She’s Not There

Absent Agency in Video Games

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Brandi Billotte is a graduate student at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  In the fall, she will begin to pursue her PhD in English Literature and Criticism.  She lives in DuBois with her two dogs, two cats, two children, and one husband.

While a great deal of scholarship is devoted to the problematic aspects of female representation in the stereotypically male-dominated sphere of video games, less interest lies in an alternative depiction of women that, while not predominant, exists in some video games: that of the ‘absent woman.’  There are games that feature female characters that, though heavily represented throughout the game in various forms, are not physically depicted in any thorough way. This representation might take the form of the unseen character providing narration, leaving traces of themselves in notes, leaving behind memories and/or intentions that live on inside of other characters, to name just a few examples.

Absent female characters defy tropes such as “‘damsels in distress,’ ‘sexy sidekicks,’ and ‘rewards’” (Shaw 1).  In addition to removing themselves physically, many absent characters add another element of intrigue as they attain agency by creating puzzles that simultaneously afford themselves increased agency while forcing the player (and perhaps other characters in the game) to participate in play. Through the use of puzzles built upon their absence, many absent female characters acquire the ability to police their own sexuality and feminine agency.  By not being presented physically, we are neither inclined nor able to focus our attention on traditional markers of hypersexualization such as impossibly large breasts or disproportionately long, unclothed legs.

This paper will explore examples of puzzling, sexually agentic unseen characters as they appear in Karla Zimonja, Johnnemann Nordhagen, Steve Gaynor, and Kate Craig’s Gone Home and Valve’s Portal and Portal 2.  Analysis of the exact nature of a character’s absence, the ways in which they are represented despite their lack of a physical body, and the implications and motivations surrounding their absence supports the assertion that the representation of physically absent female characters allows for said characters to exert a greater sense of agency than they may have had in physically depicted forms.

The Problem of Representation

As previously mentioned, scholars have noted that women in video games tend to be represented in a problematic, sexualized, and hyper-feminized manner.  Nicholas Johnson notes the “inherent misogyny and sexism in popular gaming culture” (1), including both the underrepresentation of women in video games as well as the “overtly sexualized and hyper-feminized portrayal that seems to be recurring in video game design” (4).  Jesse Fox and Wai Yen Tang echo Johnson’s sentiments, noting the tendency for female video game characters to be “depicted in stereotypical ways that appeal to men” (315). Adrienne Shaw, too, recognizes this attempt to create feminized caricatures that cater to male desire, addressing iconic video game heroine Lara Croft and noting her “ever-increasing and much-critiqued breast size” (58) and impractically skimpy outfits: “Croft bares many of the signifiers of female objectification, including breasts that are overly large for her physical size and revealing clothing that seems poorly suited to traipsing through danger-filled tombs” (60).  Indeed, a multitude of scholars have grappled with the issues of feminine underrepresentation and hypersexualization that have been traditionally characteristic of the video game industry. In Gaming at the Edge, Shaw addresses attempts to combat problematic representations of marginalized groups, explaining a sense that “we seem to be situated in a cultural moment in which how digital games are thought of and spoken about is constantly changing” (201).  Despite the promise of a changing cultural landscape that rebukes the promotion of sexualized, decorative female characters, Shaw acknowledges the vitriolic resistance that such progression is often met with. For instance, she describes a troubling moment “[during] the Penny Arcade Expo…[when] Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine told a female audience member [that] …instead of questioning the absence of the lead female character on the cover of the new game Bioshock: Infinite, she should just ‘play the fucking game’” (207-208).

Agency is neither exclusively nor inherently accessible to disembodied female video game characters; it is certainly possible for a female character to be physically depicted without being overtly sexualized or excessively feminized.  For example, though Portal’s Chell is presented physically, she maintains agency by serving as the protagonist who ultimately overcomes the deadly puzzles presented to her by GLaDOS.  That said, one might question why lack of representation warrants attention at all. Absent agency connects to the changing cultural moment that Shaw refers to in regard to video games as well as pertaining to issues that currently permeate society.  With the growing emphasis on the gravity of giving voice to previously silenced or underemphasized narratives, the exploration of who is represented and who is not, how they are represented, and what their representation (or lack thereof) means carries implications beyond the scope of video games.  Taking all of this into consideration, it behooves us to examine the dimensions of empowerment made possible by removing the physical female body entirely.

The Role of the Unseen Character in Literature

Robert Byrd–in his discussion of unseen characters in plays by Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee–traces the role of the unseen character throughout history, describing the various functions of these notably absent characters: “…[U]nseen figures are…people whose offstage activities provide a convenient impetus to the plot (4; emphasis mine).”  Byrd emphasizes the importance of these unseen characters, citing them as “invisible forces…[that]…shape the action of the drama” (7).  Haiping Liu also notes the weight of invisible characters in her discussion of offstage characters featured in O’Neill’s various plays. Liu asserts:

…though making no stage appearances and being brought to life only through the utterances of the characters on stage, the offstage characters…[possess] certain physical, social, psychological, and moral traits bearing significantly upon the course of action in the plays in which they appear.  (149; emphasis mine)

While Byrd and Liu are concerned with absent characters as they exist in literature, these ideas also extend to absence as it occurs in video games.  Their ideas speak directly to the capacity of invisible/absent/offstage characters to contribute to the action of a narrative, often motivating plots in important ways.  As Byrd and Liu define what constitutes as absence for their own analytical purposes, let us clarify that the term “absent” as it appears here means that a character is, for significant portions of the game, simply gone.  For instance, Sam of Gone Home never makes a physical appearance in the game.  Unseen character Caroline of Portal is made to take the form of GLaDOS, who is represented as a wriggling computer mounted to the ceiling (and, in Portal 2, as a disgruntled potato).

The Puzzle of Purposeful Absence

Gone Home presents us with a puzzlingly absent character that has left behind clues, purposefully compelling our participation in the game; that is, we collect various hints that ultimately enable us to solve the mystery of Sam’s absence.  Players experience the game from the perspective of Sam’s older sister, Katie, who returns from a trip abroad to discover that her family has vacated their home. Katie is greeted with a cryptic and foreboding note affixed to the locked door, which reads: “Please…don’t go digging around trying to find out where I am” (Gone Home).  To “win” the game of Gone Home is to uncover Sam’s clues by exploring each room of the ominously deserted house, sifting through drawers and examining crumpled bits of paper.  Once Katie solves the puzzle, it becomes clear that Sam’s absence was motivated by her desire to gain agency over her sexuality. Regardless of her reasoning behind pursuing absence, Sam’s puzzle enables her to create a new narrative for herself while compelling her sister (and the player) to embark upon a mysterious quest.

 

A screenshot from the game Gone Home showing a note from the player character's sister

A Note from Sam, the player character’s sister, explaining her absence

Portal games feature a similarly puzzling character in the form of GLaDOS, who (unlike Sam) did not make the choice to become absent.  According to Laura Lannes’s “She’s the Backbone of This Facility,” GLaDOS originated as Caroline, who served as the “great woman” behind Aperture Science Enrichment Center founder Cave Johnson.  When he became ill, Caroline served as caretaker and business manager to Johnson. Realizing Caroline’s capability, he demanded that she take his place upon his imminent demise:

If I die before you people can pour me into a computer, I want Caroline to run this place. Now she’ll argue. She’ll say she can’t. She’s modest like that. But you make her…[p]ut her in my computer. (118; emphasis mine)

GLaDOS forcing game play upon Chell functions as a prime example of a character creating puzzles through and/or despite their physical absence.  Armed with the ability to taunt, manipulate, and trap, GLaDOS acts as a capricious game designer, forcing Chell to respond to various instructions, threats, and misleading promises of cake.  Despite her lack of a physical, human form, GLaDOS is dangerous, clever, and, definitely powerful.

A screenshot of the game Portal, depicting a moment where the AI antagonist of that game taunts the player with pictures of cake.

GLaDOS, nefarious puppet master of the Aperture Science Research Facility, is finally revealed. She taunts the player with images of cake.

Absence and Subverting Patriarchal Control

In addition to sometimes providing intriguing puzzles that serve to compel a game’s narrative, absence can also function as a means to exert different forms of agency.  Specifically, Sam’s absence serves as a tool to gain agency over her sexuality. Sam’s disappearance is a major aspect of Gone Home.  Ultimately, it is revealed that Sam has chosen to leave home to pursue a relationship with her girlfriend, Lonnie.  By becoming absent, Sam gains the agency to police her sexual identity and participate in a relationship that appears to have been forbidden by her parents.

GLaDOS provides us with another example of absence leading to the acquisition of agency that had been lacking in her previous existence as Caroline, whose submissiveness is made evident in her limited selection of lines.  Explains Lannes, “in two of [her five in-game lines] she’s saying: ‘Yes sir, Mr. Johnson!’” (116). As previously noted, Caroline is forced into a computer to replace the man that she had worked closely under. In addition to being turned into an object, GLaDOS notes that “engineers tried everything to make [her]… behave” (Portal 2), noting the application of an “Intelligence Dampening Sphere” called Wheatley.  Lannes describes Wheatley as “the male character who…was literally created to keep GLaDOS dumb” (121).  Despite attempts to modify her “problematic” behavior and stifle her thinking, GLaDOS exhibits agency by providing direction and narration throughout the Portal games, often taunting, deceiving, and threatening others.  By recovering remnants of her humanity and joining forces with Chell in Portal 2, GLaDOS defeats Wheatley and regains dominion over Aperture, the research facility which functions as the game’s setting.  Though Chell contributes to the overpowering of Wheatley, it could be argued that it is GLaDOS who ultimately allows Chell to win and escape Aperture.  This teaming up of formerly adversarial female figures connects to the larger idea of unseen characters’ ability to attain or regain feminine agency.  Explains Lannes: “Portal was about two women processing the oppression of patriarchy in different ways, while being pitted against each other.  Portal 2 invokes relations of power within patriarchy” (122).  In addition to articulating that allowing Chell to win is simply the easiest option, it is GLaDOS who ultimately makes the choice to alter her own identity by deleting what remains of the non-agentic Caroline.

Conclusion

Each of the previously described characters utilizes absence differently, and (arguably) both examples require that the particular characters be absent in some form.  Gone Home, for example, would be experienced completely differently if Sam had not chosen to become absent, tricking loved ones into believing that a sinister explanation lurked behind her disappearance.  GLaDOS’s taunting, manipulative narration would not exist at all if Caroline had not been forced into absence by being put into the computer. Moreover, GLaDOS’s absence directly contributes to her agency; once she becomes physically accessible at the end of game, the player is able to defeat her and subsequently win.  Since the release of these two titles, feminine representation in video games has continued to improve. Games such as Child of Light (2014), The Last of Us (2013), and Life is Strange (2015) offer female protagonists who possess a great deal of agency and rebuke the problematic stereotypes that have historically plagued video games.  Though we can hope that this trend toward empowered female protagonists persists, it is lamentable that these particular females can only seem to achieve agency by not being there.

Works Cited

Bowler, Steve. “Still Alive? She’s Free.” Game-ism. December 1, 2017.

Byrd, Robert. Unseen Characters in Selected Plays of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. 1998.

Dotnod Entertainment. Life is Strange. 2015. Video game.

Fox, Jesse and Wai Yen Tang.  “Sexism in online video games: The role of conformity to masculine norms and social dominance orientation.”  Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 33, 2014, pp. 314-320.

Johnson, Nicholas.  Misogyny in Virtual Space: Exploring Representations of Women in Popular Video Games.  Dissertation, Middle Tennessee State University, 2015.

Lannes, Laura. “She’s the Backbone of This Facility,” Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers, edited by Hazel Newlevant, Alternative Comics, 2016, pp. 116-123.

Liu, Haiping. “The Invisible: A Study of Eugene O’Neill’s Offstage Characters.”  The Eugene O’Neill Review, vol. 18, no. ½, 1994, pp. 149-161.

Naughty Dog. The Last of Us. 2013. Video game.

Valve. Portal. 2010.  Video game.

Valve. Portal 2. 2011. Video game.

Shaw, Adrienne. Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. University of Minnesota Press, 2014.

Ubisoft. Child of Light. 2014. Video game.

Zimonja, Karla, Johnnemann Nordhagen, Steve Gaynor, and Kate Craig. Gone Home.  Fullbright, Majesco Entertainment, 2013.