Okay, that title may be a little over dramatic, but the want to reference Scott Pilgrim was too strong.
What happens when you take the already existing gloom and doom of games, and inject a little social commentary involving gender equality?
That’s a red explosive barrel just waiting to be shot at, by a desperate party trying to tame the beast that is comprehension.
Anita Sarkeesian made waves a year ago when she announced she was going to do a KickStarter for a video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. After I had heard about her work, through an excessive amount of hype and shouting matches, I looked up some of her earlier videos involving movie and general media critique. I was quite entertained by her musings, and was further challenged by notions of sexism I had taken for granted. Fun Education is the reason I game.
Anyways, a lot of her older videos can be found here, if you want further back ground. I recommend them, as they are satisfying views for anyone who enjoys their social commentary as much as their pop-culture. My favorite happens to be Anita’s mention of the Bechdel Test, which I was previously unfamiliar with.
Her recent slew of videos deals with the rather male dominated focus of video games, and the tropes that they employ in objectifying women. She has only released one video thus far, which will be the one I’m focusing on for the remainder of this article. If you wish to be better equipped to enjoy the subject material discussed, I suggest you take a look as well. I also wish to point out the basic sentiment in which Anita contextualizes her analysis further: “Just to be clear, I’m not saying that all games that use the Damsel in Distress as a plot device are automatically sexist, or have no value…but it’s undeniable that popular culture is a powerful influence in our lives, and the Damsel in Distress Trope as a recurring trend does help to normalize extremely toxic, patronizing, and paternalistic attitudes about women.”
For the record, I find the entire dialogue of gender equality in video games fascinating. I also believe Anita deserves some respect, in return for respecting what I hold so dearly, which is why I come to you today, dear gamer, in spreading the word on the gaming street.
So with an open mind, and a good sense of humor in hand, let us begin.
Her first video, focuses on the Damsel in Distress trope, which is a massively popular story device used in all forms of media. The trope has also existed since practically the beginning of Video Games. The tropes relevance is quite high, and this aspect of basic gaming narrative still exists, and does so within some of the most popular titles in the gaming universe.
Firstly, while the chief focus on the Damsel trope video involves Peach and Zelda, Anita covers the history of the trope, which has existed far longer than video games. Even longer than modern day media for that matter. She even references some of the earliest examples dating all the way back to Greek Mythology. Needless to say, this plot device has been around the block…several thousand times over. Video Games were just the next technological step for it’s abuse, once again repeating the process anew from the very beginning.
Beyond the brief history lesson, I was very interested in Anita focusing on Dinosaur Planet, which later became known as Star Fox Adventures. Interested only because of the rather small blip the game represented within gaming. I understand the titles mention despite this, as the example frames rather well the dis-empowerment of the female character Crystal, as the game through out development shifted focus from a female to male character lead, leading to her becoming the damsel in a sad twist.
While she showcases how easily, and even in a small scale instance, how often women are reduced to an over sexualized role to play in video games, I can’t help but point out this game had much bigger issues. As in, all of the personalities came off as weak, and non of them felt truly empowered. This might have to do with even the returning crew of the Star Fox team, feeling like far cry deviations from their previously charming incarnations. Skewed characters existing in a rather shallow world.
All of this was a result of how weak the title felt top to bottom, as the whole games was a forced product from a company who was racing to reach a deadline.
This doesn’t contradict Anita’s point, however, though it helps to contextualize the game’s standards. The fact that a Star Fox game wasn’t even a vehicle based rails shooter to begin with, already spelled massive trouble. Getting a good game premise down, and having interesting design ethic will always come before possessing a positive social commentary, and a game that struggles to do the first two within mediocrity is positively doomed on the third account.
In the end, time and money effected how easily Nintendo perceived they could sell the product, and due to vast demographic issues at the time, the female lead was cast aside as a non-viable option for sales success. This happens to be the case for a lot of video games gone bad, and that’s the time and money issue. I can’t say I’m happy about such good concepts becoming muddled in the financial aspects of gaming business, but this is an unfortunate commonality in pitting Art against Business.
Losing a positive female message is just one of many excuses made for the almighty dollar, and lends itself to a regular offender of my Theory vs. Execution debate within Video Games as a whole, and how good ideas sometimes come up short with a bad final product. Keeping in mind the questionable quality of Star Fox Adventures, I rephrase my point of a once positive female message being muddled by mediocrity. Feminine ideals can mean little if misplaced in the wrong spectrum of attention, and further, may lose impact all together, if mismatched with the basic failings of video game development as a whole.
Ironically, Crystal does become a member of the Star Fox team in later titles, which is a premise that lent itself to future successful Star Fox games. Ones that were far more positively reviewed. Perhaps, if Star Fox Adventures wasn’t clouded in development doom as a vapor ware title, a Crystal focused Adventures would have done far better than SFA ended up doing…which wasn’t that well at all, frankly.
As a summation, I agree with Sarkeesian that the game’s odd tone and gender flip, did indeed negatively impact the title, perhaps more so than most of us could ever realize. My only qualm is that the game was clearly struggling to meet ends meat as it was, and brings into question how important the genders were to begin with. If a game sucks to begin with, no one is going to be playing it, anyways, and any positive social imagery is lost among the poor quality.
In an alternative universe, had Crystal starred in Adventures, would the game still have been developed poorly, and turned out to be the rather unrefined mess that it was?
I’d be surprised if it turned out worse.
For any of you who have indeed, watched Anita’s first video, you will fast realize I only covered about five minutes of it’s entire twenty minute length. My initial goal was to make a commentary on the entire video, but I ended up, surprisingly so, just as fascinated with Crystal’s fall as Anita was. Considering this article is 100 miles long converted into internet length, I’m going to wrap this up as part one, and give you guys the rest in another two parts throughout the week. I’ll be looking more directly at Peach as the Premier Damsel, and than, taking it upon myself to admire Zelda’s better qualities.
(To be Continued)
Next two parts can be found here: