Image courtesy of Forrestal_PL via Flickr.
This past summer, mostly as a result of boredom from spending four months in the middle of the boonies, I became obsessed with the video game Dead Space 2. There are many things that I love about it – the suspense, the storyline, the dialogue, the pants-wetting terror. But my favourite thing about Dead Space 2 is Ellie, one of the best female characters I’ve ever seen in a video game.
The basic plot of Dead Space 2 is this: you play as Isaac Clarke, an engineer who battles zombie aliens (known as necromorphs) in order to escape from a space station known as the Sprawl. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the gist of the game. Throughout the course of Isaac’s journey, he comes into contact with Ellie, another resident of the Sprawl trying to survive. They team up (along with a less than sane man named Stross) to escape. My reaction to Ellie was immediately and viscerally positive, and at first I couldn’t really articulate why. But when I really thought about it, here’s what I came up with:
1. Ellie dresses for her profession.
Ellie’s a heavy equipment pilot, which is already pretty awesome. But what makes her better is she actually looks like someone who works around heavy equipment. She wears a tank top, cargo pants, and boots. It doesn’t seem very revolutionary, but consider her contemporaries: if you were going around raiding tombs, would you wear a belly-baring tank top and short shorts like Lara Croft? Or if you were cutting up zombies with a chainsaw, would you choose to wear an ultra-short skirt and crop top like Juliet from Lollipop Chainsaw? As a woman who plays video games, I cannot emphasize enough how refreshing it is to have a female character who dresses appropriately for what she does.
2. Ellie is a kickass woman, but that is not her only character trait.
What I mean by this is, a lot of the time when there are badass women in video games (and movies, and TV shows) this is their whole characterization. They don’t have backstories, they don’t have complexity; they are one-dimensional, fetishized “strong women.” When Isaac first meets Ellie, she is busy killing necromorphs from behind a security fence, surrounded by mounds of dead necros and the bodies of her comrades. She’s obviously a tough lady, but through the course of the game, Ellie also shows vulnerability, determination, and loyalty – traits that make her an actual, well-rounded character.
3. Ellie can survive by herself without the help of Isaac.
Ellie spends most of the game herding Stross through the Sprawl while Isaac goes off to do his own thing. This means she protects herself and an unstable man from the necros while giving Isaac crucial assistance, like unlocking doors and providing him with routes to where he’s supposed to go. She’s already seen most of her friends die before she even met Isaac, and yet she’s still strong and capable and does what needs to be done in order to make it out of the Sprawl alive.
4. Ellie has an average body type.
Look, I’m just going to say it: she doesn’t have breasts so big that they’re in danger of suffocating her. I greatly appreciate that some game developers have apparently realized that bust size isn’t the be-all and end-all of femininity.
5. No seriously, she’s really tough.
At one point Isaac sees Stross holding a screwdriver with an eyeball on it. The implication is that Ellie is dead, but she reappears and starts fighting with Stross. Ellie survives and spends the rest of the game with a makeshift eyepatch, and there is no further mention of her missing eye. Years of exposure to women in fiction led me to believe that she was going to die sometime during the game, and I was very surprised when she survived to the end.
6. She is not Isaac’s love interest.
As a voracious consumer of pop culture, my pet peeve with many fictional narratives is the idea that men and women can never just be friends (Oh hi, When Harry Met Sally). So I really like that there is no romantic subtext between the two; they are merely friends who share an emotional bond from the trauma of escaping from a monster-infested space station. You know, the normal basis for a friendship.
7. Ellie saves Isaac, not the other way around.
Ellie is the opposite of a damsel in distress. Every time she has a problem, she solves it herself. The only time that Isaac and Ellie fall into the traditional “hero/damsel” archetype is when Isaac remotely sends her away in an escape pod against her will. At the end of the game, just when Isaac has defeated the boss and is waiting to die on the disintegrating Sprawl, Ellie shows up like a white knight and saves him. Effectively, she takes a situation in which Isaac makes a decision for her and turns it around so she has agency.
The upcoming Dead Space 3 has a co-op mode, but instead of featuring Isaac and Ellie, the second player is another male. I feel like they missed a prime opportunity to give Ellie more screen time and expand her character, but the fact that she – a well-rounded, non-fetishized, intelligent, self-sufficient woman – exists as a video game character at all is a baby step in the right direction. M