When I attend a show like GDC or E3, I tend to get a number of questions from the press related to the fact that I have innie genitalia rather than outtie. For example: What’s it like being a woman in the gaming industry? What advice do you have for young women who want to break into game design?
I’m always a bit perplexed by these questions, though I try doggedly to answer. Perhaps my confusion is that I don’t identify myself as a “female designer”. I am a game designer/writer. My gender is irrelevant, right? Who really cares?
But a reporter at GDC this spring changed my mind. After I showed Moebius, which has a male protagonist, and an equally very male sidekick, he asked, in an annoyed fashion, why it is that I don’t write strong female characters in my games? He suggested that female game players NEED good role models, and if anyone were going to supply the industry with strong female characters, it ought to be the few visible female designers like me.
Well. Alrighty then.
I mumbled through some sort of response, pointing out that I have had strong female characters in the past– Grace in Gabriel Knight, and Samantha in Gray Matter. As for Malachi in Moebius well, I just wanted to write him that way!
On my way back home, I kept thinking about that interview. It bugged me, and I tried to figure out why. My first reaction was: female game players need role models? Really? A woman doesn’t know who she is until a video game shows her someone to emulate? Hmm. Do people ever say guys need ‘role models’ in their games?
But more to the point… why do I so often find myself writing male characters? The truth is, I’ve always preferred writing men to women in my novels as well as my games. The answer was really pretty obvious—I don’t just write male characters, I write male characters who are hot simply because I enjoy it.
And thus crumbles any illusion I have to be above gender. The truth is, when I write a male character I am writing him from a female perspective, as a kind of fantasy. And why not? Male designers create female characters who are male fantasies all the time.
Let’s even the playing field, people.
WHY WRITE HOT GUYS?
Reason #1: Female gamers will love you for it.
There are, in fact, a large portion of women who play games. According to the ESA, 45% of all gamers are female. This varies greatly by genre, I’m sure. But if women do tend to play the type of game you design for, then why not give them a male character they can salivate over? Because…
Reason #2: Male gamers are okay with it.
Really. I have never once had a male player tell me “I don’t like Gabriel Knight because he’s too sexy.” What? No. It’s never happened. And why would it? After all, the player is role-playing that character. Who doesn’t want to be good-looking, smart, and sexy? What guy doesn’t want to be hot? Do not fear the hotness.
Reason #3: Pop culture says it works.
Let’s review some of the mega hits in pop culture in the past ten years: Lost, True Blood, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Skyfall, Harry Potter.
Okay, not Harry Potter. Forget that aberration of the laws of space and time. See any hot men in the others? I rest my case.
HOW TO WRITE A HOT MALE CHARACTER
You don’t have to be a female designer to write a hot male character and, yes, many games already have them. But if you’re wondering what makes a male character ‘hot’ from a female perspective, or at least from mine, here are some tips.
It’s a given that he’ll be good-looking. But what does that mean? Consider your audience. The typical male action hero, a Mr. Universe type with arms like sledgehammers, is he ‘hot’ to a woman? Not really.
Are you slanting the appeal at younger women or older? Up to a certain age, girls find overt masculinity off-putting. Teen idols are usually ‘twinks’ like ‘N Sync, Leif Garret, David Cassidy, or Justin Beiber. Maybe this isn’t your main character, maybe it’s the teen son of a secondary character—but why not add someone like this if your game could be played by young teens?
Step the testosterone up a bit and you can cover a fairly wide age range. Twilight, anyone? Though the books were written YA (Young Adult), both the books and movies appealed to older women as well as teen girls and were defined by Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner—both very young men with pretty faces and ripped torsos that were neither hugely muscled nor hairy.
(Seriously! We’re actually discussing this!)
Personally, my attract-o-meter skews older, but I still tend towards looks that are not overly muscled or brutish. Other types you might want to consider: Gerard Butler (muscular but not huge), Daniel Craig, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Alexander Skarsgard. Generally speaking the long, flowing hair of romance novel covers is out unless you can seriously pull off the whole Spartacus thing.
If you’re a female designer (or a gay man for that matter), go with your instinct. If you’re not, ask your wife/girlfriend and beta test with women.
(P.S. – A nice ass goes without saying.)
A wide variety of personality types are possible, but there are certain traits that are not at all appealing romantically. These include wooden characters, characters who are deliberately cruel or abusive (especially to animals—dear lord, no), characters who are overly dweeby (nerds can be hot in books, but in my experience, they don’t really work romantically in games). Insecure, weak-willed, whiny, or chronically depressed personality types are right out. Characters who are overly vain or self-centered can be a turn-off (though it can be pulled off with humor and panache – Hans Solo and Gabriel Knight come to mind).
Heroes may well kill, but they generally kill people who deserve it. That’s not to say you can’t have an evil character, but don't count on your players finding him hot. Your character can be damaged (‘hurt/comfort’ is a big romance genre) but he needs to show vulnerability, be redeemable, and improve over the course of the story.
#3 Voice Over Casting & Dialogue
A woman can be seduced by—or put off by—a man’s voice. Personally, when I hear the TV actors these days who do the whole ‘whispery’ thing I want to smack them. On the other hand, I love a deep voice. Sexiness is very much a vocal characteristic—find it. And your voice actor needs to have likability, even when being sarcastic, and sound a little sensitive and/or a tad vulnerable at least some of the time. Accents can be very sexy. Bad grammar and screaming is not. Hillbilly Hank is not hot.
#4 Other people find him sexy
One of the best ways to demonstrate a character’s attributes is in the way NPCs react to him. The guy is just so hot that women can’t help falling for him (Malia in Gabriel Knight), even when they’re smart enough to know better (Grace in Gabriel Knight). When other characters react to your MC (main character) as if he’s attractive, they are reinforcing in the player’s mind that the guy is hot.
Even NPCs who are not attracted to your MC can ‘add to his legend’. Grandma: “Oh, you always did have a way with women!” Friend: “Not another one! Jesus, you lucky son of a bitch.” In Moebius chapter 3, I have Malachi’s store manager, Gretchen, take his sidekick David out for a drink to warn him about how women fall in love with Malachi because he’s good-looking, intelligent, and aloof. That’s building in a sexual backstory that helps the player feel the attractiveness of my MC.
#5 Employing romantic tropes in your plotline
Many women read romance. Even those who don’t, we’ve all seen enough TV and movies to subconsciously recognize romantic tropes. Even when they are not applied directly to a romantic relationship, they still trigger feelings of sympathy and attraction to the MC. Seeing him face these things triggers the response in us that he is the romantic lead. For example:
- The guy without a family – orphaned in his youth, or his family killed in a fiery car crash. We all want to see this guy find a new family. It doesn’t have to be romantic, it could be a young soldier who ends up bonding with his platoon. But his backstory gives us sympathy for this character and gives him a romantically tragic air.
- The damaged hero – similar to the above, this character has been wounded, maimed or scarred in such a way that he has retreated from the world. Consciously, we root for him to find redemption and someone who can ‘look past the scars’. Sub-consciously: if he can find love or acceptance, so can we, even though we are flawed. Not surprisingly, romances with a disabled (but still strangely gorgeous) hero are quite popular.
- Boy-gets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl – Again, this doesn’t have to be a man-woman scenario. It could be the dog the MC bonded with, who is lost down a raging river, and later recovered. Or it could be the little girl the MC has been protecting like Lee and Clem in The Walking Dead. But the loss of someone or something they’ve grown to care about makes the player feel close to the MC and triggers the desire to ‘comfort’ him. Does that equal hotness? Yes it does, assuming you have the above points (looks, personality) handled. After all, it shows us the big lug has a heart.
- The big misunderstanding –The MC thinks the girl of his dreams is in love with someone else. A character’s pride gets in the way of allowing him to make an apology and so the friend/love interest/dog stomps off in anger. The MC overhears someone talking and thinks that he or she is a spy (but is wrong). This creates a tension that we want to see resolved.
- Enemies forced together – two antagonist characters are forced to spend time together in a small environment (stuck in a jail cell, only one room left at the hotel, have to take a journey together). Of course, they learn that they really like each other after all.
- Pretend couples – A female boss/celebrity has to come up with a pretend marriage to soothe her parents/fans. Two male detectives have to pretend to be a gay couple to infiltrate a gay club. By ‘faking’ a relationship, they are messing with our heads and putting ideas/urges in our minds—and their own. We can’t help but want to see it go from ‘fake’ to ‘real’.
- And so on….
By working with common tropes you can create a romantic tension in your work, and romanticize your hero, even if you never intend to have a romantic relationship consummated. You can do this even with a macho, all-male story like Band of Brothers.
#6 Actually give him a love interest
Of course, unless there’s a damn good reason not to, why not give the guy an actual love interest? Forget the dog and the little girl. You know what makes a guy really sexy? It’s called UST – Unresolved Sexual Tension. Someone wants the guy, badly, or the guy wants someone, but they resist and/or are kept apart by obstacles. That unresolved tension is transferred to the player and now the player wants. They want to keep turning the page (or buy the next game) to see that UST resolved.
Your love interest could be the bombshell who walks into your detective’s office with a case—it could burn quick and bright and end by the time the game is done. It could be a female sidekick who develops into a potential relationship over multiple seasons. It could be the barista the MC flirts with every morning when he picks up his joe. Or—you know, it could be your MC’s male cop partner. Remember that you don’t ever have to resolve the UST (though your audience may eventually kill you if you don’t). Do women find male-male, or even the hint thereof, hot? Millions of fan fiction writers say oh hell yes. Does fan fiction exist that pairs a couple of your characters? If not, why not?
CASE STUDIES: The Bad Boy, The Beast, The Aloof One, The Good Warrior/Comic
Gabriel Knight (Gabriel Knight 1-3, 1993-1999, 2014 remake):
Type: The bad boy/rogue
Gabriel is a classic bad boy , rake, or rogue type of character. He’s flirtatious with any attractive woman, has had a string of one night stands, and never takes relationships seriously. His voice is deep and he has a southern drawl, so when he has sexy lines flirting with women in the game, you feel it in your toes.
The idea of his attractiveness is reinforced in the first game by the quick-and-hot liason with the gorgeous Malia Gedde and the slower-burn, I-should-resist-you-but-I-can’t affection of his brainy shopkeeper, Grace.
Dr. David Styles (Gray Matter, 2010)
Type: The Beast / damaged hero
David was once a very handsome man before a car accident killed his wife and burned the left side of his face. Now he’s a recluse in a spooky old English house. This story is very much based on the Beauty & the Beast trope, with angry and bitter Dr. Styles having chased everyone away until a travelling American magician, Samantha, stumbles into a job as his research assistant. Sam wants to redeem Styles, and so does the player.
Malachi Rector (Moebius, 2014)
Type: The Aloof One, Man without a family
Malachi is a super intelligent, cold genius in the vein of House or Sherlock Holmes in his many incarnations (which is also, in itself, a classic 'beast' type). You think this isn’t hot? Benedict Cumberbatch fans would beg to differ. You admire the Aloof One for his amazing brilliance. A tragic past helps us understand why he can’t trust people. Flashes of vulnerability show us how lonely the guy REALLY is. I mean, come on! Someone needs to crack those defenses and befriend the poor bastard. And we want to see it happen.
Captain David Walker (Moebius, 2014)
Type: The Good Warrior / Comedian
Walker is ex Special Forces, gorgeous, buff, and mysterious. We’re really not sure where he came from in Moebius. Is his appearance fate, coincidence, or something more sinister? But dang, the guy is likable with a protective streak a mile wide, an easy-going attitude, and string of bad jokes. His warmth makes a good foil for the cooler Malachi and he helps humanize ‘the aloof one’ for the player. In the case of Moebius, what could have been a typical male-female romantic arc is reimagined as a bromance. Our female beta testers loved it.
Bottom Line (No Pun Intended)
Women are playing games, and we’re not just looking for a female role model slapped into the action hero role. I loved Syberia and King’s Quest IV, which had a female protagonists, and I’m sure I will write another game in the future with a female lead like Gray Matter. But, honestly, I love to write and play hot men even more.
If you want to appeal to female gamers, give them a hero they can sink their teeth into. Your beta testers can tell you if you’re on the right track. And if you get the juices flowing enough to spawn some fan fiction, you will have done your job well. Szzzt! Sizzle.