Apr 082011

During the “Females on Female Characters” panel at PAX, Susan Arendt argued briefly in support of Tripitaka (Trip), a character from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. This appreciation seemed bizarre to me, so the moment stuck in my mind. Enslaved was a gorgeous game with phenomenal voice acting, decently expressive gameplay, and very bad writing, of which I thought Trip was a prime example. The game apparently wants us to like and sympathize with Trip, but she struck me as a perfectly reprehensible person in general, and seemed to represent patriarchal stereotypes more than she undermined them.

We first meet Trip on a slave ship, where she kills dozens of people to save her own skin. She escapes from her prison pod without serious incident, then goes over to a control panel and, rather than opening all the other pods and freeing her fellow human beings, causes an explosion that kills some of them instantly and dooms most of the rest to a fiery death. The player, as Monkey, survives the explosion and follows Trip through the ship, during which he hears the other prisoners’ pleas for help as they watch the fires approach and await their inevitable demise from immolation or impact. At several points during this sequence, Trip chooses to flee further or lock doors behind her rather than wait for Monkey or help him. Given that Monkey is a large, frightening, unfriendly stranger, her actions are justifiable, but the player is bound to Monkey’s viewpoint and therefore likely to find him the more sympathetic character. In the finale of this sequence, Monkey climbs onto the outside of an escape pod that Trip is in, and she launches it anyway, an act that can fairly be described as murder unless she was aware that Monkey was the main character in a cinematic action game and therefore immortal.

After this we are treated to the scene where Trip reveals that she has put one of the (potentially fatal) slave headbands on Monkey. As a way of explaining why the player must go certain places and do certain things, this is reasonably clever. It’s quite similar — and in some ways superior — to BioShock‘s way of explaining the limits of the player in the game world, although it’s far less subtle. Enslaved also inverts conventional power dynamics, placing authority and decision-making with the female character. For a sexist person, that may well be sufficient reason to be angry at Trip and to hate this sequence. I feel compelled to note, however, that enslaving another human being for any reason is throgoughly awful, and that anyone who does it is evil even if she doesn’t warm up for it by murdering dozens of people, and regardless of whether it results in an interesting inversion of patriarchal values. By which I mean, I think that a person can legitimately hate Trip for doing this without being a sexist ass.

Arendt, for her part, appreciated that Trip understood where her weaknesses lay and took steps to overcome them, which is a legitimate way of looking at this sequence. Yet, this interpretation paints Trip as scatterbrained at best. For one thing, since both Trip’s home and the Pyramid are to the west of New York, she might have just waited a bit before murdering everybody on the ship, and thus crash-landed closer to home. Additionally, a coherent plan to use Monkey to get her back to her village is somewhat at odds with the multiple decisions she makes on the ship that she should reasonably believe will result in his death.

The ultimate reason Trip enslaves Monkey is so that he can ferry her to a sequence of increasingly grotesque father figures. To the game’s credit, this isn’t as passive as it sounds — although Trip can’t physically fight the bloodthirsty robots inhabiting every corner of the game world, her technical knowledge is essential for getting through the ruins and scouting out upcoming areas. Ultimately, though, she needs Monkey’s muscle to help her across the rubble, and she needs his motorcycle to transport them back to her home.

This journey ends unhappily, as the robots have already invaded the town. Trip runs into the enemy-infested village on her own, endangering herself. Of course, this also endangers Monkey, because the slave headband will kill him if she dies. Her decision to enter the town is foolish and irresponsible, and if that were all, then she would just be a lousy person. However, the foolish, irresponsible young woman who must be rescued by her man after her emotions cause her to rush into danger isn’t exactly a new or progressive plot element. Monkey has merely been re-imagined as Mario, with Trip playing a Princess Peach who actively tries to get kidnapped by Bowser.

Although she had promised to release Monkey once he returned her to her home, Trip reneges when she finds her father dead, forcing Monkey to join her for an attack on Pyramid, the organization behind the robots. In order to do this, they need the help of Pigsy, a creepy friend of her father’s. She enlists this fellow in her vendetta, too, an action almost certain to be fatal since he’s not the main character. As it turns out, that’s precisely what ends up happening: Pigsy sacrifices himself so that Trip and Monkey can break into the Pyramid.

There they find a room full of people being kept in a kind of VR haze by a man-machine hybrid. In a fit of rage, Trip kills the fellow with her bare hands, an action that is morally defensible, or at least would be if the episode made any damn sense. That issue aside, the immediate effect of her action is for the power in the Pyramid to go out, leaving hundreds of people stranded in the middle of the desert with no apparent means of escape. Perhaps she hasn’t condemned everyone in the building to death, but there’s no particular reason to feel hopeful.

In light of this story, it’s difficult for me to see how Trip could be seen as a positive kind of female character. Although she holds the power in her relationship with Monkey, she gets in that position by doing something that’s openly evil. In her use of that power she is selfish, dishonest and irresponsible, often in ways that adhere to patriarchal tropes about overly emotional women making rash decisions. I won’t deny that there are some aspects to Trip’s story and character that are interesting. From the opening moments of the game, however, Trip comes across as a tremendously awful person, and at no point does she really do anything to redeem herself. If she represents one of the better female characters to appear in games in recent years, the situation is more dire than anyone has acknowledged.

  5 Responses to “The trouble with Tripitaka”

  1. Is the ship crashing a direct effect of her using a computer terminal, or does her using it unintentionally cause the malfunctions that aren't really explained? You wouldnt really keep a computer terminal that could destroy your entire ship with a few button pushes in the middle of a bay full of hostile captured prisoners, would you? The slave ship itself looked like a rotting relic from the get-go, I don't think it's a stretch to imagine that Trip's manipulations might not have directly led to the crash.
    Beyond that, I disagree I'm meant to sympathize with Trip. If anything I sympathize with Monkey, and learned to understand Trip, who is very rooted to her home, and cares about little else. Why should she? She's not inspired by the closed eco-system because she has an evolved world view, but rather because she is pro-isolationist. That's a nod to the xenophobia of imperial China. Trip lives in a broken world. Survival is at a premium. I can't fault her for putting survival first, anymore than I would Max in the Road Warrior. Anyway, if Trip was a selfless hero, Monkey would be a useless character and there'd be no game. I found the ambiguity and selfishness of Trip bracing. I thought it made her more realistic. Science fiction is the province of pointing up uncomfortable truths about humanity. I found the game true to that root.

  2. I've not played Enslaved, but I think you're confusing "strong female character" with "nice person". She can be the former without having to be the latter.

    Counterexample: I maintain that Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is *not* a compelling female character, because she is too flawless. She subscribes to the "Strong Female Character"(tm) trope rather than actually being s strong female character. (cf http://www.overthinkingit.com/2008/08/18/why-strong-female-characters-are-bad-for-women/)

  3. @Rob – At best this would be kind of an inconsistent characterization, since everywhere else in the game Trip is pretty much a master of technology (e.g. the headband and dragonfly). Accident or not, there's still the matter of repeatedly sentencing Monkey to death and the fact that she never expresses an ounce of remorse, nor does she learn anything from her mistake (she essentially repeats it, with less obviously negative results, at her village and in the Pyramid).

    @Kateri – I think what bothers me about Trip is that she is unrelentingly awful in a way that bows to long-standing tropes about why women shouldn't be put in charge of anything. I don't think a strong female character necessarily has to be likeable. But I also think that there is a difference between power and strength. Trip has the former without the latter, and that's why I feel she's a negative and regressive character.

  4. Interesting read and comments.

    I've only played the demo of Enslaved, and I have no idea what took place at the PAX panel, so my comments are based on my limited experience with the subject matter.

    With that said, I think the post touches up on the common melding of "strong" and "desirable" (not sexually, but rather in a fashion that enriches the medium) female characters. Granted a "strong character" can refer to a fleshed out, three dimensional individual, so it's easy for the terminology to get confusing.

    Anyway, I like the fact that Trip isn't perfect. I also like that her power stems from her force of will and technological expertise — magical ass-kickers with questionable fashion sense and sassy attitudes are rarely well written.

    However, she does come across as quite despicable.

    She actively chooses to put others in mortal danger, sometimes killing them in the process, and *enslaves* another human being in order to reach her goal. Her actions are desperate and cowardly, and although believable within the setting, not at all excusable regardless of gender.

    They make for an interesting dynamic, though, and I don't think they're detrimental to the game, the industry, or female characters in general. Trying to avoid every stereotype imaginable is a silly exercise, and from what I've seen, Enslaved is not a caricature of an emotionally hysterical woman.

    Idolizing a sociopath just because she's a powerful female is ridiculous, but putting forth a conflicting character — irrespective of his or her morals — as good for the medium doesn't seem that far off the mark.

  5. I didn’t like either of the characters. But, I reallly liked them as video game characters. I think my distaste for the two characters was kind of refreshing in a game that I was thoroughly enjoying and a story that seemed, for the most part, intriguing. I didn’t feel like I had to like them because she was classically beautiful and he was handsomely sauve, instead, I got to just enjoy the way they dealt with each other’s personalities.

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