While it’s clear that there is still a long way to go in terms of evening the playing field as far as representation of women in AAA gaming is concerned, undeniably things are (slowly) getting better. Recently I’ve written about female representation in games previewed at E3, as well as the amazing and rich focus on women’s stories in Life is Strange – so there is tangible evidence that things are indeed changing! Unfortunately, one thing that really isn’t helping is the, sadly still quite prevalent, myth that female protagonists are bad for sales.
You see, despite women now accounting for half of video gamers and the clear majority of all consumer purchases, AAA Game studios are terrified of female-led titles, because marketing to the 18-34 white cishet dude is how it’s always been done. And much like Hollywood, big-budget games have such large budgets that the big studios are reluctant to try anything “new” that might stray outside of their already-proven sales formulas – even if that “something new” is making games that star protagonists that look like half the people on the goddamn planet.
There are developers out there who are bucking the trend and managing to get female-led games published. But the resistance that they face in finding AAA publishers who are willing to publish and distribute these games can be… formidable. Things may be changing, but that change can fairly be described as glacial, and there are still a lot of publishers out there who prefer to make their money the way it’s always been done. (Read: by not publishing games with women in them)
So on the rare occasion that there is a development studio working on a game that features female protagonists, all too often what they hear from the publishers they attempt to court is that they need to make the protagonists male. Take, for example, Dontnod Entertainment – the developers behind both Remember Me and Life is Strange. Both titles were conceived of as stories with female protagonists from the beginning:
Predictably, when Dontnod started approaching developers about both of these games, the very first response was “looks great, but you need to make the protagonists male”. Because, of course, men are relateable and universal while women are weird with only limited niche appeal.
Seriously! Check this out:
When Dontnod started showing Remember Me to publishers, some of them refused to publish the title simply because people would playing as a woman in it, and because that could reduce the game’s sales potential.
“We had some [companies] that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,'” said Moris.
–Source: Polygon – Remember Me dev says publishers balked at a female lead character
But wait! It gets even more damning than that, as witnessed by this quote here:
“We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin’s private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. We had people tell us, ‘You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.'”
— Source: Eurogamer – Why Publishers Refuse Games Such as Remember Me
Thankfully, things seemed to go a little better for Dontnod while they were shopping around for a publisher for Life is Strange, in that nobody said anything quite as boneheaded. (Or at least, nobody said anything that Dontnod quoted.) Still, Squeenix was pretty much the only one willing to run with a story about two teenage girls for Life is Strange:
“Square is basically the only publisher that didn’t want to change a single thing about the game,” Dontnod co-founder Jean-Maxime “J-Max” Moris says in the video. “We had other publishers telling us ‘Make it a male lead character,’ and Square didn’t even question that once.”
Which, okay. I’ll admit that I’ve been deeply, deeply disappointed by the increasingly misogynistic visual design of Squeenix’s single-player Final Fantasy titles. However, as awful as Squeenix’s character design has gotten in Final Fantasy, the writing for their female characters has always been top notch! So it does make a certain amount of sense that it would be Squeenix that would wind up publishing Life is Strange.
However, it’s also worth noting that this was also well after the runaway success of The Last of Us – Naughty Dog’s survival horror game about a grizzled man and a young girl on a harrowing mission in the fungus-zombie apocalypse. While Joel was the primary protagonist of TLoU, the story was about both Joel and Ellie. Furthermore, Ellie is actually playable for a large chunk of the game, and repeatedly saves Joel’s life.
The Last of Us totally killed in terms of sales numbers. In the first week alone, The Last of Us sold 1.3 million copies! Perhaps because Naughty Dog is an established studio with a proven track record of franchise-spawning hits, they didn’t face pressure to remove Ellie from the game (although the cynic in me says that’s because she was the secondary protagonist, and thus not a threat to Joel’s primacy). However, they did wind up fighting a lesser version of that same pernicious battle, as their publisher made efforts to get them to remove Ellie from the cover art, or at the very least push her to the back of the box:
During the making of The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog “flat-out refused” to move Ellie — one of this title’s two central characters — to the back of the game’s cover art, during discussions over whether female-led game covers sell fewer units, creative director Neil Druckmann told VG247.
— Source: Polygon – The Last of Us developer refused to push female lead to back of cover
Thankfully Naughty Dog stuck to their guns, because AAA gaming has more than enough cover art featuring grizzled white dudes looking grimly into the middle distance, thank you very much.
The same could not be said of Irrational Games, who caved to pressure to push Elizabeth, the protagonist’s companion and partner, to the back of the box. Worse, the cover art itself was one of the blandest renditions of “white dude with firearm in front of explosions” that I have ever seen grace the cover of a video game.
Subsquently, when there was a flap over Elizabeth’s exclusion, Ken Levine – Bioshock Infinite’s creative director – gave the most weak sauce explanation of why they HAD to make their cover so bland.
Our gaming world, we sometimes forget, is so important to us, but… there are plenty of products that I buy that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. My salad dressing. If there’s a new salad dressing coming out, I would have no idea. I use salad dressing; I don’t read Salad Dressing Weekly. I don’t care who makes it, I don’t know any of the personalities in the salad dressing business.
Their hands were tied! Honest! There’s just no way that they could ever have made a business case for putting a fucking woman on the cover of a game that she features prominently in! Because reasons! Salad dressing reasons!
(I’m sure there are more examples of this sort of shenanigans that I’m not aware of, given that I don’t tend to closely follow the politics of game development in the AAA industry, but going further would be beating a dead horse.)
So now we have a landscape in which games like The Last of Us and Life is Strange (which cracked the top five Playstation games in February of this year) have started to blaze a trail towards AAA publishers finally pulling their heads out of their asses and realizing that yes people will still pay to play games starring women. And yet, the studios smart enough to actually start moving in this “bold” and “new” direction are engaging in so much whinging about how MAKING GAMES ABOUT WOMEN IS HARD AND REALLY SCARY YOU GUYS that it’s enough to make me want to punch someone.
Case in point: just about everything I read coming out of E3 about Sony’s upcoming title Horizon Zero Dawn featured Sony execs simultaneously trying to sell the game on its merits while also fearfully apologizing for having the temerity to make a game with a female lead. Frex:
“She’s a female lead character,” he said. “That has always been the vision by the team, but we had a discussion. Is it risky to do a female character?”
In fact, once development was underway, so many questions were asked about the protagonist internally, that the company brought in a marketing team to do some focus testing.
“The concern came after the game was in development,” he said. “We started to show it to many more people internally and they had questions about it. So we worked with our marketing groups to do this focus testing.“We wanted to see how people would react to some of the things: open world RPG, the set up of machine versus primitive weapons and the female protagonist. All of those things.”
“We’re just… we’re just so worried. I mean, we have this great concept for a killer game with entertaining game play, and we have an obscene budget for graphics, but we’re just worried that no one will buy it because cooties. So, you know, we did lots of focus groups and they all told us that cooties aren’t a thing, but that doesn’t square with our industry experience that gamers won’t buy games with women because they don’t want cooties. After extensive research, we’re pressing forward, but we just want to say that we’re really, really nervous about cooties.”
OH MY GOD JUST SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UUUUUUP.
Look , you’re making a game about a wildling woman fighting robot dinosaurs in the post-apocalypse. THAT’S AMAZING. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?
If you’re going to publish games about women, just fucking do it and spare me the hand-wringing apologies, because honestly – this level of cowardice is pretty hard to stomach when all we’re talking about is making games that happen to star a fucking woman.
Okay? Okay. Now get out there and make me some more games with female protagonists, pronto. I’m all caught up on Life is Strange and I’m jonesing for more games like that, please.
 With the notable exception of Lightning Returns, which was garbage.