My parents treated me to a bowl cut and The Lion King after I told them who I was, so it meant a lot to me a few years later when Game Freak’s Pokémon Crystal respected my answer of “Girl” after asking my gender for my playthrough on my atomic purple Game Boy Color.
Pokémon Crystal marked the first time in the series that players had the ability to choose their gender, a tradition that has continued in the mainline role-playing titles since, including in the latest entries, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.
When Crystal was released worldwide in 2001, a lot of my friends paid little attention to the addition of Kris, the canonical name for the game’s female protagonist, but it was a really big deal to me. And in the time since I came out and accepted myself, I’ve learned from many other women that Pokémon Crystal and Kris impacted them greatly too, allowing us to finally see ourselves in a video game and on our very own Pokémon adventure.
Now, 21 years later, it is comforting to see game studios pushing and trying for better representation in all gaming spaces, both physical and pixelated. Inspired by my own memories of Kris in Pokémon Crystal, I spoke to four individuals in the game industry about their experiences designing for gender inclusivity, and how their own experiences playing games have affected their approach to their work.
Iasmin Omar Ata has their hands in games, comics, sound effects, live 2D animation and some of the most incredible Sonic art I have ever seen. They are also the creator of Mis(h)adra, a graphic novel that “vividly depicts the daily life of an Arab-American epileptic named Isaac.”
Iasmin, who typically goes by their handle Delta, shared that they “didn’t really see a lot of nonbinary or non-gender expression” in media and pop culture, especially during the most formative times of their life.
It wasn’t until 2000’s Final Fantasy IX was released that they were finally able to see a non-gendered character (Quina Quen) in a video game. And like most trans people, Iasmin described the experience of seeing themselves represented on screen as a big deal.
“Some people laughed about it at the time,” Delta shared before adding, “but after a few years, people looked back on it and started going, ‘Oh, that’s actually really cool.’
“The character’s name and pronouns aren’t spoken, and this is also before ‘they’ and ‘them’ were really commonly in use as nonbinary terms. The character’s name [in the game] is just listed as ‘S/He,’ and I loved that.
“Even just having a character where you don’t have to have pronouns can just really make a difference,” they added, before saying that these days, the change seems to mostly be coming from the independent side of the game industry.
2064: Read Only Memories is the first game Delta played where they were able to choose their pronouns.
“It blew my mind. It made me realize, ‘Oh, this is a thing people can do. People just choose not to.’”
Games can often be a medium where players can explore themselves and their gender expression, particularly in titles where you’re able to create your own character, but this can also be true when creating and engaging with written work as well, as Delta learned with their graphic novel.
“When I was creating Mis(h)adra, I decided to make the character different from myself. It allowed me to try these different things while also still putting it out into the world. It was just so rewarding.”
In the years since starting their work in animation, writing, and creating characters, Delta has learned an important lesson. They have a graphic novel coming out next year called Nayra and the Djinn where their editor left them an encouraging note about making a second Djinn character as nonbinary: “Why don’t you just do that for the second character? You don’t have to stop at one.”
“I learned you don’t have to ask for permission first to represent yourself,” Delta shared with me, before continuing, “Now I just leave the character as no-gender, nonbinary, and sent it in.”
We ended our talk by geeking out over BOSSGAME: The Final Boss Is My Heart, a game starring two lesbian witches that had greatly impacted me as a trans lesbian due to its inclusion of that experience. Delta then surprised me by sharing that they had helped do some work on the game, including an illustration (Anna and Dawn with fireworks!) in the end credits.
I then spoke to Lily Valeen, the developer of BOSSGAME, and learned she has the same criticism that I have of Fire Emblem in general and Fire Emblem: Three Houses in particular.
“Fire Emblem is a notoriously straight franchise,” she said. “I want to pick a woman to play as, but I also want to hook my character up with the hot butch — but I can’t do that.”
I first spoke to Valeen after playing BOSSGAME, telling her how much it meant to see myself in a game. In our interview for this article, she assured me: “There’s no version of BOSSGAME where Anna and Sophie aren’t lesbians. It’s just so tied to the story.”
In creating BOSSGAME, Valeen said she found it was actually really freeing to design a game that she knew was always for a small and specific audience.
“I’m going to make this obnoxiously, embarrassingly queer story,” she said. “I’m going to make this whole game about a trans woman going on adventures with her witch girlfriend.”
She also opened up about dealing with guilt over taking up space in this world, and how women are often made to feel smaller or lesser. That became a major theme of BOSSGAME: “I as a person am allowed to take up space in this world, and so I wanted to deal with the guilt of what it feels like taking up too much space […] and the guilt that comes with expressing your needs.”
Maura Peterson, art director at Serenity Forge, spoke to me about our shared love of Kris in Pokémon Crystal. We grew up playing a lot of the same games, thanks to her older brothers passing down their copies of titles like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit, and Cool Boarders. But then, one day, she cleared a save file on Pokémon Crystal and chose a different character sprite than any of her brothers. Like me and many other girls, she chose Kris.
Peterson’s education has included art history, which has also informed her approach and how she sees other art. This included the difference in something being classified as nude or pornographic.
“There’s always some kind of interjected projection of the male gaze on things. And I think, where you can — especially in games, because, you know, it is an art medium — you can still have a sexualized female character. But you need to say something. It needs to mean something.”
What does that look like, according to Peterson? She explained with an example: a painting called Olympia by Édouard Manet.
“So there’s a painting by by Manet called Olympia, which depicts a sex worker. She’s kind of laying on her side and stuff. And she’s wearing high heels and has a pearl necklace on. But it was very challenging at the time, because it kind of parodied a lot of old Renaissance paintings that were pornographic. [The paintings] that old dudes hung up in their bedchambers. […] But [in Manet’s Olympia], she’s looking you right in the eye. She’s, like, challenging you. And I think that’s the difference between, you know, sexualizing a character and then having a character who’s sexual but empowered and saying something.”
Maura continued by saying the thing that’s on every woman’s mind when we finally get to be a playable female character and the hero: “Those are the types of things that I find really inspiring as a woman, because I can put myself into those shoes and play as this awesome character. It’s almost like the counterpart of — I don’t know, like how the men always got their over-masculine war heroes. And now I can fuck up a bunch of monsters, and it’s great.”
“Gender has always informed my approach to gaming” is how Emily Pitcher, director at Sondering Studio, started our conversation. And it was clear throughout.
In her time streaming on Twitch in college, she experienced racism, sexism, and other invalidating responses — an experience that many women, and women of color especially, can no doubt relate to.
Pitcher also experienced obstacles during her time working on AAA video games, sometimes in less visible ways, such as women being discouraged from participating, from applying for new roles or promotions, or from speaking up while in the room.
That’s why she decided to focus her energy into the indie side of the industry, where she could make an even bigger difference, while pushing for bigger and better diversity and gender inclusion. She’s grateful for resources like Code Coven, which has empowered her and which she believes can do the same for other women and marginalized people seeking to make their way into the industry.
Pitcher is really active on TikTok, using the Sondering Studio account to provide resources and inspiration for the next generation of developers and leaders in the industry: “TikTok has really empowered me to share my experience and connect. At the end of the day, I’m a girl in her bedroom making weird games.”
A Taste of the Past is the first game from Sondering Studio. The game stars a Chinese girl, which already set it apart from most other games, but Pitcher has even bigger plans for her studio’s follow-up. It will also feature a Chinese girl and, in Pitcher’s words, “flawed but strong female characters.” She says that we can have more flawed characters if we let more diversity in the room.
It’s easier for characters to seem human if they can be flawed, but who wants to make the only queer character evil, foolish, or even just clumsy on their feet? With more voices involved in the creation process and more representation of different identities in media, every character can feel more human and real, regardless of their gender, sexuality, or other traits.
Pitcher and I also spoke about how there’s often less money to be made in creating art for the sake of authenticity, but how it’s worth it for the message, the meaning, and the art itself.
“It can be conflicting making emotional, heartfelt games,” said Pitcher, “but we’re not compromising on our creative vision, even if chasing trends is a more guaranteed success.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the follow-up game from Sondering Studio.