Cosmic Star Heroine and the risks (and rewards) of having a female hero in an RPG
The industry is actively hostile to games with female leads. Remember Me had trouble finding a publisher due to its female lead, and games with female heroes rarely sell… although they’re also rarely given much of an advertising budget. When Zeboyd Games announced its latest game, Cosmic Star Heroine, the game’s hero also received attention due to her gender.
I spoke with Robert Boyd, one half of Zeboyd games, to talk about the decision to make the hero female, the resistance they’ve encountered from gamers, and what this means for the game moving forward.
A long time coming
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“Actually, the first RPG I ever designed had a female lead - Molly the Witch in RainbowDespair, which later transformed into Molly the Were-Zompire in the text-based game of the same name, also a playable cameo character in one of the bonus modes in Cthulhu Saves the World, so it's always been at the back of my head to try that again in a game that was more grounded and less parody-based,” Robert Boyd said. “I'm sure the fact that I have four daughters or that one of my gaming heroes growing up was Roberta Williams from Sierra On-line have nothing to do with this.”
And then the negative messages started coming in. The support for the game has well outpaced the skepticism, but the messages about the female hero were interesting.
“Playing Lunar as a kid, I think I really loved the game for its sense of adventure. I also felt like I could relate to Alex (protag) and the pursuit of his dreams as a teenager,” a poster on NeoGAF wrote. “Not sure I can get that same degree of empathy with a female protagonist. I enjoyed the Cthulhu games from Zeboyd, playing as an alien had a charming humor to it. Guess I'll wait and see, but I don't think I'll be backing this game.”
“I hope the option for a male protagonist is a stretch goal, even if its just a mustache and cowboy hat on the female sprite tongue in cheek like, I'd be all for that,” another stated. “I love Zeboyd’s style but i couldn't play as a female character and immerse like in their prior games.”
I asked Boyd about the negative messages. “I honestly was a little surprised that there would be any backlash since I had been talking about having a female lead for quite some time,” he said. “I think a few people like to project themselves into a game's lead and find it easier to do that with someone of the same gender.
“However, I don't think this is a problem for most people. And honestly, female gamers, and readers, and movie-goers, are constantly being asked to identify with male heroes; have you ever heard a female gamer say that she won't play a game just because the lead isn't female? I haven't.”
There are no plans to change the sex of the character, nor are these complaints doing anything to change the design of the game.
“And it's not like our game is the first RPG to feature a female lead - in fact, one of the earliest big Sega RPG series, Phantasy Star, featured a female lead, and it's no secret that the Phantasy Star series is one of the inspirations for Cosmic Star Heroine,” Boyd said.
“And that's hardly the only RPG with a female lead - the Final Fantasy series, Wild Arms series, Parasite Eve series, Valkyrie Profile series, Trails in the Sky series, and Atelier series are just a few of the noteworthy RPG series to have multiple games with a female protagonist. In any case, since RPGs frequently focus heavily on characters & their development, it would be downright ridiculous for the genre to not have games with female protagonists since that's cutting out half the population.”
In fact, Boyd said some people complained that the game was getting support simply due to the fact the hero is a woman, as if her design and backstory was a stunt. Despite all of this talk, both positive and negative, they're sticking with their ideal hero, even if past games are seen to have been hurt due to having female heroes.
“So no, we have no intention of changing the main character of Cosmic Star Heroine and no, we do not think it will hurt the game financially,” he said.
“I'd love to see this industry reach a stage of maturity where the idea that a game won't sell just because it doesn't feature a generic guy or hyper-sexualized and mostly naked female was treated with the scorn it deserves,” he finished. “And the only way we're going to reach that stage is if more games are released with strong, well-designed female protagonists.”
Disclosure: Zeboyd Games has worked with Penny Arcade on the company's own game series.