Living in the Fridge

This is part… let’s say two and a half, in my short series on the FPS.

I should warn you that this particular entry will contain spoilers for a lot of different various shooters, so if you’re worried about being spoiled for “stuff in general” don’t read this one. Really it’s just a spoiler about this one thing that happens over and over again.

So I teach a class on Level Design sometimes, and in the process of that the students write a little backstory for the game they’re designing for. It helps with the idea of environmental storytelling and creating a convincing mise en scene. It seems like since I switched to using the Unreal Engine in this class, and, specified that First or Third Person Shooter is a good game idea to create in this engine, the amount of one particular type of character that students include is up about 50 percent overall.

No, not the heavily masculine protagonist. His dead wife.

My students are predominately male; there’s often a female or two, but they aren’t the majority. I always wonder if I should introduce the concept of Women in Refridgerators to them before I ask for the storytelling documents, but usually I forget, and then, I have the odd experience of tallying up how many dead wives the shooter designers leave in their wake when I read their papers. Rarely do I get through a class of twenty without at least three dead wives/girlfriends.

Naturally, as a feminist, I want to discourage this sort of thing, but I realize that my being offended by it comes off as heavy-handed. And, after all… it isn’t as if this idea happens in a vaccuum.

The trope of kidnapping a woman is almost as old as video games, and not really the trope I’m discussing. If we counted every time a woman was put in danger, period, as putting her “in the fridge,” we couldn’t have women in fiction at all. So that isn’t how I personally define putting a woman in the fridge, especially with regard to these game designs. The trope I specifically see in professional and student FPS design is adding the fiancee/wife/girlfriend for the sole purpose of killing her, to motivate the male protagonist in to action. Maybe she mutates in to a monster first, and then you have to kill her. That’s fairly popular.

The FPS is predominately a male power fantasy. One way to grow your protagonist up from boy to man is show that he was able to hold a steady sexual relationship with a woman. However, to maintain the idea of his adult relationship without him seeming penned down by it, she is gone, and he is once again available. It also gives him a motivation to act – to save and/or avenge his wife – which is very straightforward. Sometimes, you can add her in, giving resolution to the character’s arc, but Something is Horribly Wrong, which provides a Plot Twist, adds a convenient boss battle, and then moves the wife character off the stage.

Alternately, you can just kill her outright, along with a few kids, and make the arc entirely about revenge.

I’m not saying Max Payne is a bad game, by the way. I’m not saying any of these games are bad. What I am saying is that a lot of students keep reinventing Max Payne despite the fact that they never played Max Payne; that this “invent family, then kill them” story is in the collective consciousness of the young male gamer.

In the context of a male power fantasy I can absolutely see why this is done, why it works, and why we keep coming back to it.

I’m just wondering if we can maybe stop doing it, anyway. Because it’s kind of become a standard trope at this point, and now it isn’t real new or interesting. Maybe you just need an excuse for a guy to shoot some guys, and that’s fine. But the story that cannot be critically examined is not one worth telling.

We discovered, by the way, that there is a female equviliant of this shooter trope in action games with female protagonists: they’re usually looking for or avenging their father. Lara Croft and Chun Li are my two easy examples; you might have more. I suppose the reason for this in the case of the female character is, if she were looking for or avenging a husband or boyfriend, she wouldn’t be virginal or available enough. I don’t mind this story but maybe it’s just another cliche we can lay to rest, or, at least, think carefully about before incorporating.

2 thoughts on “Living in the Fridge”

  1. Contains spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and Limbo.

    Kateri at Falling Awkwardly wrote a good post on how Dragon Age: Origins included this trope but with a degree of self-awareness. The female character (who had experienced a terrible sexual assault) sarcastically congratulates the male protagonist for being able to move on with his life now that he has avenged her but berates him for not recognising that she is not afforded the same luxury and that she will always have to live with the experience of what happened to her. Here is a link to that post:

    The prevalence of this trope, and its variances, is a concern. It breeds lazy writing and is a worrying admission of what young male designers feel is the best way to include a female character. It is potentially unhealthy for all (women especially) to see women depicted this way too often.

    Conversely though, I’m also worried at how these young men are depicting men (and arguably themselves). I don’t believe that reliance on this trope will break until a wider reliance is broken; one on the belief that where male empowerment is found is in avenging a dead wife or, in the case of the damsel in distress trope, seeking out the company of a woman.

    This was my problem with Limbo. I had no issue with its length as others did. What grated was knowing that the male character’s motivation was to find his sister. The surrealism and the atmosphere of the environments could quite easily have lent themselves to representing the boy’s discovery of emotional enlightenment or some revelation about the human condition.

    The idea of depicting male empowerment coming from within is one that is rarely considered. Revenge is believed to be the great motivator. But avenging the death of a loved one brings with it no true empowerment, no peace, happiness or ascension into manhood. It brings only desperation and emptiness.

    The dead women in these scenarios have the benefit of never having their personality laid out in its entirety and for it to be found lacking in any kind of complexity or self-worth. We never knew what sort of person Max Payne’s wife was but we knew that the sum total of Max himself was no deeper than his next bullet-timed dive into a shootout.

  2. Sans: wow, that’s a great comment! I agree that this depiction really doesn’t do the men any favors either. It just seems to be a “shortcut” for motivation and personality.

    It also kind of seems to work though, at least on the target audience. If you click on any of the videos I link in my post, the comment threads are full of gamers struck by how they were moved by yet another ‘fridged girlfriend.

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