Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Five-Character Analysis

Character design isn't easy. Or, rather, parts of it aren't easy. Parts of it are ("make character do thing that makes sense", as a short-term issue, isn't exactly a brainbuster). But I think it's unfair for me to spend all these articles talking about concepts that don't work without examining a few that I legitimately like one on level or another - and by "like", I mean that I think they're interesting and provide useful lessons about the whole process. So, without further ado, here are five characters that I feel can provide useful lessons to writers and artists.

Kaori Sanada (Last Blade 2)
Last Blade 2 takes place during the turbulent end of Japan's Tokugawa shogunate, where the Pro-Imperial and Pro-Shogunate forces clashed to take control of the country. Kaori Sanada is a female swordsman impersonating her brother, Kojiroh Sanada, in his role as a captain of the pro-Shogunate "Shinsengumi" squad. Within the story, she doesn't have a particularly huge role - she and her fellow Shinsengumi member Washizuka are tracking down a violent (now undead) criminal and attempting to bring him to justice.

What I like about Kaori as a character is that, basically by necessity, she's a male design. When I say "male design", I mean that they just gave her what someone would actually wear, instead of racking their brains to solve the problem of "how do they know she's female??" It's still possible to tell she's female by her voice, her face, and perhaps her hairstyle, but it's not a huge deal overall. The somewhat gender-neutral aesthetics of the samurai make this even easier - I mean, this is what her brother looks like. Her job was basically half-done for her.

Personality-wise, Kaori doesn't get a whole lot of development - and yet, that's probably for the best. Her job is that of a captain in the Shinsengumi, to replace her lost brother. She handles this efficiently and maturely, and that is actually the best we can hope from a character. She does her job. She doesn't bring her sex or her gender into it. Nobody else does either, although the fact that she's disguised could possibly mean that it would be a big deal. That's the long-and-short of it: she's a samurai, she dresses like a samurai, and she does her job capably. What more is there? What more can you ask? The bottom line for Kaori is that her aspects of "being a warrior" far outweigh the importance of her "being a woman" in terms of what she wears and how she acts, and that's the lesson that should be applied to pretty much everything.

In fact, you know what, let's get some others out of the way here too. Hilde (Soul Calibur). Emma & Emmy Honeywell (The Last Remnant). The Boss (Metal Gear Solid 3). Meliadoul Tengille (Final Fantasy Tactics). The recurring pattern with all these characters is that they're serious, mature, and dedicated soldiers who just happen to possess vaginas and breasts and all that. The fact that they want to be respected for doing their jobs (and doing them well) is more important than their sex. They dress, speak, and act in ways accordant to their position, not the audience's ideas about their gender. They do their job, and they take the steps necessary to ensure that it is done. They're respectable because their behavior makes them worth respecting. They're not unnecessarily or aggressively masculine, either, they're just doing things that make sense for their profession.

Note too, though, that it is not their "warrior status" that makes them respectable. Killing things is not the means by which to make a good character, but rather it is the representation of their personal beliefs and values. They are good characters because they are committed to a task and see it through respectably. It's about the manifestation of their beliefs in terms of them being "taken seriously", rather than being treated differently because they're women. The core problem with the representation of women is that they're not treated like "people", they're treated like some sort of separate entity not answerable to rules of logic or common sense. When you get around that, suddenly you realize it makes sense for women who are going into combat to wear something reasonable that would actually protect them.

Hibiki Takane (Last Blade 2)
Hibiki Takane is a 17-year-old girl on a quest to kill the man who murdered her father, a famous blacksmith. Using one of her father's swords with a fast-draw sword style, Hibiki is drawn into actual combat for the first time in her life in her pursuit of vengeance. She is, in essence, a normal civilian girl with somewhat ritualistic or ceremonial training who is now being forced to fight for her life in actual combat situations. Oh, and her outfit's pretty nice because it's just a regular kimono with some handguards that's still visually striking.

In one important way, Hibiki represents the "odd man out" in Last Blade 2: she's the only non-veteran, and thus the only character not used to combat. This doesn't diminish her fighting skills, but rather how she handles the pain and death of her opponents. If her opponent is knocked out (i.e. finished with a kick or weak strike) she will walk away, then force herself not to turn back and help her opponent. If she actually kills her opponent (i.e. finished with a strong attack or combo attack), she will freak the hell out, as one might expect from someone who has just killed another human being.

However, if the player keeps killing enemies, eventually she sort of gets used to it, putting her on the same level as the other characters. While referred to as "psychopathic" by the community (not in a particularly demeaning way, but whatever), it really just means she's sort of used to it just like everyone else in the game is. The fact that she starts out normal, i.e. not used to committing murder, is why the transformation seems strange. You see that? That's GROUNDING. The "normal" attitude is used to contrast with the "veteran" attitude, and without the former the latter would be meaningless.

The boasts and brags of fighting game characters are generally a non-element; they're not really "worldbuilding", they're just things they say. Hibiki, on the other hand, realizes that she's killing people, and like most normal people it's abhorrent and disgusting. The transition from a civilian to a warrior, a transition that any soldier with a kill to his name has had to go through, is an important part of her character development. Heck, it's even a choice thing too, since Hibiki can also go through the game without killing anyone. It even changes her ending if she gets "used" to killing, since she decides to hone her skills instead of simply going home and living a peaceful life. It's a perfect expression of the dichotomy of murder, Last Blade 2 is the best game ever, let's move on.

Kei Kurono (Gantz)
"Gantz" is a series about the recently dead (i.e. people killed in accidents) being flash-cloned by an unknown entity and forced to play in a bizarre alien-extermination game. Players are allowed to live their lives for most of the time, but once per week they're teleported into a fight against hostile and enigmatic beings. Surviving holds the promise of freedom and normalcy, yet the games are highly lethal and its players often squander their second chance at life through arrogance, inattention, or outright unfair scenarios.

Kei Kurono is the series' protagonist. At the start of the series, he's a shallow, self-centered teenager. He dies helping an old drunk off the railroad tracks (at the behest of his much nobler friend, Kato Masaru), and his reaction to the game is initially one of confusion, as one might expect. Yet within the confines of the game he finds himself enjoying the combat and the spectacle, and the fact that he does well means that the other players come to idolize and praise him. His desire for attention and the thrill of battle are his primary motivating factors, making him reckless, cocksure, and arrogant. The fact that the "game" consists of combat against strange and powerful foes means that he has a chance to shine in a way that he couldn't do in regular life.

However, over the course of the series, he develops emotionally in response to hardships and discoveries about life. The highly lethal nature of the game, and the loss of friends, at first causes him to fall into a deep, hopeless depression. However, it eventually moves him to take on a more active role as a leader, rather than simply being "the best at killing". He organizes the survivors to train and coordinate during their "regular lives" so that there's a higher chance of them getting through the game. While everyone else seemed to treat it as just an unpleasant interruption to their lives, Kurono actually takes a stand and tries to do something to keep people alive. He makes use of the established facts about the setting (how the alien technology works, how to adapt to new information, how to include new "players") in order to get the best results with the fewest people hurt.

The second half of Kurono's change as a character is the relationship he develops with Tae Kojima. At the start of the series Kurono is a pretty stereotypical teenager. In fact, in his very first appearance he's ogling a large-breasted model in a magazine. That's seriously how the character is introduced. He chases after a large-busted girl in a hilariously grounded way (i.e. it's super awkward and she's completely uninterested because he's an asshole), and while eventually his reputation as a great fighter gets him more respect, he's still callous and shallow.

His relationship with Kojima begins as a dare - she's an incredibly plain-looking classmate of his, and he asks her out basically as a joke between himself and his friends. However, as he spends time with her and realizes that he legitimately enjoys her company, he begins to thaw as a character. Their relationship develops in a wholly grounded manner; while there are a few important shared events, most of their relationship is divided by simple day-to-day stuff like walking home together or going on dates. They're shown as being two people who genuinely love and care for each other in a healthy, positive way. The thing is, though, that in the series it's one relationship among many, each different in their own way. It's not like a "this is what you should be doing, this is the only right way" scenario, it's just a simple interpersonal connection that works for them.

The reason I like Kurono as a character is that he represents an actual dynamic concept. He is exposed to various stimuli and scenarios, and rather than having them reflect off of a static personality, he adapts to them and changes as a person. This is emphasized excellently when a later chapter sees Kurono lose his memory of the events that had transpired since his "death", meaning that we get to watch him turn back into the character that he was in the beginning. No character development has ever been so clear as when we watch the selfless, heroic Kurono turn back into the self-absorbed petty Kurono as though a year of in-universe character development had never even taken place. The fact that I could pinpoint where each aspect of his character's change had come from, or at least the type of events that had facilitated it, is why I've put Kurono on this list.

Marta Louise Velasquez (Traffic Department 2192)
When discussing the representation of female characters, it's easy to get caught up in positive attributes. The unfair depiction of women is generally considered to be related to things like whether or not the character is taken seriously, whether or not the character has personal integrity and self-esteem, whether or not the character can define herself without having to use a male character as a crutch, and so on. The presence of these traits is generally considered to be good for the character, in terms of making them more likable and charismatic. Depicting negative traits in a female character can lead to accusations of bigotry and misogyny, and some companies (not all, but some) will generally avoid depicting female characters negatively in an effort to avoid accusations of generalizing - to say "all women are like this", and not "this one woman is flawed".

However, I think if we're discussing fairness, it's also worth noting that certain behaviors are also more commonly associated with male characters than female characters, and thus when they do show up in female characters, they're given more leeway. It's okay for a female character to be rude or abrasive because they're making up for years of oppression, where it was perfectly okay for a man to do that. The entire "bitch reappropriation" movement is about equalizing the idea of female and male "negative traits", or rather allowing women to have negative traits that are considered natural for a man. Ignoring the question of whether or not people should behave like that, it's important to acknowledge that some women do behave like that, and those women aren't really depicted well in fiction. There doesn't need to be a lot of those characters, necessarily, but it shouldn't be treated like something that doesn't exist, either.

With that said, Marta Louise Velasquez goes above and beyond the standards of "aggressive" and "ambitious" and rockets right up to the top of "awful human being". Lt. Velasquez is the protagonist of Traffic Department 2192, a top-down vehicle shooter game made by IBM in 1994 (a Let's Play is available for those who'd like to witness her character firsthand). The titular Traffic Department is locked in a violent struggle with the powerful street gang known as the Vultures, and Velasquez is their best (and most volatile) pilot. Velasquez is Maverick from Top Gun cranked up to eleven, a character so abrasive and hateful that every single other character in the game seems like the good guy when they talk to her no matter how awful they are. Almost every line out of her mouth is an insult of the worst variety, and while in some cases they're deserved, a good 98% of the time it's basically her just totally destroying someone verbally for daring to make contact with her. And she gets away with it because she's the best damn pilot we've got.

The thing about Velasquez is that she's almost a parody - not quite intentionally, but not wholly unintentionally either - of the "strong female character" of the 90s. As in, the kind of edgy antihero comic-book "strong female characters" defined by intense overcompensation for years of passively-depicted characters, who ends up being just as silly because it's still not actually a good character concept. She's take-charge and independent and confident, but more importantly she's abrasive in a way that would be still be totally awful if it was a man (and I can back that up, because her father was the same way). Yet she also counters the positive discrimination of a "better than everyone" strong female character . Velasquez is the best at piloting, but she's also a horrible human being, and is judged by both of those attributes.

Here's why I put Velasquez on this list: because sometimes you just have characters who are awful people in-universe, and who are treated as awful people in-universe. Women, being people, are going to be among that number. Velasquez is a person. Period. She's an angry, hateful person that nobody likes and everybody is basically forced to respect, and that's it: she's a person. She is allowed to be flawed in a way that has nothing to do with an authorial preconception about her sex or gender's disposition. She is a person who is an asshole. That's the end of the story. She is a character whose sex is certainly referenced quite often, but her behavior is so aggressive and spiteful and universally loathed that it turns into something gender-neutral. Men and women both hate her, and both will throw offensive epithets at her, not because they hate women, but because they hate her. When they call her a bitch, it's not because she's a woman standing up for herself in a man's world and showing some pride in herself when the patriarchy wants to keep her docile, it's because she's a bitch.

He's just as surprised as you.
Squall Leonhart (Final Fantasy VIII)
ahahaha the look on your face

Okay, no, seriously, hear me out about this. Squall Leonhart is the protagonist of Final Fantasy 8, a 17-year-old mercenary who has just recently graduated from his military academy / orphanage and can now proceed to a healthy life of war and death and occasional ballroom dancing. He's well-known by gamers for his cold, unemotional demeanor and his flippant attitude. Like Velasquez, Squall is an abrasive jerk, but unlike Velasquez it's because he mostly just wants to be left alone. But I think the negative reaction to Squall's character is based on the fact that nobody really "got" what his deal was (and also some poorly coded segments where you could miss out on pretty large blocks of his character development).

In the past, I've talked about child soldiers, and how the default assumption that "it's okay for kids to be in combat if it's a video game" relies on a suspension of disbelief and an intentional lack of grounding. Squall, being a Final Fantasy protagonist, falls under that category. He's a 17-year-old mercenary who basically goes to a high school where you learn how to kill things. He wears a leather jacket and is covered in belts. He wields a sword that is also a gun! How the heck is this guy so freaking miserable?? The answer lies in the fact that the game is Selectively Grounded. There's a whole bunch of stuff that's rule-of-cool, and then Squall's background is based not on Fantasy Genre standards but instead on what actually makes sense for once.

So here's a rough timeline of Squall's life. First, he was born while his dad was off rescuing his (adopted) sister. Then his mom died. Then he went to an orphanage with his adopted sister even though his dad was still alive (because he was busy ruling a nation of isolated technophiles), and that kind of sucked but he liked his sister being there. Then his sister got kidnapped again and he went from the orphanage to the military academy, whereupon he spent his entire life learning how to kill things. And that's it! That's where we pick him up, in the story. We pick him up as "an orphan who got sent off to become a mercenary after losing his only real family", and that's his entire character. Oh, and he's lost a lot of his long-term memories because of a side-effect of the magic they use at the school, so he doesn't even really know why he's upset.

The problem is that we learn this over the course of the game, while many players had formed their opinions of Squall as soon as he showed up. People didn't assume that he would have a background that was relevant to his behavior; they expected the JRPG standard of "I'm this stereotype, and that's just how I am". Squall is a character who has been through some Hard Times, and that's why he's an asshole. The unspoken issue - the thing that divided many people, I feel - is that the game doesn't think this is a good thing. That's why he gets character development and all that stuff! That's why events in the game change his personality! People missed out on a lot of it because they didn't think the clues were important, so they just overlooked them.

Squall's character development, like Kurono's, is facilitated by the fact that he's thrust into the role of a leader. He doesn't particularly like his subordinates or his employer, but he feels responsible for them. Rinoa, his love interest, serves to open him up emotionally by making him realize that (a) he likes his companions as friends, and (b) there's nothing wrong with that. The problem with this, and definitely one of the reasons many people missed it, is the fact that the game lets you make choices about how you respond to things, and it's entirely possible to play through the entire game making the choices you think Squall would make (being a dick) without the game really responding or noting it. The exact problem with Final Fantasy 8 is that it doesn't reflect choices in the least, and yet changes happen. Therefore, unless the player "detects" the change, they're not really in a position to facilitate it via their dialogue choices. For example, one scene has two different options:

Squall: (Man, she's really down.)
        R1 --> (Cheer her up)
        R2 --> (Let Irvine handle it)

Picking the first option leads to this:

R1: "Come on. I'm sure you can still do something."
Selphie: "... Squall...being sensitive? That's weird. You're the last person I expected to cheer me up. I must really look depressed."
Squall: (What's so weird? I care just like everybody else. It's just that there are too many thing that can't be helped. So why bother talking about everything.)
Selphie: "Uh-oh! There you go again into your own little world. And you're not gonna share anything, huh?"
Squall: "...Yeah, whatever..." (Why is she teasing me? I was just trying to help.)
Selphie: "Well, I think I'm feeling better. Don't worry about me, Squall."

And picking option 2 leads to this:

Squall: " help her. I'm out of here."
Irvine: "...Alrighty."

AND THE GAME PROCEEDS THE SAME EITHER WAY. The game acts like character development has been happening all along even if you ignore everyone and act dismissive and rude and basically maintain Squall's attitude from the beginning of the game. The game only works if you somehow know exactly which choices you should be making in concordance with Squall's current Character Development Level and whether or not he's started opening up yet. Hence, the final game looks like a messed-up mishmash where players who'd been picking rude options the entire game suddenly found Squall being friendly and falling in love with Rinoa and all the other railroad elements that the game has. The problem with the game is that it gives the player choice and then totally fails to act on it in the script.

Of course, Squall's not the only character to have actual events influencing their personality. The other main characters of the game are all also orphans, but their differing experiences post-orphanage are what changes their perspective on the world. The personae that they build up around themselves are dependent upon their upbringing. Zell is Squall's antithesis in that he's brash, loud, and confident, and this is because he actually got adopted. He attends the school while living in a nearby village with his caring and dedicated foster parents. He doesn't live in a dorm with no friends or family like Squall does. And the thing is, too, that many players thought Zell was annoying, and sort of empathized with Squall for being short-tempered with him. And you know what? Zell's not supposed to be perfect either, far from it. Characters in-universe get annoyed with him, he messes a lot of stuff up because he's impulsive and short-sighted, and in general his behavior has consequences other than Squall facepalming and shaking his head.

Other characters have similar backgrounds. Quistis focused on "being the best possible mercenary", using academic excellence to attempt to fill an obvious social void that rears its head several times throughout the game. Irvine constructs a persona of a cool, capable sniper to make up for the fact that he doesn't really like killing, and he chokes on killing an important target because he's the only member of the party who's capable of remembering who she is. Even Rinoa (often despised by fans) is fairly believable as a rich girl thrust by her own moral imperative into the role of a freedom fighter, who stands out in stark contrast to the more war-hardened mercenaries around her. I'm definitely not going to pretend any character is wholly believable, but the game makes a lot more sense if you realize that they were actually trying to connect characters' behavior to their lives instead of having them exist in a vacuum like many of the game's contemporaries did.

So in short, Final Fantasy 8 had some really good ideas, but half-assed them in multiple forms. It offered grounding without setting an expectation for it, so people expected rule-of-cool characters who wouldn't be affected by something so simple as "war is unpleasant" and "dying is bad". It offered choice without following it up, so players who kept picking antisocial options or options that insulted one character or another were unpleasantly surprised to find all those choices to be totally irrelevant. It took some solid core concepts, and botched the execution terribly.

Each of the examples I picked was for a reason. Each reason is a lesson.
1 (Kaori): A person is a person. There's no need to distinguish between "male" and "female" as stereotyped groups, because people are going to do what makes sense for their situation based on their desires and preferences. Kaori, and all the other similar characters named, are warriors first and foremost. This is reflected in their choice in clothing, their attitudes, their behaviors, and so on. They are female, yes, and perhaps this plays some role in their personal lives, but it's not as big a deal as many designers would have you believe. They do what makes sense for them, as people, and that's the end of that.
2 (Hibiki): Games deal with combat all the time. It's something so common that it's not going to be treated seriously as a part of a story. You can cleave your way through a thousand bandits and never lose your ability to snark or quip or pursue romances or ever have any sign that the people you're killing ARE ACTUALLY PEOPLE. Hibiki is a good character because she serves a grounding role; the other characters in the game are inured to killing, and she is not. She can become as they are through experience, and the shift was enough to unnerve many players - serving as an emotional response to a dynamic that most games simply ignore.
3 (Kurono): People are changed by their environments. The attitudes that they possess clash and fuse with the attitudes of those around them; they create change in others, and are changed themselves. The events of a person's life define their outlook and how they will respond to new events and new stimuli. The lesson taught by Kurono's design is that everyone can change, and everyone does change, and the audience being able to connect that change to events deepens the character's personality. Kurono also does a pretty good job of grounding his more unpleasant traits by making people respond to them somewhat realistically, instead of having comically exaggerated responses.
4 (Velasquez): Sometimes we get caught up in the need to make positive role models. Sometimes making a female or minority character be a "bad person" is unacceptable because of the idea that an audience will assume that this single character is meant to be representative of the whole race. Sometimes it's nice to have a character so vile and hateful that they're just universally despised, and the audience can sit back and go "oh, it's not because she's a woman, or because he's black, or because that person is intergender. It's because They're A Bad Person, just like anyone else who's a Bad Person."
5 (Squall): All the above steps work a lot better if you're consistent about it with the whole package. If you're developing a character in a linear path, the illusion of choice will only make things worse. If you're relying on a grounded, implied backstory to explain a character's behavior (regardless of whether you condone it yourself), it's going to work better if the entire setting is grounded, instead of just one element. It's totally possible to have a good idea for a character based on realistically modeled issues and screw it all up because you're too busy trying to have fun with everything else in the game's design.

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