Fable III Box Art Disappoints

Recently, a possible US box art for Fable III was revealed. Based on this cover, the game looks like another title with a burly male main character. All 3 games in the series featured covers with a male character looking into a pool of water at something reflected in the pool (a younger version of himself, a monstrous version of himself, or the crown in Fable III). In the original Fable the main character was a male, but the second and third games have the option of a female main character and the image on the box cover does not reflect this major change to the series. Developers cite the cost of including both male and female characters and the writing and recording of extra dialogue as reasons why they choose a single gender for main characters. So when they include the choice of a female or male main character, why not use it as a bullet point to sell their game?

Which games show only male characters on covers when the character can be male or female? Which games show both options? How are main characters described on the back covers of games? After looking through a variety of games I have found examples of some that have done well and ones that disappoint. Let’s look at some covers:

The following games all have a choice of genders for the main character but only show a male represented on the cover:

Cover of original Mass Effect for the Xbox360. The center of the cover shows a male Commander Shepard with 2 squad members surrounding him and Saren's face looming above them.

Cover for the Xbox360 version of Fable 2. The main character is squatting at a pool of water while a monstrous version of himself looks back at him.

Possible cover for Fable 3 on the Xbox360. the main character is reaching for a crown that is resting in a pool of water.

Cover for Dragon Age: Origins on the Playstation 3. The cover shows a silhouette of dragon made of blood.Within the silhouette is a male main character in plate armor and a female mage NPC named Morrigan.

One option to avoid this issue entirely is to have a neutral cover: one where there is no character shown at all.

Cover for Baldur's Gate. The cover looks like an old book with a skull in the center.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion cover for the Playstation 3. A rune appears in the center of a torn page.

The cover for Pokemon Platinum shows a Pokemon rather than a playable character. This is true of many of the recent Pokemon titles.

Other covers show both male and female non-player characters without illustrating the main character. The following cover is for a game with an option to create a main playable character that is either male or female. Without playing the game, people in the store do not know if these are main characters pictured on the cover or simply non-player characters they would encounter in the story. This is an interesting way to attract the attention of players interested in having playable female characters to the game cover.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic cover for the Xbox. It shows several game characters, 2 of which are holding lightsabers.

Some covers blatantly show the option of having a male or a female main character.

Jade Empire for the Xbox shows a female character with a flaming sword and a male character whose hand is glowing.

Harvest Moon: Tree of Tranquility for the Wii shows a farm with a female and male character in the frame.

Animal Crossing: City Folk for the Wii shows a town with a boy and a girl in front.

The exclusion of female main characters is not confined to just the box art. When reading the back covers of some games, female characters are invisible. The following is the full text of the back cover of the Xbox360 version of Mass Effect:

An ancient threat returns. One final hope emerges. As Commander Shepard, you lead an elite squad on a heroic, action-packed adventure throughout the galaxy. Discover the imminent danger from an ancient threat and battle the traitorous Saren and his deadly army to save civilization. The fate of all life depends on your actions!

- Customize your character and embark on an epic adventure in an immersive, open-ended storyline

- Interplanetary exploration of an epic proportion

-Incredible, real-time character interaction

-Thrilling, tactical combat as you lead an elite squad of three

Neither the cover nor the back of the box mention that this customizable main character can be either male or female.

This same problem occurs with the back cover of Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic for the Xbox.

Choose Your Path.

It is four thousand years before the Galactic Empire and hundreds of Jedi Knights have fallen in battle against the ruthless Sith. You are the last hope of the Jedi Order. Can you master the awesome power of the Force on your quest to save the Republic? Or will you fall to the lure of the dark side? Hero or villain, savior or conqueror… you alone will determine the destiny of the entire galaxy!

- A brand new Star Wars role-playing experience with unique characters, creatures, vehicles, and planets.

- Learn to use the Force with over 40 different powers and build your own lightsaber.

- Travel to seven enormous worlds including Tatooine and the Sith world of Korriban.

- Choose your party from nine customizable characters, including Twi’leks, droids, and Wookiees.

- Build your party and upgrade equipment in your own starship, the Ebon Hawk.

Both of these games laud their customizable characters and being able to build your own story! But that story featuring a female character is a glaring omission. While neither of these covers specified a gender for the main character, in the current setting of video games players often correctly assume this would mean a male main character. The default right now is for video game protagonists to be male so not mentioning this choice makes the female option invisible.

It would be wonderful if all games that had a customizable main character allowed either male or female avatar options. This is not yet the case. The majority of games feature a male main character and gamers that would like the option to play as a female avatar are routinely disappointed. So why are developers not using the inclusion of female characters as a selling point for their games? If this inclusion takes time and effort, why is it an ignored feature? Females are invisible on game covers, both front and back, and in video game advertisements. The majority of video game ads for Mass Effect featured only the male voice actor and standard male character design. Since Mass Effect was a game that included full voice work for the female main character it was very glaring to have that missing from its ads. We deserve more covers like Animal Crossing or Harvest Moon and fewer exclusionary covers and back flap descriptions like Mass Effect. When developers include female characters, they should announce that fact rather than hiding it as if it was an embarrassment.

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27 Responses to Fable III Box Art Disappoints

  1. Twyst says:

    Excellent article. The only thing i have to add is that cannon-wise, KOTOR II’s main character is female – The Exile. Tho, BioWare pretends KOTOR II didnt happens, which is incredibly sad.

    • kjdawson80 says:

      If I were BioWare, I might pretend that KOTORII didn’t exist either, because of the glaring bugs I ran into while playing it. Good job, Obsidian! (I still loved the game, but wow.) In all seriousness, though, I didn’t know they completely ignored the canon from KOTORII…

      That really sucks, because the canon version of the main character in KOTORI is a Light Side Male… and for so long everyone was like, “Well, they made up for it by having the Exile be female in KOTORII canon!”

      • Twyst says:

        To be fair, Obsidian had a year to get that out the door — if you play the restored content (which, you shouldn’t have to do in the first place, but none the less) you get to see their intent.
        Kreia and the Exile are amazing. Kreia is probably one of my top 3 videogame characters of ALL TIME. She was amazing.

        But yeah – the SW:TOR stuff totally denies the existence of the events of KOTOR II, which is a huge huge shame. It had a story that was far far FAR better than KOTOR I.

        You could turn ALL OF YOUR CREW into Jedi. That is AMAZING.

        • kjdawson80 says:

          I have KOTOR and KOTORII for the Xbox, so I can’t play the modded/restored content :/ But now you’re making me want to get KOTORII for PC… I liked Kreia, but that ending (for the Xbox) was like sitting through the second disc of Xenogears.

          That sucks that Bioware is ignoring KOTORII for SW:TOR, but at least it looks like Female Exile is considered canon for the SW EU (per Wookiepedia and Wikipedia) – two of the SW Saga RPG books referred to her as female. So that’s kind of something, I guess?

          I went DS and brought as many of my crew with me as possible XD

        • Laurentius says:

          I agree, Kreia is amazing character and also in my opinion change rather generic story of Kotor II into one of the strongest and memorable storytelling in videogames. In fact i haven’t enoucnterd anything that come even close to Kreia’s narrative consciousness in terms of plot and storytellin in games since kotor II. ME 2 pfft probably the worst story from Bioware ever

        • Eusthenopteron says:

          KOTOR II was a terrible Star Wars game. It would have been decent as an original IP, but Obsidian clearly hated the setting and it shows.

          As opposed to KOTOR, which pretty much captured the feel of the universe better than even the movies ever did…

    • James says:

      Really? I’d never heard that. Just for my general fund of knowledge, do you have cite for that?

  2. Jayle Enn says:

    This is a big problem for me, every time I consider buying an RPG– without digging around on the Web, or conclusive screenshots, there’s little guarantee that I’ll be able to play a female character. The last time I downloaded a demo for one, the option to play a female PC was specifically greyed out because it didn’t fit the story. I’m glad to have dodged that bullet.

    • Twyst says:

      I was SO WORRIED with Mass Effect – because MaleShep was everywhere — i had read that you could play a woman, but the article was old, and due to the promos i was scared it was out of date.

  3. Ancalime says:

    Bioware plasters dude-Shep all over everything Mass Effect. We didn’t even get any promo images of the default female Shepard until about 5 days before the game release. I kind of get the feeling they’re embarrassed by her or something, and would quietly remove the option if they could without massive outcry. :P

    • Twyst says:

      they paid a lot of money for that dude’s face. he is a model or somesuch. i am ultra-lazy so i havent googled, but i guess they want their money’s worth >_<

    • kjdawson80 says:

      If they were massively embarrassed by Female Shepard, I don’t think they would have signed Jennifer Hale up to do all of her VO work.

      It does suck that they plastered male Shepard all over the place, because a lot of my guy friends played as F!Shepard for her incredible voice acting.

  4. Thefremen says:

    File this under “game marketing is awful”, it’s like, when they aren’t promoting games by encouraging sexual harassment they’re making box art that isn’t as inclusive as the product within, while failing to list important features.

    Well at least there are demos on consoles now too. I was a pretty big fan of Sup Com, especially how you could cue up construction orders for basically the rest of the game very early on, due to the fact that you only paid for units as they were built. I was excited about the sequel but luckily tried the demo before purchasing, and found they had turned the game into a C&C clone (minus the cheesy cut scenes).

  5. Alex says:

    I love this post so much. Examining the cover art is such a great idea–and with such disappointing results. We always talk about how having a female playable character is worthwhile, that more women will play and enjoy the game if that’s an option. It makes me wonder if these games have lost potential players because the publishers are either too afraid to mention that you have choice of gender, or just overlooked it.

    • Thefremen says:

      It just goes to show that if publishers called the shots, games would literally be designed only for their “target demographics” and DRM would literally kill anyone who even thought of reselling their game.

  6. Nice post. I’m reminded of this unscientific study of 100 game covers that they did at Games Radar:

    http://www.gamesradar.com/f/what-are-the-favourite-types-of-people-used-on-video-game-box-art/a-20090630154258875021

    Cory Doctorow came to the school where I teach last week to do a reading from his (fun) new novel about MMORPGs and Gold-Farming. Afterward, he took some questions and one of the younger faculty members asked him “What is your take on the fact that so many more men play games than women?”

    It was an interesting question, since as Cory was quick to point out, many women play games – the issue is with male-oriented games marketing. It was a reminder of how thanks to dude-centric box art and marketing, many folks get a skewed impression of who actually plays video games.

    And you raise a good point here – I’ve been wondering why games with customizable protagonists still portray the protagonist on the cover at all, really. It worked to show both male and female characters in Jade Empire, since the characters were pre-fab and their physical traits couldn’t be changed, but with truly customizable characters, it seems like it’d be better to take the KOTOR approach and omit the protagonist entirely.

    It’s particularly odd with Mass Effect – there’s that one dude, the “Shepard” that turns up in every ad and game video, on the cover of the game, and who is the default when the game starts. And yet he’s like the least interesting-looking Shepard possible, and a huge part of the charm of that game is watching one’s own shep/femshep go through the adventure. I get that they need a regular character for video demos and the like, but why does he also need to be on the cover of the game?

    Anyway. Game Box art is generally pretty lacking, IMO, for a lot of reasons – this is certainly one of them.

    • Eusthenopteron says:

      “And yet he’s like the least interesting-looking Shepard possible”
      Also the most detailed, and least uncanny-valleyish looking. Never have managed to make a Shepard that didn’t look weird from the side…

  7. 8mph Ansible says:

    Off the top of my head:

    I’m starting to wonder why a game should have a specific protagonist image when you can customize it to your liking.

    Other than that, due to the hideously generic whiteboy protagonist, I jokingly wonder who’ll be the voice actor.

    And though I haven’t played it, I never knew you could play a female in Fable 2. o.0 Every screenshot and video I remember seeing of it was just the male protagonist and if he wasn’t cavorting with a woman then it’s just the guy sister who seems to be a NPC and possible woman-in-fridge (to my thinking).

    I assumed Fable 3 wouldn’t have a female protagonist based on every screenshot and video only portraying a male lead and whenever that guy or the staff working on the game talks about how your character can become a ruler they always say “king” but never mention a “queen”.

    -Ani8

    • Thefremen says:

      Which is a shame because they could do a commercial with a female character along with Queen’s classic “Killer Queen”.

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        Oooh, insta-win. And it’d be a lovely twitching of the awesome meter to establish a matriarchy or even create a female military. *droops head* Le sigh…

        -Ani8

    • Alex says:

      The only reason I knew you could play as a woman in Fable 2 is Molyneux did one demo–it may have been E3–where he played as a woman and mentioned she was running around adventuring while pregnant. Other than that, there was nothing, which totally doesn’t help people who don’t pay attention to previews (which, I would guess, is most gamers).

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        Ayup, that’d be me too as “most gamers”. Hardly ever see much in the way of previews and such for a game unless someone tells me, post it, links it or emails it or the rare occasion that I’m interested in it. Just a cursory overview more often.

        -Ani8

  8. Brinstar says:

    I’d have thought that Mass Effect and Fable II and Fable III did not allow the option to play a female protagonist based upon the marketing and box description. It seems rather misleading to do so, particularly for games in which one of the main appeals is character choice and story.

  9. Ohma says:

    It is annoying that publishers and developers consistantly go for the most boring character to represent their game. “Kids just love 30-something, unshaven, guys with brown buzz cuts.”

    Also a shame because at least the fable 2 marketing (well what bits i remember at least, and the cover) portrayed a noticeably less err…hmm…stereotypically masculine character (re: the cover guy was cute and the magazine ad i remember was a bunch of also cute guys posing in a tavern).

    that said i’m still looking forward to fable 3 “hrrn yes, gun toting woman in early 19th century men’s clothing yes hrr”

  10. virtualjess says:

    It seems to me that whenever you try to design and market a game around One Epic Man, and the whole game is supposed to hinge on His Story, that even if you do make the game playable as both genders, you’d be losing something by admitting as much.
    If your entire game is driven by the heroic protagonist, it makes sense to design that heroic protagonist as a static individual- Shepard is the guy you see on the over of ME2, and all the hype of the game is caught up in him being who he is. Selling him as mutable would shift the focus elsewhere- world exploration or thematic focus or customizability. It wouldn’t be a story about One Epic Man any more.
    Personally, I think One Epic Man stories are boring, over-done, and yawn-worthy in their repetition of common tropes about what it is to be a man, what it is to be a hero, etc. Sure, a story like that can be executed extemely well, or not so much. But what I wonder is what designers are trying to leverage in coming back to the same tropes again and again (and again). I understand that it works, it sells, etc. but progress involves taking risks- if you want to expand your audience, you need to step outside the box. What seems very clear to me is that in the case of the ME franchise, the designers were trying to plant themselves very firmly IN the box. They weren’t interested in appealing to people who feel excluded by the majority of game marketing, they were trying to establish themselves as the norm, with an extra pretty storyline as a bonus.
    This approach probably worked for them. But I’m still waiting for some real risk-taking and ingenuity from game developers here. Try making a story premised on some other aspect of the plot than cojones of the protagonist. Please.

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