Note: I originally published this entry as a guest blog at the web home of author Liz Strange, who published it with some concept art images and screenshots from the initial release of Sword of the Stars: The Pit. Since the original post is now looking a bit ratty and illegible with its image links broken, I decided to re-post it here with a new image.
Many thanks to the fans who still link to the old article on Twitter and such. I hope this one will make a better link in the future.
As a game developer and a story teller, I have to walk every day through the minefield of tropes and clichés that make up the medium and the genres in which I work. I write horror, science fiction and fantasy, and my most popular universe is a space opera setting. If tropes really were mines, I’d be riding a pogo stick through No-Man’s Land in the middle of World War I.
My general strategy as a writer is to deal with all Tropes fearlessly. The past is a playground. My team loves genre fiction and games, but we can only offer respect, never reverence. Sometimes tropes are made to be subverted, or inverted, or outright kicked in the nads. I’ve twisted a great many of them over the years.
Cold emotionless reptile race? Nope! Passionate and expressive reptile race who love chocolate, poetry and jokes. Insect race with spooky hive mind? Nope! Dedicated and thoughtful individuals who value nothing above family ties.
Needless to say I’ve had a lot of fun with the background fiction and the meta-story of the universe as a whole. But due to the restrictions of game mechanics, there were some tropes I never really had the chance to work with. Take, for example, the Damsel in Distress.
Last year, my team and I started working on our first truly nostalgic game. Sword of the Stars: The Pit is an old school adventure. The art style is an homage to the classic 8-bit adventures that we all played as kids. The mechanics of the game are a spin-off from games like Rogue and hearken back to ancient computer dungeon-hacks of yesteryear.
As a player, you identify with a colorful little sprite who dives into a dungeon and spends the game battling monsters, collecting loot, crafting new items, and dying, dying, dying, in a variety of horrible and hilarious ways. Your objective in games like this is to work your way toward the bottom of the Pit toward the always-distant, nearly-impossible-to-reach goal…in this case, you’re searching for a nigh-mystical Cure for a terrible plague which rages on the planet’s surface (a plague which was unleashed by the evil bio-scientists in this very same Pit).
The direct story content of this game is very light. There are three playable characters, two male and one female, and each of them had to have a compelling reason to dive into this nightmare and continue to fight to reach the bottom of this horrible labyrinth. They would be fighting for the Cure, of course—the chance to heal humankind and save the world. But when you reached the end of the game, achieved victory and discovered the Cure, what form should it take?
This was an issue that was debated by the team for quite a while. There were all sorts of possibilities. We all agreed that the Cure would be in a medical stasis pod, frozen in a timeless state. But it seemed a little lame to open the pod and just have a test tube or a beaker pop out—even if it might glow a bit.
I was the one who insisted that we should go old school all the way. We should invoke one of the classic tropes of our industry, a symbol which was present in so many of the games that we were paying homage to, in The Pit: the Cure should be a Damsel in Distress.
And so I created Tamiko Hoshinara.
In many respects, Tamiko is a classic DiD. She has a personal relationship to two out of the three playable characters in the game: the Marine (Travis Hudson) was her fiancée, and the Scout (Toshiko Hoshinara) is her twin sister. The third playable character, the Engineer, has no personal relationship with her at all prior to entering the facility, but he is actually the one who is most likely to get to know Tamiko well in the course of the game. He has the best technical skills, and is most likely to be able to hack into all of the alien computer terminals he encounters, and find the messages Tamiko left behind.
“If anyone human can hack these consoles, I hope they find this message. My name is Tamiko Hoshinara. I was seized from the Planet Albuda IV by some sort of strange robot that emitted a sickening gas.”
True to her role as a Damsel, Tamiko is most definitely trapped. She was captured on the surface, dragged down into this underground research facility, and she’s been used like all of the other living things you see as a test subject for awful experiments. The reason that she remains alive is that she’s been made immune to the Plague…and as most bio-scientists know, a living body makes a great storage receptacle for antigens and immunity to a disease.
That being said, the fact that Tamiko has been victimized does not mean that she follows the standard victim script and waits patiently for rescue. The messages she has left in the data banks of the facility are the result of her attempted escape. And she has some good advice for you, if you’re willing to take it. Instead of crying “Save me, hero!” she says:
“If you find this message, please GET OUT of this facility while you can! I have no idea where I am now, but I can feel the weight of stone above me. It has to be at least a kilometer from the surface.”
Like Tamiko, however, the player cannot back out of the Pit—the hatches to floors above seal above you over time. The only way is forward, and the only escape is victory. The situation is bleak, and often appears hopeless (don’t forget the dying, dying dying). But the messages Tamiko leaves behind also reflect her courage and her determination to figure out what’s going on, whatever the risk.
“I’ve been trying to look inside the stasis chambers, to see the things that are sleeping inside. Some of the capture dates seem to go back hundreds, even thousands of years.”
Tamiko is not a completely helpless or useless human being. You can tell she definitely spent at least a few days playing “Die Hard” in this hell-hole.
“I managed to destroy one of the bigger robots and pulled out its Cybernetic Brain. It’s an amazingly powerful processor. I wish I had an Engineer with me…I’m sure we could rig it to do something useful.”
Eventually, of course, things went wrong. But Tamiko didn’t go down without a fight:
“You can only meddle with the door locks twice before you trigger an alarm. I found this out the hard way. Bleeding now, and I’m out of ammunition for this weapon. I don’t think I can hold out much longer.”
Damsel in distress or not, Tamiko eventually realizes that she’s become immune to the Plague and she is a good enough scientist to understand the implications.
“They want to keep me here, locked up in a stasis chamber forever. I can’t let them do that. If I can break out of this Pit, I could save thousands of lives on Albuda IV alone. Maybe billions, if the Plague somehow spread beyond the system.”
Winning the game, regardless of which character you choose, is about saving the Damsel. But even Tamiko would agree that her life as an individual is irrelevant, in the greater scheme of things. The player has to save Tamiko, not just because “Hey, she’s cute”, but because she is a wellspring of life for every human being who has been exposed to this disease. And whether you free her as her twin sister, her future husband, or as a friendly stranger, Tamiko is the alternative to death—not just for the player but for all humankind.
She’s not just a Damsel in Distress, in other words. She’s a symbol of universal salvation.
Stick that trope in your pipe and smoke it.