In the early part of next year, there will be a game released that is a direct continuation of the storyline of Aliens. This pleases me to no end.
But I have lots of reservations, and the most recent was one based on the fact that Gearbox, the developer behind the game (titled Aliens: Colonial Marines), recently announced that it would be adding playable female characters to the game for its cooperative and multiplayer modes. What worries me about the situation is that it took a lot of griping and even an online petition signed by about 4,000 people to get Gearbox to decide to make playable female characters available in the game.
The entire Alien franchise is a story about women. Every film sees a fundamental reversal of gender roles. The primary characters are almost always women, and when they’re not, they’re supporting characters. Even the very nature of the alien, with its roots in actions of rape and violence, is geared toward a woman’s perspective. Alien is about women.
So the fact that it took some complaining to get playable women characters into Aliens: Colonial Marines isn’t just irritating, it implies a fundamental misreading of the source material. I’m supposed to be excited that Gearbox is working with 20th Century Foxt to do a direct sequel to James Cameron’s action-heavy follow-up to the Ridley Scott horror movie, and I want to be — but Aliens was never a story about Hicks; it was about Ripley.
And even among the marines, the emphasis was on women characters and on reversed gender roles. The dropship pilot, Ferro, is a woman. Most of the memorable dialog among the marines consists of chides between Vasquez, the ass-kicking no-nonsense smartgunner, and Hudson, the wise-cracking clown. Vasquez wins in those moments; she bests Hudson whenever she can. She bests her partner, Drake, as well, in a brief moment when the pair have an interaction that includes tightly clasped hands — it’s as much friendly as it is threatening.
Much of the underlying currents of the movie are about Vasquez in particular. She’s one of two point-runners for the entire squad. She handles one of only two smartguns, which are so big and unwieldy they require a steadycam rig in order to use them. She’s the one who brings replacement firing chips for the guns down to the reactor, breaking orders and refusing to be defenseless as the marines head into the alien hive. Her hot-headed willingness to “deal” with Lt. Gorman comes into play later in the film. Hudson may be squad’s voice throughout most of Aliens, but Vasquez is the marines’ spirit.
Meanwhile, obviously, the entire franchise is about Ripley. She takes on natural leadership roles in every film she’s in. Hicks may be a capable bad-ass, but he takes orders — Ripley’s orders.
Even the very nature of the xenomorph speaks to an ingrained culture and fear that has a uniquely female perspective. The aliens, at their core, are rapists. They use their prey as breeding stock. They may be largely gnashing teeth, but the explosive inner jaws — the deadly bit of aliens’ mouth — are decidedly phallic. And without going into this deeper than I mean to or reading in too far, it’s easy to see that the aliens represent a threat that has a number of connotations that are very much specific fears for women. That there are strong, three-dimensional women characters throughout the film franchise as the chief protagonists against these very stark antagonists is not an accident; nor is it a dispensible piece of the Alien puzzle.
So while I’m all for a game that focuses on the Colonial Marines, it should have been a no-brainer for the game’s creators that the game shouldn’t just feature women on the squad, but that it should be about women characters as much as men. Otherwise, what makes it an Aliens story other than the fact that it maintains the “cool” elements of the franchise? If the game’s creators wanted to make a real Aliens story, even as a video game, they’d need to understand the subtext as much as the text. And I worry that the fact that we’re only just now getting an acknowledgment that there will be playable female characters in the game at all is an indication of what kind of story we’ll be getting. And even then, it sounds like those playable characters are relegated to supporting roles.
I hope the Gearbox creative team behind Aliens: Colonial Marines realizes that we’ve heard Hicks’ story. We’ve been hearing it for years, in every game and movie and book that’s like this one. Aliens is not about Hicks’ story.