A Conversation on Metal Gear Solid V’s Quiet, Strong Female Roles, Empathy and Sexism
A few days ago our own Allisa James reported on an interview with Hideo Kojima in which he talked about Quiet, the female lead that will appear in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. To my surprise the comments to her article were full of controversy.
That’s why I decided to get together with Allisa and have a heart-to-heart boy-meets-girl conversation on Quiet’s character, her role, her background and on the issues her design seemed to have unearthed. Do you want to know what we talked about? Read on…
Giuseppe: Quiet seems to be quite the interesting character. She can’t speak, so she has to communicate with her body language. Yet she’s a very competent sniper on the battlefield, and she doesn’t let herself be dragged down by her handicap. Also, notably, she’s a lady, and you don’t see many stern and silent female roles in video games, or in media in general. What do you think Allisa?
Allisa: To be honest I was very surprised when Quiet was first revealed. As I wrote in my previous article, the “Strong and Silent” archetype is very male-dominated and only very rarely you see female characters written in that manner because — I think — game writers fear that robbing a woman of her ability to speak will make her character less relevant and will cause her to fade into the background.
However, I completely disagree with this. Quiet, for instance, looks like a competent, talented and experienced soldier on the battlefield and she seems to be very expressive in terms of her facial expressions and body language. Humans communicate the most with body language so a female who cannot speak but is strong and doesn’t let her disability get in the way of her actions should be perfectly fine in a video game, in terms of exposure, as long as she is written like a proper human being.
G: True, and Kojima has always been very good at portraying characters like proper human beings. Some of his characters gave me a kind of emotional connection that I struggle finding in many other games. Even characters that don’t have many spoken lines, designed when technology really didn’t allow showing complex expressions as it does now… Do you remember Sniper Wolf?
A: Yes and I completely agree. Sniper Wolf was this really sympathetic character who was raised on the battlefield, knew no peace or comfort, had no living family or friends by the time she was an adult and was abandoned by the world. You could really feel her struggles and understand her hatred for the political world. And to be honest, even though we only saw Quiet for a little bit, I felt the same humanity and emotion with her and her suffering. It seems so far that Kojima might have done a great job writing her character.
G: Do you think they could actually be related in some way? They’re both snipers after all. While many think that Sniper wolf was eastern European because of her blue eyes and blond hair, she was actually Kurdish from the north of Iraq, and that isn’t exactly a long shot from Afghanistan. Metal Gear Solid V also features the theme of war children, and Sniper Wolf was one herself. Considering that the game is set in 1984, she would be about four by then…
A: That would be very interesting…. Maybe she could even be Quiet’s daughter? I have to admit that idea would be very intriguing but also very depressing, seeing as how Sniper Wolf ended up on the battlefield just like her possible mother. But there’s also a large part of me that doesn’t want to see them be related because it would make the world of Metal Gear Solid that much smaller. To clarify, the concept of many seemingly unrelated characters in a work of fiction turning out to be long lost family members is sort of overused. But how you feel about this? Would you prefer to have them related?
G: I didn’t necessarily mean as family members. A relationship can be formed in many ways. For instance Sniper Wolf could have seen Quiet in action during her childhood, and have been influenced by her. That would be a lovely way to have Sniper Wolf appear in a cameo in Metal Gear Solid V. Maybe it’d make the world feel a little smaller, but I miss her. Call me emotional, but I’d like to see a little bit more of her.
But let’s move on. There has been a lot of controversy about the fact that Quiet is portrayed while she’s tortured, with people complaining because they perceive it as misogynistic. I know you consider yourself at least in part a feminist, but as a lady, how do you feel about the portrayal of a woman being tortured in a video game?
A: To answer that first part, I think the scenario you presented above concerning Quiet and Sniper Wolf’s relationship would be a more interesting and not so overused connection between characters, so it would be far better to see that in the game than an actual blood relationship.
And as for the second part, as a woman it’s very refreshing to me to see that ugly side of war in general and especially to see a woman go through it herself. In real life, women are a relevant part of the forces involved in many conflicts and they suffer just as men do. I’m grateful that Kojima was willing to show such a moving and meaningful scene with Quiet, and also portray her resilience since she jumps right back into action after the ordeal. If you are truly for women’s equality in games then you must realize that every experience women go through should be represented. Both the good and the bad. But as a man, did seeing her in pain make you feel uncomfortable?
G: Of course it did, but not for the reason I hear from many. I think seeing someone tortured and in pain, regardless of gender, should make anyone feel uncomfortable. The trailer includes many scenes of torture and brutality, and they all made me feel uncomfortable, especially the one in which a package is painfully extracted from someone’s open and bleeding belly. But you know what? It’s ok that we feel uncomfortable. It’s entirely acceptable and even laudable for a game to include scenes that make us feel uncomfortable. It is and should be part of video games’ maturation as a form of narrative media.
Ultimately, games that manages to stimulate our empathy as human beings should be seen as something positive, not negative. I actually wish there were more scenes in games that made me feel uncomfortable, sad, moved to tears, happy, angry and even outraged. It would be a good sign for the industry, and it would be an even better sign if people stopped getting their underwear in a bunch about it.
Speaking about underwear… How do you feel about Quiet’s outfit? That sure caused quite a lot of teeth gnashing. Be honest…
A: Well, to me her outfit made sense when I first saw Quiet being tortured. They would remove her shirt to electrocute her in that fashion and her leggings were probably full of holes because of the other methods of torture used on her, rough treatment, beating, etcetera… And to be honest it worries me quite a bit that the first thing people noticed when seeing Quiet in such agony is that she’s dressing less than modestly…However I do hope that later on the game she is properly outfitted in military gear. It does annoy me when women are dressed in “bikini armor” while men get to run around in more comfortable and practical clothing. But I think people are jumping the gun a bit since we haven’t seen what she wears later on in-game.
G: I’m not sure it’ll happen. Kojima does love his fanservice, and does so for both genders actually. I think I’ve seen more semi-naked men in speedos in his games than in any other series out there… But that’s beside the point. I don’t think fanservice should be outright banned from games.
Once in a while it isn’t too bad to appreciate the beauty of the human body, especially when it’s justified. There’s a little scene in which the dirt (or whatever it is) around her eyes suddenly fades out and disappears, so she might actually have some kind of octocamo implanted directly in her skin. But back to the topic at hand, I honestly dread an industry in which any display of sexuality or naked skin is seen as taboo and ostracized. We fought against censorship for decades, and now some of us are becoming the next big censors.
A: That’s a good point and one that I think many people fail to consider when they quickly judge an outfit as misogynistic. And while I personally enjoy fanservice in video games I think the North American society is still very repressed in terms of female sexuality. When people see woman’s cleavage, they think “Oh we can’t take this woman seriously because she is showing too much skin” and so forth.
To get to the point that the human body cannot be celebrated in video games at all would be very detrimental to the industry as a whole and to freedom of expression and creativity. It would be a new form of radical censorship and to a large degree very sexist in its own right. And just to briefly discuss the point of the part around her eyes changing color, she might indeed have octocamo grafted into her skin, which could also explain her outfit.
G: Speaking about cleavage, let’s go back for a moment to Sniper Wolf. Remember her outfit? She definitely had a very eye-catching cleavage, and she didn’t have any trouble flaunting it. As a matter of fact I’m sure many had quite a few dirty thoughts on her when they first saw her on screen, yet I’m just as sure that, by when she met her end, those thoughts were pretty much gone, replaced by the feelings of sympathy, respect and grief created by her character progression and solid design as a strong female character.
A: And I believe that’s what truly matters for a female character—her actions, not her outfit. Yeah you’ll notice someone’s flaunted cleavage at first but, just like in the case of Sniper Wolf, the most meaningful aspect was her struggle, her strength, her story and her death. And from what we’ve seen already with Quiet, she looks to be a very strong, positive female character herself. If you see Quiet and immediately judge her solely based on looks and clothes without trying to understand her, then you, my friend, are the sexist one here.
G: One of her most prominent traits is that she can’t speak. Apparently her tongue has been removed. Some took even this as misogynistic. As you said earlier some feel that depriving a female character of her ability to talk turns her into some sort of sex doll that “can’t talk but can moan”. Personally I feel this can’t be more unfair. Speech is not necessary to express oneself, and I feel the handicap actually makes her character more unique and rich.
It’s also a great challenge for the developers, as creating a deep character that can only express herself with gestures and facial expressions is not easy, especially not when we’re talking about texturized polygons. As much as the game looks gorgeous, and facial capture helps, it’s still not live action. Yet they’re embracing this challenge, and I’m impressed by that. How do you feel about it? Can she be a strong, deep and relevant character even without a single spoken line?
A: Of course, like I said before, humans communicate mostly with body language and facial expressions, so Quiet can still be an expressive and deep character without having to speak a single line if she can connect with the audience through her body language and her eyes, like any real human.
Now, since this is a video game and not live action as you’ve pointed out, making her expressive enough to be understood without words is going to be very tricky, but I’m truly pleased about Kojima deciding to go down this route. And I’m especially grateful that he chose a female character for this role—he could have gone the safe route and used a standard “straight white male” (And if he didn’t speak and wore a similarly revealing outfit, no one would unfairly judge him…) but he didn’t. I believe that seeing women in all types of roles, and not just the same boring “pithy action type female”, is the breath of fresh air this industry needs.