extends to her some emotional nuance, and while this scene does play into the mentor-mentee trope we often see in the action-adventure genre, so rarely do we see it occur with a female mentor – and an elderly one at that.
Overall, in representing a sorely absent demographic in games (middle to old-aged women), subverting the stereotypes and tropes typically associated with older women such as languidness and dependency (a lack of agency), challenging the strong female stereotype by expressing genuine trust, vulnerability, and encouragement, and replacing what could have easily been written as a male mentor for the player-character, Eileen the Crow is a character that seems almost radical in the landscape of digital games right now. Such a rare representation deserves more recognition and attention in the broader public conscious in games and their narratives.
Yet, Bloodborne itself is by no means an inherently progressive work. There are numerous characters that fall into unfortunate stereotypes, and one which clearly falls into the tropes surrounding older women that Eileen herself challenges. Also, many of the female characters encountered in the title are depicted in abject contexts relating to their bodies, with some neatly falling into the realm of scholar Barbara Creed’s famous term, the ‘monstrous feminine.’ The themes of desire, conception, birth, and motherhood that are pervasive throughout the game are seemingly carried by these ‘grotesque’ characters, reflected in some of their personality traits and actions (The Doll and Iosefka swiftly come to mind). While my own experience with Bloodborne didn’t necessarily equate these depictions as being wholly negative, there is more than enough room to perceive such representations as exploitative, harmful, and once again, positioning women as one-dimensional plot devices designed to both horrify and entertain – a setup that hasn’t escaped critique.
However, in the world of FromSoftware’s Bloodborne, and in addition, the Dark Souls series, some female characters do play integrally important roles, or are endearing secondary figures. They are perhaps nuanced enough in their depictions to argue that they are interesting, rich characters. Key examples in this include Priscilla, Lady Maria, or Quelana. However, these examples clearly fall under the banner of ‘some’ – others aren’t well written or intriguing, seeming shallow, placid, and mere models. One particularly disappointing depiction for me is Ciaran, one of the powerful four knights of Gwyn, in Dark Souls (2011), who is only met briefly, and in relation to her implied love interest. A missed opportunity. In a way, how Bloodborne and the Dark Souls series depict female characters inconsistently is reflective of the video game industry itself – while progress is slowly being made and can be seen in the recent slew of enjoyable female characters in mainstream and indie titles alike, the traditional structures and gaming culture linger and continue to impact the presence of diversity within the industry, and in doing so, arguably take away from the richness of the characters we experience.
As a result, there’s still a lot of work to be done to improve diversity in the industry. Regarding women specifically, in the last year alone we’ve seen the games press shed light on the sexist working environments and contexts experienced by women at major developers. Kotaku’s Cecilia D’Anastasio’s investigative work into Riot Games’ treatment of prospective and current female employees, and former Arenanet narrative designer Jessica Price’s firing over a seemingly innocuous social media conversation are two major topics that come to mind. Moreover, while the controversy may be ‘over’, Gamergate’s hateful rhetorics towards women undeniably lingers in the comment sections of female professionals in the industry, signaling that the deeply misogynistic beliefs and attitudes in video game culture still explicitly exist. Relating this to representation, even this week we saw Rape Day, a visual-novel that sees the player-character afforded the ability to rape women amidst a zombie apocalypse, reported to have been on its way to Steam’s catalog – and perhaps would have made it, if it hadn’t received attention from the mainstream games media and vigilant social media users.
In thinking about International Women’s Day, I hope we can reflect on, and unite in trying to create a future in games where diversity is championed, the old structures dissolved, the culture as inclusive as opposed to radically exclusive. I have no doubt that gaming audiences are becoming increasingly broad and will be thirsty for games that seek to tell stories with characters that deserve to be celebrated – characters like the dark, mysterious, and terribly rare Eileen the Crow.