October 26th, 2005

Normally, I’m content to play games. That is, I don’t sit around day dreaming about writing my own, the way I do with books. But after a recent conversation about using existing technology to create radically different gameplay – and with a need to defy traditional game logic constantly chilling in the back of my mind – I’ve lately found myself spacing in class to thoughts of game design.

I still have no answer to recreating accepted gameplay logic (I’m really working hard to wrap my mind around that one.), but I’ve been having a lot of fun thinking about all the ways a game could recreated accepted gender logic, could tell a story with completely inverted roles. In the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t change much (ie, it wouldn’t erase the underlying causes that make us create stereotypes in the first place), but as a piece of self-conscious camp, it could really be a blast.

What would the game involve? I’ve been envisioning an action/adventure setup, mostly because the narrative and character interaction would seem to me to be the most straight forward. A conservative start, it’s true, but the real changes would be in the characters themselves:

First of all, a hero. Instead, we’d have a heroine. Which in and of itself is nothing new. But let’s say we took the traits of the male hero, and put them on a woman. She has to be brave, physically strong (We’re talking visible muscular structure.), dressed like a badass but also almost entirely covered. She’s attractive, but in a sweaty kind of way, and her features are harsh and distinctive. Plus, she knows things about weapons – big weapons – and she doesn’t hesitate to kill.

Because, after all, she’s fighting for a good cause: saving her damsel in distress. Except, of course, that damsel is a man. He, unlike his savioir, is physically weak, effeminate, and very pretty. He has to be dressed alluringly and scantily, and, despite present dangers, camera angles must always work to exentuate his beauty. In battles, he sometimes helps out with smaller attacks (shooting arrows, firing a tiny gun, etc.), but for the most part he’s useless.

Soon enough, just when things are getting really tough for you, he becomes an NPC, and now you have to protect him. Scared for his life, he’s always screaming for help, and it’s all you can do not to let him just die. But like a good trooper, you keep on going – because, at the end of the day, you might just get in his pants. In the meantime, you content yourself with making off-handed remarks and coming on to him at inappropriate moments, even though you know, you shouldn’t abuse your power.

(More on this to come, including an explanation of the post’s wacky title. Oh yes, so much more…)

Tags: Blog

25 Responses to “A Little Girl and Some Big Ideas”

  1. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    I’m intrigued…

  2. matt Says:

    I’ve never understood heroines in games, Lara Croft particularly. Sure, if we’re talking Heavy Metal, the whole point of the heroine is that she’s a badass who’s one step away from a porn star. But for heroines like Lara, we’re supposed to believe that she goes trapsing around tombs and battling baddies wearing a crop-top and daisy dukes. I suppose we should be greatful that she at least wears hiking boots. She should also be ripped. I’m talking Linda Hamilton in Terminator II ripped.

    A huge reason most female characters in games (and in fantasy/sci-fi art) don’t appeal to me is that I can’t imagine for a moment how they could possibly be comfortable. I know armor isn’t exaactly the equivalent of lounging in your PJs on saturday morning, but a chainmail bikini? C’mon! What purpose does that serve other than to make your most vital areas completely vulnerable and chafe the nasties at the same time?

    I can believe that armor needs to fit body type, but have specific boob compartments? Um, no. Tape those suckers down! While swinging swords and dodging bullets, they’re nothing but a liability (I’m looking at you Taki).

    A counter argument I’ve heard to these sorts of ideas is that games “aren’t reality.” Well, no shit, but you can’t expect me to respect your characters if you, the creator, didn’t respect them in the first place. If you’re a barbarian who’s more interested in the glories of death in battle than protecting yoruself from a Zerg rush, then yeah, man and woman alike can walk around almost-naked (Mark of Kri comes to mind). But don’t expect me to believe that the hot Elf princess in my party would go dungeon diving in her skivvies when even the most-hearty Dwarf is buckled up to his ears in protection.

    I know that’s more of a character-design issue rather than the substantive gameplay dynamics you were talking about, but I’m in character modeling class right now, so this is the kind of stuff that’s on my brain :p

  3. Bonnie Says:

    Hmm, character modeling class. I wish I had the mind for the tech involved in actually creating things, not just talking about creating them. Alas, the dilemma of a writing student-flavored gamer.

    As for Taki’s flailing breasts: maybe I’d be cooler with the idea if I saw a little penis-pouch action every one in a while… some sort of protruding phallus that gets in the way in battle, but bounces about with realistic physics (!).

    Seriously though, if you think about it, it is kind of strange which bodily features we choose to accentuate with clothing, and which we choose to cover up. Sure, breasts stick out from your chest, and that warrants some extra shirt room. But doesn’t it strike anyone else as weird that those of you with penises are stuck with that ambiguous, androgynuous “V” of everyday pants crotches?

  4. Scott Jon Siegel Says:

    Penny Arcade, on the topic of less-than comfortable outfits for female characters. That is all. -sj

  5. JohnH Says:

    Aaagh! Bonnie, you’re straying dangerously close, by mentioning game costuming and someone from Soul Calibur, to Voldo territory.

    Ah, I said it! Unclean!

    Okay, enough with the goofiness…. I think the inverted roles game has a potential to sell, if it had a solid design behind it. Strong female figures *are*, indeed, sexy, and in a way are even more so if they’re more focused on the goal than wardrobe. I always thought it harmed Tomb Raider that Lara Croft’s assets were so on-display in later games. As proof I present Samus, who some gamers maintain is actually hot despite the fact that barely any figure is there at all (well, until Metroid Prime at least), and throughout the first game you didn’t even find out she’s a she until the ending.

  6. Bonnie Says:

    John, I’m totally obsessed with Voldo. You don’t want to start that conversation :-).

    The thing about Samus that makes her “hot”, in my opinion, has a lot to do with the masks issues discussed in Monday’s post. First of all, she really is attractive under the suite – we’ve seen it. But also, there’s something about the allure of not knowing, and therefore assuming an answer that fits your desires that makes her sexy.

  7. James Schend Says:

    Scott, you’ve reminded me of Prince of Persia: Warrior Within, THE WORST SEQUEL IN HISTORY.

    (Partly because they removed Farah who was a strong and clever female sidekick and replaced her by … I dunno, the chick from Ninja Gaiden. What were they thinking?)

    (Actually, I think I know what they were thinking. They interviewed only the people who *didn’t* like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time when designing the second game and changed everything to appeal to that group even though that made it a clone of pretty much every other 3rd person action game out there and removed everything that was so clever about Prince of Persia: Sands of Time in the first place. Sorry for ranting, I’m still bitter.)

  8. Bonnie Says:

    You know James, it’s interesting that you mention Farah, because, apart from the intellectual whatnot, I found her really annoying. She totally fits that “shoot arrows like a girly girl while you’re forced to hack away at swarms of bad guys” model. Plus, she was more or less a whiny bitch. But the thing that really, I mean really got me is the way she fit through cracks. First of all, she was NOT that small. Second of all, whenever you were really in a bind, instead of helping you think it through she suddenly noticed, suprise surprise, a crack in the wall. It’s like the idiocy of the “girls don’t fart” myth. News to the world: we do not fit in cracks.

  9. FerrousBuller Says:

    “I smolder with generic rage” – God, I love that line. :-)

    Anyway, as to your game idea, Bonnie: it’s amusing, but a trifle heavy-handed, even for a satire or parody. The whole “hey, let’s show women being as obnoxious as men!” thing is kinda pointless, IMHO. I mean, is your objective to give girls a chance to “wear the pants for a change,” so to speak; or to show how to do a game where both genders get to hold their own? Turnabout may be fair play, but a level playing field seems like it would do more to advance the cause, as it were.

    E.g., imagine a version of PoP:SoT where you could play as Farah: she’s still an archer, but she’s much more useful in a fight, now that she’s the PC, with the Prince acting as her meat-shield. [“I’m gettin’ MAULED here!”] And, as VG Cats clearly shows, she was the clever one. :-)

  10. Stephan Sokolow Says:

    Your idea definitely has potential. If you ever find or manage to make something like that, please let me know. I’m an admitted variety addict.

    In fact I’m so tired of the monotonous junk in modern gaming that I almost never play anything that runs on Windows anymore (Linux, DOS, Super Nintendo, and a handful of PSX games are my choice) and I haven’t purchased a game in years.

  11. Bonnie Says:

    Ferrous, you’re totally right – as an actual game idea, it’s ridiculously heavy-handed and not particularly productive, and I’m glad you pointed that out, because I obviously didn’t make my thinking too clear on that one. Thing is, this is just the first half of the post, a part one if you will, in which I’m mostly just thinking about (and, honestly, having a lot of fun) how it would look if our gender stereotypes were reversed – in hopes, not of saying that this is how things should be (in life or in games), but to shine a little light on the ridiculousness of our social expectations, to make them appear as they are: laughable and absurd.

    As for an actual game design – like, one I’d be excited to play, thoughts for that shall emerge tomorrow. Feel free to tell me then if I’m still being, you know, bitchy :-).

    Also, you mention that a game where the sexes are equally well-represented is a step in the best direction. Maybe, maybe not. In the longterm, that may be true, but I think, in the short term, we need some more radical titles (ones that do present an inversion) to shake things up a bit and get the market ready for actual change. It’s kind of like, do you slowly win power from within the system itself, or do you go all Rosa Luxemborg and bring out the big revolutionary guns in hopes of inspiring real action.

    Also: hey, Stephen. I would suggest (despite a supposedly somewhat traditional narrative gender dynamic) that you check out Shadow of the Colossus. I know everyone’s raving about it at the moment, but my fiance’s recently come home with reports of having his mind blown by just watching someone play – so maybe this one really is different.

  12. matt Says:

    fwiw, I’ve been through Shadow twice now–once several weeks before retail (I’ve got the m4dz0r h00kups, yo). I don’t mention that to brag (well, maybe a little), but to say that my roommate and I were incredibly surprised by the imrpovement in the game between the review build and retail. It’s like they took an entire second pass on the art for the game and with the combination of a vastly improved framerate it was very, very easy to get sucked into another marathon session.

    Still . . . like I think I said somewhere in a comment to an earlier thread (at least I think I did, maybe it was on GGA), I wonder what it would be like to be “Wanda” saving her love by battling the colossi. It kinda wouldn’t fit with certain story elements (I can’t elaborate–spoilers you know), but I like the idea.

    Sort of turns the usual damsel-in-distress thing on its head in a way somewhat akin to your preliminary game-design thoughts :)

  13. Bonnie Says:

    That would definitely be interesting. And it wouldn’t have to be heavy-handed and ironic – just good. Not that I want spoilers, but I wonder if it really would mess up the narrative, or if it could be worked out somehow…

  14. Anonymous Says:

    When making radical changes, you have to remember that in the end the consumer is the one who decides.

    Your objective is to persuade he[r]; creating a legions of annoyed guys who look at a game and say “That sucks.” or “That’s stupid.” is counterproductive. I can see testing the market with a low-budget highly radical role-switching game, but more would be dangerous to your movement and exceptionally hard to actually get funding / sponsors for..

    Because, in short, if it sucks for girls, then if the role is switched and it sucks for guys, they’re not going to like it unless they personally find it funny enough to get by the stupidity.

    You don’t make games to prove a point or to push your philosophy. You make games so the player can have fun, and if you can open their mind while doing so you try. Anything else is gratingly unplayable for anyone who doesn’t share your views.

  15. Patrick Dugan Says:

    It would be interesting to have a de-phallicized male protagonist or vice versa. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Evangelion are good examples of this sort of gender role inversion. Chris Crawford’s Erasmatron engine might be a good tool to test out some interactive stories that play with these boundaries. With a few weeks of scripting and a little bit of art and animation you could demonstrate what you’re proposing with something playable.

  16. Bonnie Says:

    Hi Anonymous, whoever you are – I hear what you’re saying, and as I’ve mentioned above, I would strive to put something together that is, in the overall, fun and far less in your face than the ideas mentioned in this post. With that said, you have to keep in mind that not all game consumers are men – we women gamers do exist, and we buy games too.

    Patrick, you had me at Evangelion. Seriously though, I’m quite familiar with Eva and Brazil (two of my all-time favorites), but I don’t know Erasmatron. I’d love to learn more though. Any links to info?

  17. Patrick Dugan Says:

    http://www.erasmatazz.com

    Thats Chris Crawford’s Website, a status report and updates are at the top. The crux of the engine is the linguistic interface Crawford came up with, the idea is that all storybuilders will have access to a growing library of verbs with which to construct their gameplay, and then at different causal nodes the user has a range of verbs with which to construct their sentances. Theoretically its possible to build a front-end program that lets you set-up cinematic visuals and possibly even real-time segements interwoven with the turn-based dramatic gameplay. The beauty of this is that you don’t have to be confined to traditional gameplay verbs of run, shoot, use, ect. All kinds of social behavior will be possible with the core library and you can devise custom verbs for your particular storyworld’s needs, allowing to create gameplay that more directly gets at your intended themes, rather than merely subverting old forms.

    By the way I too am trying to write for the Escapist, I’d like to hear what you’re working on in regards to your column.

  18. Bonnie Says:

    That sounds fascinating (Erasmatazz, that is). I’ll definitely check that out.

    For the Escapist column, I’ll be focusing on (surprise, surprise) gender and sexuality issues within gaming culture. I have a piece coming out on Tuesday on female monsters in survival horror games. I’m not sure I should release the details on the rest of the line-up :-), but suffice to say there’ll be a lot of (hopefully interesting) exploration of less traditional topics.

  19. TrueTallus Says:

    I think your game idea would be hilarious. Particularly if no punches were pulled. I suggest that the main character doesn’t overtly attempt to come on to the mansel in distress, you need a much more blatant foil character to really lay on the completely innapropriate innuendo, sort of like Louise(spelling?) in Resident Evil 4. Would you put in the super sexualized mid level evil boss character (now male of course)? Seriously thats really funny, I can just immagine RE 4’s ending reversed…

  20. Bonnie Says:

    Ah, the “mansel”. Good call on the foil character. RE4 reversed – the effeminate man tries to bat his eyelashes and get into his female saviors pants… Nice.

  21. Someone Says:

    Great. Instead of striving towards mature and balanced games, you want to go straight to the other extreme end of the spectrum and do the same bullshit that you supposedly oppose, except that your bullshit isn’t even grounded in reality, it’s grounded in angry feminist revenge fantasies.

    Have you ever played Max Payne 2? The male and female characters are both strong, but they don’t make a scene about it (they’re too old for that, I suppose), and they work together. I suppose the same could be said about Resident Evil 0.

  22. MD² Says:

    Hum, first, hello, and then thanks for the blog, made nice reading. Now onto the main display rant:

    I’ve been toying with the same ideas myself for quite some time now. The best thing I can think of is an RPG like game (easier to dwell heavy on narration without bothring players) that goes something like this:
    You start up as the quintessential boy-ish japanese RPG hero, first stealth job in a team of mercenaries. By end of “chapter 3”, the hero dies. Volontarily violent and meaningless death, headshot by a sniper, on the job.
    Narration then switches of to the rest of the team (men and women), with no particular character being given spotlight. Main storyline start to be intertwined more and more with private life of the protagonists and their relationships.

    I think it’s important to use a group of characters rather than one because it allows to create enough dirt to avoid being trapped in types [just using reverted types is a pleasing idea, but might not be an efficient one because said types are already boring and overdone, when not overtly despised, by a lot of players. The only advantage would be the reversal, and it can only take you so far]. All women can be “badass” enough, but one can be a really harsh killer with a twisted legist approach while another would be a bitter perfectionist trapped in a life she does hate yet is thriving in. One man can be an emotional wreck, unable to cope with any form of social life more complex than a nuclear military-like faction, while another could be stern fatherly figure… till you start digging deeper and find out he’s nothing more than a self-conscious charismatic bastard.
    Taking use of one of the main strengh of video game as a narrative media, the semi-non-linearity, you could then start to weave alternate possible devellopements of the relationships around a main storyline, using possibilities offered by the Erasmatron incorporated seamlessly into what might otherwise play like a conventional scripted RPG. Pleasing to both sexes, and different factions in it.

    That’s the main idea, anyway, but then I find the sheer scope of it somewhat intimidating.

    I cannot but think one oft-overlooked characteristic defining the relationship between a male player and his female avatar happens to be the (sometimes guilty, often unconscious) pleasure of blurring social coding (our sex, and the features that come with it may be genetic, but most of our sexual identity is ensnared in social coding).

    Sorry if it was too long.

  23. MD² Says:

    Sorry, that last paragraph wast meant to go in another thread, but I’m a bit exhausted, and not too much in exact control of what I’m doing anymore.
    Plus I’ve just realised the point had already been made by someone else.

  24. Hi there Says:

    Are you there?

    Thanks for clearing this up .

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