When rival attorney Franziska von Karma appears for the first time in Ace Attorney: Justice For All, she immediately makes a couple of things clear. One, she’s not messing around, and two, she does not like you. At all.
Franziska’s bratty, mean, whip-happy shtick was probably off-putting to some. But as a kid whose favorite character in Little Women was Amy, I quickly became obsessed with her. Franziska marked the start of my lifelong love affair with a specific type of game character. This elite group of fictional women varies in look and demeanor, but one thing uniting them all is that they don’t like the protagonist very much. Whoever that may be.
It might be hard to understand why that’s appealing. Besides intentionally hostile titles like Pathologic, game realities are usually designed with player satisfaction in mind. They can give us the sort of control we’re hard-pressed to find in the real world — from tweaking every detail of our appearance, to having our pick of eligible, romanceable singles. We as players must choose to enter a game world. Then we must choose again to stay, which means it’s imperative for us to enjoy being there. With that in mind, it seems antithetical for games to feature characters who actively don’t want us around. It’s not like all these characters are outright villains you’re meant to push back against, either. Many wind up as supporting characters and companions.
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Not every game does this sort of thing. Some decide the way to player satisfaction is through appeasement. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, for example, you never have to work hard to make your supporting cast love you. Some characters might seem averse to you at first, but they always come around eventually, with little effort on your part. This isn’t strictly a bad thing; it’s emblematic of how games have the unique ability to make you feel like the hero, with the rest of the world revolving around you. Many people play games to feel that way at different times. But I’ve always found that kind of gratification to be empty. Being liked by everyone, as nice as that would be, just isn’t realistic.
No, I don’t mean “realistic” like that. You can run on walls and harness the power of the gods all you like! But the suspension of disbelief that comes with playing a game has to stop somewhere, and for me, that “somewhere” is at the character level. It’s fun to shoot fire from your hands, but it’s also important to know why you’re roasting enemies or puzzles. Nobody wants to play through a romance that feels inorganic and contrived — no matter how fantastical the setting. By that same logic, why should I want to be universally adored for no real reason?
Let’s look at gaming’s most notorious Woman (or Robot) Who Doesn’t Like You: GLaDOS, the main antagonist of the Portal series. Her passive-aggressive quips and not-even-slightly-veiled distaste for the player have made her one of the most memorable characters in gaming history. During Portal 2, she goes from a calculating villain who hates you to a reluctant sidekick who… well, she still doesn’t care for you. But despite that, she’s an awfully likeable character. Portal wouldn’t be nearly as iconic without GLaDOS’s constant derision — and her eventual, begrudging respect. Her hostility is reflective of the unfriendly environment in which you find yourself. Ultimately, the way your relationship with her develops is the same as your success in overcoming it. GLaDOS makes it so that your triumph doesn’t just feel like a natural story conclusion. It feels earned.
Storytelling in games is unlike any other medium. You, the player, don’t just witness the story. You live it. It’s important for the characters and world around you not to feel inert, like they were just waiting around for you to get there, which is conversely an acute challenge games face. Characters like GLaDOS, Bea from Night in the Woods, Megaera from Hades, or Vivienne from Dragon Age: Inquisition enrich their own stories purely by having goals and personalities that conflict with yours. All of these characters have good reasons not to think highly of you. By establishing that they’ve formed their own opinion of you for their own reasons, there’s a sense that the game’s world exists outside the boundaries of the plot.
It’s important that all the characters mentioned so far have been female. Women in video games are more often relegated to friendly supporting roles that supplement the protagonist’s narrative: your narrators, your assistants, your damsels in distress, etc. (Some get to be villains, but hating the protagonist is sort of a prerequisite for that.) This makes it even more unprecedented when video game women obviously don’t like you, but also don’t occupy the often clear-cut role of antagonist. Their motivations simply exist independent of yours. What might be interpreted as moral complexity in a man can easily become aloofness in a woman. These games send the message that you aren’t entitled to these characters’ favor. You have to work for it. It takes time and effort to make them like or trust you, just as it would with any real person.
In Night in the Woods, the biggest choice you make is which of your two friends you spend the most time with. If you pursue Bea, you learn why she’s so jaded — and how it ties to her resentment of you. You make a lot of mistakes and say a lot of wrong things. But in the end, you apologize and start working towards a resolution. This sort of interaction is uniquely gratifying in a way many relationship arcs aren’t, because it feels like it’s not just the world around you that has changed for the better. You have, too.