Exploring the uncharted territory of the gay videogame experience. Here, I explore the female/LGBT presence in videogame culture, media and industry.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Double Dare Part 1

Halo: ODST is Bungie Studio’s fifth title in the Halo franchise, and arguably, its most disappointing. Hardcore fans complained of the radical delineation from the usual style of game play and storytelling (given what little story telling there is in the games). Fans may have felt angry and alienated, but this divergence from the norm brought about something that is as exciting as it is frustrating.

Captain Veronica Dare: UNSC Navy and ONI Intelligence officer, Section One.

Saying the name aloud conjures feelings of respect and valor; the name implies power, fortitude, masculinity. The name was meant to convey that Cpt. Dare is, to put it brusquely, a badass. At least, that is what Bungie had hoped players would see her as. Instead, they created a character of many contradictions, prone to wild mood swings and who possesses a prodigious susceptibility to the Princess Syndrome mental disorder that seems to plague so many female game characters. Though, she doesn’t start out that way.

Cpt. Dare establishes her authority very early in the game. First, she threatens to have a Communications Duty officer fired when he does not follow her orders to re-activate the Superintendent (the New Mombasa data storage core). It is not known what rank the CDO held, but it is clear that Dare felt either being a Naval Captain alone, her ONI Section One clearance or both would be enough to see her orders carried through; either by respectful deference or intimidation. Unfortunately for Dare, her rank and clearance only garner a rather rude ending to her radio call; the CDO hangs up on her.

This doesn’t deter Dare in the least; she takes what she needs anyway. Chiefly, command of a small ODST unit. However, she assumes command in a flurry of theatrics. Dare strides aboard the launch ship, confronts and humiliates the commanding officer, leaving the rest of the squad in a state of confusion about who exactly is in command. That is, until she begins barking orders. When the squad questions the change, she becomes cold, offering no explanation, only stating that “orders are orders.”

She never lets the ODST squad forget that she is an ONI Section One officer. Her rank was her greatest weapon in gaining control, and it continues to be her preferred way of maintain that control. For Dare, what she cannot have by achievement, she tries to gain by force. When force fails, she resorts to base intimidation.

Bungie tried to present Cpt. Dare as a rough and tumble, all work and no play kind of soldier, but her behavior throughout the first few minutes of the game paints her as a bit of a bully. She is trying entirely too hard to prove to herself, and the world, that she can do just as well as, or better than, the men she serves with. Instead of being “just one of the guys,” Dare turned out to be an aggressive thug, hiding her insecurities deep beneath a stony exterior.

But not as deep as she would have you believe.

Minutes after assuming command, Dare and her ODST squad launch their drop pods and descend towards the city of New Mombasa. During the drop, the Covenant forces fire a powerful EMP weapon, knocking out the pods’ navigation and flight controls. The team gets scattered across the city and must fight toward a rally point, and then move in on the Superintendent. Cpt. Dare becomes stuck in her drop pod and panics, radioing Gunner Sergeant Edward Buck for help; she practically begs him to come and rescue her.

She held command of the ODST squad for approximately ten minutes before her gruff façade shattered. The second she realized the door of her drop pod was jammed, she changed from hard, confident leader to scared, helpless victim. She does not take the time to think the situation through, or even try very hard to free herself. Instead of taking a breath and assessing the situation, Dare sends out a desperate plea for help; it is here that players become vaguely aware that Dare and Buck had been romantically involved at some point.

Gunnery Sergeant Buck was not the closest squad member to her position. Why did she choose him as her rescuer? Was it because of old feelings she still harbored for him? Or was it because she had usurped power from him mere minutes before hand? Perhaps a mix of both, but one gets the sense that it was more love tan a renege on command.

Dare falls back on the old formula that haunts female characters; woman gets into trouble, man hears of her distress, man sets out to save her, man rescues her, they live happily ever after. At least, until the woman gets herself into another spot of trouble. Halo: ODST was released twenty-three years after Super Mario Brothers, yet it made no notable progress in regards to female characters. The contradictory nature of Cpt. Dare’s character betrays the Bungie development teams complete lack of understanding of women and their utter confusion about what to do with one in a combat situation. It seems as though they could not decide if they wanted her to be a stubborn, hard headed bully or a weak, simpering vixen; so, they tried to strike a balance by throwing these extremes together in one body. But the balance was not to be had. Instead, they created an abysmal caricature of women; a personality that dances the razor’s edge between good-humored parody and cruel mockery.

By the time Gunnery Sergeant Buck reaches Dare’s drop pod, she has freed herself. The pod stands open and empty in the battle-torn courtyard. Buck assumes she has been killed when he comes upon her abandoned helmet. This assumption does not ignite a righteous fury in Buck as it would likely do if Dare were a man. There is no need to avenge her “death,” only a calm acceptance. In their book, Madwoman in the Attic, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar discuss the idea of the Victorian “angel-woman.” They describe the most desirable trait in a woman as being completely selfless, and that death is the ultimate act of selflessness; “For to be selfless is not only to be noble, it is to be dead” (Gilbert and Gubar 817). A dead woman forces neither burden of worry or care upon her male compatriots, nor fear for her safety because of her perceived weakness. Dare’s “death” enables Buck and the rest of the ODST squad to carry out their mission without any of these concerns, even though she is their commanding officer. It is revealed, however, that Dare has fought her way to Sub-level Nine of the Superintendent; with the help of Rookie, she manages to extract the information she needed to carry out her mission.

Throughout Dare’s limited screen time in the game, she struggles with her dual role as leader and lover. The two roles grapple for the spot of primary identification. This back-and-forth game of power is best illustrated when Dare and Rookie are re-united with the squad. IN the elevator, Dare punches Buck, angry with him for abandoning the mission in order to look for her; even though she radioed him, telling him to come save her. This goes back to the notion of the angel-woman. Yes, she called out to him for help, but in all actuality, Buck was never supposed to come to her rescue, Dare expected him to let her die; a sacrifice for the greater good. She still rewards him with a kiss for coming to her rescue. By rights, that kiss should go to Rookie since he was the one that found her and helped her reach the data core.

Seconds after kissing Buck in front of the rest of the ODST squad, Dare suddenly remembers that she is supposed to act like a commanding officer. She reprimands Buck for his failure to mention the Covenant armada en route to New Mombasa. He argues with her, saying that he was more worried about getting to Vergil, the A.I. construct that runs the Superintendent. Buck’s choice to start an argument rather than apologize and offer the information he has on the armada quickly changes Dare’s rebuke into a lover’s spat. Instead of putting Buck in his place for arguing, Dare succumbs to her Princess Syndrome once more and confesses her fear of never seeing him again. In less than five minutes, Dare’s personality changes four times. This sort of identity crisis does not bode well for Dare. How can the other soldiers in the squad respect her enough to follow her into battle if she can’t manage to keep her personal and professional lives separate?

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