Characters Done Right: Scarlett of Scarlett and the Spark of Life

by guest contributor Kirk Hamilton

Kirk Hamilton is a white, straight cisgender male writer, musician and jazz educator in San Francisco. He is the founder of Gamer Melodico and is currently the games editor at Paste Magazine, where he makes valiant attempts to write about games not as monolithic entertainment products but as the work of actual, human people. He can be found online at kirkhamilton.com and on twitter @kirkhamilton. His favorite game of all time is probably Grim Fandango.

A cartoony close-up illustration of young redheaded woman—Scarlett—as she curiously regards a glowing white magical spark. She is wearing a green dress, fingerless gloves and has goggles on her forehead.

I loved the iPhone game Scarlett and the Spark of Life. As a result of my gig at Paste, I have a whole lot of games to play at any given moment; too often I find myself downloading a cool-looking indie game and never finding the time to fire it up. That almost happened with Scarlett—it had languished unplayed on my iPhone for a couple of weeks until finally, as I flew back to SF after the holidays, I saw the game’s icon (a colorful drawing of a red-headed, wry-looking young woman) on my home screen and gave it a shot. An hour later I finished the game, so glad that I had decided to play.

The Spark of Life is the first episode in a promised series of Scarlett Adventures, created by Launching Pad Games. It’s a point-and-click adventure game in the spirit of classic Lucasarts/Sierra titles, and it’s probably a bit closer to the Kings Quest series than anything else. It’s a very easy game (probably too easy), but also extraordinarily charming.

Launching Pad is made up of only two guys—New Zealanders Tristan Clark and Tim Knauf—and so it was even more impressive that the game was so fun, polished and well-written. I reviewed it for Paste, so rather than just rewriting what I’ve already written, I’ll just share an excerpt:

But although Scarlett and the Spark of Life is a piece of cake, it’s also… well, a piece of cake! Cake is delicious. Throughout my time with the game I found myself smiling, laughing and generally enjoying the hell out of myself. I didn’t pause once from beginning to end and I would’ve happily kept playing after the credits rolled.

That’s primarily because the game sports some of the most effortlessly humorous writing I’ve seen outside of a Double Fine game, with a strong feel for wordplay and loads of whip-smart one-liners. In addition, Scarlett is a supremely likable protagonist, a capable young princess with goggles on her forehead and enough mud on her hem to impress Elizabeth Bennet. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and her wry asides and excellently terrible puns recall Guybrush Threepwood in his heyday.

Scarlett stands in a workshop, face to face with the head of an incomplete mechanical horse. There is a voice bubble above the horse's head that reads 'Do I strike fear into the very bowels of your heart?!'

Scarlett stands in a workshop, face to face with the head of an incomplete mechanical horse. There is a voice bubble above the horse's head that reads 'Do I strike fear into the very bowels of your heart?!'

In my opinion, Scarlett is a fantastic example of a strong, well-written female videogame character. She’s confident and funny, but also genuine and principled. She is lovely but never sexualized, and she meets the advances of a loutish, lying townsman with confidence, poise and humor. She’s a fully fleshed-out person; she’s headstrong and occasionally careless, but she cares greatly for her younger sister Lavender. Upon learning that Lavender has been kidnapped goes to great lengths to assemble the means to ride to her rescue.

But as great as all of those aspects of her character are, when it comes down to it, Scarlett is just… cool! She’s witty, she’s sarcastic, she wears goggles on her head, she has a crowbar named “Chester.” She gets it; Scarlett is an it-getter.

I’ve been in touch with Tim and Tristan since I played the game, and unsurprisingly they’re both nice, funny guys who clearly put a lot of heart into their work. When I started writing this post, I thought it’d be fun to ask them about Scarlett, and the process behind her creation. Tim got back to me with some great answers, which I thought I’d just reprint.

Two horsemen ride up a trail; the one in front is wearing an elaborate suit of armor, and the one in back is a sheepish-looking man in ordinary clothes. They have a prisoner—Scarlett—draped over the back of the first horseman's horse. Her hands are tied, and there is a voice-bubble over her head that reads 'Loosen these ropes so I can punch you in the kidneys!'

Two horsemen ride up a trail; the one in front is wearing an elaborate suit of armor, and the one in back is a sheepish-looking man in ordinary clothes. They have a prisoner—Scarlett—draped over the back of the first horseman's horse. Her hands are tied, and there is a voice-bubble over her head that reads 'Loosen these ropes so I can punch you in the kidneys!'

Kirk: What was your motivation in creating a game based around a female protagonist?

Tim Knauf: In one of the commentary screens for ‘Scarlett’, we talk about the genesis of the game. In short, I texted Tristan with my game idea and a suggested title: ‘Furious Princess Builds a Horse’. Sadly for me but seemingly no-one else, the title didn’t survive, but as you know, the core concept certainly did. I guess the point of telling this story here is that we didn’t say to ourselves, “Hey, let’s make a game about a female protagonist!” We had what we thought was an engaging story idea, and Scarlett came as part of that narrative package.

Who were characters (not necessarily videogame) you looked to for inspiration when writing Scarlett?

For Scarlett herself? Tristan cites Susan from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and I have to agree. Susan’s practical, isn’t easily taken in, and sees beyond the way-things-have-always-been-done. Scarlett’s more of a hot-head, though; Susan gets angry but normally with good reason. Scarlett’s upbringing means she’s used to getting her own way. There might be a few lessons to learn before the saga concludes!

What were some specific things you decided that she did or did not like/do/believe, as a character?

We’ve tried to imply that Scarlett has a stronger sense of morality than she herself realises yet. It says something about her character that she normally won’t just take something without asking — at least when the owner is likely to care. And to pick a specific example, she refuses to vandalise a graveyard gate even though it would mean she could gain entry. However, for this episode Scarlett tries to ground her reasoning in simple practicality; she hasn’t yet had to grapple with big issues of Right and Wrong.

Scarlett’s dominant temperament is classically ‘choleric’. She’s driven to take charge, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Through the course of the series, we hope to help Scarlett expose some underlying complementary traits: fierce loyalty, broader compassion and a better understanding of her own ethical stance.

If you have an iPhone and like point-and-click adventure games, I highly recommend giving Scarlett and The Spark Of Life a go. It’s only $2, and the new version comes even comes with commentary from Tim and Tristan (Update: for a limited time, Launching Pad says that the game is free!). Time will tell whether the duo can keep up the first episode’s great energy over the entire series, but from what I’ve seen so far, I have little reason to doubt them.

I mean… the game features deadly headbutting Llama-Monsters! What could possibly go wrong?

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12 Responses to Characters Done Right: Scarlett of Scarlett and the Spark of Life

  1. Cuppycake says:

    Thanks for putting this game on my radar! Can’t wait to check it out after reading this. :)

  2. TheLaquidara says:

    This seems like something I’d enjoy greatly, as my avatar will tell you, I’m an adventure fan. Alas, I have no i-Device! I suppose I could get around that… Not sure about the legality of it, though. Either way, looks neat, and sounds like a fun character. I’ll be sure to spread the word about this game to those around me that have an i-Device, which is basically everyone but me!

  3. Alex says:

    The main character is inspired by Susan from Discworld?! This game just went from “I should really check this out” to “I need to play this noooowwwww”!

    • Tristan says:

      Alex, you just made my day. :)

      -Tristan (from Launching Pad Games)

      • Alex says:

        :) Susan is one of my favorite characters ever, not even joking.

        I haven’t quite finished Scarlett yet, but what I have played I really love. It is definitely my sort of game. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the next episode!

  4. Korva says:

    This sounds interesting! Too bad it’s an iphone thing, though. If there’ll ever be a PC port I’ll definitely get my hands on it.

  5. DysgraphicProgrammer says:

    Is there any hope of getting this in an Android version? I am usually resistant to paying for apps, but this sounds like a heck of a lot of fun.

  6. UbiquitousGrue says:

    Grabbed this one yesterday, and have been enjoying it a lot :D The art’s quite lovely, and Scarlett’s grand. (Also, I kinda like “Furious Princess Builds a Horse” XD)
    Eagerly awaiting more.

  7. Kirk says:

    Glad you’re all checking out the game! At the moment, I haven’t heard of any plans for an Android or PC port (though I’d imagine that an iPad or Mac App Store port wouldn’t be totally out of the question…) I’ll definitely let everyone know if I hear anything, though. It certainly seems like it deserves to be on multiple platforms!

    It warms my heart to see people playing this game and liking it as much as I did. It’s the kind of game where if it’s for you… it’s for you. :D

  8. Deviija says:

    Downloaded and played the game in one sitting. It was incredibly charming and entertaining and funny (in the vein of old adventure games, which I adore). Most of all, the lady characters (and there were many) were very fun and interesting and not cobbled together tropes upon tropes upon sexy outfits and perverse humor. In fact, the only guy that does hit on Scarlett is shot down time after time. Unlike most games, all your dialogue choices range between ‘no’ and bodily harm as responses. It is more tame and amusing than I am describing, but it was a clear example to me that Scarlett wasn’t just a character about her gender. I like that about her most. She’s not fanwank, not intended to be eyecandy or have NPCs that are an outlet for the audience to hit on Scarlett. She is a character and heroine.

    Anyway, very lovely! I laughed quite a few times out loud and have been charmed. I’m keen to buy future episodes, free or not. :) Thanks for pointing this gem out!

  9. Dan Bruno says:

    Imagine me copying and pasting Deviija’s comment here. :) I also just played the game through in one sitting and it was totally worth it.

  10. Pingback: Shep, Scarlett, Skillshots « kirk hamilton .com

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