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October 6, 2016

On the Mysterious Waif (and Friends)

Against my better judgment, I decided to try and play Star Ocean: Integrity and Faithlessness again.


…Didn’t go well, guys.  Didn’t go well.

I was holding out hope -- believing that once I got the party’s green-haired brawler Anne, I’d suddenly be more interested in playing the game.  I wasn’t.  Chalk it up to the doldrums of any JRPG’s opening hours, but Anne at the start is not fun to use.  She’s got a basic jab, a basic kick, and one special move to start out with; I wasn’t going in and expecting to unleash combos that wouldn’t be out of place in Guilty Gear, but I found playing as the ridiculously-garbed witch Fiore more fun to use.  And even then, she’s not great.

I don’t know if it was a dedicated selling point or not, but the fifth installment in the Star Ocean franchise lets players take a full party -- a band of seven warriors -- out into battle at one time.  That’s pretty impressive, sure, but the problem is that in order to get to that point, the game sees fit to dump everyone into your lap as fast as possible.  So before you have a good grasp of main characters Fidel and Miki (besides broad-strokes archetypes), you basically turn a corner and have a knight, a black mage, a monk, and an archer jump in with as much fanfare as a song by a broken kazoo.

And then there’s the little girl.

I have to be honest: whatever hopes I had for the game pretty much died when Relia became a central figure.  And she is a central figure, even though I couldn’t remember her name without running a Google search.  Wikipedia calls her “an emotionless and amnesiac girl”, which is hard to argue with.  She drops into the plot alongside some outer space shenanigans, up to and including her display of the quintessential mysterious superpower. 

So what I would’ve hoped would turn into a sick space adventure ended up becoming an extended babysitting job, wherein Fidel and Miki have to watch over her, guard her, reassure her, and come just a few signatures away from legal adoption.  The team even has to take an extended side trip to a magical research facility to try and figure out what Relia is.  Because it’s not like we’ve got anything else important to do, like have a dope-ass space adventure.

They didn’t need to go that far to figure Relia out, though.  I can pretty much suss it out: she’s what TV Tropes would call a mysterious waif (or a mystical waif, alternatively).  Oh, look, here’s a strange girl from out of nowhere, but is incredibly important to the plot!  Oh no, she’s being attacked by the bad men!  Better step in and protect her for the next forty hours of real-world time!  And I think I’ll go ahead and do the smart thing and fall in love with her!  If you’re reading this post, then you probably know the archetype.  And sure, there’s always the chance that SO5 will break tradition (and cliché), but I doubt it.  I seriously doubt it, given how bland everything else is, and how reviews have called the game out for making it seem like Fidel cares a little too much about this little girl he just met.  And it’s hard for me to be optimistic when SO4 preceded this game, and introduced the world to the sheer majesty that is Lymle.

Dope-ass space adventure?  Nah, son.  Nah.

Well, I joke, but SO4 at least had the decency to start with an expedition to find a new home for mankind among the stars, and couldn’t cap its first boss fight without a meeting with a sentient extraterrestrial species (of space elves, granted, but I’ll take it).  SO5’s first three hours are still chained to a basic fantasy planet.  SO4 had Lymle as a party member.  SO5 has Relia as the backbone of the plot -- or maybe it’s all just a clever ploy to drop the player’s guard.  But again, I doubt it.  I don’t trust the ability of the devs to subvert expectations, given that they’re playing the “childhood friend” angle incredibly they’re wont to do.

But hell, I’ll take a childhood friend over a mysterious waif any day of the week.  Honestly, waifs are among one of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to stories, up to and including JRPGs.  Granted some are better than others in that regard, but the fact that they even have to appear at all makes me want to grind my teeth into a fine powder.  Yet they appear regardless, and they keep on appearing.  SO5 is a big culprit, but even my personal golden boy, the Tales series, is primed to pull the trigger with its (admittedly male) waif in Berseria.  Even a golden boy can stumble; the last time they had a waif (Ion in Abyss), he ended up making the game demonstrably worse for me.  Oh, and thousands of people wouldn’t have died, nor would the villain’s plan have ever gotten past the planning phase, but whatever.  We’re just going to overlook that for now.

I feel like the important question worth asking here is “Why do people keep doing it?”  But that’s a tough question to answer or even ask, because it hits a much broader question: “Why do people rely on clichés?  Can’t they just be original instead?”  No, you can’t be 100% original, and it’s pointless to think otherwise; being the first to come up with a new idea would basically involve time travel and/or walloping anybody with a working brain.  But relying on tropes, banking on archetypes, or even being clichéd isn’t a death knell.  You can make use of familiar elements and build upon them to make them your own -- make them simulate originality (and quality) even if they start out as unoriginal.

I get it, though.  Tropes, clichés, and all of that stuff are used because they work.  Setting aside the fact that what bothers sentient afros like me won’t bother 99.9999% of the human population, there have been enough stories across enough mediums to justify the presence of stuff like the mysterious waif.  It’s the means to an end; sometimes you need a pretty young maiden to help jumpstart the plot, or give a story a point to pivot around in terms of stakes or twists.  And besides, isn’t it inherently noble to protect a damsel in dire need of aid?  What better way to establish a hero as a hero than to have him save a girl he just met as many times as it takes?

I can think of 8,512 ways.  But in the interest of time, let’s move on.

Relia in SO5 doesn’t feel like a character to me; she feels more like a prop.  True, all characters are essentially props to help push the story through its narrative gates and communicate ideas.  But in turn, the hallmark of a good story is one that isn’t so transparent about what it’s doing -- or, alternatively, it manages to toss out enough good elements to make you overlook the ancient machinery that crunches and whirs just below the surface.  SO5 willingly and immediately burns away that surface.  Even if it gets better a few hours in, I’m so repulsed by the base-level stuff that I can’t be bothered to go any further.  Not when the main story (and gameplay, to a lesser extent) threaten to put me to sleep.

I’ve been down this path before.  I went down it with Alfina in Grandia III, an elfin priestess who monopolized the plot -- and as such, made sure that 75% of the game’s cutscenes featured her breaking into tears.  I went down it with Yeul in Final Fantasy 13-2, who the game treated like a pitiable victim instead of her true role as a willing accomplice to the villain (and someone who died more times than Kenny McCormick, just ‘cause).  And like I said, I went down it with Ion in Tales of the Abyss, who ends up treated like a pure cinnamon bun to be coddled into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to stay mad at Tales, though, because it’s got scenes like this.

But I can stay mad at those waifs and more, because they completely distort the plot.  Sure, having them around helps give a story structure, and protecting them is a good measure of character.  Even so, it’s a move that comes at a high price.  In the worst case scenario, the waif stops being a character and just becomes a means to an end -- not only someone who exists solely to keep the gears greased, but someone who can tug the hero down to the depths.  Where’s the hero’s agency when he’s only going on his journey because a pretty girl gets involved?  What about his desires and aspirations?  What about his personal struggles?  Are they solely defined in the context of the waif, and a journey that only vaguely belongs to him because of her mere existence?

I guess my core issue is one that’s easy to summarize: why is it that, when faced with a great evil, the hero has to protect a waif instead of fight alongside her?  It’s true that JRPGs blur the line of camaraderie and guardianship by virtue of party makeups and battle systems; Alfina’s a white mage with the potential to sling some strong spells, for example.  On the other hand, that power doesn’t always transfer over outside of battle.  The game may say one thing, but the story will say something else entirely -- that when the chips are down, it’s time for the waif to shrink into the rear lines.  That doesn’t exactly strike me as a bold, proactive character -- but hey, who wants one of those?  Besides half the human population, at a bare-ass minimum?

To be fair -- and clear -- it’s not as if waifs are impossible to do well.  My gold standard is, without a doubt, Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite.  Is she the lynchpin of the plot?  Yes.  Does she have some mysterious yet awesome powers?  Yes.  Does she need to be carted around by the hero?  Yes.  She’s a far cry from a fighter (or gunman, in the case of the main game and in comparison to leading man Booker), but she makes up for that in pretty much every other category possible.

So let’s ask a different set of questions.  Does she have a personality independent of her powers or role?  Yes.  Does she have thoughts, aspirations, and a sense of independence?  Yes.  Does she change as a person over the course of the game?  Yes, and in fact her arc takes her to some pretty bleak places.  And while she’s no front-line fighter, she doesn’t have to be; her support role is indispensable to Booker, to the point where having her toss the occasional coin to our hero is a lot more meaningful than the highest tier of healing spells.

I don’t want to get into a debate about whether or not the waif in its worst form is a strictly-eastern interpretation, because A) even though I just named Elizabeth, I’m sure the west has got some real stinkers too, and B) going into region-specific differences in creative visions right now is like opening a can of worms the size of Montana.  With that in mind, I am going to say the obvious: JRPGs are half-built on the quality of their stories, so you would think that they’d be airtight.   But even if that’s true, there are many, many, many instances where they’re not, and part of that comes from an almost fetishistic adherence to cliché.  If you’re savvy enough, you can get away with using clichés, or walking down well-trodden ground.  When it comes to games, most devs are…well, they aren’t what I’d call savvy.

With Final Fantasy 15 due out in less than two months -- and Persona 5 hitting the States a few months after that -- it’s a safe bet that the JRPG isn’t going anywhere.  For better or worse, the genre is a representation of what games can do if they commit to telling a story; it’s not the only genre to do so, of course, but it is a genre where a truly terrible story can shatter the kneecaps of a game.  What worked in the past won’t work forever, because gamers have seen stuff like the mysterious waif too many times before.  Anything undercooked from here on out is going to get diminishing returns.  The only solution, then, is to level up the game.  Devs need to get better -- and we as connoisseurs of the medium should expect better.  It’s a surefire way to make gaming as a whole better than it’s ever been.

But of course, the best way to make a mysterious waif is to not have one at all.

Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!  Finally, my dope-ass space adventure!  Except all of the action takes place on one planet, but there are still lots of aliens and stuff, so close enough!

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