Why Titanfall’s launch trailer made me emotional

This is the launch trailer for the upcoming about-to-be monster hit, Titanfall. It’s pretty typical of its ilk. Lots of sound and fury, bullets flying, bombastic speeches resonating, smoke, fire, quickcutsloudmusic RAWRRR. It’s meant to pump you up and get you amped for the fast-paced gameplay, and it does that quite adequately. It also does something very special that you won’t even notice unless you’re looking for it.

It has women in it.

I don’t mean back on the command ship, offering support as the voice in your ear, little more than a floating head on your HUD. I mean actual pilots, on the ground and in the thick of the fight. It’s ok if you missed them, because there’s nothing much in the trailer to call them out as women. Their slightly smaller physiques and rounder backsides are fully covered in armor, the same as the men, and so it’s easy to overlook their presence as you focus on the giant mechs doing  battle.

I noticed, because I was looking. One of the things I greatly appreciate about Titanfall is its inclusion of female character skins, right from the start. The game is also incredibly fun, well designed, and innovative, but the fact that I get to play a shooter as a woman means a lot to me. I’d play Titanfall even if I couldn’t, of course, because it’s a very fun game, but I can. I can. And not some half-naked woman whose bullshit armor leaves her vital organs exposed so that you can enjoy the flatness of her abs, but a proper soldier, no different than the man at her side.

Some of you undoubtedly don’t get it. Ok, so you can be a chick, who cares? Why is that something to get worked up about? It’s all about the game, after all. And you’re not wrong about that last part – I can’t think of a single game I’ve ever rejected playing simply because there were no female characters. (Though I can think of a few that I haven’t played because the female characters were too sexualized. Soul Calibur IV, I’m looking in your direction.) A game is fun, or not, regardless of the gender of your character. That is absolutely true.

I could talk all day about how important it is to be able to see yourself in your heroes, how roleplay is an innate part of any game, even ones that aren’t considered RPGs, and how constantly being asked to view things through a lens that isn’t yours is a drag, but instead, I’m going to ask you to do an experiment. We’re about to hit Lent, so that’s as good a time period as any for this exercise. During Lent (which ends on April 17th this year), every time you play a video game, try to play as something other than a white male. I’m not asking you to skip playing anything, or to seek out something you wouldn’t normally play. I’m not even asking you to actually play as a character that you wouldn’t normally play as – just try. I just want you to start paying attention to how often you’re able to play as anything other than a white dude. The answer, as Upworthy would say, may surprise you.

I don’t avoid games that have male protagonists any more than I think men avoid games with female protagonists, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that all games must or should have a female avatar available. All I am saying is that every time I have no choice but to play as a guy, I feel pushed back, just a tiny bit. There’s just this little undercurrent of “This isn’t for you. This isn’t about you.  We don’t know you and we don’t think about you. You don’t belong here.” It’s a tiny voice that might not even register if I didn’t play as many videogames as I do, or care about them as much, but over time, it adds up. Over and over and over again. This isn’t about you. This isn’t for you. You don’t belong.

Being able to play Titanfall as a female pilot – a woman of color, no less – is a small detail that means a lot to me. It tells me that I, as a player, matter. That I’m welcome. That I’m invited to play, to get blown to pieces when a rival’s titan goes nuclear, to get jump-kicked in the back, to get sniped by some jackhole camping the Hardpoint, to rodeo the hell out of the other team.

Some will say it’s just a gimmick, a ploy to get positive PR for Titanfall, and hey, maybe it is. I’m ok with that. If your PR maneuver ends up with me, and others like me, feeling like we belong, I’m not exactly going to bitch about it. And just think…what if it isn’t a gimmick? What if Respawn, you know, actually thought it was important? Now wouldn’t that be a thing.

16 thoughts on “Why Titanfall’s launch trailer made me emotional

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  2. When I was contacted to write Unrest, Arvind (the lead dev) sent me the preliminary design doc. It was a summary of the game’s plot and characters. On the first page, I discovered the game was set in fake Ancient India–not fake Western Europe, like every other RPG I’ve played that wasn’t about space (these being two of the only places where a fuckload of white people don’t raise eyebrows). Page two said that two of the four player characters were female. That’s when I decided I was going to take the job.

    There’s nothing more infuriating than some insecure shitwizard throwing a tantrum because someone DARED to request something besides more white straight guys as our playable avatars. Not only because five seconds of listening to the rationale behind those requests, and another five seconds of critical thinking and basic empathy, should demonstrate how reasonable and sympathetic the requests are. Not only because, assuming their pleas of “it doesn’t matter what your character looks like” are true, they have zero non-hypocritical grounds to complain. It’s because their position represents the ultimate failure of perspective. There’s nothing “normal” about having white dudes as the leads in all of your vidjagames. It is CRAZY weird, and the arguments used to defend it reek of unselfcritical internal inconsistency and slapdash research.

    “Why should you be able to play a woman? There were no female mercenaries in the sixties!” There were also no robot mercenaries, no fabled Australian magic alloys, and no bomb tracks to nowhere. But we can stand on the “no women” thing, because that’s not the one we’re used to hand waving.

    “There’s no reason you should be able to play a woman in this military shooter, because female soldiers aren’t *real* soldiers. When they go through basic training…” …and are held to the same standards as male marines, they usually do just fine, according to drill instructors from the camp where they actually bothered trying it out. It turns out that while the average woman isn’t as physically strong and fast as the average man, neither the average man NOR the average woman is up to army or marine standards. Military fitness levels are something everyone has to work to attain–fucking OBVIOUSLY. But all those real life accounts of female soldiers dragging their buddies to cover, remaining calm and functional even after sustaining traumatic injuries, and performing to exceptional degrees all the duties required of soldiers–that stuff doesn’t matter, because we’re not used to acknowledging it.

    Oh–and while I have your attention, xXDickShwayson69Xx, you might want to sit down in your beanbag chair because this next trip is gonna blow your mind: real soldiers can’t sprint as fast as a motorcycle, kill a guy a mile away with a knife thrown over a parking garage, and then 360 noscope a jeep to make it explode. All of that is a fiction created to make you feel cool and powerful. But we’re more used to that fiction than we are to the reality of female soldiers.

    There’s another part to all of this as well–one that I try not to gripe about too hard. It’s that once you’ve had the luxury of always, ALWAYS playing someone who looks like yourself… I have to say, there’s a real freedom in being able to play as something else.

    I’m a white, cisgender, middle-class-origins straight guy. Nothing *I* feel constitutes one of the top ten reasons we need more diversity in gaming. But having said that, I am getting personally sick of having to inhabit the same avatar-suit over and over again, and I have the modicum of common understanding to realize how it must suck for people who don’t even fit that suit.

    Which is to say, about 93% of the global population. And the scariest thing is how easy it can be to forget that.

    • Wow. Thank you for that incredible response. This, in particular:

      “real soldiers can’t sprint as fast as a motorcycle, kill a guy a mile away with a knife thrown over a parking garage, and then 360 noscope a jeep to make it explode. All of that is a fiction created to make you feel cool and powerful. But we’re more used to that fiction than we are to the reality of female soldiers.”

      Really breaks it all down beautifully. Thank you again.

  3. “What if Respawn, you know, actually thought it was important? Now wouldn’t that be a thing.”

    Actually, I kind of hope Respawn didn’t think it important. That they didn’t think of it at all, and just included female pilots because, well, why the hell wouldn’t you?

    • Having had a tiny bit of experience in a vaguely similar industry (film and tv), I assume they must’ve thought about it. That’s fine, though, isn’t it? As long as they’re making the right decision, I don’t mind whether they make it consciously or subconsciously.

      @ Susan Arendt: Thanks for a very interesting post. Being vocal about this kind of thing helps take the blinders off, hopefully.

      • Coming from a development standpoint, it’s absolutely a thought at some point – whether that thought manifests as a “Back of box bullet point” or just an internal goal that the team hopes to fulfill – because it’s far more than just having a character artist put together a new sculpt / geometry. Obviously, there are distinct physiological differences between men and women, and they manifest all the way down through even the most basic core movements. Adding female characters – PLAYABLE! ones at that, in a game where others are free to spectate your every move – can easily double your animations.

  4. Since I played Mass Effect, I always try to use a female character in any game when possible. I think it makes the story much more interesting. For example, Saints Row 3 is much more awesome with a female Gang Leader. She even has a hot girlfriend😉

  5. I helped implement this feature in Titanfall. I don’t remember it being a particularly controversial idea, but it almost didn’t happen. The character model was ready, but as we got closer to demo’ing the game at Gamescom last year, she was not yet implemented in the game. Bruce Ferriz, one of our animators, was putting what time he could spare into animating her, but he was also overloaded with higher priority tasks like the Titan melee execution sequence and pilot/titan rodeo.

    We realized that if we didn’t have her playable by Gamescom then it probably wasn’t going to happen, so we made the extra push and thanks to a lot of work and late nights from a lot of departments, it actually made it into the game.

    Glad we did!

  6. I did notice, and I thought it was nice the way it was understated. Like, “of course there would be women soldiers”. Somebody put a lot of time making that female running animation subtle yet distinct. Kudos to them, and to you for this article.

  7. Anyone that would make the claim that Respawn is “just doing it for the PR” has a couple serious problems:

    1. PR means “public relations.” If they’re changing aspects of their game to better *relate* to their *public*, how is that a bad thing? It means that, unlike many other developers, they’re taking the stance that women are part of the public, as it relates to gaming.

    2. While it is entirely possible for someone to “do the right thing for the wrong reason,” I reject that assessment from a camp in which they aren’t willing to do the right thing at all — particularly when they claim to be able to spot the “right” and “wrong” reasons.

  8. You touched on this, but what I think is most important is that I watched the trailer only after you said “there are women in it”, specifically looking for the women, and couldn’t tell that there were women. I trust that there are, but, in what might be a first in video games, there was no effort whatsoever put in to drawing my attention to the fact that there were women.

    The presentation of women as a matter-of-fact, as a completely normal and ordinary presence, is perhaps even more significant than their presence in the first place – and it’s one I, for one, welcome, because I’m frankly tired of being pandered to (it doesn’t work very well.)

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