Alex Epstein on Characters: Women NPCs are plot devices, Heroes are brooding ‘daddy figures’ #MIGS2013
This morning I sat in the Palais des Congrès room 519 at the Montréal International Games Summit. I was attending a seminar run by Alex Epstein from COMPULSION GAMES. The extraordinary A accompanied me, and we were thrilled to meet so many cool people!
When A and I went to Gamercamp two weekends ago in Toronto, we played a game called Contrast we’d found really interesting. The game essentially allows the player to switch between 2 dimensional and 3 dimensional worlds seamlessly. (Or almost!)
So when we heard a writer from COMPULSION GAMES, which had produced Contrast, was going to be giving a talk on interesting characters, character flaws, and character/player choices, we both scrambled to get to the talk.
The first warning sign should have been that other than A and myself, I could not spot more than 1 other woman in a room filled to the brim with developers, gamers, writers, designers, and artists.
Then the talk, titled Character Flaws and Choices: How to Engage Players Emotionally Without Alarming Your Producer, was trite, to my incredible disappointment. Epstein superficially trotted out every expected buzzwords, carelessly spilling spoilers left and right for games such as Mark of the Ninja and his own project, Contrast (a month before it’s commercial release!). At the end of a rambling talk, he answered every writerly question posed to him with the stock sentence “Show Don’t Tell”. When asked marketing questions, he answered that “Good reviews is something to strive for,” completely forgetting that critical and commercial successes don’t always go hand in hand in the indie video game world! The complete lack of nuance in those answers was a bit troubling. To top it off, he bitterly shared with his rather large audience his disappointment over Contrast. He’d wanted to give the players more narrative choices, but budget constraints had messed up his careful narrative intentions.
When asked for advice on how to get into the game writing industry, he said: “Be friends with Jason Della Rocca.” I'm sure Della Rocca is a very nice man (he is a Big Name Producer in the Montréal video game scene and beyond) but the answer was a little glib to a very serious question.
Oh, and like I mentioned in the title of this blog post, the only kinds of characters Epstein brought up were male “daddy” characters with lots of grumpy emotional baggage. NPCs were all young, female, childish. I had been under the impression the main character of Contrast was a woman acrobat, but he barely mentioned her at all. He said that the best uses of NPCs was to create emotional weights for the player, to create “emergent” relationships between NPCs and player characters that were fraught with complicated feelings, like the relationship between Catwoman and Batman, or the relationship between Judie Foster and her co-star Anthony Hopkins from Silence of the Lambs.
A and I walked out before the end of Q&A because we had had enough.
Despite having had an amazing feeling about Contrast from Gamercamp, I’m fairly sure I’m going to skip it when it comes out. I’m tired of daddy issues and young girl stories. And I was spoiled the ending anyways.
Note that in the original version of this blog post, I had "A"'s full first name and a link to her twitter account. I've removed both the first name and the link to the twitter account in order to conserve A's privacy!
Lana Polansky quoted this post in her piece for the Pixelles blog: "Men are from Earth, Women are Also from Earth".
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