So Why a Girl Protagonist Again…?

So Why a Girl Protagonist Again…?

Time for some delving into our decision making paradigm here as I address what is sure to be a question we get a lot, and while I’ve touched on it, I really want to talk about it in-depth. Why did we decide that the player character in Mystic Riders had to be female?

I’ll get the mechanical aspect out of the way: yes, it is easier when you are going as highly-customizable as we are to only do one physical sex. Especially because we are doing three different body types, and lots of different hair styles and options for personalization and style choices (even if we are limiting how many are available at release and adding to them as the year goes on). By eliminating having the option to play as a boy, we’ll be able to make the player characters that more variable with the same amount of time and resources that normally go into supporting both physical sexes.

Since you can easily twist the mechanics into an argument for why we should do a male option, let me go into the marketing side of it. Our age demographic is 10+ girls, ideally 12-16. Those girls are going to want to play as themselves, to be as much like they either are or want to be. Our job as game developers is to cater to that market. Particularly because it is wildly under-represented. There are very few, high quality games with a female only protagonist that can be customized beyond using your own name. About the only two games I can think of that fairly let you play as male or female for that age group are Pokémon and Wizards 101, and they have to limit how much customizing you can do because of the engine’s ability to handle it all.

I use the word fairly in two senses: one, there are (roughly) the same number of options for both the male and female players, and both are presented in the same way. Counting the number of hair styles is easy, it’s the second that trips developers up. The female character has to have to have the same variety of options as the men–this means that they can’t be designed to only appeal to the male gaze. (I have heard the arguments that the overly buff men are supposed to be for the female gaze, I am here to tell you it’s garbage. It’s a masculine fantasy all around, folks.)

One common complaint you’ll see, even in female-forward games like Overwatch, is that the faces all look the same for a female character, despite different nationalities and body types, but the men have at least a nod towards diversity. By focusing all of our efforts into female characters, we can avoid those types of slips and actually bring true variety and diversity to the options for characters and for NPCs. We can also feature interesting fashions without presenting teenage characters as a lot older than they are and creating unrealistic expectations.

Which leads to the moral and emotional reasons why we want to focus on a female character. I grew up with Zelda and Mario, both rescuing princesses. Pokémon: Crystal and Final Fantasy X, my first games with female protagonists (or close to it), didn’t come out until I was already ten or eleven, and I’m younger than Ginny! And while games have worked to include female options for characters, there still aren’t very many that focus entirely on a female protagonist, even as other games such as Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Red Dead Redemption 2 focus on male protagonists entirely. (I’m still annoyed we haven’t had a playable Zelda yet when she is the name of the franchise.)

Girls have just as much right to be the focus of a prophecy or the hero of a story. But they don’t get that opportunity unless it is alongside a male option. We want to create a game where the focus is devoted to showing that a game like this is possible, rather than feeding into the loop that girls won’t play games even if you create a game for them. It’s the same study they tried to feed us about female super heroes, and Wonder Woman blew them out of the water, and Carol Danvers is showing signs that she might do the same if given a fair chance.

That’s all Ginny and I want to do, really. Offer a fair chance for girls to be the heroes of their own stories, offer the type of games that we all enjoy without fighting through pop-up ads and bad graphics. By proving them wrong once, we give a foothold for others to try, and for us to keep trying and pushing for more. Because if all of us succeed, the ones who really benefit are the girls out there who start to believe that they can do what they dream.

Making Unconventional Fantasy Sound Less Redundant…

Making Unconventional Fantasy Sound Less Redundant…

Some of the pillars of Mystic Riders are obvious in what they mean. Some of them… Not so much. So while we won’t be delving into every single one and what they mean, we will flesh them out if there are any lingering questions. For example, Ginny was curious about my pillar, which was Unconventional Fantasy. (Which I find ironic because I think it was her who started it, but I digress.) So today, we’re going to talk about some of the fantasy elements of Astranar more in-depth, and why they would be considered unconventional versus other elements.

The first thing that pops into my mind is our magic itself. Now, having schools of magic isn’t original–it’s downright any tabletop RP. Having those schools break down by element also isn’t original, that’s Pokémon level shenanigans, even within another game system. Dungeons and Dragons does this, and it even reflects our shadow system of magic which is more concept rather than elemental based.  But where things start to go differently is how our colors correlate to the elements. When we decided to use music as a core influence for the game, we had to figure out how to sort the magic in the very early stages of development, and Ginny has the crazy idea to use solfege–Do, Re, Mi, Fa, and so on. She has charts and medieval texts that not only assigned solfege colors, but it also assigned them elements! It was perfect, it was destiny, it was…

…Not widely accepted when I mentioned it to a couple of my friends. You see, solfege isn’t based the same as our modern, color coding tropes. Water isn’t blue, for example, it’s orange. Fire is represented by yellow, not red which is actually represented by earth. (You know, I’m from Oklahoma, red and earth being related makes perfect sense to me, but I digress into bad puns.) One guy told us he didn’t understand why we were doing it that way, and shouldn’t we just do the standard arrangement? That worried me. I immediately put on the brakes and put on my Capricorn hat to fret about the details. Were we going too far? Would people get it, even if we explained? Should we go with the safer concept and just fudge solfege so that it would match convention?

Ginny and I were in opposite camps on this discussion to start with. I had on my writer-hat, don’t ostracize and confuse your readers. If that means playing to tropes that means playing to tropes, because if your book is too confusing and has negative reviews, it’s going to not have great sell numbers. Games are made or broken by their sell numbers. Ginny had her designer hat on. There, innovation is the name of the game, and doing something within lines while coloring outside of them at the same time is totally acceptable. But that’s why, even though we share a brain, we have to stay communicating with each other so we can reach mutual decisions. Usually one of us is less invested in the other, but talking about it at least makes us think of all the possible outcomes and scenarios, so we can possibly edit the idea or grow it into something even better.

In the end, Ginny and I decided that we were going to stick by our medieval nerd research. The only fudging we had to do was play around with indigo/violet and turn one of those into pink for the sake of one of our mentors, but even that was pretty minor. Why? Because why be like every other game? There’s a point towards the familiar, I’ll give you that, but if you are just like every other game, then what is the point of playing? I would be endlessly amused by players forgetting Water is Orange and accidentally casting Space magic. It’ll cause some hysterical moments. And if you do what everyone else does, those moments are lost. There isn’t anything new and players can just rely on their lizard brains to get through the game.

Sometimes we do go down the road of the expected. We have unicorns, and we have pegasi. But sometimes we go astonishingly literal (there’s a story about me going on a D&D rant and Ginny just running with part of it to create a creature for the game), and that in itself is unconventional because we take it farther than most people do. By pushing some of the boundaries and boxes that people have put around fantasy, we are reminding them about the fun that was had back before we had rules. While our market isn’t nearly as tapped as it could be, they are playing other demo’s sandboxes as it were, and so we want to engage them in new and interesting ways, as well as meeting what all that they want in a game.

I will put a rope around the outside of the box though to sort of corral things, keeping them within limits. There has to be a reason for what is and isn’t included in the game, otherwise it’s a waste of the programmers’ time and it’s a waste of the player’s to have to find it or go around it. So as cute as candy dragons might be, there isn’t really a reason to include them. (I say that, watch Ginny find a way to include them in a holiday somewhere.) It’ll also keep our magic from taking things (sometimes literally) off the rails, since spells and magical animals are tied so deeply to the story in Mystic Riders. Just this week, we finished hashing out how much of each school there is going to be. What were the decisions? That’s another blog post. See you next week!

Quote

Core Value Wisdom from Brenda Laurel

“… It’s such a tough time of life for girls being a tween. They suffer from a lot of difficulties. One of the patterns we saw over and over was a sense of social inevitability about what happened to them that you have to work to get over as a young girl. We learned a lot of things about social status and play patterns and things and it then became more my mission to create emotional rehearsal space for a lot of different types of girls to get over that hump of being a kid and being a teenager. And we were really interested in recognizing and representing the diversity of the girls that we interviewed.

– Brenda Laurel, GDC Girl Games of the 1990s: A Retrospective October 2, 2018