I was having a conversation with some friends of mine the other day about Zelda’s role in Breath of the Wild and whether or not her character was handled well. Without fail, whenever the topic of Zelda being a damsel in distress is brought up, one of these friends jumps in to point out that Zelda isn’t just a helpless Peach-style abductee, and that she plays an active role in the story by making strong, smart choices to help save the day in the most effective way that she can given the situations she finds herself in.
Someone responded to this with the following:
A lot of the comments about her and her accomplishments fall flat because she's not real. It's not "her choice" that she locks herself away in Skyward Sword. Or that when she realizes she's Zelda in Wind Waker, that she hangs out for a while while Link cleans things up. She's written that way, she has no agency.
I feel the same way about saying that "it's brave" of Zelda to tuck herself away in Skyward Sword that I do when people say Bayonetta dresses sexy because "it's empowering." That misses the point completely. They're written that way. That's not to say it's impossible to have an empowered female character make a meaningful sacrifice or be able to dress hot, of course. But Nintendo doesn't get the benefit of the doubt in this regard. There's a three decade history we're dealing with here, and Zelda has been a macguffin at best most of the time.
Shit, in incarnations like Wind Waker or Breath of the Wild, it's MORE disappointing than usual. The things Zelda earned or worked for in those games? Being a rad pirate, or a researcher? Nope, sorry, you're a princess with Triforce powers. Stop doing that other shit, this is your fate. Clearly Nintendo recognizes that Zelda is a beloved character, that people like seeing her, and they want to develop her. But the greatest utility she often has is staying put.
On the one hand, I’d defend Zelda being locked away until the end of the game because having to wait that long to meet the series’ namesake is fun pacing; you really feel the suspense build up as you work towards that moment where you finally see her. At the same time, using up the most important character in the game just for one cool moment is exactly what Anita Sarkeesian is talking about when she criticizes developers for using women as rewards.
These conversations always inevitably end up going back to the same old joke: why isn’t this series called The Legend of Link?
Nintendo doesn’t design these games based around how they can make Zelda into as empowering of a character as possible; they design them around the player’s moment-to-moment firsthand experience. This is true for most games, from “kill everything and get the girl” male power fantasies to “plot twist, she was a lesbian the whole time!” walking simulators: their stories are told from one perspective, usually in a linear unbroken chronology. This doesn’t leave a lot of room for other characters to do their own thing, because it’s all going to happen off-screen. Side characters exist inherently to serve the player character’s story because everything in the game happens from the player’s perspective.
And this kinda sucks, right? When the context is a princess in a dress who’s locked away in a castle, it can come across as sexist, but the problem is much deeper than that: we haven’t really figured out what to do with NPCs beyond just having them sit around and spit dialogue at you. People who like to troll my more liberal friends on Twitter (which, admittedly, is pretty fun) might stop there and say that’s just the way games are, but I think we can do better.
The most base possible idea you could come up with to fix Zelda’s role would be to have her research weapon upgrades for you, but this doesn’t do anything to address the core problem. Her inner beliefs, motivations, and dreams aren’t influencing her behavior at all. She’s still just sitting in a room waiting for the player to show up! She might as well be a menu screen—you’re literally objectifying her.
Obviously there have been interesting side characters in games before. Some of them are even women! Take a look at Elena Fisher, for instance. She’s a well-written badass who can hold her own in a firefight. She’s smart and funny. She’s one of the most memorable gaming characters of the past decade.
And yet, when we allow her to flourish, she… fixes all of the problems because of how amazing she is. The first two-thirds of Uncharted 4 set up a grim story where Nate and the player will face heavy consequences for their selfish actions, but at the last second, Elena shows up to save the day. This is actually pretty realistic writing; a brave, intelligent person would rescue their husband from his dumbass mistakes and forgive him for the sake of their relationship. In the context of a story, though, this reunion doesn’t feel earned. I once read that characters getting into trouble because of bad luck is good writing, but that getting out of trouble because of good luck is bad writing; in games, this is doubly true. Since the player is an active participant in the story, they should never be bailed out of a sticky situation that they got themselves into. That removes all consequence!
But then what’s the alternative? To make all side characters into bumbling idiots you have to escort around? This would ruin the player’s relationship with all of them and also somehow probably be really sexist too if they were girls I guess.
We don’t want to cut to a scene of an NPC off doing some Big Important Empowering Thing because then we’re not telling our story through gameplay, but we also don’t want our side characters impacting the player character in gameplay so much that they end up having more influence on the story’s outcome than the player himself. So how exactly do we let NPCs be active participants in the story?
The damsel in Spelunky is pretty much the last character anyone would hold up as empowering, but I think she’s a great example of what we should look for in an NPC. She plays a consequential role in the story—you can rescue her for a health boost, which adds an interesting risk vs. reward mechanism to the game. And while it sounds dumb to refer to basic Green Koopa logic as agency, her walking around makes her feel like just as much of a real person as any of the game’s other characters. When she dies, it feels like a true loss, and when you rescue her, it feels like a real win. I’d never argue that Spelunky’s simplistic scenario of going into a cave and looking for treasure qualifies as deep storytelling, but I think it’s important to examine as a baseline for what player-focused narrative looks like. You care about Spelunky’s characters in your gut because the game makes you emotionally invested through its mechanics rather than through an abstract story happening to fictional people.
Metal Gear Solid V does an awesome job of this as well. Take D-Dog, for instance (we’ll ignore Quiet for now). The game’s mechanics could have functioned just the same without him; give Snake some sort of Soldier Vision™ upgrade that automatically tags soldiers on your radar when you get close to them, and you’ve totally replaced D-Dog’s main functionality. Instead, Kojima Productions opted to have fun by characterizing this mechanic in the form of a cute wolf that follows you around. He’s not some dumb escort mission NPC that keeps getting in the way—he’s your sidekick! He’s your buddy! You can even pet him! And because he’s mechanically functional, you want to pet him.
Here’s the kicker, though: petting D-Dog doesn’t actually serve any mechanical purpose. From a mathematical perspective, it’s a waste of time that could have otherwise been used to complete the mission. So why include it? Because it’s… nice. And this delicate balance between mechanical utility and warm fuzziness is a big clue to our solution.
On one side of the spectrum, you have The Castle Doctrine, an extremely cynical MMO by Jason Rohrer about breaking into other players’ houses to steal their money. Each player has a wife and kids who serve the purely mechanical roles of holding some of your money and helping defend your other money. Otherwise, they don’t talk to you, hug you, love you, or do much of anything aside from stand there. They’re the definition of utility. You naturally end up caring a lot about these characters, but not in the way that you care about D-Dog. In The Castle Doctrine, it’s a cold sort of caring. Your wife isn’t a person, she’s a chess piece. The game received a lot of criticism for its message, but the way the game delivered its message is very cohesive, and it uses its characters to enhance it. The Castle Doctrine deserves credit for using its mechanics in a smart enough way for us to be able to disagree with it on moral grounds rather than because its developers couldn’t tell a consistent story.
I’d imagine Toby Fox would disagree with The Castle Doctrine’s message quite a lot, because his game exists on the “warm fuzzy” side of the spectrum. Undertale is a lot of different things to a lot of different people, which is why no one has been able to shut up about it for the past two years. It’s a modern-day classic Super Nintendo RPG. It has the best-written soundtrack in any game ever. It’s an endless source for Tumblr fan art. To me though, Undertale’s biggest accomplishment is its criticism of the kind of game design that The Castle Doctrine endorses (or parodies, which I think is more likely—but it’s a touchy subject).
One of Undertale’s core ideals is that treating NPCs in games like chess pieces rather than real people makes for a really shallow experience. You're incentivized through gameplay to kill as many monsters as you can to gain XP, but will miss out on getting to meet the game's lovable cast if you do. Undertale’s story changes dramatically based on how engaged with or detached from its characters you are—if your behavior is evil enough, some otherwise-friendly characters will even oppose you in ways that might make it impossible for you to progress. Some critics say this is going too far, and that you should just let the player play the damn game that they paid for without having to worry about messing it all up, but that kind of consequence-free storytelling is exactly what makes characters in games seem so uninteresting.
Look at Mass Effect, a series I love picking on. The endless debate as to whether or not it matters that none of your choices matter has been raging since Mass Effect 3’s abysmal ending in 2012. (You can probably guess which camp I’m in.) When none of your choices have any consequences, all the player’s personal investment into the game is sucked right out. Sure, you can empathize with the people on-screen, but this is a video game—you as a player should be made to feel like you’re a part of the story, and Mass Effect doesn’t let you do this. When Mordin Solus died at the end of my playthrough of Mass Effect 2, I didn’t feel any long-lasting grief at all because an exact replica of him showed up in Mass Effect 3 to fill the hole. At that point, you might as well ditch emotion-driven storytelling entirely and just go with The Castle Doctrine’s philosophy that characters are chess pieces you use to drive gameplay.
If it seems like I’m drifting away from a discussion about NPCs and towards a discussion of consequences in game design, that’s because the two topics are tied together. Developers being afraid of letting their characters respond to the player’s actions in natural ways stifles the game’s story. The writer’s narcissistic belief that they have to be in full control of the story fuels the player’s narcissistic belief that all forces in the game exist to make them feel good. Like Stephen King said:
Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do.
How many times have you played a game where you killed a random civilian and then continued on with the story like it had never happened? When we laugh at the NPCs’ totally unrealistic reaction to people getting shot on the street, we’re laughing at them, not with them. This is a real shortcoming of how we view games; if you slapped your best friend in the face in real life, she wouldn’t blankly stare at you and then offer some ammo. If we continue excusing this robotic behavior in games, characters will never be more interesting than they are right now.
So. Breath of the Wild. How could Zelda have played a bigger role in the story than she did? It all goes back to consequence. She’s been fighting Ganon for 100 years, her power is decreasing, Ganon is getting stronger, characters are constantly telling you to hurry up and get to Hyrule Castle because time is running out…
…and then you spend three hours chasing squirrels in the woods.
You don’t actually have to hurry up and save Zelda. The game just wants you to pretend you have to for the sake of the story. There are no consequences and no tension. Would Breath of the Wild be a better game if after a certain amount of time had passed, Ganon broke free and ravaged the land, completely changing your play experience? I don’t think so, but it’s a natural consequence of the story that Nintendo had set up, and if they weren’t going to follow through on it, then they should have written a different story.
Just imagine! What if there was a game where you only had so many days to save the world before having to start over, and the in-game characters reacted to the impending apocalypse in real time, varying their behavior based on how you’ve impacted people within their web of interpersonal relationships?
Oh wait, THAT GAME ALREADY EXISTS AND IT’S AMAZING.
Any article that ends by praising Majora's Mask is a good article.
To be honest, I think that if there was ever a time for Zelda to replace Link as the playable character it was here. It would've worked really well with the whole past story of how Zelda wasn't able to succeed in stopping Ganon but gets this cool redemption arc that you play through where she saves her kingdom. There could even be some cool mid game reveal where you thought you were playing as Link but really you were playing as Zelda.
Some gamers react REALLY badly to time limits. I think that the tension they introduce can be incredibly effective, though. Who can forget the first time they escaped from a planet in a Metroid game? It was a "Fuck, yeah!" moment like no other.
Also, any time the damsel discussion comes up, I have to bring the original Paper Mario into the conversation. The Princess Peach sequences subverted gaming cliches in such a cool, funny way.
@Stephen I'm not sure that I would have preferred that approach, but DLC which allowed you to explore BotW Hyrule as Zelda, with her own specific powers and traversal methods, would be super-cool.
Good read, very nuanced. And you hit on something that seems obvious but a lot of people conveniently forget in these discussions, which is that all of these characters / stories / etc. were created by people and they have many choices and alternatives in the creation process. To keep it general, an argument I run into a lot is "but adding X wouldn't work with the story or other characters or...!" ignoring that the story or characters in question were not some set in stone thing, but something created during a process, and they could have been created differently if there were different priorities. In fact, I'd imagine that being involved in story-telling in the game industry, especially on a Nintendo team where people like Miyamoto have openly stated that the details of their stories often come near the end and exist to serve bigger ideas in gameplay / etc., is often a process of continually modifying your stories to fit the ever-changing needs of the game as a whole.
With that said, obviously people want different things out of different games, but I'm glad that Breath of the Wild just kept it open and didn't add a time limit or anything. In some ways it reminds me of Dead Rising a bit (especially the weapon system) but that game made a huge mistake in my eyes in that it created this awesome sandbox ripe for exploring and and just playing around with a variety of things, then added a strict timeline to it. DON'T DO THAT! And if leisurely time doesn't work with the story well... yeah they could have created a different story with less urgency to it, but I think it works ok as is. In my mind the urgency isn't literally I NEED YOU THIS VERY MINUTE but more that it has been 100 years of holding something back but it's about to pop. And most everything in the game more or less works towards powering you up on some level, so... there are ways to justify spending the time to do it right even with urgency calling you to focus.
With that said whether it be Zelda or fem-Link or whatever, I think with the series moving towards this more open style of play where the story only really makes up a small fraction of your overall experience, the time is ripe to offer some more options in the protagonist if that is a route Nintendo wants to explore.
@Zero The calls for female Link thing are kind of strange, though. Link is kind of a cypher, but he's also one of Nintendo's most recognizable character designs, which appeals to both men and women. I mean, why don't people demand Super Maria Sisters?
I could be down for a Zelda game, though, or a Coop game with Link, Zelda, etc. Even though it still offended some people, Super Princess Peach was a neat experiment.
Great editorial. Games will pretty much always only be encapsulated experiences, so decisions have to be made about what's most important to include in those experiences. Sadly, making NPCs more realistic is neither easy nor common, nor is it often even considered to create female characters that are neither objectified nor weak. Creating NPCs who react to environmental/plot/event changes takes a LOT of work, especially if there are branching dialogue trees that get modified based off of player choices. Having done some game work now, and also being an engineer on a team creating an OS, I can attest to the "development cycle" and abating scope creep, and how even "minor" revisions lead to nontrivial work through the rest of a project. So if Nintendo focuses on game mechanics first then fleshes out a narrative, changes to the mechanics or narrative can have cascading effects through dialogue, behavior, and possibly other mechanics to compensate and keep the game cohesive. Nintendo COULD start developing a game that isn't objectifying, but sadly business will have input on that and make some self-fulfilling prophecy and decide its not as marketable/profitable.
@Anand I guess one argument is by Nintendo's own story there is a new Link born every X amount of years or whatever, so they aren't even necessarily the same person, which would make it easy enough to justify a different gender or ethnicity next time (or options.) And yeah Link is recognizable as he is, but you could say that about say... Peter Parker in his many iterations, yet we still got Miles Morales, the Hulk yet we still got She-Hulk, etc. Whereas Mario and Luigi are a bit more defined as single characters.
WITH THAT SAID I guess Mario & Luigi met Paper Mario so apparently they aren't always so defined as single characters.
I almost mentioned Paper Mario! It breaks the "stories are told from one perspective, usually in a linear unbroken chronology" thing by letting you play as a different character. I think this is a really valid solution to how you can have multiple interesting characters in a game for sure.
Thanks for that original post, it got me thinking! Come to think of it, I totally forgot about D-Dog's stun moves and stuff, haha. That's be harder to implement without a little companion running around.
@Zero I'd be fascinated to see a detailed study of how Marvel's push for diversity is working out for them. Like, how many new readers did it bring in, and how many old readers did it alienate? The comic industry had been banking on that same aging demographic for so long.
A lot of people talk about this stuff, and there have been conflicting messages from Marvel. Including the very recent one where an exec said this:
“What we heard [from retailers] was that people didn’t want any more diversity. They didn’t want female characters out there. That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not. I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.”
And then "clarified" it later with this:
Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes and, contrary to what some said about characters “not working,” the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers ARE excited about these new heroes. And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.
We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more! They’ve invigorated their own customer base and helped them grow their stores because of it. So we’re getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we’re making is to ensure we don’t lose focus of our core heroes.
It's always hard to get any real data on this stuff though, because any given piece of media is a lot more than just whether it is diverse or not, and its success or failure is thus also based on a lot more than that.
Hey, I got a mention of sorts! And that reminds me, I gotta go re-reply in that other thread so I can talk about mah main girl some more.
I'm always up for defending our favorite princess (sorry, Peach), so I'll throw in my quick thoughts on this. It largely comes down to Nintendo going for simplicity in their narratives. Even in the Zelda series, which is among the most story-driven of the Nintendo IPs, the plotline largely feels secondary to the gameplay.
What's the quickest, easiest way to make someone feel like a hero in a narrative? Have them save somebody!
Who's the most important character in the series that's not Link? Zelda!
To elaborate on that, in BotW, you'll often see NPCs being attacked by monsters. We've all been there. After you save them a dozen times or so, you start to realize that the rewards--inevitably some low-to-mid-range dish or elixir--aren't really all that great. And yet time after time, knowing this, I still go out of my way to save everyone in trouble. Do I (or Link) expect some sort of romantic reward? Are the victims all (or even mostly) women? Of course not; it's because helping out people in need is like Heroism 101, and saving someone from a monster is universal, easy to understand, rarely happens in real life, and instantly gratifying to boot. It's no wonder why someone's life is in immediate danger at the end of most Zelda games. I mean, obviously all of the land is in danger, but it helps to put a lovable "face" on it.
Zelda is that lovable face! If I could make a graph about this, it'd show that the more likable and developed Zelda is as a character, the more players will want to save her. And it's not a sexual thing--Zelda always wears modest clothing and they don't even kiss in most of the games (DESPITE HOW MUCH SENSE IT WOULD MAKE NINTENDO YOU PRUDES); it just feels good to actively feel like you're making a difference!
The bottom line is saving somebody is always more rewarding feeling than saving...well, nobody. Even in Majora's Mask, which is the example you gave, pretty much everyone in that game is a "damsel in distress" of sorts because they're all at the mercy of the baddie. It's satisfying to get that New Day because you've seen them all suffer first-hand, just like you see Zelda and Link and the Champions suffer at the hands of Ganon in the latest Zelda.
All that said, I don't even think BotW's narrative is particularly great (there are several Zeldas I'd rank ahead of it in story). But I don't share the opinion that someone being in trouble makes them a weak character, nor do I think that Princess Zelda necessarily needs to pick up the sword herself. Heck, between that and female Link, I'd much rather the latter! @Anand Link is at least a different character in each game with different relationships, so I could buy it more than randomly gender-swapping someone more established. The only issue I really have when people talk about that is the option to choose Link's sex. I'm not a fan of custom avatar characters in adventure games and I'd hate to see it in Zelda.
@Zero Hmm. If the sales actually increased on those titles, they'd probably proclaim it directly.
More importantly, are they really getting their data from retailer hearsay? Why not conduct some surveys, and such? I dunno. It all depends on the comic industry getting new and different readers. I'm shocked that it hasn't collapsed under its own weight yet. I don't even know how much individual issues are these days. $5? I was at a comic store with someone, and they were interested in one of the books, but they picked it up and totally balked at the price tag. I can't say that I blame them.
Again, this comes down to a similar IP thing. Rather than fight against 40 (actually, 70+?) years of tradition by making Thor a woman, or Spider-Man hispanic/black, why not just create new characters from the ground up that are naturally more diverse? Probably for the same reason that Nintendo often puts new ideas into existing IP. Because that IP is almost guaranteed to sell more.
I've loved a bunch of comics that were built from the ground-up with new characters and settings, but they almost always got cancelled prematurely. Still, is Spider-Man just an outfit and a set of powers? Or a specific character? Why are American comics so superhero-centric?
I dunno. I don't really read many American comics these days, anyway. And characters having 70+ years of baggage is a serious problem. They move so far away from the settings and intended audience which made them popular in the first place. For that reason, I generally enjoyed the Ultimate universe more than the mainstream Marvel universe. They could subvert the traditions of each hero (or go back to their initial settings) without flipping the reset switch on the characters in the main universe.
@Anand Yeah but increased versus what? Would anyone expect a new Spider-Man to increase sales versus the established one? I think the theory though is that you still keep around Peter Parker, AND you have this new Spider-Man that probably sells more than some random new IP (the answer to your own question which you already answered) would and that OVER TIME could eventually work its way up. Like say I dunno... the Mario & Luigi games or Paper Mario or Luigi's Mansion or whatever... they don't have to sell the same as the original to still be a profitable endeavor.
And then of course, every once in awhile you get that spinoff that DOES sell the same or more. Like uh... Mario Kart?
I don't think they get their data this way. I think some exec made some offhand comment based on some offhand comments he heard that wasn't meant to mean much, but he possibly didn't realize how VOLATILE the topic is and how it'd turn into some big thing and start getting thrown around as proof of X or Y.
I vaguely recall seeing comments from some Marvel exec before that diversity was profitable for them, though I can't recall where. And in another medium, the uh... director? I think of the Fast and Furious movies basically said they're successful because of the diversity in them, which seems to be backed up by numbers because they do very well with most every demographic the movie industry measures.
@Zero I'm not too current, but I don't think the new characters coexist with the old ones in most cases. I think they just replaced them. In the Ultimate universe, at least, they killed off Peter Parker while he was still in high school.
Anyway, diversity can be profitable, if the audience is diverse. Or if the move gets enough of a new audience.
I don't watch the Fast and the Furious movies, because there's no South Asian representation. J/k, that's not why I don't watch them.
I was just thinking the other day, the term "people of color" is kind of a nasty term, since it defines people by how Caucasian they are(n't). It's basically a different way of saying "colored". Also, would I be classified as a person of color?
@Anand Buddy you better get current. I don't even follow comics and even I read the Miles Morales / Peter Parker team-up (I just grab random stuff from the library sometimes.) You're right that Peter Parker was killed off in the universe of Miles Morales, but see Mysterio was playing around with portals to parallel universes and...
Much like life, comics will find a way.
With that said I have heard complaints that when Marvel introduces these alternate versions the original ones don't get as much focus anymore, and Marvel keeps saying their ideal is to introduce the new while maintaining a strong presence of the old, so if they are falling short on that it's probably for boring reasons like "not enough resources" or whatever, the same reason why Nintendo isn't constantly introducing new IPs while also constantly bringing out awesome versions of all of their fan favorites. Rest assured Peter Parker isn't going anywhere though. I mean, he's starring in a bunch of new movies in the near future, for one.
So, if you really want to have a good conversation about the term "people of color" you should talk to Shirley about it next time you are over, as an anthropologist of uh... "color", she has a lot of ideas there. I'm not going to speak for her but she seems to see both pros and cons with the term, though I think she is more negative on it than otherwise? I dunno. The pro is that it's a quick shorthand for talking about issues that do affect all non-whites, like "being a minority in America", etc. The con is that it gets used too much and then a whole diverse body of people become grouped under this one term that makes it too easy to dismiss more specific concerns.
But yeah she has a lot more nuanced ideas than I do about that, and she is also speaking from the inside, so to speak, whereas I am not.
What is so weird about Mysterio? I think some people find him silly but he could make a pretty sweet villain in a modern Spider-Man movie and give it a different feel from the others, lots of weird trippy shit. Peter Parker (or hey, Miles Morales why not) fighting inside his own MIND and such.