Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feminist Analysis of Halo Wars

(Written for the video version)

Halo Wars is a real-time strategy game made by Ensemble Studios. This was the first venture outside of the first-person shooter genre and with a company other than Bungie Studios. The writing is cornier than ever, though the dialog never quite tops Halo 3’s “to war”, and despite involving epic things like a Dyson sphere contained in a planet, it’s actually a very simplistic story. It’s a prequel to the main trilogy, set twenty years prior to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved.

It starts out with Captain Cutter of the ship Spirit of Fire narrating about how hard it’s been to reclaim the planet Harvest from the Covenant. Despite the UNSC feeling they own it now, they’re still fighting Covenant off the surface. He then talks to the ship’s AI, Serina, about preparing for dropping troops.
Serina is probably my favorite character in the game, an aloof and sarcastic AI who lampshades some of the cornier aspects of the plot. Her avatar design is much less sexual than Cortana’s. While Cortana’s a naked hologram, Serina wears a normal outfit. She comes off as just a woman, a digital member of the crew, in contrast to Cortana’s appearance setting her apart from the others, though they considered Serina’s clothes having a similar style at one point.

As a piece of Halo Wars concept art shows, it could definitely have been worse. Going from left to right in the smaller Serinas, number 4 is the closest to the final model (appearing in the large form to the left), though her coloration was turned blue as a result of UNSC technological restraints. Numbers 1—3 are pretty bad, with a lot of skin unnecessarily exposed, with number 1 being flat-out horrible. Cortana is naked, but somehow she seems less racy, like she’s a woman-shaped being that doesn’t need clothes. Serina wearing clothes that then show her skin brings the context back to real women showing skin to appeal to the male market.

As the user Quirel noted on halo.bungie.org, number 1 has “an impractical strip of clothing missing that shows off her… ‘assets’ and points directly to her genitalia”. If Ensemble Studios truly considered doing something that sexual, I think it points at a basic disrespect of women in the people involved in game conceptualization. On the other hand, I wonder if that wasn’t a decoy so their superiors would let them get away with a racy Serina they otherwise wouldn’t allow, such as number 3 there. I’ve heard of people doing that priming trick where the final one looks comparatively better. Even if that’s so, it’s still problematic sexualizing of a female character where she exists for the male gaze.

Well, for whatever reason, they went with number 4. I think it’s a reasonable design. It’s not as conservative as number 6, but it doesn’t need to be. Number 6 looks like a uniform, and most smart AIs are built from the brains of civilians, so it makes sense that Serina would be a little more casual. Number 4 shows a little skin, but not from the cleavage area and plenty of blouses have low necklines without being so overly sexual as 1—3.

Anyway, Cutter’s two main subordinates Sergeant John Forge and Professor Ellen Anders report the Covenant digging for a structure buried in the ice. Forge is your typical gung ho soldier, and Anders is a brilliant civilian scientist. Anders is very similar to Catherine Halsey, though the story is that they’re rivals. I like her design. She’s pretty without being overly sexual. She looks like someone I could interact with at school.

Anders announces that she’s going down to the planet, and Forge says there’s no way that can happen until more Covenant are cleared away, but she ignores him and goes to get her things. This reminds me of a scene from The Fall of Reach where Dr. Halsey gives commands to a male captain who then threatens to have her bound and gagged. It could be interpreted as sexist, but I think it’s really about military personnel conflicting with civilians. It’s actually feminist in a sense that a scene with a man disrespecting a woman doesn’t have any sexist overtones.

The Covenant excavate a Forerunner facility. (That Arbiter is not the Arbiter from Halo 2 and 3, by the way. That was Thel ‘Vadamee. This is Ripa ‘Moramee, an Elite with the same position.) Forge clears out the Covenant outside the entrance, and Anders joins him to inspect the facility. Anders feels an urge to touch the controls, and she activates a holographic map. Humans have some instinctual understanding of Forerunner technology that goes deeper than conscious awareness, and there are several examples in the novels of humans just grabbing at Forerunner tech without clear understanding of what they’re doing, so this isn’t an example of Anders doing something foolish. The Elites show up and attack, so they’re forced to leave with just one glance at the map.

Anders is able to reconstruct it enough that Serina is able to recognize an indicated planet as the Arcadia colony. Anders pushes Cutter to check it out, and he agrees, telling Serina to take them there.

Serina: “Aye, sir. Crazy mystery trip to Arcadia plotted in, spinning up FTL drive.”
Anders: “Serina, get out of my lab.”

So, they go to Arcadia and see that it’s under Covenant attack. Cutter realizes that there are Spartans on the surface, so he decides they need to lend support. These Spartans are Alice-130, Douglas-042, and Jerome-092, collectively referred to as Red Team. From this point on, Red Team frequently appears in the game as playable units. Alice-130 is just as capable as the others, and the Spartans differ only in the form of their individual attacks, which are each more desirable in certain circumstances. In the cinematic cutscenes, they’re all action stars, though I couldn’t say which is which. In some cutscenes, a male Spartan will speak, but Alice-130 never does. Though she’s treated okay, and it’s cool to see a female Spartan in a canon Halo game, Alice-130 is really an underused token female character.

Anyway, the Covenant have something hidden under a big purple shield. Forge and Anders go in to take it down and look around. The two work together in taking out the shield, and it turns out that the Covenant are building a powerful Scarab vehicle, so Forge takes it out. Meanwhile, the Prophet of Regret figures out that Anders has some ability to use Forerunner tech, so he sends the Arbiter to capture her. At the site of the destroyed Scarab, Anders documents the scene while Forge goofs off. Then the Arbiter shows up.

Even though Forge is there to protect Anders and she’s much more valuable than he is, she willingly goes with the Arbiter to save Forge’s life. I know it would feel horrible to have some Elite kill the guy you worked with, but it’s a war. He knew what he was signing up for. She’s too emotional and this compromises the UNSC’s security as she becomes a damsel in distress. Red Team comes in just a moment later, so if she just did a sensible thing like run away while the Arbiter was distracted with Forge, there wouldn’t be this problem.

Fortunately, all friendlies have a transponder to indicate that they’re not to be shot at, so Serina is able to track Anders. She’s being taken to another star system, so Cutter tells Serina to follow the Covenant ship.

Serina: “We did leave a note to tell them we’re leaving, right?”

They end up at a Shield World. Shield Worlds are Forerunner-made artificial planets where the insides are Dyson spheres, which are artificial worlds built around stars. What this means is that the interior diameter is approximately 300 million kilometers despite the planet having a roughly Earth-size appearance from the exterior, which would suggest a diameter of only about 13 thousand kilometers.

Doctor: “It’s bigger on the inside, that’s all.”
Donna Noble: “Oh, ‘that’s all’!”
–Doctor Who

There are Flood on the surface, and the humans fight them off for a bit before the planet opens up and lets in Spirit of Fire. The Covenant are already inside, and Regret’s located a fleet of Forerunner ships. Anders is forced to unlock them, but then she makes an escape through a teleporter. A few Flood infection forms move forward threateningly, but Forge saves her—somehow being that close despite the enormity of space in the Shield World. Even though Anders manages to get free of the Covenant—due to them suddenly acting stupid—she still ends up being rescued by the male hero and love interest.

Knowing that she will have been responsible for dooming humanity if the Covenant use those ships, Anders comes up with a solution. They’ll rig the Spirit of Fire’s FTL drive to cause the star to explode. As Forge and Red Team try to set it up, they’re attacked by Elites. The Spartans deal with Regret’s personal guards while Forge attacks the Arbiter.

Arbiter: “There will be no female to save you this time.”

Is that a sexist comment? I can see it as an alien referencing a specific human to simply say that there’s nothing Forge or any humans can do to stop him from killing him. On the other hand, I can also see it as a disparaging comment about Forge’s ability as a warrior that he has to be saved by a female. It makes sense given what we’ve seen of Elite culture for him to be sexist, but it’s bad that a sexist comment could be accepted by the narrative with no dispute of that implication—should that really be the meaning of the line.

Forge kills the Arbiter and the Spartans clean up. Jerome says that the damage to the drive means that it will have to be manually activated. Jerome’s going to stay behind, but Forge says they’ll need the Spartans to win the war and stays behind instead. As the star explodes, Serina does some expert flying to rescue the crew from the blast, and they escape the Shield World.

A result of sacrificing their FTL drive means that they can’t get back to any human colonies in any reasonable time period. The crew plans to go into cryogenic hibernation while Serina pilots the ship and tries to contact any human life, similar to the end of Halo 3. Anders wants to stay awake to monitor things, but Cutter orders her into a pod, saying she’s a hero who saved them. She reminds him that she couldn’t save Forge. Roll credits.

Outside of the story, some of the characters have function in gameplay. With Anders, there’s a general sense of her being not as capable in the realm of battle as her male associates, but she’s supposed to make up for this in ways based on her intellect. It’s hard for me to not think of this as a display of feminine weakness and strength compared to the masculine equivalents, as this conception of the genders is rather popular in modern fiction.

When playing in skirmish mode, the player takes the role of a Leader and controls units under the banner of that Leader against another Leader controlled by a human or the computer. One can play as either UNSC or Covenant, and there are three Leaders to choose from per faction. The Covenant are pretty patriarchal anyway, so it makes sense for all three Covenant Leaders to be male. Among the UNSC, however, we have the characters Cutter, Forge, and Anders. As a Leader, Anders really seems like the token female, and her various unique Leader characteristics are not directly aggressive like the others. Where Cutter’s Leader Power is to shoot things with a giant cannon and Forge’s is to blow things up with a widespread carpet bomb, Anders’ is to freeze enemy units so that other units can kill them. Cutter’s unique unit is a mobile infantry trainer, Forge’s is a mecha that can kill buildings, and Anders’ is a vehicle that stuns enemy vehicles for a few seconds. Though the Gremlin can be useful offensive vehicles later on, it takes a while to get it built up that much. The only good offensive thing about Anders as a Leader is her unique upgrade, turning the Hornet aircraft into the stronger Sparrowhawk. Each Leader also has an economic bonus where some things are cheaper for them, and though none of the Leaders’ discounts are offensive, Anders specifically gets a research discount, referencing her greater intelligence.

In the campaign, the player can sometimes manipulate characters pertinent to the story, called Hero Units, including Anders. Units often have special abilities that can be manually engaged with the Y button, usually a stronger attack. For instance, Marines will throw grenades or fire rockets depending on the research level of the player. Hero Units have these as well, and Anders has the ability to repair mechanical units and structures. This makes her the equivalent to the monk and priest units from previous Ensemble games in the Age of Empires series, a healer. Healers can be very useful, so it’s not a weak ability, but it is of a non-combative nature.

Feminists often view it as progressive for strengths traditionally recognized as feminine to be given the same respect as the masculine. I think that’s what Ensemble Studios thought they were doing, but I don’t think that’s what Halo Wars really is. The way the game is set up makes the male Leaders’ characteristics much more attractive than Anders’. It is a war game where the traditionally masculine characteristic of having good offensive capability is a necessary part of gaining an advantage. I know I never play as Anders.

To sum up, the female characters have some qualities that make them better than the standard sexist junk. Serina’s a pretty cool sarcastic AI, and Anders is smart and ends up coming up with the plan to save the day. It passes the Bechdel test as the two often contribute input in conversations with the captain. On the other hand, Anders also falls into sexist clichés like messing things up by being too emotional and becoming a damsel in distress. This inadvertently allows them to destroy the Forerunner ships, but it’s not like she had any agency when she led the Spirit of Fire there; she’s just the McGuffin. She saves Forge in the first Arbiter fight, but not very nobly, as she has no sense of perspective. In skirmishes, she’s the token female Leader and a pretty weak one. Then Alice is a strong Spartan, but incredibly underused. So, a little up, a little down.


Anonymous said...

Its a dumb point, but I'd like to disagree with you painting Anders in skirmish as the "weak" leader. In my experience, Anders is the best leader to play as. The Hawks that she can build are the most effective unit in the game, esepecially when comparing cost to production time to total damage output. And the cryo bomb is potentially more effective than either the MAC Gun or the Carpet Bomb.

With that pointless point pointed out, I also found it odd that you, towards the beginning of your artical, made a point of emphasizing thatt Anders was a civilian, and thus less likely to be effective in combat or have military insights, but then later on, decribed her 'hero unit' gameplay traits as making her out to be too weak and ineffective. It seems contradictory to point out that she would be less of an asset in combat due to being a civilian, and then subsequently decry her combat ability in game.

Anonymous said...

Like the other anonymous comment pointed out, Anders is the best skirmish leader. If you played Halo Wars multiplayer in it's heyday before Microsoft threw it under the bus, Ander was the strongest skirmish leader bar none. The devs tried to balance all the leaders to be equal in strength (and therefore stop all the "pro" players from playing only as Anders) in several subsequent patches by nerfing Anders but she is still the best leader.

Ensemble Studios probably did not intend this, but Ander's "passive" qualities that could be attributed to a sexist perception actually makes her more powerful than her male counterparts (like her research bonuses, her "non-lethal" Cryo Bomb, etc.). Gotta love irony and cosmic justice.

Dragonclaws said...

Okay, I now get that I was wrong about Anders being a weak leader; she's just not fit for my game style. Maybe it's like Pokémon where of the first three there's one that'll do lousy early on but will be strong later in the game, and I just don't survive that long.

As for Anders as a civilian, that detail was brought up to outline her character and bring context to the Anders/Forge conflict. I don't have a problem with her Y ability not being offensive because healers are useful. I was pointing out how it fits with gender roles, but I wasn't saying that (specifically) was sexist or not.

Anonymous said...

Just saying you just got pwned no offense

Anonymous said...

I disagree with your thoughts on Alice she is underused but so was the other two but they all contributed to the story during gameplay the only reason Jerome 92 talked during cuteness is because he's the leader its also why he has the red stripes but that's besides the point and the elites culture discriminates against its wemen that's just how it is if an elite acts sexist who cares that's just onoter reason to shoot them in the face