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!
The makings of a truly great character change from medium to medium. In books we look for things like depth, complexity, and believability. Written words can really go into detail about a character’s emotions and motives, for pages and pages if need be, to create the mental image of what a character is like, how she acts and what she’s likely to do. Film doesn’t have that luxury, of course; the action onscreen needs to be constantly in motion, and since concepts like thought and emotion need to be shown visually they can’t really be dwelled upon. But because it’s a visual medium, film can convey appearance, action and motion in a way books simply can’t.
The point of all this is that you wouldn’t judge a character in a novel by the same metric as you would a character in a film. The two mediums are good at different things, and what video games are good at is interaction.
A game character is defined in large part by how the player interacts with her… what the player can make her do, and how she looks and responds while doing it. There are games that try to be books by slathering reams and reams of text on the screen, and there are games that try to be movies by having tons of long, static cutscenes. We call these boring games, and the characters in them are often not very memorable.
The more direct interaction the player has with her avatar, the less “book-like” or “movie-like” the character really needs to be. Absolutely no one is going to argue that Mario isn’t one of the greatest game characters ever made, and he seldom has a thought more complex than “save the princess”.
That brings us to the Action Girl. The Action Girl does not need much of a personality. She doesn’t need a lot of dialogue. People don’t play her games in order to be floored by the whiz-bang plot or for their deep, intellectual symbolism. She does, however, need to be able to run, jump, and kill lots of monsters. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if she looks good doing it.
Still, there’s a right way and a wrong way to cast Action Girl. If the game sucks, for example, her most defining characteristic is completely shot. A bad voice actress, a stupid-looking running animation, incessantly whiny dialogue, too much (or too little!) sex appeal… it’s not easy being Action Girl.
This week I’m going to take a look at two Action Girls from very similar games: sidescrolling freeform platformers. (Metroidvanias, if you prefer.) As video game heroines one really shines and the other completely flops, and contrasting them is an interesting exercise in character design. Let’s take a look…
Aside from that fantastic backdash, there’s really nothing to recommend Shanoa. Since her game is such a chore to play all her annoying little foibles bubble up to the surface. The context of these ladies’ respective games matters a lot, too: Shantae was very much a labor of love, created by a tiny development team who have a strong passion for their character and the world she inhabits. Order of Ecclesia was a very tepid, by the numbers entry into a series that had already overstayed its welcome. Does anyone at Konami even care about Shanoa? She’s just a blank face in a growing and increasingly irrelevant crowd of not-Belmonts — and it shows.
Fortunately for Castlevania fans, they had already gotten Action Girl right long before Ecclesia was released. Maria Renard, the girl who plays second fiddle to Richter Belmont in Rondo of Blood, was so much fun to play as it didn’t matter that she was just a generic anime insert with overacted lines. The stages in Maria’s game were interesting, the boss fights were hectic, she had a double-jump and she could kill a werewolf by throwing doves at its face. See Shanoa? Just be in a game that doesn’t suck, and you’ll find your lot improving.
Of course, there’s no rule that states Action Girl can’t be a legitimately good, well-written character. It’s rare, but it does happen from time to time. Next week’s Action Girl not only kicks ass and looks great doing it — she also happens to star in two of the best games ever made.