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June 1, 2013

Kingdom Hearts: Does Square-Enix Hate Women?

Apologies for the incendiary title, but I’m hard-pressed to think of anything more apt right now.

If you’ve been checking around this blog for a while -- and for that I thank you/apologize -- you may have noticed a particular running gag of mine.  See, if there’s one thing that I’ve noticed in the games by the now-bloated JRPG tyrant Square-Enix, it’s that the ladies in their games tend to be in less-than-admirable states.  It’s a consistent problem with this company, and while I wouldn’t say that it’s the only one at fault and/or worthy of blame, it is interesting -- and troubling -- to be able to trace a line from one nasty example to the next.  Hence the gag “Squeenix hates women.”

Now, to be fair, I’m sure there are some good examples of female characters out there in the company’s catalog.  I’m sure that there are some ladies who not only do the genre justice, but the medium at large.

Kingdom Hearts’ Aqua is not one of them.

Spoilers, as is the standard.  Then again, I’d assume if you had any interest in playing the game, you would have done so already.  So…callous spoilers, then?  Unfeeling spoilers?  Eh, let’s just go with “mild”.

Also, there’s NOT going to be mindless rage here.  Just a bit of a discussion.  Or a jumping off point.  Off a cliff.  Into Foot-In-Mouth Gorge, if I botch this.  So just work with me here.

Now, I know what you’re thinking.  “Voltech, you damned fool!” you yell, momentarily strangling your internet-accessing device of choice in the hopes of strangling me by proxy.  “We all know how you feel about Squeenix by now!  We all know they aren’t the company worth giving a second -- or even first -- thought!  So why bother with this self-destructive pursuit of justice?”

And to that I say, yes, you all have a point.  What I’m doing IS, for the most part, futile and self-destructive.  Every close look at a Squeenix game leads to confusion, disappointment, and rage.  Worse yet, the words I type here have maybe a trillionth of a one percent chance to ever reach any of the heads at Squeenix Keep -- meaning that as long as there are people willing to grab a new Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy, they’ll do so at the risk of being disappointed and assaulted, all while feeding Squeenix’s worst habits and beliefs.  That much is obvious.

But there are three reasons why I’m making this post.  First: if you’ve been checking around this blog for a while -- and again, I thank you/apologize -- you’ll know that I hold Kingdom Hearts in high esteem…maybe higher than Final Fantasy, if you can believe that.  I won’t pretend like it’s the best series ever, but it IS the one with the most potential; it is (or was) an eastern/western synthesis that could mix the best of both worlds, offering an adventure that could be at once whimsical and mature.  Since I started this blog -- and the posts therein -- I’d be so bold as to say that Kingdom Hearts 1 is one of my favorite games ever.  I’d ALSO be so bold as to say that KH1 should have been the ONLY game ever to appear in the franchise, but like any good moron I hold onto hope that each game will be better than the last.  Hence, why when I said I’d watch Birth by Sleep to completion, I meant it.

Second: as always, this is going to be a record and commentary on my findings.  I’m not going to rage at this game as much as I could (or should).  Even then, Squeenix's bumbles aren't always rage-worthy; in a way, their issues have an intriguing, misguided badness about them that I just can't look away from.  So I’m writing this post because I feel like there’s something I need to say; raging impotently at any Squeenix-tagged product that comes my way isn’t productive, isn’t rewarding, and isn’t enjoyably when done over and over and over again.  So I’m going to do my best to stay calm, zero in on what needs to be said, and leave it at that.  (Though I reserve the right to get emotional.)

Third: I’m doing this for your sake as well as mine.  It’s no secret that Squeenix makes some…fumbles when it comes to writing.  But then again, so do I.  So do a lot of people.  So I figure that maybe, just maybe, if I write posts like this I’ll be able to start figuring out what I need to do when it comes to my own junk.  If nothing else, Squeenix is a constant offering of what NOT to do when it comes to writing a story; there are lessons to be learned via countless cautionary tales.  So if you’re reading this, you can consider this -- and plenty of other stuff I’ve put up -- a means to prevent falling prey to the same pitfalls.  Even if you’re not out to make your own adventures, at the very least this could be a way to open your mind; it could help you raise your standards, so you too can cry foul whenever something like this appears before you.

We cool?  Cool.  Now let’s be cool -- and talk about the actual content of the game.  Or…games, as you’ll see.

Now then.  If you’ll look at the top of the screen for a moment, you’ll notice that there’s a tab up there that says “RE: Kingdom Hearts”.  It’s been there for ages, and might have been one of -- if not the first -- tab I ever created for Cross-Up.  If you’ve only joined me here recently, let me be the first to say that the driving force behind it was, in fact, Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep…primarily because of how awful of a story it offered.  I was in the midst of watching a playthrough of it, and it proved…less than ideal.  I’d made it through Roxas’ Sora’s Aladdin’s Ven’s story, but walked away disappointed and angry -- but as bad as that might have been, Terra’s was infinitely worse.  Infinitely.  It got so bad that I ended up putting the playthrough-watching on hold a few videos into Aqua’s story, and decided to play through KH1.  It’s not a perfect game by any means, but it does a lot of things remarkably well.  I’d argue it’s aged better than its direct sequel, or at the very least holds itself up a lot more convincingly. 

In any case, RE: Kingdom Hearts exists here because I want to focus intently on those two console games.  Those are the two I have the most experience with (by virtue of not owning every gaming device ever conceived), and a little compare/contrast would serve me as well as visitors quite handily.  That said, I don’t mind taking a look at other games in the franchise if and when the opportunity arises; I started because of Birth by Sleep, and leaving it unfinished is something I can’t bring myself to do.

So.  Aqua.  How’s her story?  Is she enough to redeem the entire product?

Game Grumps, you wanna take this one?

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Aqua is the best one of the three characters by a long shot.  A long shot.  Ven spends most of his story spinning his wheels, wishing for friends, handing out invitations for his pity party, and being only tangentially-involved with the main plot.  Terra is a complete idiot who bumbles his way from one world to the next, with a story arc that could charitably be called incomprehensible and the added bonus of making all the problems the KH canon faces a possibility.  The bar is set pretty low, but if nothing else Aqua clears it without tripping it with her massive pointy feet.  She wins by default.

To be fair, though, she’s significantly less-aggravating.  She’s actually fairly enjoyable (though whether that’s because of her own merits or her “competition” is up for debate).  She’s a lot more agreeable, she’s a lot more reasonable, and she avoids being a dumbass for pretty much the entirety of her story’s run.  She rightly follows orders, and rightly realizes that the incredibly obvious bad guy is…you know…the incredibly obvious bad guy.  Generally speaking, she cuts the chaff that plagues Terra and Ven’s stories, and I’d say she gets the closest to rebuilding the esteem of the franchise.  

Okay, so what’s the problem with her, then?  Simply put, Aqua is rarely -- if ever -- allowed to be Aqua.  She doesn’t really get a character arc, primarily because she has to spend the majority of her story chasing after Terra and Ven, and cleaning up the messes/unfinished business they left behind.  Huge swaths of her dialogue are concerned with Terra and Ven.  Most of the revelations that challenge her are in relation to Terra and Ven.  It’s always “Terra and Ven Terra and Ven Terra and Ven” with her, alternating between wondering what they’re up to and defending them from naysayers (Terra especially).  It’s a disappointment, really; outside of Larxene from 358/2 Days, she is -- as far as I know -- the only playable female character in the franchise, and certainly one of the only heroines.

What’s most worrisome is that by and large, Aqua’s relevance to the story -- and the canon in general -- ends up getting kneecapped because of her bond with Terra and Ven.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with being dedicated to friends, or playing the role of “team mom”.  The problem is that for the most part, that’s all there is to Aqua, and in more ways than one.  Her job as the one good Keyblade Master of the three is a thankless one, earning her nothing but scorn from Terra and Ven in spite of doing little more than raising legitimate concerns and following (justified) orders from her boss.  Despite that, she remains 100% loyal to them, fights on their behalf, fights for them, and ultimately ends up sacrificing herself so she can save Terra -- who I’m hard-pressed to have any sympathy for, considering that everything is his faultBBS is supposed to be a tragedy, but like the Star Wars prequels before it, it’s hard to have sympathy for these characters and their circumstances when the tragedy is born from choices a lobotomized moose wouldn’t make.

I find it interesting, though -- and refreshing -- that it’s actually Aqua you play as during the game’s final story.  Terra and Ven’s screw-ups are being cleaned up exclusively and extensively by Aqua, meaning that she has to face off against the final boss alone while the other two are incapacitated.  Yet in spite of being THE good guy of the story, and the one who’s made the least screw-ups, it’s Aqua who ends up sacrificing herself and condemning herself to a life trapped in a world of darkness so Terra can…uh…do something.  Exist, I guess?  Well, the important thing is that Aqua’s the one to suffer in spite of everything that happened, and is condemned to what might as well be hell for doing the right thing.  Seriously.  Just look at this description of her from KH3D:

“One of three Keyblade wielders who played a pivotal role in a historic clash more than a dozen years ago. To save a friend, she cast herself into the realm of darkness, never to be seen again.”

To be fair, there IS always a chance that Aqua will come back (and with a franchise as increasingly-screwy as this one, I wouldn’t put it past Tetsuya Nomura and his crew).  But I have my doubts.  I really, really, really have my doubts.  It’s worth noting, for example, that while in the realm of darkness Aqua gives up without a fight, ready and waiting to be devoured by low-level Heartless she should have no problems busting up.  But of course, who should come to her aid but the hearts (or something) of Terra and Ven, and giving her the boost she needs to fight on. 

It’s a problematic development, but…honestly, while it’s very easy to assume the worst of it, at the very least it makes sense in the context.  Aqua cares deeply about her friends, and she has every reason to give up in the face of being sent to -- again -- what is effectively hell.  Then again, this isn’t a context that she absolutely needed to have, even if it is consistent with the franchise’s themes.  There’s a big divide between Gameplay Aqua and Story Aqua that never really gets reconciled; even then -- even if she is the sole Keyblade Master of the trio -- she’s never given the respect she deserves, and in fact misses key moments in the story.  Female or not, she’s a woefully underutilized character.

But the real problems emerge in the last few minutes of the game.  I can deal with Aqua getting locked out of the action, because she was in the prequel story, and it’s supposed to be Sora’s story.  From what I can gather, Squeenix and I agree on that much, at least; KH3D puts the our man in red back in the hands of players, and by the sound of things KH3 is next in line (besides the HD remake).  Thing is, at the end of BBS there are a few lines that say something to the effect of “These two heroes are the key to saving the worlds.”  The two heroes, of course, are Sora and Riku, who appear as the text is overlaid across a scene with them.  My immediate thought?  “You mean three heroes, right?”

No, they didn’t mean three heroes.  KH3D has you playing as Sora and Riku.  Not having played the game, it’s hard to say whether or not Kairi gets her due…but from what I’ve heard, I suspect not.  This is probably the most problematic part of the canon right now, in the sense that the triad motif is being disrupted once more.  Remember, this whole franchise started out with goofy hero Sora, cocky anti-hero Riku, and spirited Kairi.  You could argue that the REAL triad is Sora, Donald, and Goofy, but work with me here -- this isn’t the first time we’ve had two guys and a girl in this franchise.  Sora, Riku, Kairi; Ven, Terra, Aqua; Roxas, Axel, Xion; you could even make the argument that there’s another triad in Hayner, Pence, and Olette…forgettable as they may be.

Incidentally, Olette walks away the clear winner in this case.  Pretty much every female character meets with a terrible fate, almost without exception.  Kairi spends most of KH1 in a coma, and in spite of hints that things will be different in KH2 and beyond, she ends up getting kidnapped, given a Keyblade for ONE cutscene, and booted to the sidelines for every game to follow.  (Maybe the reason KH3 is taking so long is because no one can figure out what to do with Kairi.)  Aqua ends up getting her shit wrecked in spite of doing the right thing -- and it’s worth noting that while Terra pretty much forces Riku to accept the duties of a Keyblade wielder, Kairi ends up doing so by accident, and the most Aqua does is use magic to protect Kairi from danger.  Xion was all but doomed from the outset.  Namine is, to some extent, a tool for the baddies -- and the writers -- to exploit. 

It really doesn’t paint a good picture when you can sum up any one of those five females’ personalities as “loyal to their friends.”  The sad thing is, that’s the best description I can come up with right about now -- and it’ll probably be a description that holds for a while yet.  The ending text of BBS may have referred to Sora and Riku being the two heroes of 3D, but then again that game excluded Kairi from gaining any of the training that the two boys were offered almost excitedly.  Unless there’s some major event that I haven’t seen (a notable possibility), then the most Kairi’s destined to offer is either more cheerleading or being a victim of kidnapping.  I really hope that isn’t the case, but I hope you’ll forgive me for being concerned.

Now, let’s be real here.  I’m not saying that Kairi, or Aqua, or whatever new girl they introduce next has to be some awe-inspiring badass warrior.  I’m not.  That’s not what being a good character is about, female, Keyblade wielder, or otherwise.  I’m just saying that whatever comes next, Squeenix need to make their light-loving lady complete and different.  That’s part of the reason why I gravitated toward Aqua when BBS info made the rounds; it offered a chance at new possibilities that hadn’t really been tapped by the series before.  The expectation was that she’d offer something new, and with it a method of satisfaction no one would have really considered.  It’s a sobering reality to discover that Aqua is just a pitiable sycophant who’s in place to remind the player that Terra and Ven (and by extension Riku and Sora) are the stars -- doubly so when you realize that Aqua could have had her own arc that fully expounded on the nature of the Keyblades and the struggles surrounding them, given that BBS was THE prequel game.  But I guess that would have been too cool.  So much for complete and different.

But when you think about it, Kingdom Hearts isn’t complete and different -- at least in regards to its female characters.  If nothing else, it’s consistent with -- or maybe symptomatic of -- what Squeenix has been doing for years.  Think about it.  Yuna was by and large the main character of Final Fantasy 10, but the story is commandeered by Tidus for whatever reason.  Granted that was when the company was still Squaresoft, but when the time came for that fateful merger with Enix, putting Yuna in the spotlight turned the first direct sequel, what could have been a thoughtful examination of a changed world through the eyes of someone who had her young life almost entirely dictated by strict tradition and dogma, into a pop star with a cartoonish girly run.  And let’s not talk about Rikku.

FF12 is undeniably the superior game, but again, it has its problems when it comes to the ladies.  The wronged and vengeful princess Ashe could have been, should have been, and essentially IS the main character of the story, but for whatever reason shirtless street rat Vaan is given something very near top billing.  Vaan is not the lead.  It’s never Vaan.  I’m having a hard time deciding if he’s actually a character, or just a stand-in.  Same goes for Penelo; how the hell they managed to make a character with even less contribution to anything than Vaan is worthy of a Guinness world record.  Though I guess that since she’s Vaan’s love interest, it all evens out.

I’d say the proverbial “shitting of the bed” occurs in -- what else? -- FF13.  Attempts are made to have its leading ladies (for the most part) strong and cool, and able to fight on par with the gents.  The problem is that even if they do possess some notable skill, it’s all for naught when there’s no depth to them.  Thankfully, none of them have their personalities bootstrapped to the men -- at least not in a romantic sense; Lightning spends a good third of the game bitching about Snow --but they offer very little in return.  Vanille uses her giggling façade to hide dark secrets, but clings to faith in the end.  That’s it.  Fang is a tough, pragmatic, and sarcastic fighter, but her heart is in it to win it.  That’s it.  Lightning is terrible.  That’s it.  I’m not even 100% sure these people have arcs to speak of, though zero arcs are preferable to the negative arcs of damn near everybody in 13-2.  These ladies aren’t complete in the slightest; by virtue of clinging to certain archetypes (and worse yet, doing nothing to move past them) they’re not different, either.  You could even argue that Snow is the main character of vanilla 13, no matter what the box art suggests. 

Going back to KH, it’s just kind of irksome that this is such a consistent problem.  Tifa spends pretty much all her time in KH2 looking for Cloud, who -- thanks to being in Advent Children mode -- would rather cross swords with Sephiroth (and now I await the inevitable comment pointing out the double entendre).  I’m hard-pressed to remember if Aerith even moves over the course of the game, though she does heal during the Hollow Bastion siege.  Yuffie and Yuna/Rikku/Paine are probably the most proactive, but like the others they’re consigned to one world.  Same goes for the Disney ladies you meet along the way, though it varies from one world to the next.  The presence of characters like Mulan and Belle offers some consolation, but there are still a lot of details that niggle at my brain.

If you’ve ever seen the highly-impressive blog Memories of a Dimanagul (which you can now that I have it on the sidebar!), you’ll note that there’s an argument to be made about games not allowing the time needed for story elements to develop properly.  That’s very true…with the potential exception of JRPGs.  The expectation is that any one title in the genre will offer you a bare minimum of twenty hours of gameplay, and with it a story that entertains from start to finish.  There’s supposed to be time for these characters -- not all, but plenty of them -- to start at one point, and go through highs and lows that transform or reaffirm their natures.  That’s the deal.  As much as I like the concept of KH1, there’s no denying that these games could use some time to develop itself in the huge swaths of time between the start and end.  In the case of KH2, if Sora and the gang had ever bothered to head to Destiny Islands to check on Kairi, it would have done WONDERS for the game -- developing Sora, developing the main plot, developing outside of the Disney world vignettes, and most of all developing Kairi.  They needed that moment.  The one they got in The World that Never Was started out fine, but ended up getting hamstrung once Sora broke down in tears right in front of Riku…with Kairi standing a few feet away.

I’m going to assume that in their games of origin, Namine and Xion are handled a lot more competently.  But when it comes to Aqua…I don’t know, I just feel like there could have been more done with her.  (Outside of flashbacks, of course; those are a useful tool at times, but they’re also the best way to go off the rails -- as seen in many, many, many episodes of Naruto.)    Maybe some scenes in the Keyblade Command Center; maybe more moments where she’s alone and has time for introspection; maybe her own unique rival.  Ven gets one in Vanitas, and Terra has Master Xehanort once he realizes that the obvious villain is an obvious villain.  Aqua gets to fight…Braig?  Did she even have any interactions with him up to meeting him as the last boss of her story?  Whatever the case, giving the vignettes some cohesion is entirely possible if they’re tied to the development of (and challenges for) a character -- and while Aqua does get some semblance of that, it’s so uncomfortably bootstrapped to Terra and Ven that I can’t help but see it as problematic.

Long story short, Aqua’s story isn’t terrible, but it’s not what I’d call great -- “passable” is the first word to come to mind.  It’s a shame, because she could have offered a perspective that the franchise was missing…thematically speaking, not just because she’s a girl.  It really is a shame that she didn’t get everything she needed, but then again that just brings me back to the title of this post.

Does Squeenix hate women?  No, I don’t think they do.  They’re just really, really bad at writing them.

I can only assume that Squeenix isn’t out to alienate potential customers, so it’d behoove them to make female characters that don’t make female gamers want to puke.  Nobody wants to write a bad character, and nobody wants to half-ass a character, either.  So in the interest of answering this question -- instead of just leaving it at “they’re terrible at this” -- I want to try something different.  I want to try and understand the mindset behind these creators, and why the characters turn out the way they do.  Now, what I’m about to say ultimately comes down to theory, but if nothing else I’d like to think they’re viable theories.  Agree, disagree, or just let out a resounding meh; as always, leave a comment if something comes to mind.

So, let’s get started.  Why do things have to be this way?

1) Because the leads are set in stone.
Setting aside all the side stories and prequels, Sora is the main character of the franchise.  As a result, it’s only natural that several circumstances, plot elements, worlds, and especially characters -- revolve around him.  If I were to chart out character relations, then I’d say that all lines would eventually lead back to Sora in one way or another; because of that, you’d expect someone like Kairi to play the role she does.  I’m not saying it’s the best role, or the only role, but relative to Sora it’s somewhat understandable.  The focus is -- or should be -- on his exploits alone; trying to make Kairi move into a different role after a number of games suggesting otherwise is a risky move.

2) Because they know their audience.
With the exception of KH1 (and arguably Chain of Memories), I’d say that the franchise carries with it certain expectations.  You know me as the type to decry the “boosh-boosh-boosh” spectacle that’s gripped the company recently, but I’d bet that there are plenty of people that’ll eat it all right up.  And that’s fine.  I get that.  I don’t agree with it, but when it comes to meeting expectations Squeenix doesn’t have much of a choice.  I’ve said as such before, but I still suspect that even now there are people that can’t bring themselves to even consider playing as a girl.  Likewise, I’d think that there’s a subset of players who see anything related to a female character as -- for lack of a better term -- icky. 

Also, I’m going to take the high road and assume that Squeenix isn’t doing its best to peddle bromance to ladies that are eager to eat it up.  But I suppose that’s a definite possibility.

3) Because the plots of these games are all propelled by characters (for better or worse).
I don’t think I can stress enough how much good a bit of world-building would help strengthen the canon.  Why BBS would elect to focus on Ven’s quest for (more) friends instead of potentially-awesome things like the Keyblade Masters, the Keyblade War, breaches of the series’ Prime Directive, the origin of the Heartless, and more is a question best left to the myriad deities of the world. 

If you take a closer look at the canon, you may notice that the layers of complexity that have become almost synonymous with the series (instead of…you know, the Disney stuff the franchise is built on) are all the result of introducing new characters with all these secrets and circumstances surrounding them.  KH1 kept things simple and clean, and focused.  Sora was the hero, Riku was the rival, Kairi was the princess, Donald and Goofy were your partners, Maleficent and the other Disney baddies were the villains, the Heartless were the evil army, and Ansem was the bigger villain.  The story went further and further off the rails as more and more characters started showing up, and suddenly the magical adventure you were supposed to be going on ended up sidelined for the sake of focusing on just what these characters are. 

BBS -- as a prequel -- is especially guilty of this, and helps show just why Squeenix treats ladies the way it does.  Ven’s story is in place to explain why he looks like Roxas, why Sora has a Keyblade, why Sora has Roxas (and Ven, and Xion, and Vanitas) inside his heart, and more.  Terra’s story is in place to explain why there’s another Xehanort -- or the first Xehanort, though not really -- wandering around.  Aqua’s story is in place to explain…the origin of Castle Oblivion?  A place that had no relevance to the original game, and only the faintest connections to KH2?  Reaffirming the power of friendship that’s been rammed down our throats for ages?  There could have been so much more done with Aqua, but stealing her chance at being purposeful just because she didn’t have some convoluted origin or destiny to follow does no one any favors -- least of all the character herself.

It makes sense, I’d wager.  The most that they could do with Kairi was reveal that she was a Princess of Heart -- and without anything else to reveal, she was benched.    I’ll assume that Namine got a hell of a lot of focus in her game of origin, but that’s because the plot (and her secrets) demanded it; once that was done, there wasn’t as much of a point to her…ergo why she couldn’t be bothered to appear outside of the first and last three hours of KH2, along with the assumption that players know everything about her from Chain of Memories.  Xion is right the hell out.  And once Aqua (and Xion, and Namine, and Kairi) fulfills her purpose, in the eyes of their creators she's been fully tapped. 

Now, let’s be fair here.  It is entirely possible -- and probable, even -- that KH3D has started reconciling plot elements.  And it’s more likely that KH3 will inevitably tie up all the loose ends, build a cohesive story, and fix all the issues that have plagued the series from the outset.  But the fact that things had to get THIS bad -- the fact that people have had to make forty-page documents sorting out the story -- should only go to show that something has indeed gone wrong.  “Simple and clean” is not a concept that you can apply to this series anymore.   And in spite of everything in this plot being character-driven instead of ostensibly being world-driven in the first and best game, the fact that its ladies would take so bad a hit doesn’t inspire confidence.  I know that the Disney of the past consigned its ladies into the oft-dreaded princess role, but at the same time there are a number of examples in that canon that make them more than just doe-eyed ballroom dancers.  For Squeenix to make such consistent blunders comes off as backwards; it’s a disservice to both Disney’s canon and the games’ canon.

So that’s about all I can say about Aqua and KH.  There are some obvious problems, and the devs could do better, but at the same time there’s still hope and potential.  KH3 is coming eventually, and while I have some extreme fears about its status, I’m more optimistic about that instead of a few Final Fantasy games I could mention.  That said, what’s the takeaway from all of this?  What can we learn, if Squeenix refuses to?  Well, that may vary from person to person, but I can go ahead and offer the lessons I’ve learned here.  When it comes to female characters, I should…

Well, glowing and throwing a magic key MIGHT help.  But I was thinking that I should...

1) Give them something to do.
I’m not saying that every character (regardless of gender) has to run onto the battlefield to be a good character.  It can help, sure, but it’s not a requirement.  All I really want -- and what the audience wants, I bet -- is for each character to do something that justifies their existence.  If they’re just sitting around waiting to be saved, there are going to be problems.  Doubly so if they’re just sitting around weeping and praying…or worse yet, sitting around off-camera for a few dozen hours.  A little activity and the conflicts (internal and external) that arise as a result could go a long way -- especially if they go out of their way to resolve the conflicts themselves.

2) Give them something besides being devoted to a male lead.
In the grand scheme of things, what is there to Kairi besides being attached to Sora and Riku?  That was a question that couldn’t be solved very easily in KH1 (on account of her plot coma), but when the time came to flesh her out in the second game, we get…nothing.  Nothing besides seeing her thinking about Riku and try her damnedest to remember Sora.  KH2 offered us a chance to show more to her, and offer that much-needed connective tissue, but they didn’t do anything substantial with her -- and as a result, it almost looks as if Sora and Riku are all that matter to Kairi, in spite of KH1’s opening hour suggesting otherwise.  That’s something worth keeping in mind; they can support a friend, but they have to offer more to their personality (and their presence, in kind).   Hopes, dreams, fears, ambitions, likes, dislikes, experiences, memories, the works -- fill in the blanks, and you’ve got more tools to work with.

2) Give them relevance on their terms.
This ties back into point one a bit; in a nutshell, characters need to engage with the plot on some level.  They need to be active participants instead of passive ones; that is, they can’t just be consigned to roles and revelations.  They need to do something relative to their abilities, mentality, and development.  Don’t turn them into witless warriors, and don’t turn them into desirable damsels, either.  Let them be natural.  Let them make a stand based on a few choice characteristics, and don’t overburden them with facets that are only there to advance the plot or give other characters motivation.

I’m pretty sure I’ve said something like this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again.  Making a good female character doesn’t require the blueprints to some ancient technology left behind by alien visitors a thousand years ago.  Just like any character, it all comes down to using creativity and ingenuity to manipulate the tools at hand.  Explore the possibilities.  Make the tweaks.  Add some complexity, but keep it simple and natural.  Don’t set them up just so they can take the fall.  Just put in the time, and you can come up with something savory.

The question is, can Squeenix come up with something savory?  At this point, I’m suspecting that there’s a seventy percent chance that they can’t.  (Maybe more, considering Dirge of Cerberus and what I’ve heard about The 3rd Birthday.)  Much like Final Fantasy in general, Squeenix is applying old-world solutions -- and warped ones, at that -- to new-world problems.  What worked in the past has stopped working, and will work even less in the years to come.  What they need to do is figure out what they’re doing wrong, consider new possibilities, and pursue them as needed.  I’m not demanding that they do a total course correction here, or that they shave down whatever plots they’ve got in store next.  All I’m saying is that they need to refocus and redouble their efforts where it really counts.  The company has its strengths, but if it can iron out its weaknesses, I genuinely believe -- even after everything I’ve said about them in the past -- they can reclaim their old glory.

I genuinely believe that Aqua deserved better.  And I can only hope that next time, she, and Kairi, and all of us will get something better. 

Well, that’s enough of that.  Now go watch something important.

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