Tag Archives: Characters Done Right

Lara Croft, Bravery, and Humanity

The following is a guest post from Daniel Bullard-Bates:

Daniel Bullard-Bates is a feminist and an ally with a degree in religious studies. He works at the American Civil Liberties Union and writes fiction when he isn’t playing video games and writing about them. He previously wrote and edited Press Pause to Reflect, and he can now be found on twitter

Lara Croft has become the most sympathetic, charismatic protagonist in action gaming. Admittedly the bar isn’t set very high – most first-person protagonists are ciphers, and the very nature of any gun-oriented franchise turns its hero into a mass murderer. A few of these sociopaths are made more charming by a talented writing staff: Nathan Drake of Uncharted springs to mind, and John Marston of Red Dead Redemption is charismatic and self-effacing enough to be in competition with Lara, but Lara Croft comes closer to being a real human being and a believable action hero.

An illustration of the new Lara Croft. She is shown in a gray tank top, wind blown brown hair.  She is staring at the viewer, standing in front of a rough looking sea with sinking ships.  She has a bow/arrow strapped to her.

One of the greatest successes of the new Tomb Raider is its redefinition of bravery. In most action games, bravery is depicted as either nonchalance or wrathful determination. Nathan Drake quips and snarks his way through armies of mercenaries and supernatural beings. Kratos of God of War fame just seethes and snarls, hurling himself into battle with no regard for his own life. But Lara responds more rationally: when she is being hunted, when she realizes the terrifying thing she has to do, she shows trepidation and fear. In the midst of a firefight, she breathes heavily and sounds appropriately stressed out. In other words, she responds more like any one of us might in similar situations.

Showing fear is not a sign of weakness, and Lara Croft is no less impressive for being emotionally affected by her dire circumstances. In A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, young Bran witnesses his father executing a criminal, and the following conversation about the nature of bravery follows:

“Robb says the man died bravely, but Jon says he was afraid.”
“What do you think?” his father asked.
Bran thought about it. “Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?”
“That is the only time a man can be brave,” his father told him.

Obviously the same is true for a woman. By showing her fear, Lara shows herself to be human, to be rational, to be actually experiencing the traumatizing events of the game. Even better, she offers a model of bravery that can teach us something about ourselves and our lives: we may not have superpowers, we may not have trained since youth to fight crime or have adventures, but when we are afraid we can recognize that as an opportunity for bravery. This makes Lara a more impressive and realistic character than most action heroes, and it also makes her a better role model for women and men alike.

It is also a great relief to me that Lara never seems to enjoy killing. She doesn’t gloat when she shoots a man in the head, she doesn’t cheer when she sends an explosive into a group of enemies, and she rarely takes the time to speak or taunt enemies in the middle of combat. When she first kills someone, she has a violent physical reaction. There is a bit of a disconnect that comes from her swift transition into a killing machine, as this scene is followed by a series of deadly encounters, but she never stops sounding upset and stressed out as she is forced to fight for her life and kill over and over again. It’s still a very violent game, and the mechanics encourage a sense of pride in the player’s and Lara’s combat skills, but Lara herself is only doing what she has to do, and she never expresses excitement or joy that this is what her life has become.

While Tomb Raider is well ahead of its competition in the realm of video games, it still lags behind other forms of popular entertainment. The game humanizes Lara by showing her being injured repeatedly, taking a page out of 1988’s Die Hard playbook to show that an action hero isn’t just an invulnerable killing machine. And despite the advances made in her characterization, she is still an impossible superwoman – more human than most, certainly, but she has no clear flaws that are not universal to the human condition, and she seems to be capable of any incredible feat. And, unfortunately, she is largely defined by the men in her life: her father’s teachings, her mentor’s training.

In many ways, the game is a conventional action story, filled with gunfire, explosions, and set pieces. It shows an over-reliance and fascination with gore and extreme violence, especially in one scene that completely beggars belief. (How many people must have been on this island in the first place for such a vast quantity of fresh corpses to be lying around?) Most of the other characters are completely sidelined in favor of Lara’s story. There’s even a damsel in distress, subverted only by the fact that she is being rescued by a female friend instead of a male lover. But between the female lead and the advances in characterization, Tomb Raider feels fresh and exciting.

We’ve seen evidence that many mainstream video game publishers are afraid to release games with female protagonists. This seems to stem from an outdated idea of the audience for video games; publishers believe that video games are still predominantly a pastime for straight young men, and those same straight men will not be able to identify with a female avatar. But the video game audience just keeps getting broader, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to identify with a character as much as I could with Lara Croft. Let Tomb Raider be a challenge to other game designers. While the majority of the industry is wallowing in adolescence, Lara Croft is growing up.

The cover art for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, each features a mid-shot of the game's protagonist.

The Longest Journey and Dreamfall

Writing about the game that gave this site its name feels a bit like smugly opening a discussion about science fiction with “Did you know that Blade Runner is kind of a big deal?” But with creator Ragnar Tørnquist’s new studio succeeding in their Kickstarter campaign to continue the journey and voice actor Sarah Hamilton expected to return as April Ryan, now is a good time to get caught up with the series if you’ve missed it.

Both games are available on most digital distribution sites, but the best price seems to be on Good Old Games where The Longest Journey is $9.99 (US), its sequel, Dreamfall is $14.99 (US) and the pair together are $21.23 (US). The Longest Journey is only available on PC, where Dreamfall is $19.99 is available on Mac on the Adventure Shop or for 1200 Microsoft points on XBLA arcade under the Xbox originals section.

The cover art for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, each features a mid-shot of the game’s protagonist.

Both games come from the tradition of the point-and-click adventure (although Dreamfall adopts action elements). Puzzle solving is generally more intuitive in the series than in some of the more obtuse titles in the genre to keep the complicated plot moving. However, what makes the games required playing (and the announcement of Chapters so exciting) is the deep and memorable characters at the centre of journey. At their core, these games are about people searching for a better life and never knowing when they’ve found it.

Both games begin in the world of Stark, which is the “real” world about two centuries in the future. The world is run in a corprocratic dystopia. Screens occupy every wall and a vapid media pares everything down to the lowest, happiest common denominator. Poverty is sprawling, permanent and ignored until it has to be pushed back down at gunpoint. That said, it’s a world that’s socially liberal. As has been noted elsewhere, the game features queer characters respectfully and without marginalization. The world is also apparently free from formal conflict. The game references riots that have been met with unabashed police brutality and a last, great cola war to end them all, but otherwise the world has apparently run out of enemies. Stark could be taken straight from a Philip K. Dick novel: sure addiction is rampant, culture is controlled and technology has consumed human identity, but that’s the cost of progress and it could be worse.

A screenshot of Stark from Dreamfall: a dimly lit, rainy street with neon ads for a nearby strip club breaking through a blue haze

A screenshot of Stark from Dreamfall: a dimly lit, rainy street with neon ads for a nearby strip club breaking through a blue haze

Opposite Stark is the high-fantasy world of Arcadia. Arcadia composed of numerous independent and generally unintrusive countries. It’s a pastoral wonderland where magic is free to anybody that studies it. However, different peoples differ radically and often violently, there’s a constantly shifting power structure that individuals and groups use to exploit others. Arcadia offers liberty and privacy, but the people of the world are as likely as not to use that against one another.

The protagonists of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, respectively April Ryan and Zoe Castillo, are both young women of Stark that shift between worlds. Much has been made of their being “strong” female characters, which they are, but what makes them exceptional is how human they are in their journeys to improve their lives.

April comes from a poor and violent family. Months prior to The Longest Journey’s opening, she runs off to the megalopolis, Newport, to study at the only school left that still teaches art. She’s underpaid and overworked (one of the first quests in the game is to cajole April’s boss into paying her money she’s owed) but she’s incorruptibly optimistic. She rolls her eyes and quips one-liners when she gets tugged along in her adventure, but there’s a sense that she belongs on the path she’s on. She’s supposed to be an unlikely hero, but through her competence and intelligence, she’s well suited for the role.

April’s most immediately visible attribute is her optimism. She’s poor and she lives in a dangerous neighbourhood, but she exudes incredible confidence that her talent will be enough to continue her life on its upward trajectory. Her biggest concern at the beginning of the game is that she’s unprepared to submit her work to an art exhibit. She hasn’t begun working, but she knows that it’s only a matter of time for inspiration to strike. That’s the attitude she takes to every challenge: she might be walking into danger, but she knows she’ll be okay because she’s savvy enough to figure out a solution. She isn’t arrogant, but she’s capable and aware of it.

The game vindicates her confidence. She is the “chosen one,” when she enters Arcadia she’s told she’s brimming with magical power, she never hesitates to put herself in danger and she always seems capable of working her way out of it. April is always comfortable, competent and positive. She may be against forces she never knew existed and the world may hang in the balance, but she’s been through worse and she can handle whatever’s next, she just needs the opportunity to succeed and, eventually, she will.

April from The Longest Journey painting an unseen picture on a large canvas

April from The Longest Journey painting an unseen picture on a large canvas

Appropriately, the game’s antagonists, the vanguard, are also motivated by a self-confidence. They’re determined to bring Stark and Arcadia together because they’re certain it’ll be what’s best for everyone. They overlook the gamble they’re taking, but it’s important that they believe they’re acting on behalf of the many. They aren’t looking to disrupt the balance because they revel in chaos or because they’re looking for personal gain, they want to tear down the divide between the worlds because they believe it would be best for everybody. There are as many people that support them as there are that condemn them.

Dreamfall’s protagonist Zoe differs significantly from April, and her perspective adds a great deal of depth to the world. Zoe is the only child of a loving, single father. Zoe was raised not in the greasy, closely watched Newport, but the warm, gold-hued cafes and campuses of Casablanca. She’s not an artist, but a gifted student of bioengineering. Also unlike April, Zoe is near paralyzed by a deep depression. After leaving school, breaking up with her boyfriend and moving back home, she becomes isolated and apathetic. Her well-meaning loved ones remind her that she has no reason—no right—to be depressed and that she should just get her life back on track, but of course that only makes her feel more depressed.

Zoe is not the chosen one and she’s not eager for a new adventure. Her journey seems more the product of chance than an orchestrated manoeuvre by unseen supernatural forces. Her primary goal is to rescue her ex-boyfriend after he uncovers incriminating information on the monolithic WATI corporation. Similarly, when she’s pushed into Arcadia—again, not because she was sent to accomplish anything, but because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time—she’s accidentally wrapped up in April’s struggle against the occupying Azadi empire.

 

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall in front of a yellow background. She's wearing a sleeveless purple top, a large necklace with two chains and a silver armlet, her thin black hair is pulled back into a ponytail

Zoe Castillo from Dreamfall in front of a yellow background. She’s wearing a sleeveless purple top, a large necklace with two chains and a silver armlet, her thin black hair is pulled back into a ponytail

Here we also see the change a decade has made in April. In Dreamfall, April is not hopeful or confident, she’s exhausted and impatient. Her boisterousness and joie de vivre is replaced with bitterness and irritability. She’s exiled herself from Stark and taken charge of a hopeless rebellion against the Azadi. Unlike the vanguard, the antagonists in Dreamfall aren’t trying to create a brave new world for everybody, they’re trying to return to a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore. In the wake of the first game’s events, Stark and Arcadia are shocked by unprecedented circumstances. The WATI corporation and the Azadi empire have taken near absolute control of their worlds and aggressively conserve an old standard of normalcy.

The main characters of Dreamfall are still looking for a better life, but the means of achieving it have become murkier. The journey referred to in The Longest Journey series is the one to a better world and better ways of living. And when Dreamfall comes to its frustrating conclusion, the efforts to make the world better have only left people more confused and frightened by one another.

April Ryan and Kian Alvane, an Azadi soldier, facing one another in a wintry, medieval alleyway

April Ryan and Kian Alvane, an Azadi soldier, facing one another in a wintry, medieval alleyway

The Dreamfall games aren’t perfect: the plot is remarkably convoluted when it isn’t safe and cliched, but it shines in its honesty and in its lively, human characters. Again, it’s a classic that probably everybody is aware of but it’s also well-preserved, available and friendly to newcomers. With Dreamfall Chapters projected release in November of 2014, it’s a great time catch up on the series.

A highly stylised rendering of Meredith from Dragon Age 2, done primarily in black, grey, and red.

Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

A highly stylised rendering of Meredith from Dragon Age 2, done primarily in black, grey, and red.

 

One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”

In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.

The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.

When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are  fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.

My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.

My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.

Kreia Being Awesome. (Older woman in Jedi robes, pallid with long pigtails, and three purple lightsabres orbiting her).

It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”

If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.

This is far more interesting than what we usually get.

Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.

"Do not brand me a tyrant!" What I also find interesting about some of these characters is that they are portrayed as being older-- lines of middle age are visible on Meredith's face, for example, and Kreia is older still. It's a positive image for older women, to say the very least.

Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.

To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.

This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.

The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.

Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.

Lord Zash, forcing someone to pay the price for their lack of vision. (Red robed, light skinned woman shooting lightning out of her hands.)

Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).

There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.

At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.

Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.

Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.

This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.

No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.

The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.

Kate Walker in the outfit she uses for the rest of the game- a functional beige jacket and brown slacks, standing just outside her inn in Valedilene

Into the Snows of Yesteryear: A Review of B. Sokal’s Syberia

Kate Walker- A fairly light skinned woman with bedraggled brown hair, brown eyes, wearing a winter coat; a mammoth is set in the lower corner of the image.

Adventure games always held a special sort of promise for me; they were a respite from the usual childhood fare of platformers and shoot-em-ups. Fun as those could be in their own right it was wonderful to play a genre where violence was not only out of focus, but out of the frame entirely. Adventure games are sometimes criticised (with some justice) for their obnoxious puzzles, but generally speaking I prefer their atmosphere. They create an ethereal aura about them where there is always something interesting around the next corner, rather than something that will gnaw your face off. Exploration and wonder are often keywords with these types of games: vistas expand before you, whether in 3D format or matte painting form, and you want to soak up every detail.

My favourite types of adventure games are those where an ordinary person steps into an extraordinary set of circumstances and is transported, right along with the player, into a world of wonder they didn’t know existed. This was why I was intrigued by B. Sokal’s Syberia ever since I was very young: this game is about Kate Walker, a lawyer, who finds herself at the centre of an amazing journey after a hitch appears in a routine bit of business. She galavants across Europe in search of a man who is essential to her closing a business deal for her firm. Along the way she discovers a good deal about him, about the world, and about herself that changes her life forever.

It is a fascinating story that keeps you hooked through some of its more mundane or silly puzzles, and what’s more it stars a woman I quickly grew to love. Kate Walker is a fun character; serious and determined, but possessed of a snarky sense of humour and wit. As you play her throughout the ever stranger landscapes she finds herself in, she is quite evidently observant, brave, and resourceful. Above all she is quite clearly committed to getting the job done.

For me, one of the more fascinating mechanics in the game is her charmingly dated mobile phone which is the source of a few keys to quests and several small but interesting subplots.

What is best about adventure games is that they dispense with the bloodied conflict that inheres to more violent games and very often instead substitute human drama in its place. Conflict played out with words and emotions rather than swords and guns. Syberia does that fairly well and with an economy of words. Perhaps my favourite subplot with the game involves the constant phone calls from Kate’s fiancé, Dan, and the way she handles his increasingly entitled and imperious attitude.

I think Border House readers will be fairly pleased to see where that relationship ends up, if not too terribly surprised. Ms. Walker is certainly an interesting woman; the voice acting for her is wonderful and expressive. She never comes off as an ice hearted stereotype, or indeed any other stereotype. Indeed, what struck me the most about her was that she was a fundamentally good and kind person, as evidenced during one of the game’s other strong points.

I feel it portrays non-neurotypical people fairly well, as different but equal human beings with a tremendous amount to offer. Ableist individuals in the game are scarcely portrayed sympathetically, and Kate herself works with a young non-neurotypical boy to achieve an important plot goal early on in the game, seeing humanity in him where, for example, a local innkeeper did not.

Kate Walker in the outfit she uses for the rest of the game- a functional beige jacket and brown slacks, standing just outside her inn in Valedilene

Of Women and Machines

It becomes important here to talk about just what Ms. Walker’s “business” is that gets the ball rolling.

She is sent to a small town in the French Alps, the fictional Valadilene, to secure a deal for her client, the multinational Toy Co., to buy a factory in the town that has made ‘automatons’ for over a century. Automatons and their unique workings are central to this game. Steampunkish robots (although don’t ever call them robots!) with Rube Goldberg-style workings and powered by springs and wind up keys, they are this game’s signature. They are the products of the Voralberg family and Kate Walker is to purchase the factory in a deal with Ms. Anna Voralberg, the supposedly last living member of the venerable family who was the sole owner and operator of the factory since the 1930s. The game takes off when it is discovered that there is, in fact, another heir. Hans Voralberg, who becomes the object of Kate’s continent-spanning search.

You learn early on a good deal about Hans and Anna’s lives as brother and sister, and I will not spoil the emotional details of a diary Kate can find; suffice it to say I think the politics involved are quite good. Anna comes across as strong willed and driven.

Spoilers Follow

Hans became non-neurotypical after an accident in his childhood while off adventuring with his sister. His father was furious at the apparent loss of his sole male heir and frequently abused his son due to his condition. Anna did the best she could to shelter him and encouraged the blossoming of his newfound mechanical talents. Indeed, you come to find that the greatest mechanical creations you find throughout the game are of his design. Hans ran away to escape his father’s tyranny and in retaliation father dearest faked Hans’ death, which was why neither Kate nor her firm knew there was another living heir until the last moment.

The diary is one of the more affecting things I’ve read in an adventure game. I lost track of how long it was– it ran on for many pages spanning a decade of the young Voralbergs’ lives. But it was so gripping I didn’t care about the length. I felt it told a story of two young people making their way in life, negotiating with their father’s patriarchal brutality, and eventually succeeding in their own ways.

As to Kate herself she eventually moves towards independence from a man who isn’t good for her. Rather than reiterating the usual tropes that see our woman hero thrust into the arms of a man whose appeal is as inscrutable as pre-Rosetta Egyptian hieroglyphs, we see something more analogous to the convention-breaking resolution of the movie Monsters vs. Aliens. Understanding at last that her fiancé isn’t all he’s cracked up to be, she puts the boot in him and proceeds to live her life on her own terms rather than subordinating them to his. Gotta love it.

End of Spoilers.

Kate Walker at a key moment in the game, watching personal history unfold before in the form of a rather unique recording. (Walker blurred in the background as the camera focuses on a tin model of a young girl and boy)

Kate Walker: A Character Done Right

Adventure games are stories told through letters, diaries, and postcards; through half-heard conversations; little bits of intrigue scattered like breadcrumbs along the narrative line. This was always tremendously preferable to unending violence. Even my favourite RPGs too often use bloodshed as the first rather than last resort and it is quite welcome to play a game where that isn’t even a speck on the horizon. Rather than over the top CGI battle sequences, Kate Walker uses her wits (as personified in part through the witty player) to overcome the many obstacles in her path.

The interactions between her and Oscar, her automaton companion and assistant, are absolutely priceless comedy that lend the distinction of character to the both of them. Alone they are almost worth the price of admission.

I love Kate as a protagonist; she feels like a full, independent character who is well drawn, defeats stereotypes, and is clearly not there as a sex object. Indeed one of my favourite bits of the game is when she tells off a young man for his rather uncouth and cackhanded attempts at flirting with her. Her clothing is quite realistic and appropriate to what she’s doing: her beige jacket and jeans are quite functional for all the running, jumping and climbing she has to do, in places ranging from old factories to decaying universities to creaking cosmodromes.

Lots and lots and lots of running. This is probably one of the game’s most significant faults as well; travel is, at times, inefficient and tedious. It takes a while for Kate to run from one screen to the next and sometimes there are several strewn about between one point of interest and the next. Most contain little of value in terms of gameplay. I will credit the scenes for their beauty, however. Most are like paintings that our intrepid heroine is jogging through and are worth seeing. But worth seeing the number of times she has to pass through them? Perhaps less so. That’s one of the few gameplay complaints, however, and even this in truth is not too terribly annoying.

To return to Kate’s character she feels quite realistic and intriguing- never quiet, meek, or small, never preening or objectified. She gets the job done and is quite clearly shown as being able to stand up for herself. Over the course of the story, while she begins as a strong and forthright person, she grows more into independence and begins to militate against the excesses in her life back home in New York. It is hard not to feel some pride in that as each advance you make with her in the game brings her closer not only to Hans Voralberg but to her own independence.

This is a game worth playing through at least once if you can deal with the over-small resolution.

The Greatest Adventure

For both its gameplay and its politics I give it high marks. Kate Walker is, I feel, a memorable woman character who also has the benefit of being role-model material. She has the look and wit of a compelling action-adventure hero who doesn’t need to prove herself by making everything she touches explode in a mushroom cloud.

The game’s ending leaves one hungering for more, even if it is emotionally satisfying on one level. Fortunately, there is a sequel, which I’ll be playing soon. It’s also not without its flaws in story and characterisation: one unavoidable decision Walker makes late in the game is so obviously an ill-advised one that I cannot help but see it as a poorly disguised plot contrivance. But even so, it does not- in my view- seriously disrupt the virtues of Walker as a character.

It is certainly worth the pittance it now costs on Steam; there is something oddly creative about the setting, a Europe just beyond the mists of that continent’s mountains, seemingly out of time and out of space. A magical steampunk railroad is what carries Kate from the cosmopolitan and sterile heart of an upper-class world to a strange and endearing world where she finds truths about herself. From charming Alpine Valedilene to the steel ruins of Komkolzgrad that echo with the dissonant metal symphony of dead industry, it’s an interesting game to romp through.

This is a story about finding a lost genius, yes, but like some of the best stories it sees its protagonist finding herself as well. Stories about women that are not mired beneath layers of objectification and stereotypes remain all too rare. Beyond this, it is also rare to find an RPG these days that does not make mortal combat its bread and butter. Adventure games were always a relief from this, and Syberia provides a very good opportunity (albeit one with a clunky interface) to relive the joy of looking around every corner and knowing that death does not await. Only more adventure.

Characters Done Right – Aveline

Aveline Vallen - a red haired, freckled woman

Memorable characters have unique motivations, stories, and personalities. Video games often have ensemble casts with the individual party members simply serving the main character’s interests. As a healer, damage dealer, or thief they are there to compliment the gameplay style of the main character. Dragon Age 2 takes an ensemble cast and creates a detailed backstory for each party member. Instead of serving only as aides to the main character, their motivations and goals are independent of the main character. Aveline, a warrior with whom you spend the entire game, is one of these well written characters from Dragon Age 2.

This post will include several story spoilers for Aveline from Dragon Age 2.


At the start of the game your main character and their immediate family are fleeing their hometown of Lothering. On this journey out of town is where Hawke encounters Aveline Vallen and her husband Wesley. You quickly learn that she is a warrior that had fought at the battle of Ostagar. Her portrayal as a female warrior is very positive: Aveline is strong, has fought in many battles in the past, wears full armor (no chain mail bikini and high heels here) and  generally feels like a straightforward depiction of a warrior rather than an extreme version of a woman that kicks butt (such as Bayonetta).

Shortly after meeting Aveline, the party is attacked by darkspawn and her husband Wesley does not survive for long after that battle. His demise in the storyline could have become a way to make Aveline a potential love interest for the main character Hawke. But luckily that is not the path that Bioware chose for this plot point. The loss of her husband greatly affects Aveline and her mourning of her husband is handled respectfully and honestly. He was not killed to make Aveline available for Hawke, instead his death gives allows us to see Aveline go through her own emotional journey. It is a way for the player to see a side character deal with grief and then how she moves on with her own life after that loss.

Upon reaching the city of Kirkwall, Aveline’s story continues to mature. She begins to work for the city guard and is eventually promoted to Captain. Her life and path do not revolve around Hawke’s decisions and desires. As she climbs up the power structure in the guard, Aveline faces insecurities and fears. She worries about the loyalty of her guards but does her best earn and keep their trust. Witnessing her struggle with the job and her new position as Commander help draw her out as a realistic character. Her insecurities and doubt combined with her competence and care for her job make her character believable. She is a woman in charge of the city guard and her gender adds nuance to her rise to the role of Captain.

Part of what makes Aveline interesting (that is also true of the other side characters in Dragon Age 2) is her struggle with aiding Hawke. Aveline accompanies Hawke, but does so cautiously. Because she has her own set of values and beliefs, she sometimes disagree with Hawke. Dragon Age 2 does an amazing job with this personality and belief clashes within the party. Based on decisions made within the game, some of the characters may leave Hawke during the course of the journey. A set of beliefs that is separate from the goals of the main character makes the cast feel human. They are not simply a cheering section for Hawke, but a group with their own motivations and stories.

One of the great things about Aveline are her flaws and insecurities. She is a strong warrior, a leader of the guard in a large city, but she is not fully confident. This is especially true with her and romance. It a storyline during the second act of the game Aveline admits that she has becoming interested in a fellow guard named Donnic. In one set of quests, we see how unsure and awkward Aveline is when flirting. I found it endearing. She was not familiar with dating and was unsure how to act. This unease led to a lot of misunderstandings and uncomfortable moments between her and Donnic. It felt like a very human and real situation. Additionally,  when Hawke flirts with Aveline she is oblivious to the advances. She is interested in Donnic; she is not there only for Hawke. She has her own life path and that was more important than the desires of the main character.

(Trigger warning for discussion of slut shaming in the following paragraph)

Unfortunately, when speaking of flaws there is a glaring one with Aveline. Her relationship with another side character in the game, Isabela, is very strained for most of the game. In my first playthrough of the game I played as a rogue. Because of this, I rarely (almost never) had Isabela in my party because she is also a rogue. As such, I missed her interactions with Aveline. However, in my second playthrough as a mage I often went on quests with both Aveline and Isabela in my group. Isabela is a character that is very comfortable with her own sexuality. She discusses sex without shame and flirts very openly with Hawke. Aveline clearly dislikes Isabela early in the game and calls her a whore during some party dialogue. But, as the game progresses there is the hint of a change within their relationship. One exchange goes as follows:

  • Aveline: You’re right.
  • Isabela: About?
  • Aveline: About knowing who you are.
  • Aveline: I’m the captain of the guard. I’m loyal, strong, and I don’t look too bad naked.
  • Isabela: Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you’d say…?
  • Aveline: (Calmly and firmly) Shut up, whore.
  • Isabela: That’s my girl.

That discussion makes me think that Isabela does change Aveline’s attitude over time. However, I wish the player could see that change more clearly. I want to hear her apologize at least once to Isabela for her earlier name calling. I wanted to see more of that relationship. They were not close friends at the end of the game, but I got the sense that they at least began to understand each other better. An interesting aspect to this negative side of Aveline is that is can be completely missed by the player. As mentioned, on my first playthrough I did not have these two characters interact much at all. In fact, even recruiting Isabela is optional so some players may go through the game and never see any interaction between her and Aveline. As Kris Ligman points out in her article about Isabela, it would be a shame to miss out of this interesting character.

One of the numerous things that I appreciate about Aveline’s character is that she looks like a real person. She does not represent an idealized sexual object. She is a freckled, red haired, strong, mature woman. She is attractive without using a thin, young model to create her character. Therefore I find it sad that when looking through PC mods for the game there are several out there whose purpose is to make Aveline more attractive.  I find her beautiful as she is in the game and I am glad that Bioware created a character like Aveline. I hope that the existence of such mods does not discourage companies from creating less “perfect” character models.

Overall, Aveline is a truly remarkable character because she feels human. She is not a one dimensional figure: she has flaws and insecurities, an independent storyline outside that of the main character, and she grows and changes throughout the course of the game. These things are seen in several of the side companions in Dragon Age 2 and I found their stories completely engrossing. They are what made Dragon Age 2 a wonderful and unique game.

Read more ‘Characters Done Right’ articles >

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.

Continue reading

Characters Done Right: Kreia of Knights of the Old Republic 2

Kreia. ((A woman swaddled in dark brown and earth-tone robes, wielding a green bladed lightsabre in her right (and only hand). Her face is shrouded by a dark brown hood, concealing her eyes, and her visage is framed by white, braided hair.))

Spoiler Alert and Appropriately Long Explanation: There is no way I can talk about this character in any substantive manner without completely spoiling Knights of the Old Republic 2. It’s really just impossible without being so vague as to be meaningless, or too brief as to not merit an article. Learning who this character is, it is one of the rewards of advancing through the game. If you hope to play KotOR2 and don’t want a lick spoiled for yourself, then this article isn’t for you. Most of this article is a spoiler as is nearly everything I link in it. But it must be done because damn this character’s good.

We are used to women characters in video games being little more than blow up dolls or utterly effete caricatures of womanhood that are as vapid as daytime television. We are used to women villains and antagonists whose sole weapon is sex and whose existence is meant to evoke a nightmare of what might happen if we ever had control over our own bodies. The femme fatale dominatrix, as lifeless a cardboard cutout as the name of any such trope evokes.

All the foregoing is why I love Knights of the Old Republic 2’s Kreia endlessly. Because she is none of those things, and so much more.

You are immediately arrested by how her voice captivates, beautifully and hauntingly rendered by Shakespearian actress Sara Kestelman. A voice that is leaden with age, weight, wisdom, and a profound sense of her own history. She was once a Jedi Master, and was once a Sith Lord; now she is truly neither and your character- The Exile, a Jedi Knight who was cast out by the Order for marching to war against the wishes of the Jedi Council- now finds that Kreia is their mentor, their teacher.

Yet Kreia, by herself, puts the writing of every single Star Wars movie, and that of several of the novels, to complete shame. She is like no Master you’ve seen before- not a towering beacon of limitless hope and platitudes, and like no Sith you’ve seen before- no cartoon villain unrestrained hate and wanton destruction from her. She is a woman haunted by her past, having trained great Jedi, only to see her teachings spat upon by the Jedi Masters, only to see her students cast out or tarred as fallen. Her one selfish drive is to prove that they were wrong.

 

She would fall to the Sith, become Darth Traya, and- in her words:

What do you wish to hear? That I once believed in the code of the Jedi? That I felt the call of the Sith, that perhaps, once, I held the galaxy by its throat? That for every good work that I did, I brought equal harm upon the galaxy? That perhaps the greatest of the Sith Lords knew of evil, they learned from me?

It doesn’t take long for the Exile to begin getting to know her mentor, and the sheer weight of Kreia’s past is briefly hinted at in dialogue such as this. Yet in the end, she cast aside the mantle of Sith, finding no more peace, no more truth in the narrow confines of their teachings than she did in those of the Jedi. She endured great pain, only to climb out of the hole she had dug for herself, but not back into the light.

Why do I love this character? Because she embodies a great moral complexity. She is not a cliched villain, twirling her moustache and laughing wickedly as she does evil for its own sake. She is no villain at all, but neither is she a hero. Throughout the game she forces your character to think critically about seemingly straightforward moral judgements, good or evil, and implores you to consider the consequences, the echoes of your actions. Sometimes it is clear that her jadedness has gotten the better of her, other times she makes you step back and question. Some accuse her of being a Sith, but that is far, far too simple a title for her. As she says: “Sith’ is a title, yes, but like you, the title is not who I am.”

Throughout this game your mind whirs and reels as you try to pierce the veil of her teachings, her occasional obfuscations and mystifications, and debate with yourself about whether her judgements of your actions are correct or misguided.

To make my point abundantly clear, you are not thinking about her tits.

Kreia being awesome. ((Same as above, just with more awesome, embodied by the three violet bladed lightsabres she is willing to orbit her in this picture)).

Kreia is not a Sith, and not a caricature or cliché of evil, but nor is she a paragon of virtue. In this lies her moral and personal failing, but it is also what makes her most interesting. She is the embodiment, perhaps, of a Machiavellian philosophy. Swaddled in shapeless robes she seeks to mentor the Exile, your character, into fighting the new Sith threat. She wants her last student to be her greatest, to do what she cannot. She is not virtuous, but she knows you can be. She feels that even after having turned away from the Sith there is no salvation for her, save death. But she feels you can be saved, and use the powers she teaches you to wield in order to confront and destroy this latest threat.

The threat that takes the form of her two old Sith apprentices, Darth Sion and Darth Nihilus.

No game of dejarik can be won without pawns, and this may prove to be a very long game.” ~Kreia

The tangled web she weaves ensnares you, and in my case I loved every second of it. Kreia could easily have fallen into the stereotype of being a ‘manipulative witch’ or somesuch. But she’s far, far too clever for that. Throughout the game her machinations and manipulations are those of a virtuouso. Oftentimes, they are chilling. They leave you with a sense that only someone like Kreia, morally bereft after having walked where she has walked, could manipulate others, manipulate events in the callous way she does for the sole purpose of advancing a higher good.

And perhaps a selfish end, a selfish end that is born of the fact that this woman is, at heart, a teacher. A teacher who has been broken upon failures, wounded by the scorn of her peers, cast out and betrayed twice, who at the end of all things wants only to hear that she was right. That her teachings were correct.

The essence of what Kreia taught Jedi was that reliance on the Force was weakness, and that true strength came from not needing it. More dangerously she even suggested that the Force itself was unnecessary, and that perhaps much pain could be spared if it were gone from the universe. She chose your character to become her final, greatest pupil because your character- canonically- turned away from the force at the end of the war she ran off to fight. She held the power of the Jedi in her hands and cast it aside. Unwillingly, as an act of self-preservation (the game and or Wookipedia will explain in greater detail why), but cast it aside all the same and learned strength without the Force. In you she saw hope, for both her teachings, and hope for the galaxy against this newest threat.

The game becomes deeply philosophical at this point and Kreia’s ideology is drawn into sharp relief. At the end of the game you fight her erstwhile apprentices, people utterly drunk on and dependent on the Force. Your victory is meant to show that having turned away from the Force, as your character did, is not weakness but strength, and their ability to command it again (you level as a Jedi during the events of the game) is enhanced because of the time you spent without the Force.

All of this is deeply and inextricably intertwined with Kreia’s character: Kreia the mentor, Kreia the rebel, Kreia the exile. In the very end, she wanted to do what could be broadly called “the right thing”- but the road she took was carved by her history, the scars of the Sith she wears plainly in her words, leavened by the hard lessons she learned on her torturous journey. In the end she tells your character, someone she admits to loving as only a Master may love an apprentice:

Yes, always. From the moment you awoke, I have used you. I have used you so that you might become strong, stronger than I. I used you to keep the Lords of the Sith from condemning the galaxy to death with their power unchecked. I used you to lure them to Telos, where they could be, at last, fought and killed. I used you to reveal Atris’ corruption, so that her teachings could be ended before they began. I used you to gather the Jedi so they could be destroyed. And I used you to make those who wounded me reveal themselves, so they could be killed by the Republic.

In this is both virtue and evil. She came to believe that both the Jedi and the Sith were deleterious to the galaxy. Atris, one of the old Jedi Masters who had cast your character out (and whose kickass poster I reviewed recently), had fallen to the Dark Side. Kreia knew this. Yet she also sought to end the influence of the three remaining Jedi Masters you discover over the course of the game, rather permanently. People who judged her, and indeed who judged your character as well. Twice.

Even if your character blazes a trail of light across the galaxy and redeems herself with noble deeds every step of the way, at the end the Jedi Masters say you cannot be allowed to use the Force any longer and threaten to return you to exile after forcibly deafening you to the Force. It is, in the end, Kreia who saves you.

Step away! She has brought truth, and you condemn it? The arrogance! You will not harm her. You will not harm her ever again.

Mind you, these cold quotes in text do not do justice to the power of Kestelman’s delivery. There was love and thought poured into both Kreia’s writing, and into the acting that Ms. Kestelman used to give life to this character. The video links I’ve posted are relatively sizeable spoilers but capture her at poignant moments that demonstrate her in all her complexity. Manipulative and caring (in her own way), virtuous and sinister, light and dark, teacher and mother, she does- as they say- contain multitudes.

Kreia as she appears in game, conservatively robed, shrouded, and wearing the earth tones of the Jedi.

What I love most about her, perhaps, is the fact that she is a woman in the position of both protagonist and antagonist, and one who at last becomes both a woman Gandalf and a woman Saruman… and then transcends both archetypes. She is an elder woman, robbed of her left hand, blinded- not wantonly, it all has purpose and is all very much a part of her. But she is no sex object, she is no mere tool for heterosexual male pleasure. She is a character who could keep you up nights with philosophical debates about her, who inspires essays as long as this, and who is a study in psychology unto herself. She is the Lady of Betrayal, and teacher of a redeemer (at least if you go the light-side route).

She had endured a hard road, and at the end of the game she returned to her place in the sanctum of the Sith Academy on Malachor V not because she had fallen again, but as one final manipulation, to leave her second former apprentice Darth Sion at your character’s mercy.

And to finally put your teacher to rest.

Her story is a beautiful, philosophical tragedy in many acts. She was a rich tapestry of a figure and was, despite being the “final boss” and wielding a red lightsabre in that fight, much much more than a mere villain. Her two ex Sith apprentices, Sion and Nihilus, were shallow underdeveloped villains, menacing and wicked in all the right clichéd ways. Kreia was someone who always made you doubt whether she was evil, or good, and in the end wanted to raise a Jedi who could beat back the evil that she, in her folly, had brought into the world, and a Jedi on whose lightsabre she might fall so that she could return to the Force she hated so dearly.

I could go on endlessly about her- and that is itself a testament to the richness and completeness of her character. But suffice it for me to say, she is the character done right. She’s not just my favourite video game character, but my favourite in any medium. Well done, Obsidian. Other developers, take note.

Kreia is one hell of a woman.

Characters Done Right: The Honeywells

Far too often characters in video games are completely one dimensional: the helpless female white mage or the burly male protagonist with a huge sword. When breaking from tropes, simply making a healer be a male character or a warrior be a female does not fix these simple depictions. Some of the best characters are the ones with deeper story lines and motivations. In the Square Enix’s The Last Remnant there is a family of women that break through simple stereotypes and emerge as great characters.

Note: The following contains spoilers regarding the Honeywell family from The Last Remnant.

Emma Honeywell from The Last Remnant. A middle aged female warrior wearing full plate armor. She has silver/grey hair.

The game’s main character is a walking cliche. An 18 year old male gets pulled into an epic war in Athlum after trying to rescue his kidnapped younger sister. While he has no prior battle experience he ends up joining with a king and his 4 generals on the battlefield. This young character of Rush Sykes is mostly uninspiring.  The generals, however, are an interesting set of characters. Emma Honeywell is an older women and she is one of the 4 great generals of Athlum. She is an extremely powerful damage dealer. Her outfit is completely appropriate attire for battle rather than the chain mail bikini often seen on female warriors in video games. Her back story makes Emma more than just a walking sword. She is a compassionate person and shows quite a bit of kindness and affection toward the young King, acting as a parent or caregiver to him. Later in the game you find out that she cared for a beautiful royal garden that she planted as a sign of hope after another character had burned it to the ground. In a striking scene between Emma and the main antagonist of the game, the character proves her resolve and steadfastness. She knows that she is outmatched, but she fights to her death to protect the city. The battle scene is moving because Emma never gives up. Even after being struck down, she stands again and continues to defend what she holds dear. Video of the battle between the Conqueror and Emma Her strength is not simply winning in battles, but is based on standing up as a protector even when the odds are against her. After that amazing scene, you meet another member in the Honeywell family. Earlier in the game Emma waits in various towns for an unnamed character. This mysterious character is Emmy Honeywell, Emma’s biological daughter. She has been on a pilgrimage and her mother had been awaiting Emmy’s return. Like her mother she is an exceptionally strong warrior. She dual wields with large swords and has a devastating special attack. The attack is called Hundred Flowers and when it is used it reminds me of her mother’s garden and the symbolism behind its existence.

These women are great warriors but their impact is more than that of just a strong fighter. They motivate, care for, and support the characters around them. I feel that their kindness and empathy are as important in the story as their battle skills, and that is rare in games.

Characters Done Right (Retro Edition): Alpha Centauri

One of my favourite games of all time is Alpha Centauri, by Firaxis. To a large extent, it exists only because of legal wranglings over who held the rights to produce more Civilization games. With the rights uncertain, Sid Meier (who is still with Firaxis) and Brian Reynolds (who has most recently been the lead designer for Frontierville) decided to make a new 4X game, starting where Civilization finished, with humanity colonising Alpha Centauri.

For me, though, it surpassed all the games of the Civilization series, both before and since. Over a decade after its release, I still go back and play it from time to time. There’s a lot that I love about it. Many of its gameplay elements were new and innovative at the time. It had a wonderful storyline and an intriguing setting. It had different factions which played markedly differently from each other, increasing replayability. And then, it had characters.

There were seven different factions who landed on Planet, as their new home was called, each holding a different ideology and each led by a different leader.

A fairly young white woman with medium-length wavy dark brown hair

Deirdre Skye: A fairly young white woman with medium-length wavy dark brown hair

Deirdre Skye led the Gaia’s Stepdaughters faction of environmentalists, and hailed from Scotland.

A middle aged white woman with short red hair.

Miriam Godwinson: A middle aged white woman with short red hair.

Miriam Godwinson, an American woman, was the leader of the religious fundamentalist faction, the Lord’s Believers.

A black man with white hair.

Nwabudike Morgan: A black man with white hair.

The game’s economic faction, Morgan Industries, were named for their CEO, Nwabudike Morgan from Namibia.

A bearded South Asian man wearing some sort of head-covering.

Pravin Lal: A bearded South Asian man wearing some sort of head-covering (possibly a surgical cap, though it's hard to tell).

The Peacekeepers, devoted to peace and the rule of law, were led by India’s Pravin Lal.

A Hispanic woman with her long hair worn in a braid.

Corazon Santiago: A Hispanic woman with her long hair worn in a braid.

Puerto Rico’s Corazon Santiago led the militant survivalis faction known as the Spartan Federation.

A white man with unkempt grey hair, wearing what seems to be a headset and a pair of 3D glasses.

Prokhor Zakharov: A white man with unkempt grey hair wearing a headset and pair of 3D glasses.

The University of Planet, dedicated to scientific discovery, was led by Prokhor Zakharov from Russia.

An elderly East Asian man. He is balding, but does have some white hair remaining.

Sheng-Ji Yang: An elderly East Asian man. He is balding, but does have some white hair remaining.

Finally, there is Sheng-Ji Yang of China, who led the communist Human Hive.

Overall, that’s 3 women and 4 men with ages ranging from (at a guess) at least 30 to 70, and includes representatives from multiple different races and ethnicities. Of the 7 faction leaders, there’s only one white man, which I think is pretty impressive. It isn’t perfect, but I think that pointing out the ways in which it could be more inclusive would be a little churlish. This is an excellent show of diversity, as far as I’m concerned.

One thing that always strikes me in cases like this is how diversity, when done well, does not appear forced. When you don’t treat a character as “the black man” or “the woman” but as a character in their own right, they are every bit as interesting and as natural as any other character.

Characters Done Right: BioShock 2′s Grace Holloway

A black and white portrait/headshot of Grace Holloway, a middle-aged African American jazz singer.

A black and white portrait/headshot of Grace Holloway, a middle-aged African American jazz singer.

BioShock 2 started off at a slow, plodding pace that made me wonder if I would regret my decision to purchase the game. As many reviews note, it is a game that picks up steam and finishes strongly, in opposition to its predecessor. For myself that moment happened in Pauper’s Drop when I started to encounter Grace Holloway.

At first I was slightly concerned. You go to Pauper’s Drop and are instructed to obtain a key from one Grace Holloway, so as to progress along the Atlantic Express trains. It slowly dawned on me that my target was a jazz singer, with very obvious roots in African American history. Her first messages to you are antagonistic, and given the game’s still primary function of shoot and kill to progress, I thought I would be given little choice as to my actions. However, as you explore the level, you are given a view of Rapture that was not wholly afforded in the first game. While the common worker seemed a motif raised by Atlas in the first game, it never seemed fully fleshed out, instead seeming like a power struggle between two figureheads with citizens caught in between, with little word from those persons directly; in Pauper’s Drop you are given the story of a part of the city that was not built into the original design, but constructed by those who were unfortunate enough to not be able to afford the luxuries the rest of Rapture had to offer. This is where Grace Holloway finds herself.

Grace is a woman who fled to Rapture to escape the slums and economic Depression she’d seen elsewhere, being an African American with ties to the U.S. Midwest region. Instead, she found a class structure even more rigid, as she notes how Andrew Ryan holds nothing but a false dream. She champions for the downtrodden of Rapture, singing their woes and griefs in her songs, eventually becoming a political enemy of Andrew Ryan. At one point she even speaks directly to you and states:

Andrew Ryan told me that in Rapture it didn’t matter where you came from. Bunk! Times got hard and all our old bigotries bubbled right back up. But Dr. Lamb showed us that down under the skin, down under the money, down under our very name we are family.

A poster of Grace Holloway, advertising her performance at the Deep Blue Revue, a portrait of her face in the center of the poster.

A poster of Grace Holloway, advertising her performance at the Deep Blue Revue, a portrait of her face in the center of the poster.

Grace had come to Rapture as a singer, and her character is admitted to be a loose interpretation of Bessie Smith. Loose is somewhat appropriate, as at no point does Grace display any hint of bisexuality as the famous blues singer did, instead being focused on having a family of her own. When she finds out she is barren, she is rather distraught, having yet another of her goals shattered. At this point many things come to surface, and among them the question of family, as Grace’s quotation indicates. Dr. Lamb is an entry unto herself, but her own magnanimity to the poorer citizens included free counseling sessions, which is where she met Grace, and how they became friends.

Friends who grew to trust each other enough that when Lamb was arrested, she asked Grace to take care of her daughter Eleanor, whom Grace took to treating as her own daughter. We are family. This will lead to how she sets herself against the character you play.

Beyond just her depiction is the choice one can make when encountering Grace. You are to retrieve the key, and you, as an original Big Daddy, have a past with her, that included you protecting Eleanor after she became one of the Little Sisters. Grace had somewhat lost faith in herself after Eleanor suddenly disappeared, unknowingly to her being put in the Little Sister Project. Despite her harrowed appearance when she next saw her, she tried to grab and hold her, acting as a true parent. You, as Subject Delta ended up pushing Grace away forcibly when she came near, an action that complies with how Big Daddies in the game tend to act. She views you as a monster, much as we viewed them in the first game. Killing her only confirms such a suspicion. You become an unthinking monster by her accusations, and fall down the ‘evil’ path.

In contrast, you can stay your weapons, at which point you can pick the key up anyway. Grace will then offer you assistance to get out of the hotel in which you find her, where enemies are coming to take you down, as well as later drop off some items for you to use. As you leave she also comments that she may have been wrong–no monster would have left her alive both after how she treated you and in reference to being just a goal-oriented killing machine, as Big Daddies have been depicted to this point. She comments on your game decisions, as much as the moral decision Subject Delta follows.

In game depiction of Grace, wearing a yellow dress, scarf, and white hat (the hat she wears in both previous images). She stands up with a cane in her left hand.

In game depiction of Grace, wearing a yellow dress, scarf, and white hat (the hat she wears in both previous images). She stands up with a cane in her left hand.

Of course, one could simply save her because it offers the better in-game rewards, in which case the designers have set up a scenario where they wish to encourage you to not kill this woman who has already survived heady amounts of racism both above ground and below in Rapture. Through audio diaries scattered about the game, she is fleshed out as a character who is realized as a human. After she sings songs critical of Ryan, her lover James is taken from her, and in fear of her own life she actually sings pro-Ryan propaganda to escape similar treatment. Her character is an homage to those jazz and blues singers of the past: ones who felt the lash of the State and struck a chord with a group of people who felt shut out of society.

As I read it, Grace becomes a symbol for the desire not to see African Americans succeed and create their own lives, families, and spread as do others. Despite her barrenness, despite her lover being taken from her forcibly, she is given hope, however. It is not hard to see why she would warm to Dr. Lamb, a white woman who believes in the greater good, regardless of race or class. Even though Lamb ends up the antagonist, she is still seen as human despite her hatred towards you. She is not a ‘great evil.’ She and Grace are humans, with concerns, lives, and stories of their own. They also become symbols of their plight, and ideology in the case of Lamb, through their lives.

When you do finally encounter Grace in the game, deciding to spare or take her life, she does not cow. Rather than lose her dignity, she throws the key on the table at which she sits, stands up with aid of her cane, and tells you she will not have you root about her corpse for the key, before she dares you to finish the job you started in knocking her about when she tried to embrace Eleanor. She stands for strength, but not through arms, not through physical violence. She stands for a strength of character.

In Grace Holloway, the design team crafted a character based on history. They did not deny her African American heritage. They did not ignore the political climate of the times through which she lived. The game’s setting places it in 1968, though she would have arrived before 1959. The political climate she was escaping was one that would culminate in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In many ways, her placement here highlights that even a secluded, objectivist society like Rapture fell to the same squabbles, and a ‘blank slate’ does not erase years of racist and classist upbringing.