December 13, 2009

The Burden of Being – Joanna Dark

Filed under: Editorial Rants — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Jamie Love @ 11:11 am

Perfect Dark

Originally Published via 4ColorRebellion – August 31, 2009

Joanna Dark was born into a harsh and stark world, one of unbridled technological advancements, largely governed by the corrupted greed of corporate agendas. In short, Perfect Dark brought all the many splendid things which help make the science-fiction genre slick and delicious while pushing hard into the reaches of a new slipstream frontier.

Beyond the reality of the game, Joanna also faced the harsh expectations of a skeptical audience, which questioned her ability to fill the shoes of the spy who not only preceded her, but also made the FPS genre successful on a gaming console.

Yet the success she would achieve wouldn’t come from cheap imitations, but rather from the ambition to surpass previous benchmarks, pushing the genre further to obtain true legitimacy for her would-be franchise.

Perfect Dark

“Joanna took elements from the best that had come before her, and was gifted the name that connected all of those characters to the memory, legend, and legacy of Jeanne d’Arc.”

Joanna stood gracefully upon a platform of perfected gameplay formula, wrapped within an imperfect game experience. But players moved her through this world, finding structure on their own terms throughout the game’s various levels. And despite the chaos of its design, the addictive qualities shined through – aided by a world ideal for the environments of that gameplay, filled with gadgets, weapons, and tactics that made it feel new all over again.

For her part, Joanna strutted with a style borrowing from a myriad of sources. From the unsettling assassin of Le Femme Nakita to the conservatism of The X-Files Dana Scully, with casual glimpses of Ghost in the Shell‘s Motoko Kusanagi and Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft, Joanna took elements from the best that had come before her, and was gifted the name that connected all of those characters to the memory, legend, and legacy of Jeanne d’Arc.

She was also caught up in an awkward situation, brought on by Rare’s insatiable habit to warp solid foundations with twists and turns. Perfect Dark dropped Joanna into the middle of a civil war between two alien races, and befriended her with a large headed alien named Elvis who trudged oddly placed bouts of humor through her M-Rated adventure.

Perfect Dark

In hindsight it’s been said that Joanna’s English accented quips were little more than a distraction from the gameplay, and that the barely cohesive narrative and character development makes any serious discussion of her character a fool’s errand.

But Joanna had every reason to be nervous and guarded given the pressure to succeed. She was not the silent heroine seen in Metroid‘s Samus Aran, burdened with making a statement of intent given the circumstances of her birth. But beyond the marketing, she presented more than just an opportunity to be crowned the medium’s leading femme fatale. Like Samus, Joanna could be characterized through her work, her personality linked intrinsically to the mission, building with the player as the story unfolded, relying then only on a suitable narrative and style of play to achieve the ideal result.

Just as Samus found constant shelter and made a home within her ship, Joanna shared another thread of commonality with the bounty hunter by making a home at the Carrington Institute, which served as a brilliant hub world for players to familiarize themselves with both the world and the woman. It seemed only natural that further entries in the series would utilize these elements and develop a character worthy of a legacy franchise.

The only question was how long gamers would have to wait for that next entry to arrive, which turned out to be an incredibly long time.

Perfect Dark

Joanna was caught up within a very awkward and tumultuous situation soon after her initial success. Like a college graduate she became lost in time, slipping and tripping around concept stages, console exclusivity, and release dates as if she truly were backpacking across a Europe made up of the wide array of options available, seemingly unable to ever settle down or gain any sense of self that might get her life on track.

It seemed as if Rare was uncertain as to just how best to handle her. Development was said to start only to halt and then finally stall, only to suddenly flare up once more, leaking snippets of hope out to the public at various events.

During all of this time Joanna took on more faces that any person could hope to manage, shifting from the mature and confident agent gamers had known to a pixie with a pistol at one stage.

At an art exhibition titled “Play: The Art of Xbox 360”, artist Wil Overton offered the following insights into the process,

“Should we do it cel-shaded? Hyper-realistic? Cartoony? Manga? We gave them all a go!

Sometimes I’d be really lucky, and the first thing I did would be like ‘Yeah, ok. That’s cool. Do that.’ But with something like Joanna, everybody had their own idea. Everybody wanted their own input. ‘She’s important! She’s gonna be on the box! She’s gonna be on the posters! She’s gonna be on everything!’ I may have done 60 Joannas. She took a lot of time.

Right at the beginning, we didn’t really want to do a super-realistic game. We wanted to give it that ‘Rare Spin’ if you like. A bit more colourful, slightly leaning towards the more stylized cartoony way of doing things. We switched her about and did her a bit more Japanese-y, then we pulled back and made her a bit more Western. In the end, she became a sort of mish-mash of all those styles.”

Schisms and indecision would give way to Microsoft’s investment however, having acquired Rare to the tune of nearly $400 million dollars and securing the franchise along with others for the Xbox made a return on that investment a priority. Seemingly true to form this was followed by more delay, and ultimately the decision to use Joanna as the launch jewel of the 360.

Perfect Dark

Perfect Dark Zero offered a dramatically different Joanna. A prequel story about her youth made the point largely mute in theory, and yet it was obvious that the priority of her character had changed drastically.

The title was in no way a disappointment in the immediate sense, offering a highly functional and straight-forward experience, which in the longer term emerges as part of the problem chipping away at the longevity. It simply wasn’t the game suited to the first lady of the FPS genre, and far from the chaotic and ambitious origin that made gamers crave a return.

Perhaps the greatest sting was that the series had offered gamers a violent and hostile world through female eyes, only to return with a story of trauma and loss that was handled with immense carelessness, transforming the entirety of the story into a triviality. Any deeper context of parental relationships between Joanna, her father, and Carrington were incomprehensibly allowed to fall away.

“Just as Joanna’s world and identity is a direct convergence of influences preceding its creation, so too can Joanna take the best examples that preceded her and embody a greater sense of them for the medium.”

The release leaves the mark of her awkward youth on public record, though we remain hopeful and imaginative to the possibility of our matured Miss Dark returning to us. This isn’t a wish for merely another entry to the crowded genre, but optimism that she is still the ideal woman for the job of taking the genre further.

The obligation of merging all those original influences and working toward the presentation of a fully realized and fulfilling female protagonist remains on the minds of players, who would make that character their own and develop her identity further still beyond the game.

Just as Joanna’s world and identity is a direct convergence of influences preceding its creation, so too can Joanna take the best examples that preceded her and embody a greater sense of them for the medium. The fact that she would move us all forward with pistols just makes it that much easier to get the job done.

Perfect Dark

This isn’t a lofty dream about a game seeking to placate a fanbase, but simply a door left open for a series that could meet the challenge of its origins to become the ultimate “could be” game.

Perfect Dark could return to offer technological aspirations like the exploration of light and dark balance elements originally planned for the N64, perhaps even presenting branching storylines and multiple endings that surpass the limiting illusions of choice offered by current releases.

As for Joanna herself, none of these ideas are meant to conclude that a character becomes more meaningful and complex by simply turning darker and angst-ridden. Rather, that by enhancing the commitment to creating a deep and complex world of morality, of light and dark, these bold aspirations would not only further the gameplay of a genre, but provide the space in which Joanna’s character could finally develop more fully.

It’s a poetic and promising idea.

But still we wait.

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