Undertaking the Ladyist Experiment has forced me to reflect on the shortage of women represented in just about every medium I know, but gaming has to be among the worst for female characters. Before I started this project, I was a keen gamer, and the incredible Ellie from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us was a critical contributing factor in deciding to start Ladyist. Since the beginning of April, though, I’ve hardly played anything except for character-free puzzle games, and, honestly, I feel like that’s cheating.
One light in the darkness, though, was Monument Valley, a tablet-exclusive game developed by Ustwo. Before I say anything more about it, have a look at the gameplay trailer.
Now do you see why I didn’t even try to describe them?
The world you navigate as Princess Ida (the small figure in white) is strangely beautiful, mixing lavish colours and Middle Eastern architecture with MC Escher-style optical illusions. Rotating the world will make a broken bridge link up, or make a staircase whole again. That dreamlike logic extends to the story, which sticks to symbolism and vague hints at something lost.
Princess Ida’s gender doesn’t factor into the gameplay, but it’s still a significant choice by the developers to make their lead character female. In English, we pair off nouns and adjectives as opposites: high/low, young/old, and the like. Rather than these words being treated equally, though, we tend to treat one of the words as the default (or “unmarked”), and only use the other, “marked” word when the context demands it. For example, we talk about thespians as ‘actors’, unless specifically referring to a woman, in which case some might use the term ‘actress’; in the same way, we ask people how old they are, rather than how young they aren’t.
The marked/unmarked status can be benign, but more often, it reflects a power imbalance that supports the unmarked at the expense of the marked. In many Western countries, for example, people of colour are often identified by their race (‘black’, ‘Asian’, etc), while whiteness is treated as invisible. That dichotomy applies to adjectives like ‘masculine’/’feminine’, ‘male’/’female’, and ‘he’/’she’, and seeps into the way we think about gender. In games, as with many other media, this means that male lead characters are treated as ‘normal’; the default setting, hardly worth even thinking about. That unconscious way of thinking means that it requires more purposeful decision-making to build a game around a non-male character, and any game that chooses not to focus on a male character is often met with greater resistance from the public.
So it’s a significant choice that Ustwo set Princess Ida (and not Prince Ido) as the central character of Monument Valley. In the scheme of the game, it’s a small choice, and one that only becomes apparent after you’ve spent your money, but at least it’s a positive step towards more balanced representation.