One of Anita Sarkeesian’s final videos in her series of Tropes Vs Women in Video Games took aim at the “Lady Sidekick” trope, a common trope in games that’s actually used regardless of gender, genre or platform. Nevertheless, Sarkeesian cherrypicks examples and then misinforms viewers with a critique that completely ignores context, game design mechanics, and resource budget limitations.
The video starts with a critique of BioShock: Infinite, and Sarkeesian proceeds to criticize 2K and Irrational Games for reducing Elizabeth’s role in the actual game to something less worthy than how her powers are portrayed narratively. She states…
“ For all of her tremendous powers, Elizabeth is reduced by the game’s mechanics to doing the most basic and menial of tasks, and waiting around for her to open a door becomes a significant aspect of how players experience her character.”
“But Elizabeth is an example of a female sidekick who is reduced to a tool. There aren’t gameplay mechanics that allow you to have meaningful interactions with her. She just opens doors and dispenses useful things, and her tear-opening powers are not her own, but yours to call on and control with the press of a button.”
The “critique” of Elizabeth ignores a lot of the actual restrictions levied on Irrational Games from a design perspective.
Even Kotaku – for all the hate-bait and misrepresentation they’re known for – did some proper research in noting that what Irrational wanted to do – and what they presented in the slick E3 demo was not what ended up in the game, where level designer Shawn Elliot explained…
“The interesting thing was that the game reflected in that demo is not the game that we ultimately shipped,”
The whole portal function in BioShock Infinite was nothing like what it was portrayed in the E3 demo due to console limitations, and large parts of the game didn’t quite turn out the way they were intended, as reported by GamesRadar.
Even on Irrational Games website they detail features from various games that had to end up on the cutting room floor due to the technical limitations of the home consoles.
So what does this have to do with portals, Elizabeth and her not having autonomous “meaningful interactions” with the player? Well, because all of that costs some value in resource currency.
For home consoles, there’s a resource budget. You have so much memory already off limits for system functions, then there’s so much memory for weapons, sounds, graphics, physics, and interactive entities, music, animations and AI.
For the PS3 there was only really 256MB of RAM available to developers and for the Xbox 360 there was 512MB. While both systems had highly scalable CPUs, it was a real challenge making use of the PS3’s multi-SPU setup with its highly limited RAM budget, and it was a costly and timely venture for a lot of studios, restricting and inhibiting a lot of gameplay design possibilities, as briefly reported by PlayStation LifeStyle.
Sure Elizabeth could have had autonomous behavior, more “meaningful” interactions, and could have opened portals all on her own accord whenever she pleased, but the game would have had to look like Minecraft if they wanted it done in a timely manner and without constant crashing on home consoles.
Hence, Elizabeth’s AI routines and pathfinding were limited to sticking by the player, which greatly reduced the amount of footprints the AI would fill up in memory. More pathfinding options, more AI routines and more AI reactions would take up more memory and more cycles to execute. They still needed a viable and compelling action game in BioShock Infinite involving enemy AI, physics, bosses, and all of the other moving parts and pieces that made up Columbia.
Sarkeesian makes no mention of how Irrational Games could have fixed Elizabeth’s design without breaking some other aspect of the game, and she certainly makes no effort to address the design hurdles they encountered trying to squeeze the game onto the home consoles. Having different portals opening up at any time (especially at the whims of an AI) would have crashed the game pretty hard, since it would involve loading in lots of assets from different timelines, stages, etc., at any point in the game. And neither the Xbox 360 nor the PS3 had that kind of processing horsepower.
Without providing any sort of technical analysis on how to fix the problem (because it’s largely a platform issue, unless Irrational Games decided to sacrifice the graphics for the gameplay) Sarkeesian then moves on to Team Ico’s Ico. She states…
“Damsel escort missions occur when a female character joins the male player character, but is largely helpless, and rather than being a clear benefit to the player, she feels more like a burden. In ICO, players free Yorda from a cage early on. She then joins Ico on his journey, and much of the game consists of solving puzzles so that Yorda, who can’t make leaps or climb walls on her own, can traverse the environment.”
Except that also applies to male NPCs as well…such as the completely helpless scientists you had to rescue throughout Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, or the completely defenseless alchemists you had to escort in Spyro 2. And even more-so, Baby Mario in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.
Thanks to the video from The Bee Dizzle, we can see that Baby Mario was completely helpless, useless and defenseless. He couldn’t fight, couldn’t jump, couldn’t help Yoshi in any significant way. He was literally a burden on Yoshi’s back throughout the entire game. Does that make the game sexist against baby males?
She also makes no mention of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, where a fairly strong character named Claudia and her companion briefly escort Gabriel on his mission. Neither need saving, but instead actually came to Gabriel’s aid in the game.
Nevertheless, Sarkseeian centers her attention on Ico, and how the PS2 female companion suffered from the same sort of limitations as Elizabeth, and how she didn’t have her own goals, ideals and autonomous behavior.
In this case she fails to note that a similar design mechanic was actually used in The Last Guardian, where the player-character is the one in distress and must rely on the giant animal Trico to help them. It’s a reverse on Ico where the player-character, a little boy, is actually more of the side-kick than his giant fluffy AI friend, who is the only one who can defeat the bad guys, make large leaps, and traverse the more dangerous parts of the environment (she does, however, bring this up later on in the video).
Sarkeesian also ignored all the Red Storm Rainbow Six games, where hostages were completely useless and had to be freed from the terrorist. Escorting hostages (who were both men and women) from danger zones was tedious, difficult and nerve-wrecking. However, their behavior was limited to the hardware that the games were designed to run on.
These aren’t called “Damsel escort missions”, they’re simply called “Escort Missions”, and they exist across a number of games and platforms, featuring men, women, kids and aliens alike. Escort missions in Tie Fighter and X-Wing were extremely difficult, but whether the passengers were male, female or alien, it didn’t make them sexist.
You also had to rescue a bunch of people throughout the Metal Gear Solid games, including the creator himself, Hideo Kojima. Does it make it sexist against men since Kojima’s character was useless on the battlefield and couldn’t aid players while he was being escorted to safety?
Sarkeesian doesn’t explain what the difference is between men being escorted and women being escorted in games, other than that when the NPCs happen to be women it’s sexist.
She then moves on to Resident Evil 4, one of the most popular games in the series, and also one of the most frustrating due to having a very useless AI companion in the form of Ashley Graham. It’s true that Ashley wasn’t much of a help throughout the game, but the limitations of the AI was, once again, reliant on platform specs.
The GameCube and PS2 had even bigger hardware limits than the PS3 and Xbox 360, so quite naturally you can see how Ashley was even more limited in her movements and actions compared to characters like Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite on the PS3 and Xbox 360, or the very impressive Trico from The Last Guardian on the PS4. AI scalability, as you can tell, is oftentimes dependent on the resource budget afforded by the platform, and not necessarily the narrative or creative limitations from the design team.
A detailed postmortem by Eurogamer featured interviews from some of the designers of Resident Evil 4, who talked at length about far more ambitious plans they had for the game. However, due to memory and processing constraints on the GameCube, they had to scrap many of their more outlandish ideas, as Yasuhisa Kawamura explains…
“Various hidden checkpoints would trigger Leon’s fear into hallucination. Depending on player’s behaviour, the structure of [the] stage changed, so we had to create two types of 3D models. That doubles the amount of cost when it comes to design and rendering. Even if we did have the budget, it was almost impossible to cram all of that into the GameCube’s memory. We couldn’t even add any monsters.”
It’s the exact same problem Irrational Games ran into with BioShock: Infinite on the PS3 and Xbox 360.
The team had to find a fine balance between enemy AI, player-controls, lighting, stage design, texture pools, geometry density, and Ashley, all running at the same time on the sixth gen systems. In the case of the PS2, they had to cut even more corners to get the game to run at a decent enough frame-rate on Sony’s system.
Once again, Sarkeesian makes no effort to talk at length about what sort of corners the team could have cut – on an already strenuous project pushing the boundaries of the console hardware – in order to make Ashley less of a burden to the player as a companion.
Nevertheless, Sarkeesian goes on to state…
“A good rule of thumb is that if you spend any portion of a game carrying a female character around, it’s a pretty safe bet that it at least has some elements of the Damsel Escort Mission.
“But the models games give us rarely offer experiences in which this kind of support is truly mutual; instead, we see a pattern of men frequently carrying and helping women in situations where they’re otherwise helpless. This pattern is rooted in sexist ideas about men as protectors and women as the ones who need this kind of protection.”
Sarkeesian uses examples of Prince of Persia, Wind Waker and Enslaved: Odyssey to the West as games that rely on having men physically helping women.
What she ignores is that oftentimes while the men are shown in these games to help women physically (given that men are biologically stronger than women), they oftentimes supplement the female’s lack of physical prowess with mental acuity or some other means of aid, such as Trip from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West saving or helping Monkey a number of times using her hacking skills and electronic wizardry. She also fails to mention that the real hero of games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is Zelda, despite her not using any kind of physicality to save the day.
Sarkeesian also uses a quick image of Batman: Arkham City to help visually illustrate her point… but you actually save more men in that game than you do women, and all of the men you save in the game are completely helpless. There’s also the fact that Batman spends a mission in Batman: Arkham Origins attempting to save a helpless Alfred from Bane. Sarkeesian ignores this as well.
In response to Sarkeesian’s criticisms, some developers have attempted to change the way females are depicted in fictional media. We now see games where female characters oftentimes not only possess intellectual acuity above their male counterparts, but are also as physically adept as them as well, or even more-so, which is how Aloy was depicted in Horizon: Zero Dawn or how Evie from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate was portrayed. In the latter’s case, a middle-aged Evie even had to physically save her brother from certain death while he was in the clutches of a psychotic killer, due to her brother being incapable of defeating the villain.
Sarkeesian moves on to claim that male protagonists oftentimes receive cheerleading support from female NPCs…
“Finally, female companions often function as cheerleaders, doling out little ego boosts to players for gunning down bad guys or pulling off other feats.
“But these interactions are rarely depicted as mutually supportive. It’s not nearly as common in these scenarios for the male player character to offer emotional support to their female sidekick, to tell her that she’s doing a great job.”
It is true that secondary characters usually always reinforce the player-character. This, however, is not a gendered response, it’s an integrated mechanic to let players know they’re on the right path, oftentimes doing so without always depicting a giant graphical banner on the screen saying “You’re on the right path” (although there are some games that do use giant graphical banners to inform you of moving along the right path). Male characters also offer support to player-characters as well, whether they’re male or female.
For instance, every time the mostly male cast in Halo: CE and Halo 2 encounters the Master Chief they’re in shock and awe, and oftentimes they’re quick to praise him if he helps them survive an encounter against the Covenant.
Also, it’s not just limited to female companions praising the male characters. In Horizon majority of the NPCs shower Aloy with praise after she aids them. A lot of the characters also showed a lot of fondness to Setsuna from I Am Setsuna, or Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider series.
That’s not to mention that in some games some characters give positive feedback to the player-character and other NPCs, regardless of gender… like in Final Fantasy XV, or Octacon giving positive reinforcement to Snake throughout the Metal Gear Solid series.
There’s even a compilation video of Batman in Arkham Knight where Batman himself goes around thanking all the secondary hero characters in the game. He even manages to get dissed by Selina… without a thanks. **Spoilers Ahead**
There are even times in games where the opposite happens, and no matter what the main character does they end up getting admonished by mentor characters, similar to what happened with Connor Kenway in Assassin’s Creed III, where his trainer, Achilles, spent majority of the game chastising him.
Connor also received a lot of negative reinforcement from his father, Haytham Kenway, who was ideologically opposed to his son’s efforts, leading to them violently butting heads throughout the campaign mode.
Captain Walker from Spec Ops: The Line also continually receives a lot of negative feedback throughout the game, with it becoming increasingly negative the further through the campaign players move. Sarkeesian makes no mention of this.
There are a variety of games that offer a variety of different kinds of both negative and positive feedback based on a player’s actions. Games like Mount & Blade have NPCs who will praise the player-character or reproach the player-character depending on the player’s actions and where they fit on a moral scale. Not every game is as black and white as Sarkeesian makes it seem.
Sarkeesian also misrepresents some of the games she uses in her examples of player-characters never aiding or supporting secondary characters on their missions, such as Enslaved: Odyssey to the West.
In the game, Monkey’s main quest is completed halfway through the story, and the player spends the remaining half helping Trip find her family and carry out her own means of revenge, since… Trip has her own goals and desires that players are forced to carry out as part of the main story.
Later on in the video Sarkeesian rescinds her blanket statement about positive reinforcement only coming from female characters.
She explains that oftentimes men companions are portrayed as equals, so it’s not a negative gender stereotype when do provide positive reinforcement to the player-character. She uses KillZone 2 and Gears of War 3 to illustrate this point, while conveniently ignoring that Gears of War 3 was the first game in the series to introduce playable female characters as part of the campaign, so it wasn’t just men reinforcing men, or men helping men, but both men and women working together.
She does later gloss over some amount of praise for Gears of War 4 for making the female characters on “equal footing” with the male counterparts, despite the fact that this was already present in Gears of War 3.
Sarkeesian finishes up the video by praising The Last Guardian for focusing on the points I mentioned earlier in the article, but she fails to realize that the game was a massive technical undertaking for the studio, and originally they ran into issues with Trico’s design, AI and the overall playability of the game over the decade of development. This was especially due to the limitations of the PS3, where Sony even admitted that the design elements of the game – including the very impressive lifelike AI of Trico – would have been “compromised” had they kept it on the PS3.
In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Sony’s worldwide studio president, Shuhei Yoshida, explained that in order for the team to fully realize the development of the game, they had to move over to the PS4…
“”With the [PS4 development] system available it became apparent for us that we just cannot continue like this in terms of the pace of development,” […] “We knew that we had to compromise on the design or the scope or the number of characters if we stayed on PS3. So in order to realize the vision we said, ‘Let’s do PS4.’”
And this brings us full circle again: Sarkeesian is ultimately trying to apply a “cultural” eye to gameplay characterizations that are ultimately limited by technical engineering.
She derides AI and character depictions in games on hardware that barely ran those titles at 20fps, and then praises newer games running on more powerful hardware that could properly depict AI in a more realistic manner. She also cherrypicks examples and then later somewhat contradicts them by providing alternative examples of games that do the opposite of what she mentions.
Ultimately the episode comes across as a mish-mash of contradictions from someone who doesn’t understand game development and the hurdles required to not only depict believable enough characters throughout the gameplay experience, but also account for all of the technical hurdles inherent with the game design process. None of that is taken into account in her “critiques” of these games, nor does she mention what steps developers can take to cull features to supplement more “meaningful” relationships throughout the experience.
One female game developer did speak out against Sarkeesian, in terms of saying that there could be more female protagonists in games, but maybe they should be made relatable and drawn from experience rather than designed to meet a diversity quota. You can check out the video below from the Lady Game Developer channel.
The sad reality is that the usual suspects won’t offer a rebuttal to this piece. They don’t know how to fact check and they aren’t real gamers, so their best bet at a retort is either pretend it doesn’t exist, or block anyone who even mentions that an article like this exists.