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Fear and need

Sparky Clarkson's picture

I Am Alive Screenshot

I Am Alive is a post-apocalyptic platforming and combat game that does a few things right and many things very poorly. My second opinion covers many of the mechanical and technical issues, but I didn't have enough space to address an additional, more subtle point about the story. I Am Alive clearly wants to be a serious, adult take on post-apocalyptic survival, and in some respects it is. Unfortunately, the game's treatment of women, among other things, seems to devolve back to the attitudes of a teenaged boy. In I Am Alive, women are helpless objects to be fought over and protected by men.

[Trigger warning]

Part of the problem lies in the traditional "damsel in distress" architecture of the game. The unnamed protagonist starts off searching for his wife and daughter, then finds another little girl whom he must treat for a fever and then deliver to safety, then must save the girl's mother, then must save the girl again and get her and the mother to a safe haven. Almost all of the goals in the game are oriented directly or indirectly towards "saving" women. In isolation, this would be nothing remarkable, but it forms the nucleus of a more troubling pattern.

I Am Alive denies female characters agency throughout the game world. Within the main quest, a paraplegic man provides the protagonist weapons and frequent guidance, but the principal woman character gives no material aid. Very few characters outside this quest show any ability to help themselves or others, but in these rare cases—a person offering supplies in a wrecked ship, the captain who ultimately saves the woman and child—the roles are held by men. Women have no capacity to help the protagonist or themselves.

Negative NPCs are even more slanted. Many characters will threaten the protagonist, but only attack him if he gets too close. Only a few of these threatening figures are women, and all of the more aggressive thugs are men. It may seem strange to complain about that, but when the social contract breaks down, a person's ability to use force becomes an essential part of life. In this context, excluding women from the enemy list effectively makes them lesser people. Women can't take what they need, as men can.

I Am Alive goes even further than this in a segment where the protagonist rescues a woman from a hotel occupied by thugs. As it turns out, many women are kept in the hotel against their will, and the men running the place obviously intend to sexually assault their captives. None of the women seem able or willing to fight back, and once the protagonist rescues his target, she will not help him in combat, even though the men he's already killed were armed with machetes that she could use. In this part of the game, women are exclusively helpless victims who rely on the male protagonist for rescue and protection from other men.

Throughout, I Am Alive demonstrates that the women of its post-apocalyptic world are dependent on men for protection and survival. Implicitly, this argues that the equality and self-determination of women is an artifact of modern society, a nicety that came crashing down along with all the buildings. In the state of nature, the game seems to be saying, women must live in fear and need of men.

Even the purest Hobbesian ought to have some trouble with this proposition, not only because it undermines a principle of equality, but also because it ignores the fact that oppression thrives on, and usually requires, institutions. The subordinate status of women for much of Western history was not some tenet carried forth in pure form from deepest antiquity, it was a consequence of social, religious, and economic institutions designed to deny women independence and self-determination. The proposition that women would end up in a state of dependence so shortly after disaster ignores this history entirely.

Here I've been rather critical of I Am Alive, but it's just a particularly striking example of an endemic problem. As I mentioned, the "damsel in distress" structure afflicts many games, due to unsupportable expectations about the audience and the limited creativity of both developers and the executives who fund them. Many commentators rightly get up in arms about the over-sexualized portrayal of women in games. The structural choices that depict women as helpless and needy, however, are an equal and in some ways a more insidious danger, because they inform and develop misogynist attitudes while making the player feel entirely like a hero.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Ubisoft Shanghai  
Series: I Am Alive  
Genre(s): Adventure/Explore   Horror  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Game Design & Dev  

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Misogyny in I am Alive

I hate to be that guy, but I disagree with the thrust of this article. While 'the game denies female characters agency' is technically true, I don't feel that it is a firm foundation on which to base the rest of your argument. From what I remember, very few of the characters in the game have any real agency.

Firstly, as regards characterisation, all the characters in the game are portrayed with the briefest of sketches, and it would *possibly* be a mistake to extrapolate any hypothesis from any individual's existence or actions. I think the writing was decent, and each character having a couple of lines of sparse dialogue fits in with the 'show, don't tell' narrative theory that we always hear about. But there is no strongly realised or dominant character in the game.

Secondly, the thing that separates the 'strong' or powerful characters in the game from everyone else is either the possession of a weapon, or the ability to band together into a group. The protagonist isn't even a strong character, apart from his climbing skills and his discovery of a gun. I think it's a bit of a stretch to differentiate between strong and weak characters on gender grounds - everyone who is out on the street unarmed or alone is a potential victim.

The setting is effectively an island or enclave where there is no rule of law, unlike the rest of the game world outside of the immediate area. I guess it's not wholly original any more to go with this Lord of the Flies type setting, but at the end of the day, the game world is one which is 'ruled' by armed gangs of ruthless and violent men. In that world, yes, young vulnerable women are viewed as prey/chattels, and I don't think that is completely unbelieveable *in this context*.

For me, the themes that the game raised were those of the hateful reality of sexual predation (with parallels to be drawn not only with the sex trafficking gangs that exist in the real world, but also the legal exploitation carried out by the porn industry), the use of sex as a commodity/currency, and the old chestnut of what would happen if the rule of law ceased to exist (referencing the prevalence of sex crimes in warzones, for example). I found the aspects of the game that dealt with the first two at least to be delivered with a lot of maturity.

Because of this mature treatment, my first reaction to the article was, 'of all the games that you could pick out, you chose *this* one?' My gut instinct (which could be wrong) is that the developers are getting a bad rap here through allegations of latent or not-so-latent misogyny. I can see that, if you look at it in a certain way, you can make a case. But I think to make that case you have to look at the game with tunnel vision, make some tenuous links and ignore a few mitigating factors. It's a shame that the game is getting tarred with this brush.

Thank you for raising this

Thank you for raising this issue so eloquently. I'm often disturbed by the portrayals of women not only in the realm of video games, but within the "post-apocalyptic" setting, be it in literature, film, or games. Too often, the post-apocalyptic world is viewed as the ultimate man's world, and I feel that this may be a reaction against the growing awareness of oppression in our own world. As racism, sexism, homophobia et al are becoming targets of social criticism, it seems that those of the privileged classes--white, male, straight, cis--will occasionally lash back, and media like this is often the outcome. A lone (white, straight) man is suddenly thrust into lawlessness, he gets to slaughter without consequence and fulfill the fantasy of "getting" a woman. With a game like I Am Alive, "getting" the woman comes under the supposedly pro-woman trappings of "saving" her, but really the woman is simply passed from the jurisdiction of one man to that of another.

The defense for this is the old evo-psych mantra of "that's how men and women are." I've seen this excuse, which references a supposed "hardwiring" of male and female brains (with no representation of the brains of trans and intersex folk) to explain away everything from disparities in pay to domestic abuse and rape. But sadly, it's prevalent. It's socially acceptable to say, "Well, what can you expect? He's a guy," or "Well, women are subjugated because they're made to be."

So here's my take. If the above stance is your reaction to the criticism of this game, because you imagine, in a hypothetical post-apocalyptic world, for men to take up arms and protect themselves and theirs while the womenfolk cower and wait to be either saved or exploited, think about it this way: Pretend the game is not about men and women. Pretend it's about white people and black people. Seriously. Pretend that in this game, and in other media where women are helpless "just because," that white people have all the power and agency and black people don't. (Also pretend that other ethnicities are disregarded, just as media like this disregards people of nonbinary sexes and genders.) Now think about the excuses that could be made for it. "Well, over history, black people have been oppressed. Maybe they're just made to be." "Well, black people are just not capable of doing things like white people are."

That's pretty disgusting, right? And the really horrible thing is that there are actually people who feel this way. They're called racists.

But somehow, it's still okay to say the above comments with "women" in place of "black people." I'm not trying to equate racist institutions with sexist ones. I'm not trying to say that being a woman is the same as being a black person, because it's not. What I'm saying is that there are systems of oppression in place that stereotype and confine people, based on myriad ways in which they might be considered "different," to deny them agency. You can do the above exercise with pretty much any group, too. The point is, it's not okay, even in fiction, to reduce an entire group of people to victims, villains, or objects.

There are several problems

There are several problems with this article that I’d humbly like to address, but let me preface this by saying I think Sparky is a very good writer and absolutely no bad feelings are intended. :)

Quote:

Almost all of the goals in the game are oriented directly or indirectly towards "saving” women.

Of the 20 victim-saving scenarios in I Am Alive:
12 of them have just men in distress.
2 of them have both men and women in distress.
6 of them have just women in distress.

So that statement is incorrect. As for the main quest…

Quote:

In I Am Alive, women are helpless objects to be fought over and protected by men.

The only woman that the main character has to save is Mei’s mother. I don’t count Mei since she’s a child, making her vulnerability completely reasonable regardless of gender. As for the wife, I never really felt the protagonist was ever “saving” her so much as searching for her, as indicated by him going to their apartment to find her first. He didn’t know of the state she was in, and the ending suggests that she didn’t need his help in the first place. His wife seems pretty efficient and headstrong in terms of both her appearance at the end and the the recording you hear of her in the apartment.

Quote:

I Am Alive denies female characters agency throughout the game world.

Women have no capacity to help the protagonist or themselves.

The second person the protagonist encounters in the game is a woman standing in front of her house with a gun, who will shoot him if he gets too close. The first victim scenario involves a woman caring for her injured son. In the abandoned skyscraper, two women work to get tomatoes growing, and one of them will offer some to the protagonist. In that same skyscraper, there’s also a woman discussing baseball with two other people who is able to kill the protagonist if he gets too close. And as I said before, there are more male victims than female ones. Other than Henry and the ship captain, I didn’t find the male NPCs to be much more eager to assist the protagonist than the female ones.

Quote:

Implicitly, this argues that the equality and self-determination of women is an artifact of modern society, a nicety that came crashing down along with all the buildings.

Primitive societies being male dominated is an unfortunate part of human history, and although I don’t like it, I don’t hold the representation of that against the game. Modern times allow for women to have equal rights and opportunities, but that equality doesn’t suddenly make both genders identically benefited in all scenarios. These are of course generalizations, but in a kill-or-be-killed battle for survival, I don’t think it’s crazy to suggest that the average man would kill before the average woman would, as supported by the fact that in the United States, ten times more murders are committed by men than women. Being a supporter of women’s equality (which I am) doesn’t automatically mean you must play dumb in regards to obvious trends between genders. And, as I said before, there are women who are able to kill men in the game, so it’s not as if the game says it’s impossible for that to happen.

Quote:

None of the women seem able or willing to fight back, and once the protagonist rescues his target, she will not help him in combat, even though the men he's already killed were armed with machetes that she could use.

All right, this portion of your argument really had me scratching my head.

No one in the game, of either gender, EVER helps the protagonist fight. The guy tied to the chair on the ship, the man you save from the thug in the subway station, the people in the cage at the cannibal camp… none of these people lend a hand to the protagonist in combat. If those people don’t help, I’m not sure what you’d expect these captives, who are probably malnourished, devoid of combat experience, and haven’t gotten much exercise while being bound in a hotel, are going to do. Plus, at that point, they don’t really have a need to fight. They’ve been freed, and the protagonist has been killing the thugs pretty efficiently. I don’t see it as being very reasonable for these women to pick up a machete or probably ammo-less gun and battle their captors who vastly outnumber them and many of which are better armed and more familiar with firing guns. Bottom line, victims of both genders never fight off the thugs, so I’m confused why you singled out the hotel.

For the remainder of your article, you talked about the importance of portraying women as more than weak and needy, which I completely agree with. At some point, however, your argument seems to detach from I Am Alive itself, and is just being used as a very flimsy basis for a much broader topic.

All the best,

-Eric

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