The Lady Sidekick – Feminist Frequency
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Carolyn Petit

Managing Editor

This episode examines how female sidekicks and companions in games are often designed to function as glorified gatekeepers, helpless burdens, and ego boosters, a pattern that works to reinforce oppressive notions about women as the ones in need of protection and men as the ones in control, who take action and do the protecting.

We then feature some games with relationships that subvert traditional power fantasy mechanics, putting players on something closer to equal footing with their AI companions as they offer examples of what real communication, compromise, and mutual support in games might look like.

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This episode examines how female sidekicks and companions in games are often designed to function as glorified gatekeepers, helpless burdens, and ego boosters, a pattern that works to reinforce oppressive notions about women as the ones in need of protection and men as the ones in control, who take action and do the protecting.

We then feature some games with relationships that subvert traditional power fantasy mechanics, putting players on something closer to equal footing with their AI companions as they offer examples of what real communication, compromise, and mutual support in games might look like.

This is the eighth episode in season two of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, and the final episode in the series overall. For more on the format changes accompanying season two, please see our announcement on Kickstarter for more information. For a look back at Tropes vs. Women in Video Games and a look forward at where Feminist Frequency is going from here, please see Anita’s post on the end of the series.

About the Series

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it’s more problematic or pernicious aspects. This video series is created by Anita Sarkeesian and the project was funded by 6968 awesome backers on Kickstarter.com

Games Referenced in this Episode

Bioshock Infinite (2013)
Ico (2001)
Resident Evil 4 (2005)
The Last of Us (2013)
Prince of Persia (2008)
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (2002)
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2010)
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015)
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
Half-Life 2: Episode 1 (2006)
OutRun 2006: Coast 2 Coast (2006)
Blast Corps (1997)
Half-Life 2: Episode 2 (2007)
Killzone 2 (2009)
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
Gears of War 3 (2011)
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
Tomb Raider (2013)
Gears of War 4 (2016)
One Night Stand (2016)
The Last of Us: Left Behind (2014)
The Last Guardian (2016)

Transcript

 

“OK, it looks like I can open it from here, but I can’t go with you. Here goes!”

In 2013, 2K Games released BioShock Infinite, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the earlier, hugely successful BioShock games. Infinite’s story centers on a man named Booker DeWitt, a private investigator with a bloody past who takes on a mysterious assignment: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.

What follows is Booker’s adventure to the flying city of Columbia, where “the girl,” Elizabeth, has been imprisoned in a tower for her entire life. Busting her out of captivity, while she busts out of her corset, Booker shoots his way across Columbia, getting caught up in all sorts of drama in the process as the game tells players a garbage story which suggests that oppressed people are just as bad as their oppressors and the truth is always somewhere in the middle. But that’s much too big a can of worms for us to open in this video. Let’s just focus on Elizabeth.

Elizabeth possesses the incredible ability to open portals to other timelines, an ability that plays a significant role in the plot as Booker and Elizabeth hop forward and backward and from side to side in time, leaping from one version of Columbia to another and sometimes thrusting Booker into the past or the future. So as a plot device which drives elements of the game’s narrative, she’s very significant. In gameplay terms, however, Elizabeth serves a different kind of role: that of a glorified door opener.

CLIP: Bioshock Infinite
Here you go.

As with most shooters, Bioshock Infinite often puts you into situations where you can’t progress until you’ve cleared an area of enemies. The way it frequently does this is by blocking doors to the next area that can’t be opened by Booker. Only Elizabeth can do this, which she does only when all the enemies have been killed. For all of her tremendous powers, Elizabeth is reduced by the game’s mechanics to doing the most basic and menial of tasks, and waiting around for her to open a door becomes a significant aspect of how players experience her character.

CLIP: Bioshock Infinite
Let me scout around ahead and see if there’s some way to move forward.

Of course, she performs other actions as well, sometimes tossing Booker ammo, first aid or other useful items, or opening tears through which he can have her summon things like weapons or killer robots to help him in combat. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of characters who play a supporting role in combat situations. But Elizabeth is an example of a female sidekick who is reduced to a tool. There aren’t gameplay mechanics that allow you to have meaningful interactions with her. She just opens doors and dispenses useful things, and her tear-opening powers are not her own, but yours to call on and control with the press of a button.

CLIP: Bioshock Infinite
Elizabeth…a little help?

-Looks simple enough.

At other times, she’s less like a person and more like a sexualized slot machine, tossing you the occasional coin.

CLIP: Bioshock Infinite
Here you go!

-You’re a lion!

As a glorified gate-keeper, Elizabeth joins a long tradition of female sidekicks, including Alyx from Half-Life 2 and its follow-up episodes, and Yorda from the much-beloved ICO, whose magic is needed to activate doors, staircases and other mechanisms that allow players to advance. Yorda also has the distinction of being the quintessential example of what I call the Damsel Escort Mission. You know, after making three whole videos about damsels, I’d kinda hoped to never have to talk about them again, but gaming’s love of using helpless women as both narrative and gameplay devices was too much for even those videos to contain.

Damsel escort missions occur when a female character joins the male player character, but is largely helpless, and rather than being a clear benefit to the player, she feels more like a burden. In ICO, players free Yorda from a cage early on. She then joins Ico on his journey, and much of the game consists of solving puzzles so that Yorda, who can’t make leaps or climb walls on her own, can traverse the environment. Meanwhile, players also need to protect her from the shadow monsters who sometimes try to whisk her away. Spoiler alert: yes, in the ending cutscene, Yorda carries Ico out of the crumbling castle, but what the narrative tells us or shows us in the end doesn’t undo the impact of how we experience a character through gameplay. Another classic damsel escort mission occurs in Resident Evil 4, where Ashley Graham, the president’s daughter, has caused players tremendous frustration over the years by burdening them with the need to protect and manage her.

Whether they’re presented as capable or helpless, female companions often encounter situations in which they just can’t proceed on their own. Ellie in The Last of Us, for instance, is hardly a Yorda-like damsel, but when she encounters a body of water, she may as well be, and Joel has to go out of his way to get her across. Now, look, there’s a lot to admire about The Last of Us, but I guarantee you, nobody’s favorite part of that game was helping Ellie get across the water.

A good rule of thumb is that if you spend any portion of a game carrying a female character around, it’s a pretty safe bet that it at least has some elements of the Damsel Escort Mission.

CLIP: Prince of Persia
Ow! You’re heavier than you look!

To be clear: There’s nothing whatsoever inherently wrong with depictions of people helping each other in times of difficulty. If anything, we could do with a lot more narratives that focus on companionship, cooperation, and support. But the models games give us rarely offer experiences in which this kind of support is truly mutual; instead, we see a pattern of men frequently carrying and helping women in situations where they’re otherwise helpless. This pattern is rooted in sexist ideas about men as protectors and women as the ones who need this kind of protection. Perhaps no game makes this more obvious than Dead Rising 2, in which players sometimes need to carry female survivors to safety, but are never able to carry male ones. It’s coded into the gameplay that men are the ones who kill and protect, and that women are the ones who experience moments of helplessness and need to be carried. When these female characters are of aid to the player, it’s often in rudimentary ways, as a glorified door opener, or an even more basic tool. in the Ocarina of Time dungeon “Inside Jabu-Jabu’s Belly,” players must carry the snobby Zora princess Ruto around, at one point using her as a weight to press down a switch. And in Metal Gear Solid 5, you’ve got four sidekick options to take with you on missions: a dog. A horse. A robot. And a woman..

Finally, female companions often function as cheerleaders, doling out little ego boosts to players for gunning down bad guys or pulling off other feats.

CLIP: Resident Evil 4
And I have to get you out of here. Now come with me!

Along with the glorified door-opening and the damsel-like aspects, female sidekicks are there to make players feel better about themselves, to make them feel important and skilled.

CLIP: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West
You did it! You did it!

CLIP: Outrun 2006: Coast to Coast
Wow! You’re so cool!

CLIP: Blast Corps
You’re just trying to impress me.

CLIP: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Did I impress you? Got all those guys by myself.

But these interactions are rarely depicted as mutually supportive. It’s not nearly as common in these scenarios for the male player character to offer emotional support to their female sidekick, to tell her that she’s doing a great job. These particular sidekicks aren’t designed as characters that players can actively engage in developing a relationship with, characters who are fully fleshed-out people with their own goals and desires that sometimes require players to compromise their own wants or desires. This pattern of female sidekicks who serve more as gameplay devices, door openers, and ego boosts than as people is a design approach rooted in the idea of games as power fantasy; players get to feel powerful and important, sometimes issuing orders that are obeyed without hesitation or doubt, sometimes being told that they’re doing a great job. Companion dynamics in games almost never model what equal footing, cooperation and collaboration in a relationship might look like, but instead serve to make the player feel like the center of the world, the one in control, which is not at all a model for healthy relationships.

Of course, a huge number of games focus on men fighting alongside other men, and in these games, the male companions often have some of the same characteristics we sometimes see in female companions.

CLIP: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2
And that’s at least 10 more confirmed, Hunter 2-1. Good shooting.

It’s very common for male characters to compliment the player on their good shooting, or to breach a door that the player character can’t open himself. However, typically these characters are presented as equal participants in the conflict. In shooters ranging from Call of Duty to Gears of War, the player’s male companions are armed and active, and are portrayed as playing their part to fend off or eliminate the enemy threat.

Occasionally in these games, male characters do have to protect other men. But unlike scenarios in which men protect women, these less-common instances in which men must protect or rescue other men don’t represent a significant pattern and don’t reinforce pre-existing cultural attitudes about men, women and gender. Similarly, the occasional situation in which a female character protects a male one, which happens in the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot, among other games, also isn’t a problem because it doesn’t work to reinforce limiting, harmful ideas about women or men that already exist in our culture. In other words, we don’t live in a culture that says that, generally speaking, men should be the protectors and women should be the protected. When women function as competent companions whose skills are more-or-less equal to those of the player character, it can challenge these ideas. The Last of Us goes against the grain by giving us the character of Tess, a somewhat rare and refreshing example of a woman who fights alongside the male protagonist, and the later Gears of War games do a decent job of including female squad members who are on equal footing with their male counterparts. And thankfully, we are seeing more games that complicate and subvert the old patterns, providing players with relationships with supporting characters who don’t function as mere extensions of the player but who feel like separate, individual people.

The 2016 indie title One Night Stand throws players into a situation with a female character who clearly has her own feelings and her own desires, and communicating with her is a matter of trying to find some common ground for mutual understanding, not one in which the player is in total control of the situation. In Left Behind, the wonderful add-on for The Last of Us, Ellie’s companion Riley is not someone players can issue orders to or someone they have to protect. Riley is constantly active, often taking control of the situation, sometimes competing and being playful with Ellie, and as a result, she doesn’t feel anything like the companion characters in most games, or even anything like Ellie herself felt in the original game. Instead, she feels much more like a real person accompanying Ellie on the journey.

And while Trico in 2016’s The Last Guardian may not be a human character, he does possess some of the characteristics we’d like to see more of in human companions in games. Asking Trico to do things isn’t a simple matter of pushing a button and watching him immediately obey. He’s not a simple tool, not just an extension of the player. Sometimes he’s hesitant, reluctant, even frustrating. But this makes it feel more like he’s a living, breathing creature, with thoughts and feelings of his own, and by taking time to pet him, you can sometimes express your connection to him in ways that fall outside the requirements of the gameplay and the story. And crucially, Trico is often the one protecting the player, rather than the other way around. He does not exist to fuel a power fantasy, but to allow for gameplay mechanics that focus on cooperation, care, and helping each other.

When supporting female characters in games don’t have this kind of depth, when they exist primarily to be protected or to be ordered around, they not only reinforce harmful ideas about gender; they also fail as characters. Regardless of their gender, race, class or sexuality, a person is more than a tool and more than a burden, and games can and should give us mechanics and stories that reflect that.