Can gaming's great women characters be written by men?
When Life is Strange is released on Jan. 30, publisher Square Enix will also make a free playable demo available.
It's a taster of the first 20-minutes or so of this Telltale-style episodic adventure. Life is Strange is the story of a high school student who returns to her hometown after a five-year absence, seeking to find her place in a complex social order, against the backdrop of a hunt for a missing teenage girl.
I urge you to try the demo. It's good fun. Also, this is one of those rare games that presents a woman in the lead role and a woman in the co-star role. In the demo I played, there are a number of interactions between central character Maxine Caulfield and other young women, as well as men. Such a thing ought not be noteworthy, but it is.
But here's the thing I want to talk about.
When I played the demo at a recent Square Enix press event in San Francisco, I felt certain that the characters had been written by a man. I felt that, although the early scenes are pretty well written, there was also a vibe of maleness coming off the way the women characters were drawn and how they interacted with one another.
This is just my opinion and, obviously, my certainty on this issue was partly informed by bias. Some of it is statistical. We all know that there are far more men writing games than there are women. Part of it is anecdotal. Developer Dontnod recently released a video diary about the project, in which women team-members are only glimpsed in the background.
But part of it is just a gut feeling. Caulfield is an archetype of the dreamy, creative indie-girl who likes sad songs and butterflies. Such young women do exist. It's perfectly fine to enjoy stereotypical feminine things. But I think she also represents a widely pervasive male ideal of female vulnerability and purity. She is someone who a woman might write, but probably wouldn't.
Her pal Chloe Price is a fairly standard Good Girl Gone Bad. Other characters include Catty A-Student Who Craves Male Approval and Shallow Cheerleader. At one point a young woman is defined in Caulfield's internal dialog by her choice of boyfriend. This might be how some young women view their peers but unless Caulfield comes to address her own judgmental observation as a failure of spirit and outlook, it feels like a character misstep, during an opening sequence in which her outlook is generally portrayed positively.
The game begins in a moment of extreme peril for Caulfield. I might be going too far here, but I find it interesting that she is presented, not merely in trouble, but endangered by that most erect of phallic structures: a lighthouse. Make of that what you will.
To be clear, Dontnod and Square Enix are doing something that most game developers and publishers don't have the guts to try. Dontnod turned away publishers who wanted the main character to be male. Square Enix made no request that anything in the game be changed in any way.
In video game terms, the writing is engaging and original. This is a good demo, and I'm looking forward to seeing how the characters develop and how the archetypes, necessarily presented fairly two-dimensionally in early sections, are altered.
But it does raise an interesting issue. More and more games feature women characters. Most game writers are men. The skill required to convincingly write across genders is pretty high, and not commonly found.
Note how far Lara Croft developed in Tomb Raider (2014) when the character was taken on by the highly capable writer Rhianna Pratchett. There have been some strong women characters written by men in games, especially recently, but it's difficult to think of any that are better than Pratchett's Croft. Most of these women and girl characters, it ought to be noted, have primarily acted as sidekicks to rugged men. Gone Home is a notable example of strong women characters in a game, but they are drawn without the added complication of their actually being seen
I have a personal interest in this problem. In my spare time, I like to write fiction. Both my novels feature women in the lead roles. I find it a great challenge to write women characters, and I'm a long way from claiming competence. In my weekly writing group, which is mostly made up of women, this aspect of my work is the most likely to attract urgent suggestions for improvement.
After completing the demo, I spoke to the game's director Jean-Max Moris. (Because of controversy over language norms used in debates about gender equality, I think it's probably worth making the slightly patronizing point that Moris is French, and was interviewed in English.)
"It is a challenge," he said. "But a good writer, either male or female, can do male or female characters. They can do child or adult or senior. They can do heterosexual or homosexual. It's just about being open to the world and taking a lot of that in and being humble enough to try to reinterpret everything that you see through someone else's eyes.
"Now I'm not saying it's easy. Not at all. But we went with a writer who we felt was the perfect match. We gave tests to all the writers who were applying for the position and he came back with what we felt was the truest and most believable piece of work.
"He's a man. He writes female characters. They ring true to me. We tested on female staff and friends and family as well as male gamers but I prefer not to make that distinction at all. At the end of the day, a writer just does it."
From my own experience, I find this view problematic. Yes, writers are required to create convincing characters who are different from themselves. But in video games, writers have tended towards idealized versions of themselves. I take this as a sign of limited ability and of limited ambition, driven by the concerns of marketing.
In any case, it is not easy to find a Hilary Mantel or a Joss Whedon or even a Rhianna Pratchett or a Neil Druckmann. (This piece in The Guardian argues for and against the most notable women characters in literature who were created by men, and is worth a read.)
Most writers draw from personal experience. We can observe, extrapolate and empathize, but it is much more creatively rewarding to actually experience. If, at any point in my life, I had been a young woman in high school, for example, I might be able to do a better job of judging how convincingly Caulfield is portrayed. I have not been and probably never will be. But, to me, she doesn't feel entirely authentic. Not yet, anyway.
The problem of men dominating gaming is endemic. I am part of it and, until I am ready (or forced) to fall on my sword in the cause of equality, will continue to be so.
Moris said that about 15 percent of his development team are women, which is "representative of the ratio we get in terms of applications." The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) estimates that the women make up about 22 percent of workers in gaming, but that number includes people who work in publishing, which attracts a higher proportion of women than pure development.
By way of comparison, Polygon's editorial team is currently 17.5 percent women (it was higher, but we recently lost some talent). At the press event I attended, the press representation was (from memory) about seven men and one woman.
"When I look at this as a citizen, I think that when society solves problems like gender inequality, equal salaries and opportunity, everything will trickle down. I think it's a top down situation," said Moris. "Of course, we can do things to improve things on our own level."
OK, so let's get back to Caulfield and the high school students.
Moris told me that, sure, the characters in those early scenes are archetypes, and that they will be challenged as the story progresses. Life is Strange is a five-episode series.
"I make a difference between cliche and archetypes," he said. "It's important to have archetypes in narrative structures, especially in episodic content. When a character appears on screen it might have been a long time since you last saw him or her.
"So you need to be able to identify that person's background straight away. In most TV series archetypes are more clearly defined. There is a risk is of falling into cliche and making the characters not fleshed out enough. I hope we avoided that pitfall.
"Max starts out as the dreamy, artistic, shy young adult, while Chloe is the rebellious, turbulent type. [High school] is a pivotal time in someone's history and you make choices about who you are. At key points in the narrative things will be turned upside down. The relationship will evolve and we are going to play around with those archetypes."
He said that a lot of thought and discussion had gone into the characters including difficult internal discussions. The idea came up, at one point, of enlarging a character's breasts.
"These discussions happened, even internally. But she doesn't need that. It's not her story. It's dumb. Sometimes people have dumb ideas. You tell them off and try to be nice about it. It's not like we don't have our own demons that have to be fought."
Moris goes back to the issue of society-wide prejudices and inequality, while stating that one ought to do one's best to make a difference. He mocked the idea, tooting about in the usual online forums, that Life is Strange's women lead characters are some kind of PR stunt. He said that the decision just seemed right, that it was not at all political, and his next ten games "might feature white men."
But the fact is that any decision that runs contrary to political norms, is political, whatever Moris' motivations. And that they highlight as well as challenge inherent problems.
"I'm reading a lot and thinking a lot about these issues," he said. "The recent events in Paris make you think about how you deal with things personally and immediately, and how you regard the problems that are upstream. It's complex. Life is strange, I suppose."