The Off-the-Shelf Heroine

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

The Off-the-Shelf Heroine

Some stories don’t require an interesting or original hero. Many genres are appreciated merely for being what they are, and the cast is relegated to background scenery. It should be of no surprise that a lot of video games fall under this umbrella; when you’re making a game about killing zombies or exploring about outer space,  it’s usually enough to just reach up on the shelf and grab one of the pre-made casts already on the shelf.

Nobody cares about the victims in a slasher film.

This week I’ve lined up two games which are personal favorites of mine… but whose lead characters leave a little something to be desired in the originality department.

Cornet and her magic pink trumpet.Cornet Espoire
(Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, 2000, PS1)

Five or six years ago, which is like thirty or forty in Internet years, I did this thing where I reviewed anime. Now, I pretty much can’t stand anime, but that was the gag: viewed through the lens of a non-fan, which shows held up? And which ones didn’t? The whole thing was good for a few laughs, but eventually I got sick of doing it. The whole premise was flawed, see. I mean, for one, I had to actually watch anime. That part was difficult enough in and of itself. Even worse, though, I started getting accustomed to the whole grab bag of anime tropes. Desensitized, even. I got to the point where I was saying nice things about Inuyasha, for chrissake.

I had to give it up, for my own sake if no one else’s.

The position that whole ordeal has left me in regarding Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure is I’ve seen enough generic anime to know that Cornet is Generic Anime Girl through and through, all the way to the marrow.

This actually was standard practice for RPGs of that era. See, RPGs used to be all about mechanics — juggling stats, forming strategies, grinding slimes into gold. But then this… thing happened, somewhere in between Final Fantasy VI and Final Fantasy VII, where the genre started playing at being cinematic. Stories started shoving gameplay off the center stage, and for some reason we all convinced ourselves this was okay.

And what kind of stories do Japanese game developers put in their plot-heavy cinematic RPGs? Why, anime stories of course. I mean, it only stands to reason. Perfect timing, too, considering anime was gaining traction in North America. There was a period of time, towards the end of the 32-bit era, where all you had to do to sell a million copies was put anime cutscenes in your game.

That led to a lot of really, really mediocre RPGs with really, really lame characters… including tons of Generic Anime Girl. An army of pretty, doe-eyed daughters, often with magical powers, always the pinnacle of innocence and virtue. Shy, peaceful, and easily flustered… but steadfast and single-minded once they’re set on a goal.

In fact, the only thing that really sets Cornet apart from the crowd, other than her relatively human-colored hair, is she doesn’t exist in the shadow of the plucky, adventurous Generic Anime Hero. (Or Generic Brooding Anime Hero — he was real popular at the time, too.) Cornet is the star of her own adventure, and for all the warts and stains Rhapsody possesses, she has forever endeared herself to me.

I can’t deny this might be because she destroys her enemies with pancakes. I mean, yeah, I still hate anime. But I’m not a monster.

Alex Roivas, professional Cthulhu-hunter.Alex Roivas
(Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, 2002, GCN)

Horror is pretty much the one genre where you can almost always expect to find a female lead. Stuff is just scarier when it’s happening to women… especially sexy young women with powerful lungs. Filmmakers have been taking advantage of this aspect of our caveman psychology for so long it’s practically a law: the cute girl survives to the end, but only after being terrorized for the better part of the movie. And then she doesn’t make it ten minutes into the sequel.

Alex could not be a more by-the-numbers example of Generic Horror Girl if she went skinny dipping in Crystal Lake. Blonde hair and tight jeans? Check. Family connection to whatever brand of evil happens to be devouring the planet this week? Check. Monster-filled nightmare? Check. Trademark whimpering? Check. Awkward conversation with an asshole detective? Check. Climactic scene where she finally gets angry and decides to fight back? Check. Scary bathtub scene? Check and mate.

It’s actually not entirely the genre’s fault Alex is such a bland heroine, though. Eternal Darkness is structured as a series of twelve chapters, each starring its own protagonist, of which Alex is only one. She exists primarily as a framing device, reading about the adventures of far more interesting people in her hideous magickal book. She gets to solve puzzles during the intermissions, but these are always pale imitations of what transpires in the chapters proper. Even her own for-real chapter at the end of the game is just a rehash of her grandfather’s chapter from just an hour or so prior — a chapter that was already too long and too boring for its own good.

I obviously can’t speak for everyone who’s played Eternal Darkness, but I was kind of over the game by the time Alex got to actually do anything. The story was precisely one chapter too long.

It’s very much a shame, really. Alex shouldn’t have been Generic Horror Girl. Each member of the supporting cast received a personal touch, a detailed backstory and even unique weaponry. The first eleven chapters explore themes like temptation, duty, lust, cowardice and faith… by contrast, the theme of Alex’s chapter is simply “the end of the game”. They try to sell you on the idea that Alex’s struggle is the culmination of the efforts of everyone who came before. Not a tough sell, actually; Eternal Darkness is competently written, and the final battle in particular is very well done. But none of it involves Alex, is the problem. Her job is to look as pretty as Gamecube polygons will allow, and to hold the sword at the end of the game.

Other examples of generic heroines spring to mind — or rather, they don’t, because they’re too generic to remember. Ah well.

See you next Sunday!

3 comments to The Off-the-Shelf Heroine

  • Issun

    I’m sad that you’re right about Alex. She’s still awesome, though. Speaking of female, I’d love to hear more about your experiences with Lost.

  • Nich

    Thank you for reminding me of the headslappingness of some of Eternal Punishment’s writing. Yes, they really did name their protagonist “Savior” backwards.

  • Issun

    Damn you for pointing that out, Nich. I would’ve been happier not realizing that. Although I have to say your little slip there lets me in on some of the failings of SMT, too.

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