Earlier in the week, Activision put frowns on a few faces when former employees revealed that the company supposedly has no faith in the selling power of a game with a female lead. Long story short, Activision allegedly relies a bit heavily on the questionable wisdom of focus groups, which can result in a lot of creative stifling– which, in turn, results in female characters being plucked out of games in favor of more macho leads.
One example cited was a game called “Black Lotus,” which was supposed to star an Asian female. Then Activision decided that games need more Master Chief, and it told Black Lotus’ developers to “lose the chick.” The game was eventually transformed into True Crime: Hong Kong, which is coming out for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in November.
Arguments about the representation of women in games are forever smoldering on video game boards, and incidents like the report on Activision cause said threads to explode like dragon’s breath. Some folks maintain that despite an expanded audience in recent years with the help of causal titles on the Wii and iPhone, video games are still a testosterone-driven industry. Others counter by saying “Hey, Activision’s gotta make money, so what’re you going to do?” And at least one person will ask, “So what kind of heroine do you crazy dames actually approve of?”
There is no quick and easy answer to that question. Every woman– and every man– has a different list of traits and actions that make up a compelling female video game character. What’s seen as an empowering characteristic by one might be seen as misogynist by another. So here’s what I, personally, would like to see more of in a female video game lead:
-Realistic physical depiction. This is obvious. A woman with giant breasts and a wasp waist would, in real life, pitch forward like a tree after a rendezvous with a lumberjack. Last I checked, men who like girls (and girls who like girls) were very capable of falling in love with the human body as copyrighted by Nature. Some folks even like a little extra cushion for the pushin’. My word!
-In the same vein, I want to spend a day as a video game character just so I can slap other female characters who run, jump, and fight in boots or shoes with six-inch heels. Oh, how my ankles scream to think about it.
-Girls come in colors aside from white, and our hair is available in shades beyond fiery red and platinum blonde. Some girls have freckles.
These are, obviously, physical traits. The easy answer is, “Oh, play Game X! You can make your character a girl or a boy, and any race you want, and even choose your sexuality.”
Which is pretty fantastic, and I am grateful for these options. But the games that let you tinker with every aspect of your character get off easy as far as story is concerned. You are meant to project your personality onto your character in, say, Fallout 3, which means the writers don’t have to actually pen a backstory and conflict for your bisexual half-black half-Asian female Vault dweller. What, then, makes a compelling female character as far as personality is concerned?
-I like female characters who take charge of their own fate and the fates of their comrades and friends.
-I like female characters who are confident about their decisions, but are flawed and make mistakes.
-I like female characters who are curious, clever, and compassionate (I also like alliteration).
I could add to this wish list all day, but it’s more efficient to cite examples of female characters I like. Obviously, these gals don’t get everything perfect; that’s impossible, and as I stated earlier, there’s no way to please everyone. But a quick glance is all you need in order to decide that these females buck the video game norm.
I’ve talked a bit in the past about Glyder and Glyder 2 for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad. I enjoy the game for its relaxing and barrier-free drifting, which encourages airborne exploration. But I also like the games’ main girl, Eryn. She’s physically attractive, but doesn’t bear ridiculous proportions. She harbors a broad streak of curiosity, which is probably why she keeps getting sucked into alien dimensions– but she doesn’t let that dampen her exploratory spirit. She’s clever, or else she wouldn’t be building flying machines. Interestingly, Eryn says very little in the games, but I have no problem getting a good idea of her personality.
Another female game character I’ve long admired is one of the first many of us became familiar with: Chun-Li from the Street Fighter series. For a while, she was the sole gentle face amongst a stable of bared teeth and clenched fists. But she held her own, and still does. From day one, we all expected her to sell out and pair up with Ryu, but Chun-Li has always been a career girl. She waved away tradition and remained single, dedicating her life to avenging her father’s death before taking a job with Interpol. That’s where she remains, with no obvious interest in chucking it all to raise babies.
That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with looking for love and settling down. It’s all a matter of being true to yourself and your desires. My most beloved game of all time is Final Fantasy VI, which existed as Final Fantasy III when it debuted on the Super Nintendo.
That epic jaunt of an RPG ran a romantic subplot that involved Locke, a thief whose former girlfriend had taken an accidental dive off a cliff, and Celes, a former general for the Empire’s army who had a hard time trusting others. The subplot was sweet and subtle; nobody collapsed into each others’ arms, and symbolism took the place of loud declarations of love. Celes could also equip the heaviest armor in the game and wield some pretty badass swords, which shattered the stereotype of the dainty female spell caster.
Generally, a common sense approach works best when developing a compelling female video game character. That might be why writers tend to flip out, try too hard, or not try at all. I encourage them to keep trying, though. As Miss Frizzle used to say before firing up the Magic School Bus, “Take chances! Make mistakes! Just remember that a girl with a triple-D cup size would be in a lot of pain if she actually explored tombs without a bra.”
Wait, maybe Miss Frizzle didn’t say that last part.