Skip to main content

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.

GamesIndustry International 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.
GamesIndustry International 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.

GamesIndustry International 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.

GamesIndustry International 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.

GamesIndustry International 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.

GamesIndustry International 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.

GamesIndustry International 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.

Read this next

Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
Related topics