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 enemies 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.