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The Leading Ladies of Horror Games: or the Neglected, Orphaned, Girls of Insane Asylums

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published on March 11, 2018. 

Have you ever taken a cold, hard look at the childhoods of female protagonists in horror games? Many of them have been orphaned or abandoned, put into a mental asylum or orphanage, or some combination of those. There is nothing wrong with creating a character with this kind of background, but it’s a commonly used trope to what I can only assume is to add a more “authentic” layer of complexity to female characters in horror games.

Do these women need to have traumatic pasts that “break” them to some extent? Can we not validate their existence in whatever hell-on-earth scenario their hero’s journey has in store for them otherwise? Or is it that game writers have been too lazy to come up with something more creative? Take Amanda Ripley from Alien: Isolation. She is a 25-year-old engineer for Weyland-Yutani—smart, talented, yet unfortunately experienced losing both her parents early in life. Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was three, and her mother disappeared when she was ten.

To compare to a well-known survival horror male protagonist, Amanda Ripley is a character who is similar to Isaac Clarke of Dead Space in terms of their career paths, but Isaac was put into an asylum in his adult life, and he wasn’t orphaned or abandoned by his parents in childhood. His dad was mostly absent, but he was away on a mission, and his mother was a constant presence throughout his life. Both are examples of using trauma to add complexity to their characters, but Amanda’s trauma started in childhood and was more severe.

There are two ways this trope is executed. The first is like Amanda Ripley: the character’s past doesn’t have any influence on the story. The second is that the character’s past carries over into the major events of the story. Here are a few of those examples:

Rayne, BloodRayne (2002)

She is a dhampir: a half-human, and half-vampire. Her father, a vampire, raped Rayne’s mother, eventually killing her some time after Rayne’s birth, and then abandoned Rayne, which led to her spending most of her teenage years tracking down her father to kill him with the unbridled fury that only revenge can bring. Joining the Brimstone Society was just icing on the cake.

Fran, Fran Bow (2015)

At ten years old, she witnesses her parents’ gruesome death; they were dismembered. Fran rushes into the woods with her best feline friend, where she goes into shock and blacks out. When she wakes up, she finds herself in a mental asylum known for its cruel mistreatment of children. While there, she suffers through reoccurring, violent images of her parents’ death. She hatches a plan to escape and find her cat—her aunt, too. While Fran Bow does fall into the stereotypical trappings of traumatized young girls, the plot contains autobiographical elements from developer Natalia Figueroa’s life, and she has been quoted as saying the process of creating the game was therapeutic. The real horrors of Figueroa’s life should not be understated. At the very least, Fran Bow is a reminder that the orphaned/insane asylum trope should never be taken lightly and used with care.

Jennifer Simpson, Clock Tower (1995)

Inspired by Dario Argento’s film, Phenomena, Clock Tower is yet another game that centers on an orphaned female protagonist. Jennifer finds herself alone in an old mansion after the woman who brought her there disappears, along with a few other girls from the orphanage. Her stalker for the entire game is psychotic and physically deformed 9-year-old Bobby Barrows, aka The Scissorman.

Alice Liddell, American McGee’s Alice/Alice: Madness Returns (2000/2011)

Orphaned and traumatized from the death of her parents and her sister, Alice lived in a mental hospital for some time before being discharged to an orphanage specifically for mentally traumatized children. She believes she is responsible for a fire that caused her parents’ death, and received hypnotherapy to help her forget what happened. However, this inadvertently leads to hallucinations of Wonderland, which serves both as an escape and a means to discover the truth about what happened on the night of the fire.

Renée, Town of Light (2016)

Set in Italy during the 1940s, Renée is a teenage girl who is placed into a mental asylum by her family due to her promiscuity, depression, and a volatile relationship with her mother. There isn’t a clear mention of her father, so we can assume that Renee was fatherless in some regard. While Renée unfortunately experiences abuse at the hands of the orderlies in the asylum, it’s ultimately her mother’s abandonment that worsens the quality of her life.

Clementine, The Walking Dead (2012)

During a zombie apocalypse, it’s kind of expected that many kids will lose one or both of their parents to the brain-eating undead. Clementine is no exception. Even though she’s not the protagonist of the series, she is a playable character in the second series.

Heather Mason, Silent Hill 3 (2003)

Her adoptive father, Harry Mason, was initially unsure of raising Heather. He wanted to abandon her at first, since she is the reincarnation of Cheryl Mason and Alessa Gillespie, and that was too creepy for his liking. But he did the right thing and raised her, though without a mother figure in Heather’s life.

Claire Redfield, Resident Evil 2 (1998)

Both she and her brother, Chris, were orphaned as children when their parents died in a car accident. Presumably, Chris raised Claire by himself.

Ellie, The Last of Us (2013)

As announced in 2016, Ellie will be the playable protagonist in the sequel, which means she makes it on this list by sheer technicality, but she’s an important character to include nevertheless. Ellie is a 14-year-old orphan who was raised in a boarding school run by the military. Again,  an orphaned child is fitting for the trope of growing up during the zombie apocalypse and makes sense on a fictional level, but it’s an easy trope to execute given the subject matter.

Jennifer, Rule of Rose (2006)

While not much is known about Jennifer at the start of the game, what is revealed as the game progresses is her connection to the Rose Garden Orphanage—and remembering, processing, understanding and accepting the suffering she experienced as a child. The entire game is about Jennifer coming to terms with events that happened before the start of the game.

When focusing on games in which the leading protagonist is female and is the only playable character, there seems to be a greater focus on the leading lady’s upbringing and her relationship with her parents than that of male protagonists of the same genre. I’m all for horror games that give female protagonists traumatic childhoods, but when creating the backstory for a character, it’s not as creative to fall into the ol’ “daddy issues” trope if done for the sake of making the female character edgy because “that’s what should be done in a horror game.” That is not to say there aren’t games that buck this trope, or that these female protagonists aren’t smart and capable characters, or even that we can’t love these characters—but it’s a trope that shows up more often than it should. Female characters in horror don’t need to have traumatic childhoods to match the dark, demented, and often demonic themes of horror games.

Here are a few of those games that should be recognized:

Cassie, Perception (2017)

The only thing traumatic about Cassie’s life are her nightmares of a mysterious mansion. There’s nothing traumatic about her childhood that has her searching for her missing mother, seeking revenge on her father, or finding a way to escape an insane asylum. She’s a young woman on a mission to solve the meaning behind her nightmares. Also, Cassie is blind and relies heavily on echolocation to find her way around the mansion.

Utsuki, Sakuya, and Abe no Seimei (female version), Kuon (2004)

The game is unique in that it has three separate playable female protagonists. Utsuki and her sister are on a mission to find their father, exorcist Doman Ashiya, who has gone missing; Sakuya is a female exorcist and one of Doman’s disciples, and Abe no Seimei is a master exorcist. If it’s not obvious, Kuon deals with demons and forbidden rituals that are similar to necromancy.

Allura, Trapt (2005)

The princess of Fronenberg, Allura was the only daughter and child of King Olaf and Queen Evelyn. Unfortunately, her mother passed away at some point in her childhood, leaving both Allura and King Olaf incredibly distraught, but Olaf eventually remarried to a woman named Catalina, whom Allura hated. What makes Allura’s journey as a protagonist unique in this game is that she was framed for her father’s murder and was forced to flee the kingdom.

Alex, Oxenfree (2016)

While teenage Alex is still coping with a familial death when we first meet her, it’s not that of a parent—it’s her older brother. Her brother’s death had a large part in her parent’s divorce, but her mother remarried. Not only did Alex have to adjust to living with a new father-figure in her home, but she also had to adjust to her step-brother taking over her brother’s room. When the game starts, Alex has just met her step-brother, but decides to bring him along for her and her friends’ overnight ghost adventure anyway. It’s only later on in the game that we find out exactly how heartbreaking it was for Alex to lose her brother.


When writing horror and creating the protagonists, I’ll refer to something Tim Waggoner said at my recent trip to StokerCon: when something is no longer unknown, it’s no longer scary. Abusive orderlies at orphanages and asylums, dead parents, dead-beat dads—they’re horrific, and it’s no wonder they are well-used tropes in horror games, but not every female protagonist needs to have a traumatic past, and giving them one does not automatically make them an interesting character. So, take that trope and reverse it, or do something else with it. Female protagonists don’t need to be “broken” to experience horror in their lives.

Joanna Nelius is a Southern California native who was raised on age-inappropriate games, yet somehow turned out alright. She has been an editor and contributor for several small gaming publications, as well as speculative fiction and academic magazines, for the last few years. When she has some free time, she usually spends it exploring abandoned buildings or watching Unsolved Mysteries—and finding good homes for her twisted horror and sci-fi stories.

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‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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‘Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind’: An Utterly Shameless Cash Grab

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some other trash.

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Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

In the 15 year long history of DLC, we have seen some really shameless displays. The notorious horse armor incident of 2006 and a notable day one DLC for the ending game of a trilogy notwithstanding, few companies have had the utter audacity to offer so little content for such a high price point. Enter Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind.

Coming in at a $40 price point (!!!) Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind offers an 80% recycled campaign, a boss rush mode, and some social media nonsense for people who really hate themselves. That’s really it, that’s what you get. Honestly, Square-Enix should be utterly embarrassed by this DLC.

It’s been one year: 365 days, 8760 hours, 525600 minutes, or 31556952 seconds, since the release of Kingdom Hearts III. Let that sink in as you begin the meat of Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind. Think of it as the extended version of a movie you really like… you know, the kind where they add 4 minutes to the 120 minute runtime.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind, really is that cynical. I’m not kidding when I tell you that the game literally starts with an exact cut scene from the base game, and a cut scene that happens to be available from the theater mode of the main game that you’ve already bought if you’re playing this DLC. Yes, the introduction to this new content is… content you’ve already seen.

In fact, that’s kind of the sticking point here: most of what you get for your hard-earned cash is footage you’ve already seen, and battles you’ve already fought, and story you’ve already experienced, just with slight alterations for context. Remember back in the 2000s, when we were super obsessed with prequels? This is like that, except even more egregious.

Generally I’m not so unforgiving as to call a company out for a forthright cash grab, but that’s absolutely what Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is. There’s just no other way to put it. You might find someone in the marketing department for Square-Enix who would disagree, but being a company that has faced just these sort of allegations for their last two major releases, Square-Enix either doesn’t read the news, or doesn’t care what people think of their products.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Square-Enix was roundly accused of shipping unfinished products in the case of both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III — their two most high profile releases of the last decade. I personally gave mostly positive reviews of both games for this very website but if you want ammo to suggest that this company is deliberately trading on the nostalgia and passion of its fan base in order to make financial headway, there are few examples you could draw from that are as obvious as this DLC.

Look, maybe you’re a really big Kingdom Hearts fan. Maybe you just really wanted to know what the context was for that cliffhanger ending in Kingdom Hearts III. Maybe you just don’t do much research before you buy something. Or maybe… you just really trust this company for some reason.

Hey, I’m not judging… hell, I bought this DLC for $40 same as anyone else. I oughta be honest that I’m not reviewing Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind as some holier than thou critic, talking down to you from my position of privilege. No, I’m an angry consumer in this particular case. I’m a person who spent enough to replace a flat tire on my car, or buy my family dinner, on a game that is clearly playing off of my love for a franchise, and using it to bilk me out of money in a method that is so clear, and so concise, that those involved in the entire endeavor should be totally embarrassed for their part in the creation, marketing, pricing, and distribution of this expansion.

Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind

Yes, fans had their complaints about Kingdom Hearts III. “Where are the hardcore boss battles? Where are the Final Fantasy characters? Where are the secret areas? Where are the hidden plot developments?” Still, to address these particular complaints by hammering a few minutes or seconds here and there into already existing content is truly like spitting in the faces of the people who have built the house you’re living in.

I haven’t sat in the board rooms at Square-Enix and I haven’t been in email chains about the planning of projects at their company but what I can say is that there is something rotten in Denmark if this is what passes for a satisfying piece of content for the wildly devoted fans of a hugely popular franchise in 2020. Kingdom Hearts III: Re:Mind is literally, truthfully, and succinctly, the worst piece of DLC I’ve ever purchased.

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