As the two ID cards flashed on the screen of my sisters’ old box tv at the beginning of Resident Evil, prompting me to select either burly, tough-guy Chris Redfield, or more timid-looking, “easy-mode” Jill Valentine, I almost always would select Jill. This became a common theme in every zombie-infested, ghost-filled campaign that I would embark on: I would always opt for the female protagonist if possible. I couldn’t grapple with why that was as a young boy, yet it was such a common pattern in each game that I played.
That being said, a small voice echoed in my mind each time that I opted to take the role of these female characters that the optics of it were considered odd. I had traditional gender roles thrust upon me immediately in life as the youngest of four and a student at a Catholic grade school. As I played the multiplayer horror slasher game Hunter: The Reckoning with my brother and sisters on GameCube, I noticed the raised eyebrows when I insisted on playing as Samantha, the “hottie” sword-wielding heroine, as opposed to the two other gun-slinging male alternatives.
My brother was the first to make jokes that I was gay, or that I wished I was actually a girl because I would always play as female characters. It made me feel exposed and embarrassed because it didn’t feel like I was fitting into the role that was expected of me. At the time, I was convinced that not wanting to “be a man” meant that something was wrong with me, yet I knew that there was something different about me that seemed inherently linked to my masculinity. It felt like I was subconsciously trying to fill some type of void at the time by opting to play as women, but the reactions to that made me feel like I was doing something wrong.
That feeling of being exposed was what led me to explore introspectively what exactly was drawing me to play the role of Jill, and what I was identifying with by playing as she and other female characters. I began to play games with more mature, plot-driven themes, and it made me consider a lot of my own personal preferences and interests in more serious ways. I had an intense fascination with what I consider to be the golden-age of female-driven survival-horror on Playstation 2: Clock Tower 3, Rule of Rose, Fatal Frame, and Haunting Ground.
With these games, there was no element of choice involved in selecting the main character—each one centered around a female protagonist. The protagonists and the gameplay of these titles weren’t centered around hacking, slashing and shooting supernatural creatures in male-driven horror games at the time like Resident Evil 4 and Bioshock. They instead relied on more passive methods of survival, such as evading or hiding from enemies.
By taking the role of the heroines in each of these games, I was finding solace in a world where I could be exactly what real-life was shaming me for and telling me not to be. As I became aware of my homosexuality, I felt the intense pressure to repress any feminine qualities that I possessed to ensure that I didn’t draw any suspicion to myself. But these female narratives provided me with an outlet to have agency over the femininity that I repressed, and to push back against what seemed to constantly be expected of me as a boy.
The patriarchal propaganda that seemed omnipresent in my youth emphasized that women, and notions of femininity, were weak, and to be treated as secondary and subordinate. Girls were to be looked at as needing to be saved and incapable of having power (and by extension, the concept that femininity is inferior to masculinity). As much as I felt pressured to conform to those ideas, something always felt inorganic about it to me. I didn’t buy into the idea of objectifying the women in these games—on the contrary, I identified with them.
When I played as Alyssa in Clock Tower 3, or Fiona is Haunting Ground, I could be exactly what I was unaware that I was repressing. I was actively choosing games where I didn’t have to assume the role of the masculine, alpha male characters, as was expected of me in real-life. I was instead choosing to be these feminine characters that didn’t need guns, brute force and other male-gendered personality traits constantly pushed upon me in real life in order to survive and triumph over the hyper-masculine men that they were up against.
The complexities may not have been clear to me at the time, but they were definitely a guiding beacon that led me to begin questioning the notions of gender and sexuality. At first, it felt like these characters weren’t really for me, that clearly I should be preferring the male heroes, and that something was just wrong with me.
But I started to question exactly why that was. I enjoyed taking the role of Leon and saving Ashley at the end of Resident Evil 4, but how was that really different from Alyssa saving Dennis at the end of Clock Tower 3? Why is one championed more than the other? Because Leon is a stoic, masculine man that used guns most of the game, and Alyssa approached her journey with more tact, using holy water and closets to hide in instead of using physical power to stop her assailants? (Though she does get an epic light-arrow shooting bow for boss fights, but that’s beside the point).
I reached a point of clarity that maybe I didn’t need to be the “tough guy” to win, and it began to spread into my life outside of games as well. I wanted to emulate the bravery of these female characters—bravery that often involved more thoughtful and emotional approaches to their respective stories. Bravery that was so often drilled into my head as being “too soft”, or worse, “too gay.” Over time, the shame that used to be attached to my preference for those characters slowly began to chip away as I became more educated on the structural sexism that exists in my daily life, comfortable with my sexuality, and challenged what I had been taught in my youth.
The unfortunate element to this is that, in retrospect, the way that many of the female characters that I loved were written in exaggerated and misogynistic ways. Fiona is heavily sexualized and objectified in Haunting Ground (see: very obnoxious breast physics), and Alyssa has extremely questionable alternate costumes despite being a 15 year old girl.
In a way, their exaggerated “femininity” was exactly what had drawn me to them when I was still trying to familiarize myself with complex aspects surrounding gender. I can still respect the qualities of those characters that I identified with as a young boy, while also being equipped with the knowledge of how they have also fallen prey to the same notions of toxic masculinity that I did as well.
In my adulthood, I feel liberated from the pressure of being hyper-masculine that I felt shackled by in my youth. Jill, Fiona, Alyssa and every other heroine that I found joy in taking the role of were pivotal in showing me that it’s okay to challenge what is expected of me, that femininity isn’t “less than”, and that there’s power in being comfortable enough to express it. When I play multiplayer games with my brother and sisters now, they don’t question or bat an eye when I choose to play as badass female characters. They’ve watched me grow, and they’ve grown with me, too.