For video game designer and journalist Mathew Kumar, satirizing the "damsel in distress" trope is about more than having fun with game mechanics. It's also about de-stigmatizing the word "feminist."
Knight and Damsel
for Ouya is the first game from his new Toronto-based studio, MK Ultra
, a venture founded by Kumar, Andrew Carvalho and Colin Mancer, all of whom contributed to Queasy Games' Sound Shapes
in various capacities, from design to tech to art.
Inspired by Anita Sarkeesian's
video series, "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," Kumar and Carvalho created a prototype for the game at Toronto's TOJam game jam earlier this year to take on the challenge of expressing feminist values in a video game. Kumar openly describes it as a "competitive two-player feminist puzzle platformer," so the studio is undoubtedly committed to pursuing that feminist vision.
"Now I'm aware we're a team of three guys right now, and it seems sad to have to state this, but men can be feminists," he tells me in an email. "I really just wanted to explore if we could make something that satirized the 'damsel in distress's' damaging nature mechanically. I really want to explore if mechanics can be the message."
Here's how Knight and Damsel
works: The game is specifically designed for two people to play – one as a knight and one as a damsel, at all times. True to his chivalrous nature, the knight feels he must
save the damsel, but the damsel, an equally-capable character, doesn't want or need any of his help. The two are essentially attacking each other in attempts to further each one's own cause, and those attacks are a reflection of the damaging nature of such common tropes.
"It's purely a satire of the 'damsel in distress' trope," says Kumar. "It's not trying to fix gender relations once and for all. Is that weird to point out?"
In a space (i.e. video games) where the varying degrees of harassment for even mentioning "feminism" reflect fear and misunderstanding of what feminism is, it's not so much "weird" as it is a precautionary measure. Kumar explains that the game's message about tropes is meant to be subtle, but also to communicate a point.
"The thing is that I refuse to not describe ourselves as feminist," he acknowledges. "I know we'll be attacked from both sides on this--heck, Joss Whedon hates the word [laughs]--but I want the word to not be such an albatross. I want people to just be the word, accept we are too, and not think 'oh they're doing this for controversy.'"
Pitching a game, and working on OuyaKnight and Damsel
is under development at MK Ultra as a timed exclusive for the Ouya microconsole. Instead of turning to crowdfunding, either on their own or through Ouya's Free the Games Fund
, the developers instead went directly to Ouya with a pitch during E3 this summer, and came out with some funding.
"I think one of the big things that helped us in the pitch process was having the prototype from the jam," says Kumar. "I mean, you see it from things like Double Fine's Amnesia Fortnight that jams are are good way to prove a concept, as well try and bash out a whole game in a weekend (which is obviously great), even if you don't get polish in."
Kumar says the version he pitched around was "really
buggy," but the point is that there was something to show – a working concept.
Ouya liked what it saw, and invested in the game. "One of the funny things was that while all the 'Free the Games Fund' controversy was ongoing, and people were asking 'why [isn't Ouya] just investing [in games] directly?' I was sitting on the fact that they were in fact doing that."
Kumar admits that some indies may chalk up Ouya's investment to the fact that his name and team are attached to known games, and he has a reasonably more visible profile thanks to his prior career as a games journalist.
But he says, "I think if you were looking for smaller amounts than the Free the Games Fund was supposed to cover, as we were, Ouya was very open to people who had projects they could show, and who were excited about the platform."