>[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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.