All posts by rho

Scientist, woman, lesbian, transsexual, gamer, geek, feminist, liberal, rationalist, and various other labels. Gamer since the days of the ZX81. Feminist since the time I realised that the label was not synonymous with transphobe. I keep a sporadically-updated personal blog about whatever's on my mind at the time.

Gaslamp Games and the saga of continuing awesomeness

You all remember Dungeons of Dredmor, right? And you remember how its developer, Gaslamp Games, was pretty awesome?

I’m happy to report that they seem to be at it again. In a recent blog post, they talk about their attitude towards featuring characters of different races in their upcoming game, Clockwork Empires. Here’s the money quote:

We feel it’s important to have people of all colours in the game, basically. I’m not going to get into the exceedingly grim history of 19th century colonialism here, but I assure you we’ve had a lot of internal discussions about how we can possibly approach making a game vaguely based on the Victorian era without being ridiculously offensive.

Honestly, I don’t envy them having to make those sorts of decisions, because they’re certainly not trivial to make. (I am reminded of how Failbetter Games approached the same issue for Echo Bazaar but seemingly reached different concusions.)

What I don’t expect is for Gaslamp to suddenly find a solution that will be perfect in every respect. I highly doubt such a solution even exists. What I do expect is for them to give it their best shot, and for it to be a whole lot better than if they didn’t even bother trying to address it.

It’s very gratifying to see at least one developer continue to take this sort of issue seriously.

Omega: Writing one of Mass Effect’s wrongs

I’ve written here before criticising Bioware for only featuring male Turians in their Mass Effect series. As a quick reminder, Bioware essentially didn’t include female Turians because they had no idea how to denote female characters other than by adding lipstick and breasts.

However, I’m happy to be able to say that with the release of Omega, the latest DLC for Mass Effect 3, they’ve now fixed this oversight. Omega contains a female Turian called Nyreen Kandros who, shockingly, does not actually look just like a male Turian with breasts and lipstick.

Nyreen Kandros from Mass Effect 3: Omega.
(Image courtesy of the Mass Effect wiki)

Instead, they’ve given her less prominent crests (which is reminiscent of many real life bird species, where the males tend to be more highly decorated), but more prominent mandibles. She’s clearly the same species, but also clearly not the same as the males we’ve seen before.

So, kudos to Bioware for finally getting with the program. That wasn’t too hard now, was it?

Guild Wars 2 and the misogynistic bad guys

Guild Wars 2 features five playable races: humans, sylvari, asura, norn, and charr. Each of these races includes an antagonist faction who will fight against the rest of their race, and be one of the enemies of your player character. So for instance, if you’re playing a sylvari, you’ll encounter members of the Nightmare Court: a group of sylvari who reject the typical sylvari traits like compassion and curiosity and strive to replace them with fear and violence.

Right now, I’d like to discuss the Sons of Svanir and the Flame Legion, who are the antagonist factions for the norn and the charr respectively. One thing that these two groups have in common is a “no girls allowed” sign hung outside their metaphorical clubhouses. I’m not certain how I feel about this.

If you dig into the lore, you’ll find they have pretty similar rationales for the exclusion of women. In both cases, there was a woman hundreds of years ago who stood up to them, and they decided to generalise from that woman to all women, decide that women can’t be trusted, and ostracise them thereafter.

I want to say that this is just cartoon supervillainy, with the evil turned up to 11. I want to say that it’s as if they revealed that these factions stand for punching kittens and pouring toxic waste in duck ponds. I want to say that, but I can’t, because that kind of ridiculous exclusion of women is too prevalent, still, in real life.

How many women have never been in a situation like in xkcd’s comic How It Works? As women gamers, many of us are used to being on trial as a representative for our gender every time we game. We know that if we mess up then there’s a chance that someone will decide that it’s because girls suck at gaming, and decide that their guild should be an exclusively male affair.

It has to be reiterated, though, that these groups are the bad guys, and are not being held up as at all admirable. The Sons of Svanir worship a dragon who wants to destroy the world, so I sincerely hope that nobody thinks that they epitomise good judgement and should be taken as role models. I’m certainly a whole lot happier seeing this than I am when the alleged heroes are misogynistic jerks.

At the same time, though, I think that I’d prefer not to see it at all. One of the purposes of gaming is escapism, and it’s nice to be able to get away to a game world where this sort of sexism just doesn’t exist. I get enough of it in the real world without seeing it in games as well.

I think that ultimately, my own opinion will depend on where they go with this in the story. Will I be given the agency to confront them about their misogyny and come away victorious? Or will the storyline directly confront the sexism and provide social commentary on it? Maybe their exclusion of women will come back and bite them in the rear, directly resulting in their defeat at the hands of their would-be opressees?

Since the game is still new, I have no idea how things will play out. If any of the three situations I just outlined come to pass, then I think  I will see it as a net positive in the game. If it’s just a case of “yes, some bad people will treat you shoddily if you have a female player character, but that’s what bad people do so you’ll just have to deal with it” then it will likely end up being a net negative to me.

For now, I think I’m willing to give Arenanet the benefit of the doubt; they have a pretty good record on this sort of thing, and I’m enjoying the game a great deal, so I want to see how this turns out.

Magical Diary reviewed – why this game is truly magical

In the interests of full disclosure, this was a free review copy we were sent by indie developer and long-time reader Georgina Bensley, who thought this game would be a good fit for The Border House. There was, however, no editorial pressure, and we were free to say whatever we wanted about the game.

What do you get if you take Harry Potter, move it from Scotland to New England, give it an anime aesthetic, and make a socially conscious video game out of it? The answer is Magical Diary from Hanako Games (also available on Steam).

You play the role of a 16 year old girl who grew up in the non-magical world, accidentally does some magic, and gets an invite to a magic boarding school. Of course the “school for magic” idea wasn’t original to Harry Potter, but the similarities don’t stop there. You meet the siblings Virginia, Donald, and William. There’s an evil (or is he just misunderstood?) professor with black hair and a big nose. There’s a reference to a chamber of secrets. There’s even a reference to the fan-fiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality which I won’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers.

However, while this is definitely influenced and inspired by J.K. Rowling’s novels, it is far from being a simple rip-off.  There are plenty of unique characters, and the storyline is entirely its own thing. Personally, I feel that it’s a bit of a shame that the game wasn’t willing to stand on its own two feet a little bit more. There was plenty there for it to be able to do so, and I found some of the more overt references to be a little immersion-breaking.

Anyway, Harry Potter aside, the game is a life simulator, with a heavy focus on character and relationship building. Imagine what Dragon Age or Mass Effect would be like if you took out the combat and the saving the world/galaxy and instead just got to spend the time talking with your team, and you aren’t that far away from how Magical Diary plays.

In addition to this core gameplay, you also periodically have to sit magic exams, which involve being teleported into a dungeon and having to find your way out in little puzzle segments. These are actually surprisingly clever, since you can choose which branches of magic to specialise in (out of five different schools), meaning that there are multiple solutions, and the ones available may vary from one playthrough to the next. As a simple example, if you’re faced with a monster, you may choose to blast it with fire, send it to sleep, or just teleport it away.

The big problem that I had with these sections is that it is possible to fail them, and you only get one attempt. If you fail, you’re whisked away to receive demerits (and possibly detention) and then carry on with the year. This was annoying because often I’d figure out “oh, I should have tried that instead” too late to go back and try again. I wound up save-scumming my way through these sections, not because I wanted to cheat, but because it felt like the only way to experience them fully. Overall, though, they did make a nice addition to the game, and definitely emphasised the whole “magic” element.

As you progress through the school year, you choose how to react to events, which characters you want to spend time with, which classes to take, and so on, and a story unfolds around you depending on your choices. While a single playthrough only takes a few hours, there’s plenty of replay-value here from going down different branches of the storyline, or befriending different people. As a simple example, Donald and Virginia have a sibling rivalry going on, and you can potentially see it from two different sides, depending on which of them you’re closer to.

Indeed, story elements will play out even if you aren’t involved with them at all. You might just see someone scowling and wonder what was going on, or you might see the aftermath of some event without really understanding it, which can be a good motivator to play more.  It’s as if the game is saying “there’s something interesting going on here, but you don’t get to find out what unless you play again!”

One example of this was an abusive relationship that two NPCs were in.  At first glance, it looks like a healthy romance, but during the game, you can see that something isn’t entirely right. One of the two claims that he is being ignored, and gets upset, but there’s nothing you can do… unless you’re friends with his partner, in which case you can see that his claims are overblown, that’s he’s demanding all her time, and embarrassing her in public to keep her in line. In other words, he’s a fairly typical abusive and controlling boyfriend, but – importantly – not the sort of abusive boyfriend you tend to see in games and media.

This is one of the game’s strong points. It respects the intelligence of its player by presenting things with nuance and with shades of grey. It features an abusive boyfriend who isn’t so over-the-top evil that you expect him to twirl a moustache and stroke a white cat while cackling about world domination.

In fact, the game ticks pretty much all the options when it comes to social justice. Character creation, for instance, doesn’t include a particularly large number of options, but the options it does include are diverse and not just variations on a theme. In an ideal world, I’d have preferred the addition of a truly fat body type, and possibly a few more hair styles that were appropriate for African American characters, but these are minor quibbles.

Three young women, drawn in anime style, each wearing the same green robes. One is white with long purple hair, another appears Asian, has black hair worn in bunches, glasses, and a tiara, while the third is black with short hair, glasses, and an amulet.

An example of three player characters from Magical Diary. (Three young women, drawn in anime style, each wearing the same green robes. One is white with long purple hair, another appears Asian, has black hair worn in bunches, glasses, and a tiara, while the third is black with short hair, glasses, and an amulet.)

Sexuality is also handled well, with the player character free to pursue a relationship with another girl just as easily as with a boy, or with nobody at all. There’s even a (sort of) sex education class, in which it’s stressed that the students are free to do what they like with whomever they like provided that both (or all) parties are entirely consenting. This is a world that is sex-positive without being sexualised.

The NPCs are also not left out. Too many games seem to grudgingly say “well, you can be a lesbian of colour if you really insist, but all our NPCs are straight and white.” Not so, here. There are several NPCs of colour (literally in one case; blue is definitely a colour!) and at least two instances of students having same-sex romantic involvements, not to mention one kid who was raised by two dads.

The general tone and theme of the game is to have things be light and fluffy on top, but with a more serious and darker side hiding below the surface for anyone who digs deep enough. Issues covered range from the mystical to the mundane. In some cases you’ll discover shortcomings of the magical education system, or problems resulting from magic being kept secret from the non-magic world, whereas in others you might find yourself confronting the mistreatment of Native Americans by European immigrants or what it means to be a child of divorced and estranged parents.  While none of these situations are covered in any great depth, they do all have enough substance to them to at least be thought provoking

There was even one scene where we get given a class about gender neutral pronouns. (To my great delight, they used the Spivak set, which have always been my gender neutral pronouns of choice.) The rationale given here is that in the magical world, there are many non-humans for whom our gender rules don’t apply, though it is also stressed that even among humans the gender binary can be a false dichotomy.

I have to admit that I’m a little bit conflicted about this. On the one hand, it’s absolutely amazing to see a game taking this sort of thing seriously, but on the other hand, it did feel a little bit forced. It would have been nice to meet a character – human or otherwise – who didn’t fit the gender binary, as without the practical element, that one lesson does seem a little incongruent. Still, overall, I was happy to see its inclusion, and I’m still holding out hope that there will be something along these lines in a story branch that I just haven’t played yet.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend Magical Diary as an enjoyable game in its own right, as a happy change of pace from shooting and killing, and as a game that gets an awful lot right when it comes to inclusivity and social justice.

A Star Trek Federation Cruiser in a shipyard- a *space* shipyard!

Review: Star Trek Online

A Star Trek Federation Cruiser in a shipyard- a *space* shipyard!

Since Star Trek Online went free to play last week, I thought I’d give it a go and see what it was like. I’ve been a fan of Star Trek for a long time. I watched The Next Generation when it was first broadcast, and I still rate Deep Space Nine as one of my favourite TV shows of all time. As such, this was a game that I really wanted to like.

Unfortunately, things started to go sour from as early on as character creation. Many of the classic Star Trek races were available: humans, Vulcans, Andorians, Bajorans, Trill, and so on. I chose to play as a female Ferengi science officer called Queeg (virtual cookies to anyone who gets the reference). In many respects, character creation was pretty standard. I got to choose how tall my character was, and what design of uniform she wore, for instance. Some of the other character creation decisions were truly baffling, though.

I didn’t have any options for changing my basic facial features, for instance. All female Ferengi apparently have exactly the same eyes, nose, mouth and ears, excepting only lipstick or tattoos across the nose. This lack is made all the more conspicuous by some of the things that I could customise. For instance, I was free to change the size of my breasts, which could vary from “fairly small” to “disproportionately huge for the slim frame carrying them and guaranteed to cause back problems”. Quite how a franchise that brought us an inter-racial kiss in 1968 and a lesbian kiss in 1995 has descended to the point where breast size is considered a more important customisation than facial features, I do not know.

Queeg, a Ferengi. While humanoid, she is clearly not human, with notable features such as very large ears, ridges on her nose, and extremely prominent brow ridges. Her bald head is noticeably shaped to house a brain with four prominent lobes.

Queeg, a Ferengi. While humanoid, she is clearly not human, with notable features such as very large ears, ridges on her nose, and extremely prominent brow ridges. Her bald head is noticeably shaped to house a brain with four prominent lobes.

After character creation, I was flung straight into the thick of things, with a confrontation with the Borg. They had captured another Starfleet ship, and we weren’t able to contact any of the crew. And so, I was ordered to beam over to the ship and see what I could do.

Now, I was a five foot tall Ferengi science officer with a specialisation in astrophysics and warp theory. I had no combat expertise, no history with the Borg, and as an ensign, there were many other officers on the ship with more experience than I. And yet, I was still sent off to single-handedly fight the Borg. (For anyone who isn’t a Star Trek fan, the Borg are probably the single most dangerous and implacable enemy in the whole Star Trek universe.)

Similarly straining credulity was the fact that immediately upon returning from this mission, I was given a field-promotion from ensign to acting captain. This was later followed by a full promotion to the rank of lieutenant, yet I was allowed to keep my own command anyway.

These are not necessarily bad things, but they do indicate from the off exactly how the game is going to go. Immersion and story continuity were taking a back-seat to action and excitement. Science, diplomacy, and exploration were taking a back-seat to combat.

I’m OK with this decision. While it isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of Star Trek, it’s a lot easier and a lot safer to make a game that’s based on killing things and shooting things than it is to make a game based on science and diplomacy. Personally, I’d love to see a big-budget mainstream MMO that wasn’t based around combat, of one sort or another, but I can see why game studios might be reluctant to take that risk, especially with a major franchise like Star Trek. And besides, I do enjoy combat-based games.

So the question then becomes, “is the combat any good?” The answer to this question, unfortunately, is “no”. For my first mission against the Borg, combat was successfully completed by pointing my mouse cursor in the general direction of the enemy, and then holding down the mouse button to shoot. Of course, this was just a tutorial mission, so I kept on waiting for things to get better on this front, but they never did. I did learn a few more abilities, like using a medical tricorder, but I never needed them. Through all the time I played, simply pointing and shooting was enough.

I will freely admit that since I only played for about 5 or 10 hours, it’s possible that things may improve later on. However, I’m firmly of the opinion that nobody should ever have to slog through hours of tedium in order to get to the good parts of a game. If you disagree with me on that one and are looking for information about the late game, this isn’t the review for you.

Ship based combat was better than ground combat. Here, the idea was to try to turn your ship so that you’re pointing as many of your weapons as possible at the enemy, while at the same time ensuring that you don’t let them target an area of your ship where you’re shields are weak. This seemed like a good system that was simple to understand but had the potential for hidden depths of strategy.

Unfortunately, this too suffered from poor balance and a lack of difficult. With only two exceptions, I completely outmatched every ship I faced. Even when fighting several ships at once, all I had to do was repeatedly mash on the “fire all weapons” button while occasionally turning my ship around slightly so that no single section’s shields took too much of a beating. The only times when my ship was in any sort of danger were when I was one of a fleet of ships facing a single, powerful enemy vessel (once with AI ships, and once with other people). On both occasions, my ship was destroyed, but I was able to quickly respawn and rejoin the fight with no penalty.

Overall, the game was just too slow-paced to be any fun. It felt a lot like the sort of old-school MMO design that was meant to keep me playing as long as possible to drain as much money from me in subscription fees as possible. Of course, now that it’s a free to play game, that no longer applies, but that origin was still very obvious, and came across as very dated compared to modern MMOs.

As an example, on one mission, I had beamed over to a transport freighter that had suffered an engine malfunction, and one of my objectives was to rescue injured survivors. To do this I had to interact with them once which (after a couple of seconds wait) would tell me what their medical condition was. Then I had to click on them again to treat this medical condition (again, with a couple of seconds delay). Finally, I had to talk to them to tell them to go to the transporter room so they could be beamed out. All of this served no useful purpose except to slow me down and frustrate me.

Travel times, too, were burdensome. Missions were short, and the following missions were often a long way away, necessitating a tedious journey through well-explored and friendly (read: nothing interesting happened) space.

The USS Lancaster, a sleek little off-black ship with pink highlights.

The USS Lancaster, a sleek little off-black ship with pink highlights.

I don’t want to imply that the game was all bad, though. There were some parts of it that I liked. My inner Trekkie was certainly pleased by the many references to parts of the universe that I knew from the TV shows. Early missions included a trip to the monastery of P’Jem (Enterprise) and an encounter with a member of species 8472 (Voyager), for instance.

I also liked the different starship design and customisation features. The ships were modular, so I could choose from a selection of saucers, a selection of nacelles, and so on. I also got to choose my own colours, so I ended up with a sleek little off-black ship with pink highlights. Fabulous.

Overall, though, the positive aspects were far outweighed by the plodding and uninspiring gameplay, which ensured I won’t be coming back for more. There may be an interesting game hidden underneath all of this, somewhere, but unless you’re willing to put in tens of hours to try to find it, I wouldn’t bother with this.

Religion in a faux-medieval world

I was thinking about the question of times when I’d played a role unlike myself in games and came to the conclusion that there were two entirely different ways this can come about. On the one hand, there are the times when I’m forced into playing something other than myself because that’s all that the game offers. All too often, I’ll be playing a thin, able-bodied, straight, white male, not by choice but by default. When this happens, I generally don’t even try to get into the head of my character. He’s just some pixels on a screen which I am guiding around.

On the other hand, there are the occasions when I choose to role-play as someone that I am not because it provides an experience I couldn’t get in the real world. Sometimes, this can be as simple as choosing to play a game where the player character is an expert martial fighter or a genius strategist, since I am neither. Other times, I’m choosing to play a character who is physically unlike me, such as my Elonian characters in Guild Wars both of whom are women of colour because this fits the game lore better, whereas I am white. Still other times, I choose to play a character who is of a different personality to me. Maybe someone more gregarious, someone more overtly feminine, or someone with a shorter temper.

For me, this last is the most interesting. If a game is well written, and I’m in the right frame of mind, I can really get into my characters head. It’s a bit like method acting, only in this case, it’s method gaming.

“]Even when you first meet her, Leliana's religious conviction is obvious from her Chantry robes. [A white woman with coppery hair worn in a bob. She is wearing robes featuring religious symbols.]

Even when you first meet her, Leliana's religious conviction is obvious from her Chantry robes. [A white woman with coppery hair worn in a bob. She is wearing robes featuring religious symbols.

One particularly memorable case of this came for me when I played Dragon Age: Origins. There, I was playing a female character (as I usually do when I have the option) and I decided that of the romance options available to me, I’d woo Leliana. Now, normally, this wouldn’t have been my first choice. Leliana is not my type at all. However, seeing as how she’s female and the other two options were male, she was the closest to my type that I was going to get.

And so, I decided that while she may not have been my type, she was my character’s type. The relationship I chose to pursue heavily influenced the way I saw my character, the way I identified with her, and the way I played the game.

One of the consequences on this was my character’s take on religion. In real life I am an atheist, and by default, that usually carries over into my game characters, who tend to be wary of churches and religious institutions. Leliana, though, is not just sympathetic to the church, but is a devout believer and a member of the Chantry. She also claims to have had visions revealed to her by the Maker.

And so, my character also became religious. At first, she was receptive and open, and as she talked more with Leliana and grew closer, so her faith also strengthened. In my head at least, their shared beliefs were a large part of the bond between Leliana and my Warden that ultimately led to them becoming lovers.

Of course, my character’s religious convictions weren’t confined to her interactions with Leliana. They also guided her other choices when dealing with sacred artefacts, the church, and with magic. When I played, I was no longer Rachel Walmsley, atheist. I was Rhoswen Cousland, devout believer.

This was fun and interesting for me in its own right, but looking back on it now, I think there’s an additional lesson to take from all of this. One of the reasons why I was so effectively able to identify with a religious character is that the religion portrayed in the game was not the same as any religion in the real world.

Well, of course it wasn’t the same. Why would it be? This is a fantasy world with magic and elves; it would make no sense at all to insert Christianity into Ferelden exactly as it is in our world. I can say with certainty that if the game replaced the Chantry with the Christian Church, elves with Jews, and the battle against the darkspawn with a crusade against Muslims that I would not have been able to enjoy the game anywhere near as much. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have played it at all.

Of course, by not having our real-world religions, this made the game-world resemble Europe of the Middle Ages a whole lot less. But so what? That’s a good thing, surely. By not adhering to the real world, the game allowed me to experience being someone with a character, personality, and religion different to my own. If I’d been playing an actual historical RPG set in actual Middle-Ages Europe, I doubt I’d have been able to immerse myself the same way.

Developers have no difficulty recognising that adherence to historical accuracy is not necessary in this one aspect of their games, and yet they feel compelled by it in other areas. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia – amongst others – are all excused on the grounds of historical accuracy. That this is nonsense is unlikely to be news to readers of The Border House, but I think that comparing it with how religion is portrayed in games of this nature provides a stark and instructive contrast.



Interested in writing about your own experiences playing as someone you’re not?  Send us your guest post!

Designing non-human females

Creating non-human species for games (or other media types) can’t be easy. You need to try to create a unique and interesting look, which retains some humanoid features for familiarity, but also has several alien features as well. You need your species to look like something which could plausibly have evolved but at the same time, you need it to be exciting. And for games, you need to make sure that your species works within your technology framework. I have a lot of respect for the great artists of the industry who come up with some truly iconic designs.

One additional consideration is how to deal with sexual dimorphism. Do the males and females of your new species look the same? If not, how are they different?

We all generally know how to distinguish between human men and women (with the caveat, of course, that both sexes are diverse and varied, with substantial crossover in most if not all areas, and that’s before you even start to consider various intersex conditions). Identifying the sex of other animals is much more hit and miss, though. Sometimes, they’re easy. Male lions have manes, whereas females don’t. Male elephant seals are much larger than females. Various birds have males with brightly coloured plumage and females with plain feathers. For other animals, the differences are much less pronounced, and hard for even an expert to spot. How do you tell the difference between a male gibbon and a female one? Or closer to home, what’s the difference between the sexes in domesticate cats or dogs?

The point I’m making is that in actual real animals, the differences between the sexes can be extremely pronounced or virtually non-existent, and it can take all sorts of forms. So when you’re inventing a new species from scratch, how do you decide what differences to use?

The sad fact is that in the vast majority of cases, the males of the species will be designed first as the default, and then females will be made as a variant. So, with that in mind, how do you take a male species deign and turn it into a design for females of the same species.

I’d like to look at two approaches to this. Firstly, Turians from the Mass Effect series, and the charr from the Guild Wars series.

First, the Turians. In this video, Mass Effect 3′s art director, Derek Watts, talks about how the Turians were created. The relevant part, as regards female Turians comes at about 1 minute in, when he has this to say:

They’re all males in the game. We usually try to avoid the females because what do you do with a female Turian? Do you give her breasts? What do you do? Do you put lipstick on her? There’s actually some of the concept artists will draw lipstick on the male one and they’ll say “Hey, it’s done” and we’ll go “No, can you take this serious?”

What I personally take from this is the message that these artists pretty much think of women as being nothing but breasts and lipstick with no other identifying features, that they have very little idea how nature works (hint: birds don’t have breasts), and that they decided that making female characters was hard, so they’d give up. After all, it’s not as if they’re losing anything by not including female Turians, right?

Compare and contrast this with this article in which Kristen Perry talks about designing the female charr for Guild Wars 2. The entire article is worth reading, but for me, the choice quote is this one:

Well, when I started designing the female charr, I definitely wanted her to feel just as fierce as the male of the race. She had to feel sleek and agile while at the same time have an appearance of strength and power. By thinking in terms of movement, it became clear the answer was in optimizing nuances. Yes, she had to be large and robust like the male, but we could tone down the testosterone by really extending her body lines to gracefully flow from the top of her head to tail tip.

Obviously, it’s notable just how different this approach is from that of the Mass Effect 3 designers.

A charr male and female. Both are fierce-looking anthropomorphic felines, though the male is slighly stockier, and their teeth, horns, and tails are different.

A charr male and female. Both are fierce-looking anthropomorphic felines, though the male is slighly stockier, and their teeth, horns, and tails are different.


When I look at this image, I can see that the two creatures shown are clearly of the same species, but that they are also different. The horns are at different angles, the male is stockier and has more teeth. The female has a bushier tale. I can also see that the female is still a ferocious fighter who could rip me to shreds as easily as she could look at me, and that she is most definitely not just there for the male gaze. I suspect that any man she caught leching at her would quickly find himself with sever abdominal injuries.

This sort of thing demonstrates that designing non-human females can be done brilliantly and effectively without resorting to tired tropes or mindless objectification. Knowing what can be achieved just makes it all the more galling to see things like the Turians of Mass Effect where the designers seemingly couldn’t even be bothered trying.

"Also Choose Your Hero" -- Dungeons of Dredmor character select allows for a choice between a white man and a white woman

Dungeons of Dredmor gets a female player character

I played quite a bit of indie roguelike, Dungeons of Dredmor, when it first came out in July. I enjoyed the game, but it annoyed me that I only had the option of playing a male hero. Eventually, I tire of the game and stop playing it.

Fast forward several months, and I’ve just recently picked the game up again. Now, when I play it, I’m faced with this:

"Also Choose Your Hero" -- Dungeons of Dredmor character select allows for a choice between a white man and a white woman

"Also Choose Your Hero" -- Dungeons of Dredmor character select allows for a choice between a white man and a white woman

Hurrah! And what isn’t immediately obvious from the character select screen is that the female player character is done right. She isn’t just there for the male gaze, and has armour that is actually armour an not lingerie pretending to be armour, for instance.

Of course, this still isn’t perfect. It would have been even better if this had been in the game from the start, and it’s still the case that you only have the choice of playing a white hero. I don’t think things have to be perfect, though, for us to acknowledge change for the better. So good job, Gaslamp Games, and thank you. Now can we have some characters who aren’t white as well, please?

I find it gratifying that this is now the sort of thing that more game devs are willing to take seriously. That this sort of thing happens is indicative of the progress that we are making. It’s slow progress, for sure, but it is there.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Characters in Mario Kart 7

I’ve been playing a lot of Mario Kart 7 on the 3DS recently, and while I think it’s a great game, the character choice is extremely frustrating.

Back in 1992, the original Super Mario Kart on the SNES featured eight characters. Of these, seven were male (Mario, Luigi, Bowser, Donkey Kong, Koopa, toad, and Yoshi) while only one was female (Peach). Almost two decades on, let’s see how far we’ve come.

Mario Kart 7 has either 16 or 17 characters in total, depending on how you’re counting. Of those, eight are available for selection initially, with the others needing to be unlocked through play. So let’s start with the initial eight. These are, it turns out, exactly the same characters as the SNES original. Absolutely no improvement on gender diversity there, then.

The unlockable characters do show signs of improvement. Here, we have five male characters (Metal Mario, Lakitu, Wiggler, Wario, and Shy Guy) and three female characters (Daisy, Rosalina, and Honey Queen).

The 17th character is the Mii, which I’m not including here since it’s something of an oddball, seeing as it is an out-of-universe character, and one which is player created. I don’t like to play as a Mii, because it feels jarring against the backdrop of all the Mario characters, but the option is there (after you unlock it).

[Note: For characters where the gender isn't immediately obvious, such as Koopa and Wiggler, I'm going off the gender given on Nintendo's official site.]

So, of a total of 16, we have 12 male characters, and 4 female ones. In the 19 years since 1992, we’ve managed to go from 1/8 inclusion, to 1/4 inclusion. It’s something, I suppose, but it’s not anything I’m going to get excited over.

It gets even worse when you look at it a little more closely, though. Of the four female characters, three of them are extremely similar. Peach, Daisy, and Rosalina are all princess archetypes with crowns and dresses, and offer little variety beyond a pallet swap, a different hairstyle, and a different voice actress.

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7

Rosalina from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a teal dress, standing by a blue kart.

Daisy from Mario Kart 7

Daisy from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a yellow dress, standing by a yellow and orange kart.

Peach from Mario Kart 7

Peach from Mario Kart 7. A woman with a crown in a pink dress, in a red and pink kart.

This is hardly a staggering array of diversity we’re being offered here. In fact, I’m tempted to combine all three of these characters together as variations on a theme. For the sake of fairness, I will also combine Mario, Luigi and Metal Mario, as well as Koopa and Lakitu. In total, this gives us 2 different “ways” to play a female character, and 9 different “ways” to play a male character. If you include the Mii, those numbers go up to 3 and 10 respectively.

Things get even worse when you consider that the character selection isn’t just a cosmetic choice. Instead, the characters fall into 5 different weight classes, with each different class having different strengths and weaknesses in speed, acceleration, handling, and so on. Of the 5 classes, only 3 (or 4 if you include the Mii) have female representatives. The two that are missing are the overall most balanced class (available if you include the Mii) and the class that’s best for beginners.

And if you’re only including the default characters and not the unlockable ones, we ladies only have one choice to match our one character. Needless to say, the men have all five choices available right from the beginning.

To me, the saddest part of all this is that Nintendo are meant to be a company that pride themselves on targeting a broader demographic than just 18-35 year old men. Nintendo games are meant to be the sort of games that anyone can play, regardless of age or gender. Come on, Nintendo, you can do better than this.

Portal 2 developer commentary

Chell, crouching

Unusually among game heroines, Chell is complete non-sexualised. (A white woman of slender to medium build with somewhat messy dark hair. She has bare feet, wears an orange jumpsuit, has braces on the back of her calves, and carries a handeheld portal device, which looks like a futuristic ray gun.)

Portal 2 is not a perfect game from a diversity and inclusiveness standpoint. There are definitely a few moments where it gets things wrong, but there are also a lot of things that it gets right. Most notably (and like its predecessor) it features two strong female characters in Chell and GLaDOS, neither of whom are in any way sexualised. It not only passes the Bechdel Test; it blows it out of the water.

However, this isn’t what impressed me the most about Portal 2. What did impress me most was this comment, from within the game’s developer commentary:

Project Lil is our codename for an internal push to make our comments more accessible to the whole Valve community. It was pointed out to us in mail from a fan, that in some of our previous commentary, the designers referred unfailing to the gamer as a “he”. Although in natural speech most of us normally tend to say tend to say “they” and “their” rather than “he” and “his”, some stuffy, over-active minion of the grammar-police went through and revised all those usages to make them confirm to an oppressive, gender-biased rule. However, research shows that “they” and “their” is a perfectly acceptable and even older form and we’re happy to fall back on it and let people talk the way they normally talk, and screw the so called “rules” that alienate our fans. Thanks, Lil.

This comment, made by writer and designer Marc Laidlaw, can be found in test chamber 13 in chapter 3, for anyone who wants to go and check it out for themselves. (I’ll also note that I transcribed it manually, and may have introduced some errors in doing so. These are my fault and not Valve’s.)

The thing that I love about this is not just that they’re making an effort to be inclusive, but also that they’re willing to admit that they got things wrong in the past. Admitting that you got something wrong is seldom easy and usually takes some degree of courage, so I always cheer a bit when I see things like this.

This is also direct evidence that developers like Valve are learning, are improving, and are willing to engage with us when we politely point out problems we see in their work. I can’t see that as anything other than fantastic news. Thanks, Valve!