I finally got the chance to finish the first installment of Anita Sarkesian’s “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” YouTube series, and I was kind of surprised at how much it focused on Nintendo. It brings to attention once again a central issue with so many of their games.
Firstly, I’ll go ahead and say that the video itself seemed surprisingly well-researched, laying out the “damsel in distress” trope as it relates to history and how that history relates to video games. She even makes the valid point of Nintendo being a major focus because their games probably influenced a whole generation of “damsel in distress” games.
Let’s be real here though: the continued use of the trope is more laziness than anything else. Super Mario Bros. and all those other games where you save the female who’s been rendered completely helpless don’t really have storylines. What they have are excuses for you to press buttons and get a sense of satisfaction in return.
People have brought this complaint against Mario for years — not for the sexism, but their repetitiveness. It’s a shadow that hangs over the entire Mario franchise. So I bring up the question: Does Nintendo need to think up a new “default” motivation for Mario to jump all over the place?
Nintendo will rarely, if ever, think up a complex story for a mainline Mario game. The most we got were the cut scenes at the beginning of Super Mario Sunshine and maybe the vignettes in Super Mario Galaxy. What they probably need is a new “default” idea that doesn’t seem as ridiculous when it happens for the 18th time. I’m sure there are a lot of games with setups as simple as Mario that have thought up two-line stories that don’t involve a captured person.
The first thing I can think of off the top of my head for a platformer is Donkey Kong Country, where the motivation is quite simple and makes a lot of sense — the main antagonist has stolen the protagonist’s food supply. Or what about Sonic? At its base you’re just rescuing a bunch of helpless animals from being transformed into a robotic army. The birds in Angry Birds are mad because their children have been kidnapped. Just look at Wario’s games — his entire motivation amounts to “get money.”
Come to think of it, Nintendo seems to be almost the only company left that sticks to damsel-in-distress with new games in their classic franchises. In the case of Zelda they’ve developed the storylines a lot (I think Skyward Sword has downright excellent character development), but the titular character keeps playing essentially the same role.
The real question that probably needs to be asked though is how likely Nintendo actually is to do anything about this. Particularly in the case of Mario, they really don’t seem to care as long as the games are fun. I guess if people are hacking their games and making videos about it though then someone does care.