Monday, July 28, 2008

Creating better games...

I'm still touch-and-go as far as internet is concerned, and so I've only been loosely following what's been happening on other sites lately. Last week, I think it was, I read a post about a "Fat Princess" game, and the first four or five comments about it, over at Feminist Gamers. Well, it looks like there was sort of the expected reaction- i.e. lots of trolling and ridiculous name-calling- from the HardCoreGamers.

And while I don't have a lot to say that hasn't been said a billion times about these sorts of reactions, I do have a lot to say about game design. Because, quite frankly, there's a lot of room for improvement. So, I'm thinking of a few posts about gameplay and games and how they could be made better. I'm sure that some of this will rehash what other people have already said, for which I apologize, I'm just sort of letting my thoughts flow, here.

So, a month or so back, I finally got around to completely finishing Mario Galaxy- I got all of the stars with both Mario and Luigi, and I got the final bonus star. And yes, that is me pulling a muscle patting myself on the back. And I have to say, I thought it was tons of fun (except the damn "blow all of this garbage up with bombs that have long fuses even though you've got very little time" minigame. That was, in fact, the opposite of fun. Which is to say, stupid. But I digress). But, after I beat it, I started talking to Jaclyn about it. The conversation about Fat Princess reminded me of my conversation with Jaclyn, in that our conversation turned from "the ways that sex/gender are portrayed in Mario" into "ways that Mario could be made better".

Now, I'm hardly the first person to tackle a Nintendo game on this front, but I have to say, Mario doesn't fare that well in the ways it represents women. There are only a few female characters in the game at all:

Obviously, there's the Princess, whom you're out to save from a kidnapping at the hands of, who else? Bowser. She's hardly the most empowerful of characters, as presented. I mean, despite the fact that she's ostensibly the ruler of the Mushroom Kingdom, her main job seems to be "getting kidnapped. By an angry turtle. Repeatedly." I did, however, notice something interesting at the end of Mario Galaxy. Without giving away the story *coughMarioSavesHercough*, there's a scene where Peach, Mario and Bowser are all in the same place. I don't think it's a coincidence that the scene ends with Peach making with the soft eyes at Bowser. I'm just saying, maybe she's less "kidnapped" and more "run off"... Just something to consider. Or not.

Besides Peach, there's also Rosalina, a sort of mysterious woman who is the caretaker of the lumas, and your guide to the galaxies. The good news is that you're never charged with rescuing her from a kidnapping. The bad news is that she spends the majority of the game asking you to go out and find her missing stars. Which makes her only marginally less helpless than the princess for about 90% of the game. So, not so awesome on that front. There is, however, a really great part where she's responsible for blowing through a dozen or so of Bowser's warships without much effort. Which is pretty cool. She also seems to grow to about twenty feet tall, which suggests that she'd kick some ass in a fight. So, she's kind of a mixed bag, but for the majority of the game? Yeah, not so awesome.

Except that part where she tears through Bowser's fleet. Damn. That part was sweeeeeet.

The only other specifically female characters are secondary. I think that one member of the Toad Brigade might be female, but they're really there for comedy relief, and I paid very little attention to any of them. There's the Queen Bee, but we only really see her a few times, and, like the princess, she ends up asking you for help because she's incapable of doing things on her own. Her entire design is meant to make her look like a giant helpless creature.

The Lumas don't appear to have a gender, and neither do many of the enemies in the games, since most of them are things like plants, angry stone blocks, and walking mushroom creatures, although I suspect that most people probably read them as male. Bowser definitely reads as male, as does Bowser Jr., but the Kamella Koopa is almost certainly female. Still, most of the things characters that have a sex read as male.

Now, I'm sure that none of that comes as a surprise to anyone familiar with the franchise. In a game like Mario, we've come to expect certain things. We expect that the game will focus on Mario. He'll spend a lot of time doing ridiculous and dangerous things involving jumping on floating platforms. He'll be responsible for completely screwing up the local economy by discovering and recovering thousands upon thousands of gold coins. He'll probably put on a costume that gives him some insane and drug-induced powers like flinging fireballs from his nose or turning into a flying raccoon or something. And, he'll probably end up rescuing the princess. Again.

The thing I want to talk about for a moment is how a game could be made that would give us the Mario action we all love, but also do a better job with representations of women. Because it's my belief that we could get a great Mario game that wouldn't have to rely so much on archaic representations of women as helpless victims in need of prince plumber to rescue them.

Now, with that in mind, I actually think that Mario Sunshine was on the right track. Instead of having Mario start off having to rescue the kidnapped princess, Mario was charged with cleaning up graffiti being spread by a lookalike. Of course, it quickly became a case of rescuing the princess, but it didn't need to be. Or consider Super Mario 3, where, for the first seven levels, Mario was charged with saving various kingdoms under siege, with the belief that the princess was safe at home. It wasn't until the end of world 7 that it turned out to be a trick by Bowser to ... kidnap the princess.

At this point, it'd be downright subversive to have a Mario game where the point wasn't to rescue a princess. I'd love to see a Mario game where Mario sets out to prevent some other disaster being perpetrated by Bowser that doesn't involve a princess in captivity. Given that plot is really an afterthought in most Mario games, it's not like it'd need to be something particularly deep. Bowser is a stereotypical mustache twirling Dan Backslide evil villain, so it could be that he's planning to destroy the Mushroom Kingdom with his weather dominator or something like that, and Mario is out to save the kingdom, instead of just Peach. I mean, Bowser is exactly the type of character to do dumb evil things just for the sake of doing dumb evil things, why not capitalize on that?

That alone would go a long way to fixing some of the issues, I think. Getting rid of the helpless women cliche would certainly be a good start. I think that the next step would be to include women as characters that have some strength and agency. This is tougher, because pretty much everyone in the Marioverse is completely inept except for Mario, and even that's questionable. But, it'd be nice to see that there were women doing something active to help the situation. Instead of the princess just mailing letters, it'd be nice to see her doing something. Even if it was just in cut-scenes, it'd be nice.

One of the best ways that Nintendo could give some agency to the princess would be by making her playable again. I don't even think it'd be necessary to go back to Mario 2 style play (although I think that'd be awesome), but I think it'd be swank as hell to beat the game and discover that Peach had become a playable character. Or, perhaps spread some secret bonus levels through the game where you play as various Mario characters like Peach, Toad, Luigi, and even Yoshi.

Since they love to spread bonus worlds throughout the games now, anyway, why not do bonus worlds where you're tasked with playing levels from the perspective of other characters, and build the levels with those characters in mind? It'd be a neat way to get some of the other characters some screentime, and diversify the gameplay a bit. Imagine that you're playing and you come to a bonus level where you have to play as Peach. Peach has her hover ability, and the gameplay is designed around that. You get to the end of the level, and it's a Switch Palace, Princess flips the switch and, like in Mario World, it turns the yellow outlines into yellow blocks, thus making it so that the Princess is playing an active role in helping Mario defeat Bowser.

There's no reason, at this point, why princess Peach has to stay a 2 dimensional cardboard cutout of a character. Or why the Mario world couldn't include some new women. I'd love to see more villains like Kamella, and the supporting cast could use some women who aren't in peril. And I firmly believe that it could absolutely be done in a way that wouldn't require substantial changes to the gameplay we've come to love from the Mario franchise.

Would adding some sections where you play as other characters or bonus levels where you can choose characters ruin the game? Would having Mario set out to save someone other than Peach or even set out to do something that wasn't "rescue a princess" ruin the game? Would having more prominant female characters that aren't helpless victims destroy the franchise? Obviously, I don't think so. Nobody plays Mario for the deep stories or nuanced plots- I play because I like running around ridiculously impossible dreamscapes full of talking mushroom people and wacky, ridiculous costumes. There's no reason that I couldn't do that just as well without the Princess Being Kidnapped Again.


Ella Westbury said...


awesome post.
One *ridiculously awesome* thing about rosalina that others have picked up
essentially saying that as the lumas (which are new stars / worlds whatever yes?) call her mama, she is to all intents and purposes the mother/creator/guardian of the entire cosmos.
I saw her as being aloof, busy, intelligent, and caring, even though she was asking for help, she did not seem to me like someone who did not have the resources to fix it another way if lil old mario hadn't have been there.

Just my 2c

Thanks for the awesome blog :)

baby221 said...

Hell, I'd be happy if Peach just finally told Mario, "Look, thanks for the effort and everything, but really, I'm with him" - points at Bowser - "and frankly I hate that you keep interrupting our honeymoon."

Because it seems hella bloody obvious to ME that's what's going on :P

Except, you know, I imagine that might cause some consternation on the part of the player. "I did all this work for NOTHING? Not even a bloody CAKE?!"

So maybe they should just design a game where, as Peach, the point of the game is to evade your "rescuer" - and you can deploy everything in your angry-lizard-hubby's arsenal to do it. :)

Roy said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one catching the soft-eyes that Princess makes with Bowser.

I'd *LOVE* a game like that, by the way. That would totally rock. Sort of like tecmo's Deception or the oooold Spy vs. Spy, but with more platforming action. Setting traps, ordering around legions of turtle soldiers, and generally avoiding the plumber's misguided attempts to "rescue" you. Genius!

Iscah said...

For what it's worth, in Paper Mario, Peach is kidnapped by aliens! (woo, no Bowser, no difference really) but then there are actual scenes where you play as Peach actually accomplishing important things to effect your own release and keep the villains' plans from succeeding. And there were several playable female characters who were a little bit kick-ass. The fight dynamic in that game was unusual, because you entered an arena, and had a team, but several of the most useful members of the team were female. (Okay, so they could win points from the audinence by blowing kisses. Ugh. I'll take my few points where I can get them; I'm not discounting the downsides.)