Two Steps Forward, One Step Back: Progressive Moments in Games

Inspired by a recent discussion on Fave This, I wanted to talk about three Nintendo games that have story elements I read as progressive, and how the handling of those elements ultimately disappointed me in some way despite that.
Spoiler warning for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Pokémon Ultra Sun/Moon. I enjoyed playing all three games, and found these moments in particular to be simultaneously exciting and vexing.

Zelda: the titular princess is given much more character than in previous games, a plucky, adventurous, researcher who roams Hyrule trying to figure out the secrets of Sheikah technology. The discussion on Fave This centered around the fact that all of Zelda’s development takes place via optional flashbacks, and she ultimately plays the same passive role (aiding the hero) that she plays in other games in the series. For me this glimpse of a different kind of Zelda was fascinating and uplifting, and having her shoved into the same old role at the end was a disappointing conclusion to the most interesting version of the character. Zelda in BotW was the hero I wanted to play, desperately searching for a way to save her kingdom from Ganon.

Mario: I love the ending scene where Peach rejects both Mario and Bowser’s advances, commandeers Mario’s airship, and leaves. When encountered in the post-game, she explicitly states her joy at being able to travel the world on her own terms, a wonderful break from the traditional “and then he gets the kiss” ending. The disappointment from Mario came from the fact that Peach was kidnapped (again) in the first place, a trope so done to death it’s exhausting. In Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, Peach blasts Bowser out of her castle with a magic wand, I would love to see more of that and less kidnapping being written for Peach.

Pokémon: The character of Lillie received a great moment in Ultra Sun and Moon’s postgame Episode RR where she gets to fight alongside the player character in a battle. She has, inexplicably, a Pokémon that is at endgame levels, despite a self-professed dislike for Pokémon battles. Mechanical gripes aside, I love the agency Lillie is given, even though it’s only used to help the player. Her agency is then immediately snatched away, as Guzma shows up to help the player. For some unknown reason Lillie decides that she should go back to only healing the player’s team and not battling, despite other characters fulfilling both of those roles in the past. It would have been one thing if she had tried her hand at battling and decided it wasn’t for her, but she tries, wins, and then declares herself to be bad at it. It frustrates me that her character development was subjugated to mechanical needs, and it felt even more cruel since (unlike Sun and Moon) you got to witness her battle.

These three moments feel like Nintendo and The Pokémon Company International tentatively trying out new story ideas, changing old, stale plot beats to make things fresh and interesting. I’m left with a couple of questions and concerns: Are these moments indicative of a shift in the way these tropes are handled? Or will a future Zelda or Mario game fall right back into the tropes we know and hate? Ultimately I feel like the moments I’ve outlined here are a step forward for portrayals of women in games that are undermined in the same instant they’re set free. I would love to hear other examples of progressive story elements in recent games that were undermined, or other ideas about the ones I’ve already outlined.


I think Zelda loses far more progressive points for the transphobia that most people see in some of the Gerudo content.


I agree that it loses more progressive points on an overall scale, but I’m talking specifically about how the game did something seemingly progressive with Zelda’s character development and then undermined itself.

The problem I always have with this line of argument is that, following it, you (generic you) start talking yourself into the idea that “well-written women” is something so rare and insurmountable that it necessarily has to be arrived at through baby steps, and each and every one of these baby steps deserves praise, because it’s better than what came before.

But then you pick up something like Tacoma or Night in the Woods or any number of other recent games and the good writing is just… right there, without any need to iterate through 20 years’ worth of a popular franchise.

To be clear: I’m saying that Nintendo has no interest in making their flagship titles not socially reactionary, because it helps their sales and brand more than it hurts them.


I’d say the transphobia is the exact same gender essentialism that poisons the other story beats in BotW. They’re not distinct elements but part of the same unified worldview that makes that specific section problematic but also strips agency from Zelda (despite incredibly tentative steps to provide a character with actual motivation) and make it so that Link had to be a dude in the eyes of Nintendo. It’s all part of the same poison and why I don’t expect Nintendo products to ever provide significant progressive main readings (and the desperation* to resolve growing up with that IP and the problematic elements is why you get so many queer/subversive readings of Nintendo games, BotW being filled with characters that have been adopted/reclaimed from their caricatured roots in the actual game itself).

* Edit: Maybe the wrong word choice there. Lack of (any/true) representation in long-lasting mainstream media creates the need for subversive readings where they can be extracted.


Maybe it’s the other way (two back and one forward), but Laura Dale found some things to like in the whole Gerudo town situation.

But, yeah, maybe it is

Not my place to judge at all, I just remembered the article.

I like how in “Animal Crossing Pocket Camp” you can wear anything you like, but some thing (hair style and eyes, I think) still tied to one of the two genders (!) that you can’t change. Like, why? I can go and change my skin color at any time. I’m pretty sure that growing hair is easier than that.


Zelda had her own (background, unexplored) adventure in Skyward Sword so it’s not even like a new step tbh

1 Like

The Mario Odyssey thing really rubbed me the wrong way. Especially how the guys reviewing the game made it sound like Peach’s role was reversed at some point late game which didn’t really happen in my opinion. After reading comments like that I was expecting her to be saved before the end game and help you out the rest of the way in some form.

This game didn’t need Bowser to kidnap anyone. It could have been about him stealing non-wedding related artifacts instead. I’d still want to stop him just as much. Hell, we’ve even seen in 3D world that Peach is perfectly capable of defeating Bowser by herself so they could have her join in with the Adventure from the start.


My favorite recent-ish “one step forward, two steps back” is CoD: Advanced Warfare. There’s a Latina (I think) woman who is as badass as everyone else, and isn’t sexualized or in a romantic relationship with someone else.

Also in the final battle the black guy dies first. I think.

1 Like

Subverting a trope you have used for decades at the end of a 15 hour game during which you have been doing the same bullshit you’ve always been doing is not actually subverting anything it’s just you having your cake and kidnapping the women who made to