Monday, April 2, 2012

Elise Riggs: It’s Good To Be Back (Part II)

Butterfly High
Elise is very intimately connected to my personal history with SSX and the video game medium in general over the past decade. Introduced to the series with SSX Tricky over at my cousin's house (the same one who introduced me to Super Mario Bros. and games in general) I was initially drawn to Kaori because her massive trick stat and hyperactive, cartoon-like personality seemed to me to fit the game's overstated, caricatured tone and atmosphere the best of the characters I saw. However, after a few rounds with Elise I had immediately found my character, not just the one whose play style I liked the best, but the one who I genuinely liked as a person and the game clicked for me.

The first thing that really struck me about Elise was her Devil-May-Care attitude and that she seemed to me to be someone who, despite her constant egomaniacal boasts, knew at heart she wasn't anywhere near as cool as she let on and was really just putting on a bit of an act, but who ultimately didn't care one way or the other because she was doing what she loved. I'll chalk that up to Lucy Liu primarily: Her subdued, withdrawn and nonchalant, crucially not boisterous or confrontational, delivery of lines like “I'll get over it”, “I'll get it next time”, “Easy come, easy go”, “Throwin' it all away” and “Think you're hot stuff, huh?” when Elise falls or gets passed, not to mention the consciously exaggerated and over-the-top bluster of Elise's self-congratulation in general, are all good examples of how a skilled actor can add layers of meaning to a script.

That said, there's enough in the writing of the first two games to support this reading as well I argue: Whether that's due to EA Sports' actual intent or some comical misunderstanding on their part of what passed for hip and trendy amongst the young'uns in 2001 (hence the somewhat amusing inclusion of the slang term “mofo” in a E-rated game; Elise tosses it out to bookend her chatter every once in awhile) is actually beside the point. The implication and meaning I read in either case is that while Elise will trash-talk to keep up appearances, when it gets right down to it she doesn't so much talk as she just does: Letting her actions speak for themselves, concentrating on being the best she can be at something she loves, always keeping in mind she's ultimately answerable to herself and nobody else, and furthermore that she's her own harshest critic. Put another way, Elise's interpretation of “cool” is almost a Glam or Drag version of cool rather than a straight pursuit of fame and popularity: She wears the trappings, and while she always knows she can't take full advantage of them it doesn't bother her in the slightest because her priorities lie elsewhere. Paradoxically, seeing how Elise didn't seem to care about being cool (despite halfheartedly pretending she did) and only concerned herself with following her passions made her seem really cool in a backhanded way to me. The fact Elise was so multi-talented, yet ultimately a bit of a goof with a loose attitude towards style made her really endearing to me and brought to my mind memories of Marsupilami, another character I'd loved as a kid (to the point Elise, rather uncannily for me, even used some of the same slang and vocal inflections, which I thought was awesome).

On top of all that, knowing that my cousin's favourite character was Eddie and mine was Elise added an extra layer of intimacy to my connection with the game in a way that can only happen when two close friends play a multiplayer game together in the same room. It's a great example of how two people can bond over a shared gaming experience, accentuated by what little background information about the characters we got. Despite its pretenses, SSX Tricky was really a retro game, being most comparable in my opinion to classic time-attack and sports pastiche games in the arcade tradition than the big-budget AAA titles that were starting to become the norm in Generation 6. And, just like the characters of those games, SSX icons like Elise and Eddie have very little in the way of biographical information and certainly no elaborate, fleshed out backstory. All we get is just enough for us to get a feel for who they are and what's important about them because that's all we need: Elise is a fun-loving, super confident adventurer with a Glam approach to style, Eddie is a wacky goofball with a huge Afro and a love of pop culture and they're best friends. That's all we needed to know and that's all we required to be able gravitate towards them. And it worked, not just for me and my cousin, but for others who I could share the experience with: Later on, when I got my own copy of the game, I'd introduce my younger sister to it the same way I'd been introduced once she reached gaming age and I could bond with someone else through the simple joy of SSX Tricky's arcade revivalism and pure fun.

Only 11 years later and the video game industry is a vastly different place than it was my cousin invited me to pick up SSX Tricky for the first time and I've seen every twist, turn and bizarre lateral turn it's taken. Through all that Elise and SSX have been almost a kind of constant for me: Despite the series experimenting and making many changes over its life, it's remained remarkably consistent, both in terms of core gameplay and more broadly thematically and tonally, which can be rare on a long-running game series (just take a look at the Sonic the Hedgehog series for an example of how that can go badly wrong). Despite maintaining a solid intellectual footing, SSX never feels stale because just enough is polished from entry to entry to keep the series feeling fresh (just take a look at The Legend of Zelda series for an example of how that can go badly wrong!). And, just like the series she hails from (and in spite of the brief speed bump that was SSX 3) Elise has never compromised her ideals, but remains on top of an ever-changing cultural zeitgeist, her rotating stable of jobs and hobbies becoming a metaphor for her ability to adapt, and that of the series as a whole. Elise and SSX have kept me playing through a generation of tight, hectic competition (Generation 6), helped ease me into one of the most radical, groundbreaking console launches and generational shifts of all time (SSX Blur, the Nintendo Wii and Generation 7) and now, after a worryingly lengthy period of prolonged absence, are once again barnstorming the industry to prove Generation 7 still has some life left in it and Elise Riggs, just like SSX, is impossible to keep down.

I must confess I was very worried when the 2012 XBOX 360/PlayStaton 3 reboot was announced: A dark, intense teaser trailer at the 2010 Spike Video Game Awards that seemed inspired by the gritty, testosterone-heavy likes of Gears of War and Call of Duty rather than the kitschy '70s and early '80s retro trash of SSX Tricky and in which Elise, who up until then seemed to be the series' mascot, only appeared as a subtle Easter egg via a decal on a distinctly Black Hawk-esque helicopter left me frankly appalled at the new game's prospects. My panic subsided a bit as developer diaries started to come out that seemed to reassure fans the series' sense of fun wasn't going anywhere, and neither was Elise (a revelation that caused me to breathe possibly the biggest sigh of relief in my entire wannabe journalistic career) and I started to feverishly anticipate the reboot.

My panic quickly returned, however when I actually got hold of the game and found it seemingly built around a checklist of my worst 7th Generation demons: Mandatory persistent Internet connections, online passes, competitive online multiplayer, leaderboards and social media not just a primary focus but deeply integrated into the fundamental core of the game, a complete LACK of the splitscreen multiplayer that allowed me and my cousin to bond over the series in the first place, short, linear maps in place of expansive, nonlinear ones made for exploration, arbitrary difficulty spikes and cruel, unfair level design intended to artificially lengthen the game in place of adding more content and a crass points/credits system that monetized every aspect of the experience, from board upgrades to level progression. It seemed, horrifyingly, that this new SSX had been meticulously crafted to focus on the absolute worst industry trends of the past five years. Most baffling of all, in an attempt to make the series feel “hip” and “current” to a new generation of players (something SSX never felt the need to do before, even for SSX Blur on the Wii, a console explicitly marketed towards new players) a soundtrack almost exclusively populated by dubstep, the current trendy indie music genre (and also one I happen to despise, speaking bluntly). It seemed for all the world that this was finally the game in which a great deal of SSX's timeless soul had been excised to make room for Generation 7 window dressing and dubstep.

Then I got to play Elise for the first time (after an unbelievably annoying, insulting and nerve-wracking tutorial where I actually had to *unlock* her), and all my trepidation and horror evaporated in an instant. She's no longer voiced by Lucy Liu (and in fact hasn't been since SSX Tricky), but absolutely all of her dialogue has been carried over from SSX Tricky, new dialogue written for the reboot sounds like it's a perfect extension of that game's script and the new actor delivers Elise's lines with the exact same kind of freewheeling, tongue-in-cheek confidence and fun that Lucy Liu did and is, for my money, the first to accurately capture Elise's character since Lucy Liu. The first time I heard her I knew that this was the Elise I loved, the Elise I remembered, and that she was back, and with her came the soul of the series I'd been missing in this game and honestly, hadn’t really felt in full since SSX Tricky.

Just as in the past, Elise had adapted to fit in a new gaming reality: She's now a seasoned adventurer and a living legend. At 33, she's the oldest rider in the game; a fact which makes her even more valuable as a feminist icon. I can count on one hand the number of female video game characters older than about 21 or so (being as we are in a medium where 21 is often bemusedly considered old, wise and experienced because our target demographic is still, frustratingly, adolescents), let alone the ones who are playable, major series leads and who are portrayed as individualistic, strong and yeah, sexy, as Elise is here: She's not fretting about her age or worrying about settling down, she's just looking for the next big adventure as always. Even Elise's good buddy Eddie is finally back too; this reboot marks his first major, official appearance since 2001. Every game since SSX Tricky had him either conspicuously absent or only available via cheat codes, and even then he was only a re-skin and had no unique dialogue. Bummer. But, now that Eddie's made a proper return at last you can bet the two best friends are busy tearing up the slopes and dominating the circuit together just like in the Good Ol' Days.

To have Elise back, and back in that fashion, was indescribably reassuring for me. Having her be in her 30s was one of the best ideas EA Sports has ever had, in my opinion, especially when paired with her characterization being so wonderfully loyal and accurate. Since so much of the game feels radically different than what the series had been in the past (though at its best it's still the SSX I remember), having Elise be recognisably the same person she'd been 11 years ago and not some strange hybrid reboot character as is so often the case when series are revived, meant it was effortless for me to relate to and latch onto her, making it much easier for me to accept and deal with how much else had changed. I could now walk through the game with Elise who, just like me is an old veteran returning to the scene after a very long absence even with her relevance (and most definitely her hipness) potentially now in question. We can tackle whatever the game throws at us together, her as much a stranger in this curious new land of online passes, Deadly Descents and dubstep as me. If she can make her way through and prove she's still got it, then damn it, so can I. Just as Elise often says in the game, “it's good to be back”.

SSX has changed, just like video games as a medium, and indeed so much else, has changed in the past decade. But Elise is someone who, if nothing else, knows how to adapt and remain current without losing her spirit, zest or identity. After all, nothing about Elise Riggs is accidental and any born self-promoter needs to be able to tackle whatever life throws at her head-on. If she can remain multi-talented, versatile and stylish without ever compromising who she is, Elise will continue to be, at least for me, a powerful role model to live up to. No matter where gaming, or indeed the rest of the world, goes in the next few years, hopefully I can be like Elise, look any new challenge square in the eye and tackle it head-on with the kind of inner strength and calm that only comes from a love of life and a confidence in one's own place in it.

Elise, you are a star and yes, you're absolutely right: I would indeed love to be you. You're my favourite video game character of all time. Stay Gold, honey.

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