Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency series has amazing influence for someone who’s simply doing what so many have done before — making videos about about their opinions on books, TV, film and video games. She’s been invited to speak at Bungie, won the GDC Ambassador award and has literally millions of views on her videos.
Even people who have been criticized in her work — including Anthony Burch, Joss Whedon and Tim Schafer — have listened and encouraged their followers to take note, while Saints Row creative Director Steve Jaros has said, “I actually think [Tropes vs. Women creator Anita Sarkeesian’s] right in this case” when a video was critical of an aspect of the game.
I can understand why: the videos do a good job of demonstrating the existence of, and exploring the implications of, some pernicious storytelling trends across the medium. However, I hear from devs I meet, particularly younger student devs just starting out, that it’s hard to look at them and know what the answer is. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing — there’s no reason writing good characters or making great games should be easy and simple, these things can require a lot of thought and design for good reason — but I thought I’d go into depth about the design lessons I think her videos offer.
A basic principle of game design is that players learn about things in the game world by seeing how the player character interacts with them, and vice versa. “Interactive storytelling gets all of its power from the sense that you’re inside a story you can affect,” says game writer Tom Bissell. I’d argue it also gets power from the sense you’re in a story where other characters/things could affect you, where you don’t have the safety of the fourth wall.
The creators of Journey talked about the same thing, how they created a game for people to understand each other through play:
“Our focus is on the connections between two strangers on the Internet,” Jenova Chen stated. “You notice there’s no name tags or anything, because we want to keep it just at a level of interaction between two humans. You don’t even need to know whether this is a guy or girl … this game is more about a genuine connection that communicates through actions, through gameplay.”
Likewise, in Bioshock Infinite, when Ken Levine wanted the player to understand Elizabeth better, they made her interact with everything around her, in order to humanise her:
“In terms of making her likeable, the challenge is you have to write her well,” he said. “That’s hard to do. How do you make somebody likeable? You write characters and you try to make a good character you like.
“But also, we determined early on making her your partner in the experience, not just an observer, her throwing you weapons and supplies, to make the player feel she is there for them, not either a burden, somebody you protect, or a parallel, like a kill-stealer, which quite a lot of AIs do.”
“So we had to seed the world with things she was interested in and things she could interact with. We had to seed her with various emotional states that are primarily an overlay on the animation she does. And she has sounds to go along with all of those things. Making her present in the world was one of the most difficult things and one of the most important things.”
Devs constantly argue that all kinds of agency are important, including mechanical agency (doing stuff), narrative agency (affecting stories) and interpretative agency (games that invite you to develop a response). However, the Damsel in Distress trope goes against the principle that players learn about the world and characters by interacting with them.
Damseling a plot device in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing a core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest. In video games this is most often accomplished via kidnapping but it can also take the form of petrification or demon possession for example.
When a character is damseled and there’s no opportunity to play as or interact with the female character, there’s no opportunity to understand the female character as a subject, a person, an individual. She becomes a glorified fetch-quest.
By “kidnapping” the character, you remove her from the story, and by making her helpless, you remove her effect on events, even from afar. Without agency, the damseled character can’t show what she thinks or express herself through her behaviour throughout the game.
Removing women from the story so men can save them downplays the importance and interest of women’s thoughts, actions and struggles. Women are actually interesting as people, and can do things that affect the direction of the story in interesting ways, and deserve to stick around and be part of the game, not shuttered away. Especially fascinating characters like Zelda, who deserve better.
In 2002 games were still struggling to marry mechanics with deeply affecting content, and damsels seemed like a good solution. I remember it being advice game devs gave out, as in this interview with Tim Schafer, from 2003:
“I think you have to do two things at once,” he said. “You have to provide the character with motivation and you have to provide the player with motivation. Because the character will care about things that the player will not necessarily care about.”
“You can also use a person as a goal without forcing them to be as powerless.”
“There’s a girl, Lilly, at the Psychic Summer Camp with you, and she gets kidnapped. And Raz, the player character, really likes Lilly, and he wants to go off and save her. But you don’t know if the player really cares because he could just run and jump around and explore the camp and never go off and find her,” he continued.
“And so you want to make sure that Lilly actually gives you some cool power or some cool tool in the beginning of the game, as a way to bribe the player to strengthen their empathy. You can’t just rely on the story empathy, you have to put in little gameplay bribes, to make them like that character and want to pursue her.”
You don’t just need to write a reason why the protagonist is motivated, you need to motivate the player. An emotional connection is a strong motivation, and a damsel is a convenient way to do that. But it’s certainly not the only way; we’ve experimented a lot in the medium in the past decade.
When Schafer pointed out that early interaction with the character is important back in 2003, I think he misses that maybe you could just not damsel the character and allow them to keep affecting the plot in interesting ways. The fact that Levine grasps that having Elizabeth expressing herself is important but damsels her later in the game anyway undermines his point.
Are damsels the only way to motivate a player and give them an emotional reason to move the plot forward? Absolutely not. You have plenty of other great options:
If you want your game to feature an imprisoned character, play the imprisoned person and show their point of view. This was Sarkeesian’s main suggestion. This happened in Broken Age, which featured two characters who were imprisoned and had to deal with their situation. The game explored their personalities and built empathy for their situations by giving them agency
Non-gaming media rarely has this problem with male characters. TakeGame of Thrones, Tyrion is captured and imprisoned in the Eyrie, and we follow the story through his point of view. He deals with the situation and what it means. It doesn’t remove him from the story, his imprisonment is merely part of his character arc. This is an advantage rarely shared with female characters in video games.
If you can replace a female character with an inanimate object and the game doesn’t change, that’s a good indication that the trope is in play and can be avoided. Heck, you can just make the goal a physical thing rather than a female character who is forced to exist merely as a goal.
Monument Valley is an interesting example because the female protagonist is seeking to give, rather than acquire, the inanimate thing. Even these small changes in the story can make a game feel much more original and impressive.
Other games simply remove a set, external goal. The Stanley Parable is a good example of a game that doesn’t need to give the player a particular narrative goal, instead giving entertaining feedback for whatever they do, which encourages the player to try new things to see how the game reacts to them, instead of the other way around. DayZ and survival games also touch on this; every human character has agency, goals and motivations. It becomes a playground for the imagination and for active role-playing.
“‘External reward’ is practically a curse word to me, a thing I’m ever-vigilant against,” game designer David Sirlin has said. “I don’t need experience point systems giving me a false sense of mastery, or Xbox ‘achievements’ for watching the opening movie of a game.”
This is a lesson game designers like Jim Rossignol learned in their youth while working on campaigns for role-playing. “The less interesting players of my games, however, were the ones who were excited by something else: loot. [The players] rapidly became fixated on the material rewards earned by their characters, and would start to ignore the events that were delivering them.”
“The best players, however, were the ones for whom the game represented a kind of collaborative imaginative project,” he continued. “Sometimes it was cathartic … but most often it was transformative in a way that nothing else was. We escaped.”
It’s OK to put rewards in your games, especially if you can avoid the damseled women trope, but it’s certainly not the only way to motivate players, and it actively repels some players. You have to know and understand why players will want to continue to play the game. Some games are inherently fun and require no “bribes” to get the player to play. Other players will continue just for the story and characters. The question is one of motivation, and using a kidnapped woman to give the characters, and the player, motivation has become a common shortcut.
You can also use a person as a goal without forcing them to be as powerless. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is a classic example of this; Carmen has agency and purpose throughout the game. She travels the world and has adventures, and it’s up to you to track her down and bring her to justice. It’s a much more interesting game this way, rather thanWhere in The World is a Jail Cell Holding This Woman You Know.
“Getting inside the head of the non-main characters is also super important. Like for [Full Throttle], the female lead, Maureen, is out on the road and she thinks you killed her dad. So there’s this plot where you’re trying to catch her,” Schafer explained about another game.
“But instead of her just showing up in town, I made this chart of different states of the game, and what she’s thinking at every state — kind of what she’s up to. Every time you saw her, she was trying to go somewhere herself, rather than just showing up to give you the plot device you needed.”
This does require more work. You have to write a full character, and make sure that character’s agency has influence over the game, so you avoid making them just a “collect a human shaped object” fetch quest.
Games like Bioshock or Gone Home use audio logs and environmental narrative to flesh out characters you’re searching for; they’re games about entering their world and understanding their life. It’s an interesting game design question — there are many, many reasons why a character might be interesting to find or deliberately trying to keep something from you. Every one of them says more about the character than just someone being taken away and locked up.
Another rarely explored idea is having the player run away from something, rather than towards it. FTL makes the player out-run the federation to survive and deliver plans, a nice inanimate MacGuffin.
Sometimes you want to write a character saving another character. There’s no reason they have to save a damseled character. Characters can help each other without designating one of the characters as helpless.
The Last of Us may remove Ellie’s agency later in the game, but when the game gives you control of Ellie due to Joel’s injuries he’s not seen as a helpless nothing who has been removed from the narrative, you simply have to keep the story moving by doing things without his help or protection. The story presents Joel and Ellie as two characters with their own thoughts and motivations who help each other, and it’s richer for it.
“Saving” doesn’t have to mean “rescuing.” Other mediums have their George Baileys, characters whose humble life improves everything around them. If saving someone else is a theme you’d like to explore, think of the untapped potential we see in other art forms that is largely ignored in gaming.
Damseling also has a darker side-effect: it tends to make damsels disposable. As game writer Craig Hubbard has pointed out on the Tone Control podcast, when players spend time with characters and learn about their personalities, even enemies, they develop empathy for them:
“You know it’s definitely part of why, [with] F.E.A.R, we set out to make enemies that you wouldn’t feel bad about, because we all felt… You write dialogue for a character and you’ve got him walking down the hall and he’s talking about his band, and then you kill him; you’re like ‘I just killed that guy’s dreams.’ It feels a little wrong,” he explained.
But the more time a character spends damseled, the less time the player has to develop an actual connection with the character, even though the damsel is supposedly central to the story. To make up for the lack of true emotional connection, the devs sometimes try upping the stakes, and an easy way to do that is kill the damsel. Net result: lots of dead damsels.
The fact that damseled characters are often quite generic, and have very little control over the story or role in the mechanics, makes it relatively easy for writers to kill them off for a cheap narrative beat. If we explore who they were, their death may mean something outside of the act of moving the protagonist to action or providing a dramatic ending.
The writers of Penny Arcade ironically made a very similar point (content warning) in their infamous Dickwolves comic: Games are callously uninterested in the characters they victimize. While the handling of that situation was poor in every conceivable metric, the idea that we dismiss suffering in our games is on point.
Although not every lemonade-stand operator needs a full backstory, in general, a character should be as deep as their story is heavy. Any trope that removes the opportunity to humanize a supposedly central character is probably best avoided.
A character’s death should mark the end of their own arc instead of being used as a cheap way to set another character in motion. The deaths we remember, the ones that make you open up your saved game to see if you can avoid them, were characters who traveled with our party and who had goals and initiative and personalities of their own, which led to their death.
Again, Game of Thrones is a good example of this — the series is so affecting not just because lots of characters die, but because lots of characters we’ve been following die. We’ve been inside their heads, we’ve seen their choices, struggles and mistakes. The series has a few other problems that are outside the scope of this article, but it understands how to use death well, instead of treating it just as an engine that spits out motivation for other characters. Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is also a fair example of this, as we follow the arcs of multiple characters and their possible deaths.
Damseling takes the agency and self-expression away from characters, including ones that were strongly developed up to that point. They become a goal, not a character.
While they are damsels, they exist for others and no longer have their own initiative or interactions. The damsel trope tends to characterize this helplessness as a natural, female state, despite the incredible diversity between the 3.75 billion women on the planet, and often conflates disempowerment with other traditional feminine traits, including innocence and purity. It also frequently portrays love as transactional — save girl, get kiss — rather than something that springs from spending time with a person and getting to know them. None of this makes for good writing.
The fact damseling happens overwhelmingly to female characters has a particular meaning in a society that has historically restricted women’s freedoms and denied them equal autonomy with men. That’s an uncomfortable truth, but someone has to point out that the emperor is naked. We model the behavior we want to see in our children, and these tropes can solidify into real-world opinions and even actions.
Where great games put us in touch with the thrill or frustrations of being human, or super human, games that damsel a character throw away that opportunity. A person is being treated as a thing. Taking a character and putting them away in a box is a fundamentally weak plot device for a medium built around interactivity, and every example given in this article that avoids this trope became a better game for doing so.
One of the chief criticisms of Sarkeesian’s videos is that they are simply a list of examples, and as such they don’t help developers improve or provide a way forward. That argument may be missing the point; if you think of each video as a map to the potholes in a road it becomes much easier to see how they operate as important criticism. The ceaseless repetition of the point, the long list of examples … both of these things show why this is such a lazy way to tell a story.
This is why Sarkeesian has become so influential in the game development world, to the point of winning the GDC Ambassador Award. Cliches aren’t creative, and the games that don’t fall prey to these easy, often thoughtless storytelling tricks tend to be better, more original experiences.
Developers and publishers want to get to that point, and widen their audience, and Sarkeesian has a good grasp of what to avoid in that process. Giving women an active, not passive, role in the story and their part of it won’t just improve gaming’s problem with representation, it will likely make your game more interesting and engaging.