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Monday, December 11, 2023

‘Returnal’ and Why Games Need More Badass Middle-Aged Women

I bought Returnal, a video game from developer Housemarque, without knowing a thing about it. Well, that’s not entirely true. I knew from the trailer that it had something to do with escaping a time loop and there was some futuristic-looking technology and monsters or something. None of that mattered, because I wasn’t buying it for the gameplay, I was buying it because of its protagonist, Selene. Selene is a fairly ordinary video game character in most respects: agile, capable, smart, facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge. It’s unusual for the playable character to be a woman, but that’s not what makes Selene special. It’s that she’s middle-aged. I finally get to see myself in a video game.

I turn 50 this year, and it’s not what I expected at all. I know I’m not young anymore, but I certainly don’t feel old. Middle age, it turns out, feels exactly like what it is—that time of life when you’re smarter than you used to be, and more importantly, smart enough to know you don’t know everything. I can’t move as fast as I could in college, and I’ve got lines on my face, but overall I’m doing OK physically. If I may be so bold, I think this is the best version of me that’s existed so far. Too bad nobody seems to notice.

People tend not to pay me much mind because I lack the one thing that would make me relevant to them: children. Whether they mean to or not, the second someone discovers I don’t have kids, they recoil slightly. Not out of disgust, but out of confusion. What does one speak to a 50-year-old woman about if not her kids? What do women that age … do?

It’s an attitude that’s replicated across the characters in video games. Women in games typically are either young and sexy or old and wise—unless they’re villains, of course, in which case they’re sexy and evil. They’re companions or party members or just not there at all, but they’re not the star all that much. It’s not as bad as it used to be; the video industry has come a long way since the big reveal of Metroid was that, gasp, the hero was a woman all along! Yes, we love Samus now, but never forget, it was supposed to be a huge twist that you were playing as a female. There are far, far more opportunities to play as a woman than there once were, especially when you factor in games where you can make your own character, but they’re almost always young.


Which, let’s be fair, makes a certain amount of sense. A young body is typically more capable than an older one, and if you’re making a game with a lot of physical activity, skewing toward someone in their twenties or thirties is a logical choice. I have nothing against younger characters. In fact, I think the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider is great in part because Lara Croft is so young. She’s just out of university and hasn’t had to face any real challenges yet, so when she’s shipwrecked, hurt, and alone, she has to dig into emotional resources she had no idea she had. That’s a really powerful experience, and one virtually all of us go through in our own lives.

Imagine, then, what Lara would be like as a person 30 years after that first adventure. What would decades of adventures have taught her? What friends has she made—and what enemies? How many times has she cheated death and how has that impacted the way she approaches danger? Well, we’ll probably never know, because game publishers seem to believe Lara’s only interesting when she can make Forbes’ list of 30 Under 30.

If you’re rapidly typing out a comment about how “women don’t play games” (or the “they only play Candy Crush” variation), save it. There’s only a 2 percent difference in the number of men and women my age playing video games, so if we can have a grizzled Marcus Fenix, silver fox Venom Snake, and, OK, he’s actually about 100 but looks a spry 48, Geralt of Rivia, we can have some older ladies too.

I’m certain Selene isn’t the only middle-aged woman protagonist in all of video games. Not only do we have access to more games than we ever have, games are more diverse now than they’ve ever been. That’s not really saying all that much, considering that a few years ago, Ubisoft’s excuse for the lack of playable female assassins in Assassin’s Creed was that they’re too hard to animate, but hey, progress is progress. But Selene stars in a marquee game for a brand new console. She’s on the cover of the game. These are things male players often take for granted, because there’s always a guy on the cover (he’s also nearly always white, but that’s a whole other argument). For me, someone who’s been playing video games since dragons looked like ducks, Selene’s presence says I’m welcome, that I belong, even if by gaming’s standards I’m too old to save the world (that’s for teenagers with spiky hair) or too young to sit in a cave doling out cryptic clues about where to find the secret door.

Selene is my age. Maybe not exactly, but close enough. She has definitely seen some shit in her time. She’s taken the journey from being young and ambitious to being less young and more certain. That’s what being middle-aged is really about: certainty. You know who you are and what you stand for. You stop caring about what other people might think because you’ve realized it doesn’t matter. You’re going to go do what’s best for you, and if that means stealing a spaceship to follow some kind of mysterious signal, then that’s what you’re going to do. Unfortunate that you crash and find yourself in a loop that sends you back to the crash site every time you die, but you know what? You’ll figure it out. Because that’s the other certainty you achieve in middle age: you know you can handle things.

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