Sometimes I think that what people are asking for is actually the wrong thing. For example, today’s outcry is on the latest Assassin’s Creed and the possibility of being able to select the main character’s gender.
TL:DR – “We wanted a female character option, but it would have cost you a raid tier”
I understand that in some (most) games you do need the option of choosing the main character’s gender. Those on-screen avatars represent you and your actions in that gaming world. Their story is your story and if you are shoehorned into a shape that doesn’t fit then things rub around the edges. Having said that, not all games are about the gamer. Some games are interactive stories. In those, the gender of the character plays an integral role in the story. You are not the star. You are hitching a lift and offering assistance (or more likely hindering) their story, seeing the world from their perpective.
You are John Malkovick – Disclaimer, product does not actually turn you into John Malkovich or give you any claim over his life.
Sometime the story is about a particular view, opinion or a specific perspective. In those cases, gender is an important part of the story. The re-imagined Tomb Raider had a star that needed to be female. The Last of Us would have been very different if Joel was not male. In those examples, character gender is very important and non negotiable.
Let’s put it from another way. I would be hard pressed to find anyone that had watched the movie would then be able to make the following statement.
“Not being a gay male cowboy, I consider Brokeback Mountain to be an offensive product because they didn’t have a main character to which I could directly relate“
Token characters have traditionally been used to offer an audience surrogate to a peripheral demographic, but creating characters with a set appearance through the believe that the audience can only connect with someone that looks like them is offensive too. If a character is important enough to appear in a story then are important enough to have a bit of depth and a character’s gender is often a very important part of their personality. If a character’s gender has any impact on the story then it needs to be fixed and offering a token gender choice weakens the story.
So how would I treat equality in a story driven game and a main protagonist of a specified gender?
Firstly I would give them a balanced support cast of fully developed characters.
Secondly I would make the player a little uncomfortable with the character performing an action in keeping with their personality, but not necessarily what the player would choose to remind them that they are the navigator but not the driver.
Most importantly, I would offer multiple protagonists. In a story based game is the perfect excuse for using a switching point of view. It is a common ploy in books (such as Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire) but would not work on stories that focus on a single character. For those cases I would suggest expansions or sequels that display the world from a different perspective (although I am sure that if Ubisoft announced a female only expansion it would be dismissed as a cynical attempt at at appeasement).
What’s the TL:DR?
If a main character is a surrogate for the player and tells the story of the player’s actions in the game world then a choice of gender is a priority feature for inclusion. If the main character is simply a point of view for the player then being able to select their gender is less important and an inclusive story-line needs to be created through other methods.