The Zen of Video Games – Saving The Princess


I’ve wanted to be a hero since I was little. Even with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to tell if that stems from or helped cause my love of video games. I mean, we can go right back to the beginning of it all, for me, at least: Super Mario Bros.

Here we’ve got an overweight Italian plumber from Brooklyn in a strange world trying to save a princess from an evil monster. An unlikely hero, to be sure, but he fights anyway, to save the girl and win her heart. It’s a classic tale, damsels in distress have been around for centuries.

But why wasn’t there a game about an overwrought faux-Italian lady hairdresser from Jersey in a strange world trying to save a prince from an evil monster? Why must it be a damsel in distress? Couldn’t it be a….what would you call that….a damsen? A…dams? A damseler? Damnit.

Mario saves Princess Peach. Link saves Princess Zelda. Kuros saves a harem of women wearing standard-issue “dungeon bikinis” before rescuing his nameless princess. I can name a bunch of examples of this in current and retro games, but off the top of my head, ruling out games where you can choose the sex of your character, I can only think of two where the roles are reversed – Super Princess Peach finally reversed the normal roles, but had a weird emotion-based game mechanic, and was ridiculously easy, and between those two, I’m not sure the game wasn’t just sexist in other ways. The second game is Headhunter, when Angela Stern reveals previously unknown badassery by stealthily infiltrating the docks and rescuing until-then unstoppable action hero Jack Wade. But even then, the game had you save Angela in a hostage situation earlier, so maybe they balance each other out and make Headhunter a non-sexist game, I don’t know.

I like to think that if I made a game, I’d be above choosing to put a woman in a situation to be rescued instead of a man. But I wouldn’t be – the stakes are always higher for me when a woman’s life is in danger. I don’t know if that’s instinctive or learned, but it’s true. I will leap faster, try harder to save a woman.

That’s not to take away anything from female heroines saving men. As I said, Angela Stern is a verified badass, and though it’s been a while since I’ve played the game, I’m pretty sure she saves Jack more than once. It’s just that saving a man is never going to be as important to me as saving a woman is. Given the choice, I would rather save a woman, and I’m not sure if that’s a sexist attitude.

It’s not that the hero has to be male, though. In fact, more often than not, if I can choose the sex of my character, I’ll pick female. Phallic imagery aside, there’s something ultimately more badass – and attractive – about a woman who holds a gun or a sword like she knows how to use it. You do NOT want to be on the wrong end of that weapon at the wrong time of the month.

Is that sexist of me? I honestly have no idea at this point. Thinking this deeply about gender issues and analyzing my reaction to them is rather dizzying. I want to save women more because I’m more likely to care about them (which isn’t sexist, I think) – which makes me a male hero trying to save a female damsel (which is a sexist stereotype, I think). I give up.

The best example I can think of comes from the Modern Warfare 3 Collection 1 DLC. There’s a mission where you have to save as many hostages as possible – all men. I lost more than ten, but it wasn’t a big deal to me, because I still accomplished the mission. In Fallout 3, on the other hand, I would get very upset if I failed to save the female slave with the exploding collar. Despite the fact that she is wholly imaginary and digital and no one ACTUALLY died.

Is it just ingrained in me by virtue of being male? Is it simple genetics? Is it the last vestiges of chivalry? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I believe it’s worth exploring.

I don’t see how it couldn’t work the other way around. Most of the women I know are tougher than the average man I know. And there are some really badass women in gaming, it’s just that their goal never seems to be rescuing a man. Samus Aran destroys Mother Brain and annihilates the Metroids. Lara Croft has nine games about reclaiming lost artifacts and being betrayed, and according to Wikipedia (I’ve only played the first one, briefly), ONE of them involves rescuing a man, though he’s set up through most of the game as a villain, and only at the last minute is it made clear he’s a victim.

Would it really be so wrong if Link were the one to get captured and Zelda were the one to gear up and go dungeon crawling to find the 7 random artifacts, defeat Ganon, and save Link? Actually, there were a couple of CD-i games like that, and they were absolutely terrible, so take that how you will.

Now, there’s obviously more important gender issues in gaming, such as women being primarily used as sex objects (I’m looking at YOU, Team Ninja). But that’s a topic for another time.

There should be more women rescuing men in video games – I will never argue that. Female gamers’ perspectives should be taken into consideration when designing games, and I will always advocate equality in gaming. For now, I just thought I’d muse on why saving women is more important to me. And I think it comes down to vulnerability. A vulnerable woman will ALWAYS hook me into wanting to help her, no matter how many times I get manipulated or screwed over because of it, and this easily extends to gaming.

And, also, they have breasts. Game, set, match.

You know, now that I think of it, I might be a sexist after all.