Here is a game: Fairy Princess Escape

The following is a guest post from Kirby.

I’m a feminist, queer, white, cis-gendered woman who lives in Boston.  I’m one of the co-founders of the Bitches of Destiny, a cabaret, performance art & burlesque troupe, and on the side I’m a software development project manager.  I have a tumblr (http://thisdamnhouse.tumblr.com) and a blog (http://kirbybits.wordpress.com), and I read the entire internet every day.

Disclaimer: When playing games, I spend my time (and dollars) almost exclusively on casual games – online, on my iPhone, and on Facebook.  Also, I’m a g-g-g-girl.  The combination of these two things means it never occurred to me that I could/should/would ever identify as a “gamer” or someone who participates in video game culture.  And yet, here we are.

Today I was poking around on Kongregate.com looking at new games, and came across Fairy Princess Escape, a game published by Games2Girls and described by them as, “a nice escape game designed for girls.”  Let’s take a look at the title screen, shall we:

Cartoon picture of a girl with pink and purple butterfly wings, a tiara, and a frilly pink and purple dress. A castle is in the background, with a bright sun rising in the distance.

There are a few things here that are…I’m searching for a term like “red flag” but less severe, but I keep coming up with “pink flag” and that clearly is kind of the “problem”. I personally do not participate in the crusade against pink and purple for “girl” toys – I’d actually be much more interested in adding those colors to the spectrum of “boy” toys, if anything. I like pink, I like purple, and I think taking away the tools and props of performative femininity doesn’t serve anyone except people who already know they don’t want them (spoiler: I’m someone who wants them). And I’ll just leave this here: [giant discussion about (re)claiming feminine/gender performance for oneself and enjoying it on one’s own terms vs. long-term potentially subconscious cultural pressure to conform to gender standards]

Anyway! While “girl” is often used in games to refer to anyone female or anyone who is a woman (and if you don’t think those are different, google “sex vs. gender”, you’re welcome), “girl” is often used in the wider world to refer to juvenile or prepubescent women – i.e. this could in fact be a game designed for young girls! (She thought to herself, before playing.) And since I was once a girl, and I am currently a woman who likes “escape the room” games (ETRGs), and since at least this wasn’t another doll dress-up “game”, I figured I’d give it a whirl.

The game overall is cute and pretty simple – supporting my theory that this is not a game for “girls” but for actual girls. The art in the rooms has a cartoony feel that fits with the premise and assumed target age, with some cute nods to traditional fairytales (like a picture of the Evil Queen in the Fairy Princess’ prison cell):

A grey stone prison cell, with a pile of straw for a bed, and a meager chair next to it. A framed photo of the "evil queen" hangs on the wall above the chair.

The puzzles likewise have some aspects that could be perceived as “girly”, although if you play enough ETRGs, the puzzles and items are often so random, coins and gems and a fairy wand really don’t stand out as things created for a particular age or gender.  The rooms and clues, while perhaps a little more in a “I think this is what little girls like” vein (horses, bright colors) than a more typical ETRG, are still nothing I would find out of place in even an ETRG designed for adults:

A grey castle wall with four different-colored symbols on the wall, framed by two wall hangings with prancing horses on them.

Further supporting my assumption that this is a game for little girls is the built-in hint system.  If you get stumped (or, like me, wonder “what’s this button do?”), you can click on the “hint” button and a little pop-up will overtly point out exactly what you’re supposed to be doing or getting out of that particular game screen:

Three banners - one blue, one yellow, one green - hang on a castle wall, while a thought-bubble shows three circles with the same colors in the same order.

A little simplistic, but again – it’s an ETRG designed to be solveable by kids.  I’ll even go so far as to say it’s a game aimed at little girls who are swept up in the Disney Princess-type little girlhood, who maybe like pretending they’re Tinkerbell, and who maybe covered themselves in glitter and tried to fly from a very high tree branch in their back yard when they were nine years old and were lucky not to break anything.  (Hypothetically.)

…And as an adult woman with a Disney Princess past, I have to say it was fun to play a first-person point-of-view game that was overtly feminine in a way that wasn’t also designed to give male players an erection.  There is no femininity-as-sexuality in the game (like high heeled shoes or cleavage-y outfits), it’s straight up girl stuff on the level of My Little Pony, not Bratz.  However, nothing about the game play is really repelling to boys or men (aside from, perhaps, the title screen) – it’s a straight-forward (albeit very easy) ETR game, and it just so happens that you’re a princess trapped in a castle instead of an amnesiac man trapped in an abandoned hospital or something.  It was nice to clearly be playing a girl with agency…kind of the game equivalent of reading a Young Adult novel.

Everything was going so well! …Until I beat the game and saw the win screen:

The Fairy Princess from the title screen, with the text "Thank you for saving me!" across the top

[record scratch]

So instead of holding to the formula of an ETR game (which is generally either a cut scene or still image with the protagonist, y’know, escaping the room), I learned that while the game is called, and I thought I was playing, Fairy Princess Escape, it’s actually Fairy Princess Rescue.  They actually went out of their way to make it explicit that the girl needs saving – and they’re delivering this message directly to young girls.  That warm, fuzzy agency I was feeling while playing the game was gone, replaced by the all-too-familiar feeling of being forced to play a man. on a quest. to save a princess.

Post script: to anyone reading this thinking, “for the love of Jove, it’s only a 10-minute game for little girls!”  EXACTLY.  Instead of thinking that it was possible for a little girl to spend 10 minutes of her day feeling like she could role-play as a princess who is capable of solving her problems, I now have to throw this onto the truly massive pile of “you are an object to be rescued,” social conditioning that girls are already bombarded with.  The sometimes-voiced assumption that, “girls can’t do ___” or “girls are bad at ___” is an assumption built on life experience lacking in girls who can ___ or are good at ___, often because girls grew up being told they couldn’t or would be bad at those things.  (Vicious circle, look it up.)  And this destructive set of expectations will continue until we figure out a way to deliver other messages to women and girls – which is much easier to do and more likely to happen 10 minutes a time, rather than expecting everything to just suddenly, spontaneously get better.  And I thought I’d stumbled across something like that, on Kongregate of all places…and so it was extra disappointing to discover that nope, I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up.  Status is still tiresomely quo.

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9 Responses to Here is a game: Fairy Princess Escape

  1. Tami B. says:

    Welcome to The Border House, Kirbybits :) Glad to have more casual game folks in here, and I love your writing.

  2. Agree with the “Status Quo” but disagree with the 360 on the “Win Screen”.

    I perceived this as a controlled character thanking you for your involvement. Recognition from a character that is played, with a simple direct reward is more satisfying than a cut-a-way, for the age group.

    I have seen several in game characters use the “Fourth Wall”, in a saving/closing screen or at end game. Sierra On-Line, Lucas Arts, Big Fish Games to name a few.

    Maybe the developers should have thought of another way to thank the player, it seems the “Win Screen” was the loser for this title.

  3. Matt says:

    I can see both interpretations of the win screen and think the intention was more like what Russ describes, but I think I’m with Kirby here as to judging the final effect. However well intentioned it’s like a movie that has a “strong” female lead but fails the Bechdel test – it might just happen that every extra with a speaking role just happens to be a dude without any effect on the story (or at least the events in the story), but behind every one of them there was a casting decision at some point in the process to choose a male for that role. That it was automatic and assumed rather than deliberate only highlights the problems with our automatic assumptions when we (as a society) undertake things like choosing the gender of generic mooks, or the base level of player/player-character identification in a game (the princess here being more, say, Duke Nukem than Doomguy).

    Would be nice to have a sequel that does at least maintain the agency after you win. (and have a slightly more convenient interface than “click on the tiny green arrow to move to the next room”)

  4. Somewhat of a side note, but “As an adult woman with a Disney Princess past, I have to say it was fun to play a first-person point-of-view game that was overtly feminine in a way that wasn’t also designed to give male players an erection.” is possibly the best sentence I have ever read.

    More on-topic, this was a great analysis. :)

  5. Zahra says:

    From Russ Kern:
    “I perceived this as a controlled character thanking you for your involvement. Recognition from a character that is played, with a simple direct reward is more satisfying than a cut-a-way, for the age group.”

    Then why, oh why couldn’t they thank a young girl with “Thank you for helping me!
    I was able to escape the awful queen. Now I can return…”

    That would avoid the whole “rescuing the princess” trope. It gives the young girl AND the princess agency in the resolution, making it about collaboration instead of a princess being on the receiving end of some help.

    P.S.: It’s not a 360. In a 360 degree angle, you’re back where you started from. In this case, you started as a girl with agency and you should end with a girl with agency.

    It’s a 180. You started as a girl with agency and you end as a girl without agency. You might say there are 2 180 turns: the first one at the beginning when the girl has agency (contrary to most other games) and the second one at the Win Screen (where you go back to not having agency).

  6. lilmiss says:

    russ, i know what you’re saying but i can’t think of any situation where a male character would thank the player for SAVING him in this way – i think it would be more likely that he would thank you for HELPING him, implying that you and he worked together.

    i can’t be sure obviously because i don’t remember all games perfectly at all times. :) but since “save the princess” is SUCH an ever-present meme it’s irritating to see this game falling into it.

    if i knew who made the game i’d ask them to just change ‘saving’ to ‘helping’ at the end and i’d be okay with that.

  7. Doug S. says:

    There are a few things here that are…I’m searching for a term like “red flag” but less severe, but I keep coming up with “pink flag” and that clearly is kind of the “problem”.

    I think the expression “red flag” comes from sports; American football referees literally throw colored flags in the air when they rule a play invalid. The less severe version of a red flag would be a “yellow flag”, but I’ve never heard of it used as an expression.

  8. @Zahra “P.S.: It’s not a 360. In a 360 degree angle, you’re back where you started from.”
    …yes, 180 would have been correct, not sure what I was thinking.

    I guess my point was on the Win Screen, and I am trying to follow everyones train of thought.

    Everything was okay until we found out “She” needed saving. We knew she needed to escape. So if you role-play that escape, or its a collaboration, its the point she needed saved.

    ..and I see that point. Not helpless but capable.

    “Thank you for helping me” would have been correct.

    @Brendan “Somewhat of a side note, but “As an adult woman with a Disney Princess past, I have to say it was fun to play a first-person point-of-view game that was overtly feminine in a way that wasn’t also designed to give male players an erection.” is possibly the best sentence I have ever read.”
    …I agree, it is worth a quote. :)

  9. Claire says:

    I also really don’t like how anything that is pink or purple is automatically seen as “weak” or whatever. I personally don’t care for the colors, but as feminists we really shouldn’t be perpetuating the idea that everything feminine is automatically weak. But I think you’re reading too much into the “rescue” theme. You repeatedly pointed out how this game is for girls, so it is a girl who has saved the fairy princess with her cleverness. The term rescued plays into the fairy tale theme, and it really encourages girls helping girls–something that is sadly absent in our culture.

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