There’s a common misconception, or rather a misquote, this misquotation has been used in the title of this article, but it also changes the tone of an entire scene in a game. Often quoted “Your Princess is in another castle” from Toad to Mario at the end of a world in Super Mario Bros, the quote is in-fact “Our Princess is in another castle”. At first this misquote doesn’t make much difference, but then there is actually quite a large debate that could be had with the difference. “Your Princess” becomes “Our Princess”, initially this is taking the ownership of a female away from Mario and giving the Mushroom Kingdom their Princess back, the one that apparently still has living parents stopping her being queen. My point is depending on how you read ‘Your’ this rescue mission is either a control thing by Mario, or it’s a sign of true love. Which ever way you cut it Princess Peach was an awful role model in early video game history, the pixelated definition of a ‘Damsel in Distress’.
The problem is that I’m a white, middle class, late 20’s male who lives in a country, that despite having some money issues, is still considered first world. All of these things make it hard for me to vocalise when I see something right or wrong in the world but also in gaming. Being weak, mentally and physically, has a lot to do with it but also I struggle to muster the courage to speak out, again, positively or negatively. In gaming I grew up with the whole ‘damsel in distress’ agenda, there were pleasant diversions and ‘rule’ breakers like Samus in Metroid but on the most part we were taught that women were there for saving.
Over the years we were introduced to strong female leads like the obvious Lara Croft, potentially cashing in on the ‘Girl Power’ boom of the 90’s or as some may call it another gender equality period. Sure things were still crap, equality wasn’t really there, from sexism and abuse to differences in pay for similar jobs. We’re in the 21st century now and these are still issues. In gaming the waves of progression ebb and flow, one minute we’re introduced to a well-rounded female lead like Faith in Mirror’s Edge, and then a couple of years later we get Onechanbara: Bikini Samurai Squad. In my mind the real, genuine and consistent progression hasn’t been made in the lead characters of games, but in the supporting cast, where there used to be Damsels, we now have strong partners.
Uncharted falls either side of the line in terms of the strength of female cast. The writing is witty and strong throughout but the difference between the documentarian Elena, and Chloe, Drake’s former partner in crime, is grand. In the story the difference is justified, Elena spends her life behind the camera and not behind the firing pin on an AK-47. Chloe on the other hand has, from the stories told within the series, killed, stolen and slept her way around the world, building an emotional wall and a lack lustre fear of death.
I was recently told about the Bechdel Test, it’s basically an idea, formed in a comic strip in the 1980’s, that has progressed to the extent where many people use it as a classification system as to whether female characters in a film are well written, or rather, well-rounded characters. The basics for a well-rounded female character are:
1. The piece has to have at least two [named] women in it.
2. Who talk to each other.
3. About something besides the man.
To apply these rules to games is slightly more tricky than films, I am by no means discounting the writing talent and time involved, but different media requires different approaches. Chloe and Elena have a fair few conversations through the course of the series, they bicker, turn on Drake and once or twice nearly get on, but they’re never talking about something other than Drake, or the situation Drake has got them in. The issue is with games it’s harder to have the sidelines that you can in film, rarely do games go off topic or provide deeper content than what is happening. It is also hard in an action game to talk about something other than the main character as a) his name is on the box, and b) that is who the player is, they want to feel involved.
Enslaved came in to the world with a round of slightly better than average scores. A retelling of the classic Journey to the West story from China, the game saw the player as Monkey, a slave with muscles on his muscles, and Trip a lost girl wanting to get home. Trip traps Monkey in a slave band forcing him to do her bidding and escort her across a destroyed America, like The Last of Us only it’s a slave headband and not guilt causing the team up.
Trip’s progression was one of the first ‘Escort Games’ that I experienced and didn’t want to destroy. Her story and characterisation was a wonderful thing that provoked true emotions in the player, if they were willing to let themselves be absorbed by the fantastic writing. Trip was a strong female but not afraid to ask for help, this fine line is the perfect blend of Elena and Chloe from Uncharted. As this generation has gone on this technique for story telling that has produced some of the most highly acclaimed games of recent memory, the idea that the sidekick, or the ‘damsel’ can look after herself, but for one reason or another is stuck with the man. Rather than screaming from a tower we’ve progressed to a point where the situation is either mutually beneficial or there is a reluctance to the ‘damsel’.
Bioshock: Infinite did something special, it made the side kick almost integral to the gameplay as well as the story. No longer would we only experience the female cohort because the script required it, from day one Elizabeth was wired into the game to be something more than a mannequin that just watched you get seven shades knocked out of you, she got into the fights and aided the player throughout. In terms of story Elizabeth was more than just a character in the game, she was an extension of the player, if a game is well written the player should feel like they are the main character, not someone controlling the main character. Story, actions and processes should all match what the player would do. With Elizabeth, sure she got caught sometimes and Booker would need to rescue her, but she wasn’t just there to be saved, the thrust of Booker’s character wasn’t to save Elizabeth because she owned ovaries, it was because the emotions and the story required it.
Ellie from The Last of Us is the most interesting recent example of female cohorts in gaming. The Last of Us starts out as the traditional and tired arc of heroic man looking after girl, but through the course of the game you realise that whilst that is still present throughout, there is a change. It’s not because of her gender that Joel is helping Ellie trek across America to cure a disease, it’s his need to be a father figure and her lack of parental influence. Ellie as a partner is further proof that the rise in ‘escort mission games’ this generation is reaching its peak. Ellie isn’t afraid to get involved in a scrap, the constant presence of an equal both in terms of the story but also in ability is a refreshing change from the “Help me, Save Me” attitude of female sidekicks in games from the 90’s and early 2000’s. Ellie only got caught once in the game, by David, but Joel, the butch manly hero, didn’t actually save her, she did it all without the aid of the main character. The only time Ellie really needed saving throughout the whole game was due to her lack of swimming ability, again gender played no part.
The issue has been that much like cinema we’re used to one extreme or the other, the damsel in distress or the damsel who carries two 9mm’s and doesn’t take no back chat from men. Lara Croft has had to evolve with the times, the reboot showed the fact gender doesn’t matter, you shouldn’t have a well written man or woman, it should just be a well written character. And that’s all we’re looking for at the end of the day, a character that no matter the world, timeline or scenario, is a recognisable person whatever the gender.