Rockstar, for example, fill their game worlds with characters who have their own story arcs that have little or no immediate benefit to the gamer. GTA4, Red Dead Redemption and their expansion packs have multiple groups of people whose stories intersect with the playable characters in much the same way that multiple real people would. You're still seeing all this from the inherently self centered perspective of one human with their own objectives, but you're still witnessing people and stories that appear to exist irregardless of you. If you had never come by, these stories would have happened without you. You are not the center of this world.
Those two games strike me as staggeringly bad examples of this.
Both GTAIV and RDR have a day night cycle right (that's not a disingenuous question... I recall them doing so but I haven't played either for a while)? So let's do a little experiment. As soon as you get control of the protagonist, stop. Do nothing. Wait as in-game time passes. Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, hell, years if you've got the patience. Then go off and play the game.
What's different to if you'd started playing the game immediately?
Nothing as far as I can recall.
Far from the stories having happened without you and you not being the centre of the world all of those other characters are held in a state of suspended animation until you arrive at which point they can do their narrative demanded song and dance. They're the equivalent of a Disney theme park-style animatronic figure, waiting for someone to come along and push a button so they can do their little action and then return to a state of inactivity.
This is the sole focus of the woman’s critique as she is focusing on large, big name games that are sold by millions to a mass audience. Such games also have cultural impacts on society at large in the way Mario has lasted with people for generations; GTA continues to resonate with audiences and so on. These are not simply video games she is making reference to but cultural cornerstones in pop culture. Such games and products are produced by a select few companies. Indeed she is making a plea to these companies to develop more female centered stories because these companies have a direct share in that pop culture of video games and comic books.
Do the likes of The Bouncer, Rygar: The Legendary Adventure, Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, Will Rock, The Void, Child of Eden, Psychonauts, Ico, Pandora's Tower, Outlaws or Inversion really count as large, big name games that are sold by millions to a mass audience? Because that's a selection of the games she highlights/features in simply the second
part of the Damsel in Distress series. Later on she explicitly focuses on Indy games... and while the big names are mentioned (Fez, Super Meatboy, Braid etc) there's also the likes of Flying Hamster, Rochard, Zack Zero, Sideway: New York, Bean's Quest, Gunman Clive, DLC Quest, The Other Brothers, Fist Puncher and Knightmare Tower.
A case in point may be the new Tomb Raider video game.
The new Lara Croft is far more feminine in appearance than her previous incarnation with a more realistic body shape and honestly a more realistic character. She is a strong woman and the story is nearly focused on her entirely. To be honest after playing the game I really felt proud to be a woman because finally I found a character that I would be happy for my daughter, if I had one, to really associate with in the video game world. Lara Croft was featured on many posters and on video game covers despite criticism that women on covers do not sell video games. Square Enix showed that there is a market for a well-made, well produced, well developed female lead. The game sold very well and there hasn’t been anything since, even from Square Enix.
I'm not sure the bolded part is that simple. While the game eventually hit sales expectations it took a long
time to make it there and needed extensive discounts combined with re-releases on the next-gen consoles to make it; on release is was considered a high profile flop and an example of the bloated budgets AAA games work with. I'm also not quite sure it's fair to use the example of one off the biggest icons in gaming as an example that female-fronted titles can sell well and apply it to the wider whole... using that example you could argue that games fronted by an Italian plumber are going to sell well but outside of Mario, do they?
On a side note, considering the exploitative violence against Lara within the game (notably the psuedo-rape threat that formed a major part of its marketing/hype) and the fact that the main plot is basically the sort of damsel in distress scenario Sarkeesian's spent three videos decrying, I don't think it's really the sort of video game she'd like or hold up as a counter to the points she makes.
Much like Shjade, I appear to have spent far too much time thinking about this.
Which is strange in some ways as I largely agree with Sarkeesian on damsels in distress, albeit from a different perspective. She views it as part of the wider misuse of women in video games, I view it as part of the wider lazy, poor writing in video games. Poor writing's long been a hate of mine in the industry as anyone who can recall me posting about Fallout 3 can attest so, while our routes there may be different, our conclusions are roughly the same. But I don't agree with her analysis.
Why is that?
Well, having spent too much time thinking about it, I think I understand.
Because to me, the damsels piece shows a fundamental
misunderstanding of the nature of agency (one of her big issues with damsels in distress) in video games.
Of course, in pretty much all video games agency for the characters is an illusion. They're fictional, not sentient beings who do what the writer tells them to do. On that level none
of them have agency. But reverting back to that is somewhat of a cop-out answer.
But even if we get past that point, what agency is there?
The stereotypical view is that the protagonist character has more agency than non-protagonists and it appears to make sense. After all, the player controls the protagonist and they
can decide what they do while the non-protagonists are simply tools of the narrative. But is that actually true?
Take God of War, an example she lists of the damsel in distress/fridging trope combination. The protagonist gets to play Kratos, the ultra-badass death dealing war machine who on paper should be the epitome of agency. But does he have any? What happens if I don't want him to gain his revenge on Ares or the other Gods? What happens if I want him to go off to Persia and be a mercenary? What happens if I want him to give up his life of violence and become a farmer? I can't. The narrative demands that he goes through the linear storyline going to the locations the narrative demands I go to and killing the enemies the narrative demands I do. Kratos, for all his in-game power and protagonist status is still a slave of the narrative in the same way that every other character in the game is. The agency there is an illusion... would we say a puppet having its strings jerked (the protagonist) has agency while a puppet with untouched strings (the damsel) doesn't? Neither actually have agency... one just gets to look like they do.
Certain games, notably sandbox ones (be they Oblivion/Skyrim style RPGs or GTA style adventures) somewhat get around this; if I wanted to in Skyrim one could make their living as an itinerant farmhand, traveling the region being paid for collecting crops without any thought of dragons. One could be a hunter, making their living shooting foxes and deer without even considering hunting into ruins. While the economic system makes it difficult, one could make their living as a craftsman, using raw materials to make more expensive products which they then sell. Playing that way may not be the most rewarding of games but it is allowed. Now, such games have their own issues... as mentioned above with regards to GTA while the main character may have agency every other character is little more than a moving statue; to use Skyrim as an example, until the protagonist reaches a certain stage the world remains entirely the same... dragons with never rise, the civil war will never end etc etc... no matter how much time passes.
Protagonist characters in video games rarely have agency. To compare and contrast them with "damsels" who likewise don't have agency is to miss the point.