Ubisoft writer Jill Murray has a simple piece of advice for game designers who are struggling to find compelling female protagonists.
“There’s a trick to finding inspiring women,” Murray said at a game industry conference on Tuesday. “You just type anything, and then you type ‘women’ into Google. So if you want women warriors, just type ‘women warriors.’ This is a piece of cake.”
But scan the launch titles for this month’s Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and you’ll find lots of sports titles, lots of action games and lots of dudes.
“I hope that we can fix this epidemic and oversight that’s been existing in games,” said Murray, “and when we do, it’s going to be fun.”
Murrary, whose credits include the just-released “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag,” the female-centered “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” and the young adult novel “Rhythm and Blues,” spoke Tuesday at GDC Next, a developer-focused game conference held for the first time at the Los Angeles Convention Center. She argued not just for more women in games, but for developers to challenge themselves when it comes to storytelling.
To make her point, Murray presented 11 women — both today and through history — who, she said, should star in their own games. She did it briskly, with humor and in under 30 minutes, making sure to offer potential plot lines for each character.
Some were infamous military leaders, others lived in a lighthouse, one was a neighborhood character and another was Murray’s great-aunt. Murray even created a female protagonist for “Grand Theft Auto,” a series that takes a male-centric (to put it lightly) view of the world.
“Anytime you are writing a character, you want that character to want something badly,” Murray said. “The women you will meet today want things like revenge, power, status, survival, peace and sometimes just slightly better weather and a milkshake.”
But enough preamble. Let’s meet the Murray’s list of women for gaming’s should-be future.
Nadezhda Popova: The Russian pilot died last year at the age of 91 and was one of the country’s first female pilots. She flew crop dusters in World War II, fragile planes that had little going for them other than their stealthiness. Planes, informed Murray, flew in pairs or trios, succeeding only by using distracting maneuvers. The Germans referred to such pilots as “night witches.”
“Can you imagine how skilled a pilot you would be to pull this off?” Murray said. “What a great question a game could answer. How about a co-op flying game where your plane is not awesome? There’s no ammo or armor upgrades and the number of things that can go wrong at any time climbs constantly.”
Rani Lakshmibai: Born around 1828 in India, Lakshmibai was a pivotal figure in the Indian Rebellion. Murray described Lakshmibai as someone who grew up a “playful and otherwise normal kid,” adding she “was good on a horse and trained in self-defense.” She became the queen by marriage, and when rebellion struck in the late 1850s, she fought until death against the British. She was regularly depicted in history books with her son on her back.
“Often in history you’ll see women leaders and generals erased or suppressed from the history books, but Lakshmibai is actually a self-created hero who has had memorials built and stamps issued in her honor,” Murray said. “I think, clearly, the life and times of Rani Lakshmibai have all the makings of an epic adventure game.”
Empress Wu Zetian: Hers is a messy, bloody tale from 7th century China. Zetian in her teens went from concubine to convent to concubine again in her rise to power. She was, in the words of Murray, “not a nice lady, and I don’t think she cares too much.” After much bloodshed and deceit, as well as accusations of incest, Zetian became empress, a rather militant but effective ruler.
“I kind of imagine a game about someone like Wu Zetian would be an RPG, where your only social option is renegade,” Murray said. “You get yourself chosen for looks and charm and then somehow break every single rule to scheme your way into running a vast empire, and it turns out you’re good at it.”
Marie-Annick Paulhus: A “friend of a friend of my family-in-law,” Murray said of the late Paulhus. The fellow Canadian “raised a daughter between two separate fights with cancer,” said Murray, adding she learned of Paulhus’ story over dinner a few weeks ago. Initially diagnosed with cancer at 20, Paulhus beat the illness, only to see it return in her 30s. After finding out the cancer was terminal, Paulhus refused to move into a hospice and “went on a kind of crusade to live out any dreams that she hadn’t fulfilled yet.” One of those dreams was starting a charity motorcycle tour.
But what kind of game does Murray envision?
“I think a game inspired by someone like Marie-Annick could be adventurous and meditative, perhaps an open-world game where you could choose when you die within a narrow window and write your story by what you choose to play in that moment,” she said. “Would you be able to enjoy the game? Would the timer stress you out? How would you choose what winning meant? What might you learn and how would you value it knowing you die and would be unable to apply the knowledge?”
Asnakech Thomas: Murray met Thomas while doing book research in Ethiopia. “She is actually the only female farmer/exporter in the country,” said Murray. Thomas is responsible for Amaro Gayo Coffee. “You want to buy that right away,” said Murray. “It’s fairly rare, and it’s delicious.”
Murray said she was struck by Thomas’ “concern and understanding for her region and its people,” adding that Thomas is an advocate for healthcare and education.
“I see representing someone like Asnakech and her farms, which are remote and difficult to access, with a management game,” said Murray. “A ‘Lemonade Stand’ on steroids. What must it be like to start a coffee farm from scratch in a completely remote area, specifically in order to support a community and improve health and education? In turn, that actually improves the coffee, sales of which are reinvested in the community.”
The game wouldn’t end there. “You have to network internationally, sell your story, recognize the talents of people who grow up and become skilled as your business grows.”
Abbie Burgess: The famed daughter of a lighthouse keeper on Matinicus Rock, a granite island off the coast of Maine, Burgess was forced to tend the lighthouse while her father was on the mainland. During that time, the region suffered torrential storms, and Burgess kept the lighthouse running through near-tragedy.
This story, said Murray, can get a little fantastical.
“First of all, don’t the words ‘Matinicus Rock’ sound like an excellent game title? I can almost hear the soundtrack,” Murray said. “I picture something dark and moody, a survival game where you don’t know what’s out there in the storm and the light in the lighthouse does more to flag your location to unknown monsters in the fog than actually shed light on your surroundings in any useful way, all the while the water is rising and your supplies are running out. …
“But you keep the light running because you know the sailors need it and your father is out there somewhere.”
“Janice”: Here’s an example of a woman with whom Murray was acquainted with and who moderately frightened her. Janice, said Murray, isn’t the woman’s real name; she doesn’t know the real name. Janice was a panhandler from Murray’s old neighborhood who was once surrounded by tabby cats but eventually dumped the felines for a Puggle.
“I always avoided her. She seemed to me this one-woman source of chaos and turmoil,” said Murray, who added that Janice was frequently under arrest and often heard “scheming” various acts of vengeance.
Murray doesn’t see Janice getting her own game, but she does want Janice in “Grand Theft Auto.”
“I want to know what she’s up to without personally getting drawn into her cyclone and risking arrest,” Murray said. “I imagine a life of home perms and friends hanging out in her apartment, alternately charming and infuriating the police. She wouldn’t necessarily know how to drive, but she could ride twosies on a bike and pretend to know how to skateboard.”
Guevara: The discussion got more timely with Guevara, a sniper in Syria who is known only by her nickname inspired by the well-known revolutionary. “She took up sniping once her children were killed in an airstrike,” said Murray. “She has a troubling view on the world, where she seems to abhor violence as much as she enjoys the thrill of hitting her targets.”
Translated into something playable, Murray said Guevara’s conflict could help illustrate the shortfalls of shooting mechanics in games and possibly making a game feel more personal. But it would be a challenge. Simply put, the act of shooting in a game would be “inadequate to communicate her story, which is a problem we actually run into occasionally in games.”
James Miranda Barry: This visionary doctor in the early 1800s was forced to disguise herself as a man to attend medical school and practice. “Like many women in history who needed to get something done that was forbidden, James Miranda Barry dressed as a man.”
Barry’s impressive legacy, said Murray, included advances in sanitation, hygiene and painkillers. “Also,” said Murray, “he got into a fight with Florence Nightingale,” who reformed the skill of nursing.
Murray keyed in on the latter fact in describing a potential game: “I’m thinking, Barry versus Nightingale, a fighting game, but maybe you can do better.”
“My great-aunt Alma”: Late in the talk, Murray presented perhaps the most shocking video game character: her elderly great-aunt. Shocking because video games are largely seen as a youthful domain. Though by this time Murray was generating quite few laughs, she was also pointing out how the stories of everyday people are often more intriguing than the fantastical lives we encounter in digital worlds.
Alma, said Murray, “drove herself from Montreal to Phoenix every single year until she broke her leg figure skating at the age of 88. So why not a grumpy-old-lady driving game, where you meet all the people you’ve met for the last 20 years and bring them newspapers and things and take time out to win swimming competitions?”
Hedy Lamarr: A famed screen actress whose heyday began in the late 1930s and stretched into the ’50s. During that time she starred in 25 films, including “Algiers,” “Comrade X” and “Boom Town.” Her personal life was colorful, as Lamarr had six unsuccessful marriages. Incredibly intelligent, she and composer George Antheil shared a patent issued in 1942 for inventing a technological system they called “frequency hopping.”
Her life, seemingly a series of contradictions, is what caught Murray’s attention. “I tried really hard to pick women who didn’t necessarily have it all,” said Murray. “Maybe they were strong leaders, but they weren’t liked … I will permit myself just one woman who had it all, which is Hedy Lamarr.”
Murray herself only learned of Lamarr’s accomplishments while doing research for “Assassin’s Creed IV.” The celebrity’s work in the communication sector was instrumental in shaping wireless communication for decades to come. “What a shame,” said Murray. “She’s still known more for being that beautiful European than she is for having that first patent for frequency hopping.”
Murray didn’t detail how a Lamarr-starred game would play out, but by then her point had been made: There are plenty of women-centric stories that the game industry is ignoring.
“By including women well in our games,” she said, “we will move beyond common archetypes and find new inspiration for a greater variety of game stories.”
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