Friday, March 30, 2012

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

It's Tricky, It's Tricky...
She's got the nickname “Bombshell”, maybe because of her blonde hair and devastating good looks. What she should have it for, however, is the fact she exudes the energy of a bunker buster every time she walks into a room and channels that into every aspect of her life. She unabashedly, unashamedly lives her life to the fullest and does more in a week with hers than most of us do in an entire lifetime. She's Elise Riggs from EA Sports' beloved SSX series, and while she'll never be spoken of in the same sentence as Samus Aran, Chun-Li, Ms. Pac-Man or Commander Shepard, to me she'll always be one of the greatest video game heroines of all time, and maybe the greatest of them all.

Elise is a self-made woman; indeed, her bio in SSX 3 flatly states “nothing about Elise is accidental”. She's one of the best professional snowboarders in the games' world (not to mention one of the best professional surfers as well), and when she's not carving a barrel she spends her time as a model, clothing designer, actress, producer, director, businesswoman, rock climber, base jumper and professional Mexican seashell necklace vendor. She has the shrewd business leadership and sense of adventure of Scrooge McDuck and the athletic prowess of Kelly Slater and Tony Hawk and no matter how you slice it that should be a frighteningly awesome combination in anyone's book.

Some may criticize Elise by calling her narcissistic, conceited or arrogant, and her repeated exclamations of “Am I unbelievable or WHAT?”, “I am SO fine” and “Wouldn't you LOVE to be me?” during events would seem to support this accusation. However, despite her countless ventures and hobbies and her legendarily fierce competitive streak, Elise comes across as actually rather affable and self-effacing, her self-congratulation delivered completely tongue-in-cheek (thanks in no small part to her tremendous voice actor in SSX Tricky, Lucy Liu) and matched just as often by humble resignation and self-deprecating joking whenever she bails a trick or slams headlong into a rock outcropping (usually due to me fumbling with the controls). Elise is also on relatively friendly terms with the others in the SSX circuit, always looking out for her pals Kaori, JP, Alex and Skye. She's also longtime, inseparable best friends and riding partners with the infamously wild, goofy and slightly awkward retro '70s-afficionado and super nerd Eddie Wachowski: “You and me, we're gonna rule this race, baby!” and “You and me, right to the end!” they say to one another before events in SSX Tricky. Extremely confident and fully conscious of her abilities sure, but cliquey and snobbish Elise surely isn't.

Another thing that strikes me about Elise is that she's clearly a sexual person: Various character bios describe her as enjoying “carving up men's hearts” and her first appearance in SSX Tricky has her address the player with the vaguely sexual “This is gonna be very, very...interesting”. However, that said, she's also a person fully in control of her sexuality-She's sexy for no-one except herself: The men chase her because of how hot she is due to her natural athleticism and confidence, not how she's trying to be, how she's drawn or how she's posed (and many of them are probably at least subconsciously aware they'll never be as talented and capable as she is). One thing that really sets Elise apart from many other gaming leading ladies is that, despite her obviously being very sexy, EA Sports has always treated this aspect of her character, and her character in general, with extreme respect-Elise's sexuality has never been exploited or used as a crass way to market the series and neither she nor her female colleagues are shot through the male gaze in cutscenes. When her sexiness was turned up starting with SSX Tricky, she was given a flattering, yet still very stylish and practical alpine jacket and jeans ensemble. It exposed a tiny bit of her midriff, but this was still something one could reasonably expect a snowboarder to wear, especially during Spring riding. Besides, it was nothing compared to what her male counterparts got: Moby, for one, went completely shirtless to show off his super-ripped physique and full-body Union Jack tattoo.

The only minor blemish on EA Sports' record is when cheesecake artist extraordinaire Adam Warren was brought in to do the concept art and character models for SSX 3: Elise was given ludicrous proportions, put in some really suggestive and provocative poses and also seemed to have been de-aged. On top of that, one of the possible outfits she could wear was a slinky black bikini, which is not an entirely practical fashion choice for someone who lives the life of an extreme snowboarder. However, Warren at least had the comparative decency to do this to everyone in the cast, not just Elise and EA Sports thankfully backpedaled hard from this for the next sequel, SSX On Tour, where she was given a cute and stylish white sweater and cargo pants and all attempts to make her a sex object ceased with no further discussion. This trend has continued for all the subsequent games culminating in Elise showing up in 2012's series reboot in a full-body suit of protective alpine armour and gear, befitting her new role as an adventurer in Earth's harshest environments, which still manages to show off her really impressive (yet not unrealistic) build and musculature.

Despite the minor hiccup with SSX 3, Elise has on the whole been treated much better than game heroines like Samus Aran or Lara Croft, both of whom started off in some form as immediate feminist icons but who have, over time, strayed somewhat from their legacy and ideals due to excessive and often blisteringly incompetent rewrites (sometimes with absolutely catastrophic results). EA Sports has never felt the need to give Elise a hilariously tortured backstory, for example, nor have they felt a burning obligation to give her an overbearing, upstaging male mentor or convoluted sexual tension with a love interest. Elise does what she does for the love of it, because it's interesting and important to her and because she's always looking to broaden her horizons. Since Elise and her sexuality have always been respected and never treated as an object of childish gawking and exploitation, she remains a formidable feminist role model 12 years after her creation. That resonates really strongly with me and makes it really easy for me to cheer for her each time a new SSX game is released

One of my favourite TV shows growing up was the PBS series Wishbone, about a talking Jack Russel terrier bibliophile who retold classic works of literature after being inspired by similar events in his daily life ( was better than it sounds). Slightly looney premise aside, what I liked best about it was the character Sam Kepler (played by Christie Abbott) who was the best friend of Joe, Wishbone's owner and David, his next-door neighbour. Sam was a cheerful, outgoing and friendly tomboy who always had the backs of her two best friends. She was also a total ace: Hands-down the most athletically talented and versatile of the kids on the show (despite Joe's being a basketball enthusiast serving as the main crux for many an episode), she dominated at skateboarding, soccer, and even roller hockey. Sam's dad even owned a pizza parlor and she'd invite all her friends over to hang out there after school. It seemed like there wasn't anything Sam wasn't interested in and wouldn't lend her skills and talents to-When she wasn't showing off her sports skills or throwing pizza parties for her two best friends, she was leading them on all kinds of wild adventures, many of which proved to be fodder for the titular dog's overactive imagination. Why he wound up the star and not her remains a mystery to me, though she works incredibly well in a non-lead capacity. As a kid I really looked up to Sam and hoped someday I could be as effortlessly cool and have as many hobbies and interests as her.

I bring up Sam because she's a great metaphor for explaining why I dig Elise so much on a more personal level. Put bluntly, as someone who was a fan of Wishbone and has followed SSX since its inception, it's not inconceivable to me that someone kind of like Sam would grow up to become someone kind of like Elise. Both are unbelievably strong characters with a fierce sense of independence who are driven to succeed at anything they put their minds to, and they put their minds to a lot. Despite that, they both have time for those closest to them. There are some differences: Elise is an insane caricature, sure and Sam, while definitely a product of the 1990s, is at least somewhat more realistic, but their core personalities still seem similar enough to me that I feel this analogy works. And, just like Sam, Elise is someone I can deeply admire-I can only attempt to emulate some of her energy and sterling steel resolve. Elise also has the benefit of being a video game character: Someone we can, however briefly (and at times awkwardly) step into the shoes of.

In my analysis of Super Mario Bros. I made the argument that one of the reasons the game succeeds is because Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario and Luigi to be very easy to relate to: Noble, humble working-class chaps tossed into a strange world and made to explore. By making the main characters people we can identify with, the boundary between the player and the game is blurred and it becomes easier to lose oneself in the immersion of the experience, which was the absolute most important part of Super Mario Bros. Elise works for me in much the same way, but with one crucial variable: Elise isn't just someone I can understand and relate to, but someone whose ideals I actively admire and who I consciously want to be like. In the same way some people look up to “badass” characters like Solid Snake or Nathan Drake, I look up to Elise: I want to be as strong, self-assured, self-reliant, independent, sexy, confident and successful in so many different and exciting things as she is. Being a sort of personal hero and role-model, Elise becomes more than just a cipher and is elevated in my eyes to the level of genuine escapism in a way that, contrary to a lot of mainstream and literature on the medium, I rarely feel with games: I can escape into her world, her life and live vicariously through her when I can't follow her example in real life. Combine this with the series' increasingly effortless and intuitive control scheme and tumbling mechanics engine and SSX, when it's at its best, becomes one of the most powerfully evocative video game experiences I can ever have.