Saucers of Mud

November 19, 2011

Bechdel-Testing the 2011 IFComp

A couple years ago, when I reviewed the 2009 IFComp, I Bechdel-tested it. That is, I asked of every work in it, does it have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? IF tends to have fewer conversations than a lot of other media, but it’s still illuminating to see how many — or how few — works meet the Bechdel test criteria.

(I don’t want to say “pass the Bechdel test” or “fail the Bechdel test” here, because I don’t want people to feel that their work is being judged. For me, the illuminating thing is how rarely the Bechdel test applies across a body of work, not whether it applies or doesn’t in one particular small work. So I’ll say “Bechdelian” or “non-Bechdelian.”)

Anyway, my memories may be hazy, but here’s the works that I recall as unambiguously Bechdelian:

The Play (Henrietta and Erica talk about the dress, in many playthroughs)
How Suzy Got Her Powers
Awake the Mighty Dread (I think the little-girl PC can talk to a robot queen or something; I couldn’t get much of a handle on this game)

There are some works that explicitly let you choose your protagonists’ gender, and are Bechdelian if you choose to play as a woman:

The Hours
A Comedy of Error Messages (I think; I didn’t play very much after the update that introduced gender selection)

There are some works where the PC’s gender isn’t specified, which would be Bechdelian if the PC is a woman:
The Ship of Whimsy
maaaaayyybe Playing Games (some members of the gaming club may be women, but the main NPC is definitely male)

There are some that probably fall into that category, but where I got a fairly strong vibe that the PC is male:
Taco Fiction
Beet the Devil

Yow. That’s not very Bechdelian, I think. I get the sense that last year’s Comp was more Bechdelian, and it certainly had more games by women (“Pam Comfite” is a man, so there are only four five games that I know to be by women in this comp). Disclaimer: There were a few games I didn’t play, my memories may not be entirely accurate (for instance, it’s possible that there’s a conversation between female bureaucratic demons in Beet the Devil), and some of my judgments about PC gender may reflect my own stereotypes and preconceptions.

In case you’re wondering about the gender-reversed version, I count at least ten games that definitely had conversations between men; all the ones listed above as conditional on the PC’s gender had conversations with male NPCs, and there are some others with a PC of unspecified gender that had conversations with male NPCs but not with female NPCs (for instance, Andromeda Awakening and Escape from Santaland).

[UPDATE: On second or third thought, this year wasn’t much worse than the previous two, I don’t think. It might just seem that way because the only two games where interaction between definitely female characters was really the focus were about little kids, and also had very similar scenarios. Last year The Blind House stuck out as a game that was about the relationship between two women, but there may not have been that many more Bechdelian games; though there are a lot of games from last year that I haven’t played.]


  1. I’m a little susprised that Cana According to Micah isn’t Bechdelian, but I guess Anna, Martha, and the three Marys never actually speak directly to each other. (There are many guest conversations you overhear, though, and concievably some of them could be among women…)

    I strongly considered making the protagonist of my game (Last Day of Summer) a girl (or a young woman), but I was a little uncomfortable about that for various reasons. I also considered having the greengrocer’s wife be a character, but that line of design never quite panned out. I was conscious of the flagrant non-Bechdelianness of my game, though, and I think making people conscious of it is most of the goal of the Test.

    Comment by dougorleans — November 19, 2011 @ 1:18 pm

  2. Well, as I said I’m not sure that Cana is non-Bechdelian, but like you I mostly remember the women talking to men.

    And you’re right about the purpose of the test, at least for me. It’s not to say that any individual game ought to include conversations between women; that would usually rule out works with a single male viewpoint character, which in IF would almost always rule out a defined male PC. (It might be relevant that the original test was about movies, which don’t have viewpoint characters in the way that fiction often does.) In a particular work like yours, there might be excellent reasons to make the protagonist male, or it just might be your vision. And I don’t think you needed any more characters. It’s that, when it’s hard to find a Bechdelian game, that sets off alarm bells.

    (Related: I have a game on the drawing board where a young woman needs to be rescued, and for one of the puzzles to work she has to be a young woman and has to be referred to in a somewhat objectifying fashion. The Damsel in Distress is such an obnoxious cliché that I’m going to make the PC a woman too, and so that game will be Bechdelian. But it’s not like I’ll be striking a great blow for feminism.)

    Looking forward to the explanation of the Great Hat Mystery! I assume that the Bartholomew Cubbins business is related to that?

    Comment by matt w — November 19, 2011 @ 1:50 pm

  3. I think the non-Bechdelian nature of the IF comp is primarily due to the gender imbalance of the authors. I don’t think it would necessarily be better if more male authors wrote female protagonists, but it would definitely be better if there were more female authors. (Not that female authors are always Bechdelian, but it’s a lot more likely.)

    The Cubbins references were only tangentially related to the meta-puzzle, in that the idea of a magic hat made me think of the Seuss book (which was my favorite when I was a kid). When I re-read it and noticed that it was also about a boy going to market alone (which I had already mostly settled on for my story), I thought it was too good a chance to pass up. If you squint, you can imagine Tolmy being the (great^n) grandfather of Bartholomew (which literally means “son of Tholomew/Ptolemy/Tolmay”), and the hat (which you can decorate with the feather pen) would become the first of the 500 Hats.

    Comment by dougorleans — November 19, 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  4. Definitely the gender imbalance of authors is the biggest concern here. But I still think it’s worth Bechdel-testing male author’s works; we all try to represent things outside of our experience, and if no one is trying to capture women’s experience except how it relates to men that’s telling. On the first hand again, a bunch of men telling women about what their lives are like isn’t ideal either. The Bechdel test usually works out OK for me, because I like writing women characters, but that may just mean that I’m That Guy who’s always playing elfen maidens. (I played The Hours as a woman, for instance.)

    I think the test can also serve as a way to nudge us out of our comfort zones; if no one else is writing Bechdelian games, then if you write a Bechdelian game you’re more likely to write something no one else is writing. Like, um, games about Australian girls playing hide-and-seek. And my “Distressed Damsel but you’re a lesbian!” idea also shows that it’s possible to do the same old thing with more women. But still, I think it’s worth thinking about.

    FWIW, of the five games by women in this comp:

    It was Bechdelian but not m-Bechdelian (that is, no conversations between men and in this case no male characters);
    The Play was both, though I remember the interaction between the definitely male NPCs as being more substantive than the interaction between the definitely female ones (and of course the PC is ambiguous);
    Beet the Devil and Tenth Plague were m-Bechdelian but not Bechdelian: I’m assuming the PC of BtD is male, and that I haven’t forgotten any conversations between female demons; the PC of Tenth Plague is ungendered, and I’m pretty sure two male NPCs talk about the steer (while if two female NPCs happen to talk to each other, it’s almost certainly about a male child);
    Vestiges is neither: PC is female, both NPCs are male I think.

    Which makes me think it’s not just the gender of the authors, since women aren’t having trouble writing male characters. What’s that line about how “It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them” — but not vice versa?

    Comment by matt w — November 20, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

  5. I’m happy to say that while the original Kerkerkruip made no statement about the PC’s gender, Kerkerkruip version 6 now has a 50% chance of having a female and 50% chance of having a male PC, making it Bechelian 50% of the time. :)

    Comment by Victor Gijsbers — October 28, 2012 @ 7:09 pm

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