The  Ugly  Truth
If the stars align and a developer decides to include playable heroines, new challenges await. One of the more prominent obstacles relates to physical appearance. Let’s be honest – sex sells, and there is a stigma against less attractive female characters in games. Men, not so much. Leisure Suit Larry is “endearing,” but the same traits transposed onto a female character would be viewed as a poor marketing move. Given this institutional constraint, developers appear less willing to take risks on female characters. What if a game has an unusual art style that doesn’t lend itself to traditional beauty standards? Do they conform female characters to said art style, or eliminate the risk of poor reception by sticking to the more flexible gender?

Fable developer Lionhead Studios is a unique example in this regard, making no gameplay distinctions between genders in Fable II. Male and female heroes can dress how they want, sleep with whom they desire, and behave as they please – despite what gender norms stereotypically dictate. “Cliché as it sounds Fable games are really about choice and consequence; we absolutely did not want to put any restrictions on any player on the way they want to play,” begins Louise Murray, head of the Fable Franchise. “I think it’s great that you have an empowered female Hero who can dress as a man and sleep with women if you really want to.”

Similarly, both genders in Fable II share the same physical progression. Women bulk up just as much as the men when certain stats are maxed. How were these muscular heroines received? We ferreted out several interesting threads from various gaming forums, all trading tips on how to keep their female heroes demure – even if the tradeoff was a drastic reduction in brute strength. One contributor lamented, “She’s weak, but at least she’s sexy.” Fable staffers aren’t oblivious to this sentiment, even if they aren’t willing to cater to it entirely.

“It’s funny how much harder it was to make the female, though,” elaborates Murray. “On the one hand, we want her to be appealing. On the other hand, we don’t want to stereotype women.” Murray admits that as a woman playing Fable II she wasn’t fond of the wide shoulders and extra bulk her heroine carried – she wanted a combination of traditional beauty and brute strength. Fable figurehead Peter Molyneux echoed the sentiment himself at Microsoft’s recent X10 event, describing the leveled-up females as “looking like Russian shot-putters.”

Murray admits that the mixed reception of the female Hero progression has been factored into character development in Fable III – making clear though that Lionhead would never take away the players ability to make an ugly character. Murray ended by noting that Lionhead feels the extra time and effort they dedicated to gender diversity in Fable II paid off, giving players more chances to connect with a character than before.

Crackdown devs Thomson and Cope cite the same standards as one of the speed bumps that led to female Agents being eliminated from their game. The complicated visual representation of skill level increases in female Agents caused them to lag behind male characters in the development process. “For a long time we were trying to do these mockups to capture the overall style and skill and shape of the female character across the five different levels,” explains Thomson, “And we were having real problems about how she would level up. With the male it was easy; we just increased the bulk and gave him a different suit. But when you did that with the female it didn’t work quite as well. You lost that sleek and quite desirable shape for something that was really large and cumbersome. We ended up with something that didn’t look nearly as nice at the top levels as it did at the first level.”

Epic’s Bleszinski echoes the same concerns about finding the perfect female protagonists. “The real trick for creating a female playable character is roughly the same for any playable character, which is to make them relatable so that both male and female players want to play as them. But for a female character, they have to be attractive (but not sl*tty), kick butt (but not too butch), and be smart (but not too nerdy).”

While we don’t yet know much about Halo: Reach’s female Spartan Kat, Bungie is trying hard to avoid getting ensnared in the expectations of what a female action star should look like. The brief glimpse we’ve got of her without a helmet shows a believable, battle-hardened veteran. “Kat-320 is definitely not ‘just one of the guys,’ nor is she a flimsy female stereotype showing a bare midriff through her armor,” says Joe Tung, executive producer of Halo: Reach. “She’s a tactically brilliant Spartan III Lieutenant Commander. We wanted to build a strong female character who is just as tough as the men in Noble. You only have to look as far as her arm to know she has seen her share of combat and hardships. She’s a battle-tested, tactically brilliant Spartan III Lieutenant Commander, and has conceived some of the smartest and boldest plans Noble team has ever undertaken. She’s also probably the only member of Noble Team that Carter trusts implicitly.”

Independent developer Valve also deserves accolades for their effort in this regard, taking risks in creating believable and non-exploitive female characters such as Half-Life's Alyx Vance, Left 4 Dead's Zoey and Portal's Chell. We recently spent some time chatting with Valve about Portal protagonist Chell's redesign for the upcoming sequel. Looking through concept art, it becomes obvious that the team is more interested in making a believable lead than caving to societal standards.

“This is not supposed to look like a sexy Marvel superhero suit,” said Matt Charlesworth, a concept artist at Valve. “It’s supposed to look like it was designed without any thought of making her look attractive. We don't want to make her be unattractive, but we want to balance that out. Chell is a test subject, so she should look like one.”

Is the practicality appreciated? We'd like to think so, but it's not always clear-cut. Portal fans appear polarized by Chell's work-in-progress redesign, weighing in on various forums across the net. Some find her new look fresh and perfectly utilitarian. Others are already requesting swimsuit DLC post-launch.

Another recent divisive female lead is Faith Connors from DICE's Mirror's Edge. We gave the developer props for creating a strong-willed and intelligent character whose build and attire are perfectly appropriate for her profession. Still, some fans don't appreciate her diminutive assets as much as others, as evidenced by an unofficial redesign that caught the attention of the DICE developers themselves. The redesign saddened the team; upset that some fans would rather Faith looked like a “12-year-old with a boob job” than a sharp-witted athlete.

Risks and Rewards
With light shed on the inner workings of the gender selection process, it’s easier to understand that committing to character diversity doesn’t come easy. However, that knowledge doesn’t entirely sate our desire to see more female characters in games – playable or otherwise. With the gamer demographic diversifying and committed developers willing to take more risks, there is no time like the present. Till the practice becomes standard, our simple request remains: More, please.