Sometime back around 2000 or 2001, my mom bought me the Game Boy Color remake edition of Dragon Quest 3. This was a big event for me: it was my first exposure to Dragon Quest, one of my favorite RPG series, and it was my first “T” rated game, were I was first exposed to saucy subject matter like Akira Toriyama’s love of girls in bunny suits (which DQ3 practically had as an entire job class devoted to, called a Gadabout) and the fan revered “puff puff” service. Yet the biggest aspect of DQ3 on the GBC for me was unintentionally picking a female lead. See, the probably seven year old me thought that I was picking my weight class, misinterpreting “M” as medium instead of male and “F” as fat instead of female. So here I was, at party with a beefy warrior, a stocky fighter, a pretty thief, all male, who dwarfed their female hero leader by a foot.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned my character was female, a concept I found cool as I was playing this small woman who commanded orders to these three big male adventures; empowering if you think about it.
Let’s talk about gender selection in videogames, as I’ve got something on my mind.
Character gender selection to me has its strongest ties to RPGs, with simulation games coming in second. Since the main character is usual meant to represent the player’s avatar, a player’s gender is an important means of visual distinction. Often, gender selection is simply aesthetic, like my earlier example with DQ3, its sequel DQ4, and most of the Pokémon games. A pre-construct male or female choice where your silent-protagonist self-insert has little bearing on the story but to play along (well, unless you are like me where playing DQ4 as a girl changed the narrative to “How High Fantasy Lunch from Dragon Ball Saved the World from Evil”).
Further character customization, even going far enough to choose different species, still often only speaks to the aesthetics. I don’t remember Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic ever hinting at the beginning of character creation that making Revan a foxy lady meant getting a stat boost to force lightening and toxic resistance. For a solely fighting game example, the character customization in the later Soul Calibur games did let me make a short and skinny lady who fought with Nightmare’s behemoth Soul Edge. Awesome yes, but it was at the expense of the series’ historically minded 16th-17th realistic setting… a setting that thought it necessary to let that alien thing Necrid exist. In fact, since character creation works on its own plane of wish-fulfillment, it’s hard for it to have any real bearing on the world around it.
Gender selection sometimes changes certain outcomes and prospects in a game. I’ve written before about Harvest Moon on the Game Boy, noteworthy solely for its introduction of a female choice. This later meant crafting an equal amount of eligible bachelors to contrast Harvest Moon’s original aspect of flirting and marrying an eligible bachelorette. For a more recent example of picking gender means picking a new set of people to date, Harvest Moon’s more interesting to me when spin-off Rune Factory finally incorporated the choice to date half-monster lads instead of just half-monster ladies with last year’s Rune Factory 4.
The biggest examples of gender selection changing the story outcome are games with selectable already existing characters. Games like Persona 3 Portable, the never released over in the U.S. (save for a few spin-off exceptions) game series Summon Night, and the most recent Tales of game Tales of Xillia. Yet even these games don’t allow your selected gender to undergo much change throughout the entire game (especially from what I have heard of Xillia, whose difference is at best a few cut scenes). When I think gender selection equating to total changed gameplay, the only combat example that comes to mind is the choice between the oddly jacked gladiator boy or the acrobatic mage girl (or hard mode, as I called it) in Sword of Mana on the GBA. You know the one, right? The game as a kid you thought was connected to Secret of Mana, instead of just being a Final Fantasy Gaiden remake.
If we get down to it, getting to construct who you play as in a video game makes them no longer an individual character, but simply you. It can let us tell the game world, “Hey, we need some gender diversity in here”, but only as a nice nod to ones’ self. Think about it. I started up God Eater Burst for the PSP wanting to stand out, but my preferred selection of girl with tan skin only worked to stop fellow dark skinned soldier Soma from being the only non-pasty on the team. My character never grew as a person; no progressed character arcs like getting over a lost loved one or learning they’re not the hottest shit in the world. Nope, I got to be a mute who communicated through hand and head gestures, whose sole backstory was that I became a soldier simply from lack of funds. Would I have gained anything different from System Shock 2 if my human embodiment of a swinging sledge hammer was female? Odds are, it wouldn’t have changed how well I could hack a security camera or research how best to bludgeon a military bot with an alien crystal.
I feel gender selection in videogames can provide great visual and internal agency, letting me have a short girl heroine lead a pack of boy warriors into a dungeon. But, it comes at the expense of getting to lead and observe a character with the potential to actually develop and grow past just being the world’s savior.