This past week, Anita Sarkeesian’s third installment of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series was released, launching yet another fleet of comment threads across the internet about how wrong she is about everything and how she scammed Kickstarter and so on and so forth.
Once you wade past all that, I’ve found her videos so far, all three parts focusing on “Damsels in Distress” in video games, to be rather fascinating. To sum up the hour’s worth of videos to date, it’s not that the act of rescuing a princess by itself is necessarily evil, it’s the fact that it’s been used for basis of hundreds of games over the years, and still persists to this day. Women in these types of damsel games are objects that are kidnapped, imprisoned or outright butchered to create conflict for the male hero. Saving a girl from such a fate once is alright, but to have it be the plot of a seemingly infinite amount of games is a problem with the industry.
This third video finally had a few examples of games Sarkeesian thinks represent women well, even if they are few and far between. She likes Beyond Good and Evil, Braid and Monkey Island, which have damsel aspects to them, but are twists on the idea that don’t make women appear to be helpless objects. Also in this video, Sarkeesian even comes up with her own concept for a reverse damsel game where a princess waiting to be rescued engineers her own escape, dons some armor plating, and takes the hurt to the bad guys herself.
I’m curious to see what’s going to happen as the series moves out of damsel territory and into other tropes. I’m sure there will be a multi-part segment on the sexualized representation of girls in games, but I want to hear what other games Sarkeesian think portray women well presently, even if there aren’t all that many.
It is hard to think of many women in games who haven’t been damselized or sexualized to annoying degrees over the years. You have Samus, the badass alien-killer in power armor now stripped of her plating and squeezed into a skintight bodysuit. You have the tomboyish Lightning of Final Fantasy XIII now starring in a quasi-sequel where the designers are most excited about her now skimpy outfits and boob jiggle physics.
In my own experience, there are female leads in games that have really made a lasting, positive impression on me. Unfortunately, I had to create them myself.
I’m talking about a pair of series here, Mass Effect and Saints Row. Both games allow you to create your own character, and in both, I created a female leading lady for at least one of my playthroughs. Characters in both games can be any race, any gender, allowing for a diverse palette of hero options you simply don’t see in most games that lack this feature. Honestly, I made two woman in these games, a blonde in Mass Effect and an Indian woman in Saints Row, because if I was given the choice, I wasn’t going to purposefully play yet another grizzled white male character in a game.
Now I’m not some politically correct tool who is trying to assemble the United Nations of video game characters with my hero design. Rather, I’m genuinely tired of playing the exact same sort of protagonist in almost every other title I boot up. For a guy like me, this allows diversity of play. For a girl, it allows them to play as a hero that vaguely resembles them for a change, rather than just controlling another white guy like me.
Creating a character allows you to connect with them in a way you don’t with premade heroes in games. When you’re given a character, like say, Joel in The Last of Us, you’re playing his story. When you’ve made the character yourself, it feels more like you’re playing your own story, and that’s a lot of reason these two female leads have worked so well.
The other thing about these create-a-character titles is that no matter what gender or race you chose, the dialogue is almost exactly the same. The writers had to write for just a strong lead character, not produce completely separate scripts for both men and women. Sure, in Mass Effect you’ll have different romance options and in Saints Row you’ll occasionally say something like “damn I chipped a nail!” but for the most part, these roles are written without the sort of tropes that normally plague women in video games.
An example of this in pop culture is Alien, where all the roles were written for the characters themselves, not for the gender of the characters. Ripley’s role could have easily been filled by that of a man, and that’s how it was written. The end result was just a badass collection of characters, free from preconceived notions of how men or women specifically should act due to their gender. (Though the film may lose a few feminist points for Ripley’s cotton underwear scene in the finale).
The point is that for better or worse, I’ve found the best written female characters in gaming to be in games like these, where your character is a badass without it really mattering what their gender is. In Mass Effect, my female Shepard can be a kind-hearted savior or a merciless hardass, and there’s no jiggle physics or slinky costumes to be found. Saints Row is a much different type of series, and you can indeed make your female character prance around in a string bikini holding a pair of submachine guns over her double-Ds. But to be fair, you can also make her an obese Latina woman, a rail thin black woman or an 80 year old tiny white lady wearing Samurai armor. But no matter which you choose, your leader of the Saints will kick ass and almost never get caught up in tropes herself, even if the game she stars in has more strippers and sex toys than the entirety of Las Vegas.
I don’t think this is how it should be. I think there should be female characters that are specifically written as female, but also empowered, strong, multi-dimensional and all the other adjectives we normally associate with our grizzled white male leads. There are a few, sure, but again, there’s an obvious, massive imbalance that no amount of YouTube trolls can wish away. It’s just the reality of the industry, and I think that Sarkeesian is doing a great job shining a light on the issues facing women in game. No, she’s not 100% right all the time, and not every example she uses works, but her videos are overwhelmingly enlightening, as is the backlash she’s received because of them.