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Developer: Lead Character's Gender Should Be A "Choice"

Gender has become a big issue in the video game industry. We're not merely talking about female gamers, but about how female characters are portrayed in games.

Should we start seeing more female protagonists in the future? Well, according to developer Mike Bithell (Thomas Was Alone) speaking in a recent Polygon interview, it should be the choice of the creator. That being said, he added that gamers are getting tired of the same ol' lantern-jawed, muscle-bound hero:

"People are getting tired of playing the same grizzled man carrying a variety of guns. The thing that's interesting with gender, and is exciting, is that the conversation has gotten to a point where I'd even be asked 'Why male?'. That's a big deal, and speaks a lot to the awareness that's brewing in the industry about gender depictions, and frankly, the boringness of the standard chiseled beefcake with the big gun."

Bithell said he started developing his new game, Volume, with a female lead. But as time went on and the adventure began to take shape, he realized that he was telling a Robin Hood-type story. Hence, for it to really work, the lead character really needed to be male. However, that's the choice he made and as the creator, he's certainly entitled to make it:

"To play with that story, to look at and challenge that particular form of rich masculine heroism, I felt I had to have a male hero.

I [hope] that when people play the game, they'll realize why I chose to tell this story with a male protagonist. For me, that's the interesting shift in the thinking recently. Male heroes should no longer be the default; it's a choice, a choice that should be deployed when it works for the story being told."

Yes. Exactly correct. You don't create a story with the express purpose of putting in a female character (or a gay character, for that matter). Doing so means you're driven by political or sociological influences; the actual art form is coming second. We're doing that way too often these days. Just do what Bithell said: Whatever fits best, fits best. That is the only 100% fair approach.

Tags: gaming industry, video game gender, game heroes, thomas was alone

2/21/2014 11:04:07 AM Ben Dutka

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Comments (38 posts)

Vivi_Gamer
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 11:24:00 AM
Reply

I don't think gender should be a matter of choice, but the gender should fit the character and narrative of the story. If we start getting 'choices' we start getting shallow characters due to the limitations the developers has set in giving the player choice to create a character in a game. I wasn't rich interesting characters in my games not Avatars which have no depth and just have everyone in the game react around the fact that your character has no set personality.

Also, I am not convinced hearing this from someone who has made a game where you play as a box which has its gender is identified by a name and nothing else.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 11:35:27 AM

I think you misinterpreted the word "choice."

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WorldEndsWithMe
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 12:09:15 PM
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Why couldn't a woman be masculine?

Anyway, I really like when I can literally choose in RPGs. Just yesterday I was looking at Dragon Age Inquisition gameplay and wondering what gender I'd like to pick. As a man I can make him look like me and feel more of a personal hero connection or with a female I can have a more interesting set of relationship dynamics, freedom of action, and story portrayal.

Either way yeah I'm dead tired of the grizzled testosterone man.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 2:13:00 PM

"Why couldn't a woman be masculine?"

Literally, because she's not a man.

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H8WL3R
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 3:22:14 PM

Perhaps you have valid perspective here World. I looked the term up, because I too thought masculinity, used as a an adjective, could apply to certain girls/women/females.

Now taken directly from the merriam-webster.com:

1 a : male
b : having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man
2: of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to males <masculine nouns>
3 a : having or occurring in a stressed final syllable <masculine rhyme>
b : having the final chord occurring on a strong beat <masculine cadence>
— mas·cu·line·ly (adverb)
- mas.cu.lin.i.ty (noun)

So I ask whomever would like to answer/add to this reply; is using the term as defined in 1b, to a person of the opposite sex not applicable in this case? Can this term not be used to define certain characteristics of someone from the opposite sex or even a room? Example (from same source): The living room is decorated in a more masculine style than the bedroom.

This is how I interpreted this in World's case anyway, so just thought I'd post this to help support that statement. You're welcome. ;) :P Later. :)

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Draguss
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:06:31 PM

I don't know, Ben. You've never seen my 3rd cousin, she's a fair bit more masculine than most of my friends. She also has a bigger mustache than most of my friends...

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:11:45 PM

I didn't say women couldn't have masculine qualities. I said by definition, "masculine" applies to men.

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WorldEndsWithMe
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:21:46 PM

I guess I'm a little stymied that a robin hood as to be a man. Women can have masculine qualities and men can have feminine qualities.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 9:50:18 PM

Of course. Except it's simply more believable from a literary and realistic standpoint that such a role would be occupied by a man.

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Bonampak
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 1:58:38 AM

Have any of you guys heard of Joan of Arc?

She was burn on a stake for being too "masculine" and refusing to wear woman's clothes.

In reality, she was killed because she had more balls than most men in that day and age.

So as you can see, things have changed very little over time.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 6:02:18 PM

Yeah, nothing's changed. 'rolling eyes'

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BikerSaint
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 1:01:51 PM
Reply

My late great bad-a$$ red-headed Commander Shepard was female.
And the same went for Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen

(As are most of my main protagonist's whenever I'm given the choice).

Last edited by BikerSaint on 2/21/2014 1:04:16 PM

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Beamboom
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 1:47:31 PM
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I think that BioWare has proven time and again that gender *can* be a player choice - that it really don't matter much to the story what gender the main protagonist is, both genders work.

Like World above I too can not understand why a Robin Hood character can't be female.

This is an interactive media. Let the gamer decide.

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H8WL3R
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 3:43:08 PM

Yeah, I personally think too that it's usually great to have more freedom of choice, and thus, options to better suit someone's personal play-style. I think (namely BioWare) allows this by incorporating character creation with the choice of sex and a decent amount of physical customization, as well as sexual orientation and to a degree maybe gender, because a transgendered person can play as whom they identify with most, perhaps something closer to their ideal physical self and have romantic relations with someone (of course of age and consent) who would reciprocate). :)

However, I do understand it's ultimately up to devs (who usually have to answer to the publishers mind you), and I respect that in some cases they want a very defined and driven pre-rendered character, with only moderate-little customization that the player perhaps more linearly shares a journey/adventure/story with.

I guess they both have their place, and are more suited for certain types of games. I do though, usually encourage as much customization and fluidity with character development as possible, and even though it's a small step, I do like the added skins/costumes/outfits when available, if nothing/next to nothing when it comes to some kind of change. Usually in most action/adventure games (and some RPGs), you get to decide what abilities/skills to upgrade first and perhaps choose a different outfit for subsequent playthroughs, but at least it's something. :)

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Knightzane
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 3:28:35 PM
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More crap about this?

There's a sex change coffin in Dark Souls 2. Bet all the guys who play as girls are going to love that.

Now for the thing that im going to get hated for.
In a game like RDR, I don't see John Martson being a female. It doesn't work. In real life womens strengths are completely different from a mans strengths. Just because everyone is going ape crap about this female equality thing because more women now play video games shouldn't be an issue. When I played Beyond two souls I thought "This character couldn't be a guy because it wouldn't suit what its about"

Honestly, if an artist or creative writer wants to make a game with a lead male protagonist, shut up and let them make their work. Complaining about it is completely unheard of and thats even worse than men wanting their leads to be men. Its not because they're sexist, its because they have a vision and if the vision is that of a male character they should have the right to make a male character.

Games that give you a choice is great, because Demons Souls could easily have a woman fight off the demons. But artists have a right to do what they want, without having to worry about the backlash. If every game had that choice, it would lose creativity. Not to mention how difficult it would be in order to make it work in terms of story and what not.

Anyway, if I get banned or something for what I said I'm sorry. If I offended anyone I'm sorry too. Its just what I think.

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Lawless SXE
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:07:47 PM

You're exactly agreeing with what Bithell, and by association Ben, had to say, so why would you get banned?

Last edited by Lawless SXE on 2/21/2014 4:08:02 PM

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WorldEndsWithMe
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:24:29 PM

I agree it should be 100% up to the makers, but any half way decent writer should be able to sell a female cowboy. Look at real women in history like Joan of Arc for instance, Queen Boudica or the pirate Anne Bonny. It isn't just a political bent, it's reality.

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Beamboom
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:27:54 PM

A female version of Marston would have been *fantastic* - and I don't care if it would have been realistic or not. I mean, seriously, how many of us "real men" around here would have been able to do what John did? How realistic was RDR to begin with?

I dare say the main reason we find a male protagonist the most "realistic" is because that's how we are used to have the heroes in western movies.

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Lawless SXE
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:45:29 PM

Okay, so a cowgirl is a viable option for Marston. Think of how that would impact the story, the necessary shifts in motivation and character background. Possible, yes, but it would have been a vastly different story. One gender isn't necessarily more realistic than the other, so long as their motivations are justified.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 9:53:05 PM

This must be what political correctness does to people's perception of reality.

Of course you could make a female cowboy character. And there were some pretty amazing female fighters in history. ...obviously, though, when you compare their numbers to the amazing male warriors in history, and when you compare the numbers of male cowboys and outlaws versus female, things get clearer.

Lawless is right. The story would've had to be completely different. To simply toss a female into the Marsten role and have the same sequences of events would've been just plain absurd. That's not sexist. It's just absurd.

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Beamboom
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 2:25:34 AM

I don't see what part of the Marshal story that were so gender specific? What parts needed to be completely different in order to work?

Surely you guys must have seen Quintin Tarantinos trilogy "Kill Bill"? What the director did there was to insert a female character into a very ultra-typical male role and ultra-traditional action flick story about revenge. The rest of the movie, down to the very last line of dialogue is classic action hero dialogue that could just as well have been performed (and usually is) by a man.

Now anyone tell me *that* didn't work out well!

No, I think this whole discussion have roots in how we are used to see things. The stereotypes.
We are so *used* to see male characters in the role of Marshal that we feel the entire story needs to be so different was he a female instead. But as far as I am concerned I believe both BioWare and indeed Tarantino has proved otherwise.


Last edited by Beamboom on 2/22/2014 2:38:57 AM

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Lawless SXE
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 6:21:49 AM

I would say that Kill Bill is actually a poor example. Yes, it's a woman introduced into a hyper-violent role usually portrayed by men, but the hyperstylisation of those films really allowed for that. Such was not the case in RDR, which was much more grounded.

And besides, let's not forget that John Marston's story wasn't about revenge, but redemption. He was trying to clear his name that he might be reunited with his family. He was motivated by forces beyond his control into doing what he did.

The real question is where do you start to make the changes? If you wanted to keep it as grounded as it was, you would need to change the background. Women in outlaw gangs in the Wild West wasn't unheard of — Belle Star and Pearl Hart stand out — reading about them makes it difficult to believe that any of them would have tried to settle down and make a respectable life for themselves after ending their life of crime. At least, not in the circumstances of Marston. Laura Bullion went on to become a somewhat respectable citizen after her arrest, but that was only after the gang she ran with was disbanded because most of them were killed.

So Marston's past wouldn't work if transplanted to a female. On the other hand, Abigail's (John's wife) might. Effectively, she was a prostitute within his gang who eventually settled down with John. It is implied that she was never really involved in the more criminal acts of the gang, so even though she could shoot, it is unlikely that she would be selected as a target. But what if she was a full-blooded member of the gang anyway?

It still doesn't work nearly as effectively as you would have to consider that John would not allow himself to simply be taken by government agents, but would fight to protect himself. Thus, it would become a tale of revenge; not against the former gang members as was portrayed in Redemption, but against the government agents in question, which in turn alters every event in the game.

It may seem simple to just say, okay, we'll place a female here, but if you want it to remain as believable and personal as Red Dead Redemption, it's not. It works for Bioware because the player is able to project themselves onto Shepard or Hawke, or whoever, but that isn't the case with Marston, who is a clearly defined character with a real sense of place, circumstance and history to him. It may take place in an alternate universe, but it isn't a fantasy one where the rules are written at will. The Wild West is based on the reality, and the reality is that Joan Marston could not be in that place. At least not with the same story as John Marston.

Does that answer your question, Beam?

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Bio
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 8:39:36 AM

That there weren't many notable female outlaws in the old west doesn't mean having one in RDR would be unbelievable, given the type of game we're talking about. I doubt there were any field operatives like The Boss during the Cold War of the 1960s, but that didn't make her any less believable in that game's universe than Snake.

Good writers could tell the same exact story with a female lead without changing the character's history or motives, and Rockstar has good writers. Bad writers create uninteresting characters and stories regardless of gender.

It seems to me like gender is a narrative problem for some of you because of our country's history with certain narrative themes, but that history itself is based on sexism, so using it as a justification to continue pigeonholing genders doesn't strike me as a terribly logical thing to do.

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Lawless SXE
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 5:23:39 PM

Bio,
That second paragraph is fundamentally wrong. A good writer would recognise the need to change the story. Lazy writers would transplant it wholesale and poor writers wouldn't be able to craft RDR.

I would say to compare MGS to RDR. The former has always bordered on the fantastical, besides which, female characters of the type personified by The Boss were present from the beginning. Naomi, Sniper Wolf, Fortune, and most particularly Olga. In the spirit of full disclosure, I've not played MGS3, though I have played 2, so I don't know all that much about The Boss' role in the game, but I ask anyone to chime in and tell me whether she, as a character, would have worked as a male.

I don't see an issue of having a female step into any role currently occupied by males in games, but things would need to be changed to make them fit in such a way as to make it seem natural. It's not sexism, or an attempt at pigeonholing them into certain roles, it's a matter of ensuring that the person fits the role.

Or, you know, we can just look at Catherine and reverse the roles. Make Katherine (or Catherine) the lead and have her torn between Vincent and Vincenzo. Would that work, as is, with the characters exactly as they are?

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Lawless SXE
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:15:51 PM
Reply

Fully agree with the sentiment. Ultimately, it comes down to what the creator feels best fits. In some cases, as in many RPGs, it is better for player engagement to give them a choice, but it almost always detracts from the story by making it unable to truly differentiate between one and the other.

It's one of the things that I really like hearing about the development process of why developers chose to make their characters either one genre or the other. Take Rockstar North with GTA V, for example. They said that it would have felt wrong to make one of their three leads a female because it wouldn't have fit with the story they were telling and the archetypes they were building on. Personally, I think that Franklin could actually have made a good female character, but I'm not about to whinge that he was a male because it still fit with his circumstances and those characters that surrounded him.

Another one that springs to mind is Heavenly Sword. NT were originally going to have a male playable character but realised as time went on that it wouldn't have fit with the themes they were dealing in and the story they were trying to tell. I feel that was actually a really brilliant choice, as it juxtaposed the role of women over that concept of destiny. I would even go so far as to say it resulted in a borderline feminist message, which made the title all the more powerful.

But yeah, it's pretty clear to any artist that a character's gender/sexual orientation/whatever should not be defined by any desire to be "politically correct". It needs must serve the story, and the characters.

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WorldEndsWithMe
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:27:16 PM

yeah it's not the end of the world or anything, but whenever someone says "We can't put a woman in here" keyword: Cant, I'm just skeptical because that is often based on perception rather than fact.

Now, if it's your dream to create Franklin or Nathan Drake for that matter as your hero then boom there's no reason why you SHOULD consider a female, but don't tell me it wouldn't fit because that's just ignorant.

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Lawless SXE
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 4:54:09 PM

Fully agree on use of that word "can't". Done properly, just about any game could feature a female lead, but it's trickier to do than it is a man, because we're all conditioned to think of men as the heroes, in fiction and real life. I don't know about you, but when I hear the word 'soldier', I instantly think of a 25-35 year old man in army fatigues with a pack on his back and a gun in his hands. I *KNOW* that there are people older and younger in the armed services, that there are women as well, but that's what I view as the archetype of a soldier. I would, however, love to see something different utilised in fiction.

For some weird reason, though, when I think of 'explorer' or 'archaeologist' I think of a woman. So, that's... yeah. I don't fully agree that the two genders are completely interchangeable.

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 10:00:58 PM

A female as Nathan Drake, as the character is drawn, as the adventure sequences play out, and as the story moves forward?

It's not "ignorant" to say a woman doesn't fit that. It's common sense. If you want to tailor the aforementioned facets to make it even remotely feasible for a woman to be in that role, fine. Otherwise, as is the case with Marsten, it would be utterly absurd.

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booze925
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 5:43:51 PM
Reply

Doesn't matter, tbh. If your story has a female lead, then let it have a female lead.
Equality is about looking at something, and not giving it a real second thought.

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Axe99
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 5:51:10 PM
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Great article. One thought though - is the art _ever_ independent of political and sociological influences? Just because we're not consciously aware of our influences, doesn't mean they don't exist.

In which case, I'd rather that when people make games, they are aware of their sociological/political influences, and can tailor things more appropriately. To go even further on a tangent, one of the big issues with the USA's/UK's/Australia's foreign policy is that it's not always honest with itself what it's trying to achieve (sometimes it's Realpolitik, sometimes it's helpful assistance to nations in trouble, but when the two happen at the same time, if often gets very muddled, and things would run better if they were more clear on their goals).

Don't think I can get any more tangential than that, will stop now. Can't wait for Volume :).

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Underdog15
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 7:14:51 PM
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It doesn't matter anyways, Ben. If a developer makes a character that is anything but a grizzled man or Lara Croft and has any qualities that aren't Bible Belt approved, it won't matter how perfect it is for the story. They will always be accused of doing it for political or sociological reasons.

sarc: We must label all that is not the norm! /sarc

Last edited by Underdog15 on 2/21/2014 7:15:07 PM

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WorldEndsWithMe
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 8:58:05 PM

pretty much this

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Friday, February 21, 2014 @ 9:58:01 PM

Baloney.

What characters in gaming today even fit those descriptions? Who? Nathan Drake? No chance; he's respective of women, quite clean-shaven, very self-deprecating at times, and has the kind yet loyal heart of a lion.

Ezio? Egotistical, yes, but a grizzled, brawny, chauvinistic pig? Hardly. Ethan in Heavy Rain? Booker in Bioshock Infinite? What about female roles? Ellie? Jodie Holmes? The little girl in Contrast?

What about the dark and disturbed, those that challenge us psychologically, like Alan Wake and Max Payne? I would like to know WHERE all these "grizzled, Type-A, muscle-bound" heroes are. I really would, because I can't remember the last time I even saw one.

"Anything but a grizzled man or Lara Croft?" Don't look know, but the latter character set is in the minority. The current trend for men is vulnerability and sensitivity, not Duke Nukem kick-ass-ability. Same basically goes for the women.

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Underdog15
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 1:29:32 AM

I must have missed the part where Drake attends ballroom dances as well as scotch and Euchre nights.

The guy is an adrenaline junkie who always manages to survive tight squeezes with guns and fists of fury. He runs around in jungles and deserts and other barren wastelands and ruins. Almost every scene, I doubt he's had a bath in weeks. That's pretty grizzly. Drake might have elements of respect for women at his core, but he still talks to Sully about chasing tail in Montreal, etc. etc. In other words, his class is balanced by his facade and humour through his action movie-like one liners. It's corney, but it's awesome corney. It makes for a great action flick story (which isn't a bad thing, by any means). But it's hardly poetry.

Ezio walks around with a strut and hunched shoulders like he's the sh!t. I keep expecting him to break out into a rap. (I never said anything about chauvinistic bigotry, by the way.) He fists of furies with blades. He's a tough mo-fo, man, who can jump from sky scrapers, seduce women, and is somehow a master of every single weapon ever created. That's pretty grizzly to me. He might as well be the Italian Jason Stratham.

You use female roles to back yourself up with the use of Ellie as one of your examples. Yes, she's a good character... BUT come on man... it proves my point. The controversy I'm talking about is literally coming up because of Ellie and Ellie alone. I haven't played the other two games, but the last one isn't exactly mainstream like TLOU and Jodie Holmes is played by Ellen Page who has been on headlines everywhere because people can't not care about her sexual orientation. You think if she came out before Beyond was released it wouldn't have been part of people's discussion? It totally would have. (But not rightfully so) Most games with interesting female leads, no matter how strong, are at the bare minimum, sexualized and impossibly perfect. Even Lightning in her new game got better boobs. Come to think of it, I think I remember reading something about a naked shower scene with Jody Holmes....

Don't forget... Ellie was pretty much admired for her character right across the board and people were talking about how great a step in the right direction it was because she wasn't a love interest, wasn't sexualized, etc. etc. etc. People loved the father daughter dynamic and it resonated because yah... she's a great character. BUT all of a sudden, she kisses a girl, and BOOM. People just can't handle it... and ND has a social agenda... and they're ticking off yet another "box"... yada yada yada one lame insecurity after another.

To be honest, I'm kind of blown away you haven't seen -ANY- of that kind of attitude across the internet in regards to this industry you spend so much time researching. Remember, I agree that games can have interesting characters. You know I'm an advocate for games as art. My point is that if they do anything that can be criticized for being politically correct, it won't matter how great the characters are. People will point it out because they simply just don't get it. Case in point.... Ellie.

Also, "balogna". ;) And I like Bio's list of characters below...

Last edited by Underdog15 on 2/22/2014 1:50:51 AM

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Ben Dutka PSXE [Administrator]
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 6:04:41 PM

Sorry Underdog, you're just seeing what you're pre-programmed to see. If you honestly believe Drake or Ezio are even remotely similar characters to Duke Nukem, or even come close to fitting the stereotypical, offensive, muscular heroes we're all supposed to despise from a "proper" standpoint, you're being purposely blind.

I mean, you even associate some sort of offensive male trait with how Ezio WALKS. You've been programmed to spot something that isn't there, and that's the end of the story.

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Bio
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 12:06:23 AM
Reply

Developers should be free to create the characters they want, but ultimately a lot of what influences the characters they create is the expectations they feel their audience is going to have, so there's nothing wrong about people being vocal about their desire for something more than grizzled manly men like Marcus Fenix, Kratos, Snake, Master Chief, or ridiculous sex pots like Lara Croft, Ivy, Bayonetta, etc.

And people can have those desires for reasons other than OMG POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, and frankly I think it's ridiculous to say you can't transpose gender almost all the time without sacrificing narrative, in videogames at least. The best example of this is probably Metal Gear Solid 3, as The Boss was a bigger badass than Snake ever was or will be, and she managed to do that while being feminine without overly sexualized. The Boss could have been the star of the entire franchise from the get-go, without any fundamental narrative changes.

The reason why that wasn't the case was because historically Japan, America and Europe have been fantastically sexist countries who focused on men in those instances by default. It's only lately that we, as societies, have started to progress on gender equality. If gaming doesn't reflect that change in society, at least to some degree, then obviously some sexism is still at play, since art is a reflection of our own humanity.

So, yeah, let them choose the characters they want. I just hope the people behind the games start realizing they don't have to conform to past stereotypes.

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PlatformGamerNZ
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 1:35:29 AM
Reply

yeah i totally agree you need to make sure that you don't just make the main character male just for the sake of it but because it fits the game story

happy gaming =)

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___________
Saturday, February 22, 2014 @ 3:13:25 AM
Reply

one thing i wish developers would understand, something so simple and basic as a characters genre can add so much to the character.
ellie for instance, would she be half as interesting and telling to the dark world of TLoU, if she was a guy instead?

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Yes it did and then some!
Not quite but it's still great.
No, it's only okay.
Not at all; it's a huge disappointment.

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