With video games, particularly RPGs, gender is a pretty important aspect of gameplay. It decides how your character will look, how certain characters may interact with you, even how whole facets of the plot develop. In that sense the Dark Souls series is pretty standard. So with regard to gender, what makes these games any different from the rest?
The quick answer would be that the Souls series has an ambivalence toward gender, be it the player’s character or the various enemies and NPCs across the many games. Souls games, and we’re including Bloodborne, just don’t care about what’s in a character’s pants. This may not seem like big deal when said so bluntly, but when compared to nearly every other piece of highly consumed media, FromSoftware breaks the mold.
Female characters have a lousy track record of being designed with sex in mind; be it revealing cloaks or chainmail bikinis, even full suits of armor usually hug the figure and feature breasts hammered into the chest plate. It’s like we must be told, with no beating around the bush, “yes, this is a female character right here. Look at her hips, her chest, her more rounded and graceful figure.” Costume designs must be flattering, or they will be unappealing to the targeted demographic. High fantasy or science fiction, no matter how much armor they have on, you will know a character is either female or male as soon as you see them. The only time this rule is broken is when the character is deliberately trying to hide their gender, or when the writers are using a reveal as a plot twist.
This is where the Souls series stands out. Where other games or media would design a female alternative to armor sets, Souls games give everyone the same set with only minor alterations depending on the size of the character model. There were many times I’d completely forgotten I’d made a female character until I inevitably died and heard my character’s scream. The only armor set in all of Dark Souls with breasts molded into it is Smough’s set and, well… somehow I don’t think his was meant to be sexy fan service.
We see this in enemies as well, especially Bloodborne. Rom the Vacuous Spider, a disturbing insectoid creature fought in arguably the coolest arena ever, is female. Ebriettas, Daughter of the Cosmos has no defining feminine characteristics save for her title, and the Dancer of the Boreal Valley in Dark Souls 3 is only vaguely feminine with her graceful bellydancer-like movements and veiled face. In a twist, the feminine Gwyndolin was born male but raised as a woman due to her connection with the Moon and its power. Mind you, the game barely brings attention to this; there’s no “Look at our trans character!” kind of text or reaction from anyone in the game. She’s measured not by her gender but by the incredible power she wields over Anor Lando and her followers. It’s the same for everyone in the Souls universe. Characters are judged by their deeds and alliances, how long they have survived, and who has fallen beneath their blades.
I can’t recall a single moment of fan service that isn’t somehow subverted in the entire series. Even the “sexiest” characters have something horrifying in their design, like Quelaag with the naked upper torso of a woman but the lower half of a lava-spewing spider. Najka of Dark Souls 2 is a scorpion version of Quelaag, and the Medusa-like Mytha carries around her own decapitated head. Human women are often portrayed in positions of power; witches, seers, higher religious leaders, scholars, and some of the toughest warriors. It’s very interesting, given the very easily accepted patriarchal subject matter of medieval Europe, that the creators decided to forgo the usual tropes by doing… pretty much nothing.
That’s the weird thing isn’t it? By removing the usual focus on social biases the game allows players to focus purely on survival, which in a Souls game is kinda really important. Death is said to be the great equalizer, and Souls games have such a heavy focus on death, being dead, and dying. Every game starts with the character at their lowest, either fresh off a gurney or fresh out of the grave. The games force us to crawl our way up from the bottom, not by how society would traditionally view us but by our sheer tenacity.