It was a dark and stormy night. (Actually, it was midday and only a bit overcast.) I’d handed the Xbox controller over to Paige, my sister and fellow FemHype cohort, asking her to choose our next game from the list on sale. As a seasoned Portal 2 enthusiast, I wasn’t altogether surprised when she went with The Cave. I was looking forward to watching her playthrough, as this was a game from the team who made Broken Age and Psychonauts, but I certainly wasn’t expecting any transformative revelations. Let the record show that I was so far from wrong, I could’ve been excavating a tomb.
The Cave is a puzzle-platform/adventure that features some of the most complex, “strong” women I’ve ever met in a game. If you’re wondering how, exactly, to write lady characters, look no further! Please note that none of these suggestions will be applicable if your characters don’t meet the following minimum requirements, partly inspired by “The Maggie Test” (a video game reimagining of The Bechdel Test). These include, but are not limited to:
Okay! Now that we got the prerequisites out of the way, let’s dig right into what defines a complex (i.e. “strong”) lady character and why The Cave seems to effortlessly feature them in spades.
Romance isn’t bad, but it absolutely cannot be the driving force behind the women you’re portraying. They were presumably living real lives before the Generic Dudebro #588 met them. What’s the driving force behind all their decisions? How far would they go to achieve what they want? What are the clear dealbreakers for them if their goal is threatened? If your answer is that they would sacrifice everything for love, then … I’m afraid I can’t help you. Let’s go make some hot cocoa instead.
Nothing exemplifies this tip more than The Adventurer’s story, which is fraught with danger at every turn on her quest to obtain an ancient artifact. At first, you might think her ambition was simply too much for her fellow excavators to handle. Perhaps she pushed them too hard or the stress of their failures was what broke up their little group. But as you drag the prize out of the tomb—a glittering, gleaming sarcophagus—you realize with dawning horror what sacrifice The Adventurer is about to make in order to keep her find. She flattens a fellow explorer and former teammate on spikes. Ouch.
None of us are perfect, but that’s what makes us interesting and unique as people. Why, then, do we always assign personality traits based on the gender binary? Assertive, for example, is a word rarely used to compliment women. Decisive, objective, and logical aren’t used to describe women at all, and that’s kind of frightening. Never forget that the author of Game of Thrones has a better grasp on this than most: “You know, I’ve always considered women to be people.”
This is a common theme with every character in The Cave, but I found the Time Traveler’s story to be the most surprising—and, more than that, it was the most successfully executed. When a woman is portrayed as feeling jealousy, it’s almost always due to the presence of another woman. For the Time Traveler, her envy was shaped by a job she felt she rightfully deserved, but was passed over in favor for some pretty clear nepotism (as in, generations worth of it). She pursues that position with single-minded determination, letting the fire of that jealousy fuel her frankly astounding creativity.
Like the suggestion above, this one might come as a surprise to some. Isn’t the lady character created to provide balance to the emotionally wrecked hero? Uh, no. Please slam dunk that concept right into the trash. Not all of our carefully laid plans pan out the way we want them to, and not every success that comes our way works out, either. Even a decision made with the best intentions can turn to a hurricane of Nope pretty fast.
For me, this was best represented in The Scientist’s storyline. Her painstaking research and desire to do good in the world met a very real, very unfortunate roadblock: funding. Despite all the accolades from peers in her industry, The Scientist couldn’t achieve any of her ambitious dreams without partnering with the highest bidder—who then, quite literally, weaponized her work. Naturally, corporate greed began to shape and reform her as a person, just as it does for most people. The Scientist gave up part of her humanity for the greater good, which would cost billions of lives.
Too often (particularly in video games), the bad boy with a terrible past is given passes for all his awful behavior. Meanwhile, any woman within a five-mile radius is sent to the ninth circle of hell the second she steps foot out of the presumed, completely manufactured line. Does she show too much skin? She’s an irredeemable villain who dies at the halfway point. Is she too naive? Most of the plot will center around her kidnapping, which you must save her from before it’s too late.
The thing that stuck with me about The Twins was that both the boy and the girl are literally depicted on equal footing. They help and support each other throughout The Cave, confronting and overcoming every challenge as a team. What makes this truly refreshing is that they also must share the burden of their journey together. As The Twins set in motion a monstrous plot, so too must they both pay the price for their plan. This isn’t a pretty story by any means, and by the end, they end up poisoned right along with their parents. It was horrifying, sadistic, and I loved watching every minute of it.
This is, perhaps, the most important suggestion of all. Sticking to the status quo isn’t really an option anymore. These days, the gaming industry is completely saturated with newer and newer titles, so you can’t really afford to box your characters up into neat little tropes. It’s time to toss out all of those preconceived notions about gender and take the risk of jumping onto that rolling minecart. Your audience will appreciate any attempt to tell unique, surprising stories about characters who are too often passed over in favor of the generic.
If The Cave can manage this, so can you! Give those characters permission to grow—and to teach you about the world through their unique experiences.