[Trigger warning: Abusive behavior & emotional manipulation.]
Let’s be honest: when Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute for her younger sister Prim, we all fell head over heels for dystopias. And why not? Corrupt leaders, crumbling worlds, emotional strife, and an array of incredibly brave young women. Who doesn’t like that story? I love Katniss because she demonstrates kindness, devotion, and ungendered behavior, which is pretty empowering to the millions watching or reading The Hunger Games. And yet, for me, as a lover of dystopias and video games, I am also bummed because while I only ever get to read or watch Katniss, I never get to participate in her narrative.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There are a handful of dystopian video games for me to play—even some with characters who are women, so what am I whining about? Yeah, there’s the BioShock series, The Last of Us, Borderlands, etc., but a lot of these games don’t have the lady protagonists who I love and admire. Well, that is, until a few months ago when I struck gold: as fate would have it, I stumbled upon Double Fine’s Broken Age. It’s a fantastic point-and-click adventure game released in 2015, which has a unique focus on women and young girls.
In case you’ve never played it or heard of it, never fear, I’ve got your back! Broken Age follows two teenagers: Shay, a young boy, and Vella, a young girl, both of whom dwell in two totally separate, but actually related dystopian worlds. The game requires players to play from both perspectives. We not only get to experience and participate in two completely different dystopias, but we also witness the ways in which a myriad of women are shaped by their particular dystopian world.
When playing Shay’s story, the totalitarian force in his life seems to be his mother. Yep, that’s right, but bear with me. For the first half of the game, she does not have a physical body, but appears to Shay through a portal that makes her look like the sun. Shay is also under the impression that his mother isn’t really his mother, but a computer who is delusional. Why? I’ll get to that later.
Right now, all you need to know is that she constantly shines her overprotective light and energy on her son: feeding him, dressing him, and only ever allowing him to embark on non-dangerous and unimportant missions on their space ship in order to keep him safe.
The point is that Shay’s mother’s caretaking is not just overbearing, but also abusive. She simply won’t let him grow up, which reduces Shay to a state of depression and despondence. He’s often sighing or frowning because of his suffocating, but well-intentioned mother. To add insult to injury, she’s also nearly impossible to resist against, too. Once I tried to stage a hunger strike by refusing to pick a cereal for breakfast, but after I refused a dozen times, she selected a bowl for Shay and made him eat it anyway. Drat.
Through playing the game, which includes testing like I did with the hunger strike, players inevitably come to understand Shay’s mother as a vilified woman because of the abuse toward her son. That’s not just a drag, but it’s also problematic—sort of reminiscent of the Dursleys’ abuse in Harry Potter. Shay’s mother is not empowering or inspirational. She’s actually just flat-out annoying. And our annoyance of her derives from her reductive and gendered behavior, totally playing off the 1950s stereotypes of the perfect, but meddlesome mother. What a drag.
On the surface, all of this seems pretty grim and demeaning toward women, right? But it’s all for a purpose, and it’s not what it seems. That’s right—it’s not until the second half of Broken Age that we come to understand two things: one, that Shay’s mother is actually in charge of running their space ship, which is why she appears to him as a computer. She’s desperately trying to run a ship and be Shay’s mother at the same time, which is pretty powerful and incredible.
Two, the dystopian circumstances have shaped Shay’s mothers’ problematic behavior. We find out that the planet Shay’s family used to live on has been destroyed, and Shay is the only child left. To preserve the last child from their planet, Shay’s mother is ordered by their government to protect him at all costs. That’s why she behaves the way she behaves because she was ordered to by the shady leaders in power.
But let me be clear: just because the corrupt dystopian government certainly shaped her abusive behavior, it’s never okay to dismiss or justify her abuse. So what does this mean for us as players? It means that it’s important to be hyper-aware of the social structures that shape lady protagonists and their behavior in order to understand them better. Because Shay’s mother tends to be abusive, the game prompts players to actively look deeper, to play with a critical eye, to identify the serious repercussions of the dystopian forces that shape and confine lady protagonists and their behavior.
As Shay’s side of the story comes to an end, his mother—who’s name is actually Hope—finally becomes aware of the nefarious forces that shaped her oppressive behavior. Of course, the game is finished, but I hope that Hope is going to change drastically if a new game is released, becoming a better, less oppressive mother, and allowing her to shine as the empowered and driven woman she is at heart. Go Mom!
Now, Vella, on the other hand, lives on a gorgeous beach village that has plenty of people. And, at first glance, it seems pretty perfect. But don’t let that lovely landscape fool you. Sugar Bunting, the village Vella lives in, has a precarious Maiden’s Feast every 14 years. For the Maiden’s Feast, five young girls are selected randomly, dressed up, and offered to a gnarly beasty called Mog Chothra. Gross.
The village firmly believes that this ritual sacrifice ensures the safety of the village, which is evident in the collective belief that it’s an honor to be chosen as a sacrifice. Yikes, right? Well, mostly everyone believes this, with the exception of Vella’s crotchety, but fabulous grandfather and Vella herself. At the start of the game, Vella has actually been chosen to be sacrificed at the Maiden’s Feast—and her family is totally delighted. Like the rest of society, they view her sacrifice as a serious honor because society wants them to think that way. So what do they do? They throw Vella a pre-sacrifice party, decorations and cupcakes and all, of course. Double yikes.
At the party, Vella’s mother loses the ceremonial cake-cutting knife, so of course Vella is recruited to find it, and the narrative cannot move forward until you, as Vella, complete the task. To search for the knife, you have to talk with various members of Vella’s family, all of whom cannot stop gushing about how lucky Vella is to be chosen. The reaction that surprised me most was her mother’s answer: “Oh, we’ll really miss you.”
At that point, I dropped my PS4 controlled, totally shocked. After the shock subsided, I was absolutely enraged! How could her own mother be okay with her eldest daughter’s sacrifice? And then I remembered what kind of world we’re dealing with here: a dystopia. Vella’s mother’s reaction to her daughter’s socially required duty demonstrates that the values of corrupt leaders permeate the consciousness of the people and manipulates them into adhering to a totalitarian belief system. I mean, in a totally loving family, why else would they be okay with Vella’s sacrifice?
Like Shay’s narrative, there’s nothing that you, as Vella, can do to convince anyone otherwise. Prior to the actual sacrifice, you have a series of dialogue options you’re presented with, and some of them implore Vella’s family to see reason. It doesn’t matter how many times you try—they’ll never agree with you that this ritual is terrible. Through play, we experience firsthand how restrictive and impossible dystopian societies are to manipulate. Frustrating, no? We can’t manipulate the situation any more than Vella can. That’s the point. That’s dystopia.
When the ceremonial sacrifice begins, Vella is placed on a pedestal—and she actually looks like a delicious pink cupcake on display—with four other girls, all of whom are excited to lose their lives. Shudder. As they wait for Mog Chothra to make an appearance, the narrative will not move on until you, as Vella, talk to the other girls about escape. Like Vella’s family, the other girls won’t listen, either. Sigh.
These girls are also totally brainwashed. And in a way, it makes the girls seem empty-headed or incapable of thinking critically. And, yet, just like Shay’s narrative, we have to remember that this dystopia world cloaks nefarious ideas with rhetorically positive language—that it’s such an honor to be sacrificed—and makes people less willing to believe this world is actually bad. We can’t blame anyone for believing in the ritualistic sacrifice because they’ve been conditioned that way.
And yet, Vella is able to see through the manipulation. By an impressive display of intelligence and happenstance, players help Vella to escape by manipulating the girls around her to get the materials she needs—a bottle of water, a corset, and a turkey leg—to aid her successful escape. Okay, so the word “manipulate” might be a tad strong or cold, but it’s pretty much what happens. We, as players, are required to re-talk to the other girls around us in a particular order to help Vella escape.
Still, that’s a tad cold, right? Manipulating the brainwashed girls around her to escape. And yet, once again, the dystopian conditions of this situation require players to rethink our perceptions. Normally, women taking other women down for their own benefit isn’t great, but in a dystopian situation, everything changes. Because Vella is vehemently against the Maiden’s Feast, her escape has positive and widespread implications.
After she escapes, she decides not only get justice for herself, but also for all women; those in the past, the present, and the future. Even though she technically abandoned the other women she was with, it was a necessary step toward Vella’s goal in escaping to create a better world for everyone. Her escape was not selfish or cowardly, but actually brave and empowering because she stood up for social change, which is difficult to do in a dystopia. She also refuses to be a victim of the dystopian community. Plus, later on, when Vella is on Shay’s ship, she discovers the other maidens are still alive, and makes it her mission to rescue them.
As Vella’s narrative comes to a close, her escape has clearly inspired her family to see reason: like Hope, they have also become aware of the nefarious forces that shaped their acceptance of ritualistic sacrifice. At the end of Act II, Shay and Vella’s stories converge. And since all characters have finally been able to see that the real enemy is an alien race, I hope that they will band together in attempt to dismantle the oppression and redistribute power evenly in the community.
For me, Broken Age is a fantastic game because it gives me everything I love in a dystopian novel, but more. My participation in the narrative allows me to understand how dystopian control is far-reaching and permeable, but contestable. The women in the game all seem to be villainous or selfish at point one or another, but when we look at the dystopian circumstances within the narrative, everything changes.
By being aware of the dystopian circumstances that shape lady protagonists’ behavior, the true horror of dystopia can be realized by players. These worlds breed cruelty and extreme behavior. Most of these women realize that their behavior is reflective of the dystopian circumstances of their world, which then puts them in a position to change—to become better versions of themselves despite the dystopian backdrop.
Why are dystopian games that feature lady protagonists important? Well, PCs and NPCs who are women can be empowering because courage and bravery is ungendered. In Broken Age, these various women aren’t damsels waiting to be rescued—they are active agents who save themselves. Even though the game is finished, I hope for the continuation of strong and empowered lady characters who fight side-by-side with characters who are men in order to create a better world. Gives you chills, doesn’t it?