Dr Cathy Gale and Cmdr Jane Shepard

Video games are regularly criticised for their depiction of women. All too often female characters are simply over-endowed, empty-headed eye-candy; there to be gawped at or act as the swooning love interest for the muscle-bound heroes.

I guess it’s not really that surprising. Video games as a medium are still in their infancy. The majority of titles are, at their heart, action-adventures aimed at a largely male audience. Strong female characters weren’t exactly a feature of many “blockbuster” action-adventure films back in the day.

In fact current video game writing reminds me very much of the James Bond films of the sixties and early seventies especially when looking at the way female characters and ethnic groups are treated. You could probably write a whole article comparing elements of the recent Resident Evil 5 game with the 1973 Bond film Live and Let Die.

So how can we develop and write strong female characters? How can we lift videogame writing out of the 1960s? Strangely enough a trip back to the 1960s could be what’s needed. A journey back in time to look at an old TV programme, originally broadcast in black & white in the United Kingdom called The Avengers.

You’re probably familiar with the name but hopefully not just from the absolutely awful 1998 Movie. I’m talking now about the original Avengers series, the long-running “spy-fi” show that started back in 1961.

Originally envisaged as a vehicle for British actor Ian Hendry it quickly became more of a double-act with two male leads; the stereotypically English, bowler-hat wearing super-sleuth John Steed (played by Patrick Macnee) and Hendry’s idealistic medical practitioner Dr David Keel.

Actress Honor Blackman (who’ll be more familiar to James Bond fans as “Pussy Galore”) came onboard The Avengers in its second season. She played widowed anthropologist Dr Cathy Gale, one of several irregular replacements for the departing David Keel character and due to her popularity with the viewers, quickly became the only permanent co-star in the third series of the programme.

Cathy Gale was a complete breath of fresh air, blowing away the other stereotypical female characters depicted on British TV at the time. She was intelligent, independent and quick-witted. She was skilled in martial arts and actually a fair bit older than supporting actresses on typical action-adventure shows. Yes she was fond of wearing tight-fitting leather but even that costume decision was a practical necessity (due to the large number of stunts and fight sequences Blackman was required to take part in).

Cathy Gale held her own with Steed. She was very much his equal on every level. Yes there was some flirting between the two, but you got the impression that she always had the measure of him. She was the perfect example of a strong female character and both Gale and Blackman were huge hits with the British public.

So, how did the Cathy Gale character manage to break the mould and defy the usual stereotypes of the genre? Cathy Gale’s strength is rumoured to have come from the fact that many of her early scripts had been originally written for Dr David Keel. Honor Blackman was basically given the chance to play a role equal to that of a man because she was literally taking on the mantle of the male lead. Cathy Gale had the same importance to the stories and the show that Ian Hendry’s male character originally had.

So what’s a character from a fairly obscure 1960s TV show got to do with modern video games? Well, I think Cathy Gale is a good blueprint for developers looking to create strong female characters. In fact, I’ve already come across characters that have been created in a similar manner.

Some of my favourite gaming women have featured in titles from the Canadian-based RPG developers Bioware. Games like Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and Mass Effect featured plenty of strong, interesting female characters that had a real role in the story and played an integral part in your adventure.

But one of the most important, and defining, features of Bioware’s games is that they give the player the chance to actually cast a woman in the lead role. My Commander Shepard in Mass Effect is female. She’s a three-dimension, believable character. She’s intelligent, strong, assertive and professional; sensitive to the feelings of others but determined to get the job done. There is no doubt that Jane Shepard is just as good at saving the universe as John Shepard.

Whether it’s Mass Effect, Jade Empire or The Knights of the Old Republic, Bioware’s games treat the male and female protagonists equally. They give them the same sort of options, freedoms and influence in the game world. Yes, they do speak the same basic lines (although there are some differences in the story and their relationships) but the female leads never come across as mere re-skins of their male counterparts. Part of the reason is, I think, that Bioware casts talented voice artists in the roles and really lets them bring the dialogue to life.

So developers… here’s my suggestion. If you’re having problems writing good, strong female characters then try taking a leaf out of The Avengers’ book. Write a decent, realistic, believable human being. Then cast a good female actor in the role. It’s not a bad way to start.

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One Response to “Dr Cathy Gale and Cmdr Jane Shepard”

  1. Fantastic article, Strident, with some really impressive points. Not only did it give me plenty of food for thought, I’m now feeling really nostalgic for the old re-runs of The Avengers – I loved that show.

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