Two Dimensional Characters in Three Dimensional Games

FoFP, PAX East 2011

Left to right: Graham Stark (front), Susan Arendt, Tracey John, Kathleen DeVere, Trina Schwimmer, and AJ Glasser

On Saturday, we managed to get into the “Females on Female Characters” panel, which was packed and for good reason. Before you read my take on it you may want to hop over to The Escapist and read the notes Greg Tito took during the panel— he didn’t catch everything but he gives a pretty good feel of what happened and how it went– next year we are taking something with which to record. We found it interesting and not surprising that half the crowd was female while only a small portion of the population of PAX East was female. There was quite a bit of good back and forth about sexy being okay as long as the characters weren’t there for that reason alone and whether certain characters were good female characters and it suited the game but what the discussion really boiled down to was that female gamers want to have the option of playing well rounded, interesting, witty  female characters in games and good character design is key for both male and female characters.  The real question is what IS good character design and what needs to change to make that happen?  Making characters solid people that make sense not just a reason for something to happen.     I have plenty to say about the other issues that came up (just like everybody else and a lot of it has already been said)  but for the moment I want to focus on the character design issue. I think the biggest problem with the “good character design” question is that games aren’t written by writers. Yes, they hire writers– especially big game companies, but they hire writers who write games.  They aren’t out there hiring “real” writers, they are hiring people who love games and have set out to write for games.  First off it is true, these people tend to be male, because gaming is still male dominated.  As an aside, I think a lot of that is that gamers have shot themselves in the foot by poopooing the games girls often prefer, but that is a whole other topic and not what I want to address right now.  For now I want to focus on the problem of two dimensional characters in three dimensional gaming and my theory as to why the problem is so prevalent.

There is a huge disconnect between  writers, artists, and game designers.  Yes, there is a small group of people who love gaming and go into the field because they love gaming.  Meanwhile, in general it looks more like this:

Note: I specified programmers but gamers works just as well– in fact I would say that the programmers should be an even smaller percentage of each than gamers– significantly smaller– so my ven diagram sucks but I spent way too long making it to begin with and refuse to go back and change it. Even writers who game is a very small percentage, which as Shamus pointed out in a recent conversation, is not surprising given the poor writing and story telling in games. I find this especially  interesting as I have many writer friends– partly because I am married to a writer, partly because I read obsessively and find it to my benefit to be friends with the people who write the type of books I love to read,  and partly because of my experience as an artist and book cover designer.  The point is I know a slew of writers who write well and very few of those game let alone program.  Meanwhile all of these writers are trying to get published, either traditionally or independently. Because these writers are not gamers it doesn’t occur to them to send their writing out to game publishers or try to get hired by a game developer.  In fact, when I mentioned this to a writer friend she said, “I know I wouldn’t have a clue where to start in seeking storying opportunities in gaming.”  However why aren’t game developers approaching these writers?  Here is a huge pool of amazing writers who are working hard to polish their art and attempting to become the best writers they can be and they are completely overlooked by a field that NEEDS good writers. It surprises me that game designers have not even attempted to tap this fount of good writing.  When someone recommends a book to me quite often the comment is, “This book was so good it should be made into a movie.”  No one ever says, “This book was so good it should be made into a game,” which saddens me because I often think that.  Tons of the books I have read would make interesting games, with well developed characters and plenty to do and explore.  For example Patricia C. Wrede‘s “Enchanted Forest” series would make fun games with a great female lead as would Patrick Carman‘s two recent series (granted the most recent would be a male lead but both have fascinating worlds to explore with well developed, interesting characters.)  The best games I have played lately (i.e. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) felt like they started with a good story and worked the game mechanics around that whereas most games seem to work backwards– starting with a game idea then finding writers to write the story around it.  Movies and other story based media don’t work that way so why do games? Aside from that particular “getting things backwards” issue, there is the whole pool of writers issue.  Instead of pulling writers from the crowd of writers trying to shove  their way into the publishing industry, game designers (and publishers) tend to draw from the much smaller pool of  gamers clamoring to get into the gaming industry. It goes something like this:

  • Young man spends his spare time gaming and and immerses himself in game culture(not down on this, this describes some of my favorite people. :))
  • Gamer decides that the best way to find work he loves is to get into the gaming industry.
  • Gamer looks at pile of fan fiction (or fan art) based on favorite games and decides THIS is his key into the gaming industry.

*This is obviously oversimplified and stereotypical and  leaves out all those who get in because a friend is designing a game and needs a writer/artist but I am trying to make  a point.

The problem is that like the majority of writers trying to get published, they are so-so writers.  A publisher friend suggested that 99% of the writers attempting to get published are mediocre so what percentage of the much smaller group of writers focused on the gaming field are average at best?  They are missing the editing, understanding of character and world development, and just plain old experience and polish that those who have been working in the writing field have developed.  In fact, I would guess that compared to the writers going the traditional write, send out, get rejected cycle, writers in the gamer circuit tend to have much less experience or understanding of writing as an art and trade than their published (or actively attempting to get published) counterparts. Compared to the other writers in their particular pool they are excellent, but compared to the ocean of writers out there they are guppies. This means that they tend to suffer from the same mistakes that so many of their unpublished writer counterparts suffer from.  They just plain don’t know how to tell a good story.  They don’t have the experience and have not learned how to develop story arch and well rounded characters and it doesn’t occur to them to try and learn. Writing good stories and characterizations, and doing it well, is just not a priority for them.  They already know that their story is going to be published because it is an integral part of the game, so why work at being a better writer? And what does all this have to do with the Females on Female Characters Panel at PAX East?   The reason we don’t have a lot more well developed female characters is we don’t have good writers who can write female characters (and for that matter artists who know the difference between male and female aside from hips and breasts).  Games don’t start with good stories, they start with a game idea and then the story is built around that idea.  So we end up with stereotypical characters in a regurgitated plot line instead of interesting, three dimensional characters in a new and interesting story.  And because so many of the gamer writers are male and have less experience with females outside of the games they play the female characters they create tend to be caricatures even in a game where the males are not.