I finally bought TowerFall Ascension for my PC even though I only have one actual game controller, and thus, wouldn’t be able to play against my roommates. Let’s be real—the multiplayer is the actual reason to play this game. But even in just single-player mode, I’ve been having a blast. The game’s fast-paced, fun, and very cleverly designed. It could easily stand on gameplay alone. But oh, what’s this? It has a diverse cast as well!
Let me be specific about what I mean by diverse in this case. With the “Dark World” expansion DLC installed, there are thirteen unique playable characters in TowerFall: nine main archers and four alternates that can be swapped in for specific archers.
In this cast of thirteen, there are six women, six men, and one canonically androgynous archer who uses they/them/their pronouns. Four of the archers are white, and a further four wear white face paint or have pure white skin, but there’s also three characters of color (and two undead characters of ambiguous race). There’s a disabled character. There are elderly characters. There are men wearing pink and women wearing bulky armor. There isn’t a single skimpy or sexualized outfit to be seen.
It’s absolutely fantastic.
The game’s developer, Matt Thorson of Matt Makes Games, has talked about his team’s conscious approach to character design, and actually credits Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency for their care in trying to create this diversity. In a Tumblr post detailing the alternate archers introduced in the “Dark World” expansion pack, Thorson wrote:
“Anita’s work has been an inspiration to the TowerFall team. Her “Tropes vs Women in Games” video series gave us a valuable new lens through which to assess our character designs. TowerFall is about bringing people together, so it’s vitally important that the cast of playable characters makes everyone feel invited to join in. Simply put, this wouldn’t have occurred to me if not for Anita, and feedback from players has reinforced how important it really is.”
The TowerFall dev team even went so far as to make the alternate blue archer look a lot like Sarkeesian—complete with hoop earrings and plaid—in recognition of her indirect impact on the game. What I love about this is … well, okay, there are about six things I love about this.
I love that Thorson and his team are listening to what a woman has to say about critiquing games. I love that they put her in the game as a tribute, and I love love love that they decided to put in the effort and change their approach to be more inclusive. But most of all, I love that they’re willing to talk about it. Thorson is on record saying that they reassessed their character designs to be more inclusive, thus trying to represent the needs of all gamers—not just some. This is something that other gamers will read, that other devs will read. It’s one more step in the right direction.
Thirteen unique characters, eighteen different archer designs. But here’s the curveball: there’s no gameplay difference at all between the characters. Unlike virtually any other fighting game I’ve played, and even most racing games, TowerFall offers the same gameplay experience to everyone who tries it, regardless of what character they play as. Who you play is purely a matter of personal preference, and even if you make your friend swap characters with you, they’re still going to be the only asshole at the party who can successfully grab arrows out of the air.
What’s funny is—as far as I can tell from the people I’ve talked to and from my own experience with the game—that giving all characters the same play style seems to have encouraged a fiercer loyalty from players to one particular archer, even more so than in games like Super Smash Bros. where play style varies wildly from character to character. I’ve already found myself playing almost exclusively as the Last of the Order, the blue archer. When I played the game with my brother and his roommates earlier this year, they’d all settled so firmly on their preferred characters that they’d printed out color images of each of them to tape to their doors. (Incidentally, race and gender was no bar to which characters they each identified with.)
In TowerFall gameplay, your character is little more than a pixelated blob of color with a bow. Your character’s skills are no better, worse, or even different from the others. And while there are names like “Last of the Order” and “Turncloak Soldier” that hint at an elaborate world and history, virtually none of this worldbuilding exists outside the game’s wiki. So why such attention to character design?
Because it matters. And the TowerFall dev team knows it matters, which is why they put the effort in. They understand that breaking long-standing norms about character design—be it in terms of gender, race, dress, or ability—is not something that just magically happens; it’s something that takes conscious time and effort on the part of the developers, but which comes with magnificent rewards. People want to play this game, and when they see themselves represented in it, they know that this game wants them to play it, too. I bought TowerFall for the gameplay. But it’s going to stay on my favorites list because of the characters, and the thought and care that went into making them.