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
Week Seven: Sharing the Spotlight
Week Eight: Great Gaming Heroines #2: Lightning
Week Nine: Retro Heroines
Great Gaming Heroines #1: Chris Lightfellow
(Suikoden III, 2002, PS2)
At first glance, you’d think Chris belongs in this earlier post in the Gaming Heroines series — and you’d be right. Wonderful character though she may be, Chris isn’t the sole protagonist of Suikoden III, which featured a splintered storytelling style split between four separate protagonists. Of these, the player chooses between three to become “the hero”. While Chris is certainly on the menu, more rabid fans of the series would argue she’s not the canonical choice. (And they’d have a point, but you’d still be too busy wiping off the fanboy froth to realize that.)
So right up front, I do apologize for breaking my own rules. Though I don’t see myself as breaking them, so much as challenging
them, much in the way the Suikoden series challenges a lot of our firmly-held notions about what video game characters ought to be like. This is a series chock full of Lawful Good villains, impossible choices and grey areas. Over the course of the five numbered games Suikoden had developed a rich, deep setting virtually unmatched anywhere in the universe of gaming. You can compare the Suikoworld to Britannia or Middle-earth, with a completely straight face, and mean it. Yes yes, it’s anachronisms and anime tropes as far as the eye can see. What I mean is, the world fits together in every way that matters: geographically, politically, mythologically and temporally. Events that transpire in one game affect another, often in tangential ways. Characters who were heroes in one game may well become villains in the next, sometimes with new motivations, sometimes not. Sometimes the only thing that’s changed is the player’s point of view.
The role of female characters in the Suikoden series is an interesting enough topic to devote an article to in and of itself. Most of the famous fantasy tropes are covered: there are tomboys, and sorceresses, and an Amazon village. Outside of that, though, each setting within the Suikoworld places women in a different position in its society. In the Warrior’s Village, for example, women are considered equal to men except they aren’t allowed to carry weapons. In Falena bloodlines pass through daughters rather than sons, and the queen’s hand is earned through gladitorial bloodsport. In some cultures it’s common for women to occupy political or military positions equal to or surpassing their male counterparts, while in others such a thing is particularly rare and noteworthy.
If it seems like it’s taking me a lot of time to finally get around to discussing Chris, that’s because every Suikoden character of anyimportance comes packing all this context with them. Simply by virtue of having the setting behind them, great Suikoden characters are made even greater. When I tell you that Chris is the captain of the Zexen knights who rose to power in the wake of her predecessor being killed at the hands of Grasslander barbarians, you have to understand that I do so having had knowledge of what and where Zexen and Grasslands are, and how they interact with each other, even before booting up Suikoden III the first time.
What the Suikoden games are really good at is creating a believable world, populating that world with believable(-ish) characters… and then just letting events take their natural course. Very rarely do the games make concession in their storylines for the sake of the player. Chris is perhaps the best example of that in the series. The story of Suikoden III largely concerns itself with the True Fire Rune, a magical construct of unimaginable destructive power. At a crucial moment in the game the player decides which of the three protagonists inherits this awesome power — which Chris is completely unsuited to take. As far as the game mechanics are concerned, Chris is a purely martial character; casting magical spells is simply not her forté. The game’s developers didn’t step in and tweak Chris’s character so she’s be more mage-like and less knight-like. There are no story contrivances in place to make sure the player’s experience with magic runes is absolutely optimized. No, Chris just flat-out sucks at magic. Them’s the breaks. It’s rough, maybe even brutal, but it makes sense and it helps put a sharper point on the character.
So, about that character, then. When I was writing about Final Fantasy XIII‘s Lightning several weeks ago, I said it was astounding that she almost took the top spot in my list of FF protagonists. The guy who did end up taking the top spot, of course, was Cecil Harvey from Final Fantasy IV. In the simplest terms I can muster, Chris is the female version of Cecil. She begins the game leading an army of soldiers whose primary focus is to bludgeon the surrounding wilds into submission, and while she has moral qualms with her lot in life, her loyalty and dedication far outweigh them. Later, Chris turns her back on her knighthood in an effort to discover the world in truth, and her place in it. That road inevitably leads her back into command, either as the fabled Flame Champion, or as his most decorated military commander. The primary difference between Cecil’s transition and Chris’s is this: the source of Cecil’s darkness is magical in nature, and he “defeats” it by enacting an equally magical ritual in a room full of mirrors on top of a lonely mountain. The source of Chris’s darkness is largely political, and she overcomes it first through introspection, followed by observation and resolution. She then maintains it, in a way Cecil never had to. Going from evil to good in FF4 was like flipping a switch; in Suikoden the terms don’t even really apply.
The early chapters of Suikoden III portray the villains as going to great lengths to manipulate Chris and her knights into doing evil things, but the truth is they really needn’t have bothered. Chris is perfectly willing to committ atrocities in the name of her country’s banner, and does so unflinchingly. In many ways she is the game’s primary villain, early on. With only the slightest provocation her knights descend upon a small Grassland village, razing it to the ground and killing most of its inhabitants. Chris herself is personally responsible for slaughtering a small child who, in another chapter, the player had already grown somewhat attached to. These actions are later celebrated by her home country, which is one of the triggering events leading to her eventual crisis of faith.
The bulk of Suikoden III‘s plot revolves around the interactions between the modern, militarized nation of Zexen and the wild, warring clans of the Grasslands. Whether Zexen is a bastion of good attempting to tame the uncultured barbarians of the Grasslands, or it’s an oppressive metal hammer attempting to destroy a free and spiritual folk is… well, largely determined by which side of the stoy the player decides to see first. In reality both and neither of those things are true. It’s a clash of cultures, to be sure, and in the end they must band together in order to face an even greater threat.
In a lesser story, Chris’s role would be to learn the ways of the barbarian folk, gain their trust with acts of great heroism, then lead them to victory over the army she herself once led. But this is Suikoden, where black-and-white stories are shunned in favor of larger, more abiguous conflicts. In truth, Chris’s road leads her… well… right back where she started. She retakes the mantle of leadership and uses it to direct Zexen to see the true threat for what it is, and she uses her fame and martial skill to meet that threat head on. Zexen was never evil to begin with, see, was merely looking out for its own interests. In the course of her personal journies Chris discovers those interests actually lay elsewhere. Though she shuffles her allies and enemies around some, she never stops serving Zexen to the best of her ability.
On the other side of the coin is Hugo, a Grasslander youth with a pet gryphon and a flair for adventure. The child Chris slays early in the story is Hugo’s best friend, which puts their relationship on somewhat uneven ground, to say the least. There’s more to the story than that, but it’s still tough for Chris or Hugo to work through, which makes the parts towards the end of the game where they fight side-by-side particularly poignant.
In the ending, when the otherworldly threat is dealt with, the bittersweet resolution between Zexen and Grasslands is that there is no resolution. There will no doubt be cultural and territorial disputes between the two nations in the future, which means in all likelihood Chris and Hugo will be enemies next time they meet in battle. As is her custom, Chris attempts to leave Hugo with a cordial but respectful handshake.
Hugo instead draws her into a warm, friendly hug, which is met initially by bewilderment.
She eventually returns the embrace, though. Though their origins, idealogies and motivations could not be further apart, Chris and Hugo respect and understand each other, at least for one moment. Sappy though it may be, this scene sticks with me as one of the most heartwarming I’ve seen in a game. Only in the context of such a well-realized world can a relationship like this work as well as it does.
Chris is one of my favorite characters in one of the most lively and interesting settings ever developed for a video game series. She is an extension of the setting she’s in… the product of it, in a way that some of these other leading ladies simply aren’t. She’s the finest (and, to date, only) example of a female protagonist in the Suikoden series, and for that she gets top billing.
And that (finally!) wraps up my list of favorite gaming heroines. Thank you all for reading!