Character Gender in Interactive Fictionby Doug Atkinson (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Caveat lector: In this article I discuss many classic Infocom games, as well as several currently available shareware games. Though I try to avoid specific spoilers, I do refer to puzzles that may spoil some surprises.
Joe's Bar An undistinguished bar, yet the social center of Upper Sandusky. The front door is almost lost amidst the hazy maze of neon that shrouds the grimy glass of the south wall. Doors marked "Ladies" and "Gents" lead, respectively, northeast and northwest. You feel an urge. >NW Gents' Room This filthy bathroom belies the existence of disinfectant. A single toilet and sink are the only fixtures. More breathable air can be found to the southeast.
--Leather Goddesses of Phobos (Steve Meretzky)
One of the more intriguing issues in interactive fiction design is that of character identity. In many of the classic IF games, the player character has no specific identity beyond being "the adventurer" or "the detective" or whatever. This allows a wide variety of players to put themselves into the shoes of the title character.
There are a few fundamentals of identity that every (human) character must have, though, and one of them is gender. How is this handled in IF?
What next? >PUSH THE EYE The dragon's eye glows red. A voice comes from a hidden speaker. It says: "Please announce yourself. State your title -- such as Lord or Lady, Sir or Dame, Mr. or Ms. -- and your first and last name." >DAME AGATHA CHRISTIE "Did you say your name is Dame Agatha Christie?" >YES
--Moonmist (Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence)
Other games take the attitude that anyone who
--Graham Nelson, "The Craft of the Adventure Game"
II. The Androgynous Hero
Roughly half of Infocom's 33 classic text adventures have a main character with no specified gender. These range from the Enchanter Trilogy to Suspended and Nord and Burt Couldn't Make Head or Tail of It. This generally works best in games where there is little social interaction between the character and the NPCs, or when the character's clothes don't have to be mentioned in detail. The player is free to imagine the main character as anything they want (and even to envision themselves as the hero).
Ten games have explicitly male main characters, with some being special cases. Four of these, Sherlock, Arthur, Shogun, and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, are adaptations of works of fiction with male main characters (one can't very well consider Dr. Watson's gender undecided, Rex Stout notwithstanding).
Sometimes it takes some reading between the lines to tell the character's gender. For example, there is only the faintest clue that the detective in Witness is male--there is a brief reference to flirting with the telephone operator. (Occam's Razor favors a male detective in any event--I don't know how many female police detectives there were in the 1930s, and it's a genre piece in a genre predominated by men.) The adventurer in the Zork trilogy is male, but you only find this out from the description of him in ENCHANTER--there's no evidence for it in the trilogy proper. (In fact, in ZORK III you wind up fighting someone who's your exact duplicate. The game accepts both "man" and "woman" as synonyms for this character!)
Two special cases are A Mind Forever Voyaging and the aforementioned Hitchhiker's Guide. In AMFV the main character (Parry Simm) is technically neuter, being an artificially intelligent computer, but he has a masculine persona in Simulation Mode. (This is one of the cases with a great deal of social interaction.) In HHGG, you start out playing Arthur Dent, but in the course of the game you become other characters, including the female Trillian for one scene.
The final game with male main characters is Border Zone, where all three characters you play are masculine. This is really the only one where the character is clearly male but didn't have to be; the businessman in part I could easily have been a woman, or just left vague.
Additionally, I have a suspicion that the main character in The Lurking Horror is male, although there's nothing about it in the game. Two reasons: 1) Technical schools are notorious for having male majorities, so the odds favor a male. 2) LH is a genre piece, much like The Witness or Plundered Hearts. Specifically, it's a Lovecraft genre piece, and Lovecraft never had any female protagonists. This doesn't mean that the character can't be female, of course, just that I have a harder time imagining it.
Suspended is an unusual and special case, because the main character never does anything, just orders around the robots. The robots are half male, half female, although since they're only robots this affects nothing except minor touches in their programming.
Five games allow you to choose your character's gender--Ballyhoo, Bureaucracy, Beyond Zork, Leather Goddesses, and Moonmist. (Some of the choosing sections are quoted as section headers.) These range from the elegant--in LGOP it's possible to not even notice that you're making a choice--to bluntly asking if you're male or female. Even in cases where the game just asks, it's frequently worked into the game (e.g., in Ballyhoo you punch a circle on your ticket).
The effects this has on the game range widely, although it has no real effect on the puzzles. In Bureaucracy the only effect is one thing the Hacker says to you ("Wait! Can I go out with your sister?" vs. "...with you?"); the effects in Beyond Zork are similarly small, mostly there so the other characters can use pronouns in referring to you, although I recommend playing as a female and asking the shopkeeper about the Potion of Might.
In Leather Goddesses of Phobos, on the other hand, virtually all the characters' genders are based on yours. (A few don't, and this puts an interesting twist on one scene in the endgame. Hint: the game's title remains the same in both modes.) This is unsurprising, since the game is a sex farce, after all, and one couldn't expect the main character's gender to change while everything else remained the same.
Finally, one game, and only one, has a set female character. That game is PLUNDERED HEARTS, and I'll deal with it separately.
"My lovely," Jamison says huskily. His eyes burn intently, their blue like the sea on a summer day. A shiver of warmth flows through you, and you tremble at his touch. The pirate's hands, warm and exciting, caress you, searing through the thin linen of your chemise. His lips near yours, his breath softly scented. "May I kiss you?" >KISS JAMISON You lean into his arms, face lifted. Tender is his kiss, soft his lips as his body presses hard against you. You drown in the tide of your passion, swept like the sea against the rocks of the shore.
--Plundered Hearts (Amy Briggs)
"Ur-grue?" asks the only woman Implementor. "Ur-grue," nods another.
--Beyond Zork (Brian Moriarty)
III. A Heart Forever Plundering
Plundered Hearts is an anomalous Infocom game in a number of ways. It's the only one published in the romance/adventure genre. It's also the only one where you play a female character (with no choice in the matter), and the only one written by a woman (although Hollywood Hijink does credit Liz Cyr-Jones with the original concept).
The choice of a female player character is unusual enough to be worthy of comment. It seems likely that this adventure was written to appeal to women (being grounded firmly in the romance novel genre, one whose readership is traditionally mostly female). Still, forcing one gender on the character is unusual for Infocom regardless of which one it is; the only ones that have blatantly male player characters and aren't adaptations are Border Zone and A Mind Forever Voyaging.
This is the result of the way this particular adventure is told; it places the emphasis on the "fiction" part of Interactive Fiction (as BZ and AMFV do, as well). Puzzle games like Zork and Infidel don't concern themselves with characterization, character interaction, and much plot; the character is just trying to get rich. Story games have a much higher ratio of prose to puzzles; in fact, once you've solved the problems in PH you can dash through the adventure very rapidly. They have much more personal interaction, and concern themselves more with characterization and storyline.
For this reason, having a specific character becomes much more important. The Zork adventurer really has no personality or motivations beyond greed. The detective in Deadline is just doing his/her job. In a story where goals are more personal, however, the motivations can't be so generalized, and that means having a particular player character. Once you have a specific character as your hero, personal details begin to matter. We don't know anything about the life of the Zork adventurer before he appeared outside the White House; we don't know where he comes from, who his parents are, if he's married, or what his hobbies are (besides collecting treasure, that is). In a game where you're someone specific, and are expected to act in character, these details take on a much greater importance.
After these details are settled, character gender takes on a whole new significance, because the player's interactions with the NPCs will be strongly affected by this. It's significant that the two games with the most plot and fewest puzzles, PH and AMFV, are also the hardest to imagine with main characters of opposite genders. (In Border Zone it seems to have been a conscious decision on the programmer's part to use male characters; interestingly, the sample game transcript from BZ featured a female spy.) These games feature a great deal of interaction, and how characters act towards each other will change somewhat if their sex does. In Zork, making the thief, troll, wizard, demon, etc. female would change nothing. In LGOP, characters can be interchangeably male or female because they're not very deep. Conversely, PH simply would not work with a male main character, female pirate, etc.: the motivations and character roles would go all askew. The constant threat of becoming LaFond's unwilling plaything would be much less credible. (That's also the result of its being a genre piece.) The same is less true of AMFV, but the interactions with Parry's family would be different if Parry were a woman.
The upshot of all this is that, the closer IF gets to being a story, the more clearly defined its main characters become. And character gender is not required for clear definition, but it helps considerably. As for the other aspect of this game--the fact that the character is a woman--see the next section.
Are you male or female? [The default is male.] >FEMALE
--Beyond Zork (Brian Moriarty)
IV. Character Roles and Player Roles
Overall, very few Infocom games require you to play a character of a specific gender. (I don't quite count the Zork Trilogy, since the clue about the Adventurer's gender comes in another game.) Why, of those that do, does only one have a female hero--and in a game aimed at females, at that? It's worth disposing of the adaptation games, first. They can't really be faulted for using male heroes (and HHGG does let you play Trillian, however briefly). It could be argued that Infocom should have adapted from a source with a female hero at some point, but that's really a minor point--especially given how few adaptations they did, total.
And to put their approach in perspective, look at the games released under their name after Activision bought them out. Except for Journey, which features a team, every one of them has a male hero. In both Battletechs and Mines of Titan you lead a team, but the leader and hero is male; in Circuit's Edge, you play a man, but CE is another adaptation of fiction. Infocom cared much more about inclusiveness than Activision does, apparently. Why the effort towards androgyny in the games' heroes? Adventure gamers like to use their imaginations; why not let them imagine themselves as someone totally different?
The header quote from Beyond Zork is telling, and says a lot about the assumptions made by the Implementors (or at least Brian Moriarty). It could mean one of two things; either the assumption is that IF players are more masculine than feminine and prefer playing men, or a default was needed (the same way one's given for name) and "male" was chosen at random. While not meaning to attack Infocom or Moriarty, I think some of the former was at work both in Beyond Zork and Infocom's approach to design. (Whenever I discuss Infocom, remember that I consider them to be one of the better companies in this respect; but they weren't perfect.) There are two assumptions there; the assumption that male IF players outnumber women, and the assumption that, if they must choose, they prefer playing men.
The first assumption we can dispense with quickly. That women do play IF there can be no doubt; this article was inspired by Eileen's editorial in XYZZYnews #2 on the very subject. My mother and sister have both played Infocom games, and I have a female friend who's as devoted to Infocom as I am. However, there is a tacit assumption that men are more interested in computers, and computer games, then women are. This is partially a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the companies using this assumption will then produce games that are aimed at men. (Classic example: pinball. Women play pinball, too, but look at the number of pinball games with scantily-clad women on the cases. Even if this doesn't actively drive women away, it doesn't do a lot to encourage most of them to play.)
In any event, even if there is a male majority (and IF seems to hold more interest for women than, say, fighting games), it should be obvious that alienating women cuts out slightly more than 50% of the potential buying audience. Since IF hasn't been the dominating force in software for some time, it becomes doubly important to consider the audience. (Or, rather, it would if there were any real IF being produced commercially right now--role-playing simulations and GUI-heavy CD-ROMs seem to have killed it as a commercial concern, leaving it in the realm of shareware alone.)
What about the second assumption? Do more players prefer playing men, or does no one really care?
It's difficult to generalize, but I have a suspicion that (some) males have more difficulty playing female characters than vice versa. It seems to go back to childhood; girls are allowed to take an interest in "masculine" things, but boys who try the equivalent are scorned. ("Tomboy" isn't a particularly pejorative term, compared to "sissy".) Whether this is the result of an assumption that masculinity is the state to aspire to, or a double standard in which males get shafted, I won't attempt to judge, but it does seem to be true. Combined, these factors probably explain why Infocom's only female-character-only game was one that was written by a woman and aimed especially at women. They preferred not to force players to take on specific roles, but in the few cases they did the male role won out over the female.
V. The Shareware Revolution
That's how Infocom handled gender in its games. A decade later, the IF banner is mostly carried by independent programmers writing games for distribution via FTP. How do these neo-Implementors handle the issue? (And bear in mind that they don't have to worry about the audience quite as much, since they probably don't depend on sales of the game for their livelihoods.) I'll consider only the major and noteworthy shareware games, since there are so many out there.
Overall, fewer games take the genderless option these days. Most of the Unnkulian series does, as far as I can tell, as does John's Fire Witch. Graham Nelson's Curses also takes this tack; this makes his quote at the head of section II somewhat ironic, since Curses is by no means dull and has plenty of other characters. However, you aren't interacting with them in a social or romantic way (try kissing Aunt Jemima sometime, however) so it's not an issue.
Save Princeton and Busted, both college games, feature characters who are implicitly male but not quite explicitly so. (In Save Princeton, your roommates are male, so you probably are as well.) Busted (well, the parts I've seen so far) leaves a strong impression of a male main character without actually saying it. The note you find (presumably addressed to you) has a man's name on it, and your girlfriend shows up on the fifth turn, not that that proves anything in itself.)
In The Legend Lives!, you also play a male character; although I haven't played it myself (hardware incompatibilities), I gather that it's a plot-heavy game.
Veritas and CosmoServe take the choice option. Both do so by asking you straight out, but CosmoServe works it into the game (you're asked so you can be provided a gendered body in virtual reality) while Veritas just asks straight out. (Veritas also gives the impression of having been coded first for a male character, with the female bits added later; a description of something belonging to your roommate--who's always your own gender--refers to the roommate as "he" in both modes. On the other hand, in female mode you can have sex during the game, though it's about the least thrilling sex scene in all of IF.)
CosmoServe deserves special attention, because it has one slightly unusual feature; it's the only IF game I know of that lets you determine your own sexual orientation. It makes about as much difference as gender usually does--it affects one piece of dialogue and the gender of one set of minor NPCs--but it's an interesting touch. Incidentally, CosmoServe is written by the only woman I know of who's currently writing shareware IF, Judith Pintar.
As I mentioned above, programmers of shareware don't have the same worries about their market that commercial programmers do. The FTP distribution system means that 1) anyone in the world with Internet access can get a copy, and 2) getting a copy isn't a major financial decision; apart from the download time, you have ample opportunity to experiment before you shell out any money. Therefore, shareware authors don't seem to let the prospect of driving away potential customers worry them as much as do commercial programmers, leaving them freer to write games with specific main characters.
In some ways you'd