Ashley Williams, Imperfect Perfection
A recent discussion I had on G+ and Facebook about female gamers led me to think about the characterisation of females in general in Video Games. I, like many others think Games are an art form, a unique art form that allows its audience to not only experience great stories and moments but also be a part of them by actively interacting with said medium.
Video Games are still in their infancy, they have only existed in the mainstream for about 30 years and are the fastest growing form of entertainment today. Like any art form in its infancy, certain aspects have yet to be ironed out or “fixed” such as the portrayal of most female characters. The primary demographic for games in its first 10 years was young children 4 -13 years old, a decade later that demographic grew up and so did the subject matter of the games being made. Today, the biggest games are targeted towards males aged between 15 and 35.
So what has all this go to do with characterisation you say? well, Game Developers seem look at these statistics and somehow deduce that most men would rather have the females in the games scantily clad and generally dumb. There are a few exceptions though but those are far and few between. One of those exceptions and in my opinion the best example comes from Biowares’ franchise Mass Effect.
We are first introduced to Ashley Williams in the beginning of Mass Effect 1, in the first mission on Eden Prime. I first played Mass Effect 2 prior to this game and the major strong point of that game for me was its unique and flamboyant characters. Sure, most of them fit into popular stereotypes but they added enough back story and depth to them that you just couldn’t help getting attached to most of them. My first impression of Chief Williams was “Is this it?, she looks so normal and undefined.” She looked like a base character model that could be used as NPC fodder and her initial dialogue was so cliched that I immediately said I wouldn’t use her in my squad, she just was not “interesting” enough.
However, being the completionist that I am, I always took time to have a little chat with her while I was downstairs in the Normandy talking to Garrus, they were located in the same room afterall, so why not I thought to myself. Little by little I started to crack the tight lipped Military based chatter and slowly got to know her personality and back story. She slowly talked about her family, her military training, her love for poetry and even her political beliefs.
One of the main reasons I really liked her character was her strong religious beliefs. I found it very fascinating that someone in this Sci-Fi Mass Effect Universe would still strongly believe in an Almighty Being. Being a Christian myself I found it rather admirable, I don’t think I would manage to uphold my beliefs while surrounded by so many things that strongly contradict what the Bible tells me. Ashley backed it up though by saying there is no way so many species, so many life bearing planets would come to be just by the chance of a biological/chemical explosion.
I also found her thoughts on race quite interesting. Ashley had a strong dislike for Aliens, you might even go as far as calling her racist. Ofcourse this made her very unpopular in the fanbase but I found the fact that she stuck to her guns and was honest about it to Shepard very admirable as well. I also liked how she was willing to compromise her beliefs and work with Aliens based on the command of Shepard. Her strong military background helped shape her discipline and her family traditions helped shape her sense of honor.
Another strong point for me were her looks, she was rather plain for a female video game character. Sure she had great body and all that but it seems like the art direction taken with her character was very deliberate. Bioware were going for a “girl next door” kind of look and for a good reason to. Ashley was meant to represent the most normal of human beings in this universe so having some super model level of hotness character wouldn’t have really worked well as an avatar for the average Joe. I also found that this helped my immersion in the game, more and more Ashley felt like a real character, like someone I could actually meet down the street and talk to.
So Basically, after a few more hours in the game I found myself rushing downstairs just to talk to her, suddenly she was interesting, what happened? The writers at Bioware somehow managed to emulate what it is like getting to know some stranger off the street. At first glance everyone seems so “natural” and “plain” just like NPC’s. Getting to know a little more about them reveals more of their character and individuality thus making them more interesting and more important to you personally.
I found it astonishing how vastly different my impression of her had changed from the first time we met to the final moments of the game. I had never really thought a video game character would be so compelling and have such great character growth. The Bioware team did a fantastic job with portraying a strong female character, sure she had faults but those faults are what made her perfect. Which is why my response to her asking me if I could handle a relationship with her “baggage and all” was yes.
I highly Recommend playing The Mass Effect Trilogy, its is undoubtedly one of, if the not the best examples of stellar story telling and characterisation in this medium.