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
Week Two: Great Gaming Heroines #5: Ashley Robbins
Week Three: Shantae vs. Shanoa — An Action Girl Case Study
Week Four: Great Gaming Heroines #4: Commander Shepard
Week Five: The Off-the-Shelf Heroine
Week Six: Great Gaming Heroines #3: Jade
Sharing the Spotlight
One of the qualifications I used when counting up the great gaming ladies of my collection was this: she had to be the primary character. One of the tricks developers like to use to slip female heroes passed the still-predominantly-male gaming populace is to offer a choice of characters to play as: one male, and one female. This usually happens in plot-thin action or sim games, where staving off sexism is as easy as having a second hero sprite. The other trick is to have two protagonists of equal standing, again, one male and one female. That style is usually reserved for meatier genres such as RPGs.
Both of these methods are sort of cheating, though. Pick-your-gender games by necessity have generic plotlines, since the story can’t be tailored to a specific character. In fact, depending on the carelessness of the localization you might be lucky just to get all the “hes” and “hims” in the text changed to “shes” and “hers”. It is of course possible to still have a fun game with a generic story, and I in fact prefer in it many genres… but it doesn’t make for particularly memorable heroines.
The other method still allows for well-developed plots, since the two spotlight characters will either share scenes or take turns. All you’ve done here, though, is create a situation in which hero and heroine play each other’s co-stars. The story is more about the relationship between those two characters, rather than the characters themselves.
Despite that, there have been many heroines who were perfectly memorable despite having to share their spotlight. These are characters who could have carried an entire game by themselves… if they’d been given the opportunity. Let’s meet a few of them.
(Final Fantasy XII, 2006, PS2)
Final Fantasy XII is one of those rare games where the main viewpoint character and the story’s protagonist are not one andthe same. The main player character is Vaan, the adventurous wannabe Sky Pirate who falls in with some kingdom-saving rebels and decides to just roll with it. There is no point in the story where Vaan becomes magically complicit in the events going down; he is not the Emperor’s long-lost grandson, nor the chosen fabled child who was fortold. He really is, for honest and true, just an unlikely street rat who happens to trip over a princess.
Ashe, on the other hand, is the plot. Ivalice is not a world on the brink of destruction. There are no otherworldly entities or mad gods here. Nothing is threatening to have the desert kingdom of Dalmasca for breakfast… except in the political sense. If Ashe had simply decided to leave things lay the main plot of FF12 would not have happened at all. Vaan would have kept on thieving, Fran and Balthier would have kept on pirating, and Basch would have wasted away to nothing in a dungeon. Heck, a canny player might even make the argument that Vayne’s plans would have worked out to the benefit of Dalmasca, in the long term, if some uppity princess could have just left well enough alone.
That’s what I love about most Ashe. Every other game in this series — in this genre even — the hero is driven by virtue, justice, and a passionate desire to just plain do the right thing. In stark contrast, Ashe is driven by selfishness, revenge and ambition. One of the major conflicts in the game is whether Ashe has Dalmasca’s best interests at heart, or whether she simply her own lust for power. Many of FF12′s major fetch quests involve hunting down magic stones of ridiculous destructive power. Usually when you do this in an RPG it’s because you’re trying to prevent the bad guy from getting his hands on them — but Ashe? Ashe means to use them.
I remember first playing FF12 and being upset that the entire playable cast were wispy-hair desert children. Ivalice has such a rich setting with so many unique humanoid races, and the best they could do is give us five blonde humans and a viera? There’s a reason the game’s cast is so homogenous, though: if there had been more variety in the party, someone might have stood up and said, “Hey guys? Maybe it’s not a good idea helping this crazy widow lady stockpile WMDs.” For the plot to work, the other characters had to have the same blinders Ashe does.
Eventually Ashe’s tunnel vision subsides, and her goals become somewhat less short-sighted. Ultimately the choice falls to her whether or not to accept the amazing godlike power being offered her, and she makes it on her own terms. You can trace her ultimate decision all the way back along the path that brought her to it, too. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity to FF12′s plot, so there is no “right” answer. Every other RPG hero makes this decision based on whether or not It Must Be Done; Ashe makes it based on whether or not she will turn into the thing she’s been fighting — and whether or not that’s necessarily a bad thing.
Ashe is an intriguing character from just about every angle, and perhaps I should be railing against Vaan for elbowing her out of center stage. The truth is, though, Ashe’s story is best seen from the outside. Trying to sort through the quagmire of Ashe’s motivations is part of the fun of the story, and it just wouldn’t have worked if we’d gotten her inner monologue after every cutscene.
(Cave Story, 2004/2010, PC/Wii)
One of the not-so-well-kept secrets of Cave Story is its peppy co-star is playable even outside the last level where she’s strapped to your back. Even before the Wii version introduced its long-overdue Curly Mode there was a fan-made patch available for the PC version. And why not? Simply indie game with cute graphics? It’s as easy as swapping a few sprites around. And believe me, even something as simple as a new character sprite can completely change the feel of a platformer — even if the underlying physics are left untouched. That’s one of the reasons I downloaded the Curly patch in the first place.
The other reason was, well, it’s kind of impossible to not totally adore Curly Brace. The first thing she does in Cave Story is cheerfully greets our stoic, silent hero. The second thing she does is to try and murder him. The third thing she does is give him a kickass machinegun. Curly is a tough, peppy ball of energy — she’s everything the rest of the supporting cast isn’t. What’s more, she’s right at the heart of Cave Story’s plot. Finding how what she is and how she came to be on the island means unlocking the mysteries of the player as well. To this day I wince a little when I see the hero’s name used in casual Cave Story discussion, because it means ruining one of Curly’s best scenes.
What’s really cool about the two versions of Curly Mode is how differently they handle the switch. In the fan-made patch Curly is swapped into the hero’s role wholesale, and the hero into hers. This makes Curly the stoic, silent gunslinger, and means the hero becomes the chatty sidekick. The plot doesn’t change, and neither does either character’s place in it — once you get over the novelty of seeing a new face in the dialogue boxes, you’re back where you started.
In the Wii version, though, the two characters retain their original roles. Curly remains bubbly and talkative, which means the player gets commentary on everything in the game, every step of the way. You get to see her react to the shenanigans of Sue and Kazuma, characters she otherwise would never interact with. You get to see her interact with the “regular” hero, too, whichsheds some light on their respective roles and the comradeship they used to share.
Cave Story is really two interwoven plots, you see. Up top you have the “Sue” story, which involves the current crisis on the island and how you, the amnesiac robotic hero, intend to stop it. But underneath is the “Curly” story, which involves the island’s dark history and what the amnesiac robotic hero is doing there to begin with. These stories never really intersect — even the endings are mutually exclusive — so plugging Curly into scenes where she originally had no foothold offers an entirely new perspective on an already great game.
(Folklore, 2007, PS3)
…whoops! I forgot to play more than a few hours of this game in the more than two years I’ve owned it. Ellen is a cute blonde with a cool hat who shares her game with a nerdy journalist guy named Keats. She has magic powers and a mysterious, cloudy past, and spends her time fighting evil creatures in a wonderland based loosely on Irish floklore.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t quit playing Folklore because I hated it. I only bought it to have something to plug into the PS3 until Metal Gear Solid 4 came out, and just never got back around to it after Solid Snake was done frying eggs or punching ocelots or whatever it is he does in that game. I get the impression, though, that if I’d finished Folklore I’d probably have nicer things to say about Ellen in this little blurb. Ah, to live in a perfect world.
(Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles, 2007, PSP)
I realize I’m stretching the boundaries of “the past ten years” pretty far by including remakes of games originally released in the mid-to-late 90s… but there’s really nowhere else in this blog series to squeeze Maria in. And dag nabbit, I feel like it’s my solemn duty to sneak Maria in.
And besides… I never played Rondo of Blood until I got my hands on Dracula X Chronicles. So she was new to me!
Even sticking just to the games in Dracula X Chronicles, Maria is really two different characters. In Rondo of Blood she is a hyper-obnoxious anime girl who is a dream in gameplay sequences and absolutely atrocious in the storyline sequences. Somewhere along the way Konami decided it was okay to have a bratty valley girl stereotype in their gothic horror action series. You know, the bad, fake-y kind of cute that makes teenagers talk like kindergarteners.
When Maria comes back as a young woman in Symphony of the Night, though, she’s a much more palatable character. Her motivations are clearer, her personality somewhat more mature. She’s dressed more like a vampire hunter and less like a curly-haired doll. (Wait — female vampire hunters wear green mini-skirts, right?) Unfortunately she’s just a bit player. Her job is to drop tantalizing plot points for a while, then dote after the broodingly handsome Alucard when he skulks off during the ending.
And the less said about her appearance in Judgment, the better.
Still, Maria’s a gem because she offers a unique gameplay option whenever she pops up. This is pretty common for second-string Castlevania characters, of course; same game, new moveset. If I were any kind of host I would have played Portrait of Ruin instead, and pontificated about a heroine who’s actually involved in the plot of the game she appears in. Shame on me!
We’ll probably continue to see the split-spotlight trick for as long as game developers have to balance interesting characters with hitting their marketing demographic. Just… let’s be glad I wasn’t reaching back more than ten years, or I would have had to rant at least a little about Star Ocean 2.