The trouble with writing believable female videogame characters

Tomb Raider Definitive Edition

Lara Croft remains videogames’ most recognisable leading lady.

Female characters in videogames. Can’t think of any? If so, what is wrong with you? There are loads, and there have been for ages. That’s good, of course, and what’s better is that it seems we’ve all grown up and moved on from the arguments about demeaning stereotypes with inflated breasts. Now we all accept that this is just how they look. And they’re fine as role models, because nowadays they’re almost always as heartless, conniving and violent as the men.

Now I – like all self-effacing, sensitive men – have never claimed to understand women. I mean, I’ve met them and even heard them talk with their mouths about things, but because I treat them nicely, I can claim they’re wonderful and mysterious, usually in the hope that they’ll find this endearing and friend me on Facebook. I work in games, though, which not only makes this unlikely, but it means that from time to time I have to create female characters and write dialogue for them.

The problems often start when the briefs are handed out. “This is Cyrenia. She’s strong, sassy, smart and easily the match for any man. Make sure that comes across,” my developer overlords command. I nod at this, chiefly because I still don’t heed the advice I doled out about arguing back more. But really, although those attributes are not bad in themselves, it’s the wrong starting point. Oh, and at this point I’d like to say that if you are still sniggering at the “briefs are handed out” thing, perhaps this isn’t the right article for you.

So where’s the right place to start? Well, what are women? Just like men, they’re just miserable piles of secrets, as someone once said. By highlighting the comparison, even favourably, all we’re doing is inventing two-dimensional ciphers who we can claim aren’t demeaning because, ‘Look, she’s just as wisecracking and tough as those guys!’ In games requiring characters of either gender to be more than fleshy, shouty self-propelled guns, this won’t do. You don’t start by defining how strong they are; you start with their weaknesses. Every main character in every game (and book and film and TV show) has to be strong at some point. However, it’s their flaws and weaknesses that make a character real, and it’s the overcoming of these that make you care.

Strength is an essential trait for any videogame character, but it’s their flaws that make them interesting.

When it comes to female characters, we fidget nervously about this. What flaws could we introduce? If she’s not as physically strong as a bloke, that sounds old-fashioned and lazy. Surely she’s gone through the same training as the rest of the Great Order Of The Combat Elves or the 251st Recon Asteroid-Blower-Upper Wing or whatever? She’s more than a match for the men (or male elves of whatever). She can’t be afraid of snakes, wyrms, Stygian hordes or anything. And God forbid her wisecracks aren’t the equal of the guys in the team who utterly accept her as one of their own. And double God forbid she feels emotions the males don’t, and that causes her to be different from them. Start down that route and we may as well make her the cook who runs away screaming when the lasers, rounds or arrows start to fly.

So, hamstrung by our fear of making a realistic female, we have a meeting about her. Let’s give her superpowers. That’ll flesh out the character and make her more interesting. “It worked for Lilith in Borderlands,” some chap who is still deeply in love with Lilith in Borderlands will say.

Here’s a way of really being edgy without in any way upsetting any female gamers or their mums: our anodyne tough heroine can be the bad guy. This in no way makes her weak or flawed, you see. In fact, it can only bolster her empowered position. And since nobody complains that the bad guys in games are always female, we can allow ourselves a moment of smugness. “Like Rayne from out of Bloodrayne!” someone who still loves her says, and we all look down and fiddle with our pens because none of us played it and it was out ages ago.

One point that will never get raised, though, is how beautiful our thin (in every sense) female character needs to be. The answer is utterly. All the guys are archetypically good-looking, so why should the lasses be different? Again, look at film and TV. We, the consumers, prefer pulchritude. And it’s not even to do with the game-playing public’s demographic; we all like good-looking people on our screens. Would preteen girls love the Disney princesses if they all had faces like bags of smashed crabs?

“We all like good-looking people on our screens. Would preteen girls love the Disney princesses if they all had faces like bags of smashed crabs?”

Plus, I suspect that if a female character wasn’t gorgeous, it would make the art department look like they didn’t have the ability. And if there’s one thing I know about dev art departments, they will certainly put in the hours when asked to draw beautiful girls.

Anyway, how much of a problem is all this? Not much. Sorry for having wasted your time. But I do think that while games feature empowered, beautiful and flawless females, they do so to their detriment and for fear of the consequences.

There is another way to deflect incoming fire – hire a female writer from the outset. I can’t stress enough what a bad idea this is, though. The reasoning here is simple: it stops me from even having a chance of getting the job.