This week in our #PlayAs1 series, we hear from Ann Lemay, a writer on Mass Effect. She shares her story about creating a strong female character for the game:
The topic of diversity in games is one which comes up frequently among gamers and developers. To many, this often comes down to “Why is it such an issue to create diverse characters?”
When I first started at BioWare in the summer of 2011, a lot of the high-level narrative work for Omega had already been done. I was handed the story-concept document and asked for my thoughts on it. Something that stood out was the character of Nyreen. She was originally an asari and a local gang lord (leader of the Talons), with no particular relation to Aria or anything else to make her stand out. However, with a DLC (downloadable content) focused on Aria and therefore likely to lean strongly toward a more Renegade storyline, it occurred to me that we could introduce a much stronger character with a definite Paragon bent as a foil to Aria if we made Nyreen a turian instead. This also meant we would have not just one strong character with Aria, but a new, equally strong character with Nyreen—both of them women.
When I made the suggestion to Eric Chartrand, our lead designer in Montreal, he simply nodded pensively and told me he’d go ask about the availability of budget and time for an entirely new character design. The proposal implied the creation of an entirely new rig and model: an expensive undertaking, but the only way to introduce such an important character to the Mass Effect universe. The question made its way through management, and barely one week later, Nyreen Kandros was fully approved. I started working on her background and history with Neil Pollner and Eric's collaboration, while our concept artists started working on sketches of her.
In all of my years in the videogame industry, this request process was the simplest and smoothest I’d ever gone through, particularly for the creation of a significant female character. There had already been a great deal of foundation work done by a lot of people at BioWare beforehand, when it came to the creation of a female turian. With the budget set aside for Nyreen, everyone involved in her creation, from character concept to modelizing her to bringing her to life in game, threw themselves into the work with great enthusiasm and dedication. In doing this, we ended up with a DLC that, should the player choose to play as the female Commander Shepard, features a triumvirate of interesting, diverse, and powerful female characters. And it was never an issue.
Which is just as it should have been. The creation of Nyreen Kandros was an incredibly positive experience—not just for me as a woman, but for every single person in our team who worked on her and brought her to life, and for the fans who got to know her as well.
Creating diverse and engaging female characters—or any character that isn't both white and male—should not be such an issue. If we can move beyond the resistance to such characters in our games, both as non-player characters and as main protagonists, I honestly believe that we’ll end up with richer narratives and a broader audience, and the industry ends up with a bigger and more interesting playground.
It’s a win-win all around.