Most recently I’ve written on PopMatters about a very, very, very, very troubling game called Expeditions Conquistador (PopMatters. Feb 18 2013) (it’s wonderfully designed, but more about why it’s so troubling is somewhere in the pipeline, I have a feeling I’ll be writing about that game for a while) and a more general article about why the “damsel in distress” trope is so problematic in games (“Searching for the Other Castle: Women as Objectives.” PopMatters. Feb 19 2013).). My problem with the trope is that it reduces women not just to an object for consumption, but to an abstract objective to desire. She becomes a figure to desire only to dissolve once she’s obtained.
It can be frustrating to hear a plea for better female characters when people like me (and people unlike me) always seem to find something to complain about regarding the way that femininity is mistreated in games. The trouble is that even in all the “good” women characters the tendency is to base them off the “princess in the castle” motif in some way. Yes, every text is unique and tropes are slightly altered every time they appear, but that the trope keeps reappearing even in the most committed efforts to avoid it is frustrating.
Zelda is always pushed into the margins and pacified: no matter how much the game tries to prop her up as a vital element of the world’s stability, she eventually gets locked up. In the few times when she has any competence, the game tears her down—often out of nowhere—so Link has an excuse to rescue her. Probably the best instance occurs in Ocarina of Time, when she resists Ganondorf’s rule for seven years, only to become helpless just in time for Link to be the hero, as Brendan Main writes:
Once Link conquers the penultimate dungeon, Sheik reveals himself as Zelda, returning to her original form. Mere seconds later, as if on cue, she is snatched up again and imprisoned in crystal. The message could not be clearer: Sheik may be free to roam the world, but Zelda belongs under glass. (“Dude Looks Like a Lady“, The Escapist, 6 October 2009)
No matter how capable most female characters seem, they often fall back into the same trappings.
Likewise, Princess Rosa of Final Fantasy IV abandons her castle when the king accuses her lover, Cecil, of treason. She gives up an astoundingly comfortable life because the idea that Cecil could betray his kingdom after years of loyal service to his king and surrogate father is preposterous. She, quite reasonably, suspects a conspiracy and escapes to investigate the matter further. She tracks down Cecil herself, over mountains, rivers and deserts to hear his side of the story because she can’t believe the version she was given. From this we see that Rosa is an independent and critical thinker. We see that she loves and trusts Cecil more than the kingdom that is starting to show signs of rot. She’s clever enough to know deceit when she sees it and brave enough to investigate it further. But when Cecil meets Rosa, she’s inert and comatose. The player has to hunt down a cure for her mysterious disease because she’s a princess and she needs to fall into the role of objective at some point.
Even the badass action girl is often riddled with problems (“Analysis/Action Girl.” TVtropes.). Even with ostensibly competent women, there’s an attempt to make them something to want. Play well enough and you get to see Samus in her underwear, to bring Lara Croft into modern video game storytelling she needs to become something that needs to be protected, Chell is fully capable but one of her best features is that she remains completely and politely silent. Many women characters end up falling back into something to want rather than someone to be or even someone players can sympathize with.
Again, it’s not that there aren’t any good female characters, or even that the problematic cases don’t offer anything valuable. There are many great female characters, usually in games filled with great characters in general to interact with. But after wilfully walking into the “princess in another” castle trap for so long, it’s not unreasonable to ask that a more effort be put into portraying women characters as people rather than high scores to shoot for.
Further reading: Jay. “The representation of women in video games.” Games and Things. Mar 13 2013.
Mellbye-Stølen, Helene. “Feeble or foxy: the portrayal of women in video games.” Straight to Video Games. May 6 2013.
Lange, Amanda. “Samus is Slowly Shrinking.” Second Truth. Sep 13 2010.