Everybody can think of a game that has a background character who is more compelling than the protagonist. Maybe that character is a damsel in distress, or a companion character, or a kidnapped child, or a parent left behind. For me, the example that springs to mind again and again is Princess Zelda, particularly in Ocarina of Time.
As nostalgic as I feel about Zelda as a franchise, I looked back on it as an adult with a keener eye and worry that the franchise’s central tropes and premises may be beyond repair. The games’ insistent focus on Link, rather than on either Zelda or Ganondorf, feels like a missed opportunity with troubling implications. For one thing, this trio of characters is inherently boring and overdone by now. For another, why do we only get insight into one corner of this triangle in game after game after game?
A few weeks ago, I started tweeting about what Ocarina of Time would look like if you played as Zelda. There would be some fun action elements when Zelda learned the fighting style of the Sheikah … but then, the player would spend the bulk of the end of the game trapped in a crystal, unable to move.
I’ve always thought a game told from a captive’s perspective would be illuminating. So, said people to me on Twitter, why not make a game jam with that theme?
(Preview for another game jam someday: games told from villains’ perspectives, particularly villains like Ganondorf [a person of color cast out by a society that systematically disenfranchised his people? Yikes. If you don’t think that has some troubling implications, then, uh, let’s not be friends]).
As a kid, I often felt haunted about what Princess Peach and Princess Zelda did all day. As an adult who’s read reams and reams of excellent writing about gender roles and PTSD and rape culture, I feel even greater horror at the presentation of characters like, say, Maria in the Gears of War series. We don’t get to see these characters suffer; that happens off-screen, and our knowledge that it occurs is meant to haunt and motivate us while we play as the hero. These captive characters’ stories are considered to be too dark — or, perhaps, too *boring* — to be told or focused on. Their stories are treated like something that doesn’t matter, except insofar as it affects the hero’s feelings. Also, many times the characters who end up in these positions are humans whose value to society is systemically questioned: women, people of color, children, the disabled, the elderly. The “helpless”. The alleged burdens on society. And it is the White Man’s Burden to save those characters, in-game.
I believe that representation of different kinds of characters in games should not *only* be about putting characters of other races and genders and ages and backgrounds into conventionally heroic or aggressive roles, but also, about telling other kinds of stories in general. Other perspectives. The other halves of stories that we don’t see or hear or engage with at all in the games that we have available.
So, this is a game jam. A game jam to create stories told from the perspective of a captive. To get into the mind of the powerless person and give them the agency to tell their own story. Power may have been wrested from them in some other way, for right now, but damn it, they are still the hero. And the player will play as them.
It’s going to be hard to tell these stories respectfully. But I believe in you.
Tower Jam takes place here, on the internet, in the month of September 2013. Our FAQ has the rest of the info you’ll need about how to participate and submit your game. I will be making a game as well, and one of our participants has already created a game that you can play right now. Good luck!