Word Play



Fe­male char­ac­ters in videogames. Can’t think of any? If so, what is wrong with you? There are loads, and there have been for ages. That’s good, of course, and what’s bet­ter is that it seems we’ve all grown up and moved on from the ar­gu­ments about de­mean­ing stereo­types with in­flated breasts. Now we all ac­cept that this is just how they look. And they’re fine as role mod­els, be­cause nowa­days they’re al­most al­ways as heartless, con­niv­ing and vi­o­lent as the men.

Now I – like all self-ef­fac­ing, sen­si­tive men – have never claimed to un­der­stand women. I mean, I’ve met them and even heard them talk with their mouths about things, but be­cause I treat them nicely, I can claim they’re won­der­ful and mys­te­ri­ous, usu­ally in the hope that they’ll find this en­dear­ing and friend me on Face­book. I work in games, though, which not only makes this un­likely, but it means that from time to time I have to cre­ate fe­male char­ac­ters and write di­a­logue for them.

The prob­lems of­ten start when the briefs are handed out. “This is Cyre­nia. She’s strong, sassy, smart and eas­ily the match for any man. Make sure that comes across,” my de­vel­oper overlords com­mand. I nod at this, chiefly be­cause I still don’t heed the ad­vice I doled out about ar­gu­ing back more. But re­ally, al­though those at­tributes are not bad in them­selves, it’s the wrong start­ing point. Oh, and at this point I’d like to say that if you are still snig­ger­ing at the “briefs are handed out” thing, per­haps this isn’t the right ar­ti­cle for you.

So where’s the right place to start? Well, what are women? Just like men, they’re just mis­er­able piles of se­crets, as some­one once said. By high­light­ing the com­par­i­son, even favourably, all we’re do­ing is in­vent­ing two-di­men­sional ci­phers who we can claim aren’t de­mean­ing be­cause, ‘Look, she’s just as wise­crack­ing and tough as those guys!’ In games re­quir­ing char­ac­ters of ei­ther gen­der to be more than fleshy, shouty self­pro­pelled guns, this won’t do. You don’t start by defin­ing how strong they are; you start with their weak­nesses. Ev­ery main char­ac­ter in ev­ery game (and book and film and TV show) has to be strong at some point. How­ever, it’s their flaws and weak­nesses that make a char­ac­ter real, and it’s the over­com­ing of these that make you care.

I am woman It’s their flaws and weak­nesses that make a char­ac­ter real, and it’s the over­com­ing of these that make you care

When it comes to fe­male char­ac­ters, we fid­get ner­vously about this. What flaws could we in­tro­duce? If she’s not as phys­i­cally strong as a bloke, that sounds old-fash­ioned and lazy. Surely she’s gone through the same train­ing as the rest of the Great Or­der Of The Com­bat Elves or the 251st Re­con As­ter­oid-Blower-Up­per Wing or what­ever? She’s more than a match for the men (or male elves of what­ever). She can’t be afraid of snakes, wyrms, Sty­gian hordes or any­thing. And God for­bid her wise­cracks aren’t the equal of the guys in the team who ut­terly ac­cept her as one of their own. And dou­ble God for­bid she feels emo­tions the males don’t, and that causes her to be dif­fer­ent from them. Start down that route and we may as well make her the cook who runs away scream­ing when the lasers, rounds or ar­rows start to fly.

So, ham­strung by our fear of mak­ing a real­is­tic fe­male, we have a meet­ing about her. Let’s give her su­per­pow­ers. That’ll flesh out the char­ac­ter and make her more in­ter­est­ing. “It worked for Lilith in Border­lands,” some chap who is still deeply in love with Lilith in Border­lands will say.

Here’s a way of re­ally be­ing edgy with­out in any way up­set­ting any fe­male gamers or their mums: our an­o­dyne tough hero­ine can be the bad guy. This in no way makes her weak or flawed, you see. In fact, it can only bol­ster her em­pow­ered po­si­tion. And since no­body com­plains that the bad guys in games are al­ways fe­male, we can al­low our­selves a mo­ment of smug­ness. “Like Rayne from out of Blood­rayne!” some­one who still loves her says, and we all look down and fid­dle with our pens be­cause none of us played it and it was out ages ago.

One point that will never get raised, though, is how beau­ti­ful our thin (in ev­ery sense) fe­male char­ac­ter needs to be. The an­swer is ut­terly. All the guys are archetyp­i­cally good-look­ing, so why should the lasses be dif­fer­ent? Again, look at film and TV. We, the con­sumers, pre­fer pul­chri­tude. And it’s not even to do with the game-play­ing pub­lic’s de­mo­graphic; we all like good-look­ing people on our screens. Would pre­teen girls love the Dis­ney princesses if they all had faces like bags of smashed crabs? Plus, I sus­pect that if a fe­male char­ac­ter wasn’t gor­geous, it would make the art depart­ment look like they didn’t have the abil­ity. And if there’s one thing I know about dev art de­part­ments, they will cer­tainly put in the hours when asked to draw beau­ti­ful girls.

Any­way, how much of a prob­lem is all this? Not much. Sorry for hav­ing wasted your time. But I do think that while games fea­ture em­pow­ered, beau­ti­ful and flaw­less fe­males, they do so to their detri­ment and for fear of the con­se­quences.

There is an­other way to de­flect in­com­ing fire – hire a fe­male writer from the out­set. I can’t stress enough what a bad idea this is, though. The rea­son­ing here is sim­ple: it stops me from even hav­ing a chance of get­ting the job.

James Leach is a BAFTA Award-win­ning free­lance writer who works on games and for ad agencies, TV, ra­dio and on­line

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