The sad demise of Jack Pumpkinhead from The Land of Oz

A boy with magic powder. A scarecrow come to life. An adventure through Oz. And a death with barely a passing mention. This is the tale of Jack Pumpkinhead, a character I quickly fell in love with, but who met a sad demise at the hands of his author.

Jack Pumpkinhead was a character introduced in The Land of Oz, the first sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, written in 1904. I bought the book on a whim at a used bookstore for $20, and was entranced by the delightful world L. Frank Baum created. Jack is a lovely character, my favorite from the story, but his fate bothered me. As an author myself, one who has created numerous characters in numerous fantasy stories, I found that examining Jack’s arc revealed much about how to create, and how not to treat, one’s character.

Let’s jump in!

Cover of The Land of Oz

Tip manufactures a pumpkinhead

The Land of Oz is curious in that it doesn’t concern Dorothy, the Wizard of Oz, or even the Cowardly Lion. While the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman eventually feature prominently in the adventure, the tale doesn’t begin with them. Rather, we are introduced to Tip, a little boy under the care of a mean ol’ witch, Mombi.

Wanting to play a trick on Mombi, Tip carves a pumpkin, a “pumpkin-jack” as he calls it, then builds a spindly wooden body for the head. He puts clothes on the man, then proclaims:

“I must give him a name! So good a man as this must surely have a name. I believe I will name the fellow ‘Jack Pumpkinhead!'”

His creation finished, Tip waits until Mombi leaves the farm for business. Tip stands Jack Pumpkinhead near the road so as to scare Mombi on her way home.

Mombi, however, is not fooled, and decides to pull one over on Tip. She has just returned from a wizard’s home, where she traded goods for the Powder of Life. Wanting to see if the powder works, she sprinkles it on Jack, bringing him to life! Jack says a few words, testing his voice, then analyzes his situation:

“For although I feel that I know a tremendous lot, I am not yet aware of how much there is in the world to find out about. It will take me a little time to discover whether I am very wise or very foolish.”

Jack Pumpkinhead comes to life

Mombi secures Jack in the stable, then devises a punishment for Tip for his foolishness. She decides to turn him into a marble statue for trying to trick her, but her potion needs to cool before the transformation can take place. Mombi goes to bed, and Tip and Jack Pumpkinhead run away in the middle of the night.

And with that, Baum shows us what’s needed for a character to live: a body, a voice, a purpose, a name. These are the kind of stories I like. This character is what hooked me on this 113-year-old tale.

Jack learns to be alive

While on the road, Jack comes to grips with what it means to be alive. And he quickly realizes that he and humans are quite different:

“I don’t seem to be made the same way you are,” Jack said.

“I know you are not,” returned Tip; “for I made you.”

“Oh! Did you?” asked Jack.

“Certainly. And put you together. And carved your eyes and nose and ears and mouth,” Tip said proudly. “And dressed you.”

Jack looked at his body and limbs critically.

“It strikes me you made a very good job of it,” he remarked.

“Just so-so,” replied Tip, modestly; for he began to see certain defects in the construction of his man. “If I’d known we were going to travel together I might have been a little more particular.”

“Why, then,” said the Pumpkinhead, in a tone that expressed surprise, “you must be my creator–my parent–my father!”

“Or your inventor,” replied the boy with a laugh. “Yes, my son; I really believe I am!”

“Then I owe you obedience,” continued the man, “and you own me–support.”

Jack Pumpkinhead and Tip go for a walk.

While Jack recognizes that he is a creation, Tip seems not to understand the implications of creating life. Tip decides to go to the Emerald City, and along the way, teaches Jack how to be alive.

He tells Jack to sit and rest his joints, but when Jack tries, “he came clattering to the ground with such a crash that Tip feared he was entirely ruined.”

Tip decides to make a sawhorse for Jack to ride on. He creates a reasonable facsimile of a horse, then bemoans “And of course it can’t ever be alive, because it is made of wood.”

Jack points out, “So am I,” and Tip has some inkling that Jack really is alive. Tip uses the magic powder on the sawhorse. To make the magic work, Tip begins by saying the magic words:

“Teaugh!”

“What’s that, dear father?” inquired Jack.

“It means you must keep quiet!” replied the boy, provoked at being interrupted at so important a moment.

“How fast I am learning!” remarked the Pumpkinhead, with his eternal smile.

It’s scenes like this that make Jack an enduring personality. He’s overall portrayed as very stupid, yet he knows more than he thinks he knows, and often inadvertently says profound things.

While Tip is often quick to make snide comments about Jack’s lack of intelligence (“I think I understand,” Jack once said after a conversation about ears, Tip replied, “If you do, you’re a wonder. But there’s no harm in thinking you understand”), the story frequently reveals that those around Jack are just as stupid.

There’s a wonderful scene when the party arrives in the Emerald City and is taken to his Majesty, the Scarecrow. The Scarecrow, having received his diploma at the end of the first story, is supposed to be the one with brains. Jack, after all, has no brains inside his head. Yet the Scarecrow quickly proves that his intelligence is illusory:

The King was the first to speak. After regarding Jack for some minutes he said, in a tone of wonder:

“Where on earth did you come from, and how do you happen to be alive?”

“I beg your Majesty’s pardon,” returned the Pumpkinhead; “but I do not understand you.”

“What don’t you understand?” asked the Scarecrow.

“Why, I don’t understand your language. You see, I came from the Country of the Gillikins, so that I am a foreigner.”

“Ah, to be sure!” exclaimed the Scarecrow. “I myself speak the language of the Munchkins, which is also the language of the Emerald City. But you, I suppose, speak the language of the Pumpkinheads?”

“Exactly so, your Majesty,” replied the other, bowing; “so it will be impossible for us to understand one another.”

“That is unfortunate, certainly,” said the Scarecrow, thoughtfully. “We must have an interpreter.”

Jack Pumpkinhead meets the Scarecrow

The two go back and forth for some time, “failing” to “understand” the other’s language, even though they are both speaking English. Through the intentional interpretation errors of a child, Jack inadvertently insults the King. The King then rudely condemns Jack for daring to be alive, and Jack, having no proper guide in Tip, sadly agrees with the assessment:

“This should be a warning to you never to think,” returned the Scarecrow, severely. “For unless one can think wisely it is better to remain a dummy–which you most certainly are.”

“I am!–I surely am!” agreed the Pumpkinhead.

“It seems to me,” continued the Scarecrow, more mildly, “that your manufacturer spoiled some good pies to create an indifferent man.”

“I assure your Majesty that I did not ask to be created,” answered Jack.

It’s at this point in the story that the insults on Jack’s intelligence, and his very being, his very existence, begin to pile up. Jack has the disposition of a carefree, optimistic, mentally-challenged child. And rather than celebrate his fragile, miraculous existence, those around him tear him down and afford him no respect.

And scenes like the previous make me ponder whether the author, Baum, understands what he’s created.

Jack discovers he’s mortal

From here, the story takes a dark turn. The Emerald City is overthrown by a usurper, the main characters are expelled, and they go on an adventure to find more friends and formulate a strategy to retake the city. Jack, meanwhile, realizes that unlike the Scarecrow, his life will not last forever.

While the group is in the castle, trying to escape, Jack remarks:

“Should I remain here a prisoner for any length of time,” protested Jack, “I’m liable to spoil.”

“Ah! then you would not be fit to associate with,” returned the Scarecrow. “The matter is more serious than I suspected.”

“You,” said the Pumpkinhead, gloomily, “are liable to live for many years. My life is necessarily short. So I must take advantage of the few days that remain to me.”

Whereas the Scarecrow is composed of dried straw and wood, Jack’s head was created with a fresh pumpkin, and pumpkins don’t last forever. The introduction of this element adds a lot of intrigue to the story, and raises the stakes considerably. If Jack really wants to be alive, he must also accept that all living things eventually die. Life is lived with this ever-present reality hanging over us all.

Throughout the journey, Jack has many brushes with death. Once, after falling, his head dislodges and falls into the water. “Dear me!” Jack said. “What a dreadful experience! I wonder if water is liable to spoil pumpkins? If water spoils pumpkins, then my days are numbered.”

Jack Pumpkinhead's head falls into the water.

Death permeates Jack’s every conversation. “I am in constant terror of the day when I shall spoil,” he says to the Tin Woodman.

Those around Jack constantly make light of his mortality. The Tin Woodman responds to Jack’s fear by saying, “Do not, I beg you, dampen today’s sun with the showers of tomorrow. For before your head has time to spoil you can have it canned, and in that way it may be preserved indefinitely.”

The irony of all this is that the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman are both themselves creatures with unnatural bodies, yet they fancy themselves higher lifeforms than Jack, precisely because they contain no living flesh.

Yet isn’t Jack, with at least the most important part of his body made of living material, more alive than they?

All this discussion of Jack could easily be enhanced, had I the space, by referencing the numerous other creatures Tip brings to live, such as the wooden Saw-Horse, and an amalgamation of furniture called a Thing, or Gump. The Scarecrow even has a near-death experience when his stuffing is removed. His friends bail him out of that jam by stuffing him with money.

Toward the end of the book, it’s revealed that Tip is not a boy, but in fact Princes Ozma, heir to the throne. Old Mombi transformed Ozma into a boy when she was little to hide her. The witch transforms her back into a girl, to which Ozma’s first words are:

“I hope none of you will care less for me than you did before. I’m just the same Tip, you know; only–only–”

“Only you’re different!” said the Pumpkinhead; and everyone thought it was the wisest speech he had ever made.

Somebody better versed in queer and gender theories than I could probably make much of the (unintentional?) transgender implications of this.

The end of Jack, barely a footnote

Ozma, formerly Tip, and her friends take back the kingdom, and the Queen begins her rule.

The Gump, a monstrosity constructed of furniture and a stag mount, makes a most unusual request:

“Please take me to pieces. I did not wish to be brought to life, and I am greatly ashamed of my conglomerate personality. Once I was a monarch of the forest, as my antlers fully prove; but now, in my present upholstered condition of servitude, I am compelled to fly through the air–my legs being of no use to me whatever. Therefore I beg to be dispersed.”

So Ozma ordered the Gump taken apart.

The Gump is more intimately aware of the wrongness of his existence than Jack is. Ozma, though, only partially complies with Gump’s request. She takes him apart, but puts the mount back on the wall, where the head “continued to talk whenever it took a notion to so.”

Jack’s fate is given scant attention, and we have no parting words from Jack or his creator:

Jack Pumpkinhead remained with Ozma to the end of his days; and he did not spoil as soon as he had feared, although he always remained as stupid as ever. The Woggle-Bug tried to teach him several arts and sciences; but Jack was so poor a student that any attempt to educate him was soon abandoned.

Having read that the first time, I was incensed. Baum had been building a powerful case for hundreds of pages about the aliveness and being of Jack, yet in the end, treated this character with disposable contempt. All of Jack’s friends, from Tip to the Scarecrow to the Tin Woodman, never seemed to grasp the significance of Jack’s life, and Tip seemed to take little responsibility for his role as creator, as father, of Jack.

While I’m not suggesting Jack should’ve lived forever–the rotting pumpkin for a head was indeed a problem–I would’ve liked the character to be treated with a little more care, a little more dignity.

I also didn’t have a problem with Jack’s lack of intelligence, but I did have a problem with his companions constantly knocking him for it. In today’s parlance, it’s easy to see how Jack was bullied for his stupidity. Yet Jack is never vindicated, even though a strong case can be made that all other characters, especially the fabled intelligent Scarecrow, are just as, if not more, foolish than Jack.

However, I have newfound anticipation for the character’s future. Apparently he returns in four more Oz books: The Road to Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, and the final Oz book, The Runaway in Oz.

How the character comes to grips with his mortality, and how those around him view him, remains to be seen. Despite the character’s unfortunate demise at the hands of Baum, and his terrible treatment by those around him, Jack Pumpkinhead is a stellar example of the power of life, whatever form it takes.

~Dennis

Anita Sarkeesian’s positive female characters in video games

Throughout 2013 and 2014, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency made a lot of headlines in the video game community. Her video series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is critical of the depiction and uses of female characters in games. On the whole, she finds that all too often female characters are sexualized, abused, and made the objects of male conquests.

While many people, especially the journalism community, have been supportive of Feminist Frequency, many more rank and file gamers have been critical. Remove from the discussion the anonymous rabbles that issue death threats and spew verbal abuse against Sarkeesian. Intelligent and thoughtful gamers have looked at her critiques and asked, “Why are you so negative about the depictions of females in video games? What about all of the positive female characters who don’t fit your narrative of oppression?”

In the three previous posts I’ve critiqued Sarkeesian, that’s been one of my main objections. I acknowledge that female characters are often sexualized to the point of absurdity. But as a longtime gamer, I can think of numerous examples of positive female characters in games (e.g., such as the two or three dozen female characters in the Final Fantasy series).

Thankfully, Sarkeesian has started addressing this criticism with her new mini-series, Positive Female Characters in Video Games. I’ve been waiting for months now to write this post, in the hopes that she’d post a few more videos on this topic.

As of now, there are only two videos, so let’s look at her analysis in each.

The Scythian: Sword and Sworcery


Sarkeesian begins her series by examining a character known only as “the Scythian” from the indie game Sword & Sworcery. In short, the game pays homage to the Legend of Zelda series: there’s exploration, combat, and environmental puzzle solving. There are also a few differences: the character doesn’t level up throughout the game, but gets weaker. There’s less combat than Zelda. And the protagonist is a female.

These differences shouldn’t be interpreted as a critique of Zelda, as if Sword & Sworcery is a better game. It’s just a different game.

Sarkeesian discusses at length how the Scythian “subverts” traditional gender roles because she doesn’t appear female:

Thankfully, the game doesn’t resort to clear gendered signifiers like a pink outfit or a pretty bow in her hair, nor does it present her gender as some kind of surprise twist like we see in the original Metroid.

She goes on to say:

It’s not just in the visual sense that the Scythian lacks clear definition. We know very little about her history, and nothing about why she has undertaken the quest to defeat an ancient evil. While games often give us images of heroes who are fated to defeat evil forces, it’s rare for these heroes of myth to be women. Like many video game heroes, the Scythian is essentially a silent protagonist, a figure defined primarily by her actions, which makes her a blank slate for all players to project themselves onto.

What strikes me as curious is that Sarkeesian looks to the Scythian as a positive female character, yet visually she looks male, and on her quest, she does all the things that male protagonists do. She ends by saying:

Sword & Sworcery gives us a female protagonist and encourages us to see her as a hero first and foremost, one who also just happens to be a woman.

In effect, Sarkeesian is saying that female characters are positive if they are indistinguishable from male characters: visually, thematically, purposely.

Yet in her previous Ms. Male video, Sarkeesian critiqued female characters that were essentially carbon copies of male characters, albeit with a visual signifier like a ribbon or bow in their hair.

Personally, I think it’s fine if a female character is androgynous, as it’s fine when male characters are androgynous (to use Final Fantasy again, I’m thinking of some of the male characters, like Vaan or Kuja).

But I wouldn’t say that female characters are better when they are androgynous, as it seems Sarkeesian is saying. Men and women are different. For one, their body shapes, on average, are different, so including those differences in a video game isn’t sexist: it’s a matter of art reflecting reality.

Many of Sarkeesian’s critics have pointed out various positive female characters in games, characters who “just happen” to be a woman. Dixie Kong is one of my favorite female characters in this regard. She’s just as strong, just as fast, just as capable as Diddy Kong. She’s a clone in every regard, except for her special ability. She “just happens” to be a woman.

Yet if you’ve been following Sarkeesian’s work, you’ll find that she doesn’t believe a character can “just happen” to be a woman. In other words, a character cannot be judged on their own merits apart from their gender. In her feminist worldview, gender is inextricably linked to a character (or in the real world, a person), and the history of gendered violence cannot be easily untangled from women.

There’s a discrepancy, then, between Sarkeesian’s arguments in this video and her arguments in past videos. I won’t, however, go so far as to say she’s a hypocrite, as some have said. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, the more she researches these topics, her own views on women are changing. Maybe she’s starting to see, as many have long argued, that female characters can “just happen” to be female, and the history of gendered violence doesn’t have to inform our appreciation of these female characters.

Jade: Beyond Good and Evil


For the second video, Sarkeesian extols Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. Like Sword & Sworcery, I haven’t played Beyond Good and Evil, though I hear great things about the game all the time.

And before Sarkeesian started this mini-series, many critics referred her to this game as an example of a positive female character.

On the surface, then, it appears that Jade is universally recognized as a strong character, so Sarkeesian made a safe choice in highlighting her.

As usual, I have a few quibbles with her analysis.

In the beginning, Sarkeesian discusses Jade’s appearance:

We learn about who characters are not just from the things they say and do, but also from how they look: visual design is an important way for game designers to communicate information at a glance about a character’s experience and personality traits. Sadly, women in games are often depicted in wildly impractical, sexualized clothing designed to make them appealing to straight male players. But Jade isn’t designed to fulfill someone else’s fantasy. The midriff top is a little silly, but for the most part, she looks like someone who is dressed to accommodate her own needs. I mean, you don’t get much more practical than cargo pants.

The part that bothers me is the throwaway comment that Jade’s midriff top is “a little silly.” It’s almost as if Sarkeesian finds female characters acceptable only after all hints of sexuality and conventional attractiveness are eliminated. I’m surprised Sarkeesian didn’t go farther and mention Jade’s exceedingly thin waist.

This criticism bothers me because it runs counter to so much popular feminist discourse. In recent years, pop culture feminists have criticized people who engage in “slut-shaming.” Slut-shaming is the social stigma, usually levied at women, that comes from critiques of female bodies and appearance. Feminists decry slut-shaming; in general, I think they are on point here.

For example, they say dress codes–often at high schools or places of work–stigmatize women more than men. They say society (made up of both men and women, as women can shame other women) picks on women, holding them to different standards than men. In this worldview, the patriarchy tries to control women, in part, through a woman’s dress.

Feminists have popularized this idea across social media and college campuses, so much so that whenever somebody, often a male, criticizes the way a woman looks or dresses, they are outed as “slut-shamers,” and ridiculed.

That means that I, as a male, cannot and should not criticize–even comment on–a woman’s appearance or dress. In this worldview, women are autonomous agents, and only they get to decide what they wear. If they want to dress conservatively, that’s fine. If they want to dress provocatively and show off some skin, that’s their decision, and critics, especially men, better shut up and let them be.

It’s interesting, then, that Sarkeesian points out that Jade’s midriff top is “a little silly.” Why? Is not Jade an autonomous woman? Sarkeesian certainly thinks so in the rest of her analysis. A man didn’t dress Jade when she got up in the morning, did he?

In my mind, as I bow to feminist thinking on this issue, I cannot comment on Jade’s appearance, other than affirming the choices that she’s already made. So if she wants to wear a midriff top, good for her.

Certainly millions of high school and college women choose to dress the same way.

(And for the record, I have no problem with Jade’s appearance).

My second contention with this video comes toward the end:

In this early scene, Jade is trapped until Pey’j appears, throwing her a staff she uses to free herself and overcome the destructive alien force.

Pey’j: Hang on Jade! I’m coming! Free yourself, Jade. I’ll create a diversion.

It may seem like a minor detail, but the fact that Pey’j tells Jade to free herself, instead of doing it for her, is incredibly important. He assists her but doesn’t rescue her. He knows that even in this situation, she’s far from helpless, and the fact that Pey’j treats her as a capable partner encourages us to see her that way, too.

This moment also evokes a sense of mutual respect and partnership between these two characters, in a way that is all too rare for female characters in gaming.

Eventually, Uncle Pey’j is kidnapped, and Jade is determined to rescue him.

As a quick side note, it’s important to point out that a kidnapped male character saved by a woman and a kidnapped female character saved by a man are not equivalent, because while a damsel in distress reinforces longstanding regressive myths about women as a group being weak or helpless specifically because of their gender, a dude in distress does not reinforce any such ideas about men.

It’s this idea, that the history of violence against men and women are different, that probably earns Sarkeesian the most criticism. Her larger narrative is not only that violence against men and women are, historically and presently, different, but she goes even further to contend that the history of violence against women is worse than the history of violence against men.

Perhaps in some circumstances, but maybe not in all. I don’t think it’s healthy to try and “prove” which gender has suffered more through violence. But if you want to talk about real-life “dudes in distress,” look no further than the concept of prisoners of war. For thousands of years, across all civilizations, men have been the primary participants in wars between nations.

Civilians of all age groups and genders are killed, of course. But soldiers, by and large, are male, even today. Men suffer uncalculable violence on the frontlines, afterward from temporary and permanent battle wounds, and sometimes as prisoners of war.

In real life, men often do become “dudes in distress.” To cite only one example more than 400,000 soldiers were imprisoned during the American Civil War, about equally between the North and the South. Furthermore, 56,000 soldiers died in captivity.

I’ll concede to Sarkeesian that women, in literature and video games, are captured and imprisoned more often than men. However, this is a concession with a caveat: it really depends on which example of media we are discussing. Taking The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time as one example: yes, Zelda is a female and she’s imprisoned (at the end of the game), but throughout the game, Link also saves many other people from imprisonment, such as half a dozen Gorons and four male carpenters (held in a prison run by women).

I am leery, then, in conceding that the history of violence, including imprisonment, is worse for women than men. In some cases it is worse, certainly. Women are more likely to be the victims of domestic abuse, for example, and that’s wrong. And yes, in many cases violence is gendered. But I won’t play this game in trying to determine which gender has it worse.

Violence in any form is wrong, regardless of the perpetrator, victim, or circumstances.

What I can say about Beyond Good and Evil, then, is that both a main male character and main female character are in distress, and they help each other. Their “distress,” then, is fairly balanced. That doesn’t make it right or wrong. The game simply offers one way of telling a story, a different way of creating conflict.

To paraphrase Sarkeesian from an earlier video, Jade is imprisoned and she “just happens” to be a female, and Pey’j is imprisoned, and he “just happens” to be a male.

Game on,
~Dennis

On Permanent Death in the Fire Emblem Series

Fire Emblem is a tactical, turn-based strategy series of games released by Nintendo. The series is over 20 years old and plays like a bigger, more advanced version of Chess. The games contain deep stories and a wide cast of characters. Each character has a different set of abilities, plus a class like Archer, Fighter, Mage, and so forth. Standard RPG mechanics. In each battle you will use anywhere from 9-13 characters on average, though throughout the course of the game you might recruitment 30-50 characters.

One distinctive play mechanic of the Fire Emblem series is permanent death. Once a character dies, they are gone forever. Most video games do not feature permanent death, especially story-centric games like JRPGs. And this play mechanic is quite effective at dividing people into two different camps.

The first group of gamers despises permanent death. These players work so hard at leveling up their characters and get drawn into that particular character’s storyline that they think all of that character development was a waste if the character dies permanently. The only way to “undo” permanent death (excluding the more recent games like Awakening, which let you turn off permanent death) is to reset the game and restart the level. Now, some levels can take 90 minutes to clear, so if a character died an hour into the level, resetting the game carries with it a steep penalty.

The other group of gamers embraces permanent death. This is the camp I am in, and in this post I’ll argue why this is a valuable addiction to the game. To note, most of my experience with Fire Emblem comes from the GameCube release Path of Radiance, though I am familiar with other Fire Emblems as well.

Death is a real consequence

Most action, RPG, and adventure video games feature death. Players kill hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies throughout the course of a game, and in turn are killed by the enemy. Some games, like the Mario and Sonic series, feature a life-based system, wherein a player has a certain number of lives: once they die, they are resurrected near where they left off. Other games, like the Legend of Zelda series, don’t feature lives (other than the oddball Zelda II) per se, but when the player dies, they still come back near where they left off.

In these games, player death is a penalty for playing poorly. You might lose some progress, and you certainly lose time. But death is temporary. Your character is resurrected within seconds. Death has no lasting effects and is more of a nuisance than a punishment.

Fire Emblem’s death system is quite different. Before examining it further, it’s instructional to pull back to examine how death is conveyed throughout the game as a whole.

Fire Emblem’s story revolves around war, and your band of characters travel across the country or continent fighting battle after battle, each battle bringing you closer to ending the war or conflict. While Fire Emblem’s violence isn’t graphic, it is serious. As far as I know, you don’t see blood, dismemberment, disembowelment, or any gore. You see people hit each other with swords, and when a person dies, they fade away and disappear.

Most of the story is conveyed through text-boxes, so be prepared for reading. But in the reading, the characters clearly state that people die, that the enemy is killing off citizens, that the enemy is torturing people. The game doesn’t have to show gore to convey the seriousness of violence.

Most violent video games always seem unbalanced to me. You as the character slaughter hundreds of people through the game, and yet your character is never permanent harmed or killed. How can one person be so effective, and how can enemy armies be so ineffective? It’s baffling and unrealistic.

Not so in Fire Emblem. Death is seriously conveyed not only for the enemy, but the character.

Permanent death adds tension to the game

When I played through Fire Emblem most recently, when my characters died, I let them die. A couple times I cheated and restarted the map because my main healer died, and sometimes I was forced to restart because my main character died, but other than those instances, I treated each death as a consequence of my poor planning.

Because I knew that death would be permanent, I was forced to play more carefully, strategizing every decision, every move. If I left a hole in my defenses, the enemy would rush through and kill a weak character.

Sometimes this happened, and then I would get worried. The enemy would attack, and maybe I would be just so fortunate that my character would survive with 1 hit point. These moments were incredibly stressful, as I had to sidetrack the overall goal of the mission to instead protect and reinforce my party. There were some maps that a certain group of characters spent several turns just running away from the enemy, ever out of their reach, until they got close to a healer.

Permanent death adds challenge

For somebody who’s been playing video games as long as me, over 20 years, not many games are really “challenging” to me. Of course, many games have a “Hard” mode, but Hard modes aren’t more challenging intellectually: they are usually just more tedious. Your characters do less damage; the enemies do more damage; therefore, it takes longer to defeat something. But permanent death adds challenge in several ways.

First, it makes the game more challenging in the short-term. On each battle, I have to think how to best position my soldiers so nobody dies while still accomplishing the mission (sometimes within a certain time limit).

Second, permanent death makes the game more challenging in the long run. What if somebody really important dies? I might still finish the map, but that person’s absence will make future maps more difficult.

For instance, in my most recent playthrough of Path of Radiance, I lost a second healer, Mist, in her first battle. This meant I had to rely on a single healer for almost 10 missions until I finally recruited another . At one point I had no mages, so my distance attacking was severely limited. Another one point I had no thieves, which made one level with tons of chests and doors more difficult than it needed to be. I went a very long time with no axe-wielders. So the deaths I incurred really affected me in the long run.

Even worse, in many levels I couldn’t even bring the maximum number of units on the field. Like I said, in each map you can bring 9-13 or so units onto the battlefield. Any extra units sit the battle out. Many times the map would allow 13 units, let’s say, and I only had 11 to use.

Death forces you to care about your characters

When I lose a character, I’m not just at a tactical disadvantage. Over the course of the game, I start to really care about the characters, especially the ones that have been around for a long time. I develop emotional connections to them, and I’m sad when they go. For instance, I lost Titania, Ike’s adviser and mentor of sorts, midway through the game. Her character was definitely my strongest person, and she was defeated in one blow by a boss. She had been with me since the beginning, and her absence was felt on the battlefield.

Sometimes I lost players as soon as I recruited them. In these cases, I didn’t have time to develop an emotional connection with them, but their loss still affected me. It made me feel like a bad leader, like I was treating my recruits as war fodder.

On the the final level, I lost my main healer, Rhys, halfway through, which made things extremely difficult. He had been with me in every single battle in the game, all 30 missions, and died at the end. He was so close to seeing the end of evil and the return of light to the kingdom, and yet he couldn’t make it. His death made me think about war, and how sometimes soldiers will serve throughout the majority of the war, and yet still die on the edge of victory. How many Revolutionary soldiers died right on the cusp of America winning independence from Britain? They never got to see the fruits of their labor, and that’s a melancholic tragedy.

The only problem with permanent death

While permanent death fundamentally changes not only how Fire Emblem is played, but also how the player relates to the game and the story, it’s not a perfect play mechanic, at least in Path of Radiance, the game with which I am most familiar. The biggest problem is that most deaths are never acknowledged in the story. Whatever dialogue that character was supposed to have just get dropped out. In a few cases, really important characters remain in the story (like Soren, Mist, and Titantia), but are too injured to battle.

The only acknowledge of character death comes from Soren, who gives Ike a summary of each battle. Among other things, Soren will tell Ike which characters were recruited in battle and which were lost. And that’s it. Ike has no reaction to the deaths of anybody, which is a really shame. The designers should’ve at least made a short epilogue for each character when they die, just to provide some closure. In the course of my most recent playthrough, I lost 17 characters. I had 35 people in my party total (out of a possible 46). I lost 50% of my force over the course of the yearlong war, yet deaths were rarely acknowledged in the story.

Other than this minor gripe, permanent death is a play mechanic I really enjoy. Loyal readers, do you know of any other video games that feature permanent death, and if so, how does that play mechanic affect your enjoyment of the game?

Game on
~Dennis

Legend of Korra Book Two Retrospective Continued: Criticism of this Season’s Character Arcs

Despite having quite a few criticisms of the Legend of Korra in my last post, I thoroughly enjoyed the half-season: it’s clearly the best animation currently on television.

Last post, I focused more on the overall issues with the story. In this post, I want to focus on specific characters. Korra has a LOT of characters, and some had better story arcs than others.

Story arcs done well

Unalaq

Let’s start with the villains. Unalaq was a formidable foe and managed to do something I didn’t think was possible: he upped the ante compared to Airbender. In Airbender, Aang had to save the entire world from the Firelord. It was a lofty goal, and the importance cannot be understated: the world had been at war for a hundred years. Fireload Ozai was on the verge of burning down the Earth Kingdom.

When Korra was announced, I thought, “There’s no way they can top Airbender. What, are they going to have her save the entire world again?” Korra did save the entire world again, but her mission was no repeat Death Star a la Return of the Jedi. The stakes for Korra were arguably higher.

Unalaq knew exactly what he wanted, and he had the right amount of charm and evil: he managed to coax Korra to his side for a few episodes, remember?

Even more interesting about Unalaq is how Korra actually believed in his message at the end. Unalaq thought that there should be no bridge between the spirit and physical world. Korra surprisingly agreed and united the worlds (well, it remains to be seen how united they are) in a different, less violent way than Unalaq intended.

The only thing I didn’t like about Unalaq was his immense understanding of the spirit world. Why are there so many people this season who seem to know so much about the spirit world, when Aang’s world was basically clueless about spirits?

Tonraq

Korra and Tonraq

Korra and Tonraq express their love for each other.

Tonraq didn’t get as much development as Unalaq, but he had an interesting backstory nonetheless. What’s interesting about Legend of Korra compared to Airbender is how much more family there is. Aang had no parents–Korra’s parents are at least present. And while she doesn’t always get along with her father, she loves him. I think one of the best scenes from this season was Korra asking her father if it was okay to enter his house after she favored Unalaq over him.

Mako

I wasn’t sure about Mako’s turn to cop at first, but I think it fits him. Mako’s story arc was separate from Korra’s much of the time, which allowed him to shine on his own. One thing I wished Airbender had done was broken up the main group a little more often. Aang, Sokka, Katara, and Toph pretty much stuck together the entire time. In Book Two of Korra, Mako, Bolin, Korra, Tenzin, and Asami basically have their own separate story arcs going on.

Last kiss between Mako and Korra

Last kiss between Mako and Korra

I appreciated, too, that the love triangle between Mako, Asami, and Korra was toned down but resolved this season. Korra and Mako made the right decision to stop seeing each other.

Bolin

Bolin and Asami

Bolin confides in Asami how different things are this season with everybody doing their own thing. He seems genuinely sad that the group was broken up.

Bolin also had a chance to shine this season. In Book One, he felt more like he was tagging along. He was meant to be the comic relief, but actually wasn’t nearly as funny as Sokka. Yes he’s an earthbender, but nothing special. He didn’t have that many distinct aspects of his personality.

In Book Two, though, we finally got some good character development. Yes, Bolin was a blockhead and never once stopped to think about the morality of the propaganda films, but that’s okay. At least he was entertaining.

Desna and Eska

Eska kisses Bolin

Eska and Bolin try to rekindle their relationship.

I’m still not sure what to think of these characters, nor am I completely comfortable putting them in this section of “well-developed character arcs.” They were present a lot, but didn’t have many original thoughts. Eska got a little more development than Desna. I’m not sure I liked the Eska-Bolin love story, but it was funny at times.

Most of the season I was bothered with the twins’ monotone “nerdy” voices: haven’t we seen this character type before? But by the end, they actually showed a little emotion as they struggled to follow their father into eternal darkness. When I think back to Airbender, though, I was fine with Mai and Ty Lee as characters, even though they also didn’t have much development, so I guess I’m fine with Desna and Eska. Hopefully we see them in future episodes.

Desna is mad

Desna is mad at Korra’s suggestion that he betray his father.

Varrick

The shipping magnate Varrick ended up being my favorite new character this season. He got a lot of screen time, had the best jokes, and was perhaps most pivotal to the overall plot. Varrick was the one who convinced Korra that Unalaq couldn’t be trusted. Varrick helped lead the first rebellion of the southern water tribe against the northern occupation. Varrick helped Korra and crew escape from the south pole. Korra may have started the civil war, but Varrick was the one who made it happen: he hired Fire Nation thugs to impersonate northern water tribe terrorists; he bought Asami’s company and provided tanks for the war; he shipped those tanks to the south; he provided all the propaganda for the war.

Varrick was one of those rare versatile characters: he gets stuff done. His morality is ambiguous: in the end, we should probably view his actions as evil. In a way, he’s like Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad: Varrick doesn’t think about right or wrong: he only thinks pragmatically.

Zhu Li and Varrick escape from prison

Hopefully we see Zhu Li “do the thing” again next season!

If Varrick is to Saul Goodman, then Zhu Li is to Huell. She doesn’t get any character development: we don’t know what motivates her, why she follows Varrick, or if she even agrees with his actions. But we don’t necessarily need her to say these things: the fact that she does follow him, and follows his orders without question, tells us a lot. She probably does admire Varrick to some degree (romantically, though, who knows?), and sees her mission in life as supporting Varrick. In this way, she’s similar to Misa Amane from Death Note or Riza Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist.

Korra and Tenzin

I’m analyzing these two characters together for a reason. Korra and Tenzin obviously had the most well-developed arcs on the show. I think Tenzin is arguably co-equal in terms of importance to Korra, just like Katara and Sokka are co-equal with Aang in Airbender. What I loved about this season was the continued growth of Tenzin and Korra’s relationship.

They started out in a bad place, and Korra dismissed Tenzin as her mentor. Tenzin, though, accepted it, and went away to fight his own demons. But they came together at the end, forgave each other, and encouraged each other.

Tenzin and Korra’s relationship is the most mature one on the show. Tenzin’s relationship with Korra is more complex than the relationships with his own wife and children. Yes, he loves his family, but those relationships are simple. He takes care of them, he protects them, he loves them. With Korra, there’s obviously no romantic connection between the two, so the creators are allowed to explore the mentor-student relationship in all its complexity.

Tenzin and Korra

Tenzin tells Korra he’s proud of her.

What I also love about their relationship is that it’s not the typical mentor-student relationship we see in fantasy. Take Obi-Wan (with Luke) and Gandalf, two old mentors on the same level as Tenzin. Obi-Wan and Gandalf are wise, benevolent, and always right. They are nearly “perfect” and exist to further the destinies of Luke and Frodo. They don’t really have much maturing to do in their own right.

While Tenzin is wise compared to Korra, he’s not always right. In fact, Book Two makes Tenzin out to be a chump at times, given his repeated failures in spiritual matters. And Tenzin and Korra have quite a bit of friction in their relationship, unlike Obi-Wan and Luke or Gandalf and Frodo.

Tenzin unrolls Korra's sleeves

One of my favorite non-verbal scenes from Book One, Tenzin subtly correcting Korra’s training attire by rolling down her sleeves.

Tenzin can provide support for Korra as the Avatar in a way her father can’t. And Tenzin realizes his destiny is not just to propagate the Air Nomad line and train his kids in airbending: his real destiny seems to be supporting the Avatar in any way that she needs him. By the end of the season, Tenzin submits to Korra, telling her that he has nothing more to teach her and that he will support whatever decision she makes regarding whether or not to keep the spirit portals open.

I’m not sure if it’s true that Tenzin has nothing more to teach Korra. Perhaps now, though, the two of them can develop a friendship of equality, having moved past the student-mentor relationship, similar to how Obi-Wan and Anakin had a friendship relationship in Episode III, or how Teacher and Ed and Alphonse had a friendship relationship in Fullmetal Alchemist.

Story arcs that could’ve been better

Kya and Bumi

Bumi plays the flue

Silly Bumi with his silly pink earmuffs!

Ah yes, Tenzin’s family. While Tenzin got a lot of character development this season, and even spent a lot of time with his brother and sister, they, on other hand, didn’t get much development at all. Kya and Bumi were simply one-trick ponies: foils to Tenzin without their own senses of autonomy. Kya and Bumi were there making fun of Tenzin the entire season, and Tenzin lost of patience with them on more than one occasion. We don’t know much about Kya at all, other than that she spent her youth traveling the world “in search of herself,” then settled down in the south pole to take care of her mother.

I’m perhaps most disappointed in Bumi’s character. Yes, he contributed some good jokes here and there, but as a person, he didn’t seem to have any direction. At the end of Book One, we briefly see Bumi arriving on Air Temple Island. We are told he’s a great general and military leader. But at the beginning of Book Two, he’s already given up the military life. Why? His definitive character trait was immediately introduced then removed. In Book Two, he’s simply a lost soul following Tenzin around the world. Sure, he helps in the final battle and helps find Jinora, but beyond that, doesn’t have an original thought in his head.

Tenzin’s family

The rest of Tenzin’s family–his wife Pema and children Jinora, Ikki, and Meelo–didn’t get much development either, even though we spent a lot of time with them. Pema just plays the part of new mom taking care of Rohan: is Rohan’s name even spoken this season? Ikki had an episode where she discovered a lot of sky bison babies, but then left them and didn’t do much the rest of the season.

Meelo had an episode where he trained a hundred ring-tailed lemurs: I thought that was going to go somewhere, but no. It was just a throw-away sight gag.

Meelo trains Poki

Meelo tries to demonstrate to Poki how to roll over while Tenzin looks on with veiled condemnation.

Jinora obviously had more character development than the rest of the family. She’s the one who guided Korra into the spirit world, and she’s the one who resurrected Raava (maybe? how?) Nobody knows exactly what Jinora did at the end, or how she knew how to do it, so hopefully there’s an explanation coming down the pipe.

Tenzin carries Jinora

Tenzin carries Jinora

After being reunited with her father after being trapped in the spirit prison, Jinora tells Tenzin that she has something else to do, and she has to go away. Here’s how I hoped the final battle would’ve resolved itself: Jinora becomes the new Raava, rather than just resurrecting the old Raava, and then merges with Korra’s spirit, sacrificing herself so that Korra can save the world. It would’ve been a very sad scene had Jinora sacrificed herself, but it would’ve taught us something about the unique role each person has in combating evil.

While it would be deep for a children’s show, Airbender had a similar sacrifice when Yue turned into the moon.

Asami

Asami the pilot

I talked a lot about Asami in the last post, so I won’t spend too much time on her again. There was so much potential for her. One challenge with Asami compared to the other characters is that she’s not a bender: the show clearly focuses way more on benders than non-benders. But in Book One of Korra she proved that she could stand her own in a fight just fine without bending. In Book Two, she’s now an ace fighter pilot, which is useful a couple times, but when it came to the final battle, she was sent away, which is unfortunate, as it just reinforced the idea from Book One: Air that benders really are superior to non-benders.

Story arcs that failed

General Iroh, President Raiko, Lin Beifong

The three people stuck in Republic City didn’t really do much at all. Lin Beifong’s story arc seemed to end in Book One when her earthbending powers were returned to her.

President Raiko was a new character. Even though he was somebody in power and of importance, he did nothing. He was simply obstinate for the sake of obstinacy when Korra asked for his help fighting Unalaq.

President Raiko

“My name’s President Raiko, and I don’t feel the need to explain myself to somebody as lowly as the Avatar!”

And General Iroh…can we drop this character already? I know the creators were really pleased with Dante Basco’s performance as Zuko in Airbender, but this actor was mishandled and shoehorned in as General Iroh, the son of Zuko. Basco’s voice is just too distinctive and doesn’t fit the personality of the new General Iroh.

General Iroh

General Iroh only appeared on screen for this one shot during the final battle…how pathetic.

I believe General Iroh only had two scenes this entire season: one when Korra asked him for help and was rejected, and one tiny, tiny scene in the final battle when his ships ineffectively attacked Unavaatu. It’s almost as if the creators wanted Basco to work with them, but didn’t have a good idea for his character. They knew it had to be connected to Zuko because of Basco’s unique voice, but beyond that, they don’t have any plan for General Iroh. He’s easily my least favorite character of the series.

Appreciated cameos!

And then we had some callbacks to Airbender this season. These people didn’t have character arcs, per se, but their brief appearances added to the story nonetheless. Overall, Book Two of Korra did much better connecting to the original series than Book One did. In Book One, it seemed like there were an excessive number of references to the first series just to remind people that the shows were connected (the worst connection was Ikki asking Katara in the first episode whatever happened to Zuko’s mom…why would she care about such a peripheral character?)

Uncle Iroh

I was genuinely surprised when Uncle Iroh showed up in Korra. He was sort of a deus ex machina, showing up at just the right time to guide Korra, but that’s okay.

I’m really pleased that Iroh left the physical world and came to the spirit world, however that happened. It didn’t seem like a forced decision by the creators, either: Admiral Zhao commented to General Iroh in Book One of Airbender that he’d heard of Iroh’s journeys into the spirit world. It was never a detail elaborated upon in Airbender, but it is consistent with his character.

Iroh in the spirit world

Hello old friend!

I was also exceptionally pleased with Greg Baldwin, the voice actor for Iroh. Iroh’s original voice actor, Mako, died between Books Two and Three of Airbender. Greg Baldwin took over voice work in Book Three (and also took over for Mako’s other unfinished roles, like Aku from Samurai Jack and Splinter from TMNT). It’s really hard to replicate another person’s voice, and Baldwin did the best he could, but his Iroh was nowhere near as good as Mako’s. In Book Three of Airbender, it sounded like Baldwin was trying too hard to imitate Mako’s voice.

In Korra, though, Baldwin does a much better job of mimicking Mako’s voice, so much so that I can’t really tell that his Iroh is different than Mako’s. Maybe if I heard the two side by side I could, but separate, I can’t.

Avatar Aang

Old Aang in the spirit prison

Aang’s role in Book Two of Korra was significantly reduced compared to the first season, and I think that’s okay. After all, Avatar Roku played a larger role in Books One and Three of Airbender, but not as much in Book Two. I’m also glad we got to see an older version of Aang, not the 30-something version we see in Book One. As long as the creators don’t retcon their own story in Book Three: Changes, this should be the last time we see Aang. And we see him giving parting thoughts to his son Tenzin, which is an appropriate final message.

Admiral Zhao

Zhao in the spirit prison

I was really surprised to see Admiral Zhao in the spirit prison, but it makes sense. He really made the spirits mad when he killed the moon spirit in Airbender. We saw the moon spirit grab him and take him away, but we never knew what happened to him. I figured he died: it seems like the spirit prison is a hell of sorts. In the spirit prison scenes, I looked really closely at the background characters several times to see if perhaps other characters from Airbender were trapped in the prison, but I couldn’t make out anybody distinctive.

Whew, that’s the end of my two-part analysis! Share in the comment section who your favorite characters were this season!

~Dennis