Sorry, But Our Princess Wants to Be in Another Castle

So I’m not a PS3 guy. I have spent this whole console generation with my 360 and (unfortunately, for the most part) my Wii.

In general, I haven’t found this to be much of a problem. With few exclusive releases on either of the two big consoles, I feel like I haven’t missed too much. Mostly I have regretted lacking access to Metal Gear Solid 4 and God of War 3, two extensions of franchises that I admire. The only real new IP that I have felt any strong curiosity about has been the Uncharted series–and mostly because the buzz among critics that I trust has generally been so positive about those titles.

I have been staying with my brother-in-law for the past few weeks, who owns a PS3. I played a little bit of LittleBigPlanet which I found to be kind of “meh” (I hate those jumping physics). However, then he brought home a copy of Uncharted 2, which I was kind of excited about.

But then I was kind of underwhelmed.

The gunplay in the game was awkward, I thought, and there was much too much of it in a game that I expected to be a bit more in the vein of a Tomb Raider. Exploration and environmental puzzles seemed to be the minority of the gameplay, and those elements seemed more fun than controlling a finicky reticule. The plot, however, seemed fine. It read more like a heist movie plot (lots of double crosses and switching sides among its main cast) than it did a pulpy Raiders-esque remix. Admittedly, it seemed like a pretty well scripted example of that kind of story (entertaining more than a work of art), but I just couldn’t exactly see why the game had seemed to some to be something really special to so many people.

But I hadn’t really seen Chloe coming.

Okay, I had. I got the role that this character was supposed to play in the plot. She’s the bad girl. She has dark hair to contrast with Elena’s good girl, blonde hairdo. Blah blah blah.

I thought that it was vaguely brave to suggest that she was sleeping with both Flynn and Drake in order to keep both men interested and distracted, especially since you play the role of Drake and that might kind of piss off the player. However, otherwise Chloe (like a few other characters in this story) seemed fairly cookie cutter.

The scene in the middle of the game, though, when Drake goes after Chloe, despite her betrayal of Drake, kind of made me sit up and pay attention for a moment.

That Drake goes after Chloe in that scene is not in and of itself that surprising. After all, chasing the girl across a virtual landscape is one of the staples of the medium. I’ve saved more than my fair share of “princesses in another castle” since 1985.

What was interesting to me about this scene was this particular “princess”’s reaction. When Drake finally makes his way through one of the more challenging sequences in the game, some running battles with goons on the roof of a moving train, and beats what is essentially the first “boss” that you encounter in the game, he finds Chloe. Her response? To paraphrase a bit liberally here: “Fuck you.”

This is one “princess” that has no interest in being saved. Drake has pissed her off, she feels as betrayed as he does, and she hasn’t been cooling her heels behind Bowser’s drawbridge waiting for Drake to show up.

Now this isn’t the only time that the “save the princess” trope has been futzed with in a game story. From Braid to the more recent Shadows of the Damned, some self-aware game designers have considered ways to reverse or play with player expectation concerning what the goal of a male protagonist might be. And for me this isn’t a “feminist statement” thing either–in which I might want to declare for the more autonomous presentation of a female character in a mainstream game. For me, the cool thing about Chloe’s essential refusal to be saved by Drake is that it is simply good character writing that usually leads to stronger plotting. When characters other than the lead are given clear and legitimate motivations of their own, then (generally speaking) one tends to see some interesting new problems creep into a plot — just ask Shakespeare, the Coen brothers, or Cormac McCarthy (or for that matter the writer of Fiasco who seems to recognize how unique character motivations lead to more interestingly complicated situations in plots and made a game about it). This potential for having to face new and stickier plot devices than what one had otherwise expected from the initial premise of a plot seems especially relevant here, since this meeting with Chloe and her refusal to be led away from the “boss’s castle” is the very catalyst for the initial predicament that Drake finds himself in the beginning of the game. We basically discover midgame that the initial predicament of the game is built on a heroine not doing what is expected of her in some conventional way.

Now, I’m not saying that the writing in Uncharted 2 is on par with Shakespeare or the Coens, but it is good to see that video games, which too often have had their plots and characters dismissed as shallow and one-dimensional, might be maturing in their sense of how to use character motives to complicate plots. This smacks of the possibility of a maturing craftsmanship in video game writing.

This, of course, isn’t the first time that I have seen evidence of such craftsmanship, but it is still heartening to see it so clearly exemplified by a really solidly written scene and to feel like we have moved well beyond the simplistic plotting of a game about walking mushrooms, fireball chucking plumbers, and princesses in other castles.


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