I have a dream.
Somewhere in the uncharted plains of videogame potential, in the wild primal cloud of yet-nascent human ideas, is my perfect heroine. I don’t know what she looks like or where she’s from, but I know she’s a manifestation of despair and triumph, of trial and overcoming, of badass throw-down and ephemeral grace. She’s a creature of fire and passion tempered by intellect, of depth and history and complexity. She will surprise me and challenge me, and when we bring down her arch-nemesis – perhaps a phantom from her past, perhaps a threat to all she stands for – our unified victory will be unmatched; the world will echo with the lamentation of our fallen foes.
And I know she has never seen life on the screen. This is not to disparage the recent upswing in engaging heroines: With Beyond Good and Evil‘s Jade and Half Life 2‘s Alyx Vance, Warcraft‘s Jaina Proudmoore and Dreamfall‘s April Ryan, the heroine scene is far from a hopeless one.
But there remains, in the heroine topography of the collective fabric of the game world, something missing, something unsatisfying. And the fact we can count satisfying heroines on one hand isn’t reassuring, either. So I set out to find what was wrong with game heroines and where the landscape remained unexplored.
Someone Call the Brambulance
When I asked the ladies of the IGDA Women in Game Development SIG what was wrong with game heroines, the obvious came up first: painful physical endowment and what Blitz Games developer Kim Blake called “combat lingerie.”
“Pants. I just like my heroines to be wearing pants.”
– Kimberly Unger, CEO of Bushi-go
Watching as the discussion spiraled into a laundry list of bawdy attributes, I couldn’t help but take a closer look at the advertisements for the latest installment in one of my favorite fighter franchises: Soul Calibur IV. It looks great; it will most likely be a bestselling game.
But Namco is claiming Soul Calibur IV offers “realistic environments,” and I cry false advertising, because there is nothing realistic about the physics of their costumes. As graphics technologies continue to improve, these absurd designs become even more garish and repellent; the problem isn’t merely the existence of a porn star build, but that male characters, even the most abstract ones, employ basic gravitational good sense, whereas female characters don’t.
Guys, honestly: This is painful for most women to look at – not because it’s offensive, but because it looks like it hurts. If nothing else, someone just needs to get these poor women some underwire support. Seriously, ouch.
“Not to mention walking in heels damages the ligaments and tendons in your feet, making you prone to foot injuries. I wince every time I see someone in plate mail heels. Worse, though, are the tight-fitting bits of metal. I mean, really, did it ever occur to the artist exactly how she was going to strap that stuff on and squeeze herself in? I think mammogram machines look more comfortable.”
– Jennifer Bullard, Senior Producer at Aspyr Media
The Soul Calibur franchise has always been known for its graphics and art style, but not only were previous editions of the game more physically realistic, their more primitive graphics allowed for a level of abstraction that gave artists some stylistic wiggle room. Comic books are certainly as guilty of unrealistic physics as videogames, but comic books are descendants of tall tale and are about exaggeration. In games, particularly at the levels achievable by modern graphics, we are straddling the uncanny valley and are more beholden to emotion and physical law. Pornographic endowment is fine if you’re laying on your back; for athleticism it is as unrealistic as big rigs that fly. And for some reason, revealing shots are deemed appropriate on women but not so much for men.
Seeking SAF; 30+ Need Not Apply
Game heroes come in all shapes and sizes. They can be short or tall, bald or long-locked, pouty or stern. We have middle-aged heroes and young heroes, human heroes and alien heroes. If it’s a guy we’re talking about, a game hero can even be a giant anthropomorphic earthworm and be a hit, but a girl? She’d better not be even slightly unattractive, much less an annelid.
“In the maiden, mother, crone trio, we really only see ‘maidens’ as game heroines. That is, they’re all young and beautiful. We don’t really see mothers, and we definitely don’t see crones. Heck, we don’t even see married women. All game heroines are meant to be available.”
– Tess Snider, Senior Game Systems Programmer at Trion World Network
The double standard doesn’t just exist for age, but for identifying marks and physical deviation, as well.
“Whilst it’s true that many male videogame characters are young and muscular, most of them have the benefit of being fully clothed. There’s also your fair share of ‘average Joes’ – characters that aren’t male model attractive, wearing non-descript clothing: Max Payne, the male leads in Silent Hill, etc. There’s also your scarred chappies – can you imagine any publisher greenlighting a project where the female lead was as battered as Raziel?”
– Lynsey Rigby, Designer at Blitz Games
I had a male friend and World of Warcraft player tell me many men would hit on female Tauren avatars but not female Night Elves, because the female Tauren were sure to be women. Only women, he said, would be interested in playing a character that was literally a bipedal cow, where the butt they were watching for most of their gameplay had a tufted tail.
But this is not really about objectification so much as it is about homogeneity. Identifying attributes give a character, well, character, and often are clues to their history. Raziel would not have been Raziel without his missing jaw and warped frame; when will we see a heroine with that kind of epic history? When will we see a mother take up arms to protect her children?
It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want To
In his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, Gerard Jones discusses the enormous success of Pokémon with pre-teen girls and cites the huge upsurge in the popularity of manga in the U.S. as a gap-filling force resulting directly from the failure of American comics to address the interests and emotional needs of young women. As with many elements of the comic book industry, this too should serve as a cautionary tale to videogames; although most of the hardcore industry is still, as we can see with Soul Calibur, still in the little boys’ club, it is surely no coincidence that Nintendogs and Animal Crossing appeared in Japan first.
In particular, Jones discusses Hazel from Pokémon as an enormously satisfying heroine to young girls. She is intensely feminine, preferring only the cutest of Pokémon, yet when she leaps into action, she is as formidable as any of the boys. And perhaps most uniquely, she is prone to bursting into tears when frustrated or sad. These tears, rather than resulting in pity or disdain from her peers, are in fact a respected weapon on their own; Japanese characters, by and large, respect and fear the severity of a girl’s tearful outburst much in the way real people would react to such a display in life.
“I want an emotional heroine, one that feels and has compassion, one that perhaps changes her own actions because she is aware of the harm they may cause others. Give my heroine a PMS day where she, unexpectedly and without reason, decides to pull the ears off small bunny rabbits. Have her try to leave the house and go back to change shirts four times. Let her have some upper body limitations and figure out how to manage using her legs. Make her a woman, not a man with boobs. That’s what I want in a heroine.”
– Judy Tyrer, Network Programmer, Red Storm Entertainment
In media and in storytelling we are taught to avoid tears. Let your characters cry, conventional storytelling wisdom says, and your audience will not have to. Crying is seen as an action that will result in judgment and a perception of weakness, when in reality it is as human – and physical – a response as falling when struck or shivering when cold. And by denying our characters these realistic reactions, we are denying them that level of humanity.
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.