Returnal is supposed to be Housemarque’s “most ambitious title yet,” so it’s strange to see how dated its design philosophy is. It’s even more odd to see the people working on it discuss “unconventional” aspects of its makeup, which are so overtly conventional that they’re actually harmful.
Housemarque Games recently published episode 2 of its HouseCast series, which is designed to offer a deep dive into the development of Returnal. For the most part, the conversation is pretty standard, but there’s one moment exactly two minutes into the interview – which is embedded below – in which game director Harry Krueger references the game’s female lead.
“Then we thought OK, maybe an unconventional, maybe female protagonist carrying some kind of trauma,” Krueger says. It’s fairly clear from the tone of the discussion that this isn’t consciously vindictive, but the phrasing still sucks. Firstly, a protagonist isn’t “unconventional” just because they’re a woman. On top of that, using “carrying some kind of trauma” as the single defining trait of what’s supposed to be the most prominent character in the game is, unfortunately, standard fare in the worst way.
The rest of the conversation is pretty innocuous, and mostly pertains to Returnal’s indulgence in psychological horror. Again, it’s pretty clear that Krueger isn’t being malicious – it’s just really shit to see authority figures talking about these things as if they’re some new-age revolution. Calling a protagonist “unconventional” just because she’s a woman adds fuel to the fire of people who reckon Joel from The Last of Us is the best good guy ever, and that every video game protagonist should be exactly like him.
The trauma addendum is fairly damning as well. It seems some game developers automatically look at their women characters and think “needs more trauma” at the best of times, so to see someone admit to this being a core character trait so brazenly is disappointing, regardless of how it was intended.
Maybe Returnal will be great. Maybe this was just a minor slip-up during an interview, and the protagonist will be more nuanced in the full game. Regardless, if Returnal is anything like how it’s been made out to be here, it won’t be “unconventional” or “ambitious” at all – it will just be more of the same, which doesn’t quite cut it in this day and age.
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Cian Maher is the Lead Features Editor at TheGamer. He’s also had work published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Verge, Vice, Wired, and more. You can find him on Twitter @cianmaher0.
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