The Videogame “Damsel in Distress” and the Player Experience

Last week, I responded to a blog post about Bioshock and the role of female minor characters within the series’ narrative. Although I must confess that I am biased towards this particular franchise — especially Bioshock: Infinite, which I still consider to be one of the greatest gaming experiences of the last two generations — I still cannot shake an uncontrollable urge to defend the role of minor characters within video game narratives. To frame my opinion, I would like to compare two of the most recent games we have had the pleasure of experiencing: The Walking Dead Season 1 and The Last of Us. In both of these markedly different gaming experience, the player assumes control of two male protagonists: Lee and Joel. Although both of these characters are strong male protagonists in their own right, they each share the responsibility of “taking care” of two young female minor characters: Clementine and Ellie. Within each of these distinct roles, both of which resemble a powerful paternal experience for the gamer, the “daughters” play a crucial role in not only completing the campaign, but also in reinforcing the tangible impact of the minor character on the player.

The first thing to recognize between these distinct experiences is the impact of the experience in regard to the minor characters; both Clementine and Ellie exude a level of fragility and naivity that not only inspires the paternal player to ensure their survival for the sake of completion, but to also genuinely care about achieving this end goal; with every decision made by Lee, the player pays particular attention to how certain choices affect Clementine’s perception of her guardian. In a similar sense, playing as Joel allows players to play a more active role in protecting Ellie, saving her from tickers and infected alike throughout the campaign while paying close attention to the quiet moments between the two characters, which exude an infectious level of wonder and hope that deepens the connection between the player and his “damsel” (think back to the giraffe scene…absolutely breathtaking).

Yet, despite the perceived “weakness” or “fragility” of Clementine and Ellie, these “daughters” also exude an immense amount of strength; both of these young girls have experienced a tremendous amount of loss, yet still push forward with the player to survive the apocalypse. Clementine often helps Lee navigate the environment and even fends off a few zombies in the process while Ellie, in a markedly more active role, will attack aggressing NPC’s in an effort to either allow the player to deliver the final blow or to kill the foe herself (Ellie also comes into play with environmental puzzles that require both characters to solve). As a result, Clementine and Ellie become companions in the adventure as opposed to mere means to an end.

Yet, beyond the roles of these female characters as companions, there exists a constant feeling of connection between the player and the minor characters onscreen. I could be speaking for myself, but whenever I found myself disappointing Clementine or watching Ellie struggle with an enemy, I would physically lean forward and attempt to intervene in any way possible. Some may perceive this as an authoritarian figure protecting a lesser being for the sake of progress, but I know for certain that these moments were in no way concerned with the final objective: they were born from a basic desire to protect someone that I cared about. As players who are simply controlling bodies on a screen, moments like these create a level of immersion that transcends “winning” and “losing” and beautifully elevates the identity of onscreen characters to a point of realism that cannot be approached in any other medium.

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