Fat Princess

A number of people are quite upset about Titan Studios’ upcoming cake-fest Fat Princess. Of course, speaking out against the games industry led to a rabid counter-attack by angry teenage gamers who feel like their way of life is under fire, and all that’s left of the ‘debate’ is a smoking crater of locked comment threads. I find it very depressing when things like this happen. I think of game design as an art form like any other, but… well, I’m sure feminist criticism of a photo of a fat princess wouldn’t draw the same kind of collective rage. I guess it’s a matter of democracy, or something? Everyone has access to cameras, word processors, pencils and paper, and it’s generally understood that anyone could put them to meaningful use, so people are much more accepting and broad-minded when it comes to both using and criticising these mediums. But games are, generally speaking, still considered the domain of big corporations, and there remains an army of vocal young gamers who believe that commercial companies know what’s best – if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in charge, right? Still, I digress!

I used to consider myself a feminist, although these days I’m not sure I approve of such a heavily gender-weighted phrase. The point is, I’m aware of how awful most games are regarding women. Even I find it very patronising to play a game like Lost in Blue, where you play as a rugged, adventurous boy who must protect a helpless girl who can’t even walk twenty feet to get a drink from the river if her life depended on it, and I’m amazed when developers say they didn’t put female playable characters in their game because there wasn’t enough time, or it would take up too much memory. I think my favourite moment in absurd feminist arguments was when someone from Splash Damage said that Quake Wars had female characters because the Strogg were “technically female” – an argument that they later retracted (as I recall), but has been trotted out by fans ever since.

“Technically Female”

Anyway, all of that is really just to set the scene for what I’m about to say: I think Fat Princess is okay.

When I first saw a video during Sony’s E3 press conferences, my first concern was whether players were supposed to force-feed the princesses. You don’t though, so that’s okay. Well, I think you’re supposed to go out and fetch cake and then she’ll happily choose to overeat – so while you’re not forcing the food down her gullet, you’re still a feeder (fetish article – possibly not safe for work), which isn’t entirely cool in my mind – but there’s a big difference between forceful abuse and enabling unhealthy free will, so I can’t say it’s flat-out wrong. And before anyone accuses me of hating normal-size women, I say ‘unhealthy’ because these princesses become quite undeniably obsese.

So, with the fat issue given a faint green light, we come to what people have become so riled up about. It seems that the main objection is that the princess is being objectified – literally, that she exists only as an object within the gameplay, rather than being treated as an equal character. Would it be better if the princess had a personality? I seem to recall, somewhere in all of the chaos, someone said they wished more games had strong female characters, like Portal. I wonder, were they talking about the mute, empty vessel that you play as, or the “technically genderless” AI that acts like a sadistic ex-girlfriend? The woman in Portal – whose name escapes me at present, which only emphasises my point really – is intentionally left as a blank slate, because Valve want the player-character construct to be weighted heavily towards the player, so that they feel more personally involved. She seems, to me, to be just as much of a gameplay object as the fat princesses (princessi??) – very little more than an avatar to represent your place in the world. Feminist gamers seem to generally approve of her, because she runs around and solves puzzles and does things, but of course my view is that it’s the player who is responsible for all that.

For this reason, I can’t deny that Fat Princess is a sexist game, but only in so far as all the playable characters are male. I just can’t say that the idea of having to rescue a princess shocks me much? I mean, for one thing, I think of her more as an anthropomorphism of a flag, than an objectified woman – I think this could be the problem that a lot of gamers have. Everyone’s used to breaking into a fortress and making off with booty, so what difference does it make whether it’s a flag, a briefcase, or a princess? This seems to relate to my personal theory about masculine and feminine attitudes to games, but since I haven’t really written about that yet (and I definitely don’t have time today), this will only make sense to those of you who I’ve discussed this stuff with in person. In this sense, denying her a personality probably works in the designer’s favour – the closer she is to being an actual object, the less she seems like a crude portrait of a woman. If you see what I mean.

But no, I think there’s another side to this, which is just that I’m happy to write off ‘princesses’ as being an archetype unto themselves. It occurs to me that the three blogs I linked to originally are all American. Speaking as a European, I’ve grown up surrounded by stories about kings and knights and princesses and all the rest of it – not just in quaint old fairy-tales, but in newspapers and on TV. For me, there’s a huge political divide separating princesses from regular women, which kinda puts them into a different box on the venn diagram of life; their defining feature is their social status, rather than their gender, and there’s a huge wealth of existing cultural stereotypes about princessess (and princes) that the portly maidens in Fat Princess certainly relate to – such as being too naive to understand their social circumstances, and their faintly greedy assumption that they have every right to consume what their subjects provide them with.

I’m quite loathe to start talking about stuff like politics and class conflict but, if anything, I see Fat Princess less as a bunch of guys rescuing an objectified woman than it is a bunch of workers rescuing an objectified monarch. Well, I suppose this isn’t so much an attempt to justify Fat Princess – after all, I believe it’s being made in the US, so this ‘trans-Atlantic cultural differences’ argument breaks down, really – but I guess it’s another possible reason why I’m not as enraged as some other people. Because of trans-Atlantic cultural differences.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Fat Princess, and will buy it if I ever get a PS3. It’s obviously not perfect, but I don’t think it’s nearly as sexist as a lot of other games.