How many stories do you know where there is a male protagonist out to save his kidnapped girl? There are quite a lot and I think it's a tale as old as time. Men are expected to defend their women. However, why does the story feel so alienating in a video game?
As I said the "save the princess" story is very old and deeply rooted in our culture/instincts. In animal terms, it is the story of winning females away from a rival and gaining exclusive mating rights. It speaks to our basic nature of males proving themselves to a female by show of strength. And there is something in us that accepts this. Women want strong men who can defend them. Men feel the need to show off their strength to impress said woman.
Where the analogy falls apart is that in a story, the attention is always split to focus on one party or the other. If the focus is the captured princess (a la Sleeping Beauty/Snow White), then the Prince is not given much of a personality. He's just the muscle or the symbol of sex that shows up to win the day. All the while the story focused on the princess' assets that she could give him: her nurturing, good looks, singing talents (in the case of Disney) or anything else "special" she could offer.
If the focus is on the prince, then the story is an adventure and the Princess is not given much personality other that "prize to be won" (thinking of Aladdin/Hercules). She represents the reward of pleasure after performing successfully a mating dance. The story highlights the actions of the hero, his achievements, and his strength of course.
That's the gist of it. But I'm sure deep down everyone KNOWS this.
The Modern Woman and the Princess
So in recent history, there has been a DRAMATIC change in how women are viewed and where they fit in society. For the first time, women are considered equal to men for the most part. (Equal but not the same...just to clarify). Women work, fend for themselves, and prove that they can be physically competent just like men. How did this happen? Well, contraception finally became successful. Now sex is not as high risk for pregnancy as before.
In the female "need" to assert herself as capable, most female audiences shun the old stereotype of NEEDING to be rescued. Or being passive and waiting for a man to save them. Women want to save themselves. Women do NOT want to be a victim and hate being portrayed as such. Women are survivors.
So the "princess" stereotype is something attractive to the male ego. She's sexually primed, submissive, and only for him. But modern woman is at odds with this old tradition. To a modern woman the princess represent what we fear most: objectification and victimizing. Being a victim of violence is a reality for many women. Victims are wounded more than physically. Internally they are weakened and a negative self image is put in place. Think of the victimized nerds in high school comedies. Are they confident, happy individuals? Not usually.
Objectification is something all humans dislike. We do not like to be used.
The Dragons (why women don't really like this)
Outside of the objectification and victimizing of women, there are other things that alienate women as an audience in these kinds of stories. Looking at video games at this point. Okay, video game stories about saving the princess/girlfriend/wife are extremely common. Aside from the princess being practically useless as a character, the satisfaction with the story end is primarily for men.
For example, what would motivate a woman to play a game like Dante's Inferno?
This is a game where you play a male crusader battling through the levels of Hell to win your wife back from the Devil. Or something like that. It is implied in the opening that the wife was taken by force (victim of violence) and during the game the wife does not seem very prevalent until the end. And the reward (because it's a medieval setting so a wife has "duties") is suggested to be sex with wife. Which I guess would be restoring the status quo.
As a female player, this story does not win me over because I receive NO satisfaction. It seems she is just trading one sex partner for another. She is not an object that holds interest for me.
More on this later.
The Knights (The men who save)
Men in modern times have definitely become more feminine which seems to be the proper reaction for women becoming more masculine. The other reaction is to become MORE masculine. But let's look at characters for a moment here.
Let's think of the hyper-masculine Duke Nukem and his valiant escapades on Planet Babe.
Is it understandable that women do NOT find him appealing, but men do?
He's obviously strong, virile, and well...not handsome in any stretch of the word but it is 'suggested' that women find him attractive. What he does not have is a friendly attitude or a sympathetic one. He gets his fast-food burger, eats and leaves with nary a backward glance.
In any lifetime movie for women, he's that big, abusive brute that the woman is trying to shake off. Not appealing.
But there are GOOD knights too. Unfortunately, it's usually a younger hero. The key is that this hero is not just interested in the prize of mating rights but interested in the relationship or in the princess as a person.
In the original myth of Hercules, the hero just wants the girl as his wife so he takes her. In the Disney adaptation, the hero meets with our own cultural standard of respecting women as people. So his interest in Megara was in part sexual but because it's a family film, he was interested in her as a person.
I think this is in part why Link from Legend of Zelda is popular with both male and female audiences. It is not obvious that his motives are purely libido (although because he's a silent protagonist we can project that).
The Other Castle (fixing the plot to gain more appeal)
So what might "fix" this classic tale to fit a more modern standard? Especially in games.
A direct role reversal does not work...for obvious reasons. If it's not obvious, what need does a STRONG woman have for a WEAK man?
I'd take a cue from some Japanese RPGs. (I know...I'm sorry). But the fact is that these games have wide appeal for both male and female players. Even IF there is a 'save the princess' story or theme. They achieve this in part by DEVELOPING the princess character. And usually in a game that means she is INVOLVED somehow with gameplay. She can be a partner (similar to Prince of Persia, Midna from Legend of Zelda) or one of the group (Aeriss from FF7/Colette in Tales of Symphonia).
If she is a partner/group member, she is an active character for at least a portion of the game. The player gets to know her a bit better than if she was just in the opening cut scene.
Another method is having the princess be the Initiator. Meaning, she requests to be rescued or commands the hero. Something like Zelda in Legend of Zelda. She often requests Link to do something and then waits for him to do it. Even though she's still a passive character, it's at least by consent. It is not ideal but having chosen the hero makes it a little less offensive...just a bit.
Finally, having less "sexualized" prizes as princesses. Say that that princess is actually the hero's sister/daughter, so she is rescued out of a sense of duty to family. If the character is young enough, saving a female friend as a friend. (I kind of feel like Kingdom Hearts is like this and Zelda games where Link is a child).
If you do have two consenting adults, then the princess has to SOMEHOW be portrayed as an appealing person. Show them together prior to the capture being happy. Similar to Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where the father is shown playing happily with his daughter. (I know these are not consenting adults but showing the happy status quo immediately instills us with the sense that the story/game is about returning to that status quo.)
But as for consenting adults think of Twilight Princess's Illia. She is portrayed as one of the villagers and the status quo of her relationship with Link is established. They have interests in common, namely the horse. Similar things are done in the early game to establish relationships with the children characters too so that the story impact of them getting kidnapped is stronger.
Dante's Inferno does NOT show the status quo in the early cutscenes. We can only GUESS that they were happy together judging by his reaction. Or who knows, maybe he was the only one that was happy and she was not.
The best way to exclude a female audience is to objectify women within the game as a prize to be won or the whole goal of the game. Even when playing or reading from the viewpoint of a male protagonist, I need more of a reason to care about the princess. The promise that the character gets mating rights holds little interest to me. As a female I'm drawn to relationships. There needs to be some emotional attachment from the audience to the couple, not just sympathy for the poor man who lost his wife.
A tale as old as time does not need to be discarded, but to be appealing to a wider audience then it is important to humanize BOTH princess and prince. Not just one or the other.