Is Catherine the Last of the Manic Pixie Dream Girls?

While the obvious answer to the question posed by the headline to Aisha Harris’s article, “Is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Dead?” (Slate, 5 December 2011) is: no, not by a longshot. Still, her article, which briefly considers send ups and deconstructions of this common character type from film, got me thinking about the medium that I more commonly write about, video games.

Much (in my mind at least), like comic books, video games as a medium tend to be extremely typological in terms of its presentation of characters, more often giving us characters that represent concepts more so than realistic versions of people. Still, while thinking of the concept of this kind of type, I was hard pressed to come up with a character from video games that represented what it is that the purpose that the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype often serves in other mediums.

As Harris notes in her article, the term Manic Pixie Dream girl was coined by AV Club writer Nathan Rabin to describe “female characters who ‘teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.’” While a lot of female characters exist in video games, especially in the tow of or as the object of pursuit of young men, there seem to be few that fall into this specific category.

That said, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl speaks, of course, in some way not just to “soulful young men” but also to some notion of the “solution” to the mid-life crisis as well in stories in which she appears. As much as Audrey Hepburn’s turn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s classically speaks to this concept as she drags George Peppard’s character towards a slightly less stolid view of the world, so too does Bo Derek in 10.

Even Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch offers an older man a vision of an escape from the traditional and the routine. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl not only teaches men how “to embrace life and its infinite mysteries” but also to violate taboos, the mundane, and all that which represents the prison of order and responsibility that middle age and traditional marriage might be seen in some fiction to represent.

Again, as typological as video games are with their structuring of characters and their personalities around character classes and functions in a group or just the overall commonality of the anti-hero (or, as I like to call him, the stoic badass), as the dominant representation of masculinity in games, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a character that largely seems absent from video games, which stick to female counterparts in roles like the “princess as goal” or the femme fatale pretty much exclusively.

Though lacking in the charm and pure Bohemianism of the typical Manic Pixie Dream girl, Aeris of Final Fantasy VII might be an effort to represent something of this type. However, her lack of much of a personality at all does little justice to a more classic example of such a character, such as the aforementioned Truman Capote creation, Holly Golightly, and even her more saccharine ancestors (Zooey Deschanel in any movie at all, ever). Aeris represents something to Cloud, but it may just as likely be some virginal purity, than as a salve to a masculine psyche in crisis (brooding and soulful and psychologically damaged as Cloud is).

Likewise, it occurs to me that the bubble-headed and whimsical Selphie of Final Fantasy VIII might also be an effort to create a character of this type in a video game story. However, her lack of centrality to the plot or to the concerns of that game’s main protagonist makes it unclear how closely she really fits the type.

Instead, most Manic Pixie Dream Girls seem implied, rather than actualized, in video games. Maybe Leifang from the Dead or Alive series is supposed to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? But since she is only ever put on display as one of many possible “types” that the male player of Dead or Alive is supposed to view and be drawn to in those games, she never develops as a character in relation to another character from the game in order to know for sure.

Instead, the only character that I could come up with that really seems to fit the type is Catherine from the Atlus game of the same name. As a literal succubus, Catherine draws the fearful slacker, Vincent, away from his long term girlfriend, Katherine, just as Vincent is having a crisis concerning whether he should marry her or not, embracing all the responsibility that that would entail or not doing so. Catherine’s whimsy, availability, and charm make her a good candidate for a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but of course, in particular her allure as something that will keep a regular, mundane life away is the most critical quality that she possesses.

Many critics were disappointed by Catherine, as the game was viewed ahead of release as something that could possibly represent a different kind of storytelling in games, something that could treat love, sex, and relationships with a bit more maturity than Mario getting a peck on the cheek from the Princess or getting health boasts from hookers in Grand Theft Auto. That said, I wasn’t especially surprised by the game’s plotline, as to me it’s a familiar one told in other storytelling genres, and one that I think is most frequently presented to mature audiences that are familiar with issues like grappling with aging, responsibility, and a desire for the liberty and freedom of youth.

I also found the writing smart and funny and the characters largely relatable and interesting, if often reprehensible. But that reprehensibility, that characters are morally questionable and struggle with their feelings about the ones they love and the ones that they lust after, seems like a step in the right direction for the often flat, often plainly moralistic tones of the heroes and villains of video games.

However, it’s still is the same old story. Boy meets identity crisis, boy meets Manic Pixie Dream girl, chaos ensues, and ultimately some epiphany is reached. And maybe we are sick of such stories and such still overgeneralized female characters from other media in general, much as Harris’s article suggests.

Regardless of how I feel about Catherine as a game or as a story, though, the most important take away for me in considering the largely absent figure of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the video game landscape was a consideration of the character that she serves as foil to: male protagonists. I mentioned reprehensible characters in Catherine and frankly the most reprehensible is Vincent himself. Vincent is sniveling, uncertain, often pathetic, often weak. He needs to be “saved”.

It seems to me that this, then, is the main reason for the absence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from video games. These characteristics, sniveling, uncertain, often pathetic, and often weak, are the last thing that an “acceptable” video game protagonist should be. In the way that storytelling in games seems to have developed is an acknowledgment that we want to play the role of a hero (or anti-hero) who is competent, brave, and strong. Games are after all, tests of skill and contain victory conditions necessary to solve them.

As the proliferation of games that now include role playing elements that allow you to level up and accrue new skills, abilities, and overall power suggest, players desire to feel their character evolve steadily over the course of the game, not take one step forward and then two steps back as they might in a game where the psyche is at stake or in which someone might not feel confident enough to save the world or the girl on request.

What the absence of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl from the medium suggests to me is that gamers are perceived to abhor weakness, abhor failures, and abhor climbing into the role of someone who isn’t supremely competent or confident in his goals. Video games, as a medium, abhor signs of weakness in men.