Last week, I was watching the latest episode of Once Upon a Time, in which the heroine ends up in a dungeon and awesomes her way out, meeting the incoming dashing hero and telling him that nobody rescues her except her. It highlighted an aspect of the show that I hadn’t really considered before. For a show about classic fairy tales that typically regard princesses as things to be kidnapped and rescued, it’s more or less stayed away from the damsel in distress trope and it hasn’t cost it a thing. Are you listening, video games?
Given the current social climate and the general tiredness of that particular cliché, you’d think this concept would have caught on in gaming even before Anita Sarkeesian found a way for somebody with no interest in video games to make a goddamn fortune exploiting female gamers’ political insecurities without adding anything of actual value to the community herself, but no. We’ve been so bad about this for so long that’s it has come to that point. Time to handle our business like adults.
And no, I’m not here to declare that the pursuit of freeing captured females as a sinister conspiracy theory hatched by the Patriarchy, Illuminati, Freemasons, Whitey, or the Legion of Doom to keep our sisters enslaved. I’m here to say what we already know: that video games are girls’ fun too and more games should reflect that.
I realize that with old-school game graphics, it was pretty hard to tell a compelling story. The simplest way to explain why you were doing what you were doing is have the big bad carry off a vaguely feminine-looking object which you would naturally need to rescue by jumping and climbing ladders and such. It’s simple. It worked. It gave the boys being wowed by these new toys called video games something to strive for.
But now it’s 2014. Women make up nearly half of the gaming populace and over half of the overall population in places like America, Europe, and Japan. They are literally the largest demographic in most of the gaming world, and they remain largely untapped. Traditional video game concepts usually mean male characters doing awesome things like shooting and punching stuff and generally being ridiculous power fantasies. I’m not against that. We all love a great power fantasy.
In keeping with that concept, when you -the male hero- get captured by the bad guys, how does it go? What do you do? Do you wait around for somebody to get you out or do you just kick so much ass that you cannot be contained? Exactly. Odds are, if you get locked in a prison in real life you aren’t going anywhere, but video games invariably give us a way to get out. Providing you are the almost-always male protagonist, that is.
The point is that there’s no good reason why we should expect that a female video game character wouldn’t have the same capabilities. It’s just weak storytelling. It’s been done over and over and it seldom adds anything interesting to the storyline. The general mentality has not progressed beyond that first generation mindset that you just need to have a chick to rescue and there’s your excuse to go kill stuff.
But gaming is better than that now. Or it could be. Easily. I’m not saying no female characters can ever get kidnapped again, but at this point it needs to be both integral to the plot and done much, much better. Or, here’s an idea: how about somebody kidnaps a MALE character and a female protagonist rescues him? Did I just blow you brains out the back of your head or what? Men like to be seen as manly, manly men and see other manly men do manly things. They apparently don’t like or expect to see men be unmanly. Seeing men be unmanly makes them feel less manly and how can a manly man be manly when he feels less than manly? Or something.
By this logic, are women expected to feel like prisoners because they’ve been subjected to story upon story where that’s what their gender representatives are reduced to? Gaming is a blank slate where we can create anything and anyone. It’s a place for silly fantasy and awesomeness and good times for anyone who wants them. I don’t see the possible upside of alienating or reducing the enjoyment of that experience for a demographic of this size. With limitless creative possibilities in front of us, why would we ever choose to be so lame and unoriginal?
Fiction has its tropes, of course, and damseling has always been one of the most leaned-upon to create drama. I get that. But I also get that seeing the same thing over and over again is the exact definition of boring. Can we not just kick virtual ass in order to stop bad guys from doing bad stuff? Do we even need a reason all the time?
I kind of love that the 8-bit indie game Hotline Miami just has you as a guy who gets phone calls instructing you (via creative euphemism) to go somewhere and kill everyone there. Why are you doing this? Because you’re playing a video game and the game tells you what to do. That’s how it works. That’s actually how it’s always worked, regardless of how they’ve dressed it up. This refreshing simplicity highlights the intent of gaming as a thing you do for fun just because you can. No damsels necessary.
And guys, women are our mothers, sisters, daughters, significant others, aunts, grandmas, coworkers, and friends. Respect is mandatory. Females aren’t invaders from another planet trying to ruin your Call of Duty game by making the matches about kissy fights with Justin Beiber as the soundtrack. They’re just fellow gamers trying to game. Being an asshole doesn’t assert your manliness; just your assholeness. Not a soul is impressed, I promise you. You can better assert your manliness by being mature enough to give and receive respect.
Gaming is growing up as a medium for entertainment, art, and even social interaction, but this appears to be a big hurdle left to clear. But it will get cleared, one way or another. The Last of Us essentially attempted to trick male gamers by easing us into playing as an awesome female character and enjoying it. After hours playing as the zombie-killing gruff man’s man, Joel, the big guy goes down, leaving his game-long escort mission charge, Ellie, in the driver’s seat.
Where were all of those gamers whining about not wanting to play as a girl while Ellie was stalking adult male raiders with bow and arrow and slitting throats? LOVING IT. Why? Because the game did a great job of drawing you into the story and, more importantly, the character. Joel needed Ellie to save him; you needed Ellie to save Joel. And you were now Ellie. Was that so bad? In the DLC, you played as Ellie and when the inevitable sequel comes, I doubt there will be any resistance to Ellie taking the lead right from the get-go. Thanks, Naughty Dog.
The clear answer to kicking this habit is better-written female characters. When a woman is properly developed in her own identity, it actually feels like a robbery to have her get nabbed. The Witcher 2 is an example of this. When you spend the first half of the game in the company of a kickass sorceress and suddenly she’s kidnapped and gone from the game just because the writers couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything more interesting, it’s more annoying than anything else. It felt like a damn waste of a character. Hopefully with better characterizations, game developers and players are going to start to pick up on that and find better uses for female NPC’s as well as more female protagonists.
So yeah, I’m going to say we are not only ready to bid farewell to damsels in distress as an overused story trope, but we’re long overdue. It’s probably only a matter of time before women attain positions of power in gaming, take over the industry from within, and show us that we can get along just fine without reducing female characters to personality-free archetype trophies to be awarded to successful masculine protagonists.
Gaming is not (and should never be) just boys’ fun and while the female gender on the whole may prize character development and world-building above killing things in the nastiest way possible, I don’t see that as a problem. There’s room for everybody and I’m afraid we’ve hogged the couch for too long, guys. Time to scoot over and give the ladies a turn. You might be surprised by how good they can be.