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.