What makes a good female video game character?

I’ve been thinking lately: what is the difference between a well-written female video game character and one that makes me want to throw the controller at the screen?

The answer comes down to a simple rule. A well-written female character is treated the same as a male video game character.

It’s so straightforward, but so rarely seen.

Of course, it’s always interesting and gratifying to see games that acknowledge the unique difficulties a female character might have in a particular setting, the discrimination she has to overcome or simply the ways that different expectations and opportunities affect her. Those sorts of games are the icing on the cake. But cake without icing is still good, and games where the female characters are given equal treatment (in development, in their role in the game, and in the costumes that they wear) are more than enough for me.

So what does “equal treatment” mean, in practical terms? Let’s break it down.

 – Beginner Level –

She exists

Really, really basic, but missed by many games.

In Super Mario Bros Wii — a game without much plot, or depth at all — there are four playable characters. As the game is a basic platformer, it doesn’t really matter who they are (beyond, of course, the obvious Mario and Luigi). Two of them are anthropomorphized toadstools without any backstory of personality at all. Yet they are still all male. And sure, this is just one basic platformer. It doesn’t really matter. But it’s representative of the set-up of most games. The playable characters — the heroes — are all guys.

In less straightforward games, it would be great to have female playable characters, or the option to make your character female in customizable RPGs. If the main character is a man, a game could include female characters as allies, as rivals, or as enemies. Making sure women actually exist in the game world is a good start. As long as…

She is not an object

Back to the Mario example: Princess Peach seems to spend her whole life being kidnapped by Bowser (or else playing all kinds of competitive and cooperative sports with him). Princess Peach doesn’t really matter in the game. She’s a name, a goal, a reason why Mario must kill koopas and jump over bottomless pits.

But women are left as Princess Peaches in all kinds of games. They are the prize, or are thrown in as something nice for the player to look at along the way.

A good female video game character should have her own reason for existing. She should not just be another part of the scenery, or a trophy to collect.

She is physically capable of standing

Realistic anatomy, please.

She’s not risking her life to be “sexy”

Because bikini armor isn’t really realistic for a skilled warrior.

 

If a game manages to achieve these simple goals (and already, many game series have been ruled out entirely) and has complexity beyond your basic platformer, they could try for:

– Advanced Level –

She plays an active part in the plot

The female character has some influence on events. Perhaps she’s an ally who screws you over, or a rival who sets the plot in motion, or someone who offers assistance (for her own reasons, of course). Even if she isn’t the protagonist, she must exist for a reason and engage with the game world in a significant way.

She has personality and reasons for her actions

She isn’t just doing things because they need to be done for the plot. She has goals and motivations. She’s sweet, or she’s snarky, or fierce, or afraid… it doesn’t really matter what her personality or goals are, as long as she has ones that aren’t built up of sexist expectations and flat stereotypes.

She’s not treated like a big deal

The main character in Portal is a woman. But casual players might not know this, because it’s never explicitly mentioned. No one in the game makes a big deal that the protagonist is female. She just is. Although the presence of a female warrior might be notable in certain game worlds, not every game needs to shout to the rooftops that it is daring enough to have a woman in it. We’re 50% of the population. It shouldn’t be that unusual.

– Master level –

She is not invisible

Even the Dragon Age series, which feature great female characters and a highly rewarding plotline for female PCs, do not feature their female characters in the ads, beyond the sexy and scantily dressed Morrigan. By looking at the advertising or the packaging, you would never know that you could play as a guy and as a girl, or that the other female characters you encounter are compelling individuals as well. It’s great when games include wonderful female characters… it would be even better if marketing allowed for it as well.

03 comments on “What makes a good female video game character?

  • Grainne Gillespie , Direct link to comment

    She doesn’t get sexed up and barbified for the third game and the player given the option of sending her into battle in a catsuit despite her saying in the first game “you won’t catch me dead in light armour, you can’t outrun bullets”

    A big fuck you to whoever decided to turn Ashley Williams into barbie with guns in Mass Effect 3

    “She’s a spectre now so she might have decided to change her look now that she doesn’t have to follow Alliance regulations anymore”

    She looks that way at the start of ME3 when she’s still Alliance so that’s a moot point and, most importantly of all, she’s NOT REAL, she didn’t decide to do anything. She looks the way she does in Mass Effect 3 because a bunch of men decided she wasn’t sexy enouogh

  • Radithor , Direct link to comment

    Having female characters simply existing is something a huge amount of developers don’t seem to really understand. Now, I’m quite the fan of the game Brink, and have been playing it intently for the past few weeks. It wasn’t met with commercial success at all, however it is notable for its rich storytelling, three-dimensional characters, in-depth character customisation and emotional dialogues, all of which are features frequently absent from first-person shooters.

    However, there’s one thing that’s always deeply irked me about this game: Women are completely absent from the universe. I can understand not being able to make a female character, since the fanbase for these kinds of games would probably lose their shit if the option was there. (While that’s a huge problem in itself, it’s a little bit different to what I’m getting at here.) However, in all of the cinematics and all of the discussions, women are not seen, and not even mentioned. The only line that can be thought of as even a hint that women exist is one from a Resistance troop: “Think of your family!” It’s almost as if women don’t exist at all, and The Ark is full of nothing but self-reproducing men.

    Now, it doesn’t take much of a look at Splash Damage’s catalog to realise they’re not precisely the most forwards-thinking bunch when it comes to this stuff. However, it’s actually really distracting in a game with such complex world-building and character development (at least in terms of its given genre) for women to be absent all together. We’re supposed to feel for these characters, but when they can’t even mention the existence of their wives or the struggle to keep their girlfriends alive (you know, basic things you’d expect in a world like this) by gender, then that’s really problematic.

    We hear a lot about one Resistance character’s struggle after his brother died, and that’s actually a really touching plot. However, we’re in a world where people are dying all over the place. Shouldn’t at least one of the men in your troop be unable to cope because he lost his girlfriend, his wife, his mother, his sister or his daughter? The real problem I have with this game is that they’ve sacrificed so many story possibilities for what seems to be one reason: Keeping the frat-boy crowd from lashing out at them. In the end, it just takes away from the over-all story, and it’s actually pretty disappointing.

  • dsfsdf , Direct link to comment

    Good thing that the Dragon Age series fixed that last problem you addressed by putting Cassandra in advertisements and making the Inquisitor in publicity look androgynous.

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