The Damsel in Distress
I’ve been into video games since the late ’80s, when I had to play at my cousin’s house and hide the fact from my mother because “video games are for boys,” to the present day, where I can pull my plastic guitar out and pretend to be a rock star with my friends and a mixed drink. In that time, I’ve seen the genre, if not gender, change drastically. Just as television has morphed from the era of I Love Lucy and June Cleaver to Desperate Housewives and Marge Simpson, female video game characters have evolved from the hapless Princess Peach to parkour legend Faith Connors.
The first stop on our carousel of pixilated estrogen is Princess Peach from the Mario series. This pastel parasail-parading princess first pranced onto the scene in Super Mario Bros. in 1985. After spending the entire game “in another castle” the player who saves Peach is rewarded for the effort by a kiss on the cheek and a thank you.
Since then, Peach has appeared in over 40 games in the Mario Series. In most of these outings, this lovable member of the royal toadstool family is about a practical and useful as high-heeled flip-flops—however, as the Mario series branched away from adventure series to multi-player party games, Princess Peach became a playable character. Still, with moves such as “Group Hug” and dialogue like, “I love games with rainbows!” it was hard to take her seriously.
In recent years, Nintendo has copped on to Peach’s one-dimensional nature and even poked some fun at the archetype. Super Princess Peach for the Nintendo DS in debuted in 2006. In this version, the princess rescues Mario and Luigi from Browser.
I admit, when I met the regal pink princess when I was eight years old, I took one look at her and wrinkled my nose. Despite the gender gap, I found myself identifying with Luigi, the green-hued sidekick far more than the princess. While Peach and I have both matured over the years, I’ve never quite overcome my initial dislike for her vapid helplessness. Despite my personal prejudices, I think a quote from Mario Party 5 sums it up best: “Peach has come a long way since her early days as a perpetual hostage. She plays with the big boys these days, and she holds her own just fine!”
Our next stop is one that caters to the hormonally charged initial target demographic. We’ve all seen these nubile young women, gracing every form of commercialism. Let’s face it: sex sells, and video games are no exception.
The poster girl for this type of character is none other than tomb raiding Lara Croft. Since her debut in 1996 with a tool belt that hangs lower than her shorts and a gun-filled holster strapped to each shapely thigh, Lara’s physically impossible frame has been the toned butt of more jokes than Barbie. To be fair, I may have repeated most of those jokes.
Character creator Tony Gard attributes “a slip of the mouse” that increased her bust size from 150 percent of normal size to 250 percent. Before I point out, as a professional programmer, the completely reversible nature of “mouse slips” (oops!), let’s focus on the fact that she was originally intended to have a bust 150 percent of a normal-sized woman. Even without mistakes, they never meant for Lara to be remotely close to the genuine female form.
While Lara has never required rescuing by Italian plumbers, her strength of character has always been undermined by her front-mounted accessories. 2006 was a year of revolution for female pixels, and Lara herself was redesigned to slightly less ridiculous proportions.
When I first encountered Lara at age 14, I had yet to hit puberty. I saw the effect she had on my guy friends, who had recently become far more interesting, and I wanted to evoke that myself. With her guns and testosterone-attracting figure, I would have given anything to be Lara. Now that I’ve grown older, I’ve learned that it really isn’t that hard to duplicate the effect Ms. Croft inspired in my teenage friends—plus a guy is FAR less likely to get attacked by an undead creature while on a date with me.
The third female archetype is the androgynous character. Like the disembodied computer voice from Star Trek, other than the declarative “It’s a girl!” her gender really doesn’t impact her character.
As an iconic example of this genre I would like to direct your attention to the lovely Samus Aran from the Metroid series. Metroid hit the gaming scene in 1986, sending shockwaves through the gaming community with the surprise reveal of Samus’s gender at the end of the first game.
In some ways, Samus has always been a double-edged sword for pixels of the feminine persuasion. On one hand she’s a bad-ass, gun-toting, bounty hunter who served as one of the first female protagonist in a video game. On the other hand, her gender is such a small part of her character, that you remain completely unaware of it throughout an entire game. Samus remains one of the few characters that has never spoken in a video game, never giving her a voice to help add emotion or a sense of familiarity with the character.
In later games, after she’s been outed as a female, there are a few emotionally venerable moments where some of her femininity shows through, however, the same could be said for Snake of Metal Gear. (In Super Smash Bros., her character was given boob jiggle, swaying her slightly towards the fan service category.)
When I initially discovered that Samus was female, I remember feeling betrayed. Here was the first female heroine I’d been able to guide through a virtual world, and she didn’t even tell me until the end! Despite this sin of omission, I’ve come to realize that as a pioneer into the brave new world of video game heroine, Samus had to become a battle hardened Amazon in order to pave the way for heroines yet to come.
Our last archetype is the relative. RPGs (Role Playing Games) have been littered with these characters since day one, though they can be found in all video game genres. Generally these females have played minor, forgettable roles. I had to dig deep to find Naomi from Suikoden II as our iconic character for this archetype. The Suikoden series released in 1996, and spanning eleven games, has no dearth of characters. Each game includes 108 playable characters—some more memorable than others. In 1998, the plucky Naomi (or Nanami depending on the translation) featured heavily as the adopted sister of the protagonist.
Naomi embodies a fiercely protective personality that extends to several of the other characters. While she does have a schoolgirl’s crush on another strong character, she is afforded very little chance to pursue romantic interactions. While characters in the relative archetype are generally minor roles, I find that they tend to portray some of the most realistic female characters in video games.
Okay, Geeky you’ve introduced me to the ladies, and I’ve scoured the web for pictures of the fair Lara—what do I do now? Well now it’s time to fight the man! A growing trend in video gaming is allowing you to create your own digital representative. This places the direction of digital femininity directly in your hands. So pick up a controller, and create your own digital goddess. While you’re there, come look me up. I’ll be waiting in a castle, playing a dude in distress.