i was about to begin this article by saying “all my life, i’ve tried to make sense of the opposite sex”, but it sounded too trite and cliche. The truth is, i think – i honestly do think – that i have a pretty good grasp of women. i grew up the only child of a single-parent mom, and have lived a pretty estrogen-infused existence. i know what it is to toll paint. i have stenciled. i’ve knitted. i’ve made a macrame owl. These are things i can not unlearn.
A very interesting conversation very nearly broke out on Facebook today, when i made the wild claim that our upcoming game, Spellirium, is for the ladies, and that i think “chicks’ll dig it”. The game was designed from the ground up to be female-friendly, in ways i will enumerate shortly. But something was eating at me: recently, when i made that same claim to a colleague, he said “Women will enjoy it, eh? Why? Does it have any romance in it?”
The blood drained from my face a little. We’re still not too late in the game to pivot, but no, Spellirium does not actually have a romantic thread running through it, nor does it have a female lead. i wondered: would these two shortcomings doom it? Would women not be interested in my game because the lead character is a young white male who doesn’t romance it up at any point in the story?
Help me, Fabio. You’re my only hope.
First, a brief primer. Spellirium is a graphic adventure game, which means that the gameplay and the writing go hand-in-hand. It’s set in the future, after a cataclysmic event has left civilization buried under a thousand feet of earth. It tells the story of a young apprentice tailor named Todd living a sheltered life in a society where reading and writing have been outlawed, on pain of death. But Todd and the other tailors have a secret: they’re actually Runekeepers, secret curators of an underground library filled with forbidden writing. A short time after the Runekeepers set off on a mission leaving Todd alone, one of them turns up dead. Brother Todd sets out on a quest to find out why.
Spellirium was originally designed to be a casual downloadable game, the kind of title that a portal like Big Fish Games might carry. When we were making a case for the game to our funders, we had to demonstrate that Spellirium would be a hit with a female audience, because Big Fish and their ilk cater primarily to older female customers.
Here are the pro-female elements we felt the game had going for it:
- It’s story-driven. If we compare games to porn, they say that women prefer story and character development, while men just enjoy visceral close-ups of gnashing genitalia. If Gears of War is analogous to visceral, visual man-porn, something like Spellirium is far more gentle and female-friendly, with a focus on why the pool boy is visiting on that particular day.
Did somebody whose boss just fired her under suspicion of corporate espionage order a pizza?
- It’s a word game. i’ve actually been warned against admitting this – indeed, Big Fish Games and friends dumped all over Spellirium at Casual Connect two years ago because it’s a word game. Some of the portal reps called it “too cerebral”, and others cautioned that women don’t like to think when they play games – they just want to sit down and zone out (hence 50 different flavours of bubble-popping, jewel-matching and hidden object-finding on those sites).
But i can’t deny it: Spellirium is all about making words, Scrabble/Boggle-style, to solve puzzles. And my intuition was vindicated when we brought a very early build of the game to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival two years ago; every guy who swung by the booth said “my girlfriend/wife/daughter would really enjoy that”, while every girlfriend/wife/daughter who passed by did a double-take and stopped to check it out. And that’s when it was purely a word game, with no sign of plot or character development in sight.
Women to letter tiles: like moths to a flame.
- It’s dark fantasy. Fact: women enjoy this genre. They like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal and Pan’s Labyrinth and City of Ember and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and His Dark Materials and the Spiderwick Chronicles and Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and (perhaps unfortunately) Twilight. Women read those huge 10-book-long fantasy chronicles like Dragonriders of Pern. In particular, i think there’s something about dark fantasy that women prefer over straight-up elf-ridden high fantasy. Women are drawn in by stories that have an air of mystery, seduction, evil, or … for lack of a better word, purple.
Quoth the raven, “Enter your credit card number.”
But It’s a Straight-Up Sausage Party
The two main characters in Spellirium are male. One is a young man. The other is a big blue monster. The third member of the group is a woman – a hard woman they call The Hunter, who dresses in the pelts of the animals she kills and skins. She has a big red scar through her left eye, because i was self-conscious about making her too pretty. She’s self-sufficient and vindictive, and is motivated by revenge. She doesn’t take any crap from the main character. i wrote her this way because i wanted a strong female character who isn’t subdued by the boyish charms of the male lead, and who doesn’t succumb to his wily advances, and who will put a bullet up his nose if he tries to come any closer.
Three concept sketches of The Hunter. We went with the one on the left. The blunderbuss was non-negotiable.
Will women like her? i have no idea. Will they still enjoy the game, even though the two leads are male? No clue. Will they be less interested in Spellirium because there’s no love story? i really don’t know. That’s kind of why i’m writing this article. i want to hear from women who play games. Is any of this stuff important to you?
The only other significant female character is The Mystic, who is an old fortune-teller, which i do realize is the female equivalent of the Magic Negro. Part of the fun of Spellirium is that it breaks the fourth wall on a regular basis; any time i (the author) introduce a stock character, Todd and company are going to call me out on it in the game dialogue.
Indie dev Michael Todd introduced me to the Bechdel Test today while we were discussing this. In order to pass the test, your script has to have:
- at least two women in it,
- Who talk to each other,
- About something other than a man.
As currently scripted, Spellirium fails the Bechdel test at point #2. Women: have i fallen out of your good graces, or is there still a chance that you’ll play this game and others like it?
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