Thank You Mario, But Our Princess is in Another Castle
Anyone that has played games since the early days of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) will be very familiar with that phrase. It’s Women’s History Month here in the US so we are thinking about the role of women in games but we wish we could celebrate diversity in gaming year round. In the Super Mario Bros game, Mario (and his brother Luigi) has to battle through the Mushroom Kingdom in order to save Princess Toadstool. Not only is the princess helpless enough to get kidnapped by the antagonist, Bowser, but she entrusts her rescue to a plumber who goes to seven wrong castles before eventually finding her! In fact, the princess, who has her name changed to Peach, is kidnapped at least a dozen more times in subsequent games. Mario is no stranger to saving the fairer sex either, as he already had to rescue his girlfriend, Pauline, from the clutches of Donkey Kong a few years earlier.
The whole damsel in distress trope is not just a favorite in gaming, but other media as well. Movies have been portraying women as fragile beings who can only be saved by the chiseled jawed hero for years. Although in most cases the clichéd “rescue the girl” plot is usually down to laziness instead of malice, it still causes a lot of female players to feel marginalized and excluded. One of the earliest games that dared to be different was Metroid, where the armor clad lead character reveals herself to be a woman when you complete the game. If you manage to finish the game in under an hour, she strips down to a skimpy, two piece bikini as a “reward”.
As technology improved and games were able to increase the visual quality, it was time for more realistic female characters to take the lead. Instead of just sitting back, waiting to be rescued, women could be the protagonists. The change didn’t happen overnight and some games sadly still portray women as objects instead of people. We don’t have a Bechdel test for games but it is probably time that we did as we see more “characters” with more character start gracing our screens as the protagonist (or antagonist, we aren’t biased).
Lara Croft has shed her image of the 90’s gaming sex symbol to a tough, but believable heroine that triumphs in the face of adversity for the new Tomb Raider reboot. Chell, the protagonist of the hit games Portal, and Portal 2, never utters a word, but outwits her AI nemesis, GlaDOS at every turn. Faith, from Mirror’s Edge, uses her agility and parkour skills to fight for freedom and save her sister. Ellie, from the triple A PS3 hit, The Last of Us, is only 14 years old, but shows an enviable amount of maturity and determination. Aveline de Grandpré, an African-French assassin from the game Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation is yet another example of a female lead in a traditionally male dominated series. These games all portray women as capable of fending for themselves, all while dressed as humans and not fantasy objects.
With games, especially Indie titles, exploring new ways of telling stories, and focusing on personal journeys, we will hopefully continue to see strong women step up to leading roles. Perhaps with more relatable women in games, instead of the skimpily dressed, teenage fantasy versions that are all too common, gaming can evolve into a more inclusive form of entertainment.