Gamers don’t want to play as female characters, right?
At least, that’s the popular marketing theory. Over the course of this generation the console market has been awash with muscle-bound blokes shooting things. Just take this quarter’s line-up – Dead Space , Army of Two, God of War and Gears of War – big men with big weapons killing big monsters.
Apparently, games that star women just don’t sell. Official Xbox Magazine asked Chris Parma, the art director at Epic Games, if a lady could ever be the star in its Gears of War series. He said: “If you look at what sells, it’s tough to justify that.”
It’s not the first time we’ve heard such a statement. Naughty Dog, the developer of The Last of Us, told VG247 last year it had been asked to push Ellie – the game’s co-star – to the back of the box art.
And in the wake of Capcom’s reveal of Remember Me – which has a female protagonist called Nilin – the publisher told MCV that it did wonder if a woman lead character would ‘damage sales’.
But Capcom stuck with Nilin, and Naughty Dog ‘flat-out refused’ to push Ellie to the back of the box. So, with Tomb Raider and Beyond also boasting strong female stars, could 2013 prove to be the year where women leads come to the fore? And could this actually attract a new, feminine audience?
Lara Croft is proof that you can publish a game with a woman on the box and sell millions of games. But in many ways Lara was designed by men for men. Much like Bayonetta or the stars of Dead or Alive, she was a character created partially to titillate a male audience.
But in this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, developer Crystal Dynamics has set out to create a believable, more relatable Lara.
“I don’t feel I consciously ‘opted’ for a female character,
it is just the story I wanted to tell that drove the decision.
Whether the main protagonist is a male, a female,
a plastic toy or a blue alien, it doesn’t matter.
The only thing that matters is to get the audience
emotionally involved, and there is absolutely
no restriction regarding characters in order to do that.”
David Cage, Quantic Dream
“We kept the traits that were central to her character: she’s a Brit, she’s smart, resourceful and brave,” says Darrell Gallagher, the studio head of Crystal Dynamics. But we wanted a grounded and relatable Lara Croft: an ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances.
“The reboot isn’t really about appealing to a specific gender, and it’s not really about ‘being female’ – it’s about an origins story, it’s about being human, and the fight to survive: we hope to have a broad appeal as a result.”
Indeed, the gender of the protagonist may not be the key to attracting a broader female audience. Whether it is Chell in Portal, Link in Zelda, Samus in Metroid or Nathan Drake in Uncharted, these games have the potential and quality to appeal to both sexes. And they do.
It’s something Quantic Dream boss David Cage is key to emphasis with his new game Beyond. The PS3 exclusive stars Hollywood actress Ellen Page as Jodie Holmes, so why did he opt a female lead?
“I don’t feel I consciously ‘opted’ for a female character, it is just the story I wanted to tell that drove the decision,” he tells MCV.
“What always surprises me is that this is not a question anyone would ask to a novelist or a film director. Their audiences would never question that a female character could make their story as interesting and powerful.
“Games still have to deal with some kind of sexism, especially as a lot of the time they’re focused on violence. Male characters tend to have more muscles and fighting capabilities. Female characters usually have an impressive breast and primitive psychology, they are the reward for the brave male hero. Gamers are also mainly male, and some of them may not find a female character appealing, unless she is as sexy as Lara Croft.
“This is changing: partially because gamers are demanding stronger characters and better scripts.”
Capcom’s marketing boss Michael Pattison shares Cage’s view that it’s the subject matter that’s important, not the gender of its lead character.
“We don’t feel gender should matter. When we first saw Remember Me and Nilin, we soon realised that she was the right choice as she is central to the world and story of Remember Me. It’s all about context, the narrative, characterisation and what role the main character is playing.”
But what of the conventional wisdom that a video game will only sell well if it has a male lead?
“Historically perhaps people were concerned that they wouldn’t attract male gamers if the game featured a female lead,” says Pattison. “But we’ve come a long way since then.”
Cage adds: “Whether the main protagonist is a male, a female, a plastic toy or a blue alien, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is to get the audience emotionally involved, and there is absolutely no restriction regarding characters in order to do that.”
It’s certainly true that a good game, regardless of its star, can be enjoyed by both sexes. But the challenge remains to convince the wider female demographic that core action games aren’t just for men. Surely strong female characters, such as Lara, Nilin and Jodie, would help?
“We don’t feel gender should matter. When we first
saw Remember Me and Nilin, we soon realised that
she was the right choice as she is central to the
world and story of Remember Me. It’s all about context,
the narrative, characterisation and what role the main
character is playing.”
Michael Pattison, Capcom’s VP of Marketing for US and Europe
“While there will always be a place for an exaggerated action hero, having a tether to a more human experience is becoming a powerful tool for engagement,” says Gallagher.
“It’s extremely encouraging to see a slate of capable and believable female leads such as those you mentioned. The industry can only benefit from increased diversity in its protagonists. So yes, we hope it continues, and are proud to be helping pave the road.”
Cage adds: “Having an actress like Ellen Page be the main protagonist of Beyond will hopefully make the game even more attractive to women, but we never thought we needed a female character to get a female audience interested.
“I guess there is an unconscious will to change the traditional caricature of the video game hero – the invincible muscular warrior. Many designers are tired of creating the same experiences over and over. And if any of the games you mention are commercially successful, no doubt that you will see other games with a female protagonist.”
So a female face on the box could help draw in a wider demographic for the core action genre. But Cage, Pattison and Gallagher insist that these titles can attract women not because of the main character, but because they represent a new wave of intelligent, story-driven games that offer more than guns and guts.
“Women are more demanding with entertainment than most men: men can enjoy any game as long as there is a gun and someone to shoot at,” Cage concludes.
“Women want a story, characters, something that can resonate with them. They easily find that in films and TV, more rarely in video games.
“Women are the future of gaming. If we can convince them to play games, it will mean that we have something sophisticated and accessible enough to reach a wider audience.”