Do all characters have to cry? Of course not. Characters should be as diverse as the imaginations that envision them, and hopefully as complex.
Give Me Calamity Jane
So what kind of heroine do we want? And what kind is feasible in the action-focused context of a videogame?
"Some of my favorite heroines are Elizabeth Bennett, Jane Eyre and several other great women of great literature. They're not overly emotional, but they do have emotions. They also get to wear cool clothes and have exotic adventures. But not in any sense that's depicted in videogames today. These heroines are set up in situations with very strict rules (not so unlike a game), with complicated environments they need to explore, but the tension and excitement comes from the breaking of those rules. ... They get to be heroic because they're put in situations where the rules are broken and their world falls apart. We don't get that opportunity in most games."
- Wendy Despain, Game Writer at International Hobo
As stronger game heroines have shown, a woman can kick ass, look good, solve problems and respond emotionally to situations of extreme challenge. She can do this in her own terms, without being "a man with boobs"; she can have a family and friends and be pulled out of a world that she holds dear and forced into action to save it.
One of the places to which we can turn to for inspiration is history itself. Although my demand for Calamity Jane stems mostly from her portrayal in the television series Deadwood, Martha Jane Cannary-Burke led a wild, heroic, gripping, bizarre life, worthy of study and celebration through story. There's Grace O'Malley, the legendary Queen of the Sea, and countless others. They do not have to be stoic ice queens or biting harridans or simpering healers to be heroic; they need only be real and challenged by the world around them.
"How come only male characters and mascot animals get to have panache? Female game characters can be badass, boobylicious ninjas and battle bikini wearing bitch queens from the netherworld, but classy gals are as rare as hen's teeth, and panache is even rarer."
- Tess Snider, Senior Game Systems Programmer at Trion World Network
Heroic female characters in games have enormous power. The sheer objective-focused nature of videogames - and even, with fighters, the process by which female characters are used as avatars by male players - means players uniquely feel the strength and capability of these characters in ways not possible through passive media. This experiential power is mind-expanding.
A character created with rich history and placed in a world that tests her weaknesses and allows her to use her strengths would be a character for the ages. Thinking deeply about the motivations and complexities of real female characters can lead us to greater game story and deeper game experience, if we allow our characters to experience a full range of emotion, act with conviction and take hold of their destinies and histories; in short, be heroines.
Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.