Interchangeable He and She
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
After all the protest about the amount of work to animate female characters, it appears that female characters, like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation's Aveline de Grandpré, can use animations created for male characters. As Aja Romano points out, this works out especially if animators decide not to oversexualize the movements of female characters. It's also a production issue, since interchangeable male/female animations would have to be the plan from the beginning. Interchangeable animations, along with a couple of gender-specific ones, would save both time and money so that there could be male and female playable characters in the game.
These animations weren't so interchangeable...
But say, it's not the beginning, what I might call the pre-production phase, but at the beginning of crunch time hell, or even worse, at the end or after the game is released? Then, sure, a development team may find it hard to provide a fix.
All of this reminds me of a thorny problem a video game company presented to the game writers Facebook group. This video game company created romance games (in text) and after a game was released, customers asked why there wasn't a gay romance option a la Dragon Age 2.The company wondered if a solution could be found by simply replacing all of the love interest's pronouns by the opposite gender.
Would that work?
I have played a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game that did something similar and I truly felt cheated because my choice of gender was as meaningless as the selection of eye color in the game. OK, the story was supposedly set in an enlightened (yet vaguely RenFaire) society in which men and women were treated equally and men had even achieved pregnancy, but I still felt cheated. I can see that this might work in a different game, but not one that was all about relationships. And a romance game is all about relationships.
I understood that the author had very cleverly done this to avoid writing whole sets of branching narrative. Yet, I couldn't help but feel that the whole fun of choosing a female or male character in a romance game had been taken away from me. If I had a female character, what would happen here? How would people react differently? Might I be able to succeed as a female character but not as a male character? I feel that even if writers do create enlightened societies, we are still viewing their world from the present.
In our flawed and unenlightened world, females don't always act and talk like males and hence, the need for female-specific animations and dialog. Female relationships are different from male relationships. I believe that the experience of growing up as a female is special and worth exploring. When this informed background isn't there, then the relationship feels hollow. To me, all the romances, including the gay ones, in this CYOA game were somewhat shallow.
In the end, the video game company with the problem decided that a quick switch of pronouns would not be respectful to the gay community. Gender would not be a meaningless string variable.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.