“If you can read this, LEAVE!!!” Storytelling in Left 4 Dead and Zone One

Originally published on Big Tall Words, December 22, 2014

Post-apocalyptic fiction continually attempts to project itself into the future by resisting endings; each ending becomes instead an opportunity for continuation. Storytelling is the main method by which post-apocalyptic fiction attempts to resist closure, and this method can be traced back to the roots of the genre itself. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, published in 1826, was “the first major work of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction” (Lovegrove 98). Shelley’s novel is written as a memoir and claims to be a translation of ancient writings (Lovegrove 99). As such, it projects itself into the future “for the benefit of posterity (not that anyone remains to read it)” (Lovegrove 99). Even though the memoir ends, it continually hopes to be read anew, subscribing to the “oxymoronic premise that the apocalypse has a future” (Sorensen 563). The narrative, then, sees the “apocalypse [as] a disaster but also an opportunity. It allows humankind to make a fresh start” (Lovegrove 99). In this scenario, the apocalypse is a temporary setback, an event that humans can conquer and recover from; in this scenario, the return to normalcy is inevitable.

Zombie narratives are excellent examples of post-apocalyptic fiction’s resistance to closure. These stories literally embody the belief that human survivors can get through the end of the world intact, believing that “the apocalypse is an object on which humanity can act, not an irresistible force that acts on humanity” (Sorensen 566). As the American Phoenix project heads would say, humanity must merely survive the “interregnum” (Whitehead 54). Max Brooks’s World War Z, written as a series of stories reflecting upon the zombie apocalypse, offers this perspective as well, “assur[ing] the reader that the apocalyptic scenario that it describes will not only end but also become knowable as an event that can be subsumed into human history” (Sorensen 567).

The goal of my discussion here is to examine this paradoxical belief in the end of the end of the world as it manifests in storytelling in two works of post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, a videogame entitled Left 4 Dead and Colson Whitehead’s novel Zone One. I will begin by discussing embedded stories in Left 4 Dead that present this belief, before moving on to how the larger environmental narrative justifies the violence required to guarantee humanity’s survival. At this point, I will shift my discussion to Zone One, highlighting the ways the novel’s embedded stories also uphold this hope for the future, but demonstrating that the novel ultimately resists this reading. My discussion will conclude that although typical post-apocalyptic zombie fiction like Left 4 Dead is more uplifting, the bleaker vision of Zone One is a more realistic, Anthropocenic narrative of the end of the world.

Released into the horde of all things zombie in 2008, Valve’s videogame Left 4 Dead carries with it the tendency of post-apocalyptic fiction to look ahead — in this case to a time when humanity will eradicate the zombie threat. It is a First-Person Shooter (FPS) survival horror game; the story, such as it is, finds four strangers travelling together two weeks after the zombie infection started spreading (Valve Corporation). The game has four independent campaigns, “No Mercy,” “Death Toll,” “Dead Air,” and “Blood Harvest,” that each trace the survivors’ progression towards an evacuation point. The locations of these end-points range from urban (the rooftop of a city hospital) to rural (an abandoned farmhouse). Assuming they can hold off waves of the undead, the survivors are rescued by a civilian or military vehicle. There is no mention of what might come after this rescue, but it is hopeful. In “Blood Harvest,” we even get a glimpse of the sunrise before the screen fades to black. The words “The survivors have escaped!” appear, and heroic music swells (see Fig. 1). If one or more of the survivors perish before they reach the escape vehicle, a memorial message comes up on the screen, offering consolation but hope. These visual and auditory signs tell the player that the story is moving on to a hopeful future.

Fig. 1. “Blood Harvest” Escape Sequence (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 1. “Blood Harvest” Escape Sequence (Valve Corporation)

Aside from its hopeful conclusion, Left 4 Dead relies on storytelling to uphold the view that the apocalypse will end. Stories in Left 4 Dead appear throughout the game in the form of graffiti. As survivors head toward the evacuation point, they stop in what are called “safe rooms” or “safe houses” (Valve Corporation). These are zombie-proof rooms stocked with supplies such as first aid kits and ammunition. Though we never meet another team of survivors in the game, these rooms are frequented by others, as we can see from the abundance of writing on the walls. Most of these notes are addressed to loved ones (see Fig. 2). They update the addressee on the status of family members, like Kat’s message to Lars and El’s note to Lisa, or they apologize for being unable to wait for them, like Krista’s message to Kevin and Kate’s two notes to Peter. The larger writing of Kate’s second note speaks to her panic at the thought of leaving him behind, while Kat and El’s matter-of-fact tone sounds numb from so much tragedy. In one memorable case, an unsigned writer expresses anger, telling Claude Huggins that he is a coward. These messages resemble the “oral history” recounted in World War Z in that they offer retrospection (Sorensen 566) or at least the hope thereof. They narrate an experience, looking ahead to a time when they may have to account for their actions. Like The Last Man’s memoirs, they project themselves into the future, assuming or hoping that someone (the addressee or otherwise) will read them.

Fig. 2. Notes to Loved Ones on Safe Room Walls (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 2. Notes to Loved Ones on Safe Room Walls (Valve Corporation)

Other notes offer observations of the zombie threat, theorizing as to its causes and offering solutions or advice to others based on what they’ve seen. The above note, “If you can read this, LEAVE!!!” is the most simplistic of these, but there are others (see Fig. 3).

These as well resist closure, expressing the futuristic hope that their theories will be proven correct one day, or that they can be of assistance to others later.

In many cases, as we can clearly see in Fig. 2 and 3, the notes invite marginalia, as later survivors comment on what others have written, providing the player with insight into the minds of those living through the apocalypse. The comments are sometimes as enlightening and uplifting as YouTube users’ comments (see Fig. 4), but these moronic statements also present a narrative, that of one person’s reaction to another, and its implicit hope of a future readership.

Fig. 3. Theories and Advice (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 3. Theories and Advice (Valve Corporation)

Graffiti that seems like nothing more than social media updates (see Fig. 5) presents this narrative as well. The subtext of these stories is, quite simply, “I was here.” These graffitists anticipate that someone will want to know what they were doing, thinking, saying, feeling, or, in the case of the brief obituaries, whom they were remembering. These memories are stories too, as they record the present for posterity; as such, they further the forward trajectory of Left 4 Dead as a whole, which anticipates the end of the end of the world.

Fig. 4. Post-Apocalyptic Comments Sections (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 4. Post-Apocalyptic Comments Sections (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 5. “I was here.” (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 5. “I was here.” (Valve Corporation)

Some videogame critics, known as ludologists, would probably view the preceding analysis of Left 4 Dead as problematic, since I have chosen to look more closely at aspects of the game that surround gameplay rather than the gameplay itself. A player can, after all, get through an entire campaign without carefully reading any of the graffiti that I have noted above. My examining Left 4 Dead in conjunction with a novel and considering it as a part of a larger canon of post-apocalyptic fiction would probably also irk ludologists, since they argue that videogames are “a whole new medium, […] whose foundation is not in looking and reading but in the instigation of material change through action” (Galloway 4). According to this logic, videogames cannot and should not be analyzed using the same tools as literary or filmic interpretation (Galloway 4).

Ludologists would especially regard my analysis with suspicion given that Left 4 Dead is a First-Person Shooter. In a FPS like Left 4 Dead, “the player controls the actions of an in-game protagonist from a first-person perspective” (Atkins 55). As a result, “the player gets a strong sense of ‘being there’ herself, as no mediating character is brought to the centre of attention” (Mäyrä 107). Indeed, Left 4 Dead has been praised for this very feature: “Upon its release, it was called the first true zombie apocalypse game because it actually created the feel of a zombie apocalypse” (Swain). In a review of its sequel, one writer made a similar observation: “You know that scene in a zombie movie where the pilot turns into a zombie and the vehicle runs wild?  That happens [in Left 4 Dead 2], but you don’t have to watch it because this isn’t a movie.[…] Instead, the characters hop in a helicopter at the end of one campaign and talk about the horrible helicopter crash at the beginning of the next one” (Dunston). Given these features, ludologists would likely argue that Left 4 Dead must only be analyzed via the actions of the player-characters.

To be blunt, I disagree with the ludologists’ standpoint because the actions of the player-character only make sense in the context created by the game using visual and textual signs. Eric Wolpaw, one of the lead writers of Left 4 Dead, calls the combination of these signs “the environmental story” (qtd. in Graft). Galloway may be correct in saying that videogames are not based on “looking and reading” (4), but what he fails to mention is the ways that the action of a videogame relies on its environmental story. Players therefore read as much as play games. The literacy involved in reading the environmental story differs from that involved in reading a novel or film, but it is still an act of reading.

Without the environmental story, the actions of the player-character would be meaningless. This is especially the case in a FPS, where the environmental story “acts to guarantee that the violence that is at the heart of the game is internally justified as a response to the world of the text” (Atkins 61-2). As Brendan Keogh maintains, “The affordances and constraints of videogame play, what the player can or cannot ‘do’, only make sense in relation to the audiovisually constructed fictional world of the game” (6). Thus, ludologists’ sole focus on player action underestimates the player as a reader of signs.

As Barry Atkins notes, “game fictions might communicate their meanings and construct narrative without any dependence on the mediation of language” (58). Therefore, to read the environmental story of Left 4 Dead requires sensory literacy — interpreting visual, auditory and tactile signs to make meaning — and a kind of pop culture literacy, as well, that can recognize signs that connect the game to other media. Many, if not most of these signs are read subconsciously, especially if a player is familiar with the semiotics of videogames: “players effortlessly draw together in the same sentence thumb sticks, virtual characters and environments, living rooms, fingers, laser rifles, loading screens, save points, and the end of the world” (Keogh 2). Just because they may be reading subconsciously, however, does not mean they are not reading.

Left 4 Dead uses visual signs borrowed from film to evoke “a thick atmosphere, unrelenting tension, [and] a sense of danger” (Swain) that justify the game’s ceaseless violence. The game’s level design features narrow, dimly-lit alleyways between ruined, empty buildings. Navigating these areas evokes fear and tension: pathways sometimes lead to dead ends, and it is often hard to see what may be waiting down a chosen path. Lighting is also a major component of crafting the game fiction. In the streets, the majority of the lighting is provided only by the headlights of abandoned cars; in interior spaces, the light often comes from the player-character’s flashlight alone. Safe rooms, however, are well-lit with warm light (see Fig. 6). The jarring contrast between these areas tells the player that the world is short on safe places, furthering the tense atmosphere.

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 6. Lighting in “Death Toll” (Valve Corporation).

Left 4 Dead also makes conscious reference to classic horror and slasher films, meaning that a kind of pop cultural literacy is required. This game expects a player to recognize “codes and conventions of popular culture” in order to interpret the game “as an extended text rather than a sequence of unconnected fragments in which all one does is move the gunsight and press the fire button” (Atkins 61). In Left 4 Dead, these codes and conventions take the form of allusions to low-budget monster movies. Before the game begins in earnest, a loading screen imitates a movie poster, complete with a cheesy tagline, and after the campaign is complete, credits featuring gameplay statistics roll (see Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 7. “No Mercy” Load Screen and End Credits (Valve Corporation)

Auditory signs, such as the game’s minimal dialogue, also reference film media. One of the playable characters, Zoey, quotes Aliens in one part of the “No Mercy” campaign, shouting, “Game over, man! Game over!” (Valve Corporation). On a similar note, the game’s musical score resembles that of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The game also uses subtle musical cues to signal the arrival of particularly challenging zombie foes. This combination of auditory signs creates an environmental story that resembles being in a zombie movie more so than creating “the feel of a zombie apocalypse” (Swain). But sensory signs can also stand alone as signifiers of meaning. Tactile signs, such as haptic feedback from the controller, signal to the player that a large and dangerous enemy is approaching, again building an environmental story in which a hair trigger is permissible.

Thus the environmental story of Left 4 Dead, which players read while gaming, justifies its extreme violence, since it posits that violence is the only way to survive the apocalypse. As such, the game becomes a grander narrative of continuation, one that upholds the same proleptic tendency as its embedded stories written in the form of graffiti. The game’s larger narrative puts the player into the role of the sole human survivor who must and will live on, even if only in memory. If one survivor falls, a memorial message appears before the credits roll; if all the survivors are killed or incapacitated, players must re-start the chapter — the game literally cannot end without at least one human alive. Sorensen notes that in Romero’s films, the survivors always end up dying, but “the reiteration of the plot in each film makes the apocalypse a cyclical, rather than a singular event” (568), and Left 4 Dead does the same. It was designed to be played multiple times: “The thing with Left 4 Dead is that it’s replayable,” states Valve writer Eric Wolpaw. “It’s designed for people to play it 20, 30, and 40 times” (qtd. in Graft). Thus the survival narrative gets repeated ad infinitum, replicating the same trope as Zone One’s American Phoenix: humans can and must and will survive the apocalypse.

The extreme violence, though justified by the game’s environmental story, also shapes the way that we view and read the apocalypse. As seen in most of the images used in this paper, the crosshairs of a gun define the way that players view the end of the world and any stories told therein. With humanity now living the Anthropocene, facing the real possibility of extinction (though probably not because of zombies), stories like Left 4 Dead suggest that the only way to deal with an apocalypse is by seeing it through the crosshairs, that is to say, to be armed and violent in response to its threat. Players in Left 4 Dead can never not be armed; they cannot choose to requisition a vehicle and use it to transport other survivors to safety, or loot grocery stores to hide out in a bomb shelter, or break down and cry. The stories within Left 4 Dead and the larger environmental story of Left 4 Dead as a videogame present this view: to get to the anterior future, the time without violence, we have to adopt the violence of the interregnum to look ahead and live through it.

Embedded stories in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One embody a similar desire and hope in humanity’s ability to get past the apocalypse, though the novel ultimately suggests this aspiration is futile. Storytelling figures largely among the survivors of the plague and the sweepers in Zone One, where everyone has a “Last Night story” (Whitehead 88). It is a means of finding and maintaining an identity and a means of connecting to others: “If you chose to hook up for a time, eventually you traded Last Night stories” (Whitehead 137). Gary’s involves his brief foray as a deputy, while Kaitlyn “never saw her parents again after she departed on her trip” to Pennsylvania (Whitehead 126-7). Mim shares the horror of being separated from her children on Last Night (Whitehead 160), and Margie retrospectively praises her offhand decision to leave Cape Cod on Monday instead of Sunday when the plague first descended (Whitehead 216). These stories, like Left 4 Dead’s safe room wall reflections, employ the retrospection of World War Z’s “historiography as a mode of containment” (Sorensen 567), looking back to see Last Night as one more event in the past.

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Survivors also tell stories of the future. For example, Gary, “a true pheenie,” talks a lot of his plans, from moving to an island to devising a machine to trap zombies (Whitehead 78). He is certain that his “skel-catcher, or You-Grab-It, or Lasso, whatever,” will make him rich, and he is “undeterred” despite Kaitlyn and Mark Spitz’s criticisms (Whitehead 77-8). Gary’s optimism and other survivors’ hopes are often for an anterior future, alluding to a time when they can look backwards. They hope to remember and be remembered, to get “it all down for some calm, distant day when you were long disappeared and a stranger took the time to say your name” (Whitehead 139). While trapped in an old farmhouse, Tad plans his next project: a soon-to-be hit videogame based on humanity’s battle with the plague: “‘It’ll move a million copies,’ he said. ‘Those old World War II games still sell’” (Whitehead 222). Likewise, Mark Spitz’s former comrade, the Quiet Storm, arranges cars on the interstate to write “herself into the future […]. To Anyone Who Can Read This: Stay Away. Please Help. Remember Me” (Whitehead 290).

While the Quiet Storm’s message seems more personal, Tad’s plan can be classified on the same scale as the American Phoenix project. Both Tad and Buffalo view the zombie apocalypse as a temporary challenge and predict humanity’s victory. Each decision made by the American Phoenix keeps this optimism in mind, from prohibiting the sweepers’ breaking glass windows — “Buffalo wanted the city habitable for the new tenants” (Whitehead 75) — to devising a theme song for the eventual filmic dramatization, “Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)” (Whitehead 135). Ms. Macy summarizes this futuristic attitude in her description of wall art to hang in an apartment building lobby: “I’m thinking kids […]. They’re the future, after all. That’s what this whole thing is about, the future” (Whitehead 207). Ms. Macy’s focus is on rebranding, creating a narrative from the apocalypse; she, too, is telling stories.

Ronald Soetaert, Jeroen Bourgonjon, and Kris Rutten, in “Video Games as Equipment for Living,” offer a possible explanation for the survivors’ and the American Phoenix’s dependence upon storytelling: to tell a story is a human act. Using Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, they argue that human life consists of drama, which can be described as the combination and variation of five elements: act, agent, scene, agency, and purpose (Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). These aspects define how we tell and interpret drama — which is to say, stories. This theory posits that humans are “story telling animals” (Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). Alasdair MacIntyre puts it another way: “[A human] is not essentially, but becomes through his history, a teller of stories that aspire to truth. […] We can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” (qtd. in Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). When we look at storytelling in this light, it makes sense that zombie fiction would feature so many stories. In both Left 4 Dead and Zone One, zombies cannot speak, though humans in the midst of transforming into zombies still can (see Fig. 8). The act of telling stories, then, contains something unmistakeably human in zombie narratives, and hence it is used as a means of setting us apart from the horde.

Fig. 8. “Got bit but…” (Valve Corporation)

Fig. 8. “Got bit but…” (Valve Corporation)

Though Zone One contains many characters who subscribe to the view that storytelling will carry humanity into the future, the novel strives to resist this narrative, as Leif Sorensen outlines in his article “Against the Post-Apocalyptic.” The most obvious face of this resistance is Mark Spitz himself, who calls hope a “gateway drug” (Whitehead 222) and “assumes that all refuges are temporary” (Sorensen 561). Mark Spitz is not “like the rest of them, the other sweepers, […]. You never heard Mark Spitz say ‘When this is all over’ or ‘Once things get back to normal’ […] because he refused them” (Whitehead 32). Sorensen argues that,

Mark Spitz’s account of the zombie plague opposes the American Phoenix’s narrative of rebirth. In his narrative, the disruption brought on by the apocalypse is permanent, not reversible. Consequently, Mark Spitz’s narrative does not hinge on a moment in which society can return to its previous heights. It is a narrative of becoming, in which humanity must adapt to a hostile, potentially post-human world. (561)

I agree with Sorensen that Mark’s Spitz’s becoming opposes that of the American Phoenix project, but I think it is important not to lose sight of the fact that his methods are the same. Sorensen’s language here echoes MacIntyre’s description of how human beings understand themselves and the world, through a continuing narrative of becoming. Though the novel attempts to distance itself from the a proleptic tendency of post-apocalyptic fiction, Mark Spitz is always using narrative to situate himself in the present, which is not especially different from Left 4 Dead’s “I was here”

Mark Spitz’s Last Night story epitomizes his use of narrative to define his past and present (though not his future). The tale comes up, as many of his stories do, incidentally: while dropping off bodies for disposal, he feels the rain, which triggers a memory of swimming at his cousin’s house, which prompts him to ruminate over the near-pristine state of the street, which leads him to reflect on how normal his childhood home had looked from the outside on Last Night (Whitehead 79-81). This meandering route leads him to retell the story, seemingly to himself. Later, in a similarly tangential thread, he catches sight of movement across the street, which triggers a reflection on his way of life before coming to work as a sweeper in Zone One. At this point, he reveals that he had refined his Last Night story into three versions. The Silhouette was for survivors he wasn’t going to travel with for long […]. He offered the Anecdote, robust and carrying more on its ribs, to those he might hole up with for a night […]. The Obituary, although refined over the months and not without a rehearsed air, was nonetheless heartfelt, glancing off his true self more than once. (Whitehead 138-9)

From this description, the reader presumes that the story found earlier is the Obituary, but there is some unresolved ambiguity. He mentioned nothing of these categories before, which leads to confusion, but even more unclear is the wording found at the end of the Last Night story when it first appears: “That was the start of his Last Night story” (Whitehead 88, emphasis added). To further complicate things, when Mark Spitz begins to outline the three versions of his Last Night story, he puzzlingly states, “Each retelling of one’s Last Night story was a step toward another fantastic refuge, that of truth” (138). This too echoes MacIntyre’s vision of the human as “a teller of stories that aspire to truth” (qtd. in Soetaert, Bourgonjon, and Rutten). In light of these two obfuscating details, I would conclude that Mark Spitz is struggling throughout the novel to understand his place in the world via narrative. This revelation shows that Mark Spitz is as interested in rebranding as the American Phoenix, though with an eye to the past rather than the future or the future past.

Mark Spitz’s wandering mind and internal storytelling is supposedly due to his suffering from Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (or PASD), a common ailment among the surviving population (Whitehead 67). His PASD is first triggered when he is confronted with the mystery of the zombie woman in the gorilla suit. Mark Spitz cannot stop “sleuthing” (Whitehead 64). He wonders ruefully,

Was she the spouse, an employee or former employee, and if so, what about this place shouldered its way into her mentality, past the plague, summoning her here? Then there was the suit. […] Perhaps the explanation of her outfit and how she made it to this spot was plausible in the context of her former life. But there was no one to tell her story. (Whitehead 65)

This utter lack of an explanation leads to the attack of his PASD: “He didn’t find her clothes, or any clues, and the next moment he was weeping” (Whitehead 66). In a world where telling stories determines one’s humanity, Mark Spitz struggles with the fact that this person’s story will never be told.

From this point in time — not in the novel, since when it begins Kaitlyn had “picked up on Mark Spitz’s aversion [to ID collection] grids ago” (Whitehead 63) — Mark Spitz’s PASD serves as another narrative with which he defines himself. It is a useful means for the reader to define him as well:

He had nerve damage: input could not penetrate. The world stalled out at his edges. Sometimes he had trouble speaking to other people, rummaging for language, and it seemed to him that an invisible layer divided him from the rest of the world, a membrane of emotional surface tension. He was not alone. ‘Survivors are slow or incapable of forming new attachments.’ (Whitehead 66)

To the reader, this description seems apt for Mark Spitz. Mentally, he never seems to lack for language; his meandering mental narration takes up pages, but his vocalized dialogue is scarce. This uneven ratio creates the impression that his interior space, crowded with names and stories from the past, does not mix with his exterior space; instead, the two seem juxtaposed, suspended in constant tension. One of the few places in the novel where there is an indication that Mark Spitz’s interior monologue is being dictated to the exterior world is when he tells Gary the story of how he acquired his nickname (Whitehead 166-83). This lengthy passage is not delivered using quotation marks to indicate speech, instead relying on interruptions from Gary to create the impression that it is being spoken aloud. Gary’s interruptions, such as “You haven’t got to the Mark Spitz part yet,” “What do you mean?” and “Not following,” suggest that Mark Spitz may be “rummaging for language,” struggling to tell the story, or to tell it properly (Whitehead 174, 176, 177, 66). The wandering narration that characterizes Mark Spitz’s internal storytelling seems ill-equipped for the setting, since Gary may not have much time left. Regardless, in an attempt to comfort himself and his friend, he tells the story of behind his identity.

This is the only place where the novel acknowledges that Mark Spitz is narrating aloud, which I find significant in view of Whitehead’s overall resistance to the proleptic purpose of storytelling in post-apocalypse and zombie fiction. As I discussed above, we know that he has told his Last Night story to other survivors (and, I assume, to Kaitlyn and Gary), but it is unclear as to whether Mark Spitz tells Kaitlyn and Gary any of his other stories. According to Sorensen, Mark Spitz accepts narrative closure and “fully realize[s] himself” (580) at the end of the novel, when he recognizes that his time in Zone One has been but “a breather before the recommitment to annihilation” (Whitehead 318). With this realization in mind, I think it is significant that Mark Spitz tells his story only to Gary, who will die very soon: “It was just the two of them, as Kaitlyn worried over the comm in the front room” (Whitehead 166). Does he choose this moment to share his internal narration because Gary is dying? Given that his commitment to finality comes only slightly after he tells his story to Gary, I see his sharing of this story as a further testament to his resistance of a view of storytelling that anticipates future readership. In this moment, then, he is not interested in impressing himself upon the memories of others as he and the other survivors used to when they told their Last Night stories, or as the unseen letter writers and graffitists do in Left 4 Dead. Instead, his telling of the story here is an expression of his understanding and acceptance that stories, his or humanity’s, will have no future.

Sorensen argues that Mark Spitz is able to rearrange his narrative “into a coherent story of an individual’s exceptional survival,” and, in doing so, he adopts the same “open-ended model of apocalyptic time” as other zombie apocalypse fictions, which the novel then forbids (569). I would agree with Sorensen but for the fact that Mark Spitz does not seem to tell the stories that identify him as exceptional to anyone except Gary, whom he knows will soon die. As such, I think that Mark Spitz does not use his narrative to project himself into the future so much as to trust himself in the present. I would argue that even in his last thought, “Fuck it, […] have to learn how to swim sometime,” there is no “When this is all over;” rather, it is the sense of “Got him this far” that remains (Whitehead 322, 32, 11).

Left 4 Dead may seem to embody the same sentiment of surviving moment by moment instead of looking ahead, but the larger environmental story undercuts the similarity between the two texts. The game’s embedded stories that look ahead to the end of the end of the world, its filmic aspects that uphold the belief in human exceptionalism, and the game’s mandatory hopeful ending combine to present the “irrepressible pheenie anthem” that the apocalypse has a future, and humanity can, must, and will survive to see it (Whitehead 135). The post-apocalyptic genre may write itself into the future and resist closure, but Zone One seems to capture the more likely scenario of an apocalypse: complete ending, with only a very few futile acts of heroics.

Works Cited

Atkins, Barry. More Than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form. Manchester: MUP, Print.

Cook, Jason. “Left 4 Dead [Review].” Popmatters. 16 Dec. 2008. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Dunston, Adrian. “Left 4 Dead 2 [Review].” Popmatters. 21 Feb. 2010. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006. Print.

Graft, Kris. “Valve’s Writers and the Creative Process [Interview with Marc Laidlaw and Eric Wolpaw].” Gamasutra. 2 Nov. 2009. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

Keogh, Brendan. “Across Worlds and Bodies: Criticism in the Age of Video Games.” Journal of Games Criticism 1.1 (2014): 1-26. JGC. Web. 11 Nov 2014.

Lovegrove, James. “The World of the End of the World: Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction.” Strange Divisions & Alien Territories: The Sub-Genres of Science

Fiction. Ed. Keith Brooke. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012. 97-111. Print.

Mäyrä, Frans. An Introduction to Game Studies: Games in Culture. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008. Print.

Soeteart, Ronald, Jeroen Bourgonjon, and Kris Rutten. “Video Games as Equipment for Living.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 13.3 (2011). Purdue University. Web. 11 Nov 2014.

Sorensen, Leif. “Against the Post-Apocalyptic: Narrative Closure in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.” Contemporary Literature 55.3 (2014): 559-92. Project MUSE. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

Swain, Eric. “The Fear Is Gone: Reconsidering the Left 4 Dead Series.” Moving Pixels. Popmatters. 2 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Valve Corporation. Left 4 Dead. Steam: Valve. 2008. Videogame.

Whitehead, Colson. Zone One. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.


My Last Princess: Women as Objects in The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Originally published on Big Tall Words, July 28, 2014

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive.”
Robert Browning, “My Last Duchess” (1842)

In The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Link saves a total of nine people from the villain, Yuga. They are (in no particular order):

Gulley, the blacksmith’s son and Link’s childhood friend
Queen Oren, ruler of the Zoras
Lady Impa, advisor to Princess Zelda
Osfala, apprentice to Sahasrahla, elder of Kakariko Village
Irene, a witch and granddaughter of the potion brewer
Seres, daughter of the priest
Rosso, a miner
Princess Zelda, of Hyrule
Princess Hilda, of Lorule

Notice anything about that list? That’s right: six of the nine people Link rescues are women. The sad part is that that’s pretty much normal for a Zelda game. In many ways, the latest Zelda title is very similar to its numerous predecessors, and it’s not exceptional here, either. In Ocarina of Time, five of the seven sages were female (Darunia and Rauru being the only men), and Zelda getting captured is the impetus for nearly every game in the series. But A Link Between Worlds goes one step further than its predecessors in that it turns women into literal objects who not only need saving but also serve no function apart from being a “lovely” piece of property for men to fight over.

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Yuga is the villain of A Link Between Worlds and his goal is to merge with Ganon and possess Hyrule’s Triforce. To this end, he captures each of the descendants of the original seven sages and uses their power to open the realm where Ganon had been imprisoned many years prior. He captures them in a unique way: using a magic rod, he turns each sage into a painting. Now, one only has to read Robert Browning’s classic dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess” (quoted above) to realize that immortalizing someone in a painting can be as much an act of power as an act of art. Painting someone turns that person from a ‘someone’ to a ‘something’; you can possess a painting in a way that it is impossible to possess a person. So when Yuga is running around Hyrule acquiring pieces for his art collection (to use his words), he is, quite literally, objectifying these people. In my opinion, it is no accident that most of these people are women, since the Zelda games have a history of treating women as objects participating in a man’s destiny rather than agents of their own.

Though Link does rescue a total of six women, three of them stand out in my mind when looking at gender and power dynamics in A Link Between Worlds. These three women are Seres, the first woman to be captured, and a pair of princesses, Zelda and Hilda.

Seres is the daughter of the priest at the Sanctuary north of Hyrule Castle. As an apprentice to the Blacksmith, Link’s first quest is to head up to the Sanctuary in order to deliver a sword to the captain of the guard. Outside the temple he meets Seres and Dampé, the gravedigger. Link (silently) explains the situation to Seres, who promptly goes into the Sanctuary to get the captain. While she is gone, Dampé tells Link that the guard captain is “just makin’ excuses to see Seres.” Thus, all we really know of Seres is her relationship to two men, her father and her suitor. Dampé also calls her “lovely,” a word that will be repeated numerous times throughout the game in regard to women.

Before Dampé can finish his thought, he is interrupted by Seres’ scream. Link heads into the temple and meets Yuga for the first time. Yuga tells the priest that his mission is simple: he has come to Hyrule seeking perfection. “And you, my dear, are perfection,” he tells Seres, and says she is lovely. Embodying Browning’s Duke of Ferrara, he tells Seres, “I will put you on a pedestal. Or rather, upon a wall — perfect forever.” After he transforms her, he says she is “even lovelier as a painting.” Yuga then notices Link, but disregards him and disappears, taking the painting with him. The priest implores Link to save his daughter. So, after only a few minutes of gameplay, the player learns that Yuga and Link ironically share the same goal: both wish to acquire the woman (though for different reasons). Seres’ capture is the first of many times throughout the game that a woman’s only purpose is to be an object sought after by men.

Throughout the game, we see Yuga transform sages into paintings three more times. All other transformations are given to take place off-screen. Including Seres, three of the four sages we see him transform are female. The only male is Osfala, Sahasrahla’s apprentice. Osfala’s transformation happens between Seres’ and Zelda’s, and what is interesting to note is that Yuga hardly has much to say about Osfala’s appearance. He accuses the young man of “posing” and “preening,” but doesn’t say anything about putting him on a pedestal or about how lovely he is in painting form. These words are reserved only for women. In fact, immediately after he transforms Osfala, he states, “Oh, how I long to hang that exquisite Princess Zelda on my wall.” Therefore, Yuga, and the game, seem to emphasize that women are more suited than men to being desired and/or possessed.

Zelda’s transformation into a portrait is very similar to Seres’, with one notable difference: Zelda attempts to discover Yuga’s goals. I say “attempts to discover” because Yuga does not acknowledge Zelda’s questions, let alone answer them. Instead, he compliments her on her beauty (“Ah, what golden hair you have…”), speaking condescendingly and patronizingly. He tells her, “Rid your mind of all concern. I don’t want your portrait to feature any unsightly worry lines. I wish to preserve you at your very best.” Evidently, Yuga doesn’t see her as a viable threat, even though she supposedly rules the realm he wishes to destroy.

Yuga finishes his speech by saying, “I find your protests inelegant. Not to mention irrelevant,” which stresses appearance over everything else in terms of a woman’s worth. He continues, “I wish only to possess your beauty, Princess Zelda, not all of these ugly words of yours!” When he has transformed her, he cries, “My lovely masterpiece! […] Dare I say it’s my best work ever!” Yuga’s lines (complete with their possessive adjectives and pronouns) stress the fact that he sees Zelda only as an object to be possessed.

I would argue that the game sees Zelda the same way. Just as both Link and Yuga view Seres as an object to be obtained, both hero and villain wish only to have Zelda for the sake of having her. The game offers no explanation as to why Link must rescue Zelda, other than the fact that Yuga took her. It’s not like she alone has the power to defeat Yuga (oh wait, yes, she does, but more on that later). She doesn’t even govern Hyrule; it is called a “kingdom,” signifying that, somewhere, there is a King of Hyrule, perhaps Zelda’s father (as in Ocarina of Time). Seen in this way, Zelda represents no more than a political figurehead when she is not in Yuga’s possession, and when she is, she is merely a piece of property that has fallen into enemy hands. She is thus an object playing a role in both Yuga’s and Link’s clashing destinies, with no agency or control over her own fate.

The original Legend of Zelda was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986, so by now, we’re used to seeing Zelda as a damsel in distress — the sole impetus for Link’s heroic journey. But the saddest part about A Link Between Worlds is we see the iconic “Princess Gets Captured By Villain” scene three times (not to mention the other three women who are captured off-screen). The third woman to be captured, much later in the game than Zelda and Seres, is Princess Hilda of the Kingdom of Lorule. While Link is in Lorule, Hilda is Link’s Navi, if Navi were invisible and only spoke once before becoming entirely silent. Link enters Dark Wor– sorry, Lorule, via portals scattered across Hyrule, and each time he arrives in a new area, Hilda offers some helpful advice about where he should go. Each time Link rescues a sage, the player is treated to a cutscene in which Hilda stares at Zelda’s portrait, sighing, “Oh lovely Zelda,” and lamenting the general crappiness of Lorule. Finally, once all the sages have been rescued, Hilda urges Link to Lorule Castle to confront Yuga.

Hilda reveals her true colours after the first phase of Link’s battle with Yuga. She reveals that she set Yuga upon Hyrule in an attempt to steal its Triforce. She steals Zelda’s Triforce of Wisdom and orders Yuga to give her the Triforce of Power so that she can finish what they started. But because a Zelda game just can’t handle a woman who isn’t a damsel in distress, Hilda gets transformed into a painting. Yuga is careful to put Hilda in her place: “Now you, my dark beauty, must serve your purpose.” After the transformation, he gloats: “I can hardly decide which of my princess portraits is prettier. But I do know which of you foolish royal girls has what I need. And now it will be mine.” At this point, because objectifying and insulting her just isn’t enough, he absorbs Hilda’s power.

When Hilda first revealed herself as the mastermind behind Yuga’s attack, I got really excited. I thought, “Wow, what an awesome plot twist!” (Though, really, I should have seen it coming, what with Yuga’s “Her Grace” comments earlier.) I thought, “Finally, a woman (other than that one time when Zelda dressed up as a dude) with agency! How refreshing for The Legend of Zelda series!”

And then Yuga turned her into an object and ate her.

And then Yuga turned her into an object and ate her.

Is it not 2014? Haven’t we been rescuing princesses for nearly 30 years? Can’t we have something different?

Some could argue that, because Yuga is the one who patronizes and objectifies women, and because Link eventually kicks Yuga’s ass, the game itself is presenting these behaviours as unacceptable. I disagree. Just as a text is not feminist just because its heroine is strong (MrsDawnaway. “The Stake Is Not The Power: Patriarchical Power Systems in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Arkham City.” bigtallwords. Dec 15 2013). A game does not become un-sexist when it features a villain rather than a hero acting in a sexist manner. Let’s face it: The Legend of Zelda’s history does not do it any favours.

Even apart from the series, there are within A Link Between Worlds aspects of the game (other than Yuga) that suggest that women are “lovely” objects to be possessed. For instance, there is “Blacksmith’s Wife.” She has no name. Plus, all she talks about is her son, Gulley, so she is strictly defined by the two men in her life. She has no personhood aside from them. To be fair, “Blacksmith” doesn’t have a name, either, but just as “Mrs.” is short for “Mr’s,” signifying the husband’s possession of his wife, here, she is only an object to be owned by the blacksmith.

I’ve already discussed how Hyrule (and Lorule) are called Kingdoms, meaning that their respective princesses are ceremonial figureheads, but something I’ll add to my previous point is that Zelda tells Hilda of a “sacred duty” that a princess has to her land and people. I don’t know what that duty entails, partly because Ravio interrupts the conversation, but mainly because I have never seen Zelda performing any duties. She is always admired and beloved by her people, but how is that a duty? Furthermore, in Link’s final battle with Yuga, Zelda gives Link a special bow (the light arrows) that he can only fire when he is in portrait mode. This twist confused me quite a bit. Up to this point, the game had told me that sages who had been transformed into pictures could not do anything to change their fate (hence, Link had to rescue them). Suddenly, Zelda is able to communicate and conjure a weapon for Link. My biggest question, though: why couldn’t Zelda have used it herself? Though she has the only power that can defeat Yuga, she is not allowed to use it. The game forces her to sit and wait for the hero to rescue her; therefore, the game does not allow her to be an active participant in her own destiny. She can only play a role in a man’s fate.

And one final note that I’ll end on: A Link Between Worlds features a quest in which Link’s goal is to save the Queen of the Zoras from… getting fat. Yes, you read that right. A thief stole her magic diet pill and she begins to swell. Link is tasked with retrieving the stone before the Queen becomes too large to fit in her throne pond. If that, on top of everything else I’ve discussed here about women being favoured only for their appearance, doesn’t convince you, I’m not sure that anything will.



It’s A Man’s World: The Implications of Makeup in Mass Effect

Originally published on Big Tall Words, March 14, 2014. Subsequently re-published on the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association (UK & Ireland) Blog June 4, 2015.

“Human sperm cells were seen with the earliest microscopes in the seventeenth century. The human egg is several thousand times larger, but — despite earlier postulates — it was not visualized until 1827. […] For something to be found, it must first be imagined and sought.” (Duffin, Jacalyn. A History of Medicine, (Toronto, ON: Toronto UP, 2007), p. 249.)

Videogames are not a space for women’s voices when parts of women’s experiences are not addressed or taken seriously; like scientists dismissing out-of-hand the possibility of the ovum’s existence, game developers are dismissing out-of-hand the chance to engage in meaningful dialogue with women about even their most banal experiences (like wearing makeup). How, then, can we expect games as a medium to look at the more profound aspects of women’s experiences? Until game developers imagine and seek to include women’s experiences in games (and until gamers stop complaining about their inclusion), we can’t.

Makeup is a choice in the character creation in Mass Effect. From that point on, it is a permanent feature of female Shepard’s appearance, which is not realistic.* Attitudes towards wearing makeup vary depending on the person wearing it*, but regardless of one’s opinion, etc., makeup remains a choice. It is not a permanent feature like jaw width or ear size. Attitudes towards makeup also vary tremendously depending on a person’s class and culture. Additionally, makeup has different meanings depending on where someone situates themselves on the gender spectrum. Mass Effect treats makeup like bone structure: it is fixed, and the game implies that the player (and the world) should give it no thought.

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But makeup doesn’t work like that. Makeup deserves to be thought about, talked about, written about. We live in a culture that objectifies women, viewing them as figures to be admired above all else. This culture values and praises women who meet a certain standard of beauty — one which involves heavy makeup — to the exclusion of all others. When pop culture media (like videogames) uphold this standard without question, the message can be immensely damaging, not only to women and girls, but also to society as a whole. So, while makeup may seem like a minor aspect of videogames, it’s not.

Every person you meet who wears makeup will likely have a series of (usually banal) statements when it comes to makeup. Everyone who wears makeup (usually, but not exclusively, women) knows the time and effort involved in putting on degrees of makeup. Some people spend an hour every morning applying layers of foundation, eye shadow, lipstick, and blush. Some people take five minutes to daub on some concealer and a bit of mascara. But regardless, one will change their look when they choose to or when circumstances demand it. So why can’t we change Shepard’s makeup?

Mainly, I wear makeup to work. I imagine that I have this in common with most women, regardless of profession. Shepard is no different; she may be working in a predominantly male field (as a ranking military officer), but it makes sense for her to wear makeup to work just like I do (even though I work in an office that employs mostly women). Also, her job being athletic does not preclude her wearing makeup. Professional female athletes (like hockey players) wear makeup while they’re “at work,” as well. My issue with Shepard wearing makeup does not stem from the belief that female soldiers (or firefighters, or police, or hockey players, etc.) do not or should not wear makeup, since that’s absurd. My issue is that the makeup is a permanent feature of her face.

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If we only ever saw Shepard in a professional capacity (i.e. while she’s “at work”), Shepard being fully made-up all the time would be excusable. Shepard’s job forces her to divide her time between the Alliance (Cerberus in the second game) and the Citadel Council. As an Alliance marine/Cerberus operative, she flies in and out of hot zones, fighting bad guys and protecting civilians. As a Council Spectre, she may shoot bad guys and protect civilians, but she also meets with diplomats and negotiates with politicians. In both of these roles, it would be feasible to expect Shepard to wear makeup. But Mass Effect is not only about Shepard in an official or professional capacity. If it were, if it were more like Gears of War, for instance, and Shepard were nothing but an object by which the player shoots enemies and blows things up (in other words, if she were Marcus Fenix), the permanent presence of makeup wouldn’t matter.

In the case of Marcus Fenix, we only see him doing one thing (shooting bad guys) all the time. We never really see him “off-duty,” and we only see him “on-duty” for more or less one day. In a game like Gears of War, we are offered one (intense) day in the life of a soldier in the COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments). Mass Effect is very different. For one thing, Shepard is “on-duty” for a lot longer than one day. More importantly, however, Mass Effect shows that Shepard is a person, while Gears of War treats Marcus only as a tool for the player to use. Mass Effect allows us to build Shepard as a character by giving the player choices. For instance, if a player chooses to complete some of the innumerable potential side quests, the game gives the impression that Shepard is choosing to help passersby or collect items, which contributes to her characterization. If a player chooses to interact with her crew or pursue a romantic relationship, that choice also reflects upon her as a person.** The game shows us Shepard as much (possibly more) when she’s “off-duty” as when she’s “on-duty.” Mass Effect is as much about Shepard as a person as Shepard as a soldier/Council Spectre. The same simply cannot be said of a game like Gears of War.

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As such, we see Shepard in many circumstances where there is no logical reason for her to be wearing makeup, especially as the series progresses. Most notably, each game contains a sex scene and its immediate aftermath (unless, of course, the player chooses not to pursue a romantic relationship). Makeup tends to, um, smudge during sexual encounters, yet Shepard’s remains immaculate. In the second game, we see Shepard immediately following extensive surgery. She wakes up from the dead with perfect makeup. Did Miranda meticulously apply her eye shadow, blush, and lipstick while Shepard was unconscious? (That’s a bizarre thought.)

At the beginning of the third game, she is forced reluctantly from planet Earth when the Reapers attack without warning. She rushes to Mars and then the Citadel, seemingly without a moment in between. Given these circumstances, is it really feasible that her makeup is still perfect when she gets to the Citadel, especially after experiencing a vicious sandstorm on Mars? Maybe she had time to reapply it while the Normandy travelled, but that would mean that Shepard had somehow stored makeup on the Normandy before it got impounded. (Even if she had, it would have been long expired and unsafe to use after a year… unless it was some kind of special space mascara. Discussions of futuristic makeup technology aside, I think you get my point.)

Over the course of the third game, it also becomes apparent that Shepard isn’t sleeping well. She is plagued by nightmares. The crew worries for her. Garrus even says “I’m starting to see some wear and tear,” implying that her lack of sleep is showing on her face, but all we see is her perpetually perfect makeup. After Thessia’s destruction, she can hardly bring herself to answer Hackett’s call. Why would she bother to apply makeup? Though she’s going through hell, we never see Shepard cry, but isn’t it possible that she does? Isn’t it possible that, in the face of the biggest threat ever known to the galaxy, her makeup smears a little, and she can’t be bothered to fix it?

In thus analysing the presence of makeup in Mass Effect 3, it dawned on me how much better the third game would be if Shepard’s makeup changed based on the sombre context of the third game. Imagine if we did see the “wear and tear” that Garrus mentioned. In the Batman Arkham games, Batman’s suit gets torn, his cape becomes tattered, and his clean-shaven face develops a thick stubble. The changes in Batman’s appearance emphasize to the player that it has been a long, tough night. Bioware could have taken a cue from the Arkham games and demonstrated to the player the true impact of this brutal war. Why didn’t they?

The presence of makeup at the times that I mentioned above broke the spell of the game for me. Everywhere in the third game, people are dying. They’ve lost their homes, their families, their livelihood. Everyone says it’s the end. The game keeps insisting that the galaxy will not emerge from this war unscathed. But Shepard’s makeup does. It makes no sense, and because it makes no sense, the game seems to contradict itself.

Shepard’s perfect makeup has ramifications, however, beyond the game itself. The presence of makeup can impact a player’s perception of Shepard as a person. As I mentioned above, makeup is a choice; it involves work, and it carries a wide array of associations and implications depending on the person who chooses to wear it. I can only speak for myself here, but I perceive the desire for constantly having perfect makeup as coming from an inherent insecurity about one’s looks or from an inherent vanity: both are rooted in the desire to be perceived as attractive in the eyes of another. Therefore, when the game forces Shepard to have immaculate makeup at all times, I find myself sometimes associating the presence of that makeup with Shepard being insecure or vain. That realization broke the spell of the game for me because the game praises Shepard continually: she’s strong, brave, loyal, and committed to saving as much of the galaxy as she can. In short, she seems neither insecure nor vain. But her makeup can be perceived to send a different message.

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For example, let’s say the player chooses to pursue a romantic relationship with Kaidan. In the cut scenes, Shepard is shown to have perfect makeup right before meeting with Kaidan in her cabin. Given what we know about makeup being a choice and possibly being associated with insecurity, we can analyze its presence. Why is she wearing makeup? Perhaps she is trying really hard to impress him. Maybe she’s insecure about his affections and trying very hard to be beautiful so that he will continue to love her after they have sex. After they make love, Shepard is awake before Kaidan, and her makeup is impeccable. Is she so vain that she doesn’t want him to see her without makeup? Or maybe she fears she’d be too vulnerable without it. Perhaps she’s embarrassed about having sex with her lieutenant. Her makeup can be seen as a mask here, a way of putting the sex act behind her and moving forward; perhaps she is using it to re-establish the chain of command.

When Mass Effect refuses to acknowledge the implications of makeup, it says to me that no one on the development team ever considered the implications of wearing makeup. It says that they do not understand, nor do they care to examine, the implications of wearing makeup as clearly as someone who actually wears makeup (i.e. a woman) would. Mass Effect sees a man as the default. Maybe the developers assumed everyone would play as a male Shepard. Maybe they assumed that those playing as a female Shepard were male and therefore they designed the character with the male gaze in mind. Maybe the male gaze is so pervasive that it never even crossed their minds that they were catering to it.

Regardless of why they ignored the implications of wearing makeup, by doing so, the game fails to take into account my voice as a woman. As someone who wears makeup, I can raise these issues, but because the game doesn’t seem to take them into consideration, I am shouting in an empty room. The game perceives me as a minority, and I begin to think that I am, that no one else who plays videogames knows about makeup the way I do (read: I am alone as a female gamer), and therefore, I (and my opinion) don’t matter. I begin to wonder if my Shepard should have been a man because then I wouldn’t be pestered by such troublesome questions. I begin to wonder if there is something wrong with being a woman.

Here’s where I return to my epigraph from The History of Medicine. Scientists looking to discover the secret of procreation perceived women as passive participants in the process, vessels to hold the male seed. Thus, no one ever considered that perhaps the woman’s anatomy played a role in creating life. Even though the ovum is much larger than the sperm, the sperm was discovered much earlier because scientists bothered to look for it. How much different would games be if, when designing characters, the game developers bothered to take into account the opinions of makeup wearers?

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So, Bioware, I ask you: how difficult would it be for Shepard’s appearance to change over the course of the game? In the second and third games, facial scars appear or fade depending on a player’s Paragon/Renegade score, so why not have her makeup change as well, like Batman’s face and clothing in the Arkham games? Alternatively, how hard would it be to allow players to change Shepard’s makeup? Games, like all forms of art, strive to break away from the banality of life, so I understand that players may not appreciate having a mini-game in which Shepard rolls the mascara brush over her eyelashes. I feel it’s also important to note that many games that do directly involve the player making decisions about the protagonist’s appearance are considered “casual” games and are usually marketed to women and girls. Adding a “casual” aspect may not go over well with the target market intended for “hardcore” games like Mass Effect (read: men); however, I’d like to remind readers (and Bioware) that not all gamers are male, so why shy away from taking a chance to integrate women’s experiences?

If Bioware isn’t willing to incorporate the actions of applying/removing makeup (which, I’ll admit could be rather boring), why couldn’t we click on the mirror in the captain’s cabin and bring up a “Remove/Apply Makeup: Yes/No” dialogue box? The image could fade out and fade back in. Or the mirror could bring up the character creation screen (like in the Dragon Age 2 “Black Emporium” DLC) and feature new Shepard in future encounters. Or perhaps Shepard could have a default ‘no-makeup’ setting upon re-boarding the Normandy. Major cut scenes taking place off the Normandy (Council meetings, Citadel scenes, etc.) could feature Shepard with makeup, and Normandy conversations could be makeup-less. Would it really be that hard?

If you’re a person who chooses to wear makeup (most of the time, that means you’re a woman, but not necessarily), you understand that makeup is a choice. When a game like Mass Effect ignores the implications of wearing makeup, the game developers are de-valuing the experience of wearing makeup; they are stating that the choice to wear makeup does not matter. Therefore, they are de-valuing one (albeit small) part of being a woman, while reinforcing the belief that videogames are (or should be) made with the male player in mind. When developers are hesitant to introduce changes that may appeal to different demographics, the perception of gaming as a space where women are not welcome becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women gamers may feel unwelcome or alienated by the game’s omission and devaluation of their experiences, however banal those experiences may be. Furthermore, the game thus upholds the belief that women, even powerful, kick-ass women like Shepard, are viewed primarily as objects to be admired, and therefore cannot not be pretty. This view is damaging to women and men, and I wish my favourite game franchise would take a step towards changing it.

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*Note that when we first create the character, and at the beginning of each of the two sequels, we can choose to have no makeup. But it’s also unusual or unrealistic for a woman to never, ever, ever wear makeup. (I have friends, for instance, who never wear makeup in an everyday capacity, but they have still worn it a handful of times for theatre productions, weddings, cosplay, photo shoots, etc.)

**More than one person I know has justified their Shepard’s actions through a complicated analysis of the character’s thought processes, preferences, moral code, past behaviour patterns, etc. For instance, one player’s Shepard decided to save the Rachni queen because she thought that it was the right thing to do, while another’s Shepard might have saved the Rachni queen because she thought that it could be useful for the Rachni to owe humanity a debt.