The Scythian – Positive Female Characters in Video Games
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The Scythian – Positive Female Characters in Video Games

August 25, 2019


♪ (video game music) ♪ ♪ (theme music) ♪ The hero of the 2011 pixelated
adventure game Sword & Sworcery is a brave adventurer known only as
the Scythian and the game tells the story of her quest to collect the three pieces
of the golden trigon. Now, if a quest to collect pieces of a
magical triangular artifact sounds familiar that’s no accident. Sword & Sworcery’s trigon is a
clear reference to the Triforce of the Legend of Zelda games and Link’s recurring quest
to collect pieces of the triforce is perhaps the most famous heroic quest
in the history of fantasy adventure games. By drawing on familiar
gaming icons and conventions that many of us already associate with
legendary quests and timeless adventures Sword & Sworcery quietly asserts that women can fill the role of the
mythic hero as effectively as men can. ♪ (video game music) ♪ With the aid of a gorgeous
and mesmerizing soundtrack Sword & Sworcery’s retro-inspired visuals
paint a pleasantly abstract landscape players can navigate through the
simple act of tapping or clicking. And the game tells a traditional
yet emotionally resonant story proving that you don’t need
technically impressive graphics to create a world worth exploring
and a tale worth telling. In fact, the level of detail is so low
on our pixelated protagonist and our tendency to assume that
heroes are male by default is so widely reinforced, that
some players have made the mistake of assuming the Scythian is male,
at least initially. Thankfully, the game doesn’t resort
to clear gendered signifiers like a pink outfit or
a pretty bow in her hair nor does it present her gender
as some kind of surprise twist like we see in the original Metroid. In both visual design and writing Sword & Sworcery is subtle about
asserting the Scythian’s gender though once you acquire the Megatome
at the end of the game’s first episode you’re presented with the
thoughts of other characters who refer to the Scythian
using female pronouns. It’s not just in the visual sense
that the Scythian lacks clear definition. We know very little about her history and nothing about why she has undertaken
the quest to defeat an ancient evil. While games often give us images of heroes
who are fated to defeat evil forces it’s rare for these heroes of myth to be women. Like many video game heroes the Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist a figure defined primarily by her actions which makes her a blank slate for
all players to project themselves onto. But while we don’t actually hear
her speak to other characters a bit of the Scythian’s personality
does come through as her thoughts serve as a
kind of narration for the story. Her quest is referred to as a
“woeful errand” from very early on an important bit of foreshadowing that communicates that her task
is not a happy one but the grim nature of her errand doesn’t
overshadow the Scythian’s spirit or the tone of the game itself. The character’s quirky,
often humorous thoughts along with the sense of
wonder in the world make this journey magical, delightful
and melancholy all at once. (water splashing) Sword & Sworcery is broken up
into a series of short sessions most of which focus on the Scythian
acquiring pieces of the Trigon. (weapons clashing) There are some simple
timing-based combat encounters but the majority of time
is spent exploring the world and solving simple puzzles that
require players to pay attention to environmental details like trees, birds
and reflections in the surface of a pond. The game is primarily concerned
not with combat and killing but with the natural beauty of the world
the Scythian is trying to protect. Using the mysterious power
of the Song of Sworcery, players sometimes manipulate the
environment in some really surprising ways creating the feeling that
this is a magical world where just about anything can happen. Ok, at this point,
if you haven’t finished the game yet, you should go do that right now… even if getting to the end involves a
whole real-time moon cycle mechanic that might take you
a couple of months to complete… unless of course you reset
the clock on your gaming device… or if you are able to find
the special moon grotto location— ♪ (mysterious music) ♪ spoiler alert — we’re about to talk
about how the story ends. So, you’ve been warned. Most video game heroes become
more powerful as their quest progresses. This is one way in which Sword & Sworcery
subverts expected gaming tropes. There’s nothing in it for the Scythian. She doesn’t gain more health or
better gear over the course of the game. In fact, the quest takes a toll on her; she starts the game with
five units of health but loses one each time
she wins a boss fight decreasing her overall maximum health
as her adventure progresses. (coughing and choking sound effect) This game is not about leveling up
or becoming more powerful. And Sword & Sworcery
ends with the Scythian doing something Link never has. (quiet rumbling sound) To rid the world of an ancient evil,
the brave hero sacrifices herself. (loud rumbling sound) Unlike the deaths of so many
female characters in games which serve the purpose of fueling
the development of male characters the Scythian’s death is tragic because
her life had intrinsic value. We projected ourselves onto her
and experienced the world through her. ♪ (upbeat music) ♪ In the game’s final moments we see the people of the region
pay their respects to the Scythian and we mourn her death along with them. She didn’t just exist in
relation to another character— she wasn’t just somebody’s
wife or sister or daughter– but rather, she existed
as an individual, and as a hero. The game’s ending suggests that the Scythian will not
be forgotten by the other characters and the visuals and music work together
to elicit a complex assortment of emotions a sense of celebration
of the Scythian’s courage and a sense of grief at her death. ♪ (upbeat music) ♪ While the necessity of
the Scythian’s sacrifice is worked into Sword & Sworcery’s
story from the beginning and lends this particular game an emotional
weight its quest might otherwise lack we certainly don’t want all
female heroes to be tragic ones. But we do need more women-centric
stories of all kinds. When archetypal fantasy heroes in games
are overwhelmingly portrayed as men it reinforces the idea that men’s
experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are gendered that women should be able to
empathize with male characters but that men needn’t be able
to identify with women’s stories. Sword & Sworcery gives us
a female protagonist and encourages us to see her
as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman. ♪ (end theme music) ♪

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