As I played them, I noticed something. Blizzard seems to have an interest in creating strong female characters. I, of course,6 think this is commendable. Companies that have a desire to represent women and be more inclusive should always be encouraged. Hopefully Blizzard will keep this desire well into the future.
Unfortunately, the actual results seem to be less than optimal. Like many writers in the same position, Blizzard seems to regularly confuse “strong” with “powerful”. As such, we wind up with many of the same female archetypes, just wielding infinite cosmic power.
Let me be clear. This is not borne of a desire to tear down Blizzard or its work. As I said, I am generally a fan of Blizzard's games, and I do feel the company's heart is in the right place. However, it is important to recognize areas of weakness and draw them to light. In so doing, we help improve those areas and make for higher quality overall.
Today I'm talking about two of the main female characters in Blizzard's recent titles: Sarah Kerrigan from Starcraft II, and Leah from Diablo III.
Sarah Kerrigan: Mary Sues in Space
I admit that, despite the title of this section, I have no small issue with the term Mary Sue. Whatever its original purpose, in modern usage it seems to stand for little more than “whatever character the critic in question does not like”. Even more so when that character is female.
And yet, it's difficult to imagine a more Special character than Sarah Kerrigan. For indeed, she is special, in every possible sense. Her psionic ability is considered exceptionally high even at the start, and by the current point in the series, it is now listed as unmeasurable. She is sought after by everyone else in the Starcraft universe, both romantically (in the case of Jim Raynor) and because she is the ultimate, chosen-one savior of the universe (in the case of pretty much everyone). She is able to control the Zerg even when not one herself. She sees all the moves coming in advance and has a plan for all of them, up to and including the fact that the Terrans would suddenly have a weapon that specifically kills psychics and creating a special, non-hivemind form of Zerg just for this.
Everything about her is meant to make her the perfect special awesome flower of specialness, which does not exactly make for a complex character. Rather, it makes for a lazy one. A character with no flaws is a character with no room for growth, and three games and counting dealing with our special Chosen One savior hardly results in anything except further power.
Even as she manages to be a special person full of specialness, the designers wanted to make sure that we remembered that she was a special woman. Sadly, as is all too often the case, the solution was to make her visibly more feminine. The quote below is taken from the Starcraft wiki's page on Kerrigan:
"In-game, her athletic proportions were very subdued when viewed from a distance, and her feminine features did not stand out enough to clearly present her as a female character. A quick resolution to this for the real-time artwork was increasing Kerrigan’s breast size and the width of her hips. A drawback of the design was the zerg-arms that protrude from Kerrigan’s back which interfere with her silhouette and distracts from her slim waist."
Look at the picture of Kerrigan above. Does that look like a masculine face? She certainly talks with a feminine voice. It would be virtually impossible to confuse her for a man, either in her Terran or Zerg forms. And yet, the designers felt it was important to make sure we constantly remembered how female she was, and to do so, they took the sex-appeal route. This is disappointing, to say the least.
When you feel the need to remind everyone that the person you have is in fact a woman at every opportunity, you are suggesting that she still has to be defined by that same feminine trait first and foremost. Sarah Kerrigan can't be a special person. She has to be a special woman. It is difficult to let her simply be a character at that point – it becomes an exercise of reminding you how inclusive the developers are. Women shouldn't need specifically pointed out, because it should not be something so rare as to require it. Contrary to what Blizzard seems to think, we will not forget that she is female simply because it is not immediately visible at all times when looking at her.
That's not to say it's entirely negative with Kerrigan. One feature that she does have going for her is that her story is one generally reserved for male characters. While Mary Sue-type characters are regularly seen as being too Special, with females it's usually a matter of being too attractive, or some other quality to make the male lead desire them. Granted, Raynor certainly desires Kerrigan plenty, but her real Specialness stems from being extremely powerful, which is usually reserved for male “Marty Stu” characters. While not exactly unique, it is a bit refreshing compared to the rest of her character.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for her recent counterpart in one of Blizzard's other flagship series.
Leah: Cosmic Doormat
So I was as surprised as everyone else when Blizzard suddenly decided to go story-heavy on Diablo III. It seemed unlikely that anyone really cared – bad things just keep happening over and over, and lots of people die. It's not original or even terribly interesting, and mostly it's just getting in the way of the loot.
Still, I was hoping it wouldn't be a complete loss. Of particular note was Leah, a new character. Deckard Cain's adopted niece, she seemed set to replace “Uncle Deckard” as the new source for identifying items and providing wisdom. He was extremely old by Diablo standards, and age or some sort of demon was bound to get him eventually. In fact, that was the stated goal of the designers – to have someone to fill the role of Cain due to his age. From Director Jay Wilson's comments:
“Leah is the adopted daughter of Deckard Cain. Cain’s a lot older; we felt like we needed another character to play some of his role. And also to be more active. We wanted a character who was out in the world with the player who would interact and help out. She’s a quest giver and sometimes companion. “
Yet what we got with Leah was something altogether different. Cain's role is to be the font of wisdom who tells the player about the backstory of the world of Sanctuary and identifies your items. In Diablo III, Cain does finally pass the torch on this – to a combination of Tyreal and a book.
As for Leah, she does not inherit the wisdom of her Uncle. In fact, she repeatedly and explicitly doubts him, even after seeing the truth of his teachings in the world around her. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a character who doubts, and indeed this can make for useful character development as the character struggles to reconcile long-held beliefs with the reality around them, it never seems to go anywhere in Diablo. Much like an atheist in a Dungeons & Dragons setting, Leah continues to doubt even in the face of countless situations where her uncle was correct, never willing to believe that perhaps he was right about it at all, let alone consider the implications for the rest of his teachings.
This is of course a huge headache throughout the story, but perhaps more frustrating still is the fact that Deckard seems to be the only person she doesn't listen to. “What's that?” she seems to say at one point, “You're my mother, long assumed dead, come out of nowhere? I see no reason to doubt a single word you said now or ever!”
The most aggravating part of Leah's character is the way she never gets any better. There's no real character arc for Leah at all. There's a discovery that she's much more powerful than she or the player knew, but that's just a matter of physical power. She doesn't actually learn or grow as a person, just as a font of power. When it comes time for her to inevitably get possessed by Diablo (because of course she does – it wouldn't be a Blizzard game without a lady becoming superpowered and evil, after all), it's neither a surprise nor even an event with any real emotional impact. In the same way that horror movies frequently create idiotic and extremely annoying characters so that the viewers don't feel bad when they inevitably die, it's hard to grow attached to someone who continually ignores the blatant truths of the world and trusts random strangers over people who have shown her nothing but kindness and warmth throughout her life.
Blizzard seems to love grimdark. This is hardly a surprise, considering the origins of Warcraft and Starcraft as attempts to make games in the Warhammer universe – hardly a sterling example of optimism and unicorns already. However, as the years have gone by, Blizzard seems to be determined to beat Warhammer at its own game. Every game they make seems to run through the same boxes, each one trying to outdo its predecessor in painting a grim, foreboding story.
In many games this would be where the female characters get fridged – randomly murdered to give justification for the protagonist or to illustrate that hopelessness yet again. Thankfully, Blizzard at least avoids that particular trope, since most important females generally do fairly well for themselves. And yet that small blessing only goes so far, as they still seem to fall into the other common archetypes – powerful emotionless “strong” women, or completely naive characters that exist only to give you something to chase. Or in Leah's case, an awful combination of the two.
Blizzard needs to come up with new plots, and it needs to add some variety to its female characters. In a world where every male is given their own story, women are still only allowed to choose from a handful, even in studios that seem to want to do better.