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JRPGs' Garden of Shrinking Violets Needs Pruning

| 15 Nov 2010 16:00
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If you've got low self-esteem, are meek and doe-eyed, and have the worst luck of any person living or dead, chances are you're a JRPG "heroine."

A brave hero rescuing a damsel in distress is one of the oldest stories around, forming one of the pillars of the storytellers' art. It's a story that comes in a lot of flavors too, especially in the peril department: dragons, witches, wicked stepmothers, and even - and this is a JRPG example - evil overlords hoping to use the damsel as some kind of spirit battery. In fact, JRPGs do a brisk trade in delicate flowers that need rescuing, and in Issue 279 of The Escapist, Eileen Stahl highlights the problem of the "Wussy RPG Girl" as well as looking into the historical and cultural roots behind some of the most distressed damsels in videogames.

Often the amount of trouble one girl can get herself into in a mere 40 hours hinges on the ludicrous. Colette, Tales of Symphonia's Wussy RPG Girl, systematically loses her ability to eat, feel, and speak; willingly dooms herself to die as a sacrifice for the world; has her soul and memories erased; comes down with a deadly illness that slowly turns her body into crystal; and is kidnapped for use as a dead goddess's vessel, threatening her soul a second time. Unlike heroes, who tend to triumph over adversity through force of will alone, it's the party that saves these heroines every last time.

This might be tolerable if she were also a dynamic character, but Wussy RPG Girls rarely have much going on in the personality department aside from a bland feminine "kindness." Usually this is conveyed hamfistedly, perhaps through a love of flower or incessant reminders to the protagonist to practice proper hygiene. And just in case being weak and boring isn't compelling enough, JRPGs go through the trouble of making the her emotionally pathetic, too. Sometimes she was tortured in her childhood, like Yulie from Wild Arms 4 or Atoli from the .//hack series. And she frequently suffers from low self-esteem, fretting that she's a "burden" on the party or blaming herself for events that are beyond her control.

Stahl shows that the archetype actually stretches back hundreds of years to the Tokugawa Shogunate of the 1600s and the traditions of Japanese Kabuki Theater. You can read more about it in Stahl's article, "Wussy RPG Girls."

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