The first video game that really spoke to me (despite its lack of voice acting) was Final Fantasy VII. At that tender age (I couldn't have been more than eight) there was something about Cloud Strife I could not easily ignore, mainly the fact that he looked a little like me. With his stylised and bright blue eyes combined with his blonde hair, slight physique and purplish uniform, Cloud was a character you may have had to have an initial double-take with. Cloud was not the typical hero - his effeminate appearance was far removed from his contemporaries in Hollywood cinema. In 1997 (the year Final Fantasy VII was released) the film world met its audiences with The Fifth Element, Airforce One, Donnie Brasco and Tomorrow Never Dies; films about manly men doing what men do because they are men... What was so wonderful about Cloud Strife is he could do everything these more typically masculine characters could do and perhaps even do them better; the sweeping story line of the game has an against-all-odds feel to it, saving the world from destruction while battling personal issues. What's even more interesting is that there are more traditionally masculine characters within the playable party, such as Cid and Barret, and Cloud, in spite of what could be viewed as a beta-male status, is portrayed as their leader, gaining respect even from these physically stronger men. This is a theme that carried on through the series in Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy IX and Final Fantasy X, with Squall, Zidane (arguably the most androgynous of them all) and Tidus respectively. Final Fantasy XII, however, could have marked a changing point with Vaan. The androgynous street urchin, while the main character, is something of a minor position with the group, leadership falling mainly to Basche, Balthier and Lady Ashe. Whether this change is indicative of an ongoing trend in video games is something we'll discuss a little later on.
A new millennium brought a new generation of console and, with it, more androgynous heroes. In Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty gamers were treated to the advent of Raiden, in stark contrast to the first game's hero Solid Snake. Where as Snake was typically masculine with his toned muscle, dark features and gruff way of speaking, Raiden was slight, blonde and well spoken. Although his androgyny is often used to comic effect (the President having to check he is, in fact, being rescued by a man) adds to the player's empathy with Raiden and, at least in my case, alienated the player from the characters "offending" him (the fact remains the President is in the hands of whoever comes to rescue him and, his assumption that he will be rescued by, essentially, muscles in a uniform, is a form of sexism, suggesting only men who fit the gender stereotypes of society are worthy of his presence. This makes the President a kind of mini-antagonist to any liberal-minded player). Later in the game we see Raiden and Snake working together, proving, time and again, that Raiden is every bit as capable as Snake at the grunt work. As the series progresses, we slowly see Raiden lose his androgyny as his body is augmented with more and more robotic parts. Thankfully, the game makers use this as a platform to explore what it means to be human, but is the another piece of evidence for a changing trend? Again, a discussion point for later.
Interestingly, both of these series feature examples of cross-dressing. In Final Fantasy VII Cloud is tasked with saving his childhood friend Tifa from the lecherous Don Corneo, but the only way to do this, as Aerith gleefully explains, is for Cloud to disguise himself as a woman. This becomes a kind of mini-game, with the player having to find certain garments for Cloud to wear. The more of these that Cloud finds the more successful the mission is deemed and, upon realising just what it is he must do, he does so wonderfully uncomplainingly. Even more interesting is that the player is rewarded the more enthusiastically they approach this scene, with additional content (in the form of cutscenes) for acquiring more of the garments, suggesting an open-minded view to the concept. Similarly, in Metal Gear Solid, Meryl dresses as a male soldier in order to move around the base undetected. Furthermore she is commended for this decision by the practically minded Snake, who never once questions her choice. While in both of these examples cross-dressing is used in necessity rather than in terms of identity, they certainly show a willingness to play with the constraints of binary gender.
Strangely, androgyny in female video games characters isn't quite as prevalent. After typing 'Androgynous Video Game Characters' in an internet search I was met with pages of lists with very few female characters on there and the ones who were listed were from obscure titles I had no knowledge of. This could be viewed in different lights. The first is that women are being misrepresented within the medium and that they're viewed only of worth in terms of femininity. The second is that the medium itself is feminised, or, at least, has no wish to be distinctly male. Personally, I feel there are strong arguments to be made for both cases. The treatment of women in society is, frankly, appalling and a lot of ground needs to be made before we have equality; there are good examples of representation in video games, but there are also some truly heinous ones (though this is true in all mediums). Yet, it could be possible that the 'feminisation' or at least 'demasculisation', of video games come from the medium's original appeal to the 'social outcast'. When video games were a solo activity or something you enjoyed in the company of a few close friends, it could be seen as a haven from the high-school bully, the alpha-male archetype picking on the physically weaker kids, possibly girls, but definitely less-masculine boys.
I say 'when video games were a solo activity' because, of course, they aren't completely anymore. With the internet and third generation consoles came the ability to play with and against others online. Naturally, this lent itself to sports games and first person shooters, games that were unconcerned with characters or huge amounts of plot, instead focusing on gameplay and adrenaline. These games also had appeal to casual gamers and people who had not played video games before, with their simplicity and accessibility. These attracted a more typically male and mainstream audience as can be seen in the rise of popularity of video games, its growing acceptance into the mainstream culture and the types of games that are selling the most units (Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty appear constantly on best-seller lists). perhaps this is the reason for the loss of androgyny in this decade; the audience became more masculine, so the characters had to reflect its audience. When we compare the androgynous Link from the Legend of Zelda series (first appearing in 1986) with the heavily muscled figures in the Gears of War franchise (first released in 2007) and the re-masculinity of the Metal Gear Solid series, with the return of Snake as the main protagonist in Metal Gear Solid 4; Guns of the Patriots (2008), Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (2010) and the loss of Raiden's androgyny in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (2013), it certainly seems to be a trend and the change in audience as the medium moved into the mainstream is bound to have had an affect. Gamer developers are going to target the biggest market possible, which may result in some fans losing parts of their sanctuary.
This new audience is the same that most films are aimed at and androgyny is not a major theme, to the point of any change being challenged by audiences. In the James Bond reboot Casino Royale (2006), Daniel Craig was chosen as the lead, much to the horror of die hard fans. Oddly, the major issue was the fact that Craig is blonde, when blonde hair is usually saved for the pretty boys of cinema (Orlando Bloom as Legolas, Heath Ledger (Joke Aside), Jude Law in everything). The idea of giving the ultra-masculine James Bond blonde hair (James Blonde, anyone?) was abhorrent to many cinema fans, showing a certain closed mindedness. Then Casino Royale was an outstanding success (blonde hair proving no obstacle to 007's suit-wearing, sex-having and evil-plot-spoiling abilities) and Craig's position as Bond was cemented, but only then. Conversely, Sebastian Stan's portrayal of Bucky Barnes in Captain America: the Winter Soldier has made significant noise on all social media platforms (I quote, and I believe this is verbatim, "BUCKY BUCKY BUCKY BUCKY BUCKY..."), his androgynous appearance proving a firm favourite with fans. Yet, whether this leads to more we shall have to see.
Although there seems to be a drop of androgynous male characters, there does seem to be a larger number of female heroes than ever. Final Fantasy XIII (2010) saw the creation of Lightning, the first female main character in a leading role in the main series since Terra in Final Fantasy VI (1994). With the release of the sequel Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns imminent and another sequel Final Fantasy XIII-2 (2012) in which the player takes control of Lightning's sister Serah, we see the trend continuing. In 2013 we saw the Tomb Raider reboot, bringing Lara Croft to the fore front of the gaming world once again. This growing trend could be indicative of a growing need for the feminisation of the medium, a backlash against the overtly male (and arguably misogynistic) mainstream titles such as Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty, that these female characters seem to have replaced the androgynous males may not be a step backwards.
So, despite the rich history of androgynous heroes in video games, it seems to be simply a history. Video games and their heroes seem to have changed in order to widen their audience, showing different kinds of heroes to attract females and more typically masculine males. Inclusion is important and, who knows, maybe this is an important step in bringing the gaming community closer together, it's just a shame for those in between the two poles there seems to be less and less representation, or at least as the main protagonist.
Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.