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Damsels and Distress?

Stuart Hoggan

I was inspired to write a short piece after meandering through a two year old poll that placed Celes Chere first as the greatest Final Fantasy characters, where she beat out what you would call stiff competition from the likes of Sephiroth and Squall Lionheart.

One of the more interesting complaints in RPGs was female characterisation. Gamers often griped that female protagonists in RPGs were cardboard characters conforming to the archetype of princess or damsel in distress. Despite the evolution of women in the genre, it's a somewhat traditional convention that continues to be apparent, sometimes with modern twists.

The more I examined the scrutiny women faced in games, the more I couldn't help but feel it revolved around misogyny of the female psyche. I realise this isn't going to be a popular point--trust me I take no pleasure in admitting it--but I believed people found it easier to dislike a woman. As far as RPG heroines go, if they are emotional and dependent, it's weakness; if they are strong willed and straight to the point, we often consult the derogatory term for a female dog. Is it possible to make women multi-faceted without pigeon-holing them to the audience?

Some admirable attempts or exceptions to these rules haven't gone unnoticed, though. Garnet Til Alexandros from Final Fantasy IX, a princess who was sometimes in distress, was explored with renaissance charm and a wonderful sense of humour, making the character ultimately endearing. More recently the Shadow Hearts series brought us two likeable female characters: Alice Elliot, a seemingly delicate flower in a gothic tale, memorably sacrificed her life for a lover; Karin Koeng, a woman best described with a quiet strength, resounded with many fans.

Cardboard female characters, in my view, range from the Star Ocean series (bar Nel Zelpher perhaps) and the Final Fantasy VIII/X/X-2 collection. It's no secret I had little time for Yuna and her shrinking violet, butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-mouth mannerisms, or her two irritating chums in the sequel. That was the equivalent of every teenage girl mistaking maturity for wearing revealing clothes and higher heels, and it was as uncomfortable as watching one taking her first strut around in them.

Perhaps Final Fantasy VII got it right, though. Although the popularity of both Aeris Gainsborough and Tifa Lockhart sparked the idiotic "Team Aeris" and "Team Tifa" divisions concerning the love story with the main character Cloud, both were characters (in my opinion) who broke the mould in terms of personality. Aeris represented the token damsel in distress, but with an admirable pluck that was not brassy nor off-putting; Tifa was arguably the passive damsel, but with a dignity and realism that most were drawn to sympathize with. Particularly in the case of Tifa, a precedent was set to future RPGs where women would fill in the role of best friend/confidante with harboured feelings towards the male protagonist.

One of the reasons, sorry, only reason, I loved Koudelka was the character herself. Definitively nasty, spiteful, stoic and sexy, Koudelka takes the badge for the first anti-heroine of the genre. Her antics set up an interesting premise to an otherwise disjointed game. Likewise, the enigmatic Lacryma Christi and her depressive nature from Atlus's criminally underrated Kartia is another personal favourite. In fact, I'd probably go as far as to say all the women in Kartia are soem of the most diverse and interesting.

If I'm in any way overtly negative towards female characterisation in RPGs, it would be directed at the "ditzy" gimmicks featured in Final Fantasy. Yuffie, Selphie, Eiko, Rikku... a generation of bumbling, hyperactive harpies with cheery veneers that grate almost instantly. Even worse when you have Tara Strong providing the shrieky voice duties. Can you think of any comedic female characters in RPGs? The girls from Disgaea, particularly the adorable Etna, eventually popped into my head, aside from that? Nanami from Suikoden II perhaps?

I'd be interested to hear your slant on this debate: what's your take on the female heroine convention? Who have you loved and loathed?

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