We should begin with the eloquent words of Pulitzer-prize winning author, Junot Diaz: “The one thing about being a dude and writing from a female perspective is that the baseline is, you suck…I wring my hands because I know that as a dude, my privilege, my long-term deficiencies work against me in writing women, no matter how hard I try and how talented I am.” In that same interview in The Atlantic, Diaz goes on to detail how male privilege gives us “atrophied muscles” when it comes to creating representative female characters. Indeed, feminist critics like Judith Fetterley and Anita Sarkeesian have explored the many problems that can arise when we writers feel entitled to stories outside of our experiences. They have frequently shown how the subtle but deadly undertow of our culture leads us again and again to sexist and racist depictions in our narratives.
So why is Team reBERth, currently composed of six men, writing a story centered on a young woman? Do we even begin to have the authority to write such a tale? Are we, like so many people, merely trying to profit from an ongoing feminist movement and the increase of female gamers in the market? And are these issues actually important? After all, what we’re making is “just a game,” right?
But as Fetterley explains in “On the Politics of Literature,” to adopt the stance that narrative is apolitical is to “posture,” to put on the “pretense that literature speaks universal truths” by excising the “merely personal.” We cannot so much as present a blank document or an empty canvas without committing a political act. As soon as we create the label “art” pointing to any object in the world, context immediately imbues that object, that pointer, that label, and the system that binds them with the hue of politics. And Fetterley knows the stakes are high because “power is the issue in the politics of literature…to be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience…the endless division of self against self.” With narrative–no matter how seemingly blithe or low-brow, no matter if it comes with pew-pew bullets and cheat codes–the stakes are always high.
It is true that limiting authors to their own experiences might filter out a lot of harmful depictions of marginalized groups. After all, if narrative is one of the most dangerous disease vectors for hatred, it might seem reasonable to take CDC-like precautions. But we as a culture value freedom in the arts. We balk when we see censorious barriers put on the imagination and its expression. That is why instead of censorship, I believe in discussion. Instead of arguments, I believe in co-exploration. And art, including electronic narratives (a fancy term for “games with stories”), is a particularly fruitful ground on which to embark on those co-explorations.
When Eric first approached me with the reBERth project, the first thing that struck me was that he’d created a pan-vitalist mythos that wasn’t merely derivative. And to live and breathe inside that rich world, he’d created the character of Mel. He didn’t want her to be sexualized. He didn’t want her to be the sci-fi stereotype of the Super Strong Woman, the kind who has no dimension and is strong in a one-dimensional, masculine way. He didn’t want her to be an antiheroine. Instead, he wanted her to be one of those people who could confront tragedy while still maintaining a purity of heart through the strength of a loving family. We’ve defined “purity of heart” to mean moral conviction. In our conversations, something about Eric’s energy for this character and her Campbellian Hero(ine)’s Journey sparked my imagination. I began to feel that crucial feeling of creative co-ownership, of co-authoring, of co-exploration happening with the material. I know to never proceed with a project without that feeling, but when I have it, I can’t stop thinking about it. I began to feel confident that Mel wouldn’t just be a placeholder; yet another player’s Link not to the Past but to a game; yet another Platonically perfect and therefore featureless shape, like a sphere, on which we’d write our stereotypes. Instead, she would step into the world of Spira Firma with agency.
I now feel compelled to tell the story of Mel, her mother Medea, and her grandmother Sycora as I understand it. To me, they are manifestations of the triplicate goddess archetype, the Hecate, the Moirai or three Fates, complete with a maiden, a mother, and a crone. And yet they also feel like real individuals who go through the rupture of their family and must work, throughout the course of the game, to reunite once more. Mel’s incorruptible moral courage, her desire for everyone to be together and to be happy, her dedication to her family: all of it speaks to me. Her mother Medea’s fear that the universe’s infinite possibility is actually a crippling limitation to one’s course in life, and yet her contrapuntal drive to realize some ultimate goal strikes me as a very real existential crisis. Sycora’s desire to feel both the lightness of freedom that a long, accomplished life should earn her, and yet her desire to also take on the heavy burden of responsibility once more is something I think many people will identify with. I don’t believe that these characters are merely ornamental to the game. I don’t believe they are designated as female for the sake of acquiring narrative “flavor.” And so I find myself exploring not just their stories, but how their inner lives can be metaphorically represented in game design, in level elements, even in the code itself (the topic of a future blog post featuring Zeno’s Paradoxes).
While I work on these characters with the team, I certainly feel that hand wringing that even the likes of Junot Diaz feels. I worry about our collective blind spot. In our meetings, I try to adopt a zero-pretense approach and talk about the sexist and racist tropes I have replicated in my own work. I hope this will contribute to a safe space for us all to own up to our own prejudices, a space where having one’s work called sexist or racist doesn’t have to come with the connotation of “morally bad, close minded person.” But I still keep thinking about how unlikely men are to write good female characters, and I feel discouraged.
That is why I am grateful to have brilliant artists like Toni Morrison to lead the way. She tells us writers to “forget writing about what you know; write about what you don’t know.” Of course, when we do this, we must still adopt the humility of the outsider. We still must listen more than we speak, and we must write from the most vulnerable places within us to have any chance at success. And I am grateful to critics and artists like Anita Sarkeesian and Alison Bechdel, who have so clearly and succinctly given us guideposts to follow as we try to create experiences for people to enjoy, hopefully without their having to suspend their ethical sensibilities.
Because such an endeavor requires a daily recommitment to its core values, there is a near guarantee that we will make mistakes. When we do, I hope we will keep committing ourselves to listening to our collaborative critics and to fixing our missteps. And I certainly hope that if the reBERth project succeeds, we will expand our team such that it has a balance of gender and race, of perspective, of dimension. I hope it will be the kind of creative endeavor where narrative becomes not a disease vector for hatred but a medium for reinvention, empathy, and humanity–all those difficult things that so often benefit from the sugar-coating of an awesome game experience.