The day after Christmas in 1994, my father upgraded our family computer with a new CD-ROM drive. This wasn't because one of us had received the hardware as a gift—in fact, Dad had to brave the post-holiday morass at the local electronics store to buy the thing. The drive was for my benefit, because I'd been given a copy of King's Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. The advanced graphics in the brand-new Sierra release were too robust for our old drive, and I was so disappointed at being unable to play that my parents decided it was probably time to beef up the computer anyway. (I suspect that Dad might have had a bit of personal interest in that decision, but I'm certainly not going to hold it against him.)
Still, that my parents were willing to spiff up the computer the very day after I got my copy of the game is, I think, something of a testament to how vociferously enthusiastic I was about playing it. Which must have been a little surprising to them, because we'd had a copy of King's Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow on floppy disk for almost a year, and I'd never touched it. I never played the fifth installment of the King's Quest series, either. King's Quest IV, though, had been a long-standing favorite of mine.
Those readers who are familiar with the series have probably already worked out what the attraction was for me: King's Quest IV and King's Quest VII both feature female characters—Princess Rosella in both, and the bonus of her mother, Queen Valanice, in the latter—whereas the protagonists in the other installments of the series are male. The lure of girl characters on the front of the box was powerful for a little girl gamer.
Unfortunately, actually playing King's Quest VII wasn't an attractive option at all. The game is awful, nowhere near as engaging as the prequels. The only thing it really had going for it at the time was the art that necessitated our hardware upgrade, and spiffy graphics can only carry a product so far. Still, those graphics did feature women, and that was appealing enough to me that I suffered through hours of terrible game play. I was bitterly disappointed that Sierra's next adventure game featuring a playable female character, Phantasmagoria, was too gory for my tender years.
Computer games in the 1980s and '90s in general were light on female playable characters, and video games weren't any better. Samus Aran in the Metroid series was awesome—and all but alone. There was a little more variety to be had in the fighting games I encountered in arcades, but Chun-Li and Sonya Blade were more appealing to my teenaged male friends than they were to me. I liked Samus's powered armor, but Sonya's spandex left me cold.
If I wanted to play a girl—and I did—my best bet was tabletop role-playing, where I could generate as many female characters as I wanted. And I could control their looks completely, too. My princesses could wear armor, and my warriors could kick back and relax at the local tavern in a fancy gown in between adventures. But while I was free to use my imagination about what women might look like in these games, I couldn't help but notice that my ideas weren't exactly supported by the cover art of most gaming manuals. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was the game I had the most experience with, and the only woman on the cover of any of the core rulebooks was a nearly naked victim on the Dungeon Master's Guide. Supplemental materials weren't all that much better. In 2007, LiveJournal user mr_orgue did a survey of Dragon Magazine covers (starting here) and concluded that female figures were less likely than male characters to be on a cover at all, less likely to be "heroic avatar-friendly figures," and more likely to be wearing suggestive outfits. Not so fun for a little girl gamer.
The sourcebooks for some other games were a little more inspiring when it came to female characters, but the tendency to feature fewer women than men, and have them wearing about half as much clothing, was pretty popular. Shadowrun often had female characters doing stuff on covers, clearly adventurers instead of bystanders or victims, but they were usually flashing some cleavage while they were at it. (The big exception here is the cover of Mob War!, which is one of my all-time game art favorites.)
It wasn't until almost ten years after the release of King's Quest VII that I was drawn to a game because of the female character in the cover art rather than in spite of it. This time, the title was Dungeon Siege, which I'd become interested in after seeing the box on my then-boyfriend's desk. The box art featured a tough-looking, redheaded woman holding a flaming sword. I liked the way she seemed to be looking at the viewer—direct and challenging, instead of detached and decorative—and that she was wearing serious armor. Also, she had a flaming sword.
On the strength of the box art, the avatar customization options, and about fifteen minutes of co-op play, I bought my own copy. I brought it home, eager to play and bubbling with enthusiasm. And then, hilariously, had to upgrade the family computer before it could handle the graphics. Some things never change.
Lucky for me, the similarities between Dungeon Siege and King's Quest VII ended at having female characters on the box art and graphics that were too advanced for my hardware. Playing Dungeon Siege was almost pure fun, and introduced me to the exciting world of customizable avatars in computer games. At last! I could design kick-ass avatars who would visually reflect the kinds of female characters I wanted to play!
Well, sort of. Highly customizable avatars in computer and video games have become more and more common, but there are always restrictions. Sometimes they're due entirely to designers bumping up against the limits of what game engines are capable of. More often, the restrictions are obviously coming from a different place; it's easy to tell that it's not just a matter of technical limits when there are big differences between female and male avatars. Why should armor that is full-coverage on a male avatar bare cleavage and midriffs on a female? What's the reasoning behind female avatars that are fashion-model pretty even if they're monsters, while their male counterparts actually look inhuman?
It's a bit of a barrier to designing characters to look the way I want them to (I've got nothing against sexiness, but I resent not having any other options). And even when I'm determined to keep tweaking the appearance sliders and search for armor that looks like it offers some actual protection, the box art for many of these games is uncomfortably reminiscent of the problems I had with the AD&D manuals. Female characters are scantily clad and provocatively posed—or entirely absent.
Cover art seems like such a trivial concern, on one level—isn't there that adage about books and judging and stuff?—but what's right out there on the front of the box tells the prospective gamer something about the game inside. And the message a lot of players who want female characters are getting from a lot of boxes is, "This game isn't for you."
Which is enough of a bummer when what's on the packaging really does reflect the contents. But it's even more of a shame when what's inside actually is inclusive. Sure, those of us who read reviews and talk games a lot are going to hear that a given title is actually totally awesome, despite the cover. But a lot of potential players are going to take one look at the Savant and Sorcerer sourcebook for Exalted and stop right there.
So it's no wonder that a whole lot of gamers—including myself—who like to play female characters are super-excited about a recent announcement from David Silverman, marketing director at BioWare, regarding Mass Effect 3. The Mass Effect franchise features a highly customizable female avatar option (complemented by excellent dialogue performed by actress Jennifer Hale), but the box art to date has used only the male variant of the main character. After an outpouring of fan sentiment, that will be changing for the release of the third game. Well, a little. FemShep will be making an appearance on the Collector's Edition box, and will be featured in a trailer. It's not the same as being the only version of the character on the box art for the copies of the game that will be sitting on the shelves at stores, but it's something. And it might help promote the idea that not only should more games include playable characters as cool as the female version of Shepard, but that the way games are packaged and advertised should be more inclusive, too.
I guess we'll see. And I'll be ready to upgrade my computer, just in case.