If you made a major decision in a game and immediately a warning popped up saying, ‘Doing this will f**k you for the rest of the game, are you sure this is what you want?’ you’d reconsider. In fact, I daresay, you’d change your mind. Yet when Mount & Blade offers me this message every single time I decide to play a female character, I never reconsider. I have played the game a couple of times, opting to play as a woman each time and each time the game warns me that I am about to permanently handicap myself, making the game considerably harder by choosing the fairer sex, and I ignore it, even though, having played the game before I know that I will suffer for it.
If you don’t know Mount & Blade then I have made it sound like the most sexist game ever created. Not here will you find scantily clad women or female characters with as much personality as a doormat, their only form of communication being a tattoo of ‘rescue me’ across their forehead, yet it does encourage you to play as a man, making the game a hundred times easier for the male characters. The reason is that Mount & Blade is an ARPG set in the Medieval world. Pseudo-Medieval settings are rife in video games and it’s basically a code for ‘you ride a horse, sleep in taverns and meet kings.’ Mount & Blade however is incredibly accurate and has been described by some as a medieval simulator. It is certainly the closest we can get in video games to playing someone living during the 12th/13th century. As a result, it is not advisable to play as a woman, as during the Medieval days women were more suited to marriage and the child-bed than traipsing over Europe with an army trying to capture enemy castles.
Anyone who has been exposed to historical fiction will often say that the Medieval era was a massively oppressive time for a woman to live. In a time where a woman was defined by her marital status they, generally, could not hold property or money, they lived where their father or husband chose for them and their father or husband would even pay for their households. In theory it was a crappy time to be a woman, in practice things were very different and in Mount & Blade the fact that I cannot do anything because I am a woman just fuels me on further. It’s like a bizarre form of sadomasochism.
At first glance there is little affected by your gender. You can still pick up a sword and fight, you can still go into a village recruiting soldiers without them pointing and laughing at you and you can still interact with nobles…well sort of. The interaction is coloured by the fact that you are a woman and thus they cannot take you seriously until you save the king’s life or something equally implausible. I fought for the kingdom of the Nords, one of six possible factions you can ally yourself with. Initially I statted myself up to be a noblewoman turned mercenary, but that proved to be a fatal mistake as noblewomen cannot wield swords for shit.
After a week or so of having my ass handed to me by small groups of sea bandits I restarted, this time opting for a more mercenary upbringing (literally) which at least gave me some modicum of fighting skills. Once I had acquired a basic ability to defend myself and recruited a rabble of undisciplined peasants to fight for me, I performed some fetch and carry tasks for the king thus improving my relationship with him so that the nobles did not laugh me out of the room when I showed up, sword in hand, wondering if anyone wanted to chase down some bandits.
As a woman it’s a long and arduous task to improve yourself militarily, though good fun nonetheless. But by far the greatest restriction is that, unlike the other nobles, it’s extremely difficult to acquire a fief. A fief is a castle or town that supplies you with money, and far more necessary; somewhere to sleep! I spent far too long chasing down bandits so that I could sell their stolen goods for money to pay for myself and my ragtag army to sleep at someone else’s castle. I couldn’t get my own castle because nobody would support me, what with me being a woman. After 200 days (not IRL days!) I still had no castle, despite capturing three of them during a campaign against our neighbours. Whether you get a fief or not is based on your level of ‘renown’ and by the end the many wars I had participated in, my renown was pretty freaking high. Yet still no castle.
Why? Because every time war broke out a load of rival lords joined the Nordic cause forfeiting their own fiefdoms. As a result the entire kingdom looks at them and says, ‘gosh isn’t it a shame that those brave men don’t have castles of their own?’ and thus they take all the available fiefs regardless of the fact that it was I who won them. And I’m not bitter. Not one bit.
I outright asked the king for a fief, and after he had finished laughing at me, he told me that any fief I had would go to my husband and I was as yet, unmarried. So I set out on a quest for my husband and I shit you not, not a single man would marry me, even those who I had saved in battle, broken out of prison, or were pretty much in love with me anyway. Why would they not marry me? Because I did not meet the medieval conventions of beauty, my skin is ‘coarsened by battle’ and not pale and white as the men preferred. My inner historian screamed with joy. The gamer in me, however began banging her head against the keyboard in frustration.
While the game is undeniably harder as a woman, it is still incredibly enjoyable. Lovers of history will enjoy the Medieval simulation, but generally it’s a good ARPG, though admittedly unless you want to make things particularly difficult on yourself, you’d be better playing a man.
In her day job fanta_esque blogs about all things historical. If you would like to know how Medieval women actually lived you can read up here.