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Analysis: The heroine's journey

Most are familiar with the literary staple of "the hero's journey," but should the formula change if the hero is female? Contributor Emily Short analyzes this as it relates to video game narrative and Portal's GladOS.

Emily Short, Blogger

February 2, 2012

9 Min Read

Months ago I ran across a description of "the heroine's journey," a counterpart to the hero's journey, a concept summarized like this: "The Heroine begins from a position of minimal privilege, but has some powerful goal or passion. She may then take on a mentor or helper to assist her in her attempt to escape her traditional role and do what she wants in life. Along the way, she rejects or loses a 'typical' romance with a man who wants to protect her but who would stifle her. She undergoes further trials in the attempt to establish herself; if she does marry/become romantically attached, it’s much later in the story, after she's distinguished herself as an individual and met someone who is willing to regard her as an equal. Alternatively, sometimes she ends up alone but self-realized to some degree." That story format resonated with me, but when I described it to one of my friends, he said, "I don't know. What I think of as heroic is sacrificing yourself for others." In other words, he suggested, the story I'd outlined was the story of selfishness, not heroism. The Life of Sacrifice Sometime back I wrote about Delicious Emily's Holiday Season, a time management game that featured a surprising amount of narrative content and a branching storyline. Delicious Emily's True Love is a sequel to this story, and the creators were kind enough to send me a review copy, which, I have to say up front, I thoroughly enjoyed playing. True Love backs away from some of the most experimental aspects of this predecessor. There aren't any more open-ended questions for the player to type in, and the end of the story is foregone. But if it is less surprising than Holiday Season, True Love has a confidence, spark, and investment in its storytelling that makes it a standout in its genre. As with Holiday Season, levels consistently feature mini-goals that tie into the narrative, especially by dramatizing the behavior and personalities of side characters. Even Emily's own quirks become a challenge, because sometimes she wants to be daydreaming or reading letters instead of serving tables, and the level goals require trying to meet both ends. But mostly, the ludonarrative content of the game revolves around the same kind of humor: Emily is relentlessly taken for granted, pressured and bullied by the people around her. The customers are demanding. Her mother pesters her about her eventual grandchildren. Her younger sister is self-centered; her younger sister's boyfriend a boor who sits at the counter ordering free meals for turn after turn. The game pokes fun at how much Emily has to put up with these people, but it also offers her no way out of this pattern. There's no point at which she can stand up for herself. Even when she goes abroad in search of a long-ago boyfriend, she meets one character after another on the road who puts her to work in a self-centered way. The French boyfriend in question turns out to be a philanderer, so Emily returns home to marry Patrick, the florist next door, and the one person in the narrative who is possibly even more passive than herself. Don't get me wrong. This is one of the better stories in the time management genre. It achieves about the level of a television sitcom, and does so in a way that melds the story points with things the player actually has to do. Even when Emily, in an act worthy of Bridget Jones, sets off looking for a French boyfriend she met on an exchange program sixteen years previously, the story is told with enough nuance that we understand she's running as much away as to. Away from a bullying mother who wants grandkids as soon as possible; away from envy and annoyance at her sister's wedding, and the belief that the man she's interested in has a new girlfriend. What she finds in Paris can't make things worse, can it? And so we almost approximate believing that a 32 year old business-owner would set off looking for the teenager lover she knew for two weeks half a lifetime previously. Delicious Emily's True Love is not Tolstoy, or even The Big Bang Theory. But it's working within a genre in which it's the norm for characters to do somewhat foolish things in pursuit of love. My biggest gripe with its narrative structure is that Patrick, the true hero, is off stage for much of Emily's jaunt across Europe (where, surprisingly, she manages to spend something like a week in the Madrid airport, another week on a luxury train from Madrid to Paris (!), and then some similar number of days in Paris itself). When Patrick is shown, he's such a nice guy that he doesn't cause Emily any particular problems but also doesn't functionally help her most of the time either. Which means that he doesn't affect the level goals much. From a gameplay point of view, the hero is a non-entity. Is Emily unheroic because she doesn't sacrifice enough? Hardly. Self-sacrifice is the warp and weft of her life. She hardly ever acts without acting for someone. She feeds, she cleans up after. She keeps her mouth shut about her sister's appalling boyfriend, who is too old, too loud, too stupid, and too crass. She helps her mother sew a new wedding dress even though it costs her time she can't spare. She stands back when someone else wants to catch the bouquet at a wedding, and only winds up with it by accident. She is self-effacing by instinct. And this is not just an incidental feature of the character, but perhaps her core characteristic, and one she shares to varying degrees with other time management heroines: Flo, Quinn, the office manager of Miss Management. These are all games that invite and expect the player to empathize with the experience of being a bit imposed upon, and to respond with a genial competence and a willingness not to mind that it's unfair. The Fantasy of Service The fantasy is of being so good at picking up after other people that you're never forced to tell anyone you can't and that they should wash their own undies for once. So many stories for little girls are stories about how to be a good servant. Cinderella, abused by her family, keeps polishing the grates until the Prince talent-scouts her for his palace. Snow White, driven from her mother's house, washes up for the dwarfs instead. Vasilisa the Beautiful gets bullied by her stepsisters into going into the woods alone looking for a light source; thanks to Baba Yaga's intervention, she comes back with magic glowing-eyed skulls that burn her entire step-family to death. (Not her fault, though. She didn't plan it that way.) A Little Princess and Jane Eyre -- and buckets of other classic and semi-classic literature for young women -- revolve around the idea of patient, perennial self-sacrifice and obedience as a way of life, with the hope that one day, through good luck, the sacrifice will be recognized and the sufferer freed. But from the outside. Always from the outside. Always because a prince came along, or Baba Yaga handed you a booby-trapped magic skull. GlaDOS Then there's GlaDOS. Portal 2 gives GlaDOS an antiheroine's journey, a path from subservience to villainy. Once her core personality belonged to an attractive but submissive secretary, Caroline. ("Sorry fellas, she's married. To Science.") Then she had her mind fed into the circuitry of Aperture's machine. She lost all semblance of physical or mental autonomy and was deconstructed and reconstructed countless times. Her madness is the result of the imperatives built into her artificial intelligence. Her willingness to sacrifice herself -- the fact that she made that sacrifice her way of life -- is what also made her a villain. I have to say I cheered for GlaDOS when she rejected the Caroline module and claimed a self unencumbered by conscience. Not because I'm a fan of sociopaths, mind you -- but because GlaDOS is defined as a character by the fact that she escaped that kind of manipulation and subservience, and became the controller. Her vocation to test endlessly becomes her essential self. If she had been redeemed and learned to pity her test subjects, she would also have been personally lessened. Instead she recognizes Chell as a kind of equal and sets her free, and that's as close to non-villainy as she can come. In doing so, she gives Chell what no one ever gave Caroline. Heroine's Journey? I don't know if there's really anything consistent or universal to that heroine's journey pattern I ran across months ago. Web-searching on the phrase "heroine's journey" has turned up a range of materials, from self-help books for women executives to life coaching guides. In the absence of an originating Joseph Campbell, no one seems to agree whether there is a pattern of a heroine's journey as distinct from a hero's, and if so, what exactly it would entail. So probably I simply latched on to the one I found most interesting. But it has led me to think about the mechanics of choice and self-sacrifice in games, and the fact that those often play out in culturally gendered ways. For the lead character of Fallout 3 -- who can be played as female, but was rather transparently originally written as male -- sixty hours of shooting people in the head for three bottles of Nuka Cola can be triumphantly redeemed by a single self-immolation. For the lead females of many, many casual games, sacrifice and service are the only game there is. If we can learn anything from GlaDOS and Chell, it's that letting someone else destroy you isn't doing them any favors. But the path from passively serving to living in healthy balance with your community is not necessarily easier than the path from egocentrism. I at least am comfortable calling it heroic. (Disclosure: I played a copy of Portal 2 that I purchased at full price, and a copy of Delicious Emily's True Love that I received for free as a review copy.) [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics.]

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