Why Can't We Just Have Characters - o_JMan240_o Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Why Can't We Just Have Characters

The first time I played as a female character in a video game was the original Mass Effect. Dying for more of my favorite game at the time and looking for as divergent an experience as possible on my second playthrough I created a female Commander Shepard and started down the rogue path. The very last thing on my mind in the process of starting my second playthrough was that I was creating a female character or that I would be staring at her butt for 40+ hours. It was simply a different way to experience a game that I loved, nothing more and nothing less at the time.

What I found in the process was that, of all the versions of the Commander, my rough around the edges female Shepard was by far the most entertaining. Sure, my male Commander Shepard was a perfect cipher for myself but that by nature made him less interesting. I am myself, obviously, so why when I go to escape from the world would I ever be more interested in playing as myself in a space suit than someone as different from me as humanly possible? In my mind, the male version of Commander Shepard has always been me. That's fine though, that's what he is mean to be and I enjoyed my time playing as him. He has always had my name, he has always made the same decisions I would, and he always will. Female Shepard though, she has always been a character. An intensely engaging way to immerse myself in the story of another person's life. She could be a jerk when I couldn't, do what had to be done where I flaked out, make tougher choices with more confidence. 

She also changed the way I play games, something that a male character could have never done. She had me analyzing my favorite characters and realizing that up at the top with Daxter, Sly, and Balthier were characters like Tali, Merrill (Dragon Age), and Elena Fisher. In fact, I'd put Tali and Merrill easily ahead of any other characters. I found myself creating female characters in RPGs more often when given the chance; even when playing in games like Fallout or Skyrim that are played mostly from a first person perspective and in which the gender of the character has little impact on the game itself. Over the past generation it has become an integral part of losing myself in the world of a game, an extra degree of separation from reality, and I don't give creating a female character a second thought. 

I've been looking forward to Remember Me, Tomb Raider, and Beyond: Two Souls as games that will give me the opportunity to see a female lead in a tightly knit modern narrative experience for what feels like must be the first time. I've been encouraged by the industry's slow march towards a more diverse and accepting atmosphere. It's that slow but encouraging growth of the industry that had me trying my best not to be angry when Epic's Chris Perna said "if you look at what sells, it's tough to justify something like that," in response to OXM's question about whether or not Gears might see a female protagonist sometime in the future. All I could do was ask myself: Aren't we past this archaic notion that the gender of a character has an impact on sales?

What got me more upset than the possibility that Perna actually believes that games with female leads can't compete, simply because they have said female leads, is the possibility that this mindset is pervasive within the industry. The possibility that the people giving the DICE summit speeches and leading studios believe that and so perpetuate the dearth of quality depictions of women within the industry. Have developers and publisher become so scared of failure that they let feel the need to so sterilize their creations before they even begin the process of creation? At least Perna gets one thing right, I hate those absurdly proportioned fighting game characters.

It's unfortunate that he followed that statement with claims that Epic created better female characters by making them more "butch" and that female characters couldn't sell games. If he had said that he didn't think a female lead was the right fit for the Gears of War franchise I might have agreed with him, but he didn't; he generalized and lumped all games together, bought hook-line-and-sinker into a stereotype. After all, he couldn't be basing his statement on Epic's experience as a developer since - to my knowledge at least - they've never released or even attempted a game with a female lead, meaning Perna likely has no first hand experience with how such a game would sell. Regardless of what he says in damage control at a later date he still echoed a misconception that is probably far too common in development houses around the world than it should be.

What Perna, and others who argue the invalidity of female leads in games, don't seem to realize is that there has never really been a serious attempt to present a strong female lead in the same manner as Uncharted, Gears of War, Dead Space or any myriad other blockbuster games with male leads. In almost every case the games haven't been on the same level as their counterparts. Heavenly Sword was a half decent hack n' slash meant to push the PS3 for early adopters in the absence of God of War. Bayonetta and Mirror's Edge were trapped in niche genres and plagued by largely incoherent stories that contributed much more to their slow sales than anything else. Wet was a B grade action game and there isn't much else I'd qualify as a serious attempt at introducing a strong female lead. At least none that I can think of from the current generation.

From my experience it isn't gender that's an issue. The problem is nobody wants to take a chance. Games with strong female leads don't sell because so few people choose to make a game with a strong female protagonist. Fewer games with female leads means fewer sales for games with female leads. I had just as much fun playing as my pint sized kunoichi Nyx, with her arrows and daggers, in Dragon's Dogma as I did playing as my comically large vault hunter and his shotgun in Fallout 3. Gender has nothing to do with fun, and I'd like a chance to interact with a rich world in which a woman plays the lead in a great story outside of the genres that are typically expected to give you the option to play as either sex. Better yet, why can't we just have characters and quit giving a damn about their gender entirely?

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