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Patrick Hope: Character Issues II: The Prodigy

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of four columns detailing video game characters.

Are you ready for a hot video game take? Well, here you go — “Perfect Dark” is one of my favorite first-person shooters ever. For reasons I’ve never been able to understand, everyone forgets about it, even among the ranks of Nintendo 64 shooters, opting for “GoldenEye” instead. But Perfect Dark did much of what its spiritual predecessor did, and better. There were multiplayer modes, cooler weapons, a longer story mode, and bots so you could play multiplayer against the computer. But one thing always impressed me about the game — the story.

Now, “Perfect Dark’s” story is pretty silly. You’ve got ancient weapons stuck on the bottom of the ocean, a sentient AI, the National Security Agency director cloning the president, and a friendly alien named Elvis. It’s like the writers at Rare stole the plot for a SyFy Channel original movie. But they actually did a pretty good job with the characters, none more than the protagonist, Joanna Dark.

See, back in 2000, female protagonists were few and far between. There was Samus, and Lara Croft, and Terra/Celes from “Final Fantasy VI,” and, um, that’s about it. Dropping a woman into a genre that had, up to that point, been dominated by gruff space marines was definitely a bold move. So how to go about endearing Joanna to the masses? It’s a two-step process, really. First, give her a cool British accent. Everyone loves British accents. Second, make her incredibly talented. The latter probably mattered more.

Here is Joanna’s backstory in its entirety: She is an agent for the Carrington Institute, a globetrotting philanthropic group and anti-terrorist task force. When she joined, she crushed the scores of every trainee ever, earning her the nickname Perfect Dark. She’s inexperienced, but in terms of pure ability, she’s unmatched. So she keeps getting thrown into crazier and crazier situations, which she handles with the good-natured aplomb and unflappability of a certain other British secret agent. The only weakness she really has is that she’s pretty new to the job. And, to be fair, most everyone is new to missions like saving the president from the NSA and clearing out an alien attack ship.

For her part, Joanna plays the ever-dutiful agent. However, the difference between her and the legions of other FPS characters who wordlessly plow through Nazis, demons, or some combination of both, Joanna has a personality. Yeah, she kind of has a tendency to vocalize her internal monologue and say things that function as cues that you’re supposed to complete an objective here, but it’s a pretty easy way to let the player know what they’re supposed to be doing. She also shines in her interactions with the other major characters, like showing the proper deference to the president when dealing with him or the bickering she does with the Institute’s only other active field agent, Jonathan. It’s a nice refresher from the more modern protagonists who only seem to exist as silent observers in their worlds.

Another part of Joanna that makes her stand out, especially when you consider she first appeared in 2000, is that she never falls prey to the trap that has sunk many a character-trying too hard to be cool. The fact that Joanna doesn’t feel the need to use cheesy one-liners or act overly aloof. She’s in control of the situation at all times. She always seems to know what to do. And that feeds the mystique of the perfect agent. She’s not just competent. She’s totally focused and pretty much personifies her code name, whether it’s a stealth mission, a rescue or an assault.

When “Perfect Dark” came out, the Nintendo Power review contained the tagline “Somebody’s perfect.” While that referred to the game, it also referred to the heroine, or at least the perception of her.

There’s always something compelling about the person who is absurdly good at what they do.

It’s why news stories of 12-year-olds in college always draw attention and the world stops to watch LeBron James demolish the NBA. Joanna hasn’t undergone incredible amounts of training and she’s not someone chosen by fate to save the world. She’s just that good. Somebody’s perfect, indeed.

Hope is a Dickinson attorney and video game

enthusiast. To read more of his video game columns, visit