Supplanted Heroines

It all started when I made this weird, rambling post complaining about Samus Aran’s characterization in Other Msome crappy new game I hadn’t even played. Basically, I feel like there aren’t enough awesome female protagonists in video games. I took an inventory of every console game I’ve purchased in the last ten years and made a list, and was shocked to find that there have only been five really memorable heroines who aren’t sultry sex kittens and who don’t have to share their spotlight with some dude. So I figured I’d blog about them! There were a lot of also-rans and not-quite-greats as well, so I’ll be covering them as well. Thanks very much for reading!

Supplanted Heroines

I readily admit that I am naturally attracted to games that star women. I think there are two reasons for this. The first is simple, and a bit shallow: women are pretty, and I like looking at them. Certainly no one will begrudge me that, yes? The second is a bit more complex: women are rare in video games. Games with ensemble casts usually feature them as a minority, such as every fighting or role-playing game you’ve played since 1990. Create-a-character or pick-a-hero style games often have a female option, but a blank avatar you pick off a menu can never be as interesting as a real character written from the ground up.

It’s no real surprise that male is the default option for video game heroes. What I’ve come to realize is that female protagonists are only used when the hero of the story requires some traditionally-feminine traits to work properly. This can be anything from sex appeal to a motherly instinct, really, but the end result seems to be that simply by moving away from that default option, a more interesting character is crafted.

Essentially, a girl hero is more interesting than a dude hero for the same reason that a homemade spaghetti sauce is tastier than one you pick up off the shelf. Simply by passing on the default option, the writers are saying, “We’re putting time into this character.”

Upon occasion, though, I will get blindsided. Some new game will come along that catches my eye for daring to have a lady lead, only to quickly replace her with some dude before I’ve even gotten the hang of the controls. It’s like the game designers tried to take the road less traveled, only to chicken out at the last second. Today’s entry looks at three such women, and why their games would have been better if they’d been allowed to stay in the spotlight.

Polka
(Eternal Sonata, 360/PS3, 2007)

I should start by explaining that Eternal Sonata was not a very good game. It had a lot of really great elements to it, but they were kind of just stirred haphazardly into much too large a pot. The setting of the game was phenomenal: poetic and dreamlike, all soft colors and gentle piano music. The cast was quite endearing, having been comprised mostly of cherub-like kids with bright clothes and named after musical terminology.

The rest of the experience kind of falls apart, though — illogical plot graph, sorta-fun but mostly-broken combat system, unbelievably forced meta-story about some old composer nobody cares about. The heroine, though, was one element that really clicked. Polka was a bittersweet character, and the most frustrating aspect of the game’s story is that it didn’t do enough to really explore her.

The game opens on this teenage girl, Polka, who lives in a house by the ocean with her mother. She has an incurable illness, and has a nonspecific but assuredly short time left in the world. Her illness makes her somewhat of a pariah with the townsfolk, but it also gives her the ability to cast magical healing spells, so she has devoted what little time she has to alleviating the pain of the sick and infirm.

She’s in a JRPG though, which means she eventually gets swept up in world-changing events involving monsters and pirate invaders and magic crystals and whatever else.

She’s replaced by…

…these dudes. The kid in the front with the silver anime hair is Allegretto, who takes Polka’s place as the game’s map exploration character the moment he’s introduced. In the background, with the top hat, is Frederic Chopin himself. All of Eternal Sonata is his fevered dream, see, as he lays on his death bed in Polishville, Kentucky. (Or wherever. Who cares about Chopin.)

As JRPG heroes go, I quite liked Allegretto. He and his partner Beat are adorable thieving little scamps, and I was impressed with him for the same reasons I was impressed with Zidane, back in the day. Allegretto isn’t mopey or angsty — in fact, no character in Eternal Sonata really is. In fact, if this were any other game, I would admit that I’d like to see more JRPG heroes like him. There’s not much to Allegretto, really, he’s just all generic courage and helpfulness… but he’s also free of the tortured soul and demon-filled closet that traps so many of this genre’s protagonists.

Frederic I was… less enamored with. I never felt like the meta-story of Eternal Sonata did it any favors. The plot was confusing and trope-heavy enough without having to explain it in terms of a dream within a dream. I liked him as a supporting character in a light-hearted RPG, and I’m certainly not going to argue with his stylish hat, but overall the game would have been better without him.

So what’s wrong?
Eternal Sonata needs Allegretto because someone has to fall in love with Polka. This does in fact happen over the course of the story, and the subject matter is treated a little more gingerly than is often the case in JRPGs. Theirs is an innocent, delicate puppy love. A doomed puppy love, of course, because of Polka’s illness. That’s the subject that needed more screentime: how Polka explores these new feelings and relationships knowing that she’s so close to death. Allegretto’s trials simply aren’t as interesting, and it’s enough of a shame that the game was so quick to shuffle Polka off into the background in favor of him, let alone trying to shovel the Frederic meta-plot in on top of everything else.

This story should have been about Polka, through and through, start to end, happy beginning to heartbreaking conclusion. Instead it was about Allegretto having adventures in a dying virtuoso’s dreamworld.

Karin
(Shadow Hearts: Covenant, PS2, 2004)

I have never played the first or third game in this series, but part two is definitely one of the most inventive RPGs avaiable during the PS2 generation. I don’t mean the plot — hell no. Geez. Poorly chained logic and overused anime pap as far as the eye can see. But the inventive combat and insane character skills just couldn’t be beat. Some of the dungeon puzzles were pretty good, too.

The real draw, though, is the cast itself. This game features (among other things) a geriatric puppetmaster, a vampire pro wrestler, a friendly white wolf and Anastasia Romanov. I never got bored watching this freakshow on the stage. The game barely had a plot, at least not one worth mentioning, but I never got tired of the way the player characters interacted with each other, with the villains, with the equally-entertaining supporting cast or even with game mechanics.

A cast like this doesn’t really need a main hero to work well. (Remember Final Fantasy VI?) This isn’t One Person’s Story, after all. Still, I was impressed when I saw that the protagonist was a redheaded German swordswoman named Karin Koenig. I mean, heck, forget the fact that she’s a woman; a German protagonist in a game set during World World I is ballsy enough.

You can tell she’s the game’s main character too, because she’s right there on the front of the box. Alone. Lookin’ all hot and fiery with the short-cut skirt, the badass disposition and the rapier at the ready. Jesus. I might need a cold shower.

Karin has a strong tie to the game’s plot, but it’s not something that really gets explored until the ending, and it’s a twist that isn’t worth spoiling in my goofy little “I like girls” series. Her main job is to be a more-or-less neutral observer… someone for the story to happen around. She’s a well-balanced character who the player can appreciate being at the lead of his party. You know what? Except for the fact that she has curves and a voice actor, I’m willing to call her “female Crono”. Red hair and everything. Let’s go with that.

She’s replaced by…

…the guy on the back of the box. No, wait, scratch that. The guy on half of the back of the box. Which is to say, the guy from the first Shadow Hearts game.

Yuri is a fine hero. He looks cool enough, I guess, and while his demonic-transformation mechanic is nothing earth-shatteringly original in the broader scope of JRPG heroes it does put a fun spin on Covenant‘s already great battle system. What I like best about Yuri is that he is consistently unflappable. No matter how powerful the foe or how devastatingly bad the odds, Yuri does not allow himself to be threatened or intimidated. He shrugs everything off with a smarmy aloofness that I found refreshing after ten years of JRPG heroes cutting themselves in dark closets.

Yuri and Karin comprise the core of Covenant‘s cast. The writers weren’t shy about stretching everyone else into extreme and ridiculous directions, but the two main characters were left pretty well-grounded, all things considered. They are representative of the basic anime hero, each with a few quirks to help flesh them out without defining them completely. Where Karin finds the middle ground between the lovable schoolgirl and the scantily-clad bimbo, Yuri finds it between the ox-like strongarm and the dirty old grandpa.

So what’s wrong?
I don’t know enough about the overall Shadow Hearts storyline to say whether or not Covenant really, truly needed Yuri. Having never played the first game I still had no problem following the plot (such as it was), so the developers got at least that aspect of things right. I kept getting the sense though, as I played, that the game wanted Karin in the lead, and that Yuri was only included for the sake of tradition.

Few JRPGs can parallel the fantastic storytelling of the first two Suikoden games. Like Shadow Hearts, the second game is a direct sequel of the first, going so far as to inhabit the same world and feature many of the same characters. The hero from the first game returns in the second as well, and in the classiest way possible: as an easter egg. Hero1 was acknowledged as being part of Hero2’s world without completely overshadowing him the way Yuri does to Karin.

There were some unresolved issues from the first Shadow Hearts that Yuri needs to tie up in Covenant, and that’s fine. But in light of the new cast and the new combat and the new… everything else, his story really felt like a subplot. I think that’s what it should have been. There’s a lot there, and it was definitely worth exploring, and Karin is included in it. But it should have been the other way around. Players had already seen the adventures from Yuri’s point of view. The chance to look at its eventual conclusion from another angle would have done more service to both of the characters than what was put in the box.

Krystal
(Star Fox Adventures,  GCN, 2002)

No, really, stop laughing. You know how when Super Smash Bros. Brawl came out, and they revealed Wolf as the third Fox-clone, and everyone was like, “That’s lame, but at least it’s not Krystal.” I was the guy who was like “Dammit, that should have been Krystal.”

Krystal is a tragic character, in that it’s tragic that most of her fanbase seems preoccupied with objects going into and out of her nethers.

I immediately liked Krystal for a lot of reasons. On the most primal level I’m just a sucker for cute anthropomorphic characters. I’ve always thought it was too bad that I’m not any good at rail shooters, because I’ve always loved the cast of Star Fox even if I couldn’t much stand to play as them. So while the rest of the world is united in a severe distaste for Star Fox Adventures, it continues to be a guilty pleasure of mine since it lets me interact with that cast regardless of my inability to do a barrel roll.

Of course I knew going in that Krystal wasn’t the hero of Star Fox Adventures. Indeed, I didn’t want her to be. At least, not at first. The very first time I played the game, I couldn’t wait to get through the single level where she’s playable.

She’s replaced by…

…Fox McCloud. He’s the man I came to this game to see! Years of playing the first two Smash Bros. games had really caused me to fall in love with Fox, so when they announced a Zelda clone starring him I knew I had to sign up. In Smash Fox is defined by his agility and his awesome blaster. In Star Fox he’s defined by his brashness and cunning. I thought for sure all of this would translate well into an action-adventure game.

For the most part, I was not disappointed. Star Fox Adventures has its flaws, but it’s still a fun game, and it was fun to make Fox scramble across the world of Dinosaur Planet. Unfortunately some of the most fun traits attributed to him by Smash failed to surface. When he’s first dropped on Dinosaur Planet, Fox’s blaster is disabled. No shooty-shooty run’n’gun. What can he do, then? Well, he can stick-fight. With the magic staff dropped by the blue lady in the prologue.

So what’s wrong?
Star Fox Adventures isn’t Fox’s game. It wasn’t conceived that way, it wasn’t planned that way, and it sure as shamrocks wasn’t written that way.

What I came to realize, over the course of a couple playthroughs, was that there was nothing about his character that couldn’t have been handled equally well by Krystal. His entire skillset was defined by magical rituals and by his dino-buddy Tricky. The quick, lithe fighting style he adopts with the staff was very reminiscent of what I was used to seeing in Smash, but it would have been portrayed better by the grace of a female hero. Even Krystal’s character design is a much better fit for the exotic, primal world of Dinosaur Planet. Fox is the alien here. He’s the one who is out of place.

As much as I loved spending time with Fox outside of his Arwing, I have to say that his fun little action-adventure game would have been better served without his franchise attached to it. The game as originally conceived, with Krystal firmly in the lead as the fairy-like catgirl she was intended to be, would have gone down smoother and not left such a slapdash aftertaste.

Besides, I hear that the addition of Krystal to the Star Fox universe made for some of the most embarrassing moments in its storyline, later in the series. But I wouldn’t know anything about that first-hand. See, I can’t do a barrel roll.

I mentioned that there were only five really good female heroes in my entire console collection, and that’s true. All three of the ladies in this week’s article are of course disqualified, since they were forced to give up their spotlight because some focus-testing pencil-pusher didn’t think it was worth alienating part of their demographic. Next week I believe I’ll start in with #5 on the list. I just have to replay her game first.

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12 comments to Supplanted Heroines

  • SpoonyBard

    Admittedly I haven’t played any of these games. Though I did some thinking over the games I HAVE played in the past 10 years with heroines, and the only one that comes to mind whose role was supplanted by a dude, and it really depends on how you look at it, was Shion Uzuki from Xenosaga.

    Whatever you might think of the series or the character, she was presented as the hero at the start of the first game, but by the end of Episode I Jr. was pretty much the de-facto hero no matter what anyone says. She had maybe one or two moments in Episode II where she reminded everyone she still existed, but it wasn’t until Episode III that she forced her way to the front of the story again.

    Granted I don’t care much for Shion or Jr., I would rather the games were about Ziggy. :/

    • Brickroad

      I stayed far, far, FAR away from Xenosaga.

      • SpoonyBard

        I really can’t blame ya. Somehow I would up liking the series, but I can plainly see how it could be toxic to some people. By the end it felt more like a parody of itself and I was along for the spectacle.

        • FSS

          I know the feeling. The plot moved so horribly slow at times. Couple that with the battle system in Episode II and you have a game that can put an insomniac to sleep. Can you believe it was actually meant to be a six episodes?

          Some parts of the game were good… but most parts were bad, either in one way or another.

  • SpoonyGundam

    Is Chris Lightfellow one? It seems like she should be one, even if Suikoden III has her share screentime with two male main characters too.

  • ombrophilia

    I’m surprised to see Eternal Sonata on this list, mostly because I found the secondary female characters more interesting than Allegretto, Chopin, and Polka combined. I’d play something with a story focused around Claves and Falsetto. Or even a shepherding simulator with Viola. In fact, I’m going to talk with Nintendo about that right now. There’s got to be a market for a game that combines Mad Maestro, Wii Sports Resort, and that one part of Twilight Princess. Maybe we can tap into Mussorgsky for the plot.

  • ThricebornPhoenix

    Few JRPGs can parallel the fantastic storytelling of the first two Suikoden games.

    And yet Odessa is one of the most obvious examples of any I’ve seen of a female lead being pushed out of the way for no good reason. Unless you think that a binary choice of leader or woman (with the implications that men are both leaders and perfectly willing to allow the murder of children) is a good reason.

    • Brickroad

      And if the game had opened in Odessa’s basement rather than with Teo and Teo Jr. in the emperor’s audience chamber, I’d have agreed with you.

      The Suikoden series is actually very good about having important figures, both militarily and politically, of both genders. Most of the settings are less concerned with gender and more with a character’s background and personality. Just as a quick sample we have Sonya, Teresa, Chris, Lucia, Raja, Flare, Arshtat, Lucretia, and Kika. Some of these characters are defined by their gender, and others aren’t, but they’re all particularly effective in their setting.

      Really, the only character who paints the “leader? or woman?” picture is Odessa herself. Everyone else seems just dandy with the idea of chicks with swords.

      • ThricebornPhoenix

        Actually, there was a good reason, just not in-game: she was the leader of the army. ○×∆□* had to have that position, despite the fact that he would rarely do any of the hard work leading an army entails. You could say that it’s just because he’s the initial viewpoint character, but there have been five main Suikoden games, plus Tactics and Tierkreis, without one female Tenkai or solo lead. There is Chris in SIII, but she’s outnumbered three to one – not counting the secret viewpoints, a… certain man… and a dog.

        Back to the first game – the story didn’t have to be about ○×∆□*. It could have focused on Odessa, kept ○×∆□* in the background. It would have been more interesting than the old ‘cursed MacGuffin’ shtick. Someone made the decision, conscious or not, to remove the mantle of leadership from the woman who’d crafted it and give it to a boy with no name or personality. It’s hard to blame him, considering the nerd rage that erupts whenever the concept of a female protagonist is mentioned on the internet, but it tinted my view of the story unfavorably for quite a while.

  • Kishi

    Not caring about Chopin only reflects poorly on you, sir.

  • blinkpn

    I totally like the cut of your jib on the Shadow Hearts Covenant track. I myself was disappointed to discover I’d be spending the majority of my time running around as this wierdly dressed demon-transforming dude than that hot lady. Luckily the game was still fantastic.

    On the Krystal Should Have Been The Protagonist Of That Starfox Game track I agree with you so hard it’s making steam shoot out of my ears. I rented it once, played it for half an hour, and never looked at it again when it turned out that Krystal just gets shoved off into damsel in distress territory.

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