The Average Gamer

BioWare’s Weekes on Writing For Gender

There’s some great insight into the writing process behind Commander Shepard over on Patrick Weekes’ LiveJournal (writer at BioWare). Weekes, Dragon Age’s David Gaider and the rest of the BioWare team constantly need to balance the immersion of male/fem Shepard and Hawke with the risk of projecting real-world biases on their characters.

Weekes put the question out to community yesterday: Which do you prefer, in-game acknowledgement of Shepard’s gender or a largely gender-blind world?

If I can in any way avoid having someone mention Commander Shepard’s gender, I will do so. I will phrase lines so that a “he” or “she” never needs to be said (“Commander Shepard did everything possible” instead of “Commander Shepard did everything he could,” for example)… when you make a second line, the inclination is to do something different with it — as long as someone is recording another line any way, why not comment on Shepard’s gender in a more direct way? An appeal to strength for men and gentleness for women? Or an suggestion that a female character is here to flirt with someone? Or…

…And that’s where I stop.

Because I don’t want to assume that because someone plays FemShep, their Shepard is automatically kinder, more sensitive, or interested in flirting. That kind of assumption is what gave us games where all the women are archers or healers, because gamers were ready to see a woman in a game, but not ready to see one in armor hitting things.
– Patrick Weeks, Gender-Blindness in Video Games: Opinions?

It’s definitely a difficult problem. From my perspective, I find the gender-blind scripting approach painfully obvious and a bit fourth-wall-breaking when other characters say “Commander Shepard” ALL THE TIME. I’d love for other characters to react differently outside the romance dialogue and even just to refer to Shepard as “he” or “she”. I admit that I found it uncomfortable playing through Mass Effect with a male character but some of my favourite moments in video games are the times in Fallout and Fallout 2 where NPCs acknowledge my vault dweller for who she is. I do, however, understand the issue with doing this that Weekes described in today’s follow-up post:

Some people (including posters who I know to be women) liked getting the chance to have someone be sexist to them and have Shepard pull a gun or snap off a good comeback. Other people (including some whom I believe to be women based on the context of their comments) found that to be an uncomfortable reminder of real life that they’d rather not have to deal with in a video game. Other people had a “good for the gander” opinion and wanted to see the same happen to MaleShep.

This is one I’m going to have to think about (and talk about with the rest of the writers). Making our players feel uncomfortable because we’ve given them a really complex multilayered choice is great. Making our players feel uncomfortable because the game has reminded them of unpleasant situations they have to deal with in daily life is not, and that’s something I’d like to avoid unless your day job is using a biotic shockwave to go husk-bowling near explosive crates.
– Patrick Weekes, Reactions to the Previous Post

Stop by both of Weekes’ posts to read the comments – there are lots of great perspectives from other gamers

I still want a more gender-specific approach. For me, the fun of role-playing is being able to react to assholery like that with a cutting put-down or ignoring them or hell, some wildly disproportionate violence without fear of real-world consequences. It’s wish-fulfilment at its finest and I don’t even need to think up the reactions myself. Always a bummer when you think up the PERFECT response three days later, am I right?

More than that, provoking real emotion is the dream for games. *SPOILER WARNING* Choosing between a kick-ass female soldier and my own boyfriend at the end of Mass Effect was a difficult decision for me. The end of the Overlord add-on genuinely squeezed out a tear or two. Affection and compassion for virtual people are amazing things. That attention to detail should also extend to the negative emotions with properly distasteful characters. I’m not arguing for more people to kick the dog. I’m saying that we should have characters who aren’t mostly virtuous or wicked. Characters with whom you may share a goal but are unpleasant people. Not only is there opportunity for character growth in the game, it’s great fun in the real world to have a good bitching session over a drink ;)

How about you? Do you prefer the gender-blind approach to dialogue? Would you prefer the male and female characters to have significantly different experiences?

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