>Dear, BioWare: you’re awesome, except for when you suck

>[Warning, this post contains spoilers for Baldur’s Gate, Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect. If you haven’t played them by now and think you might care about being spoiled, turn back now.]

I’ve been playing BioWare games since the original Baldur’s Gate. I played through NWN and a substantial amount of Shadows of Undrentide. I loved KOTOR and KOTOR2 (except for the last three hours), was completely obsessed with Dragon Age (no really, ask my husband), and only just recently discovered the joy that is Mass Effect. (I have plans to play ME2 some day, but for now I’m working on FFXIII.) I love BioWare games for their rich story lines and the staggering amount of freedom that their games allow – especially the more recent ones.

Best of all, I love the well-written and engaging characters. I’ll admit to giggling like a lunatic while playing through the romance plot with Alastair in DA:O. BioWare has definitely mastered the art of creating believable and memorable NPCs. They’re also perhaps the most female-friendly game publisher out there – hence the title. So this is both my love letter and my disapproving stare going out to the BioWare folks. Don’t get me wrong, BioWare. I love you – I need you. You rock my socks. Except for when you don’t.

Rock: Female avatars

So can I say how much I love being able to have female avatars? Because I love it – I really, really do. I do tend to play male characters on second play-throughs, but for my first play-through, I want to have a female character.

You did okay with this in the Baldur’s Gate series. The romance subplots were obviously geared toward male players, but that’s okay. You were still finding your voice. KOTOR was better, but after my first playthrough I still felt like I had missed something important. And then I discovered that only male Revan had the option of romancing Bastila. Don’t get me wrong, Carth was a nice guy and all and I appreciate that a real female romance option was included. I just didn’t find him a very useful character and thus didn’t really do a lot of plot stuff with him. Sorry, Carth.

With Mass Effect and DA:O they totally hit it out of the park. I played both of these with female avatars and thought that the writing was spot on. Both female Shephard and the protagonist of DA:O are strong female characters without anyone ever having to point out that OMG UR A CHICK. After playing these games, I wasn’t left with the feeling that a male-centric plot had been shoehorned into a female avatar and had all the pronouns changed. So kudos, BioWare for including a viable and well-written female protagonist. And also kudos for having the good sense to choose Jennifer Hale as the voice of female Shephard. She kicks seven kinds of ass.

This is what my female Shephard looked like, except mine was more brown and didn’t look goth.

Anti-Rock: Ads don’t feature female avatars

The problem is that from the advertising that BioWare puts out, you’d never know that female avatars are a viable option. Only the canonical male Shephard – a rather boring pasty space marine – is ever shown in ads for the ME series:

Wow. Another white space marine. Yawn.

You’d never get the idea from the ME ads that Shephard’s gender and race are customizable. And it’s the same with DA:O, Dragon Age: Origins – Awakenings (the expansion), and the promos for the upcoming Dragon Age 2. Again, despite being able to choose a female avatar, the ads feature only male avatars.

Given a recent study of how many registered users choose female Shephards over male Shephards in ME2, it’s not too surprising that the marketing bots made this decision, even if it is disappointing

Further Anti-Rock: BioWare mod response to forum complaints

BioWare’s official response to calls on their forums for more (or, you know, any) female avatars in their advertising is pretty mixed too. In one thread, BioWare forum mod Chris Priestly responded to a complaint that ads never feature female avatars with:

While the percentage population of online gaming audence may be growing or higher, the audence for our games is still predominantly male. This does not mean the female gamer, or again, the male gamer who prefers to play a female character is less important, but it should in part explain why some marketing campaigns are targetted as they are.

As I said in another thread, BioWare always has and continues to greatly support and value our female gaming audience. I hope in the (roughly) 8 months between now and launch female gamers find materials in our marketing that they enjoy.

In other words, the ads have male avatars because they’re the ones who buy the games, silly! But don’t worry, we’ll throw you a bone and expect you girls to be content.

And in another thread asking the same thing, BioWare forum mod Mike Laidlaw said:

We will show her eventually. I don’t have a firm timeline, but we well. And she is -hot-.

Yes. Because that is what I as a female gamer need to know. Is my female avatar going to be hot?


Mitigating Rock: Forum mod who thinks wanting female avatars in ads isn’t crazy talk

Thankfully, contrasting this rather patronizing response we have a thread wherin BioWare forum mod John Epler made many responses in a thread asking to see models of Female Hawke – the protagonist in the upcoming DA2. Among other things, he says:

Honestly, I don’t see a desire for more female-focused attention in development to be an unreasonable request.

No one’s asking for a game and story based around the ideals of second-wave feminism, but merely that we as developers acknowledge that there are more than one audience interested in our product. And I honestly don’t see that as unreasonable in the slightest.

Please keep the gender stereotypes (on both sides of the fence, mind) out of this thread, folks. It’s been pretty productive and positive thus far! Let’s not end up turning this into a ‘men like this’ ‘well women like THIS’ debate.

Phew. Thanks for restoring my faith, John. I mean, I’d buy your games anyway, because they’re just THAT GOOD, but I’d rather not get all resentful about it. So, moving on:

Rock: Female NPCs

BioWare has some of the best female NPCs ever, hands down. From Dynaheir in BG to Bastila in KOTOR to Ashley in Mass Effect, the female NPCs that join your party are well rounded, engaging, and memorable with nary a personality stereotype to be found. Not for BioWare the helpless princess primadonna who needs rescuing. (Okay, excepting Imoen in BG2. But at least she’s your sister and not your love interest.) No, the female characters who join your party are ass-kickers with complex motivations and compelling story lines.

Don’t mess with us. We will ruin your day.

Anti-rock: Sexist character designs

With all of that in mind, why oh WHY the sexist character designs? Seriously!

Okay, so in Mass Effect, one of your party members is Liara – an Asari. (Think blue space elves without the pointy ears.) She wears the same type of form-fitting body suit that all of the human military types do when they’re not all armored up. And while the ‘daughter seeking to atone for the misdeeds of her mother’ story line didn’t do much for me, the fact that she’s a scientist certainly goes against stereotypes. Awesome.

But then you finally meet her mother – Matriarch Benezia. They spend the first few hours of the game building her up as this huge threat and then I’m confronted with massive cleavage. It was one of the most jarring, anti-immersive moments I have ever encountered in a game.

Oh my god, Mom. Are you seriously going out in that? I’m, like, SO EMBARRASSED.

It happens in DA:O as well. The first NPC you meet is Morrigan, an awesomely useful sorceress who is playing some very deep games and has all kinds of hidden motives that the player is left to guess at. The only problem is that she walks around half naked the entire game:

I guess she’s hoping to distract that ogre with her tits.

And of course, Morrigan is prominently featured in a lot of the ads for DA:O.

And what about Leliana – the somewhat crazy assassin turned bard? If you stick with her as a thief, any suit of leather armor that she wears exposes a good portion of her chest. That same armor on a male character covers them up to the neck. Again, WTF? I mean, not wearing pants, fine. It seems like not-pants-wearing is pretty equal opportunity in DA:O, but why the difference?

I find it ironic that Zevran, perhaps BioWare’s sluttiest character ever, is more covered than Leliana.

Maybe Rock?: Leliana redesign

Apparently Leliana gets her own DLC and has gotten a bit of a makeover:

Yay, covered chest! Yay, pants!

So that’s at least mildly encouraging.

So what is it that you want?

I want more female avatars in BioWare’s game ads! (And for that matter, some non-white avatars would be fantastic too.) And I’d like to not have random sexism show up in your character designs. It’s hard to focus on your awesome and compelling stories when I keep getting distracted by irritating random cleavage.

Now go and sin no more! Or I’ll sic Jaheira on you.

(She’d actually kinda like that.)

9 thoughts on “>Dear, BioWare: you’re awesome, except for when you suck

  1. >Once you get to ME2 there is actual toplessness, of on of the hottest characters, in full view for the gamer to take in. Complete with VERY steamy dialogue, with a fade to black insinuating some SERIOUS action was about to take place.<.<>.>And it was a dude taking his shirt off there. Sheppard keeps her clothes ON in the cut scene.The closest we get to female nudity in ME2 are a character whose default top is basically tattoos and a bikini, and another female who shows a little bra.

  2. >And actually, upon further reflection, I'm going to defend Benezia and Samara(from ME2 but just as cleavaged) and the fact that they are so, more from a lore standpoint.The vast majority of Asari that are met in game are fairly young, and while they wear the skin tight clothes everyone wears, they are fairly covered up, unlike many of the human females that are met.Benezia and Samara are Matriarchs, though. Asari of age, power and influence. They are the only two matriarchs we meet that we really know of, and they are the only cleavagey Asari we meet. I therefore liken Asari a bit to Drow, to do a little cross-universe comparison.Drow also like to show off the goods, but only the powerful and influential get to do so with impunity. I imagine Asari Matriarchs are similar. They are secure and comfortable enough to dress as such, and are powerful, wealthy and influential enough to get away with it.Not saying it's right, or that it's not distracting, but I can see the logic.

  3. >Oh? What about the random ass shots of Miranda? I haven't played ME2 yet, but I've seen at least three different screens. (Like this one: http://www.nerdsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/mass-effect-miranda-lawson-ass.jpg)Also, Benezia? Not sexist? (Liara I don't have a problem. She's covered, and spandex is apparently the new black in the future. Cool.) With Benezia, as with the drow, YET AGAIN you have the dichotomy of the "good" but fuckable if you want Liara who is sexy but demure and the EEEEEEVIL Benezia who is using her sexuality as a weapon. It's SO overplayed and SO ridiculous. I wanted to fear Benezia as a powerful villain! Instead I found myself jarred out of enjoying the story by the random cleavage. Let villains be villains without having to show their breasts to the world to prove their evil cred!

  4. >I don't have a whole lot to add to what you wrote, but I just wanted to say I love this entire blog and this entry in particular was a great read.As a male, I too find BioWare's response to be incredibly condescending… and downright stupid. Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 are two of my favorite games of all-time and easily my favorite two games of this generation, and there in my world, Commander Shepard is unquestionably female. I've played both games numerous times, and I have no idea how they could possibly favor the male Shepard in their canon and marketing over the amazing performance of Jennifer Hale.The male Shepard is just plain BORING, but Hale is one of the best actors I've ever heard in a video game. Her work is so strong, so fitting, and so perfect, I gave up on a male playthrough about five hours into the first Mass Effect. I've played both games multiple times, but it will always be with a female avatar.

  5. You know what makes Miranda, Jack and Samara’s outfits all the more irksome in Mass Effect 2? The fact Ashley, Tali and Liara (make of her what you will) all wore the pretty sensible ceramic armour in the first game, like eveyone else. They also wore the same boots as the male characters (Jack and Miranda wear stilettos into combat if I remember correctly, I have a little experience in wearing them, and know it would be nigh impossible to walk across somewhere as craggy as the collector base in them, let alone sprint like they do!)

    Also, to the people saying certain asari being Matriarchs is an excuse for BioWare to get the ol’ cleavage on display: No, it isn’t.

    Also also: I’ve been a fan of Ms. Hale since I realized Mark Meer could never do my Samuel L. Jackson inspired Shepard justice and decided to birth a Femshep instead.

  6. Interesting reads..clicked through here from Bioware Social. As a male gamer, I agree Bioware has sexist views on their outward female designs. I have used mods in ME2 PC for Miranda and Samara. I also quickly covered up Jack. I didn’t like Jack’s ‘badass little molested girl”.

    However, as a whole, I think female characters in Bioware games tend to have significant, equally appreciated roles in their contributions in the plots. For me, Shepard is female. Jennifer Hale brings so much more to the table than Mark Meer does (although his badass one liners are really funny). In KOTOR2, the Exile is considered female canonically. NPCs also play major roles. Sure, the Asari’s all female race opens them up to one sided representation – but this is mentioned in-game as a stereotype. Asari are respected as the “elves” of the Mass Effect universe and are active in all roles: fighters, politicians, and barkeep matriarchs. What would’ve been cool was that if Zaeed was a female though. A tough, down to earth, flawed character that you can relate to.

    Computer games have made the transition of female characters much more quickly than movies have. And although the market is still predominantly male, and the market caters to that (Call of Duty etc), I think strides are made. PS, on the collectors edition, the case will feature both male and female main vanilla characters. Sure, my awesome female isn’t on it, but it’s a start (ps, not supersexy, I’ve made her a tough, realistic woman who i seriously look up to as the freaking most kickass woman in this galaxy).

    Anyway, I liked the OP’s series of articles, keep gunning for better roles for women in games!

    • Hey there. Thanks for the positive comment! I too love BioWare’s female characters, and I agree that Jennifer Hale blows Mark Meer out of the water. It’s just that BioWare writes such great female characters and is generally so much more progressive than other studios that it frustrates me to see them still sticking great characters into fail-worthy costumes. It would be nice to see them let awesome female characters stand on their own merits.

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