The climate surrounding video games today is characterized socially by the “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” series, which is digging ever more uncomfortably deep into the unsatisfying state of women in games. This leaves us all increasingly more aware of the universality of the problem. Part one of “Tropes vs Women in Video Games” is devoted to the Damsel in Distress, which is a theme investigated in a unique way by the new game Hope: The other side of adventure, developed by Mr. Roboto Game Studio (english translation.) By giving the player control of the princess locked in the tower, you are effectively locked in the tower with her.
Hope demonstrates the intrinsic complexity of the situation at hand rather effectively. On one hand, the princess longs to be saved by the prince in typical ‘distressed damsel’ fashion. You feel her own lack of agency as you try in vain to find something to do in or a way to escape from the tower. On the other hand, the princess demonstrates strength and perseverance in order to survive the torturous conditions in the tower. It is undeniable that the princess demonstrates strength by her insistence on processing her plight by journaling her thoughts out loud and reinforcing that her agency still survives in her ability to hope. She is strong because she is stuck in a disempowerment fantasy, has only a dank room and cockroaches for company, and, while she acknowledges the horror of her situation, she still believes—hopes—that she will be okay. The player experiences this, too, as the gameplay consists of having her lethargically walk, cry, or sigh in her room as she struggles to make sense of her predicament.
This message includes a certain naïveté, projected by those moments when she feels her only hope is to be saved by her love, the prince. We know what the prince is doing as we suffer with the princess in that tower. He is going for high scores, expending time to figure out how to reach that unreachable platform, and likely hunting for treasure more vehemently than he is searching for a way out of the dungeon. While the princess isn’t aware of the fact that she is merely an actress playing a common role in a game, what the player knows from experience and observations in the game serves to better frame the lunacy of the whole situation.
What comes through loud and clear when I reflect upon my experience so far in Hope and contextualize it with the whole of my experience with video games is an extreme frustration. Every time I look at this trope from my perspective, it no longer feels like just a lazy, convenient narrative to frame the hero’s journey, but a tale of torture and horror told without respect to the one who suffers. When I’m locked in that tower, how am I supposed to feel like the narrative is relevant to the gameplay when I know the hero is running around the game world as if he is playing some sort of game? To the princess, it could not be further from a game; it is her experience of terror.
My older brother and I have talked in the past about this. We’ve both taken it upon ourselves to listen when our games try to communicate a sense of urgency and lack of time. The reward we tend to get from this sort of role-play is emphatically unrepresented in games almost one hundred percent of the time. The urgency represented in the game is often artificial, meaning that the victim we save is no happier to see us after thirty seconds than they were that time we got lost and it took forty minutes.
In narrative arcs where saving the princess is an activity spanning the whole game, there is minimal indication that the princess has been suffering by the time we save her. Even in instances where the suffering is implied or exposed, the weight of her suffering is removed when she recovers so quickly and is happier to see our face than to know that her ordeal is over. So when we do the game the favor of role-playing for ourselves, giving as granted narrative complexities involving our own struggle against temptation to save our loved one’s life, the game forces us to continue role-playing to experience any meaningful catharsis at the end. This is not mature or complex writing; it is lazy and uninspired.
I am still going through Hope. You only see a few minutes of the narrative per day, and cannot see the next part until the following day in real life. My own sense of the passage of time becomes resonant as the princess is implied to be in a state of suffering every moment I wait to play again. And this whole time, the hero is going through the game, exploring dungeons and collecting loot.
I identify very personally with the princess—her need to persevere, her struggle for agency, and her insistence on hope. This perfectly exemplifies the fact that her experience and place in the narrative is in no way intrinsic to her gender. Male, female, or otherwise, the experience of suffering is the same. The only thing that makes our suffering unique from each others’ is our own perspectives as a result of our experience and identities. While our gender may inform our perspectives, characterize our experiences, and be part of our identities, gender does not define any of them. There is nothing female about being the distressed, and there is nothing male about being the hero. The fact that these ideas have been so persistent is testament to what they are: tropes.
Unfortunately, Hope seems to have been temporarily removed from the app store, but it should be available on Android, iOS, PC, and Mac again soon. It’s free, so there isn’t much reason to avoid giving it a shot and joining the conversation. The game only takes six days to play through, and I am excited to see it through to the end. The princess’s hope dares me to hope too. To acknowledge my own hope for a better future, I need to acknowledge the suffering and get back in the game every day until the end.