Tag Archives: female characters

“That girl is kicking our asses!”: Tomb Raider’s (Lack of) Gendered Power Plays

The firefights in Tomb Raider are intense and brutal. There are many scenes where Lara is pinned down behind a splintered barrel or crate, shooting and ducking and shooting again at upwards of ten armed enemies, half of whom are charging with drawn swords, knives and axes. There wasn’t much time to think of anything other than lining up headshots. But even so, there was always a part of me that tensed up when the enemies started talking. “Here it comes,” I thought. “Here come the insults.”

But they didn’t come. When the bad guys talk about Lara, they say things like “That girl is kicking our asses!” Not “That girl is kicking our asses!” It’s a huge difference. These dudes are horrified that someone is killing their buddies and ruining their freaky plans. The fact that it’s a woman doing the killing and plan-ruining doesn’t seem to be their main concern, nor even any sort of blow to their masculinity or pride.

I never once heard Lara called a bitch, or a chick, or any other derogatory term related to sexuality or gender. Not once.

And you know what? I’m glad. Continue reading

Naughty Dog Wants to Make (More) Interesting Female Characters

A promotional image for The Last of Us showing Joel, a white man with brown hair and a handgun, in the background, and Ellie, a white teen girl with a rifle on her back in the foreground. They are standing in a flooded city.

The box art for The Last of Us uses this image. Source: thelastofus.com.

Dave Cook at VG247 has an interesting interview up with developers from Naughty Dog as well as some of the voice and motion capture actors for their upcoming game, The Last of Us. It covers the recently-introduced character of Tess, and the entire last section is about “the gender problem” in the game industry. Ashley Johnson, who plays 14-year-old Ellie in the game, talks about how characters like Elena from Uncharted drew her to Naughty Dog. Creative director Neil Druckmann mentions that Naughty Dog was asked to move Ellie, one of the major characters, to the background of the box art for the game (which uses the image above), but “everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused.”

One thing that is interesting to me about this story is that it seems like The Last of Us, with its emphasis on using quality writing and acting to create complex characters, is aiming to be a game that has more in common with gritty television dramas like The Walking Dead or Revolution than most video games (the VGA trailer, which features more dialogue than action, supports this theory). Non-traditional box art may help catch the attention of non-gamers who are interested in that kind of storytelling. (To be clear, marketing is probably not why Naughty Dog pushed back on the box art; they probably just felt strongly about Ellie and her importance to the game. I’m just theorizing about the effect it may have.) Regardless, it’s great that Naughty Dog was able to stick their guns on this one, and that creating interesting and realistic female characters is such a priority not just for Amy Hennig but for the entire studio.

The Last of Us: acting out at the end of the world — Dave Cook, VG247

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?

Assassin’s Creed 3 Multiplayer Trailer Makes Me Cringe

Last week, Ubisoft posted a trailer for the multiplayer mode of upcoming game Assassin’s Creed 3. Predictably, it features whites and Native Americans, both men and women, killing each other with rifles, hammers, daggers and the like. Standard procedure for a multiplayer.

But my coworker and I both agreed that there was something ‘off’ about the trailer. Something that made it hard to watch. At first I thought it was the violence, and then I told myself to get a grip, because violent combat is pretty par for the course in videogames, and I’ve certainly cheered my share of vicious takedowns in the first two Assassin’s Creed games. But I forced myself to watch the video again, and then I realized: it wasn’t the violence that makes the AC3 multiplayer trailer hard to watch. It’s the gender ratio of the violence. Continue reading

The Treatment of Women in Dishonored

Warning: Minor Dishonored spoilers for mechanics and setting, though not for the plot or main story. 

A naked blonde women shown in a wooden bathtub, crossing her hands across her chest to cover herself up. She says “I can’t believe this, when I took this job they told me I’d work with good men.”

Like many other PC gamers these last couple of weeks, I’ve been spending a bit of time with a new friend Dishonored.  This game hit me entirely by surprise (as I suppose any good stealth game should) and I didn’t have any idea what to expect when I bought it on Steam on release night.  I’ve been pretty blown away by how much fun and excitement I experience when I finally sit down to play. I’ve only just finished the third mission so I’m not terribly far through the experience, but I found this article by Becky Chambers very interesting.

There are many other examples, but those were the two that made me realize that Dishonored is fully aware of how the women within it are treated. It knows how unfair that treatment is. It knows how unhappy these women are. When I played this game, I did not get the sense that gender discrimination was included simply because it’s habitual or historically accurate (more on that in a moment). Dishonored is, first and foremost, a story about corruption. Everywhere you turn, you see how broken Dunwall is. You climb through stained rooms stacked with insect-ridden corpses and disgusting cans of jellied meat while the nobility throws a lavish party on the other end of town. Religious leaders lecture about piety, then poison their rivals’ drinks. Police officers laugh as they kill people breaking curfew. Wagons full of dead plague victims are dumped into the river, and the men at the controls joke about how if any of the bodies were still moving, “they’re not anymore.” There is nothing good about this city.

So, yes, the way this game treated women made me uncomfortable — which, I think, is exactly what it intended to do.

I really felt and understood this article.  There were times where I was made uncomfortable by the treatment of the women in the game, a great example of this being in the brothel in the third mission.  The women were walking around in small amounts of clothing while the guards were all fully clothed.  When Corvo (played by you) is discovered by one of the women in the brothel she sits down and cowers, covering her eyes and whimpering for help.  Sneaking up behind them and strangling the courtesans with a sleeper hold and hearing their choking sounds was too far on the side of realism for me (notable: I have no problem walking around strangling all the men in the game) and I tried to avoid it as much as possible.

Continue reading

[WoW] Rescuing Mina Mudclaw from a rape joke

I’ve been slowly wandering through the new World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria.  Cultural appropriation aside, I’ve been quite enjoying myself.  The pace is nice and relaxed, the quests have been charming, the world is beautifully designed with bright colors and attention to detail.  However, I ran into a quest line in Valley of Four Winds that felt just a little too problematic to completely ignore.

In The Farmer’s Daughter, Den Mudclaw (a Pandaren farmer) asks you to sneak down into a virmen hole to rescue his daughter.  Naturally.  Virmen are these creepy rat-mouse looking critters that are obsessed with carrots and stealing things from farms around the Valley of the Four Winds.  Yes, it’s a damsel in distress again.  The farmer’s daughter character stereotype is problematic in itself, being that it references a naive yet promiscuous young women who is always the object of sexual attention to provide the hero with a always willing yet “girl next door” romantic love interest.

However, it gets worse.  When you finally get past all of the virmin in this hidey-hole and find Mina Mudclaw, she is standing up on a raised area of the cave surrounded by these creepy rat people.  Who have been forcefully making her do “horrible, horrible, silly things” with carrots.

A screenshot of the quest journal in WoW. Quest name: “Seeing Orange”. Text: “Those virmen….they make me do horrible, horrible, silly things. All involving carrots. I couldn’t tell you how many carrots they threw at me. Let’s not waste anymore time, Get me out of here!”

You could see this through a pretty innocent lens, since she also mentions that they keep throwing carrots at her.  It’s not an ultra blatant rape-joke, but it’s quite clear what the innuendo was supposed to be here.  You are seeking out the naive farmer’s daughter, the object of all sexual affections, who happens to be captured by a group of rabbitpeople who are making her do horrible things with carrots.  It doesn’t involve much imagination to figure out what Blizzard was trying to hint at here.  And I’m not the only one who caught on.

The top most-upvoted comment on the quest on WoWhead.com. A player says “Horrible, horrible silly things involving carrots. My imagination is running a mile a minute.” Another player replies “Dirty Blizz, very dirty”. A third player says “I just completed this quest and came here to check the comments!”

I was hoping Blizzard had learned from previous critical analysis of problematic quests within World of Warcraft.  It’s not a game that generally features strong female character design, so I don’t look to it as the shining example of how things should be done.  But it definitely took me out of my zenlike experience in Pandaria when I stumbled across this quest.

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.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for Vita to Star a Woman of Color

A two-page scan from Game Informer magazine with the headline Assassins Creed III Liberation. Concept art of the protagonist, a black woman in assassin gear and a tricorne hat, is on the right.

A scan from Game Informer. Aveline, the new protagonist, is on the right.

Because we really need some good news this week: via Joystiq and Nyleveia, a NeoGAF user has posted scans from the most recent issue of Game Informer that has the first details of a companion game to Assassin’s Creed III on the Playstation Vita. What’s interesting and exciting is that the protagonist of the game will be a woman of color named Aveline. It will, apparently, take place in and around New Orleans.

Assassin’s Creed fans have been asking about a female protagonist in the series for a long time now. The series is no slouch in the character design department, and Aveline looks to be no exception. It will be exciting to find out more about her, what her story is, and how she’s connected to Connor, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III. Hopefully we will find out more this week during E3.

Kate Walker in the outfit she uses for the rest of the game- a functional beige jacket and brown slacks, standing just outside her inn in Valedilene

Into the Snows of Yesteryear: A Review of B. Sokal’s Syberia

Kate Walker- A fairly light skinned woman with bedraggled brown hair, brown eyes, wearing a winter coat; a mammoth is set in the lower corner of the image.

Adventure games always held a special sort of promise for me; they were a respite from the usual childhood fare of platformers and shoot-em-ups. Fun as those could be in their own right it was wonderful to play a genre where violence was not only out of focus, but out of the frame entirely. Adventure games are sometimes criticised (with some justice) for their obnoxious puzzles, but generally speaking I prefer their atmosphere. They create an ethereal aura about them where there is always something interesting around the next corner, rather than something that will gnaw your face off. Exploration and wonder are often keywords with these types of games: vistas expand before you, whether in 3D format or matte painting form, and you want to soak up every detail.

My favourite types of adventure games are those where an ordinary person steps into an extraordinary set of circumstances and is transported, right along with the player, into a world of wonder they didn’t know existed. This was why I was intrigued by B. Sokal’s Syberia ever since I was very young: this game is about Kate Walker, a lawyer, who finds herself at the centre of an amazing journey after a hitch appears in a routine bit of business. She galavants across Europe in search of a man who is essential to her closing a business deal for her firm. Along the way she discovers a good deal about him, about the world, and about herself that changes her life forever.

It is a fascinating story that keeps you hooked through some of its more mundane or silly puzzles, and what’s more it stars a woman I quickly grew to love. Kate Walker is a fun character; serious and determined, but possessed of a snarky sense of humour and wit. As you play her throughout the ever stranger landscapes she finds herself in, she is quite evidently observant, brave, and resourceful. Above all she is quite clearly committed to getting the job done.

For me, one of the more fascinating mechanics in the game is her charmingly dated mobile phone which is the source of a few keys to quests and several small but interesting subplots.

What is best about adventure games is that they dispense with the bloodied conflict that inheres to more violent games and very often instead substitute human drama in its place. Conflict played out with words and emotions rather than swords and guns. Syberia does that fairly well and with an economy of words. Perhaps my favourite subplot with the game involves the constant phone calls from Kate’s fiancé, Dan, and the way she handles his increasingly entitled and imperious attitude.

I think Border House readers will be fairly pleased to see where that relationship ends up, if not too terribly surprised. Ms. Walker is certainly an interesting woman; the voice acting for her is wonderful and expressive. She never comes off as an ice hearted stereotype, or indeed any other stereotype. Indeed, what struck me the most about her was that she was a fundamentally good and kind person, as evidenced during one of the game’s other strong points.

I feel it portrays non-neurotypical people fairly well, as different but equal human beings with a tremendous amount to offer. Ableist individuals in the game are scarcely portrayed sympathetically, and Kate herself works with a young non-neurotypical boy to achieve an important plot goal early on in the game, seeing humanity in him where, for example, a local innkeeper did not.

Kate Walker in the outfit she uses for the rest of the game- a functional beige jacket and brown slacks, standing just outside her inn in Valedilene

Of Women and Machines

It becomes important here to talk about just what Ms. Walker’s “business” is that gets the ball rolling.

She is sent to a small town in the French Alps, the fictional Valadilene, to secure a deal for her client, the multinational Toy Co., to buy a factory in the town that has made ‘automatons’ for over a century. Automatons and their unique workings are central to this game. Steampunkish robots (although don’t ever call them robots!) with Rube Goldberg-style workings and powered by springs and wind up keys, they are this game’s signature. They are the products of the Voralberg family and Kate Walker is to purchase the factory in a deal with Ms. Anna Voralberg, the supposedly last living member of the venerable family who was the sole owner and operator of the factory since the 1930s. The game takes off when it is discovered that there is, in fact, another heir. Hans Voralberg, who becomes the object of Kate’s continent-spanning search.

You learn early on a good deal about Hans and Anna’s lives as brother and sister, and I will not spoil the emotional details of a diary Kate can find; suffice it to say I think the politics involved are quite good. Anna comes across as strong willed and driven.

Spoilers Follow

Hans became non-neurotypical after an accident in his childhood while off adventuring with his sister. His father was furious at the apparent loss of his sole male heir and frequently abused his son due to his condition. Anna did the best she could to shelter him and encouraged the blossoming of his newfound mechanical talents. Indeed, you come to find that the greatest mechanical creations you find throughout the game are of his design. Hans ran away to escape his father’s tyranny and in retaliation father dearest faked Hans’ death, which was why neither Kate nor her firm knew there was another living heir until the last moment.

The diary is one of the more affecting things I’ve read in an adventure game. I lost track of how long it was– it ran on for many pages spanning a decade of the young Voralbergs’ lives. But it was so gripping I didn’t care about the length. I felt it told a story of two young people making their way in life, negotiating with their father’s patriarchal brutality, and eventually succeeding in their own ways.

As to Kate herself she eventually moves towards independence from a man who isn’t good for her. Rather than reiterating the usual tropes that see our woman hero thrust into the arms of a man whose appeal is as inscrutable as pre-Rosetta Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see something more analogous to the convention-breaking resolution of the movie Monsters vs. Aliens. Understanding at last that her fiancé isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, she puts the boot in him and proceeds to live her life on her own terms rather than subordinating them to his. Gotta love it.

End of Spoilers.

Kate Walker at a key moment in the game, watching personal history unfold before in the form of a rather unique recording. (Walker blurred in the background as the camera focuses on a tin model of a young girl and boy)

Kate Walker: A Character Done Right

Adventure games are stories told through letters, diaries, and postcards; through half-heard conversations; little bits of intrigue scattered like breadcrumbs along the narrative line. This was always tremendously preferable to unending violence. Even my favourite RPGs too often use bloodshed as the first rather than last resort and it is quite welcome to play a game where that isn’t even a speck on the horizon. Rather than over the top CGI battle sequences, Kate Walker uses her wits (as personified in part through the witty player) to overcome the many obstacles in her path.

The interactions between her and Oscar, her automaton companion and assistant, are absolutely priceless comedy that lend the distinction of character to the both of them. Alone they are almost worth the price of admission.

I love Kate as a protagonist; she feels like a full, independent character who is well drawn, defeats stereotypes, and is clearly not there as a sex object. Indeed one of my favourite bits of the game is when she tells off a young man for his rather uncouth and cackhanded attempts at flirting with her. Her clothing is quite realistic and appropriate to what she’s doing: her beige jacket and jeans are quite functional for all the running, jumping and climbing she has to do, in places ranging from old factories to decaying universities to creaking cosmodromes.

Lots and lots and lots of running. This is probably one of the game’s most significant faults as well; travel is, at times, inefficient and tedious. It takes a while for Kate to run from one screen to the next and sometimes there are several strewn about between one point of interest and the next. Most contain little of value in terms of gameplay. I will credit the scenes for their beauty, however. Most are like paintings that our intrepid heroine is jogging through and are worth seeing. But worth seeing the number of times she has to pass through them? Perhaps less so. That’s one of the few gameplay complaints, however, and even this in truth is not too terribly annoying.

To return to Kate’s character she feels quite realistic and intriguing- never quiet, meek, or small, never preening or objectified. She gets the job done and is quite clearly shown as being able to stand up for herself. Over the course of the story, while she begins as a strong and forthright person, she grows more into independence and begins to militate against the excesses in her life back home in New York. It is hard not to feel some pride in that as each advance you make with her in the game brings her closer not only to Hans Voralberg but to her own independence.

This is a game worth playing through at least once if you can deal with the over-small resolution.

The Greatest Adventure

For both its gameplay and its politics I give it high marks. Kate Walker is, I feel, a memorable woman character who also has the benefit of being role-model material. She has the look and wit of a compelling action-adventure hero who doesn’t need to prove herself by making everything she touches explode in a mushroom cloud.

The game’s ending leaves one hungering for more, even if it is emotionally satisfying on one level. Fortunately, there is a sequel, which I’ll be playing soon. It’s also not without its flaws in story and characterisation: one unavoidable decision Walker makes late in the game is so obviously an ill-advised one that I cannot help but see it as a poorly disguised plot contrivance. But even so, it does not- in my view- seriously disrupt the virtues of Walker as a character.

It is certainly worth the pittance it now costs on Steam; there is something oddly creative about the setting, a Europe just beyond the mists of that continent’s mountains, seemingly out of time and out of space. A magical steampunk railroad is what carries Kate from the cosmopolitan and sterile heart of an upper-class world to a strange and endearing world where she finds truths about herself. From charming Alpine Valedilene to the steel ruins of Komkolzgrad that echo with the dissonant metal symphony of dead industry, it’s an interesting game to romp through.

This is a story about finding a lost genius, yes, but like some of the best stories it sees its protagonist finding herself as well. Stories about women that are not mired beneath layers of objectification and stereotypes remain all too rare. Beyond this, it is also rare to find an RPG these days that does not make mortal combat its bread and butter. Adventure games were always a relief from this, and Syberia provides a very good opportunity (albeit one with a clunky interface) to relive the joy of looking around every corner and knowing that death does not await. Only more adventure.

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.