Serving the douche: When usability trumps character

Oh, I have a partner in this game? Wonderful! You take this, and this, and this, oh I might need this, but take this….

Partners in video games have it rough. They’ve been shafted ever since the palette-swapped Luigi. From glorified attaché cases to obedient lap dogs, the secondary character has struggled to define their identity, balancing usability with personality and frequently tripping over themselves in the process. Developers tend to who sabotage the appeal of their secondary characters. You get the feeling that they’re  the kind of developers who liked The Odd Couple so much they stole the dynamic without considering the balance of friendly snark so integral to the characters.

What you really get out of Prince of Persia (2008), for instance, is an awful prince belittling a lovely princess. The Prince and Elika’s relationship initially comes off as a bickering married couple whose amusing banter lends a sense of humour to the experience, but a closer look reveals the Prince is anything but supportive of Elika. He criticizes not only her consideration of other people before herself, but openly abuses her magical abilities to explore the world and gives her nothing in return. And while the writing portrays Elika as an intelligent and kindhearted woman, her range of actions that exist exclusively to service the player undermines her character. Despite being inspired by Yorda from ICO, Ubisoft Montreal has taken the concept of a lovely secondary character and placed her in a world that’s increasingly hostile to her presence.

Part of this hostility is introduced via the Elika Button: a context sensitive input that controls Elika’s range of actions. Where the Prince has the whole controller to express his boundless energy, Elika is constrained to one lonely button. While this decision was made to remove the annoyances of “dealing” with a secondary character by simplifying how you interact with them, it has also relegated Elika’s status to an ability. Much like how you swing your sword with one button, so too do you use Elika. If you fall down a cliff, she catches you; if you’re lost, she guides you, and the mythical double jump of platformers is made possible thanks to her magical abilities. Things start to get problematic and frankly a little insulting though when combat combos are created by literally tossing Elika at an enemy. Paired with the snappy magnet-teleportation whenever you hit the Elika button and the princess quickly starts to resemble an object more so than a character. Despite the many instances where we see Elika’s immense power and capability, we still find her roped into helping a man who’s awful to her and offers little in return for all her assistance. There’s no give and take in their relationship – the Prince just takes everything.

Contrast this with the mutually beneficial relationship of Ico and Yorda in ICO and we start nearing the ideal character dynamic in video games. Even in the details, ICO is diametrically opposed to Prince of Persia: a boy and girl replace a man and woman, an unending silence replaces endless chatter, and a shared goal overwhelms the split desires of the Prince and Elika. More importantly, Yorda is supported in her environment even if she fails to do an awful lot besides following when called. Yorda can’t defend herself when attacked and anything other than a designer-placed jump is out of the question for her. Initially, this situation may appear problematic with a demure and relatively quiet woman responding to the whims of a man, but it’s in the details where such accusations fall flat. Having Yorda be physically older than Ico and entirely helpless establishes her as someone very different from a normal person, and their age difference illustrates Ico’s strength of character without any manipulative subtext behind his actions. That’s not to say that Yorda is devoid of personality however. She has a particular fascination with birds, chasing after them if left to her own devices. She’ll more often than not go for a walk when you leave her behind somewhere, and her shocked expressions whenever Ico hurts himself indicates concern for the boy who seems to be her only friend. And while Yorda isn’t nearly as powerful as Elika, her ability to open the many locked gates impeding the duo’s progress supports their coupling as more than just a narrative necessity. They share a common goal to escape the Queen’s castle, and both of them pull their weight in their own ways.

Elika never gets that support from the Prince. Actually, it’s difficult to discern what the Prince wants at all compared to Elika’s earnest wish to preserve her people’s history. Unlike the mutual freedom that Ico and Yorda chase, the Prince’s dreams are never fully explored, leaving you with an extremely determined and energetic young woman dragging along an unenthusiastic child. Not only is this unappealing, it runs the very real risk of reminding you about the reality of playing a video game: that you’re just a freeloader mooching off other people’s emotional highs and lows.

Thankfully, the sidekick Pey’j from Beyond Good & Evil is here to save the day from the moochers of the world. Much like Yorda before him, Pey’j is a character who supports and encourages our heroine Jade throughout her endeavours. You see the friendly warmth of both characters manifest in their decision to open up their home as a makeshift orphanage. And in a remarkable synergy of player and character learning, we also share Jade’s naivety of the world at large and rely on Pey’j’s advice in the opening hours of the game. As we quickly discover, the planet is under attack from a strange alien threat called the DomZ. In an effort to counter the unpredictable and violent attacks, a military dictatorship called the Alpha Sections have taken power in order to protect the populace… or so they say. Not everything is what it seems Pey’j warns us, and unlike the Prince who ridicules the advice of his companion, Jade is receptive and eager to listen to her friends. While she’s perfectly capable of looking after herself, you get the impression Jade is pretty new to this whole adventuring thing. Pey’j’s explanation of the nuts and bolts of adventure platforming and the world at large not only establishes their relationship, it helps you on a mechanical level in the first dungeon. When Pey’j is kidnapped by the DomZ and sent to a slaughterhouse (he’s a pig, you see), Jade is forced to do that final bit of growing up by herself by rescuing the figure whose taught her so much.

Naturally, it’s just when Pey’j is taken from her that Jade is challenged the most. Her home is destroyed and all the orphans under her care are kidnapped by the DomZ. The once strong and reliable pillar of her life crumbles away and, with no one to turn to, she falls into a pretty big slump. And yet, she picks herself up again. She recognizes her own failings and finds the strength to keep fighting. Without Pey’j in the opening hours of the game assisting the player with hints, environmental puzzle solving, and functioning as the emotional support for Jade, we wouldn’t get the same emotionally powerful growth from Jade. Pey’j’s importance is conveyed through his usability to the player while simultaneously promoting Jade’s growth; a permanent and substantial change. Elika enriches the Prince’s momentary actions but fails to leave any lasting impression on him.

In the end, it’s not that Elika is a terrible character but rather that she’s paired with an awful lead that has nothing to offer her. Even while the Prince assists Elika, it’s made clear at the end of the game that he never understood her. When the ultimate evil is sealed up and the world is saved thanks to Elika’s sacrifice, the Prince demonstrates his misunderstanding by freeing her from her eternal slumber as a guardian and unleashing all the evil they spent so long containing in the first place. Her usefulness, both to the player and the Prince, encourages the Prince to act against her wishes for entirely selfish reasons. Unlike the other secondary characters mentioned above, Elika’s surroundings reduces her importance to actions that directly assist you, instead of actions that define her. Elika is not at fault here – she’s just being abused by an asshole prince.

6 Comments

  1. This article is aces, Alois. Thumbs up.

    Although I have one correction. The Prince’s dreams are fully explored. In the beginning of the game it’s made clear that the Prince has a donkey. This donkey, along with having the same name as a female love interest from a different Prince of Persia game, is carrying all of the Prince’s gold. That’s why he’s helping Elika, he can’t wait to get out of the canyon, get that gold back, and then buy things with it.

    • Alois Wittwer

      Ah yes, I actually had that at one point in a draft and made a wonderful double entendre about him being an ass and having an… yeah, you know where I went with that :p. It stuck out quite a bit though and I couldn’t really find a place to fit it so I dropped it in the end.

      Let’s just say that the Prince’s dreams are not nearly as selfless as Elika’s then! :p

      Thanks for reading :)

  2. Robert

    Really solid piece. I really enjoy sidekick characters when they have something to offer beside being what I call Backup Bitches. Unfortunately I’ve disliked most of my sidekicks over the years, but the handful you mentioned were all pretty solid.

    • Alois Wittwer

      That’s it, isn’t it? A lot of people dislike the escort mission in games but I think it’s more indicative of the implementation of the secondary character where it fails, not the concept of having a partner.

      Of course, if you go to far in the opposite direction like Elika, you run into the problem of having a character that’s so convenient they no longer resemble a functioning person. I’m fairly certain that Elika would dump the Prince if she had the choice judging by how she’s treated.

      Thanks for reading :)

  3. Jason

    While this article was obviously written to prove a point (videogames use women as accessories), it misses the larger, more eloquent ideas for the smaller, more narrow ideas it would like to prove.

    Some of the problematic areas are ideas such as the Elika button turning her into an object. This is understandable if you stand in a narrow place with the point of trying to atone for the guilt of being a white male. It is also easily countered. Elika is never controlled within the game, though she is extremely helpful. The single button is not a way to avoid “dealing” with a complicated woman, it is simply a request, on the part of the prince, for aide. He doesn’t have to line Elika up and give her a specific command: okay Elika, I would now like it if you would provide the double jump for me so that we may both reach the goal that we are mutually striving towards. Rather, he asks for assistance and his companion aides him in the way that is obviously the most beneficial to him.Likewise, while she is in need of the Prince to fight enemies, she is not helpless, adding her attacks to his for much more devestating combos than if he were to go it alone. In other words, it is easy to see how your point was arrived at, but it is just as easy to see that this point is ignoring all of the other sides, either deliberately through obfuscation, or accidentally through ignorance.

    What is frustrating about this point of view is that it strips Elika of the free will that she has. She hasn’t been roped into this silly quest under the brute force of the Prince, but rather she, acting of her own free will, recruited the prince to HER cause. She isn’t helping an awful man who is offering her nothing in return–it is the exact opposite of this. The prince stands to gain nothing from this expedition (aiding her means losing track of his ass loaded with wealth and no wealth lies at the end of the tunnel) whereas Elika not only saves the world, she spares her city, redeems the actions of her father and restores honor to her people. To ignore all of these aspects is to do a great disservice to the character.

    The characters here are yoked together through fate, but Elika stands to gain more and they both contribute to the ultimate goal. While the player controls the prince, this does not mean that this is the only person with agency, just as a novel that is told from a first person POV does not mean that the other characters do not have thoughts or importance. They are both necessary to navigate the obstacles, Elika especially so because she is the only one that can save the Prince from his mistakes, they are both necessary in the boss fights and Elika is of great service during the smaller fights as well. Elika, further, is the only one who can “beat” the ultimate evil, as well as the only one who can guide the duo through the maze of crumbling structures.

    Which is to say that Prince of Persia presents a much more nuanced, much more interesting play upon roles (both in action and regarding gender). While Elika has most of the power, she is in need of assistance, and while the Prince is a driving force in the success of the mission, he is ultimately not the one who can make the tough choices to save the world.

    This is especially interesting at the end of the game. The Player, as the Prince, has two options after Elika has sacrificed herself: they can finish the game by undoing all of the work that they have done for the ridiculously small gain of rescuing the romantic interest, or they can turn off their console and leave things frustratingly in the lurch.

    Let’s come back to that and deal with how much of an ass the Prince is: a huge one. He is rude, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, dismissive of others, sometimes deluded of his greatness and too arrogant about what qualities he does possess. While he is also charming, handsome and accomplished, and while he grows to appreciate both Elika and her ideas throughout the game, and while the player may come to soften to him by the end, there is still a hard edge to him: something irritating and shallow and selfish of him that pervades.

    This comes to a head at the end of the game. The player has come to care for Elika more than they care for the Prince. She has more character, more heart, more complications, more thought and more wisdom. She is not goodness incarnate, she is her own person, but neither is she pronged with selfish arrogance. And so the player is almost as taken with Elika as the Prince is. Pushing the player is their own selfishness. If they don’t undo all of their work, they don’t get the ending they want. If the Prince doesn’t free the ultimate, world consuming evil, he doesn’t get the girl he wants. The player is forced to align themselves with the Prince, even though they don’t want to, even though they don’t want to be like him, even though the actions they are taking are contrary to their wishes. This is not a dismissal of Elika’s work, it is a failing on the part of the Prince (and by extension: the player) to accept that sacrifice over their own feelings of entitlement. It is sobering and it is sad, but it is no way making Elika secondary.

    That the Epilogue is almost entirely a running apology from the Prince and series of excuses and that Elika never buckles, never forgives, never lets up–using the Prince for her own goal of escaping and then leaving him behind once they are free of immediate danger to pursue her goals without him–simply strengthens this idea.

    There are no doubt a great many problematic relationships within games and even more problematic portrayals of women/gender/sexuality/etc., but this isn’t one of them. It isn’t an ideal character of goodness, but should that ever be the goal? This isn’t middle school where shining armor is the ideal, this is a world where Humbert Humbert gets to be the protagonist of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century (and the POV character). It doesn’t justify the negative actions when the context undermines them.

    • Alois Wittwer

      Whoa, thanks for the reply! A whole essay :O !

      So, first off, this article was not about gender. Sure, the majority of my examples are women and you could extrapolate that this was a piece about the problematic implementation of women in games, but that was not my intention. It’s why I specifically chose Pey’j, a man, as my last example and did not repeat the mantra that “this is problematic because a women is serving a man”. I only brought it up when talking about Ico and Yorda specifically because that’s one of the complaints people have levied at the game. However, I won’t deny that there is a subtext there and if you do think that, well, you’re more than welcome to. I talk about the positions of power between a man and a woman in two examples. Regardless of my intention, that social issue is still there and can be recognised, absolutely.

      In regards to the rest of your comment, I’m not quite sure I follow. This wasn’t meant to dismiss Elika’s importance in the story, it was meant to point out just how useless the player is. Elika doesn’t need the Prince as she demonstrates pretty reliably throughout the game. And from my perspective, it wasn’t so much that Elika chose to use the Prince, but rather that she was forced to because “oh hey, we’re making a game called Prince of Persia and the lead character is the Prince, obviously”. As one of my editors said, the game should have been called “The Princess of Persia”. I felt Elika’s character was robbed, to be honest.

      What I wanted from the game was either Elika cast as the main character or see the developers add worth to the Prince’s character. Having him simply help with combat isn’t much. Not to mention that Elika could have theoretically flown around the entire world and negated his purpose entirely… but that’s a whole other kettle of fish regarding nonsensical magic best left for another time.

      And associating the player with our character is dangerous, I think. I’ve always felt separated from who I portray in a video game for a number of reasons. I loved Elika, but I certainly wasn’t the Prince when he woke her up at the end. This idea of player and character as separate entities forms the heart of my next piece, actually .

      As for the epilogue? I never played it! From what you said though, it does sound interesting. It would seem I have to play it! :)

      And is the Prince and Elika’s relationship the absolute worst example of a relationship in video games? Not necessarily. I enjoyed their snarky banter and loved the experience as a whole. I didn’t want to have middling writing, though. I needed to take a side. And there are problematic elements with their relationship.

      Thanks for reading! I really do appreciate it :)