Crispy Gamer

The Language of Games: Listening to the Girl in Your Ear

Books have been around for ages. Music has been with us nearly forever. Even movies have been around for over a century. But videogames are fairly young as far as artistic mediums go -- they were born only 50 or 60 years ago. They're just now coming of age as a means of expression and a mainstream form of entertainment.

And since videogames are so young, we're still coming to terms with them -- figuring out what they mean, how they work and why they matter. It's my belief that there are tons of elements, traits, techniques and clich?s in games that haven't yet been identified, named, and explored. It's my hope to start that work here, with what I'd like to be the first of many articles that attempt to nail down the unnamed tropes of videogames.

The Girl in Your Ear
Need schematics, maps or a recipe for mango salsa? Ask Oracle.

And since this is a rough draft of the new gaming lexicon, I'd love to hear from you about my insights. Have more examples that'll help me prove my point? Got a bone to pick with my criticisms and observations? Please let me hear from you. I'm here to start hashing this stuff out, and I'd love other gamers to be in on the conversation.

To kick things off, I'd like to talk about the notion of the girl in your ear. I'm talking about women like Cortana, Anya and Oracle -- videogame characters whose primary purpose is to feed information, deliver plot, create drama, and offer tips to you, the hero, by piping their voices directly into your ear.

I first noticed this trend while playing 2006's Tomb Raider: Legend. As an avid follower of the series I'd grown accustomed to having Lara Croft to myself. It was just her in those empty tombs and deadly caves. Her and me, of course, calling the shots. But things were different in Tomb Raider: Legend. Lara had friends -- like her research assistant Alistair Fletcher, who was constantly updating her on plot points and telling her precisely what she was supposed to be doing via wireless. The guy was helpful, to be sure, but blew the mood. I didn't like this pushy jerk getting between me and my story, ruining the pristine silence of these ancient spaces with his lame advice.

The Girl in Your Ear
Marcus Fenix's girl is a little high-maintenance. Don't bug him when they're chatting.

Tagalongs aren't always unwelcome. When Navi first turned up to help Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, she wound up being fairly useful. Sure, the fairy would pester if you decided to wander aimlessly, but her intentions were good. Navi helped guide Link through a fairly vast and nonlinear world. Many girls in your ear are there to guide you through fairly straightforward experiences. The ruins of Tomb Raider and the battlefields of Gears of War and Halo don't necessarily need tour guides.

I brought the notion of the "girl in your ear" up to Rod Fergusson, producer of Gears of War around the time the second game in the series came out. I pointed out that Anya, the COG who regularly spouts situational updates to Marcus Fenix, was just one of many female videogame characters who were becoming something of a clich?. Ferguson didn't buy it. But then, he's spent the last four or five years making games rather than playing them.

Like Navi, the girl in your ear can be unobtrusive. My problem is when the girl in your ear becomes a crutch -- a shortcut to push the story forward, keep the player moving and motivated. The girl in your ear becomes all the more problematic when she's nigh-omniscient -- dialed into a computer with every map, bit of trivia and password at her fingerprints. Oracle from Batman: Arkham Asylum may be the worst example of this trope. Barbara Gordon -- the wheelchair-bound daughter of Commissioner Gordon -- is leveraged in Rocksteady's game as a font of information. She offers little character or motivation to Bats, just answers to problems. In old-fashioned dramatic criticism, that's called deus ex machina -- an out-of-the-blue bit of help that helps the protagonist win the day.

The Girl in Your Ear
GLaDOS ain't exactly a girl. And that's what makes her interesting.

Of course, Fergusson has a point. The girl in your ear isn't always a bad thing. Especially when she gives bad advice. GLaDOS in Portal is an imaginative angle on the trope. The evil computer can't be trusted. The words the throws your way are meant to stymie you as much as they are meant to guide. The relationship the player forms with GLaDOS is complex, thanks to that antagonism. She's a peer rather than a servant.

Cortana, on the other hand, is both a princess and a girl in your ear. She needs rescuing in Halo 3 -- and part of the reason you want to save her virtual hide is because she's been so helpful. You have history with her.

So maybe the verdict is still out when it comes to the girl in your ear. A well-written, complex gal can bring a lot to a game story. She can motivate, inform, and make you feel like you've got someone in your corner when it seems like the entire universe is against you. I suspect that's why nine times out of 10, the girl in your ear is a girl (Mercury from Mirror's Edge was a rare male in the role). If somebody's going to be hollering in your ear for the length of a game, it may as well be somebody pretty.

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