On Velocity's Female Protagonist

FuturLab's James Marsden eloquently explains why a female lead is not "bad design."

News by Pete Davison, .

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.

Lt. Kai Tana, Velocity's protagonist.

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."

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Comments 9

  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    A comment like "a female character is a deal breaker, that's bad game design" just seems so alien and strange. It's hard to believe that anyone actually has that point of view. I'd almost rather believe that Marsden himself made that comment to use as a straw-man, but much more likely it's meant to be a joke comment.

    It's not that I don't believe that mysognists are out there, but that's just a wierd point of view. I feel like a real mysognist would say something more like: "female character fine, but show more skin or I'm not buying."

    It does feel kind of strange that Marsden would post a blog in reaction to a lone you-tube comment, of all things. You-tube comments have no credibility, a decent portion of them are made to annoy, and everyone knows that. Of course, Marsden wants to get publicity for his game, and being mentioned in gaming blogs will affect sales much more than the gender of his character would. I don't blame him for raising attention to this issue, but he sure used a wierd stepping stone to get there.
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  • Avatar for FuturLab #2 FuturLab 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Ha, it's funny how many people think this comment was forged just to get clicks.

    In fact even after the chap was challenged on YouTube, he said he'd try the game despite its 'odd design choice.'

    It's not the fact he didn't want to play as a female, that's absolutely his personal preference, it's the fact he believed his personal preference had to be the industry standard. Which is worth addressing by itself, but coupled with the fact we got asked repeatedly why we'd chosen a female lead, complemented on the fact the artists had kept her clothes on, and the fact we get asked for illustrations of Kai in more revealing clothes, it seemed like an appropriate time to talk about why that'll never happen.

    I write about all aspects of developing and publishing our games, as you'll see from our blog - they are all important subjects to me - but this is the one that seems to be most controversial. That's not my writing or marketing skills, because I've been doing this for years without making headlines, it's the topic itself that is divisive.Edited October 2013 by FuturLab
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #3 brionfoulke91 4 years ago
    @FuturLab Yeah, I'm not so cynical as to assume you made up the comment. I only bring it up because it seems like such a strange point of view, it's hard to believe it's real. But I guess there's all kinds on the internet.

    It's kind of a weird issue because female lead characters in video games have traditionally been very prevalent. You've got Metroid, Valis, El Viento, Final Fantasy 6, Layla, Wurm, Resident Evil, Dino Crisis, Parasite Eve, Saga Frontier, Disgaia, Tomb Raider, Blade Kitten, Oni, Recettear... I'll stop myself there, but I could probably keep listing popular games with female leads forever. So it's extremely strange to think that anyone could question having a female lead character in a game. Anyone who does question it must be blind to the entire history of video games.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #4 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 You'll notice the vast majority of those are Japanese games. For all its faults, Japanese gaming has actually been rather progressive in terms of quality female protagonists -- and even all-female casts.

    I agree that it's a baffling viewpoint, though. I just can't get my head around it.

    Thanks for taking the time to come and comment,@FuturLab :)
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  • Avatar for FuturLab #5 FuturLab 4 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 :)

    So I penned this article because I was baffled by the countless questions about why we'd gone with a female lead character at Eurogamer Expo, and was then stunned in disbelief at the YouTube comment. I thought it was worthy of a blog post.

    Even though it's alien to you and I, that doesn't mean it shouldn't be addressed.

    I've received a lot of stick for writing this, on Gamasutra and on Reddit; people saying I'm only writing it to promote the game and I chose the headline to get clicks, but that IS the headline. Someone thought the game had bad design because of a female lead :)

    Anyway, I'm kinda hoping this story dies a death now as I've got loads of levels to design and explaining my actions online to avoid being cast as a drama queen is eating into my productivity! :)
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #6 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @FuturLab It's important to have the discussion, I think, and it's good you brought it up in this way -- simply, unapologetically and candidly. I think your stance is pretty clear, and that's good.

    Now go make some levels!
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  • Avatar for FuturLab #7 FuturLab 4 years ago
  • Avatar for cscaskie #8 cscaskie 4 years ago
    This very topic has been on my mind alot lately. I've recently decided to work toward a career in character design, and one of the issues that I find myself wrestling with is how I will approach female characters. I spend alot of time browsing deviantart in hopes of finding some inspiration and inserting myself in an artistic community. More often than not, though, I find myself just getting angry at the default sexy setting that so much art of women is tuned to. I want to create women like Kai. Strong, independent people whose entire design doesn't gravitate around their breasts and hips. Reading Marsden's writing on the subject has really reinforced my stance on this approach.
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  • Avatar for Ohoni #9 Ohoni 4 years ago
    This "issue" was adequately covered in the original article. It's made up controversy to drive pageviews, based on trawling for trolls in the comments section, finding the one easiest to counterattack, and doing so. It's the shameless dregs of videogame "journalism" to even comment on this sort of thing.
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