It's this snippet of the Heroes volume that I wanted to talk about today.
The excerpt focuses on the female character he works on in the tutorial, which is pretty cool in itself, but some of the things he talks about considering when designing a female character were...interesting. It kind of goes back to something I said in my opening post on Artemisia, about how otherwise smart and talented people can come out with some surprisingly biased comments. The video is about five minutes long, and well worth a watch because the highlight is really watching Jason sketch as he talks theory, but here are some of the quotes that struck me the most.
"The first character we did, he relates to the player because he is similar to the player in some ways. The second character relates to the player because he is what the player wishes he could be. The third character relates to the player because she is something that the player can admire."
"So, a lot of the time female characters are sexy and strong, and it's almost like trying to sell love to the player audience. You know, you want to care for this character, maybe find her attractive, but also you are playing the character so she should be strong. So it's kind of a mix between attraction and the hero badass type of character where you feel powerful."
"You can also mix the female character with the weaker character for a horror game, and instead of making her strong you can make her weak, to drive that fear. The problem with it is that there could be a disconnect for male players and male audiences, because they do not feel that they are this female character. In that instance you make it more of a voyeuristic experience where you're guiding this character or you're watching over her."
"For female audiences and female players this character represents the hero, superhero type of character we just did, you know, it's who the female audience may want to be like. You know, she's strong, she's beautiful, she can do anything."
So. A couple of things here. I actually like that Jason goes in deeper here and talks about more than just what the characters look like, because it gives me some idea of what goes into a character designer's mind and why it ends up that female characters are usually rarer, or underpowered, compared to the men. Let me run through a few of the issues I had with Jason's process for designing female characters.
One. That he automatically assumes that the player is male. He talks about female players later, and possibly in more depth in the full video, but it's clear that his primary target is a male audience and that a female character is not seen as somebody a male player can relate to, or want to be like, but an object to covet, to admire, or to protect. Jason mentions that male players may feel a disconnect when playing a female character, but does he reverse the role and consider that female players may not feel fully immersed when playing a male?
Two. That he considers physical beauty a key characteristic in designing a female character. Look at the words he uses, "sexy, beautiful, attractive". I wonder if he considers looks as much when designing the male characters? Is it just as important for them to be good looking as it is for the female?
Three. That the woman is his pick for being the weakest character, allowing players to act as rescuers or protectors. Was there any such consideration for the male character - even the one who looked like a regular guy? It's true that at a similar level of fitness and training, a man will still have a physical advantage over a woman. But put a young, everyday guy of average fitness next to a woman who works out at the gym daily, takes martial arts classes and/or has a military background and who do you think will fare better in a fight? And stand Jason's average guy in jeans next to his warrior woman - tough enough to wear heavy metal armour and carry a blade as long as her leg, but out of the two of them, she is the one who is a candidate for being a weak character?
Four. Ok, so when you're only designing three characters, there is going to be a gender imbalance (well, unless "Other" is on the menu which hey, it's fantasy right?). So having two male characters and one female isn't a big deal on its own. But I can't help feeling a little let down by the fact that you have a variety of male characters and then you have...The Female Character. Just the one, and she is supposed to be the avatar for all the women who might play that game. She can do anything, because she has to do everything!
I feel I should add that out of the eight or nine character concepts Jason has produced for this series so far, I've only seen two who are female - a hero and a villain. So when you take a bigger pool, you do get a greater imbalance of male vs female characters. Again, I feel it goes back to the assumption that most gamers are men, and so women don't need more than one or two characters to represent them, and those characters have to do all the representing. We don't get as much in the way of variety.
It's obvious that Jason puts a lot of thought into his work and considers every step of his design process carefully. I wonder how certain ideas that can feel so very flawed to one person can make perfect sense to another, so much so that he doesn't seem to think about them - it's just instinct to design a female character with this mindset and a male character with another. Maybe that's the problem with a lot of character designers out there (in game art and in illustration in general). Do some concepts and assumptions about our audiences just become so ingrained into our world view that we don't ever really stop and take a close look at whether they're still appropriate, or relevant?
What do you guys think?