gaming

Cortana: Gender Devolved (25 Sept. 2015)

For many, the summer’s release of Windows 10 marked a return to form for the venerable series of PC operating systems. It minimized the presence of the much reviled “Metro” styling, restored the Start menu to its former prominence, and made the OS free to anyone who already had either Windows 7 or 8 installed. One software feature, however, cited a return of another kind – Cortana, previously the sarcastic AI companion to the Master Chief in the Halo series of video games, arrived to Windows 10 as its “virtual assistant.” Cortana, like its voice-activated counterpart over at Apple, Siri, is essentially a glorified search engine crossed with a task manager that was then given a computerized (and feminized) voice. In Windows 10 you can just as easily use your search bar to find a file as to find out what kind of music Cortana likes. Which, if you’re wondering, is apparently “emo-hard-core-diva-dubstep.”

While Cortana was making her way back onto screens and into the speakers of Windows 10 early adopters, I was making my own return to the game in which she first made her appearance, Halo: Combat Evolved. I could go on for pages and pages about how much that game meant to me as a 14-year-old kid with his first video game console. Some of my most treasured video game memories come from my original playthroughs of Halo: CE. Often cited as the definitive proof that first person shooters could survive on the console instead of primarily being a PC phenomenon, Halo excelled at creating thrilling set pieces within a rich universe that alternated from beautiful to terrifying to hilarious. These moments, upon my nostalgic return to the game, were as vibrant and dynamic as I remembered them. What I did not account for, however, was the steadying presence that the mostly body-less Cortana provided amidst the bright colors and chaos.

Cortana keeps you oriented in an alien world

As I re-played Halo: CE, it struck me as simultaneously bizarre and fitting that Cortana should re-surface not as a character but as a software feature in the Windows ecosystem. My freshest memories of Cortana were from the latter Halo games, games where the AI character had begun to resemble more conventional narrative tropes of damsels in distress. Correspondingly, those more recent games – Halo 4 in particular – feature a version of Cortana whose holographic body appeared more solid, more curvy, and more physically present than previous iterations.

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Cortana’s body in Halo: CE and Halo 4

Contrast this to Cortana of Halo: CE, who for the vast majority of the game lives in the circuits of Master Chief’s cybernetic armor. Cortana makes her presence known primarily as a voice, speaking directly to Master Chief (and players) by way of their cybernetic link, only taking on a holographic form of her own when she needs to be plugged into a computer terminal of some kind. In many ways, Cortana feels unique among women characters in video games precisely because of her shifting embodiment. She is an AI, of course, but compared to the stolid, green armored figure of Master Chief, her running commentary on players’ adventures feels incredibly human. When she does appear in holographic form, Cortana’s visual design seems only to remind players of her un-corporeality: she is translucent at best, streams of data move up and down her “skin,” and often she is miniature. Her mode of embodiment for the majority of the game is to literally share the skin of Master Chief, and when she takes on other forms it is in ways that visually mark her as unavailable to the most common vectors for the male gaze. In other words, Cortana is a character whose primary mode of relation to players is via conversation, not as a sidekick, a woman to be rescued, or an object of desire, but as a military asset, equal in value to the player-controlled Master Chief and perhaps even exceeding in many ways his own humanity. Master Chief and Cortana then are two cyborgs, paired on behalf of humankind to stand against the alien threat.

It’s this feeling of human relationship and partnership in a shared task that I think made Cortana so endearing to me when I first played Halo: CE and when I picked it up again almost 15 years later. It’s also why later iterations of Cortana as a sort of sexy cyborg who, due to the nature of her AI mind, is deteriorating rapidly and dangerously into madness, never connected with me.

Don’t make a girl a promise you can’t keep.

Some called the newer versions of Cortana more “humanizing,” I can see why they might feel that way. Her newer forms do have a heavier sense of corporeality and the introduction of a kind of AI mental illness and mortality certainly give Cortana some challenges to face that feel very human in nature. However, as Cortana’s mode of embodiment became more solid it also became more chained to regressive modes of visual representation that require women to be sexually desirable to the male eye. It seems hardly accidental to me that these changes in visual design accompany a narrative drift away from pairing Master Chief and Cortana as co-warriors in the fight against the Covenant and toward a rather hetero-erotic repetition of male rescue narratives and female hysteria. As you might expect with these developments, by the end of Halo 4, Cortana’s self-sacrifice for Master Chief is the only path to narrative resolution.

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Master Chief’s sad face as Cortana sacrifices herself. 

This is why it was so pleasantly surprising to find Cortana once again greeting me as an unseen voice from a screen via Windows 10. Perhaps inadvertently, Microsoft had found a way to restore a more human and companionable iteration of the character that broke off the slide she had experienced in the games toward token eye candy. What I found instead was nothing more than the bare skeleton of the character I once loved spending time with, a disembodied voice whose wit and snark had disappeared into haze of sycophantic supplication. The Cortana of Windows 10 is no AI. Much like Cortana’s favorite music, the humanity to be found here is just a mish mash of focus tested jokes and aphorisms.

On the one hand, my disappointment here is probably a little silly. Of course the Cortana of Windows 10 was always going to be a shallow competitor to Siri, not a return to form of one of my favorite video game characters. Instead of restoring the character to a position of equality, the Windows 10 iteration removes her humanity entirely, forcing her to occupy a position of absolute servitude. On the other hand, in Windows 10 and Halo 4 we have the exemplary poles of possibility for female representation in video games. She must either be the subservient, disembodied afterthought or the erotic, fully female and fully psychotic damsel in distress. To think on the strange, iterative life of Cortana across platforms and narratives is to encounter the narrow silos into which women are often shuffled according to patriarchal modes of appropriate embodiment.

Curiously, the Windows 10 Cortana has not yet made it to the Xbox One platform, though I’m sure eventually it will. I wonder what the Halo: CE Cortana will think of her arrival.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.

Part 2: Critical Witching (11 Sept. 2015)

We started talking last week about CD Projekt RED’s enormous, dark fantasy role playing game, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. I promised we’d try to salvage something useful out of the kerfuffle over Polygon’s “pompous,” gender-concerned review, something that might highlight some deficiencies in the way we think about games as representational works and, in turn, might also provide a way to navigate the difficult terrain between (still rare) progressive-ish critiques of gender in the popular gaming press and reactionary, masculinist responses from the fans. Before we dig in, let’s make one thing clear: the object here is neither to “rescue” The Witcher 3 from either liberal critique or dubious fandom, nor is it to validate the defensive position of some anti-feminist gamers. Rather, I take that defensive posture toward political criticism of The Witcher 3 (or really any other favored game) as an occasion to rethink what it means to intersect with sex and gender within the social fiction of a game. Pointing out that the women characters wear skimpy clothes or that the main characters represent a raging male power fantasy is simply no longer a sufficient observation to account for the complex sexual politics often at work in these games – and it really hasn’t been for a long time.

So let’s get to it then.

In The Witcher 3, players take on the role of Geralt of Rivia, the eponymous witcher, a sort of professional monster hit man who roams the Northern Kingdoms slaying all manner of mythological creatures for money. As a witcher, Geralt is endowed with a number of special characteristics that both aid him in his pursuits and set him apart as a social pariah. Witchers all undergo a mutation process early in their lives that grants them superhuman strength, long life, heightened senses, and a remarkable resilience to poisons. This mutation also marks them physically, giving them slit, yellow cat-like eyes which, for better or worse, makes them instantly recognizable to the rest of the Northern Kingdoms’ citizens. Witchers occupy a weird, liminal position in their world. The many citizens of the Northern Kingdoms depend on witchers to protect them against a wildly dangerous world full of succubi, werewolves, ghosts, and far, far worse. However those same citizens regard witchers with enormous suspicion, seeing in them some of the monstrosity that they pay witchers to protect them from. Witchers seem to be predominantly male and have a reputation for being quite randy, a fact that is often alluded to in the series’ many jokes about their trademark sterility. Crucially, witchers also maintain a level of neutrality in their political surroundings.

Geralt Tassels

The Tassles are not part of that political neutrality.

The sorceresses of the Northern Kingdoms run socially parallel to the witchers. These loosely associated women wield incredible magical power and often serve as advisers to kings and nobles, ensuring that they occupy a central place in their world’s politics and cultural imagination. Though powerful, The Witcher 3 sees the sorceresses in a dangerous position, on the run from a new kingly edict proclaiming that all “freaks” should be captured, tortured, and burned. Here The Witcher 3 draws explicitly on the long history of persecuting socially (and sexually) powerful women as outsiders whose very existence threatens established patriarchal rule.

The tumultuous human civilization of The Witcher 3 wholly depends upon the careful management of the disruptive energies manifested by figures like witchers, sorceresses, monsters, non-humans, and other nasties that refuse to play nice with the Northern Kingdom’s competing expansionist agendas. Paradoxically, the people of the Northern Kingdoms depend on their witchers and sorceresses to keep monstrous threats at bay. This is what constitutes their liminal position: they are both the guarantors against social disintegration and the reminders that no such guarantee is even possible. The kingdoms of The Witcher 3 can neither live with their sorceresses and witchers, nor can they live without them.

They are, in other words, sort of queer. Their relative queerness is legible by the light of The Witcher 3’s iconic consolidation of dysfunctional, fractious powers (the ruined country of Novigrad, the bloody Chapel of the Eternal Flame, the prejudiced and violent Redanian army, etc.) into flawed and often abusive male figureheads (The Redanian king, for instance). By reading both the witchers and the sorceresses as dangerous yet necessary outsiders to these male-driven political economies it becomes possible to read the apparently gratuitous costumes that Keira Metz and Tris Merigold sometimes wear as something in excess of simple, hetero-masculinist voyeurism. Likewise, and more specifically to the point of this post, it re-works the player’s role as Geralt of Rivia into the unique position of a man who is simultaneously the beneficiary of and counterpoint to patriarchal rule. This positioning is the key to a more complex reading of The Witcher 3’s gender politics.

And now, finally, we can turn to the Bloody Baron.

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Finally.

Philip Strenger, aka, the Bloody Baron, holds power in Velen, a swampy expanse of a land full of peasants, monsters, and old, old magic. He is both a grizzled veteran of several wars and a tired old man who has now switched allegiances in order to secure for himself a more or less comfortable retirement in the ruling seat of Crow’s Perch, a rather large and somewhat dingy village in the north. Players encounter him when Geralt follows up on a rumor that Ciri was spotted in the streets of Crow’s Perch. Often drunk and with a reputation for violence, it’s a surprise to Geralt (and to me as I played) that the old warlord treats the witcher with respect and congeniality. Geralt and the Baron hit it off splendidly in fact, seeming to understand each other immediately as professionals, men of both action and simplicity. Almost immediately, Geralt and Strenger settle in for a quick, friendly game of Gwent.

Of course, as you might expect from a role playing game, the Baron asks Geralt a favor before he discloses anything about Ciri’s whereabouts. The Baron’s wife and daughter have disappeared and he needs Geralt to put his tracking skills to work. The Baron seems at first totally ignorant as to the cause of his family’s disappearance, but player’s soon find signs of an abusive relationship as they discover evidence of a drunken brawl in the Baron’s bedchambers, including holes in the wall that had been hastily covered up. As players investigate further it becomes clear that Mr. Strenger was indeed physically abusive to his wife and emotionally abusive to his daughter, so much so that his wife apparently sought out the aid of a local shaman in the form of a protection amulet. Though players have a variety of dialogue options to choose from whenever Geralt interacts with other characters, all of the available choices when confronting the Baron suggest some degree of anger and disappointment in his behavior, as players suddenly find themselves sitting in a seat of judgment. When it turns out that the Baron’s wife was pregnant and it seems as though the last beating caused her to miscarry, the Baron hits his lowest point.

From here it seems like the story will play out tragically, but conventionally. The Baron solicits the witcher’s sympathy by pleading that he is indeed a changed man, Geralt would then finally track down the broken man’s family down leading to their eventual restoration, and a flawed man finds redemption in the restoration of the ideal family. So far, so patriarchal. Things, however, do not follow such an easy script.

The Bloody Baron does indeed plead his transformation, but should players reject that plea (as, it is crucial to note, they are merely given the option to do), the Baron turns combative, arguing that Geralt has no idea what it’s like to be married, what it is like to have a wife who nags, or what it’s like to manage a family. Then, when it becomes clear that the protective amulet Strenger’s wife procured was because, in a desperate refusal to have another child by the Bloody Baron, she had sought out an abortion from three mysterious, ancient witches.

witches of crookbackbog

These women deserve their own series of posts.

In return, the witches sapped all the poor woman’s strength and placed her under magical bondage that the amulet kept at bay. Sympathetic to the woman’s plight, Geralt here finds himself in a familiar position: filled with disdain for the abusive men that constantly find their way to power, and yet dependent on them for his own goals. And so, Geralt keeps on in his liminal position, finding at best a sense of distant pity for the Bloody Baron in place of the camaraderie that was there before. And players, sutured as they are to Geralt as their avatar, are likewise placed in a position of critical exteriority to the male-dominated networks of power that underpin human civilization in the Northern Kingdoms.

You might think, “sure that’s all well and good, but isn’t The Witcher 3 mostly about killing nasty things with swords?” And you’d be right. Which is why the most remarkable thing about The Witcher 3’s episode with the Bloody Baron is the way Geralt’s social positioning and his professional skills come together to articulate the game’s clearest critique of an abusive, power hungry patriarchy. As I said at the top of the post, Geralt, like all witchers, is a professional – and his profession is monster slaying. The rich fantasy setting of The Witcher 3 allows for the traumatic fruit of the Bloody Baron’s dominance to achieve literal monstrosity, the likes of which Geralt can address head on. And in this case, the sins of the Baron return to him in the form of a Botchling.

Botchlings are the horrifying result of an unwanted infant having died without being given a “proper” burial or name. They return in the form of mutilated fetuses who prey on the strength of sleeping mothers. They are the vengeful detritus of the failed family. And as it turns out, one of them haunts the Baron. It of course falls to Geralt, and the player, to exorcise this particularly nasty reminder of Strenger’s effect on his family. This scenario can end in one of two ways: with a really difficult fight against the monstrously transformed botchling or with a drawn out, emotionally draining ritual that transforms the botchling into a lubberkin, a kind of guardian spirit who watches over the household. In the former scenario, Geralt is once again relegated to the role of the necessary but disavowed monster who manages the disruptive energies of a world run by mad men. In the latter, however, Geralt forces the Bloody Baron to intimately come to terms with the suffering he has caused and even displaces him from the position of protectorate of the house, replacing him with the lubberkin, a constant reminder of the Baron’s own destructive life. The Baron must pick up, hold, embrace, name, and bury the botchling over the course of a harrowing night while Geralt ensures every step is taken perfectly. This video depicts the opening steps of the scene:

Though Geralt goes on to discover the whereabouts and well-being of the rest of the Strenger family, this is the pivotal moment where players are most explicitly positioned agents of confrontation and transformation in this “oppressively misogynist” world. Rather than seeking an end to the Bloody Baron’s violence that results in his restoration as patriarch of a happy home, The Witcher 3 gives players one of two rather different outcomes. Either Geralt begrudgingly sweeps misogynist violence under the rug, allowing the Baron to stew in further resolute bitterness, or, he enforces from his liminal position a reckoning between patriarch and patriarchal trauma.

We definitely got into the weeds here, I know, but if you’ve stuck through I’m hoping that I’ve shown a little bit of how we might re-conceive our accounting of gender, misogyny, violence, and sexuality in video games. I mentioned before that criticizing the sexualized portrayals of women or the lack of any non-heteronormative protagonists are no longer enough. I do believe these things are still necessary. As it should be clear to anyone who played The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, my analysis on this one small episode leaves a host of other vexed sex and gender representations unexamined. At every point however, and especially in the case of the Bloody Baron, The Witcher 3 insists that its players retain a critical eye toward its misogynist world. Without that distance, Geralt could simply not be The Witcher that his world needs.


Jordan Wood is a Ph.D student in the Syracuse University English department where he studies games, sexuality, and queer theory. He lives with two cats and is terrible at side scrolling games. Go Bills.