Like other W.i.G.’s, I care a lot about the number of female characters available in games, and the quality of those characters. This being said, I have not had the chance to include strong female characters in every game that I’ve made. Not every game is about “characters” per se. And even at times when a game has a single central Character, I wouldn’t always choose by default to make that character female.
Fans of my own work recently asked why my company chose to make the protagonist of Fort Zombie, our z-apocalypse survival title, a male character. Despite the fact that we are an independent development studio, Kerberos is subject to market forces: were we trying to pander to a male audience, when we chose to develop “Ben Reilly” rather than “Jen Reilly” as the leader of human resistance against the undead? Were we under pressure from a patriarchist publisher? Were we burdened by sexist ideas of the capabilities of men and women, which prevented us from creating a female character who could kill zeds and run missions in a post-apocalyptic world?
Actually, the answer is none of the above. Ben Reilly is a character that emerged from the creative process of a whole team. The physical character design was the work of our lead artist, but I know that if I had insisted on a female version, Chris Gerspacher could have given me a woman who was every bit as battle-hardened and had-enough-of-this-crap as Ben Reilly. And if it was up to me, Jen Reilly probably would have had the same tattoos, worn the same glasses and smoked the same cigar. I wouldn't consider this unrealistic, given the fact that I personally I have tattoos, wear glasses and smoke cigars.
Similarly, the gameplay elements as designed by Martin Cirulis had no gender. The same life and combat skills are often possessed by both male and female characters in the game, and the skills available in the Player Character are the same as those available to the NPC’s. Many of the combat specialists available as NPC’s in the game are women, including the retired female sheriff which one of our players affectionately nicknamed “Granny Headshots” and the three young female soldiers named Dunsany, all of whom are handy with a gun. I was responsible for the creation of all of these characters, and if I had a reason I certainly could have created a female protagonist for the game as well.
This being said, I did not consider a female protagonist for Fort Zombie. There was actually a reason for this. It ties in with some of the philosophical points that are made in the premise and background fiction for the game. It also directly relates to the ways that we wanted the gameplay and mood of FZ to differ from other zombie titles.
First, I think it is probably wise to point out that female protagonists and PC’s are actually more common in zombie horror titles than they are in many other genres of gaming. I will refrain from launching into any kind of extended psychoanalysis on this score, and simply point out that many players may feel a bit more “vulnerable” when clothed in a female avatar than they do in a male avatar. (Yes, I know—this is a good spot to insert a sarcastic remark about how the female avatars might feel a little less “vulnerable” if they would put on some damn clothes! Let’s just assume I wrote a snarky paragraph about that and move on.)
This emotional reaction is probably based on deeply ingrained beliefs about the inherent “victimhood” of women versus men, but from a pragmatic standpoint it really doesn’t matter whether these deeply ingrained beliefs are true or false. Horror is a genre that requires the creator to create and command a wide range of emotion. Political correctness doesn’t earn you any points in achieving an emotional reaction. You need to hit people below the belt in horror--not just above the neck. And because vulnerability is a mood that suits most horror titles very well, it can be a valuable tactic to use the female body to create that mood. In much the same way, exaggerated male musculature or heavily armored male bodies are used as symbols of invincibility.
The upshot of this? Making the PC a female character in a zombie game is not necessarily an original choice. And if the gameplay that you are creating is not about being invincible—when the Right Answer for the player is going to be running rather than gunning in many cases—it becomes an outright cliché to make the player BE a girl in order to “run like a girl”.
There are other aspects of gameplay in Fort Zombie which I would prefer not to associate stereotypically with women, as well. The goal in the game is to rescue as many human survivors as possible, and to provide them with food, shelter and weapons in order to survive a coming wave of zombies. In other words, the general player dynamic of the title is not one of lashing out in angry alienation against the hordes of the undead: it’s actually a game about helping and caring for other human beings.
There is not and will never be a time in the Fort Zombie universe when the player lashes out to hurt another living person. Despite the fact that “enemy factions” have come up multiple times among player suggestions, I’m adamantly against the game going in that direction—because the whole point of the title is not to hurt people.
You can chop up and shoot zombies all day long—even play soccer with their heads, thanks to the game’s physic engine!—but there are no “enemy survivors” or “cultists” or “bad people” for the player to hurt, steal from, or fight off. The only enemy in the game is Death and Darkness. The only goal is survival and nurturance of others—to provide supplies, protection and leadership to your fellow human beings. The simple idea behind the game is actually best expressed by the philosopher Dr. Cornel West:
“You can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”
It was for this reason that my instinct was to make the Player Character in the game a man rather than a woman. There is a lot of talk among W.I.G.’s about female stereotypes in gaming, but in general the stereotypes of men are much more troubling. Personally, I am very tired of the Man-as-Sociopathic-Death-Machine stereotype, and the message in general that murder is the only way to “Be a Man”. I wanted Fort Zombie to offer a more interesting role for men. And I wanted Ben Reilly to embody some of the concerns and emotions that I see in the real men who occupy the real world around me.
I had the chance to create a wide variety of NPC characters for the game, which allowed me to spread the traditional heroic qualities of combat competence in many non-traditional directions. I gave interesting skills and abilities to a lot of people who are not traditionally presented as “useful” in games--including women, the elderly and children. I also gave each NPC a little piece of story content, to open a window into their lives and experiences during the apocalypse—this allowed me the freedom to explore a variety of viewpoints, and to include people in the game universe who are seldom represented as “part of the world” in games, including an openly gay character expressing grief over the loss of his spouse.
If the central mode of gameplay in Fort Zombie had been to mow down Zeds like the Angel of Death, I actually would have been far more likely to give the game a female protagonist. After all, that’s not something we see every day. I think gaming could use a few more invincible women—and a few more thoughtful, caring, nurturing, and all-too-human men.