New faces, old friends - from Nier to Saints Row the Third
Posted by Alex at 14:43 on 26 Mar 2012
Do you fall in love easily? In video games, I mean, although there's probably a significant bleed in from real life when it comes to emotional matters. I have brief flashes of affection fairly often - a line of dialogue, a view, a jump, a song - something flaring up inside like a little gasp then quickly subsiding again. The more persistent, more deeply regarded memories usually crop up when several elements are working together - you know, sound and place and person together in one moment - and the games I love the most tend to have the fewest obvious joins between their various pieces.
When it comes to individual characters though it seems pretty tricky to stir up something resembling affection in the rusty echo chambers of my heart. Perhaps because, even though they're surrounded by all the game's other elements, they have to stand alone as rounded and concrete to really stick in the memory. There's a large spectrum of likes - my word, so many dudes I would like to hang out with - but only a few real loves. All of them fairly recent infatuations I must say, so that's a testament to something or other. The people that spring to mind unbidden, the names always on the tip of my tongue before my brain even gets involved, are Garrus from Mass Effect, Aigis from Persona 3. And Kainé from Nier. Wait, not people, I meant ... bird-alien, robot and half demon. The dream team. Although I always thought the Turians in Mass Effect were more like insects than birds until I saw an interview or something about the series. But anyway. Old Friends
Kainé is a bit of an outlier even here seeing as we spent a pretty brief period together compared to my time with everyone else. Nier isn't exactly short, but against the 70 hours I put into Persona 3 and the trilogy-spanning presence of Mr. Vakarian, it's a flash in the pan, a weekend romance. But with the others it was also a pretty slow burn that crawled along the fuse of friendship to the love bomb. With Kainé ... more like stepping on a landmine. Or maybe a landmine stepping on you. And the landmine is also a nuke. Here, wait a minute. This can probably explain better than I ever could with my awful words. Here's Kainé - say hello:
How's that for an introduction? One of the best I would say - shoved right in your unexpectant face before the start screen even appears. And if you watch that and don't fall into the two categories of either having already played the game or really wanting to play the game right now, I'm not sure what purpose you could possibly serve in the universe's grand plan to be as awesome as possible. Maybe for contrast? Okay you can stay.
You know, it's actually really difficult to try and explain why you like someone so much. I've tried and probably failed before, and after so much work it usually comes down to a shrug and a 'just because'. Kainé is brash and loud and I enjoy that about her, and she's also sad and a bit messed up and I connect with that too. But her real personality sits somewhere between all the descriptors I could throw about, is framed by them - and it's that heart, perhaps that there's a heart to sense at all from a fictional character, that I really love.
Kainé herself is also this perfect little storm of other Issues. You know that terrible argument that some people make, that it's totally fine that some video game women are dressed by way of getting tangled up in raggedy string of bunting? Because they're strong personalities! It doesn't matter what they're wearing! Well ... not to unpack that entirely here, a notion seemingly founded in the flawed idea that sexualisation only occurs in the portrayal of the submissive ... but, but, to reluctantly acquiesce to the concept, Kainé is possibly the only character in existence for whom that argument is actually a solid one.
And, then, also a character that those making the argument are unlikely to want to embrace. Not to make assumptions about the type of person typically found defending the general state of undress of various game women, but I wouldn't think it's too far of a stretch to say that they might not be too keen on Kainé as intersex. That's what I find kinda delightful about the whole situation - validating an opinion with an example that those searching for validation may not wish to accept.
I guess this in turn raises an issue around fetishisation, but I'm not going to get into that here. I'm probably better equipped to focus inwards anyway. Obviously Kainé is not very dressed in not very much at all. But - and here's the thin line the marks some distinction - it always seemed like she dressed herself, wasn't dressed up by someone else. As in, her outfit, her appearance and everything it entails, all of it seems to stem from her as a character, isn't pressed onto her as a creation. Her outfit is as much a façade as parts of her attitude, albeit one of a slightly different shade. And slightly more complex. So ... I suppose it does matter what she's wearing.
Not just a front, a deflection, but a dare. A challenge she expects everyone to fail because of who she is, physically. Because of what she is, demonically. Because of how she is, psychologically. It is self-defeating, out of her own depression, proving at once both why other people are awful and why she doesn't deserve them. The attitude works together with that, or maybe against it, providing a more immediate buffer, turning people away before they get chance to turn away for real. A simpler excuse for her loneliness.
It's a pretty big pile of problems all linked up into each other, but interesting to try and unpick. Maybe I've got it all wrong. I'd probably think this was all a bit of a stretch if I was reading this instead of writing it ... looking a bit too close, delving too deep. You know. But it works, and fits, and makes sense in context with one the game's main themes in the strained, slightly twisted interactions between opposites, or two halves of the same situation. The old world ruins and the new settlements, the humans and the shades, the protagonist and antagonist, the seaside port and the desert town, the twins at home. Kainé a bundle of dualities unto herself.
This one issue involves a nice little arc that may go unnoticed with Grimoire Weiss, your magical, floating, talking book companion. Yes you get a magical, floating, talking book companion. Want to play yet? He sounds a bit like Alan Rickman and is thoroughly superior and sarcastic and droll about everything. How about now? Inevitably he starts out giving Kainé a hard time about her appearance - as she intends, keeping the barbs where she can expect them, control them - and though this persists through the game, the tone changes ever so slightly. After everything he's seen of her, everything they've been through together, the blows could strike at something more vulnerable if he meant real harm ... but he stays with her appearance and demeanour. What started as disapproval of her most obvious attributes becomes friendly ribbing in the same area, where they both know it does no harm. That's when you realise they've become close, I suppose - another set of opposites playing off each other.
What really elevates Kainé from like to love though is Laura Bailey's voice acting. I guess on paper Kainé is not a ground-breaking character - troubled past / angry present, hard shell / tender heart - but her voice just adds so much. Adds everything.
Usually I can take or leave voicework in general ... I'm certainly not someone who has ever prayed for a fully voiced Zelda game or something like a lot of people seem to. Maybe that's just how I grew up, with the majority of my stories with silent print in books or old RPGs, learning how to instantly absorb rather than read the text boxes on screen. I've always felt content with just words and my own imagination, perfectly at home amongst them - voice acting just a little bonus, or potentially even a hindrance until fairly recently. But there is no denying how amazing it can be when done right.
Here, it's not just Kainé's lines recited, to save you from reading ... the delivery, the tone, all of it is as intrinsic to her personality as the writing of dialogue in the small or the story in the large. Possibly moreso than any of the visuals - she speaks over a black screen in that introductory scene, and that is all that is needed. A personality, full formed, leaping out from the void.
I think I mentioned in my Nier review that at times during play the main thing keeping me going was the promise of another cutscene - another snatch of dialogue, another little back and forth between Kainé and Weiss. The gameplay can drag a bit at times so it helped to have something alluring to draw me on. Kainé is kept perhaps more unexplored in terms of character than the rest of the cast, remained the strong enigma - something there to keep me moving forward, through the game four times, chasing more information, chasing resolution, chasing after someone I'd fallen for. Until the bitter end.
Then along came Saints Row the Third. I know, I know ... just bear with me a second, it'll all make sense soon I promise. Hearing that Bailey provided one of the voices you can pick for your character set me in a slightly odd mood - half happy, half cautious. I was keen to make that selection, knowing for sure she'd do an excellent job with the part, but also wary that - as her voice is tied so closely with Kainé in my mind - it might affect my memories. Colour them - ruin them, perhaps.
I'm a little surprised really that this situation hasn't sprung up before. There are a bunch of voice actors whose tones sing familiar across many games, but never before has the effect of one on the other caused consideration in my head. I suppose Nolan North would be the obvious example to pick on - even though I (sorry) have never (sorry) played (don't hit me) any of the Uncharted or Assassin's Creed 2++ games, so have him tied more strongly to characters like Vashyron from Resonance of Fate and Steven Heck from Alpha Protocol in my head. But for me - not to question his abilities in the slightest - while his voice entirely suits or even enhances the roles in question, the situation has never arisen where speech and personality have become so entirely conjoined as with Laura Bailey and Kainé.
I'm not sure who could trigger a similar reaction. Maybe if I played another game involving Tara Platt - Mitsuru in Persona 3 - I wouldn't be able to untangle the new character from the distinctive old. Even though I see now she was also provided a voice in Saints Row the Third, she's doing an accent so I don't think it would have been the same. Maybe Jennifer Hale's next big role after Mass Effect will stir up some weird reactions in my head. Although if she wants to come back for a P.N.03 sequel I'd be pretty delighted for Commander Shepard to show Miranda how game butts are really done. New faces
Did I pick her voice? Well ... well, yes, of course I did. And somehow these two games fit together perfectly. The weird fabric of game genre and design and setting and tone and purpose all buckled and folded inwards on itself. A little hole broken through, connecting up two seemingly disparate experiences. A little light shining between one place and the other with one voice and one delusion of my own. A wormhole of delight ... or, no, wait, I think that's something else entirely.
Sadly Saints Row the Third's customisation options aren't as broad as you may like and I couldn't find a suitable Kainé haircut to go with ... so I kept the colour and threw the rest to the wind.
But the two games suit each other so well, along one axis at least. Kainé and the Saints protagonist aren't exactly the same character, but the differences are actually what really struck at me the strongest. Both are cool but rude, loud-mouthed and unapologetically violent - but where Kainé held a deep sorrow, something unavoidably tragic inside of her ... the Saints' new boss has found some peace, made some friends, standing well-settled in the new world city. Here:
Honestly, the first time I heard that I got a little bit ... flustered. As you might say. Sir had a slight episode. Sir needed to step away from the party for a moment for a breath of fresh air. Here was my old friend, genuinely content at last. An unexpected resolution.
I was perfectly happy with Nier's resolution. Well - you know - not happy in the slightest actually. Fucking miserable, like a cat in a lake. Like a whale up a tree, a sloth in a quarry. Out of place, out of sorts, scrabbling around for something familiar to grab onto. But the ending is good - the final ending I mean. It's a rounded conclusion however sad, a fine and fitting ending to a fine and fit game. And yet, as with many good things, there remained something persisting ... less a question than a desire. Just a voice wondering inside my head whether everything would be okay after the credits had rolled.
I was wary of an odd reunion - like meeting an old friend after too many years gone by, and everything's too different, and they've gone all weird and horrible and you wonder whether they were always this bad, really. The memories of all those good times you had together, tainted. What I got, really, was like seeing an old love at a distance. Where things had ended between you sadly but without resentment. You've both moved on, you've both changed - the whole situation has changed - but just to see them again, and see them happy, seems to answer a hope that you never knew was hanging unanswered in your head.
Saints Row the Third is unapologetically stupid, outrageous and fun - however you might approach it. But for me it became more than that. It became a gleeful celebration for my friend - for her personality persisting, for her life still living through the bad times to the good. To stir up my own hope that, as bad as things might get, in other time or in another place ... if you're strong enough ... things are going to be okay.