Shigeru Miyamoto made Donkey Kong, and, in the process, put a woman on top of some girders for Mario to rescue. His Super Mario and Zelda series perpetually involve saving a princess. If we're going to talk about women in games, we should talk to him about it, right? Last week, I did.
I need to set this one up and interrupt it here and there with some editorial explanation.
To start, I noticed something unusual when I played Nintendo's main Wii U games at the start of the big E3 gaming show last week: almost all of them had playable female characters.
Nintendo gamers have been able to play as Princess Peach as far back as 1988's Super Mario Bros. 2 and in the first Mario Kart in 1992 and the entire Metroid series is headlined by gaming's first or second-most famous female protagonist (Lara Croft arguably takes the top spot). But most Nintendo games, by default, have you playing as a guy, and many have you saving a princess. It's simple, more or less co-opting the kind of simple rescue-her plot you'd see in a fairly tale.
Nintendo's 2013 E3 games for Wii U were different. In the new Super Mario 3D World, Princess Peach is a playable hero. First time in a Mario platformer since 1988's SMB2, and that's with Nintendo having passed over Peach as a playable option in two recent multiplayer Mario games.
The new Pikmin, third in the series, is the first to make one of its playable explorers female. Her name is Brittany.
Nintendo is publishing an ass-kicking action game starring a woman named Bayonetta.
The new Mario Kart for Wii U included Peach, Daisy and Toadette in the series' roster of drivers.
Even the new Donkey Kong Country brings back female family member Dixie, who was omitted from the previous installment of that series.
I therefore went into this topic about women in games during an hour-long E3 interview with two things in mind. I wasn't just thinking about the recent videos about the damsel in distress trope by critic Anita Sarkeesian—"The damsel in distress trope disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own right."—but also was curious about what appeared to be a progressive wave of playable female characters from Nintendo.
Miyamoto and I had been talking about Pikmin 3, the new Wii U game that Miyamoto is quite proud of, so this was something of a left turn. I mentioned how surprised I was to see so many new Nintendo games with playable female characters and then said...
Kotaku: Way back, 25-30 years ago, it was always that you were the guy and you were saving the girl. You were saving Princess Peach, and she was helpless damsel in distress. Is this something you noticed, that you wanted to have people play more female characters? Was that feedback you've gotten?
Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo: Well, yeah, back in the days when we made the first Donkey Kong, that was a game we first made for the arcades, the arcades were not places girls went into often. And so we didn't even consider making a character that would be playable for girls.
Miyamoto: "The arcades [back then] were not places girls went into often. And so we didn't even consider making a character that would be playable for girls."
But typically with the DS era, what we found is, you know, gradually, more and more women began playing games—both young girls and adult women, playing games like Professor Layton and Animal Crossing, so more and more ... and even as far back as Mario Kart, we had females who wanted to be able to play as female characters and we obviously saw the addition of Princess Peach early on in that series. And gradually, over time, we started to see the desire for other-balanced female characters. And so we've added heavier female characters in the Mario Kart series for them to choose from. So I think it's just a natural tendency.
OK, I'm going to interrupt the flow of this.
I knew, going in, that our exchange would be problematic, and not because he or I would necessarily say something "bad," but that it'd be hard to get very deep into this. And we'd both be prone to making assumptions or simplifications.
I've interviewed Miyamoto one or two times a year for the past decade. But we don't chit-chat about much more than the games he's showing or the state of Nintendo. He's a generation older than me and grew up in another culture. I have no idea what his views on gender are, whether he's liberal or conservative.
As he answered my questions, I realized how little I knew of his thought process. It seemed like he was saying male characters were default characters. It seemed like he was saying that Nintendo mostly added female characters as a reaction to expanding player demographics. It seemed like the idea of, say, women enjoying Donkey Kong was top-of-mind. But, really, we were on new ground here.
On the Mario Kart thing, he's right. The original game's roster only offered one female character, Princess Peach, who was classed to race similarly to Yoshi. There were no heavier-class female racers. By Mario Kart DS, Daisy was added as medium-class. Mario Kart Wii classed Rosalina as large.
Back to the interview, where you'll see me engage in some simplification myself, implying that it might take a female gamer to compel a game designer to add a female protagonist, which is obviously not a prerequisite. Again, I was trying to make the most of limited time and lots of worthwhile interview topics...
Kotaku: Do you have daughters? Have they asked to be able to play as girls in the game?
Miyamoto: Yeah, I have a daughter, but she doesn't really ask me that very much. She loves Zelda and she always plays as Link, but she's actually never asked me why she can't play as Princess Zelda. [laughs]
Kotaku: This has come up more, I think, in America, where people are talking about the idea that usually, in games, it's the girl that has to be rescued by the guy. Have you ever considered doing a game where it's the guy getting rescued by the girl?
Miyamoto: So, yeah, certainly, I think there are opportunities to do it. One, I think we could do it as a parody of everything else we've done. But I think, certainly, we would want something where it would feel like the natural way for the game to play and in that case we would certainly take that approach.
Miyamoto: "If we end up creating a gameplay structure where it makes sense for, whether it's a female to go rescue a male or a gay man to rescue a lesbian woman or a lesbian woman to rescue a gay man, we might take that approach."
I guess, for me in particular, the structure of the gameplay always comes before the story. And so we're always looking at, when we're putting that together, what is the most natural story to take place within that structure. Pikmin is a good example of that. In Pikmin, the original structure of the gameplay was centered on all these individual little creatures moving around like ants. As a result of that, the world that you're in is kind of earthy and natural settings and the creatures you're fighting seems sort of like insects, because that's what the gameplay centers on.
So, if we end up creating a gameplay structure where it makes sense for, whether it's a female to go rescue a male or a gay man to rescue a lesbian woman or a lesbian woman to rescue a gay man, we might take that approach. For us it's less about the story and more about the structure of the gameplay and what makes sense to be presenting to the consumer.
And that was it. Note that both Miyamoto and I, perhaps to our credit, had forgotten the existence of Super Princess Peach, a Nintendo DS game that actually is about Peach rescuing Mario. She does so by using her emotions. She can cry, get angry... Miyamoto wasn't much involved in that one, I don't think!
There's certainly more to discuss here about why game creators—from the legendary to the brand-new—create the characters they create and use the scenarios they do.
We've now heard from the man who made Princess Peach, and he seems pretty open-minded about adding more female characters to Nintendo's games. Just to placate female gamers? Only if there's a gameplay justification? There are certainly some qualifiers there that will raise some eyebrows, but in the context of Nintendo's E3 2013 games, it certainly looks like female characters are a bit more empowered in the world of Nintendo now then they have been.