We need to talk about the character designs in Wildstar.
We need to talk about the character designs in all science fiction and fantasy franchises that feature non-humans.
Wildstar is a science-fiction MMO currently in beta, developed by Carbine Studios. The general thrust of Wildstar is something along the lines of Firefly, Star Wars, and Ratchet & Clank; not exactly a grimdark sci-fi thriller. The mechanical features look interesting and the art style, in and of itself, is really vivid—but what they’re doing within the style?
The NDA dropped on a bunch of Wildstar content and character creation videos are up. You can watch them all, but here I’m just going to focus on the Granok, Draken, and Mechari.
Before I even start: races in fantasy and science fiction come from a tradition wherein non-white peoples have frequently been rendered as fantastical caricatures of themselves, particularly, though not exclusively, by transposing elements of culture, language, and appearance onto an otherwise totally non-human species. It’s an easy shorthand: coming up with races totally dissimilar from human beings is difficult—we like to imagine other species as exaggerated versions of ourselves. The problem with this is that we get things like “savage,” orcs, “exotic” elves, etc. Can this work? It can—but only if you really, really sell it, and really, really work your ass off to make round characters, and really, really avoid all the gross, squicky stuff like, well, “pillaging,” barbarians.
Furthermore, basing fantasy and sci-fi races on human biology is to take a myopic view of science, especially when the latter genre bills itself as the “literature of ideas.” When races are based on humans, that usually means big, buff, hairy men, and thin, hourglass-shaped, hairless (except up top!) women. This is a failing on two counts—it parrots a view of human anatomy that has been designed over a span of short, recent history by white, primarily male, Western European media persons and advertisers.
Secondly—and even more importantly—human anatomical differences are a subset of primate morphology, which is a subset of mammal morphology, which is a subset of animal morphology. Most male primates are larger than female primates. This is not, however, the rule among mammal species—which break more evenly with notable exceptions (blue whales, for example, trend larger among females)—and once we’re out of mammals, the rest of the animal kingdom is the patent reverse—females are usually larger and more adorned!
(peach tree borers mating; male top, female bottom)
“Sexual dimorphism: is a phenotypic difference between males and females of the same species, meaning that there are obvious differences between the male and female of the species. Examples include differences in morphology, size, ornamentation and behavior.”
And to assume—dispensing totally with the outdated model of human design as has been sold to us by a Western advertising machine—that women of even the human race could never, ever compete on the level of men, or that structurally, “The ‘generic’ model of male/female is a fair choice,” I present as counterpoint a collection of Olympic athletes from a variety of different sports.
Frankly, the division between male/female human peak physical condition is a scant sliver. So why do we still insist on mapping alien morphology to the human species, when realism is a nonexistent excuse?
Well, female objectification, basically.
These are the Granok. They are a silicon-based lifeform. They appear to be two totally different animals.
First, the good: the skull structures match. The faces are expressive. The crystal-beards and floral hair—more on this in a moment—look good.
But the bone structure! They are as divergent as anglerfish—but not for any reason except that the female Granok had to appear as shapely as possible. Why, precisely, does a species of silicon-based lifeforms have breasts? Are we to assume that Granok lactate? That Granok have mammary glands? Could it be that Granok breasts are only present for (straight, male) players to be mildly impressed by? (There’s a sentence no one’s ever typed before.)
Why does this species—a species composed of rock—have sexual dimorphism even more stark than mountain gorillas? What purpose does this serve? Come to think of it—why do the women have plant hair? It appears to be growing out of their skulls—so it must be parasitic. But this is a sentient species in a futuristic setting, meaning that if it were a non-beneficial parasite, they’d have removed them. So are Granok-plants an example of resource-resource mutualistic symbiosis? Wouldn’t the males then also cultivate plant-hair? Why is it gender-segregated?
"Who cares about the plant hair!?" The reason I went on that tangent is because of the tonal dissonance presented by the morphology of both genders. Tone in character design is about consistency. A failure in one sector—particularly a glaring one such the granok overall structure, invites further questions as the whole facade of the suspension of disbelief breaks down. The circus tent begins to collapse. Rock boobs.
Let’s turn to the Draken.
What is even going on here? Aside from the skin color and general horn design, these appear to be two species of a related genus that evolved under separate conditions on completely different continents. The bone structure is even more starkly differentiated than that of the Granok. The male’s leg and back muscles would look totally different than the female’s under an MRI scanner. His stoop is incredibly pronounced, while the female spine bends in the opposite direction. The male uses his much thicker tail to help him maintain balance—the female tail appears to have evolved past the point of being especially useful in motility. Unless draken men and women were separated from one another for millions of years, this would not have happened.
The draken are, supposedly, not a reptile species, though they have reptilian features, and, according to an interview, give birth to live offspring. Viviparity (live young), however, is not a feature of mammals alone. Over one hundred reptile lineages are viviparous, as well as some amphibians and cartilaginous fish. So are the draken reptiles? No? Are they mammals? Woops, there’s the breasts problem again. Do the draken even need breasts? There’s a panel question I’m guessing no one on the Wildstar team would be pleased to answer. But since we’re doing the verbal gymnastics to explain the fact that the draken women look like supermodels in Cheetara cosplay—why? Why does this live-bearing possibly xeno-reptilian species have mammary glands?
Look, did it again: when the tone of the subject is broken, you invite all sorts of questions you wouldn’t normally have to suffer.
Here are the Charr from Guild Wars 2.
Good gracious! Look! Sexual dimorphism grounded in realism and function! The female has backwards facing horns and more useful dentition, whereas the male has more “adorned” teeth and horns. This tells us that both features are holdovers from early charr ancestors—women evolved to handle hunting and actual combat, while males evolved elaborate, intimidating facial structures to impress women and scare competing males.
And the whole effect comes together so well—is so tonally consistent—that I’m not nitpicking at first glance.
Oh, and here is the robot race from Wildstar, the Mechari.
I think this one speaks for itself.
In conclusion: female objectification—especially in fantastic and fictional settings—for the purposes of supposed market returns (which is what this is), is not only economically unsound and ethically dodgy, but also betrays a blatant misunderstanding—even twisting—of science, biology, and realism. It is, at best, a lack of imagination and a lack of imagination commingling, and, at worst, a blatantly sexist decision that alienates potential players and makes your product look damn silly.