Once upon a time, there was a video game that inspired a controversy (as video games are sometimes wont to do).
It was the year 2008, and the game was called “Fat Princess.” Although this game had not yet launched and was not anywhere near completion, some folks took note of the game’s title, understood it to be a game in which players turn petite princesses into plus-sized princesses by feeding them cake, and decided it was time to get their pitchforks out and start waving them in the air.
These people — women who consider themselves feminists — declared the game hostile to ladykind, offensive to overweight people and, apparently, unsympathetic to the plight of royalty everywhere. And so they did what offended people do in these modern times — they blogged about how offended they were.
Some other people read these blogs, and — many of them being mean-spirited menfolk and the sorts of hairy trolls usually found living under bridges — started using their own blogs and e-mail accounts to call these women not-so-nice names (you know, to prove that video games and the people who play them really aren’t hostile to women).
And just like that, discourse on the topic of women, weight and video games had hopped aboard the express train to Flame War Town with some people accusing the pitchfork-wielding feminists of being a bunch of humorless video-game-hating killjoys and others accusing gamers of being a bunch of misogynistic mouth-breathing fanboys of the most Neanderthal kind.
Did I mention that no one had actually played “Fat Princess” yet?
Here we are one year later and “Fat Princess” has finally arrived on the PlayStation Network and I have finally played it and I am, as it turns out, a woman. All of this, I believe, qualifies me to say: I don’t know what the big fat deal is.
I’m a pro-woman kinda woman (Go women!) who would happily pay the dues to join Club Feminist (we do pay dues, right?) And yet, there’s not a single pro-woman bone in my body that is offended by this game. (Does this mean my membership application is going to be rejected?)
As video games go, “Fat Princess” is fun, funny and well-crafted. It’s done in a playful style and has a wicked sense of humor about almost everything. And while it does star two adorable and, yes, sometimes chubby cartoon princesses and does feature buckets of cartoon blood, I can’t say that it seems particularly hurtful or harmful to anyone.
Stick that in your cake hole
The skinny on “Fat Princess” is this: It is a fast-paced game set in a cartoonish fairytale world — a medieval world in which the Red Kingdom and the Blue Kingdom are engaged in a brutal war thanks to some magically delicious cake.
You, the player, are but a lowly subject in one of the kingdoms, sprinting about a chaotic battlefield trying to keep the enemy princess locked up in your castle while also saving your own princess from the opposing team’s castle. You’re also tasked with slicing, dicing and generally mowing down your enemies as fast as you can (cue the blood splatter). You can play the game by yourself, but it’s really meant to be played against others online in epic multiplayer battles.
“It’s basically all about cooperation, chaos, having a great time and just having a giggle,” says Craig Leigh, Titan Studios creative director and the lead designer behind “Fat Princess.”
The fun is amped up by a couple of clever gameplay twists. For starters, while games often require players to pick a class or team role and stick with it, “Fat Princess” allows gamers to play one of five different classes (priests who heal, workers who build stuff, warriors who handle the close-range combat, etc.) But with “Fat Princess,” you can switch class at any time simply by changing the hat your character wears. Change up your game on the fly, try your hand at whatever role suits yer fancy … the frantic freedom is a blast.
Meanwhile, though it’s a “capture-the-flag” kinda game, you don’t actually try to capture a flag. You try, instead, to capture/rescue the aforementioned princesses. But in order to prevent the opposing team from rescuing their princess, you must feed her pieces of cake so she grows heftier and therefore becomes more difficult for your enemies to haul off.
Producer Chris Millar says the idea for the rotund royalty came about simply as an extension of the game’s zany, irreverent DNA (think Monty Python meets Itchy & Scratchy).
“The damsel in distress is a very archetypical situation, and the idea of the princess enjoying cake and eventually getting larger and harder to carry back, it just added to the overall nature of the game,” he says. “The game is just really silly overall.”
Both Millar and Leigh insist they were surprised by the big “Fat Princess” brouhaha. After all, they thought it was the blood and gore that was going to get people’s britches in a bind.
“We were worried people would be freaking out about the fact that it looks like ‘Animal Crossing’ but you can, like, throw a bomb and blow people to smithereens,” Millar says. “So we were caught off guard by the amount of attention the game got just for someone eating a lot of cake and getting big.”
More princess to love
Millar points out that the princesses are in no way objects of ridicule within the game as critics had suggested. Whether they are skinny or fat, they are venerated ladies for whom all characters will lay down their virtual lives to save. Also, Leigh points out, the concept art for the princesses (as well as the entire game) was drawn by artist Weng Chen … a woman.
In a blog post announcing the game's launch, Chen says she believes even rotund female characters can be "cute and lovely," and she wonders why only the pretty women should get to be the stars of a video game.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the whole pretty princess thing. I just don’t find helpless tiara-sporting rich girls especially compelling. So to me "Fat Princess" plays out like a delightfully deserved send-up of the save-the-princess cliche that populates so many story books and video games (I’m looking at you Princess Peach).
Speaking of the endlessly kidnap-able Peach and her always-to-the-rescue man-savior Mario, it’s worth noting that “Fat Princess” allows players to create and play female avatars — avatars who can be warriors, priests, mages, etc. And that means in this game a woman character can kick ass and savethe damsel in distress. That’s right, outta my way plumber.
And if having a skinny princess pack on pounds during the game is laughable ... it hardly seems malicious. There's a lot that's funny about this game — the way it juxtaposes cartoon sweetness against battle gore, the way the Shakespearian announcer slips into the most urban of lingo ("They're in our base, killing our dudes!"), the way a magic potion turns your enemies into chickens. Chickens.
Ultimately, “Fat Princess” is a unique, smartly-crafted game that is welcoming to casual players while still offering a ton of depth for hardcore player. And the whole thing is wrapped in a delightfully cheeky sense of humor that, really, should not be missed. (Note: Though the game suffered some significant online connection issues at launch, Titan issued a patch for the problem this weekend and, in my experience, online play is now working smoothly.)
Don’t get me wrong, there are many important and troubling issues that face women in video games. We remain underrepresented in the game development and publishing communities. Meanwhile, sign into PlayStation Home using a female avatar and you’ll quickly get a taste of the insulting behavior female players regularly endure. And, of course, the ever-present display of busty dames clad in preposterous outfits is an ongoing source of aggravation.
Certainly everyone has a right to voice their concerns, but my concern is that the real issues facing women in gaming are diminished when critics attack titles in a knee-jerk manner and before they’ve ever even played the games.
More importantly, I believe we can tackle these issues and retain our sense of humor at the same time. Yeah, I think we can have our cake and eat it too.
Want to see Winda Benedetti do her best pretty princess impersonation? Check her out on Twitter.