I’ve been playing some of the games from the 2009 IF Comp. These are text-adventure games, arty to various degrees, meant to be be judged in under two hours of play. The games can be found here. My reviews will be categorized under “IFComp.”
But this isn’t a review. Here I’m reflecting on the games I’ve played, or started (I haven’t played them all, and I won’t), by a simple measure: The Bechdel Test. The test, found here and discussed here (and other places), goes like this:
Does the work
(1) have two female characters
(2) who talk to each other
(3) about something besides a man?
It’s not always an entirely fair test for IF, for two reasons. One is that any work with a viewpoint character is going to have trouble if that character is male. (Though the character can observe a conversation between two women.) IF almost always has a viewpoint character, the PC, and if the PC is male then the game is usually hosed. Though there still could be conversations in cut scenes, or overheard conversations.
A second issue with the test is that conversations are hard to program, and many games don’t have much in the way of conversation. If the PC is the only character, the game will flunk on step (1).
A third issue is that the PC is often genderless, or whatever the player is. This really gets its own category — games that pass the test if the PC is a woman.
Fair to the medium or not, the disturbing thing about the test is how few works pass it, and by how narrow margins. It’s one thing for an individual work to have no conversations between female characters; it’s another thing when almost nothing does. Read this to see how pernicious that can be in Hollywood. Anyway, it’s interesting to see what passes and what doesn’t. There may be mild spoilers for the IFComp games after the break (there’s also a discussion of some of Emily Short’s games, though I don’t think it’s spoilery).
[UPDATE: Maybe I should say this more clearly: If your game doesn't pass the test, that's not a slam on your game. I realize that talk of "passing" and "flunking" makes it sound like flunking is a horrible thing, but lots of individual games have perfectly good reasons for not including conversations between two women. (Things are much different for movies and TV shows, which are third-person and generally have lots more conversations and characters.) I'm using the test to think about how gendered IF is as a whole, and maybe to start a conversation.]
Also, it should really be the Bechdel-Wallace Test, since apparently Alison Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace came up with it first.
One way of thinking of how hard it is for IF to pass this is that Emily Short is obviously concerned with feminism, and even more obviously concerned with conversation, and a lot of her games don’t pass it. Offhand, of the games I’ve played, Galatea, Floatpoint, Alabaster, and the When in Rome chapters have male PCs (though in Floatpoint the PC may witness a conversation among women that I didn’t get to) [UPDATE: Wait a minute, is the PC of Galatea actually IDed as male?]; Best of Three has a female PC talking to a man; Glass… it certainly has women talking to each other, though I think a man may always be present (not to mention the PC), but they’re basically talking about a man, aren’t they? Fugue definitely has conversations among women characters, but again about a man (this was part of a constraint not set by Emily). Metamorphoses has a female PC but no conversation in the main gameplay, but I think it may have a conversation that qualifies in one of the flashbacks. And this is not a shot at Emily at all; similarly, authors should not take it as a shot at themselves if I say their game doesn’t pass the test.
It’s another question which games pass the reverse-gendered Bechdel test (two men talking not about a woman). The same issues with conversation should arise there, so if more games pass the reverse test, well, maybe that says something. (FWIW, I think that Floatpoint and the first When in Rome chapter are the only games from the previous paragraph that meet the reverse test; though it may depend on what ending of Alabaster you get.)
OK, here’s my count — and I’m doing this mostly from memory, so I could be wrong:
Games that pass if the PC is female:
Beta Tester (definitely; can meet the reverse test if PC is male and you say xyzzy)
Earl Grey (I think, and just barely — I didn’t get to the end in my own playing, but it’s my understanding from the transcript that a female NPC or two shows up; even then, the PC doesn’t have much dialogue with them; definitely meets the reverse test if PC is male)
Games with female PCs that pass (neither meets the reverse test):
Broken Legs (in a big way — I’ve done three turns and there may be more conversation between women in this game than in the rest put together)
Snowquest (just barely; the PC talks to a woman for a bit in the dream sequence, but all the other NPCs are male)
Rover’s Day Out (there is one scene where the female PC is talking to someone of unknown gender; another scene, well, is complicated, but there’s a man in the room and the conversation may be about something male-identified)
GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! (I don’t think the PC is gendered; neither is the guide, who talks; there are some female NPCs you interact with, though there are also male NPCs present; doesn’t meet the reverse test to any greater extent)
Games with male PCs:
The Duel That Spanned the Ages (there’s some conversation in cutscenes among characters whose gender I don’t know; on the other hand, they’re talking about the male PC so it probably doesn’t pass anyway; meets the reverse test)
Condemned (as I mentioned I didn’t get far into this; I understand there are conversations with male PCs later, though they may or may not be about a girl so it may not meet the reverse test; it’s possible that two female NPCs talk to each other)
Interface (meets the reverse test)
The Grand Quest (meets the reverse test)
The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man (I don’t think the PC talks to anyone, though I don’t know if NPCs talk to each other)
The Duel in the Snow (meets the reverse test, multiple ways)
Games with Genderless PCs that don’t pass the test:
Gleaming the Verb (no NPCs)
Byzantine Perspective (no NPCs)
Eruption (I think the PC is genderless; barely meets the reverse test if PC male)
Spelunker’s Quest (one NPC, identified as male, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say you don’t want to talk to him; there are some other genderless NPCs at the end but they basically don’t count, so it doesn’t meet the reverse test either)
…and I think those are all the ones I’ve played. So, a maximum of six out of these sixteen games pass the Bechdel test, which is more than I expected; but some of them pass it by the skin of their last two lines. Only one of sixteen games seems to have substantial conversation between women (girls, I guess). Using the more liberal criterion, nine of the sixteen games have male-male conversation not about women, and four have substantial male-male conversation not about women (probably five if I’d finished Condemned, and six if the PC in Earl Grey is male).
This set of games does seem a bit tilted toward the male — not much surprise there, especially since only two or maybe three of the authors are women. (I’m not making any judgments about the gender of “Utkonos,” which appears to be Russian for “platypus.” I am making a judgment about the gender of “bloodbath.”) Let me know if I’ve made any mistakes or about the games I haven’t tried.