Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tales of the Abyss's Ion: The Damsel in Distress Who's a Boy

Remember that rant on Wild Arms 3's Virginia I did? About how she perfectly fulfills a male character's role, without once sacrificing even a hint of her identity as a woman? Today's rant is like that, only for a male character and a female's role.

Ah, the Damsel in Distress. One of the oldest and most traditional plot tools for story-telling, the Damsel in Distress is a classic way to create the excitement of a dangerous situation, express the heroism and manly male manliness of the hero as he mannishly saves the damsel in a masculine manner, and, perhaps most importantly, reinforce the notion that anyone with a vagina is weak, helpless, and probably stupid. It's a writing device as common in RPGs as it is in anything else, although there is a small variation with RPGs: normally, the plight a damsel becomes involved in may or may not be of the villain's doing (sure, she COULD be kidnapped, but there's a good chance she just stupidly tripped and fell into a damn hole or something, too), but with RPGs, women who need to be saved from something are at least 80% of the time kidnapped by the villain, or otherwise at said villain's mercy. It's practically video game tradition.

You don't really see any real role-reversal in this situation, either. While there ARE a few times when a male character is in a bind and needs saving, these events are a one-time thing for the guys--and just how often do you see major male characters get captured away from the party, and NOT initiate and at least halfway, if not just totally, complete a successful escape attempt? On the rare occasions when they don't just get out all on their own, they're either saved so far into the escape attempt that the rescue's nearly superfluous anyway (like Chrono Trigger--yeah, I know you CAN have Crono saved at the last minute by Lucca, but you can also have him escape all by himself, and most players' actions are going to trigger the latter), or the folks saving the male character are escaping the same prison at the time anyway, making it just a part of the joint escape rather than an honest rescue.

Ion of Tales of the Abyss, however, is a notable exception to this rule. Ion, leader of TotA's world's major (actually, one and only) religion, is a boy. He is young-ish, like 14 years old, and even for a kid, he ain't exactly manly, but he definitely is a male.

Ion finds himself in a bind a lot. A LOT. Really, it seems like every time you turn around, Ion's gone and gotten himself caught by an enemy general. If he's not being held captive, you're dragging him along with your party, trying to keep an eye on him so that the next random person he says "Hi" to doesn't kidnap him. He's seriously right up there with Final Fantasy 8's Rinoa and Tales of Legendia's Shirley for how often he needs rescue and asylum--he might even be in the same league as Shana from Legend of Dragoon.

Still, there's also a certain set of personality traits that Damsels in Distress almost always seem to have. Just getting caught a couple times doesn't necessarily make gamers see you as a DiD. Take Knights of the Old Republic 1, for instance--there's a couple instances in that game where Bastila's held against her will by enemies and needs to be saved, but I've yet to meet a KotOR player who'd call her a Damsel in Distress. The distinction comes from the fact that Bastila is a short-tempered, demanding, strong-willed person who also kicks ass as a lightsaber-wielding Jedi Knight. She also insists after you save her that she had the situation well in hand and that you nearly messed everything up, although how true her claim is is kind of left open to debate. But ultimately, it doesn't matter how many times circumstances might dictate she need rescuing--Bastila's personality and combat abilities preclude any possibility of calling her a Damsel in Distress.

Ion, however, fits the bill perfectly on this account, too. He's kind, innocent, and eternally optimistic, always seeing the good in people even when others cannot. He's never lacking for an encouraging remark, always determined to emotionally help all around him, and as soft and sweet as a syrup-drenched marshmallow. And while this detail wouldn't necessarily disqualify him for DiD status were it not true, it doesn't hurt that his voice is about as far from being masculine as you can get without actually becoming Shirley Temple.

So he's got the personality, and there seems to be a neon sign taped to his back that says "KIDNAP ME." That IS typically enough for a character to be seen as a Damsel in Distress, but those characters actually are girls. We need one last DiD staple for Ion to fit into: plot role.

DiDs' roles in a game's plot usually fall under 2 categories: political importance and mystical anime holy powers. Basically, there has to be SOME reason for the hero and company to go to all this trouble for the damsel, because even heroes' good will only goes so far. Political importance is probably the oldest role for a damsel (how many game plots, even RPG plots, have boiled down to "Go save the Princess?" Princess Zelda from the Legend of Zelda Series and Princess Peach from Mario games are pretty much the ultimate Damsels in Distress for all gaming history), but a recent favorite with the RPG genre is the mystical anime divine nonsense stuff--basically, the hero HAS to cart around this female dead weight because she's the only person in the world who can commune with the gods or realign the sparkly magical spirit energies or whatever.

So how does Ion fit in here? Pretty well, as he's both. Half the time, the Tales of the Abyss heroes are babysitting the little guy because he happens to be the most important religious figure on the planet. The other half, it's because he's the only one who can unlock the mystical seals on magical lift pillars of the forgotten age yadda yadda yadda. And hey, as if he wasn't already 10 for 10 on the Damsel in Distress Checklist, using his powers drains his energy and makes him faint.

Ion's a Damsel in Distress, no matter how you look at it. Not only that, but he's essentially the PERFECT Damsel in Distress--he really does pretty much fit every criteria for the role that I, or likely anyone else, can think of. So how does it work out? Very well. There's really no point in the game where this situation feels unnatural or off at all, and Ion even manages to be one of the very few Damsels in Distress that's actually an appealing character--even if he's saccharine, he's still very likable, which is something most DiDs don't manage (Grandia 3's Alfina, Wild Arms 4's Yulie), and his personality fits into the dynamic of the party very well, rather than superfluously intruding on it like some DiDs do (ToL's Shirley, Lunar 2's Lucia) or destroying it altogether (TLoD's Shana, FF8's Rinoa). Ion perfectly fulfills the role of Damsel in Distress, while remaining unquestionably a guy--a shy, young, nice little guy, but a guy--AND far surpassing nearly every other RPG character with the same role by simply being a good fit with the group and a LIKABLE human being. Like Wild Arms 3's Virginia, a girl playing a male hero's role to complete perfection, Ion being the ideal example of the role he plays is an example of gender equality in writing--that it should be the character, not the gender, that determines their role in a game. All it takes is good writing.


  1. Ion is the best character, even more than Luke depending on my mood. One of only a few in the world who makes sense on a regular basis. He's the only one to treat Luke like a human being just for being a human being, and ultimately one of the major catalysts behind Luke's evolution. His only emotional responses are sadness and disappointment, often with himself. Even before the REPLICAAAAAAA deal, Ion makes a point of relating to Luke's frustration brought on by a forcibly sheltered life, unable to make real changes. Even when he's betrayed and dies, his only thought is that he can finally be helpful to people.

    His gender and even his role in the story is superfluous. He's simply a likable character, and everything else just kind of falls in line behind that.

  2. This is an interesting read. I never thought I'd see somebody saw a there was a well-written use of the damsel in distress character.