There's been a lot of discussion over gender representation in games recently, with particular concerns being raised over popular games such as Grand Theft Auto V, which disproportionately favor the male gender.
Very often, there's a degree of artistic or narrative justification for focusing on male characters -- Rockstar intended GTA V to be an exploration of masculinity, for example -- but even with this justification, it's hopefully easy for those of you reading this to understand how some female players may find themselves feeling alienated or excluded from what can, at times, appear to be something of a "boys' club."
Interestingly, there's an assumption among some larger publishers that female lead characters are simply less "worthy" than male characters from a commercial perspective. You may recall a while back a story from The Penny Arcade Report that explained, with data from EEDAR, that games with female protagonists did not sell as well as those with male characters -- but that this was more a result of the fact that they tended to receive considerably less in the way of marketing spend than their male-dominated counterparts. Specifically, games where a female lead was optional tended to receive approximately half the marketing budget, and those where a female protagonist was the only option received only 40 per cent or less than their male-led equivalents. Not only that, but out of the 669 games EEDAR analyzed, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists, while less than half (under 300) had the option to play as a female character. Action games had the most games with exclusively female representation; role-playing games had the fewest.
This doesn't mean there are no developers out there making games with exclusively female protagonists, of course, with many of them occupying the indie space and therefore not having a publishing overlord effectively telling them that "women don't sell," so to speak. One such developer is FuturLab, creator of the upcoming Velocity 2X.
FuturLab's stand at the recent Eurogamer Expo was dominated by artwork of the game's protagonist Kai Tana -- she appeared both on the wall art for the booth and as two free-standing cutouts either side of the area where people could actually play the game. She cuts a distinctive figure, thanks in part to the game's eye-catching Flashback-style artwork, but also for the fact that she has very little skin on display. She's a lot more visible in Velocity 2X than its predecessor Velocity Ultra, in our review for which we noted that she was snuck in subtly without a lot of players even noticing. You can't miss her in 2X, however, due to the all-new addition of side-scrolling platform segments as well as top-down space shooter-puzzle action -- FuturLab's managing director James Marsden also noted to me at EGX that the intention was to place a stronger focus on the story and the development of Kai as a character in the new game.
Response to Velocity 2X was overwhelmingly positive at EGX, with many attendees -- including myself -- noting it was one of their favorite games on display. Marsden was, however, dismayed to discover a comment on the above YouTube video that said a user was "excited about [Velocity 2X] 'till [he] realized it doesn't have a male lead character." The user went on to say that they found the game's use of a female protagonist to be a "huge turn off and dealbreaker" and said "an otherwise solid game suffers for bad design like this."
In a post that has since become one of the most-read entries on FuturLab's blog, Marsden explained not only why the team chose to create an original female protagonist, but also why there would never be any official artwork of Kai in bathing suits or otherwise revealing clothes.
Marsden explains candidly that the character of Kai Tana is inspired by a combination of important women in his life: his mother, who raised a 15-year old Marsden single-handedly after his father died at the age of 63; independent, strong characters in movies such as Ripley and Sarah Connor; his girlfriend, whose physical appearance would go on to provide the direct visual inspiration for Kai's design; and his niece, whom the character was named after, and who, in Marsden's words, "had the guts to make incredibly frightening life choices for the better."
"For me, women have always been inspiring, strong, powerful and magnificent, so I find it morbidly fascinating to hear people like the YouTube commenter believing that choosing a female lead is bad design," writes Marsden. "Claiming bad design is an objective statement, not an expression of personal preference. That kind of thinking is so out of date it's almost laughable, but it's tragic because it highlights a severe lack of empathy, and it's lack of empathy that is at the heart of all humanity's problems."