Genshin Impact is hardly the worst offender when it comes to portraying women in video games. The sexualization of its female cast is limited to extraneous hip windows. Their personalities are inoffensive and charming. But as I watch every major update usher in personal developments and new lore for its male characters, I can’t help but wonder: When will it be the ladies’ turn? Genshin’s women don’t get the same layers of narrative depth, they rarely experience growth in new content updates, and they’re slotted into just a few narrow, shallow personality types. It’s frustrating because these issues don’t apply to the male characters. It’s just women who are constantly sidelined in Genshin’s grandiose history.
The latest Genshin update contained a major storyline about the lost civilization of Khanri’ah. An ancient royal guard meets the mysterious knight Kaeya for the first time, and the two have a brief chat about his heritage. Kaeya fans were feasting on the revelation that their favorite boy is descended from the founder of the Abyss Order, one of the major antagonist factions of the game. Fans were creating tons of fanart and speculation about his true motives. I can’t help but wish that his boss Jean got even a fraction of this kind of attention. But I get why. Despite being descended from one of the major clans of the Mondstadt region, the game barely gives her any interesting story hooks to build off of. She’s a leader of the protagonist faction of Mondstadt, but I’ve already forgotten about her. I haven’t forgotten about Kaeya.
Look, I’m happy for Kaeya. I really am. This is a storyline that Genshin has been building up since the game was released in 2020. Who am I to tell his fans to wait another year for their food? But I can’t remember the last time that a female character got this much lore reveal. The main quest touched on Yelan’s ancestor during last year’s “Perilous Trail,” which was nice because all that I’d known before that point was that she’s some government agent. But anyone who played that quest would likely agree that the story was primarily about resolving a male character’s survivor’s guilt from the centuries-old Archon War.
As I’ve said before, the immortal demon-slayer Xiao is one of my favorite characters. I’m glad that he’s not suicidal anymore. But the character development he’s given contrasts sharply with what’s afforded to his sister-in-arms Ganyu, a female character who also fought in the cataclysmic Archon War. Where he gets depth and trauma, she doesn’t even get recognition from the people around her as a warrior, despite her military service. The only thing we know about Ganyu is that a monster tried to eat her during the war, and she choked it to death with her waistline. Come on, that was a world-altering war that shaped the modern world of Teyvat! And all that HoYoverse had to say about it was that Ganyu had put on some pounds.
And it’s not as if the female cast doesn’t have ample opportunities to be involved in fleshing out Genshin’s massive amounts of world lore. The lost civilization of Enkanomiya is an explorable region, and it contained shocking lore about the origins of its current rulers. I was excited when Genshin built a whole limited-time event around The Land of the White Night. “Surely the rebel priestess Kokomi will finally get some interesting lore,” I thought. It was a fair assumption to make. Sangonomiya Kokomi is descended from the nobles of Enkanomiya, and the entrance to the region is locked behind her family shrine. Besides, Kokomi’s role in the main story had been heavily criticized for lacking in depth. I was ready for my best girl to make her comeback.
I would be let down. Kokomi didn’t even appear for most of this event, and I learned nothing about how her past connected to Teyvat’s present. Mind, Genshin does give her opportunities to appear in other events. And I love watching her interact with other members of the cast. But as a rebel leader who led a major faction in the Inazuma civil war, she deserves to have an important role in Genshin’s continued storyline. Where’s the intrigue? Where’s the lore drop that makes me care about seeing her in future updates?
I’m reserving judgment on the region of Sumeru, since it was just added in August of last year and still has plenty of developing to do. But I want to see more female characters who have a significant impact on the plot. Genshin fans were hopeful about the villainous Fatui Harbinger Signora, who had been a constant threat to players since she was first introduced. But then she was executed during the main quest. Oops. So we’re now back to zero evil women, which is a massive blow to anyone who enjoys nuance in their worldbuilding.
What also frustrates me about Genshin’s female cast is that they seem to be typecast into limiting, pre-existing molds. All seven of the current “child” characters are female, for instance, as if cuteness is a trait exclusive to young girls. And while male Genshin characters can be responsible, it’s the female characters who hold up the sky. Roughly half of the female cast are hyper-responsible, while only about a third of men are similarly concerned about upholding order. Whereas the divine puppet Wanderer has a prickly and uncooperative personality, even the women who aren’t hyper responsible are at least cheerful or cooperative. Men can be goofy, selfish, or evil. In contrast, Genshin’s female characters’ appeal comes from putting themselves second.
Gacha is a game format that uses character appeal to sell microtransactions. When certain traits are emphasized in a roster, it shows what traits that the designers believe will appeal to the greatest percentage of players. So far, I’m not thrilled by the insinuation that the ideal woman doesn’t have selfish or morally ambiguous goals of her own. Well-behaved women seldom make history, and they’re certainly not making Teyvat’s.
About now, you might be pointing out that I praised the thunder god Raiden Ei for having a sublime character arc and a fascinating worldview. But she’s the exception that proves the rule. Ei is one of the seven major gods, and every main god in this game is intricately tied to the tragedy of 500 years ago. If the standard for “moving and interesting character arc” is “godhood,” that’s not particularly fair to the women in this game. Out of the 13 premium male characters in Genshin, 11 of them have an emotionally heavy arc involving the death of someone close to them, or trying to overthrow the powers that be. Ei is the only female character who seems to have that level of agency over her fate.
The imbalance feels particularly egregious when the female characters outnumber the men by a ratio of 2:1. And I understand why. Most gacha games have an overwhelmingly female cast because straight men are the most likely demographic to spend money. But consider that other popular gachas have some of the most compelling female characters in video games. Most female characters in Fate/Grand Order shoulder the fate of an entire nation or an alternate universe. Arknights’ villain is a morally ambiguous rebel leader whose worldview has been warped by the rampant discrimination that she saw around her. Other characters in the game are similarly textured and fascinating. And both of these games make far less money than Genshin, which prints $2 billion every year.
The developers have tried to make its world feel more realistic by giving important story roles to NPCs. It’s about time they gave important roles to women too.