By Andrew Stokely
With the recent uprising of feminist voices in the gaming community, female characters in video games, from Samus to Chun Li to Bayonetta, have been receiving a great deal of attention and criticism as of late. Critics in general praise such characters for their skills, iconic status, and even sex appeal, while many feminists detract from such characters, sometimes citing the exact same points. While I personally do not consider myself a feminist, I generally like my pixilated ladies to have much more interesting personalities than the cliche’d-to-hell damsel in distress archetype. (That’s right, I’m looking at you, Princess Peach.) So, I thought I would use my limited writing skills to create an ongoing series about my personal favorite female characters in gaming. I figured that a logical place to start would be with one of my all-time favorite characters from one of my all-time favorite games, Final Fantasy VI’s Celes Chere.
The Final Fantasy series certainly has its fair sure of memorable women in its protagonist roster. Tifa Lockhart comes to mind, as does Garnet Alexandros, Rinoa Heartilly, Rydia, the list goes on. However, the series’s sixth installment brought us some of the most complex, likable, memorable, and downright human characters the franchise has ever seen, including a couple of great leading ladies. While the subject of Terra Branford is certainly one to return to at a later time (as are other characters such as Locke, Relm, Bannon, Cyan, dear Lord this game is amazing) I think a great place to start of this series is with my personal favorite character of the entire game, perhaps even the entire franchise, Celes.
We first meet Celes as Locke, who finds her chained to a wall in a secret underground passage. It may seem like the hated helpless girly-girl rescued by a powerful male warrior trope is about to rear its ugly head yet again, but future events reveal Celes to bee much deeper and much more interesting than that, starting with the moment you first rescue her. She is visibly depressed, a feeling which stems not on the account of her savior, but because of disappointment in herself. But perhaps I am getting a bit ahead of myself. You come to find out that she was a general in the Empire’s army (as is clearly visible in earlier scenes) and that was imprisoned for rebelling against them. Thus, Imperial soldiers were left to strike down their superior, inevitably plotting the worst against her for even daring to think about going against Emperor Ghestal.
Of course, we make a headlong dash for the exit, only to find our escape path is blocked by a powerful enemy. New territory for an RPG, right? A battle ensues and we discover Celes’s secrete ability to use the Runic Blade, which can absorb magic attacks from opponents and fire them right back. After all the Gil and EXP is collected from the robot’s defeat, the story continues ts course, one which, I must say, is so epic that I dare not spoil any major details here if you haven’t played it. (Why haven’t you played it? No excuses. You’re what’s wrong with America!) I will, however, tell you a little more about why Celes is such an amazing and noteworthy piece of gaming history.
It is soon reveled that Celes isn’t just a high-ranking captain in the Imperial forces, but rather she was genetically engineered to process magical power. Combined with her incredible fighting prowess, she was a force to be reckoned with, and this a major threat to the empire once she gave up her arms. She was thus subdued and imprisoned by her subordinates, leaving her weak and embarrassed by the very fact that she let her guard down. As if that wasn’t bad enough, in comes some asshole in a bandana to cut her down and save her. This is an incredibly important moment in Celes’s characterization, not just to her as woman, but, more importantly, as a person.
When legendary guitar shredder Dave Mustaine fell asleep on his hand in the mid-2000s, he nearly lost complete control of it, and, therefore his guitar playing ability. He had to learn everything, literally everything, at least from a muscle-memory standpoint from square one. Imagine you were in his shoes for a moment. Now imagine that you were all alone in this situation with no family or friends to help or support you. Now imagine than a guy with short hair and glasses has to guide your hand over the fretboard and show you how to play a C-Major chord. That’s what this rescue was like to her. It wasn’t just a moment of weakness for her, it was a personal insult, like a twelve-year-old having to show Chuck Norris how to throw a punch. Here she is, one of the best fighters in the whole world, and this dweeb comes out of nowhere and thinks he has the goddamned right to rescue her and treat her like a prize to be won, and all because of her own personal failings.
This is a very humanizing moment for Celes, and it is but the first of many. There are more events that follow, of course ranging from a hinted romantic relationship with Locke to her rising up and saving the rest of the party to even an attempted suicide in the last third of the game. Okay, the original Englsih translation doesn’t put it that way, but we know what’s going on and, more importantly, why. (Lord almighty, I almost spoiled the most incredible part of the game there. Don’t let me do that again.) I refuse to go into much more detail here, but I will in closing mention one of the most powerful moments from the entire game, the Opera scene.
When a famed opera starlett is ill can cannot perform, Celes (reluctantly) decides to take on her role in the upcoming production in that hopes that the gambling lecherous bastard of man named Setzer will take her and the rest of the crew aboard the world’s one and only airship. Any ordinary game would just give you the cliff notes of the scene, but FFVI goes the extra mile by including a boss battle as well as one of composer Nobuo Uematsu’s single greatest musical works. Any one with half a soul to feed the damned was touched a little bit by this piece, its sweeping beauty, the gorgeous pixel art, and damn it 16-bit works of fiction are making me tear up again just thinking about it. And what’s doing that is more than the music and the art, but a very subtle yet powerful subtext regarding what this means to Celes at this given point in time.
You see, Celes is for all intents an purposes, a super-soldier. And not just a Captain America save the day fight the bad guy super-soldier, but she was designed to be a veritable death machine. She was meant to pilot powerful Makitek armor. She was meant to use her brute strength and magical aptitude to take down anyone who opposed her. She was meant to crush any and all resistance to a tyrannical, power-hungry regime, and here she is taking part in what many consider to be the highest form of art and music imaginable and singing well enough to impress the regular theater-goers as well as bringing a tear to my eye because I am a big fat loser who gets emotionally invested in twenty-plus-year-old-video-games. This is the moment where she becomes more than just a fighter and a magic wielder, but a human being with creative talent and ability that she wouldn’t have even conceived she might possess. Female characters haven’t always gotten the treatment they deserve in games (or in many forms of media, for that matter.) The modern movement to increase the overall appeal of girls in games, I think, has some validity to it. However, I think it’s also important that the movement looks back on older characters that did portray women differently (because there are quite a few more than you might expect) and acknowledge what those games did right instead of just hating on modern games for showing a bit too much boobage. (Looking back on these games for quality’s sake might help too.)