Spoilers for Code Vein.
Content Warning: Discussion of medical abuse, sexualized violence, misogyny.
There is something profoundly intriguing about vampires and vampire mythology. They have long been the site of experimentation with concepts of power, sexuality, and gender. Code Vein, a game developed and published by Bandai Namco, combines a post-apocalyptic setting with a strong vampiric aesthetic and well-polished combat, but fails to experiment or break out of conventional narrative gender roles. The player is a Revenant, a being of superhuman strength revived by something called the Biological Organ Regenerative Parasite (BOR Parasite) that makes its host thirst for blood. In essence, they are vampires but via the aid technology.
The society of the game can barely function because only a few humans remain, while the rest are either Revenants or monsters. The lack of population has caused infrastructure and other institutions to crumble to almost nothing. That means there is no space to dismiss anyone who could help rebuild, regardless of gender. And yet, despite that, the story still mistreats its female characters.
The character creator given at the start of the game is extensive, offering a wide range of customization for looks if not body types. It is also purely cosmetic, with no advantages or disadvantages for choosing certain genders and so on. In terms of gameplay, all of the characters are relatively equal in power, aside from the protagonist. At first, any issues with the game’s gender equality seem minor and almost irrelevant. By all appearances, Revenants stay the same, without aging, and do not have gender-based differences in powers or strength, nor do they bear children. All differences beyond appearances have essentially become irrelevant.
And yet, the game neither offers a fantasy world of true equality nor engages meaningfully with discrimination. Its supposedly-powerful women have little agency, or are demonized while also being heavily sexualized.
The game’s cast is gender balanced, with a roughly equal number of male and female characters, and the female ones play an important role in driving the story. While that sounds great on paper, the problem lies in the gender-essentialist ways that “importance” works out.
First there is the Queen, the game’s main antagonist. While her backstory is somewhat mysterious due to how Soulsborne games construct lore, we know she was a research subject during the Great Collapse, the apocalypse that preceded the events of the game. For unknown reasons, she was willing and able to endure the research that was supposed to save humanity from utter destruction. The experiments were akin to torture, resulting in her going into a Frenzy, using the very same powers the torture embedded into her to become an almost mindless enemy intent on destroying what was left of humanity. She is in great pain and unable to either save herself or die.
While the Queen is tragic, she is also barely a character. It’s unclear if it even was truly her choice to become a research subject, and her body is turned into literal plot objects for the player to collect. We only see her surviving the “research” until it essentially destroys her sense of self and humanity. Finally, when she is defeated, she cannot even die with dignity after giving the player character the power to save the world; she has become the monster that must be avoided at all costs without having had any hand in becoming it herself. While her story could have been salvaged if the game were about other female characters using their agency where she could not, that theme is never explored.
Io, the very first female NPC the player meets, underscores this lack of exploration. Scantily clad in mere rags, she is soft-spoken in an almost childish way, and her role is to be the player character’s guide. Later, it is revealed she is only one of many “Attendants” to the “Successors,” those who have inherited part of the defeated Queen.
Her story arc is specifically about rising above being a simple mindless Attendant in order to find something that she truly wanted to do for herself. That would be commendable… if the True ending didn’t have her sacrifice herself for the protagonist’s – and the world’s – sake just after she realized she could have something more in her life and for herself. Her “choosing” to do so only bolsters the narrative of women being subservient and self-sacrificial where she started.
Code Vein’s marketing team built up Mia Karnstein, the first female character to actually join the main party, as a main character. Considering her position as the center-point and main badass of the intro video to her prominent position alongside the player character in the game’s promotional materials, it seemed safe to assume her arc would be front-and-center to the game’s story.
To call that misleading would be an understatement. Mia’s main role in the game comes from her relationship to Nicola. She enters the story when she attacks the party to steal an item that can save him. She fails, but when she dreams of a snowy mountain, she agrees to join them if they go to that place.
Eventually, the party reaches the place they’ve been looking for and discovers that Nicola became one of the Successors in order to protect Mia, but went into a Frenzy. They bring him back to his senses by defeating him, after which Mia decides to continue traveling with the party out of gratitude.
And… that is it. There is no more to her story, no real importance or substance. There is no further story development in which her presence adds something to the game. The rest of her dialogue consists of one-liners that are either Nicola-related, or expressing her gratitude and how she has taken the player character’s motivations as her own. Her arc is only connected to the main plot through her little brother. Even her motivation to stay in the party connects to Nicola.
Code Vein’s weak writing for its female cast becomes even more glaring when compared to the characterization and importance of the male characters. Louis, the first male party member, is intrinsically tied to the main plot; he was the Queen’s friend, and couldn’t kill her even when she begged. An idealistic scientist, he dreams of building a future where Revenants and humans coexist. Those ideals motivate the main party for much of the story, and he is happy that the player character holds them as well. Even when he becomes distraught over learning that his older sister became a Successor, he only becomes more determined to save the world.
Yakumo, the second male party member, has an easy-going attitude and the same hopes as Louis, even though he has lost many loved ones. He even eats normal food in order to feel human, even though he doesn’t need to as a Revenant. His reunion with Emily, a former squad member who became a Successor for their sake, gives him the hope and motivation to move forward and make things right. Emily, on the other hand, remains a Successor, unable to leave her cage or heal from the torture she suffered.
None of the female characters ever truly get to shine like the male characters do, even the ones whose actions drive the story. Eva, who acted as caretaker for Jack, a male Successor, lives solely for him and is willing to suffer for him no matter what. She takes on the burden of temporarily housing the parts which create Successors while Jack searches for replacements.
Her choice comes at great personal sacrifice, as it eventually turns her into a mindless monster and one of the game’s bosses. While it is possible to save her from it, it is also possible to let her die – the only party member that that is an option for. Over and over again, Code Vein presents narratives of self-sacrificial women who exist to nobly suffer, act as vessels, or (at best) have their goals defined solely by the men in their life.
Louis’ sister, Karen is a Successor and “the one who weeps tears of blood.” She is the crucial–and silent–provider of the blood beads that sustain all Revenants, but because she is not Frenzied, the main party decides to leave her as she is.
Not one character questions this decision. It is the same way in which the Queen was treated – not even given a choice, or a way around what she became. Women are the backbone of Code Vein’s lore, but only as tragic, suffering figures. The powerful ones like the Queen are either destroyed or disempowered, and the “good” ones like Mia, Karen, and Io passively provide relief from the sidelines
That is ultimately Code Vein’s biggest flaw. The fact that no female character can shine, or even really exist unless mentally and/or physically tortured, reveals lazy, unimaginative writing for a game about superhuman vampires. Even though the player can choose a male or female character as their avatar, that equality doesn’t hold true when it comes to the story overall. The game’s post-apocalyptic setting had the potential to level the playing field of systemic oppressions. Yet, it failed to do so at every step of the way, to its detriment.