The medium of video games has come a long way since its inception, maturing each step of the way through hardware and software advancement. From pixels to polygons, the stories that have been brought to life in the hands of the consumer have been allowed to flourish and realize their full potential in ways that it’s cousin, film, could not. Yet, just like the it’s non-interactive cousin, video game characters fall victim to many of the same tropes that we have seen on the silver screen: the straight white male hero, the token black character, the damsel in distress, and many others. There have been an abundance of games that heavily rely on a stereotypical female side character to motivate the player into continuing the story, rescuing her and saving the day as the credits role, just like an action film. However, while there are still a select few games being made today that use these tropes, the video game industry has seen a gradual push away from these old school caricatures over the past 25 years, embracing the female hero and shelving the damsel.
Super Mario 64
The Super Mario franchise has been a hit for Nintendo since its inception in 1985, and continues to be a massively popular entry into the current generation of consoles. However, the game’s entire storyline embodies the damsel in distress. As a pioneer of modern 3D gaming, Super Mario 64 was the game of many people’s childhood, yet it featured a rather stereotypical and simplified narrative: Peach, the princess, is captured by the bad turtle monster Bowser and is locked away in his castle, and it’s up to us, the male protagonist, to rescue her. Peach lacks any agency, and is completely powerless to defend herself in this world, completely relying on her male counterpart for all the heavy lifting, and she wears a pink dress with a crown, as if to embellish this idea of femininity to the player.
While Peach was stranded in her castle since 1985, a new character hit the gaming marketplace that same year, putting a new spin on the idea of women in games as we moved forward into the late 90’s. Tomb Raider was an action/adventure game that featured Lara Croft as the playable character, a young Indiana Jones in a woman’s body. Unlike Peach, she wasn’t waiting to be rescued, and the player had full agency over this female explorer. Yet, while this was a great leap forward, there was still some issues: Lara may have been an explorer, but taking one look at her character model on the cover revealed some obvious issues. As noted by Summers and Miller in their article “From Damsels in Distress to Sexy Superheroes”, Lara’s body is overtly sexualized, wrapped in tight revealing clothing that emphasizes her legs, butt, and breasts (Miller, 2014). The player can swing the camera around Lara’s body as she climbs certain ledges in a rather suggestive manner. While Eidos, the game developer, might have been taking a step forward with this new game and its protagonist, it was still relying on the image of a sexualized woman on their box art to sell their game.
Jumping forward ten years, the release of Bayonetta sparked a massive interest in video games and female characters, yet now in a slightly different light: like Lara Croft, Bayonetta was overtly sexualized, decked out in skin tight black leather, with more of her body being revealed after every successful combo being executed by the player. Yet while it may seem like a simple case of sexualized female characters, it may have proven to be the first step towards female liberation through subversion according to Amanda Phillips. In chapter 12 of her book, Queer Game Studies, she discusses how Bayonetta uses sex as her weapon in a male world as she fights to get her memories back, disrupting and tearing through the male dominated space with her aggressive femininity (Phillips, 2017).
An example mentioned in ‘Depictions of Female Protagonists in Digital Games’, is the role that Elizabeth plays in the videogame Bioshock infinite. The way she dresses is different from what most other female secondary characters wear, in that she dresses like 1912 America. But the role that she plays in-game is more of a support role, where she gives Booker, the main character, guns, coins, health potions, etc. She is one of the more important parts of the game itself later on, but at first it definitely seems like a damsel in distress. This trailer shows how the game is played for the majority of the story. Bioshock Infinite trailer.
The reason I have Luke and Leia as a comparison to Elizabeth and Booker, is because Leia and Elizabeth are pretty similar in a couple of ways. Both were damsels in distress, they both gave the male characters attitude when they were introduced, Leia made a joke about Luke’s height, and Elizabeth attacked Booker with 3 books. Even then, the gaming community was learning to stop over sexualizing the female characters, they just needed proper storylines/roles they could play.
The Last of Us
Another game from 2013 that was emerged as a hit, The Last of Us features a supporting character named Ellie, a teenage girl who is immune to the zombie virus that plagues their post apocalyptic world. Like Elizabeth in the Bioshock game, Ellie supports the main character with agency all her own, fighting off enemies for the player and being a team mate throughout the story. A unique aspect to this character was the complete lack of any sexualization through the entire story, as the developer Naughty Dog chose to focus clearly on building a father-daughter relationship through the main character Joel in a mature and respectful manner. Ellie is not an innocent girl who needs protecting, as she proves throughout the game. We do, however, see her sexuality explored in some additional story content, where she is revealed to be gay and how she explores this experience in a zombie infested world.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead
Another great example of change over the years, both in real life and in-game, is The Walking Dead’s character of Clementine. Clementine started out as a support character in Season One and got critical acclaim from many reviewers, the developers later adopting her as the main character for the rest of the seasons. She is African-American and Asian according to The Walking Dead Podcast, and can be seen tackling teen-related questions over the span of the games.
At the beginning of the series, she was 8-years-old and in protection of Lee, the main character of the game. Her personality started out traditionally feminine, even when cutting her hair short she stated “I’m going to look like a boy”. Looking at this back from Season Four, you can see that Clementine is more mature and understanding of the situation bestowed upon her. At 16-years-old, she has to take care of Alvin Jr., a 6-year-old kid, who lost his mother when he was born. The player also has the option of giving her a romance option for her character, as she was not interested in having a romantic relationship with anyone. In Season Four, she can romance Louis or Violet, both of which have a role to play depending on who you choose. Speaking of romance in video games, we also have tragedy embedded in some stories.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Sadie Adler is a perfect example of depicting a great female supporting character (with a potential for protagonist). She helps the gang during missions, has one of the more unique outlaw origins and is a vital part of the ending. The game doesn’t try to hide that she’s a female, she’s a widow who lost her husband in a house robbery where she hid in the cellar for days to avoid the same fate. Afterwards all she could think of is revenge, was taken under the wings of Dutch, the leader of the gang, and Arthur, the main character. Unlike Bioshock Infinite (Perreault, Jenkins & Morrison, 2018), her looks aren’t the only things that shift away from traditional emphasized femininity, her personality as well. Being determined, focused, and overall one of the more like-able supporting characters with visible change in attitude towards the end of the game, where at first she would strictly be a follower, by the end she would lead and take charge of Arthur.
The Last of Us Part II
A fair warning: I will be delving into minor spoiler for this game. Proceed with caution if you have not played it yet!
A game that has only been released in the past few weeks, The Last of Us Part II saw the return of Ellie, the character discussed earlier. While the game initially gives the player control of Ellie, the game offers a new playable character that turns the entire idea of emphasized femininity on it’s head. Abby is a woman who could be perceived as anything but feminine: she is heavily muscular, assertive in her speech, and aggressive – really aggressive. Abby, as the player, regularly physically dominates other people inside the world of the game, and is able to easily outmatch the men in the game physically. The game developers solidify her dominance early on in the first few hours of the game by having her kill a character that is dear to Ellie, driving both women on paths of revenge. The Last of Us Part II also continues to explore Ellie’s sexuality, as noted before, continuing to handle it in a mature and thoughtful way, without reverting either Abby or Ellie into any kind of feminine trope.
A quick glance at the pictures above can show you how video games seem to stay the same way they have for years, but if we dive in deeper, we can see a clear improvement on steering away from emphasized femininity and traditional gender roles. From making female protagonists, to stopping the damsel in distress trope, to giving them backstories similar, if not better than the ones given to the main character. Have all video games managed to steer away from emphasizing femininity? Not yet, but big titles are making a difference by setting the standard. If we can’t pressure the big companies to change their ideologies, the ideologies stay the same. With the spread and influence video games have on everyone, it will be one step close to deleting that line.
Knight, Gladys L. “Lara Croft.” Female Action Heroes: A Guide to Women in Comics, Video Games, Film, and Television, Greenwood Press, 2010, pp. 201-213. Gale eBooks, https://link-gale-com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/apps/doc/CX1763800024/GVRL?u=txshracd2598&sid=GVRL&xid=2cbbce41. Accessed 1 July 2020.
Lynch, T., Tompkins, J., van Driel, I., & Fritz, N. (2016). Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years: Female Game Characters across 31 Years. Journal of Communication, 66(4), 564–584. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12237
Phillips, Amanda. (2017). Welcome to My Fantasy Zone: Bayonetta and Queer Femme Disturbance (p. 109–). University of Minnesota Press. https://doi.org/10.5749/j.ctt1mtz7kr.15
Perreault, M., Perreault, G., Jenkins, J., & Morrison, A. (2018). Depictions of Female Protagonists in Digital Games: A Narrative Analysis of 2013 DICE Award-Winning Digital Games. Games and Culture, 13(8), 843–860. https://doi.org/10.1177/1555412016679584
Summers, A., & Miller, M. (2014). From Damsels in Distress to Sexy Superheroes: How the portrayal of sexism in video game magazines has changed in the last twenty years. Feminist Media Studies, 14(6), 1028–1040. https://doi.org/10.1080/14680777.2014.882371