Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Who's Swinging the Sword?

On the recommendation of a friend, I recently purchased the game Child of Light.

This is the sort of game that I like to point out when people say that video games aren't art. The visuals are beautiful, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the entire thing is told as a tongue-in-cheek nursery rhyme (that's not above poking fun at itself at times), and the story is as compelling as any good fairytale. If indie-style sword-and-sorcery turn-based combat is your thing, you definitely won't regret dropping $15 on this game.

But that's not what I really wanted to talk about today. There's something really great about this game that I didn't really notice until a few hours in: (okay, there's a lot of neat things that reveal themselves only later, but...) The sword-swinging, spell-slinging protagonist is a girl.

Okay, let's back up and talk about female heroes in the fantasy and sci-fi. I'm going to skip around a lot, but that's because I'm trying to make a point, and I'm writing a blog post, not a thesis paper.

Ever read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? If you just answered no, go away and read it and come back. It will probably take you like ninety minutes, tops. Anyway, it's a pretty great book. But the scene that I'd really like to talk about is the one where three of our protagonists meet Father Christmas and receive magical armaments for a coming battle.

Peter recieves a sword and shield. Classic. Susan receives a bow and a horn, in case she ever needs to call for help. Lucy receives...a dagger and a healing potion. Nice. (Edmund, when he rejoins the party, takes up his own sword, or in some versions a mace.) In the book, Father Christmas tells the sisters (but not Peter) that their weapons are only to be used "in great need... for I do not mean you to fight in the battle." Lucy is outraged, but he tells her: "battles are ugly when women fight." Later, Susan does enter battle from a distance, putting her bow to use, but she's never in the thick of things as her brothers are.

This might not be so surprising; when we do see female warriors in the fantasy genre, their weapon of choice is very frequently a bow and arrow:

Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, with bow and arrow

...or a sniper rifle, roughly a modern equivalent:

Sarah Kerrigan from Starcraft, with sniper rifle

...or more generally, unerring grace, occasionally assisted by one or more light handguns:

Trinity from The Matrix, with handgun

Black Widow from The Avengers, with handgun

What don't you see here? Armor. Why? These girls don't get hit. (edit: Okay, so Kerrigan, second from top is wearing armor. But about an order of magnitude less than Jim Raynor, second below, who has the same job description.) Four of these five women are portrayed as nigh-untouchable in combat (which is good, since they can't take a hit), and all have fighting styles basically characterized by "hit him before he hits you". By contrast:

Finnick Odair from The Hunger Games, with trident

Jim Raynor from Starcraft, in power armor suit

Neo fighting Agent Smith in The Matrix Revolutions

The rest of the Avengers

Okay, not all of these men are wearning armor. But all of them are ready for hand-to-hand combat, and are going to spend a nontrivial portion of their screentime punching things and getting punched by things. Not much running, stealth, or acrobatics, but lots of getting bloody (or at least seriously banged up) while trading punches. Attentive readers will note that this is not how women fight in movies.

Cut back to Child of Light. The protagonist is a small, redhaired girl. For basically no reason whatsoever, she is given a sword -- and proceeds to swing said sword into and through any evil creature slow enough to stand in her way. Her main skill is hitting things over the head -- though she can take her fair share of hits in return. (She also learns magic, because, well, why not?) She wanders through a world full of locked chests with random goodies inside, is tasked with quests by strangers, and is capable of fighting hand-to-hand with giant spiders, hydras, and evil ghosts because, well, can't everyone in a fairytale?

Aurora attacks three enemies with her sword

Okay, the violence she faces is nowhere near as brutal as that depicted in the franchises above, but that's not really the point. What's notable is that a gender-neutral-but-overwhelmingly-male-by-default character role (bearer of the magic sword, destined to complete a quest along with loyal allies) is a girl, not a boy. And what's more, nothing in the game itself plays on her being female -- you just take it as a fact and move on. (Hint: leveling up her Strength stat is really strong, especially if you upgrade her physical attack using items.)

A common litmus test for "Is your female character an actual person?" in fiction is "Could she be seamlessly replaced with a nice-looking floor lamp?" Here, when asking "Is your female character just a female-warrior stereotype?" of a video game, ask: "Could her graphic be seamlessly replaced with one of a boy?"

Child of Light passes with flying colors; Aurora is a small, red-haired girl, but none of who she, what she does, or how she fights is defined by that. The game would feel exactly the same if it was a young, blonde-haired boy with a pointy green hat that was given a sword and launched on a quest (except maybe, it'd feel a little more cliche). And that's refreshing and kind of awesome.

Aurora lifts a sword aloft triumphantly

Pop culture index

The referenced movie / tv show / video game characters, in order of appearance, are: (beginning with the girl in brown jacket with bow)

  • Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games (book, then movie), who wins a twenty-four-person, multi-day gladiatorial deathmatch with basically just her archery skills.
  • Sarah Kerrigan, a Ghost sniper operative in Starcraft (video game), whose specialties involve infiltration and assassination (with a side of psychic powers).
  • Trinity, from The Matrix (movie) who beats people up with breathtaking acrobatics.
  • Black Widow, a superhero in The Avengers (movie) who...well...you get the picture.
  • Finnick Odair, from The Hunger Games (strictly speaking, from the sequel, Catching Fire), who stabs people with a trident and gets beaten up at least once.
  • Jim Raynor, also a sniper from Starcraft, who stomps around in a power-armor suit when he's not smoking, drinking liquor, or otherwise acting moody. Note that this is the armor that male snipers wear in the Starcraft universe.
  • Neo and Agent Smith, punching each other in Matrix Revolutions
  • Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America, three of the eponymous Avengers. One is a Norse god known with a hammer for hitting things with, one built a combat suit to singlehandedly take on terrorism, and one punched Hitler in the face that one time.
  • The boy in a green hat referenced in the last paragraph is Link, the hero of Legend of Zelda (video game)
  • Child of Light is an awesome game, and you should buy it.