I’m working on a post about Crisis Core, but I realized I should really get at least somewhat near the end before I start making judgment calls, especially about the story. In the meantime, I’ll be talking about Quest for Glory‘s feminist and not-so-feminist ideas.
Quest for Glory is my favorite game series of all time. For the uninitiated, QFG is a series of classic Sierra adventure games (similar to the more well-known series King’s Quest, Space Quest, etc.), with the twist that it incorporates role-playing elements such as class selection, statistics, and combat, as well as the ability to export your character at the end of each game in the 5-game series to be used in the sequel (up until the last, of course). QFG is one of few game series to truly deliver a sense of adventure and heroism for me. In addition, it has the best magic system of any game, ever, by using magic not only by hurling fireballs in combat but to solve problems; this is something I rarely see in fantasy literature, let alone games. And who can forget the charming, pun-filled humor?
But how does this classic series stand up to feminist critique? I’m currently replaying the series yet again in honor of the release of the previously-mentioned Trial By Fire VGA remake, so as I play through the games, I’ll try to answer this question to the best of my ability.
Let’s start at the beginning. This post contains spoilers, by the way.
Throughout the series, you play as the Nameless Hero–a white, blond-haired blue-eyed male (though I think he does somehow dye his hair light brown at some point). The original idea was to offer the player a choice between races (fantasy races; more accurately: species) in addition to class, but the technology was too limited at the time1. In today’s world, choice of race and gender, sometimes even species, are pretty much expected in RPGs. The choice of avatar does, however, fall in line with both the setting progression of the series as well as the intended evocation of other fantasy heroes like Luke Skywalker. It also makes sense in the context of SYWTBAH alone, with its Germanic/European-fairy-tale setting.
Oddly, but also hardly surprisingly, every character in this first game is white, except for Abdulla Doo, a guest at the inn in Spielburg. Race–and Abdulla Doo–will definitely be revisited in posts about Trial By Fire and Wages of War, the second and third games of the series. For now, I’ll just say that Abdulla Doo marks the beginning of a trend of racial stereotypes that the series never really bucks.
Since QFG, as both an adventure game and an RPG, is all about character and story, it’s important to look at the roles and actions of female characters.
- Zara: Magic Shop owner, accomplished wizard
- Amelia Appleberry: aka, The Healer
- Hilde: Centaur farmer’s daughter, produce seller
- Elsa von Spielburg: Baron’s daughter, absent for 99% of the game
- Baba Yaga: Hag, evil witch; antagonist of the game
There is also the enchantress Erana, who never actually appears in this game and is actually said to be dead, but her character is introduced as the creator of the protective aura around Spielburg and the peaceful, magical valley known as Erana’s Peace.
Oddly, yet again unsurprisingly, the majority of characters in the game are male (and all of the nameless brigand enemies–the only human enemies in the game–are male). The occupations of the female characters are overwhelmingly magical, especially if you include Erana. This unfortunately feeds into the same stereotype common in RPGs: women as magic users and men as melee fighters (though the latter is balanced a bit by Erasmus and the ability to choose to play as a magic user). The only exception to this rule appears to be Elsa.
Ah, Elsa von Spielburg. A slight twist on the tired and very un-feminist damsel in distress trope. Elsa, the daughter of the Baron, has been missing for ten years; she was kidnapped by brigands. In the climactic encounter of the game, the hero discovers that the notorious leader of the brigands was actually Elsa under an enchantment by Baba Yaga.
When it comes down to it, Elsa needs to be rescued by the male hero. And yet the storyline isn’t totally offensive because of one important fact: the only thing the enchantment changed was Elsa’s memory, meaning that her leadership and oft-mentioned sword skills are 100% her own doing. (After the enchantment is broken, Elsa mentions wanting to learn to swordfight before she was kidnapped, but the elitist weapon master refused to teach a girl, so she had to learn on her own.) However, we do have to wait until Dragon Fire to find out what happens to Elsa after returning to her (seemingly boring) place as the Baron’s daughter…
Baba Yaga is the primary antagonist of the game. Unfortunately, it’s obvious the game falls into the “beautiful = good, ugly = bad” trap, with our antagonist being an ugly ogress. While it’s clear that she is the willful cause of everything bad that happens in the story, it’s also clear that everything she does is for her own gain first and foremost. In that she is a step above most fantasy antagonists, as a character: she has some motivation, rather than just being evil for the hell of it. The Baron slighted her first, so she put a curse on him. The hero’s first encounter with her allows him to strike a deal; luckily she needs mandrake more than she needs to kill him.
This brings us to the interesting streak of gray that runs throughout the series, from the beginning. One of the three classes the player can choose is the Thief; as a thief, you can, in fact, break into villagers’ houses and steal their belongings, then sell them at the Thieves’ Guild. And yet you still end up a hero at the end of the game. More and more unhonorable and unheroic options are opened up to the player as the series progresses, and is even tracked by the Honor stat introduced in the second game. Other characters further demonstrate that things aren’t black-and-white: the rescue of the baron’s handsome but arrogant son, for example, reveals that the “evil” Kobold likely had a good reason for imprisoning him.
To sum up, So You Want to Be a Hero? is, for the most part, typically unfeminist fantasy fare, though it does show signs of wanting you to think a bit about your actions; we’ll see in future segments how the series matures and grows in complexity, and how well the series does in its portrayals of various cultures, both real and in myth.
1. I read this in an interview with Lori Cole, and I really wish I could find it again. She used centaur as an example of an alternate race, but human races and gender were not mentioned, as far as I remember. Naturally, I would love to see a QFG-style game with robust character selection/creation options. Well, I would love to see more QFG-style games period, but…