The Trouble With Trying To Write Positive Female Characters

Ubisoft Quebec's director of narrative design prefers "juicy and real" roles, credits Mass Effect, Gone Home, and Last of Us with doing it right

It's an eventful time for Jill Murray. Since writing last year's Assasin's Creed III: Liberation for PS Vita (the first entry in the series with a female protagonist), she has taken over as director of narrative design for Ubisoft Quebec, and will see her latest project, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, ship next week. And as gamers around the world explore the stormy seas of Ubisoft's pirate-themed adventure, Murray will hit the road for some conference appearances. She'll be speaking in Toronto at the Gamercamp festival November 2, followed by a November 5 presentation in Los Angeles at the GDC Next conference. Her GDC Next talk is titled "Binders Full of Women: Diversifying Feminine Archetypes in Games," and touches upon a hot button topic the gaming industry has been grappling with in recent years. Murray recently took some time to discuss that subject with GamesIndustry International.

Q: The name of your GDC Next talk includes Mitt Romney's much-mocked presidential debate quote that became a sort of shorthand for antiquated and sexist notions about women. Do you think that comparison oversells the game industry's problems with gender, undersells them, or gets it just right?

Jill Murray:To be sure, the talk title is tongue-in-cheek, and people seem to think it's funny, and that's great. But at the same time, I think games are important, and that there's nothing we shouldn't be able to talk about with games. If you look at Assassin's Creed, one of the things people love about it, is the way it can be so absorbing and entertaining, and at the the same time, take history seriously, and sometimes examine very serious issues. It adds to the sense of adventure.

When I looked at my own plan for this talk, which is essentially a list of women doing interesting things, I just couldn't get the phrase "binders full of women" out of my head. I have this mental file folder brimming over with stories of cool women, but what if everyone doesn't already know about Bessie Coleman, or Hatshepsut, or my great aunt Alma? I need to share my binder! There's good stuff in there.


Liberation marked the first female protagonist in an Assassin's Creed game.

Q: Do you think the portrayal of women in games has improved in recent years? How much further does it need to go?

Jill Murray:I entered this industry relatively recently, and in the time I've been with Ubisoft, I've consistently been encouraged to address themes I care about, and to help create vivid, interesting characters from all walks of life. There's no set destination as to where games must go, but I'd like to do whatever I can to extend the same opportunities to other developers. Players notice and respond to characters they relate to, and to be able to listen, connect, and occasionally surprise them is one of the best parts of my job.

Q: There seems to be a lot more discussion of the topic now, though the "discussion" online often boils down to a handful of people saying the same things over and over again. How productive are these conversations? Are the attitudes in the audience changing one way or the other, and are these contentious online dust-ups helping?

Jill Murray:Our industry is still very young, and we're joining a conversation that reaches way back through history. You can find Christine de Pisan telling the stories of interesting women in 1405 with her Book of the City of Ladies, and women have continued to be relentlessly interesting in the centuries since, so there's no lack of material to draw from. Measurably and quantifiably, I have better options today than Christine de Pisan did in her time, and that's a testament to how productive this conversation is, and important it continues to be.

"Trying to feature positive female characters" is probably a mistake.

Jill Murray

The key, as a developer, is to listen when our players voice their needs. If someone tells you something over and over, it's because they care. And for every player who speaks up, you can be sure there are more like them who just aren't as noisy. We can keep the conversation and the industry moving forward by listening to people, making them feel included, and offering them satisfying new games to dig into.

Q: What are the biggest mistakes made by developers trying to feature positive female characters in their games?

Jill Murray:"Trying to feature positive female characters" is probably a mistake. When you demand that characters be paragons of positivity, that's when you get the feeling of "trying" and no one likes to play "trying." Players want to connect with characters that offer something juicy and real.

I'm less interested in the "kick-ass woman who can do it all," than I am in the people whose flaws, interests, fears, and passions drive and pull them in conflicting directions. That includes the everywoman, the underachiever, the ordinary person moved to respond to tragedy, the woman who excels at one thing but the rest of her life is a mess, and so on. The messy stuff is what makes real people relatable and memorable, whether or not they're good role models.

For example, "Guevara" the English teacher who became a sniper in Syria after her children were killed in an air strike, or "Janice," the con artist from my old neighborhood, who uses her puggle as an accessory to her petty crimes-- I will never forget these women. I don't want their lives, but I would wear a controller out playing them, to see how things work in their minds and their worlds.

Q: What are some games from other developers that featured the sort of portrayals you're calling for?

If the industry can do so well with one hand tied behind its back, imagine all the new opportunities we'll have when we allow ourselves to mine the mostly untouched stories of more than half of humanity!

Jill Murray

Jill Murray:A lot of developers are doing good things. Mass Effect and Dragon Age have always had a range of "human" characters even when they are not actually human. Recently, The Last of Us included women and girls who felt real. Gone Home had interesting female voices. X-Com: Enemy Unknown let women be normal. Thomas Was Alone let us in on the inner lives and conflicts of colorful gendered rectangles. This list is by no means exhaustive, and the real joy is in the games we'll all make next. The spirit of this talk is less about calling for something specific than it is about telling interesting stories and sharing resources.

Q: Is it harder to make the business case for featuring diverse portrayals of women in AAA games while Grand Theft Auto is busy shattering sales records?

Jill Murray:Not at all. If the industry can do so well with one hand tied behind its back, imagine all the new opportunities we'll have when we allow ourselves to mine the mostly untouched stories of more than half of humanity! And GDC Next, with its focus on mobile and online gaming is the perfect forum for anticipating the future. That doesn't take anything away from what games are now, but I get giddy when I think of all we still have to look forward to.

Q: When you're not working on games, you're writing young adult novels. How do you think their reputations with the general public compare? Does "I write video games" get a different sort of response from people than "I write young adult novels" when you tell them what you do?

Jill Murray:The audience for games is huge, and the audience for young adult novels is one of the biggest growing markets in literary publishing, but what both have in common is that the general public still doesn't know much about either. Both audiences are quite specialized. So I'm kind of an alien to most people, most of the time, but when I talk to the general public about my work in either medium, I talk about the same essential themes. I find that focusing on the ideas instead of the medium helps people relate. I like to pick out games to introduce people to gaming, and books to interest people who don't read a lot of young adult [fiction]. There's more choice in both than most people realize.

Latest comments (6)

Aleksi Ranta Category Management Project Manager 4 years ago
the answer lies in the title already: "The Trouble With Trying To Write Positive Female Characters".
You should only write what comes naturally, usually trying too hard just ends in failure.....
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
I like her view on this. Instead of calling for a complete overhaul of the industries current set up she seems to be asking that female writers be able to write the characters they want to write about, as opposed to being forced to write any of the common female archetypes(some of which are ok when done correctly). To her this means more believable and relatable characters as opposed to just a female version of a super soldier who kicks ass and takes names all in the name of saving the day.

I think overall thers never been a lack of strong/positive female characters in video games for atleast the past two decades but the writing and believability of female characters has improved over the past few years. That doesn't mean this is always the case, as there are still plenty of poorly written female characters in current gen games. But as long as steps continue to be taken things will ultimately improve further, especially with so many prominent female writers involved in gaming today. Karen Traviss, who wrote the story for Gears of War 3 and has written Gears of War and Halo novels, is still one of my favorite writers.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 25th October 2013 11:55pm

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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 4 years ago
"Trying to feature positive female characters" is probably a mistake.
She's really hit the nail on the head here. I can't quite work out what position to take on all these gender debates lately, and it's because while I'm fully supportive of more and better developed female roles in games, I can't shake off that feeling that in most cases it will end up being writers/developers shoehorning in "empowering" female roles, basically to capitalize on the feelings driving this debate in the first place.

I fear we may need to go through this phase regardless, and get all the nonsense out of the way, before the industry can finally settle down and just see lead female characters as an entirely unremarkable and ordinary thing to have, at which point we might actually get some truly unbiased, interesting stories told.

This is the very reason I find the likes of Bioware's approach to things a bit vapid. They're so focused on capitalising on the very idea of diversity and equality in their games, that they shoehorn in these inane "romances" just to tick those boxes. There's nothing they're actually trying to say with these plotlines... no lasting and significant exploration of character... you just badger someone until they shag you - but it's meant to be progressive simply by virtue of the fact that you can choose to shag anyone, no matter what gender you are.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dan Wood on 26th October 2013 1:27am

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Show all comments (6)
Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
I agree with that Dan. To me, "a strong empowered woman" is just as cliched as other standard macho male roles and if anything it's just the latest trend to make PR noise about.

But I will admit I'm seriously out of touch. I stopped buying games when they started having characterisation and biographies. My idea of a good gameplay character is one that can hold 1000 clips of ammo and run fast.

Whether or not its male with large/small pecs or female with large/small breasts matters far less to me than the ability to swap the model out completely and replace it with Bender or Homer.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 28th October 2013 10:35pm

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Rogier Voet IT Consultant 4 years ago
Nice interview - I think the focus on female characters is not broad enough. When you have a strong story-driven game you need a good set of characters. (probably a mix of male. female, old, young and the many other traits people have). The problem is that story-telling has not been great in many games (not all games need a story). It has improved a lot over the years.
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Emily Rose Freelance Artist 4 years ago
This was a wonderful article ^_^
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