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.

About 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.
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84 Responses to Designing non-human females

  1. itchbay says:

    “This sort of thing demonstrates that designing non-human females can be done brilliantly and effectively without resorting to tired tropes or mindless objectification.”

    Yes. This. Please. More of this.

  2. Alex says:

    GREAT article! I immediately thought of the awesome Charr designs when I watched that video. So disappointing. The folks at BioWare are some of the most creative people in the industry, certainly they can think of something!

  3. Sharna says:

    Yeah Bioware is a bit weird like that. They seem to be so progressive and I love Dragon Age Origins, I have replayed that game so many times.

    But there are still problems, like how all the “Darkspawn” you fight are all male and the only female one you fight is called, the BROODmother. So female darkspawn are just there to make more male darkspawn? Nice.

    • Deviija says:

      Let’s not forget the Desire Demons either. :P How they’re all scantily clad buxom exotic humanoid (very human female) women. The devs, like Mr. Gaider, have talked about on numerous occassions that there was going to be a male Desire Demon model in DAO, but it was cut. Desire Demons were supposed to be demons that appeared to the individual in a pleasing form that instilled, well, desire in the individual. A more comely appearance for them to look upon when dealing with whatever desires (physical, financial, ambitious, etc) they had.

      Unfortunately, Desire Demons are just default scantly clad ladies… while all the other demons of the Fade seem to be implied as male (going by their voices). Sloth, Rage, Pride, etc. I’d love for a huge Pride behemoth like in DA2 to have a growly female or androgynous voice, for example. Alas.

      • feministgamer says:

        This. And the Asari.

        • The *good* thing about the Asari is that since they’re all femaleish, a sufficiently Asari-controlled area forces the writers to include characters they wouldn’t ordinary write as female.

          Unfortunately, the heaps of nameless sexy dancers obscure that small bonus.

          • Deviija says:

            And not to mention sex-psychic vampire predator plotline… the Ardat-Yakshi crap. Could’ve been somewhat interesting, but ultimately boils down to excuse to have a sexual predator vampirism lady seduction plotline that even FemSheps can be a part of.

            Can you imagine being tasked with such a plotline, for a male alien, as DudeShep? Needing to allow yourself to be seduced, or possibly even getting seduced by said alien’s mind-manipulation (like Shepard can succumb to at Morinth’s apartment for a brief moment). Yeah, that’ll never happen. But pseudo-lesbianic contrived situations? Totes okay!

          • Jonny says:

            New to the Mass Effect series, but it seemed from the go that the Asari were kind of a fanservicey touch. Not to say there weren’t interesting Asari characters, but an entirely female race known throughout the galaxy as being horny and experimental… Idk how much credit I give Bioware for creativity with gender roles.

            • Ciprian says:

              Great piece of writing!

              I have a relatively dumb quetion, but didn’t play enough Mass Effect to get the answer. How do Assari preserve themselves as Species? I recall somethign between them an Krogans, but can’t really remember.

              And I sure support Johnny’s opinion. The Krogans as model of a male race are a makeing a point in that direction too. Actually BioWare seems to have used some religious, cultural, folcloric or pop archetypes.

            • Deviija says:

              Oof, hit the reply limit in-thread again. But this is a reply @Ciprian:

              Asari can have sex and reproduce with any species and sex. They reproduce through touch with their partner. It has echoes of Vulcan Mind-Melding. Psychic/Biotic merging poor science to explain fanservice, imo. But the gist of it is that the Asari produces two DNA sets, both of her own DNA. The second set is then reconfigured to resemble their mate’s DNA map/structure. Using the other parent’s DNA as a template, you could say. The child is always one-hundred percent Asari, however, regardless of parentage; their partner is just giving them a new mapping configuration. So the original Asari map and the mate’s map then are used in creation of a child.

              Although why Asari can or would have *physical* sex with other species in general is very questionable to me (and no doubt purposely put in for hetero male lesbian fantasy fetishes). I mean, I imagine an (average) Asari would be more mortified and unnerved by their mate x-species wanting to put a certain appendage (or more) somewhere on/in their person for sex. Asari mate psychically/biotically/via nervous system unification and DNA reorganization… they only need to touch their partner to reproduce/meld, not sexual intercourse or what have you.

  4. Deviija says:

    Very lovely article and valid points I think we’ve had a few tangent discussions about here at the BH in the comments sections of other articles.

    One thing that always, always, always bothers me about sci-fi and fantasy depiction of alien and fantastical species/races is that they’re always so human. Pretty space elves, pretty exotic humans, etc. And almost always are the women identifyably idealized human female — with curvy hips, slender waist, estrogen-soft facial features, noticeable breasts (even when they’re not anything close to being mortal or mammalian), and oft sporting makeup. Meanwhile, the male counterparts can be whatever they want to be and differ so wildly that males and females of the same species look like completely different species in themselves.

    The usual go-to imagery for fantasty races and science fiction aliens is breasts and sexualization/objectification acessibility. That’s so very shallow and disheartening. There is so much more to a woman, and that much more for a fictional woman.

    I give many kudos to Kristen Perry and her creativity for the Charr. That said, I still feel it suffers from the humanized cliches/ideals that women of any species/race must be more slight in build than the male counterparts, more agile, more sleek, more implied dexterity/gracefulness, etc. That in many ways, imo, is still just as limiting and standardized as much of everything else. Why can’t the female be the larger/wider/taller/imposing, more robust, more muscular of a race? We are dealing with fantasy and science fiction in our games, not reality. Push those limits, challenge those gender norms, open unique doors, I say.

    • rho says:

      I think that in the case of the charr, this is the correct decision, because having males be larger and more muscular than females isn’t so much a human thing as it is a mammal thing.

      Warning! Contains science!

      Basically, whenever a species displays sexual dimorphism, you have to ask why this is the case. For the vast majority of thing that an animal does, it doesn’t matter whether it’s male or female. Hunting, protection from predators, camouflage, keeping warm, and so on and so forth. These are all basic needs which males and females face in the same way. In those cases you’d think that if being larger or smaller was an advantage for one sex, then it would also be an advantage for the other sex, so with all other things being equal, you’d expect males and females to look the same.

      Of course, everything else isn’t equal. Males and females breed in different ways, and the difference is especially pronounced in mammals. To be specific, it is possible for a male to breed with many many different females during a mating season, but a female can only breed with one male. If she’s already pregnant, she can’t get pregnant again.

      The vast majority of mammalian sexual dimorphism derives from this difference. Males can try to compete for multiple females, but females can’t try to compete for multiple males. This leads to situations where males will fight with each other to determine dominance, with the dominant male getting to keep a harem. In these cases, it can be advantageous for the males to be larger so they can fight better. It can also lead to situations where females can afford to be more picky about their mates, and will choose the largest male. Either way can result in the males of a species being bigger than the females.

      Ironically, this tends to mean that the females are the base form and are better suited to survival than the males, because the males have deviated from the form that is best able to survive to focus on being more able to reproduce. Being larger may help a male mate, but it carries the cost of making survival harder by having a higher food requirement.

      (In species where the males and females tend to pair off in monogamous relationships and raise their young together, there is usually little or no sexual dimorphism. This implies that in our evolutionary history, humans were fairly monogamous but with a slight tendency towards polygamy, given that we have some sexual dimorphism but that it isn’t very pronounced. Obviously, this should in no way shape modern conceptions of morality.)

      Anyway. Science bit over. The point is, there are good scientific reasons why mammal males tend to be bigger (or the same size as) mammal females, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to export this into fictional species.

      Admittedly, you could say that this is a fantasy world, and that the charr were probably created by magic rather than naturally evolving over millions of years, so possibly the same standards shouldn’t apply to them. And if some designer chose to take that position, I certainly wouldn’t say that they were wrong to do so. But at the same time, I also don’t think that it’s wrong to adhere to science when it’s available.

      (There are also a few exceptions in the real world, but they are very much in the minority.)

      • Zaewen says:

        Actually, the natural world is far, far more varied than that. Even just among us mammals. Relatively few species have males that keep a harem of females (like gorillas and lions do), and in several species the females will mate with as many males as possible (such as some cat species). And there are several species (even in the mammalian world) that have larger females than males (hyenas being the most well known example). The theory that sexually dimorphic size differences come down to parental investment or monogamity/promiscuity levels is being shown to be faulty. It more likely has to do with different selective pressures for each species.

        Also, there’s been some strong studies recently that point to early human sexuality being far more like bonobos than like any other extant primates. Which would mean loads of sexy times for pleasure and for strengthening social bonds.

        Either way though! There is a huge world of vastly amazing and wondrous species out there. That game designers continue to only use a dimorphism model that mimics the stereotypical large, bulky male and small, slender female is a shame. Let’s have more like EQ2’s Sarnak where the females are much larger than the males with more developed horns. Or, heck, even just stick with EQ’s radical idea that non-mammals don’t have mammaries.

        • rho says:

          Oh, I’m not trying to say there aren’t exceptions, and that it isn’t more complex than that. It absolutely is! I was never going to capture every nuance and every detail in a five-paragraph summary on a gaming blog! I knew that hyenas were one exception to the rule, and I believe that some whales are as well, due to the females needing more fat deposits to provide milk for their young in the season when they aren’t feeding.

          I do believe, though, that it is still the case that if you looked across all mammalian species that display sexual dimorphism, that there would be a lot more with larger males than larger females. I’m not trying to claim this as a hard-and-fast rule, mind, just as a general one.

          That said, if you have any references for what you’re saying, I’d love to read them. If I’m wrong, then I want to know that I’m wrong, and more importantly, the exact details of how I’m wrong. :D

          I’ll also note that I’ve never actually played any of the EQ games, so I can’t comment on any of the specifics there.

          • Deviija says:

            Believe me, I know my SCIENCE!~ ;) But the emphasis was not on the science part so much as that these games are *fantasy* and not reality. This is why I urge creativity and pushing gender norms and exploration of societal uniqueness rather than the standard quo of what we usually get in fantasy and sci-fi.

            In a world where you can hurl fireballs and extrapolate on the laws of magic, or where huge dragons with impossible flight-capable vestige wings roam the skies, or where ancient gods actually speak to your PC and perhaps even walk the earth in fleshly form, or where huge machines with massive egos turn races into mulch to make more of their machinekind, it is really silly (to me) to adhere to any kind of SCIENCE! for the sake of sexual dimorphism as we on EARTH, or as mammals, know/expect it to be. That’s my gripe. Why call for ‘realism’ in certain things but not in others? :)

            • rho says:

              Sorry, I didn’t mean to patronise you or assume that you didn’t know or anything. I’m just the sort of person who will take any possible flimsy excuse to geek out over science. :D

              Personally, I love when fantasy worlds do scientific accuracy. I have been known to shout “but that doesn’t make any sense!” at my computer when a game messes up a point of population genetics or thermodynamics, or whatever.

              OK, I’ll admit it, this probably makes me a little bit odd, but that sort of thing really adds to a world for me.

            • Deviija says:

              Oops, reply in-thread limit reached. Hopefully you’ll see this Rho — a response to your last post. :)

              No harm meant, I didn’t take any offense at the reply. I appreciate the commentary and welcome the discourse. I just wanted to clarify the essense and essence of my original post.

              I’d love for games to think more critically and more scientifically/biologically, with deeper reasons and meanings for what societies are the way they are, or why a certain creature evolved into a sentient being the way it did. Having more critical thinking on different and unique anthropology and psychology and sociology for societies/peoples wouldn’t hurt either. Instead of the standard stock of faux-racism and elves/dwarves/pretty humans all with (false) white Euro-medieval-esque cultures… Unfortunately, that is not something seen often at all in gaming. Design and artists usually trump writers and reason, and then marketing comes along and loves to highlight certain sex-sell aspects of this and that. :\

              I guess that’s just how I operate. If I can suspend my disbelief for Not!Real things like magic and dragons, then my Science! brain usually takes backseat on many things that are part of a fantasy world. Since who knows what kind of laws of physics or reality a world actually utilizes, especially when magic/biotics/the force/multiple planes and dimensions/god-beings/whatever mystical mojo might be able to influence the natural world.

            • rho says:

              I’m completely incapable of ever switching my science brain off, which is both a blessing and a curse. Even when things make absolutely no sense, I will forever be trying to think up rational explanations for them. If there’s a fantasy world with a well developed system of magic, I want to try to figure out what rules govern how magic works. I can’t help it, it’s just how my brain works. It means that trying to, for instance, watch Star Trek time travel episodes is bad for my health, but otherwise it’s quite fun.

          • Zaewen says:

            You’re definitely right that there are more sexually dimorphic mammals that have larger males than larger females, and also that there are a great many mammals that have little to no sexual dimporphism. As you said, it can be hard to capture the magnificent diversity that is the animal kindgom, or even just mammals in a few short paragraphs. So, I was more trying to add to the discussion that there is more variety out there than just the mammals we’re culturally familiar with that fit the mold of bigger, stronger, promiscuous males and smaller, weaker, sexually-selective females. And that our models for the origin of sexual dimoprhism, like the one you mentioned, have some ironing out to do. Check out this article, it kinda gives an overview of some of the flaws in our current understanding of sexual dimorphism. My apologies that it came off confrontational instead of conversational. I, too, geek out over science actually making a cameo in my fantsay and sci-fi games and stories, so I can get a lil over-excited about talking about it.

            Someone down thread reminded me of the frogloks from EQ as well, and they are a great example of a species with very little dimorphism working well in a game. Just enough difference to make it meaningful for players to be given a choice between genders, but without have to resort to lipstick or such to make demarcate the feminine. In my experience, the only people who could tell a male froglok from a female one was someone who spent a loooot of time playing the race or messing around in the char creator. It mostly came down to spot patterns and slight torso/head differences.

            P.S. I really hope I did the code for the link right :S

      • Bolegium says:

        I love the science rant, and i’d love it even more if game devs thought about character design with as much depth as your post went into. However, when Bethesda designs female Argonians (i.e. ‘Lizard People’) with breasts, and Bioware’s idea of a “monogendered race” (the Asari) is basically male fanservice – they are not even close to using ‘science’ as an excuse for lazy character design.

        Also – because the obvious needs repeating – breasts are literally a mammalian thing, if you’re using them to automatically denote “female”, please don’t.

        Other suggested rules include:
        *Make non-discriminatory character design a priority so you don’t end up with situations where you only have one sex.
        *If you do end up with only one sex don’t have it always default to male.
        *Don’t use “monogendered” as an excuse.
        *Don’t equate species with ‘race’.

        • Eraziel says:

          I like the idea of having monogendered or polygendered races. The only thing we need to adress with the monogendered part is to stress out that this gender is neither male nor female, but something inbetween as this gender needs to recreate androgynously. Maybe designers should try to think more about how recreation and childraising works within a species when designing it.
          Is the species mammalian? If no, then goodbye breasts. Is the child raised in society? In a family? With a lone parent? Does the species lay eggs? If yes, which parent does the breeding, if any? Do they recreate in another, alien-like way?
          So many possibilities and yet 90% of all alien species will be mammalian and have the females have breasts -.-

          How relieved I was when I saw that NextGen Episode with that completely androgynous species and how funny it was to see that even Riker was not limited to loving women :D

      • Kimadactyl says:

        I have a book exactly about this Rho. I’ll dig out the title for you when you’re on IRC!

    • Doone says:

      Aside from the science bit, I find these “softer” qualities to be very feminine. Grace, dexterity, and smooth shape are what I’d consider (physical) female qualities. And this can be done, as with the Charr, without breasts and butts.

  5. I like the take on the female charr.  The dimorphism fits with the race being feline, if one imagines that the artist had lions in mind to some degree.  (Now, I have heard someone complain that female charr “look like huge kittens,” but I digress)

    Now, if only certain other game companies would learn from Hargrove’s example.  (I’m looking at you, Blizzard.)

    • Perry’s, rather.  Yes, I read that; I somehow assigned the wrong name to the wrong artist.  Ack.

    • rho says:

      I am firmly of the opinion that anyone who told a female charr to her face that she looked like a huge kitten would quickly find their intestines staining the ground in front of them.

      • That was more or less my response.

        Well, actually, it was “if you tried to scritch her behind either pair of ears, you’d probably lose that arm.  If she were having a good day, that is.”

  6. Pai says:

    Regarding the sleekness of the female Charr, there -are- some choices in face options for them to make them look more ‘monstrous':

    • Alex says:

      Ooh, thanks for sharing this! That’s awesome.

    • Completely random, but I love the caracal face (#3) for some reason.  (And #8, because it’s spiky.)

    • Zaewen says:

      That’s good news! I like the overall design of the Charr, and I actually prefer more graceful feline designs. But I always find myself doing an eyeroll whenever I see a species where the males are FIERCE AND FEROCIOUS with gnarly yellow fangs of death and spiky horns of doom, but the females are Fierce and Feminine with (comparatively) dainty fangs and horns. If it’s a species known for its feral ferocity, then don’t give me the watered down, gussied up version, I want the real deal! *glares in the general direction of Blizzard’s Worgens*

      (Although, wow, only 8 faces? Seems a lil low, but maybe I’m a bit spoiled from other MMOs)

      • rho says:

        Considering that GW2 is still in beta, and that the screenshot comes from a demo at a convention, I’d be surprised if there didn’t end up being more options when the final game is shipped.

      • Deviija says:

        Me too. I’d prefer if a race (as a whole) is supposed to be fierce/beastly/ferocious, that this shows up in the designs for males *AND* females. Not just reserving the most extreme (and usually “un-pretty/handsome”) presets and options for the male character. It annoys me so much.

        If a race offers a couple more subdued and cleaner and ‘prettier’ options for the females of a race, then why can we not get some for the males of the race as well? If it is within the species to have certain features for one sex, then it should be allowable for the other as well. Not to mention allowable for the simple fact of player choice. I like how the Charr look, but hey, I might want a more nicer/cleanlier/less intense-ragey looking male Charr. Just as I might want a more ferocious, scarred up, and grizzlier female Charr.

  7. Jesse says:

    I just seem to get more disappointed with Bioware the more I read articles about them :/

  8. Corbiu Geisha says:

    I just had the tangential thought about size dimoprhisim in Sci-Fi/Fantasy alien races. The only one I can think of where the female is larger and more powerful than the male(?) are the Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise.

    Maybe we can count the Broodmother from Dragon Age as well but all Broodmothers do is give birth whereas the Xenomorph Queen actually gets up and demonstrates her physical power by fucking shit up.

  9. Maverynthia says:

    I do like that NCSoft went with breastless Charr, however they still pander IMO to the male-gaze by making the women “graceful”. That word ‘graceful’ is linked to another sexist, patriarchy pandering word, ‘ladylike’. It basically tells me that even though they decided to go without the breasts, bows and make-up they still are hammering the female charr into a socially expected norm for women and that is graceful. They are “sleek”, “aerodynamic”, etc. As if now your describing a car or other vehicle.

    One company that has done right as pointed out above is SONY with EverQuest II. The Iksar (Lizardpeople), Sarnak (Draconians), and Frogloks (Frogpeople) don’t have breasts at all on the characters and the only way to tell sometimes the difference is to hear them speak.

    • Tash says:

      I wouldn’t say that female Charr are “graceful” – I’ve been reading the Guild Wars book, “Ghosts of Ascalon”, and the adjective most used to describe the female Charr compared to the males is “agile”.

      & I wouldn’t say the female Charr described in the book are anything at all “graceful” and “ladylike” – in one of the main Charr character’s first appearance she nearly kills two people and throughout the book continually threatening, being imposing, and throwing other characters aside, literally.

      I think Anet are pretty hot on equality; there have been multiple blog posts on equal armors for male/female and etc. I remember reading somewhere that they had lots of meetings on how the female Charr should look – and that it came down to them having 6 breasts or none. So what I read from a previous post of – did they make the female Charr less bulky due to science or the male gaze – I would say science.

      Just 2 cents from someone who’s been following GW2 pretty religiously, and so this is what I’ve seen on the topic.

  10. After stumbling upon this video yesterday, I also wanted to blog about the issue, but had no time. Glad you did; can’t wait to read it when I’m at a reasonably sized screen again. ;-)

  11. Korva says:

    This kind of article should be required reading for designers and writers everywhere. Can we print it, wrap it around a bunch of cluesticks, and visit the likes of Bioware and Blizzard? Not even trying, indeed.

    Love those Charr. If it was up to me, there’d be next to no visual difference at all, but it sure is leagues above and beyond what you usually see. As you said: the males are considered the default and the women are the afterthought that may only exist when you can sex them up — or, very occasionally, when the “big, monstrous, hyperfertile female” gets played for being “gross” or as a joke.

    As another example of well-done design, both physical and cultural, let me mention the hyena-people in Ursula Vernon’s kickass webcomic “Digger”. They’re a far cry from the “furry fetish” animal-people you often see.

    • Kat says:

      I was just thinking of the hyenas! In a one-two punch of awesome, they’re also a great example of a matriarchy that doesn’t follow the ‘evil, sexy women keep men from their rightful place as leader’ cliche. And Digger, herself, is from a race that has no obvious sexual dimorphism.

      Ursula Vernon is wonderful.

      • makomk says:

        Wow, that webcomic is just amazing in general. It’s interesting how the hyena matriarchy is written to be fairly obviously oppressive in ways that mirror our own patriarchy, and yet this is left as something for the reader to infer. After all, where would anyone involved in it get the idea that anything was wrong, let alone come to believe that men have a “rightful place as leader”?

  12. Kat says:

    Well, add GWII to the list of MMOs I’ll need to try out. I, personally, would prefer if the males looked a little more like the females, to be honest. I think it’s mostly just the face, though, so there’ll probably be options to change that at release. It’s miles better than Bioware’s attempts, to say nothing of developers like Blizzard.

    On the topic of Bioware, it’s kind of disappointing that so many of their designs follow the ‘human in a suit/makeup’ format that TV shows and a lot of movies are limited to. I think reading K. A. Applegate’s Animorphs series as a kid spoiled me for aliens. You can tell a male Hork-Bajir from a female by counting the blades on their heads, the Yeerks have three sexes with no visible differences because they all just look like little slugs, and iirc, the Andalite females are slightly smaller on average than the males, and have more of a purple cast to their fur rather than blue.

    Oddly enough, Applegate didn’t need to slap breasts or lipstick onto any of her alien females. The lack of imagination shown by some of these character designers is just staggering.

    • Deviija says:

      It is very true that BW is taking the approach of humans with make-up approach to the majority of their aliens in ME. As you mentioned, it is very much like that seen on tv sci-fi shows. I’m not defending anything whatsoever, but I do think they’d claim that is part of the overall vibe they’re going for. The ME series is stylized off of 80’s sci-fi look and tropes, which they’ve freely admitted before. Part of their design. So I can imagine them claiming that as an excuse — it being part of their design look. They do claim that with the Asari. (Captain Kirk getting it on with hot alien babes.) :P Really, it’s just lazy (and pandering sexualization) design, imo.

      Anywho, this response is more directed at K.A. Applegate! Yes! I loved Animorphs when I was a wee sapling. I loved that she never slapped breasts or lipstick on something and called it a female of x-species. Her aliens, also, were VERY alien and very intriguing. There was a TON of thought put into the aliens and their reproduction/appearances and it really did show. It made things believable and cause Little-Me to really think outside the mainstream box. For the times.

      With tv shows, I understand there is a real limitation between technology, budget, feasibility, and actors. But in our games? The limitations on design and physicality of characters is VERY different, creativity can reign supreme here. We don’t need to worry about ‘can this actor sit through 10 hours of makeup every shoot,’ or ‘can the puppetmaster work within this suit and how much will it cost per episode.’

  13. lucysnowe says:

    “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?””

    So basically, ME’s dev team is being paid to be lazy, derivative dullards. Nice work if you can get it.

    What I don’t get is that the Turians appear, to me, to be evolved from some sort of avian creature. So, Bioware, take a moment, google “birds” “mating”, land on Wiki and spend a few hours reading up on sexual dymorphism in our feathered friends. Hell, it could even be considered accurate to go the peacock route and have the male Turians decked out in beautiful multicolored getups, with perhaps some lovely head plumage? And the women all utilitarian and business-like. Presto, easily categorizable males and females.

    See? Solved the lipstick problem in literally 2 minutes of pre-morning coffee brainstorming. Where’s my job offer?

    Anyway, I’m enjoying the character design for GW2 so far, it makes me happy to see how much thought was put into it. And, re: the alien ladeez, I love that when I look at a male and female Charr, I see characters that far more closely resemble a real-world lion and lioness, and not, say, a lion and a fan-service cat furry. I’m interested to see what they do with the plant people, the Sylvari? I think? They do seem to have fairly classic sexual dymorphism (i.e. breasts), but I’m hoping there’s some sort of lore reason? I’m not really sure how plant people reproduce, so…

    • Tash says:

      The Sylvari are based on human anatomy, as they grew from a tree planted by a human, hence the breasts. As the race is only 25 years old, they follow the human moral code, including which parts of their bodies to cover up.

      Sylvari don’t technically have a sex/gender though, as they cannot reproduce. Because of this male/male female/female relationships are common among Sylvari, as gender doesn’t mean anything to them.

      • Kimadactyl says:

        I dunno, when I plant a tree it doesn’t have boobs :)

        Also – trees are perfectly capable of reproducing (both with m/f trees and self fertilising ones) – so feel like this is totally an anthropocentric tic.

        • Pai says:

          The Sylvari are the ‘fruit’ of the tree that bore them, so in that sense they are the end of the reproductive cycle. That’s why they themselves don’t reproduce.

          They are human shaped to help them fit in with humans, basically. It was a purposeful decision on the part of their tree.

        • Deviija says:

          Yeah, I get that magic and mystical tomfoolery is involved in how Sylvari came to take after human anatomy, but… the explanation and justification (to have sexy lithe plant-humans) just feels more like tomfoolery to me than actual interesting uniqueness. So– yeah. :)

      • rho says:

        Just to expand on this a little, for anyone wanting more details, the official lore is at

        • Korva says:

          The basic idea is quite interesting, and I like how it clearly states that gender roles have no meaning to them. In my book, the often-repeated desire to make them “beautiful” distracts from that, though. Would’ve been nice to have them look androgynous or asexual. At least the designers promise “rugged” options for both genders to go along with the “pretty” ones.

          • Alex says:

            Just fyi, androgyny is an aesthetic but asexual is not, it’s an orientation. /nitpick :P

            Also, what I found nice about the “pretty” designs of the Sylvari is that the male Sylvari are also that way, they aren’t suddenly huge and macho or something. There’s consistency. And that they’re nice to look at but still alien, not just hot ladies who are blue (cough). I’m interested to see how far they push the design when it comes to the face choices.

            This is another really fascinating article about the Sylvari that I highly recommend, describing how the race was completely re-designed: They actually are quite unique to gaming.

            • Korva says:

              I’m asexual myself. :) Isn’t it also used to mean “no sexual characteristics/function at all”, though? I’d like to see both: characters from “standard” species who are asexual in terms of orientation, and characters who are asexual in terms of not having any “plumbing” at all. Obviously that’d be rare, what with sex being necessary for procreation, usually, but with a background like the Sylvari have it’d make sense to me.

              You’re right though that the fact that the males can be pretty too and aren’t hulking brutes is good, and at least “fair”. I bet it’ll lead to a certain amount of hatred and contempt from the people who think that men MUST be hulking brutes and must NEVER be “pretty”, much less appeal to women. Hope they’ll choke on it.

            • Jonny says:

              What Alex and Korva just said about asexual characters just made me remember something. Anyone play the Oddworld games? On a first glance it would seem like 98% of the characters are male, but apparently most of them are superspecies – specifically a queen gives birth to both a sexual class and an a-sexual working class. That means that Abe and the Glukkons aren’t really ‘he’s but ‘it’s. Cant’ speak for Munch or Stranger though. And THAT’s the company I’d turn to for interesting character design. :)

          • Cuppycake says:

            Asexuality doesn’t mean “has no sexual characteristics”. It means “has no sexual attraction to anyone.” Therefore, someone cannot look asexual anymore than they can look straight.

            Hope that clarifies for you. :)

            • wererogue says:

              But “asexual” is a biological term referring to organisms which reproduce without sex – usually by self-cloning; which makes the terminology rather confusing. In this case, I can certainly see a suggestion that something “look asexual” by not having genitals or sexual characteristics.

      • Laurentius says:

        Despite all ANet words i still don’t understand what are the parts that plant people need to cover…

        • wererogue says:

          I sort of understand that argument, but the article is pretty clear – the plant people are produced to look like humans, and when you look at humans they have clothes. What I love about their design is that the structure of the clothes is clearly barmy – they’re grown out of wherever was convenient – making it pretty clear that they’re not there for function.

          I think the Silvari are really creative, and that extends to their society. I’m looking forward to seeing whether how far away from “pretty” you can take them, since it’s a bit weird for the tree to copy our popular aesthetics.

  14. ProdiGal says:

    While I think that BioWare has messed up too many times on feminist issues for me to take the “but female character design is hard you guys!” excuse seriously, I do sort of understand the issue that Derek Watts is describing, as it’s something that I’ve brought up before. Namely, the issue of balancing “good female character design” against the reality that “male” is viewed as the default, and that any female character who does not exhibit certain things that we associate with female (breasts, high pitched voice, etc.) runs the risk of being perceived as male, and having their identity erased.

    This is something I experienced in Dragon Age, ironically… when you go to the forest and have to help the elves with the werewolf problem. Even though they all look and sound the same – like male Worgen in WoW – there are actually female elves that get transformed as well, who I mistook for male initially.

    • Bolegium says:

      But Bioware already has created “good female character design” without resorting to sexist tropes – EDI is presented only as a ‘hyper intelligent shade of blue’ with a female voice and is a fantastic character. It isn’t really necessary to have obvious visual cues when good acting/writing do a far better and fairer job of forming a character. I guess this is an advantage that games with complete voice-acting have over other games.

      I can understand the argument to make sexual dimorphism more obvious so as to not erase female identities, if players are just going to assume the the default is male, but there are plenty of ways to do this don’t involve boobs! pink! ponytails! etc.

      Also, devs – don’t be afraid of androgynous or non-gender specific character deigns! If done well, players will NOT just assume that non-specified means “male”. This: is a personal favourite example from the yet-to-be-released game ‘Journey’.

      • ProdiGal says:

        I’d say EDI is an exception more than anything else, because her “physical” appearance is nowhere near humanoid enough for the viewer/player to gender her one way or another based solely on appearance, and her design is not necessarily realistic for biological and/or humanoid lifeforms, i.e. how would one transfer her design specifications to designing, say, a female Turian?

        But anyway, that’s sort of my point: you have to give her a “female” voice in order for her to be gendered as female. There’s only so much you can “get away with” before a female character becomes ungendered, because being male is viewed as the default. If she had been voiced by a woman with a deep voice, such as Claudia Black (who voiced Admiral Daro’Xen vas Moreh in ME2), it’s possible that some players would have gendered her as male without any other cues to go on, such as pronouns from other people talking about her. And even then pronouns are subtle enough where some people wouldn’t even notice.

  15. Nyoka says:

    Here’s how you design a female turian: You take the turian model and change the name of the file to FEMALETURIAN. That’s it. If I posted a photography of some lizard or blackbird nobody who isn’t an expert on that specific species would notice a difference. Not in body shape, vocalizations, size, nothing.

    Even the stupid lizard with tits in Skyrim is better than eliminating one whole group because you think one sex is essential and the other is disposable. Can you imagine a lead designer from an international game company going HURR WHAT DO YOU MEAN “MALES”? WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO, ADD A COCK TO THE MODEL? DURR DURR. Yeah.

    The charr design is great though.

    • Even the stupid lizard with tits in Skyrim is better than eliminating one whole group because you think one sex is essential and the other is disposable.

      And that’s just it:  Based on some discussions I’ve gotten into with these fancritters, I think they really do consider female characters a nonessential special feature.  And one whose primary purpose is titillation, at that.

  16. Austin says:

    I think it should be pointed out that a female Turian was depicted in one of the Mass Effect comics…. and the solution was to simply remove the head crest, which I think makes perfect sense for that species.

  17. Cuppycake says:

    I love this article.

    It reminds me about the Tauren female model in World of Warcraft. They took the male Tauren, slimmed it down, gave it some curves, and added boobs on it. I always found it creepy that I had boobs as a Tauren.

  18. Ra-chan says:

    This is my favorite article that I’ve seen on Border House in quite some time. The lack of creativity on part of the Bioware team in the given example is astonishing. Also, speaking as someone who would LOVE to be designing cool fantasy/alien races for a living, it’s pretty damn annoying. I really appreciate the amount of thought and iterations put into the Charr designs.

  19. Eben says:

    Such a good article.
    It seems that the devs are looking in all the wrong places for answers.When the alien is being designed in concept art,desicions have already been made as to what species they may resemble.Taking that paradigm further,should they then not also use male/female differences already present in those species?

  20. BlackCat says:

    Great discussion, it’s so nice to actually have played one of the games you’re talking about. :)

    I wanted to let people know, who perhaps haven’t played Guild Wars, that, in GW2, there are going to be five different races to play: Human, Charr, Norn, Asura, and Sylvari. I wanted to mention the Asura, a race that has almost no differences between the men and women at all, is not traditionally beautiful and is very short. I think they’re another good example of how to design non-humanoid races.

    Here’s the wiki on them, if you’re interested.

  21. Mantheos says:

    I find the Locust in Gears of War interesting. The Locust females are called Berserkers. Check them out.

    Interestingly enough, they are uglier than the males. I do not approve of the way they reproduce, but I am glad that Epic went away from simply putting human feminine characteristics on the creature and calling it female.

  22. I was actually wondering about some species female roles as well. Some species have their females as the dominant sex in the relationship i.e. Black Widow, Angler fish, Spotted Hyena. I’d have thought you could apply the same idea to Trolls, Orcs, Dark Spawn, Krogan, etc.
    Also, the idea of the Brood Mothers being the only female reminds me of ants… actually, Dark Spawn remind of ants in a few ways, what with the undergroundliness and moving in swarm-like clusters.
    To be honest, I’d wondered about the fact that pretty much all of the aliens (minus Quarians) in Mass Effect never show the female equivalent. I’d let it go almost as easily as it came up but I owe this article credit for making me thinking more deeply on the subject.

  23. ooh, very nice. I’m liking more and more the things I’m reading about GW2 – it seems they’ve fixed a lot of the basic design decisions that made me dislike the first one, and now this.

  24. Pai says:

    Another great picture of a Charr female:

    Nothing ‘prissy’ or weak about that gal!

  25. Momiji says:

    Checking out this video about designing the world of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I couldn’t help but think of this article and comments when at 2:00, a “large half-snake/fish lady” is depicted with a pair of distinctly human breast. I love the art of the game, but why would such a monsterous creature have humanlike features like that? It just makes it weird. I hope similar design won’t be too prominent in the game.

    • Jonny says:

      I was going to make a point about mermaids and drawing on mythological archetypes, but having watched the video I see what you are saying. The creature is much more a unique invention, and not a very interesting one.

      But it’s worth pointing out that the designer is talking about ‘being free to create his own unique fantasy universe’ and in the first 2 minutes of the video you see a troll, some elves, and dudes with plate mail and pointy shoulder pads. Maybe I’m just oversensitive to the complete stagnation of the fantasy genre, but I think that’s kind of a contributing factor to the breasted-fish-woman/ generic-beast-people problem.

      • Lynn says:

        One of the things I loved about the last installment of Tales of Monkey Island were the ‘mermaids.’ The humans used words like mermaid and Cheiftan to decribe ones they’d encountered, but they have no obvious gender.

        One of the first mermaids you meet you can sort of flirt with, but they shut you down pretty hard. You can ask if you got the gender wrong, and they tell you that’s really not something they feel they need to share with you.

        Later on, that same mermaid has a relationship with a man, but that same man also made a pass at the male main character earlier. You have no idea what’s going on there, its none of your business, and you’re just happy they’re happy.

    • Pai says:

      It looks ridiculous, frankly.

  26. Momiji says:

    Sorry, hit the submit comment-button too quickly and forgot to provide the link:

    I’d like to add that it gets even weirder when you consider the fact that neither snakes, nor fish breastfeed their young. ^^;;

  27. Pingback: slacktivist » One for normal people and another one for women

  28. Yeonni says:

    Just discovered this blog and was very happy to see it, I’ve been pestering my surroundings with the same complaints for years.

    I do think there are more creative ways to design sexes and genders in games, but (now I just quickly scanned through the comments) I couldn’t see any relevant discussion about how there are always, obligatory 2 genders. You can’t argue sexuality because game characters don’t always do sex, like, the only sign of the sexes in World of Warcraft actually having any physical interest in each other at all is that, presumably, trolls have to have sex to make more trolls, which is irrelevant for the game since you never see children. Trolls could just as well be homosexual all of them and reproduce by growing new trolls in vats somewhere. But genders. So you’ve made a fantasy world where people toss fire, walk through walls and resurrect the dead. But there is still a male and a female of everything? The Asari are at least a variation of this, but like someone else said earlier, there being countless nameless lapdancers of them everywhere takes away any credit they could have had.

    I want races that reproduce in other ways. Two-gendered like snails perhaps? Or division, I don’t know my science all the way, but few-cell organisms do that stuff I believe.

    I write sci-fi/fantasy/fiction stories (yes all of it mixed together in a happy label-free environment), hopefully one day to be for sale, and I’ve worked a lot with races and species. I’ve spent the last few months drawing up a three-gendered race and how it would work socially and sexually – it’s fascinating, inspiring and showing me new angles and ways where heteronormalism has crept into my subconscious.

    Finally, how do you even know what is the “female”? Is that the one that carried the child or lays the eggs? If that is the only defining feature, then that has nothing to do with breasts or “sleekness” or whatever. One gender could by all means lay the eggs, a second guard the eggs and a third feed the little monsters once they’re born. Which one is the “female”? Thinking that way is limiting.

  29. Francis says:

    damn! I thought Bioware had been incredibly subversive with both Turians and Salarians. In that there was no obvious sexual dimorphism at all in either race. Turians definitely have male and female members, but you’d have to get the clothes off to tell (and even then a human would need xenobiological training). And Salarians are hermaphrodites.

    As for the Asari, what you see is psychic projection. If the PoV character was a Turian, the Asari would all appear to be Turians. And their sex drive? There are two moments that the mind is completely psychically unguarded. The little death, and actual death. That’s what the psychic vampires need to endow their offspring. But where another mind is too unlike their own, and their own in inflexible they will burn it – this is where the Ardat Yakshi mutation comes from. (Perversely the inflexibility is tied to an unwavering mind, making them psychically stronger.) And this also means Liara encouraging Shepherd to “Embrace Eternity” had more than one reason.

    Now I come to think of it, I reject Bioware’s canon and substitute my own.

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