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!
Video Game Heroines Series
Week One: Supplanted Heroines
#5: Ashley Robbins
(Trace Memory, 2005, Nintendo DS)
I just can’t resist a good adventure game. Hell, I can’t even resist a mediocre adventure game. So forgive me if I’m fond of Trace Memory despite it being a pedestrian collection of fetch quests and DS gimmickry. The game works, in spite of its lackluster gameplay, because of the intriguing mystery you spend most of it unraveling. On one level it’s the tale of a young girl searching for her missing father, and finding him one breadcrumb at a time. On another it’s a straight-up ghost story involving war, broken dreams, depression and suicide. (Well, maybe suicide. That’s the mystery, isn’t it?)
Playing detective is soon-to-be-14-year-old Ashley Robbins, the daughter of two scientists who were doing extensive research into the subject of memory. Ashley possesses the characteristics of all good adventure game protagonists: she’s resourceful and inquisitive, perceptive and insightful, and most importantly she never passes up the opportunity to digest an old photo album or lost, yellowing journal. She’s portrayed as being uncommonly bright — bright enough at least to solve an entire mansion’s worth of puzzles and locks. (Actually it was me what did all that solving, but Ashley of course takes the credit.)
The most unique thing about Ashley is she was cast in Trace Memory first and foremost as a child, and not a girl. You can close your eyes and envision certain character traits that belong to young boys and girls, but those traits aren’t necessarily the same set you’d get if the only seed I gave you to work with was “just imagine a 14-year-old kid”. What I mean is, the first thing that pops into your head when you picture a kid of a specific gender is what toys they play with. Or what clothes they wear. Insubstantial things, things which don’t really define kids as people. Freed from the preconceptions of gender roles, though, you might be more inclined to imagine what those kids are like, how they act, the way they talk. That’s where Ashley’s personality comes from.
By contrast, last week when I talked about Polka from Eternal Sonata, I described her as a young adult. As it happens, she and Ashley are the same age. The difference is Polka is just a bog standard pretty-princess anime character with a twist in her backstory. There’s not really anything… teenaged about her. Her age isn’t important in any meaningful way.
The next layer, once you’ve established that your protagonist is a kid, is what kind of kid is she? There are two popular ways to go, here. On one side you have the quintessential super-kid, the kid-who-can-do-no-wrong, who outshines all the adults in the story in both virtue and intelligence. On the other you have the inexplicable adventure-kid, the kid who acts like a grown-up, fights like a grown-up, and is treated equal to the grown-ups, even by all the other grown-ups in the story. That second type is particularly popular in video games with ensemble casts.
(So the wisened old sage says to the dark knight, “Nobody’s ever come back from that mountain alive. Here, you’d better take these five-year-olds with you.”)
Ashley is neither super-kid nor adventure-kid. She doesn’t swoop in and rescue all the hapless adults on Evil Ghost Island, nor does she exhibit many grown-up characteristics herself. She’s mature, but mature like a 14-year-old, not 14-going-on-30. Her range of emotion is strictly adolescent: she pouts when she doesn’t get her way, beams brightly when she eats a piece of candy, and responds to fear by closing her eyes tightly rather than fleeing. Sometimes, when the grown-ups are talking, Ashley has trouble following their logic and motivations. Her mind tends to wander, only to be snapped back to reality when someone speaks her name.
During her explorations Ashley frequently loses track of her goal, her focus shattered by some new question or mystery about the island. An adult in her situation would be more likely to remain on task, even to the point of single-mindedness — and an adult who didn’t would deserve harsh criticism. It seems perfectly natural, though, for Ashley’s youthful curiosity to drive her towards solving these dark mysteries for their own sake.
Being a puzzle-light adventure game, Trace Memory‘s most prominent building block is its vast amount of dialogue. Ashley is quite verbose, and her every word is accompanied by some really excellent artwork. Expressiveness goes a long way towards making a good video game character great, and Ashley’s got it in spades. What really shines here is that Ashley’s various gestures and emotes are quite believable, and not marred by overblown cartoonishness. No overzealous pointing or giant goofy sweatdrops here, just more reserved character artwork for a more reserved style of game.
Trace Memory had a Wii sequel last year, which I unfortunately knew nothing about until I started doing the image searches for this post. Or maybe “unfortunately” is the wrong word, since the game will probably never see the light of day in North America anyway. Point is, I could see myself spending another ten hours with Ashley in another haunted mansion or abandoned science lab or speeding ghost train. I remember ending my Hotel Dusk post a few months ago by saying that I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get at its upcoming sequel. I just didn’t feel the same kind of attachment to Inspector Whats-His-Name… the ex-cop character was too on-the-nose for the would-be detective novel. He wasn’t memorable, the way Ashley is. I think that’s about the highest praise I can give to a character in the adventures-with-middling-puzzles genre.