I feel like emotional resolution in games is a critically under-explored topic. By this, I’m referring to the specific kind of resolution you see in Persona 4, where characters are forced to confront deep emotional issues, overcome them, and grow as an individual. I can understand why this topic may be ignored – only a small set of games center social interaction as something with inherent value, and the main character is bettering other people’s lives through their actions – but there are a number of questions such a scenario raises. On what terms does the emotional resolution take place? What does that process look like (is it the same for all people or does it vary from person to person)? What should the result look like? Whose perspective is centered in all of this? These aren’t questions we should be ignoring.
Stella Glow shows us some of the problems that arise by turning a blind eye to these issues. Quietly released for the 3DS last year, Stella Glow is a fairly conservative game from Atlus. It’s a mathematically precise combination of popular anime motifs. More specifically, it borrows the previously described emotional resolution of Persona and Madoka Magica‘s emotionally turbulent young witches. Unfortunately, Atlus’ calculated effort backfires horribly. Despite centering female characters in the story, the game pays no attention to its own gender politics nor how its story (plot, themes, characters) fit into them. While it may approach the topic with good intentions, the results are dismal: female characters end up objectified, stripped of their autonomy and reduced to stereotypes.
Before I go into any of that, though, it would help to go over some of the basic concepts of the game. Stella Glow introduces several important fantasy elements very early in its story and understanding them will help us understand what the writers were trying to accomplish. The premise is standard fantasy fare: our characters live in a world where music is a magical force that only a handful of Witches can wield. One such Witch, Hilda, abuses that power by using her song to turn everyone into crystal. After main character Alto witnesses Hilda’s destructive power, he becomes a Regnant Kingdom knight and a member of the 9th Regiment, a squad of soldiers dedicated to winning over the remaining Witches that they might sing the Anthem and reverse Hilda’s crystallization. Winning over said Witches almost always entails Alto Tuning them – diving into the deep recesses of their mind to sort out their emotional damage.
And considering the general perception Regnant has of Witches, there’s bound to be a lot. From a young age, parents teach their daughters what a destructive and terrible force Witches are and how they’d never want to be anything like them. It’s such an effective tactic that several Witches go into hiding to avoid this scorn. Yet the most important fact about Witches is that any girl has the potential to be a Witch. Not because girls choose to be Witches, mind you, but because the Qualia (magical jewels aligned with one of the four elements) enters their body and gives them the power to sing. Most of them are quite young when they become Witches. The youngest Witch in the game is Popo at 15, and the two oldest ones are only a couple of years ahead of her.
At this point, it should be clear that the Witch and song motifs are meant as extended allegories for coming of age. Having just come out of puberty, the Witches exist in this uncomfortable space between child and adult. They have some idea of who they are, but they’re expected to reconcile that idea not only with society’s expectations of them, but also whatever assumptions had been ingrained into them throughout their lives. This causes tension and thus pain. Becoming a Witch only compounds that pain, both because of the perceptions surrounding Witches and because the pop idol motifs associated with them exert enormous pressure on the girls to perform for an audience. Yet the power of song also provides them the answer to their problems. It acts as a mediating force that resolves their internal strife, allowing them to sing for other people while remaining true to their innermost self. In theory, Alto’s presence and the whole Tuning part of the story are meant to concentrate these ideas through a familiar Persona-esque lens, IE letting your friends help you on your path to psychological reconciliation.
In practice, unfortunately, the way Stella Glow presents these themes reveals significant holes in its own logic. To provide just one example: why are the Witches the only characters with these complex emotional landscapes to navigate? It may not be immediately clear why this is a problem, but a lot of your time in the game is spent socializing with other characters through a Social Link-like feature. Witches aren’t the only characters Alto can socialize with, but they are the only ones depicted as having significant emotional problems that need to be overcome. Male characters are never shown having any emotional problems at all, and any problems a non-Witch female character may have aren’t recognized as such. Nonoka is by far the worst example of that: her close friend Sayuka (the Fire Witch) abuses her on a regular basis by insulting her body, demeaning her intelligence, etc. The topic is never once broached in any of Alto’s social interactions with Nonoka, much less Sayuka.
The obvious answer for why the Witches get such an inordinate focus is because it’s in the state’s best interest to look after their mental well-being. After all, they’re the only ones who can sing the Anthem, and with their powers tied to their emotional state, taking care of their needs takes top priority. However, this only provides us hints of what’s really going on. The truth of the matter is that Stella Glow, through its Regnant Kingdom, promotes an ideal for women that’s very traditional, where women exist as docile objects for men to act upon as they please. This ideal is then justified through the game’s psychological focus by portraying it as peak emotional health.
To demonstrate this point, let’s return to the Witches and consider why Regnant views them as threatening in the first place. There’s the material threat Hilda poses – she traps Alto’s village (among others) in crystal – but much of what we learn about the Witches is handed down to the cast through oral tradition that never refers to any one Witch. And even before this destructive act, we’re trained to see Hilda as untrustworthy figure. Her sexualized presence – the body thong that clings to every feature of her anatomy, the sexually suggestive movements she makes in battle – threaten to disrupt the sexually neutered lifestyle that characters like Alto and Lisette enjoy. The subsequent destruction of their village not only validates that threat, but because it forces the two of them engage Hilda on her terms, it also elaborates upon that threat by depicting female independence as a danger in its own right. What really makes the Witches so threatening, then, is how their very existence challenges what the people consider an ideal woman by turning that image on its head. Witches aren’t tied down by tradition; they’re independent women who challenge convention and take action on their own terms without waiting for anybody to guide them.
Yet by no means is Hilda the only example. In fact, her identity as the active Witch is replicated time and again throughout all subsequent Witch encounters. (Before going any further, I should clarify that few of the Witch fights involve Alto fighting against the Witches. More often, he fights with them.) Before they’re brought under Regnant Kingdom control, Witches define the tone of whatever battle they’re in to such a strong extent that Alto is rendered completely dependent upon their abilities. Lisette has healing magic (and magic in general) at her disposal. Popo can reach high places and hit far away targets with her bow. Sakuya cleaves enemies in half by poking them where Alto’s most powerful abilities can only deal moderate damage, at best. These are all abilities that Alto doesn’t possess when he first meets them, and with the exception of Sakuya, he can never acquire for himself.
That model is inverted alarmingly quickly the moment a Witch joins the 9th Regiment. No longer self-sufficient women, they find themselves quickly forced into a support role whose only job is to provide aid to Alto. It’s hard to think of many battles after that point that hinge on their survival specifically, even though Alto’s death unconditionally spells Game Over. But more broadly speaking, the help these Witches receive during their time in the 9th Regiment has less to do with their well-being than it does with shaping them to be the ideal romantic partner. In practice, this means whatever obstacles threaten to disrupt that goal are projected outward as objective problems in the girl’s emotional being. Sometimes, that evaluation has a degree of accuracy, like Popo repressing the pain she’s held onto after years of abuse and isolation. Then there are characters like Mordimort who appear emotionally healthy but are nonetheless interpreted as having emotional problems because they don’t meet society’s definition of normal.
Whatever the case may be, they are ultimately obligated to accept Alto’s help in overcoming this problem. So he takes them to the Tuning Hall and pays somebody a small fee so he can tune them, much like one would tune an instrument or a car. The Tuning itself plays out like a therapy sessions where the client’s wearing lingerie, and while I’m interested in what forms of sexuality Stella Glow deems permissible (especially given the phallic imagery associated with singing), what I’m more interested in is the emotional objectification that occurs in these scenes. The Witches are both defined by their pain and unable to alleviate it on their own. The only options available to them, the game posits, are to walk themselves in mental circles and bring yet more pain upon themselves. Better to trust their Qualia (the innermost thing only they can know) to Alto’s care than their own. At this point, whatever messages the writers hoped to communicate have had their meaning completely inverted. Song is no longer a form of personal expression, but a duty; something that is to be shaped and cultivated specifically to meet outside standards. Likewise, the story is no longer about turning to those we care about to overcome what we’re too weak to move past on our own, but about the necessity of male intervention in female emotional life.
Perhaps most important of all (at least from the game’s perspective), its larger existential ambitions come undone by the story’s over-reliance on gender stereotypes. Shortly after the 9th Regiment perform the Anthem and find out what it was actually meant to accomplish, they’re told in detail the history of their world. Long ago, a being known as Mother Qualia arose as a manifestation of mankind’s negative emotions. Once she became saturated in those emotions, she wiped humanity off the face of the Earth and went to sleep, waiting for the day when mankind’s desire for death once again reached the tipping point. Witches, as derivative copies of Mother Qualia, were and are complicit in this destruction, as they unconsciously send data on human emotion to her through their own Qualia. (The unintended consequence of this new plot point is that any hatred directed at the Witches earlier in the story is now perfectly justified.) The only force capable of fighting Mother Qualia is Alto. Because the Qualia residing within him is powered by positive emotions, it acts as a counter to Mother Qualia and shares no relation with her whatsoever.
The obvious parallel this story has is to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve; specifically, Eve’s being born from one of Adam’s ribs. In both story, men are posited as being the only true individuals while women are nothing but copies of something else. But where Eve is a copy of man, the Witches are copies of some abstract concept of womanhood. What’s more, that concept of womanhood renders our previous definition of Witches as “inherently destructive women who are defined by their pain” an existential truism, one that’s no longer limited to women. Now the salient factor is one’s proximity to these women. Late game villain Xeno, for instance, is a very masculine figure who seeks absolute control through domination and violence. Yet the only reason he’s like this is because he’s been corrupted by Mother Qualia’s control over him. By contrast, Alto, by refusing that same control, becomes the savior who redeems mankind from its folly. Unfortunately, this gesture means nothing.
While the intent was to show the 9th Regiment casting aside divine control and giving humans control over their own destiny, in practice, all Stella Glow achieves is substituting Alto for God. The fact that Alto defeats Mother Qualia by turning her like he would the Witches further strengthens that new role of his. It’s also worth considering that life under this new God wouldn’t be much better than before. At least under Mother Qualia, the Witches enjoyed a degree of autonomy. She observes in silence, only taking action when negative emotion has reached a certain threshold. Given the extent to which Alto inserts himself into the Witches’ lives, it’s doubtful whether that autonomy would stay intact.
This is especially troubling in light of Alto’s character and how he serves to mask the male perspective as both neutral and objective. Much like how the Witches are based on generic anime archetypes, Alto is presented to us as the generic player surrogate hero with no real identity. He starts the story off remembering nothing about his past, and his personality can best be described as “Steven Universe qua Eren Yeager.” Hell, half the abilities he learns are from the group as a whole growing closer; his identity is conflated with the group’s. Although characters like this have worked just fine in countless other media, Stella Glow’s use of this archetype poses some important dangers. By giving Alto so little character and directing whatever’s left outward, Stella Glow diverts our attention away from him and suggests his character isn’t need of interrogation. Thus any desires the player enacts through him (IE one-way romantic feelings toward the Witches) are rendered natural and any problems his existence threatens to bring up are calmly swept under the rug as not worth thinking about.
And there are quite a few problems Alto’s character poses. Despite coming from similar circumstances as Lisette (both have these unfamiliar roles thrust upon them after seeing their entire way of life destroyed), Alto has few if any real problems with his emotional health. Combine this with the way social interactions with male characters never bring up their psychological pain and Stella Glow effectively solidifies whatever gender dichotomies were implied elsewhere throughout it. Moreover, the way in which Alto solves his own problems both opens up different possibilities for the Witches’ Tunings and reinforces the option the game ultimately goes with.
There’s the possibility of him tuning himself late in the game – if he can tune himself, why can’t the Witches? – but the actual act of self-tuning reveals so much more. I haven’t mentioned it until now, but there’s a pattern throughout several of the story fights: the 9th Regiment are fighting a hopeless fight, but at the last second, the Witch they’d been trying to recruit breaks free from some of her psychological chains, taps into her true powers, and carries the team to victory. Alto’s self-tuning follows a very similar format, albeit with a much different emphasis. There are no chains for Alto to break; no pain to overcome. He has no problem proving his resolve as the hero Regnant needs. But because his identity is that of the group, it’s the rest of the 9th Regiment whose resolve is thrown into question. Without his guidance, the Witches are helpless to fend off oncoming enemy attacks, even if the player has trained them to such a point that they could win the battle without Alto. Once again we find the necessity of male presence justified.
Based on what I’ve played of Stella Glow, I don’t think the game has much interest in these matters beyond a surface appreciation of them. But isn’t that all the more reason why we should pay them attention? What the game uses are pervasive features of Japanese entertainment. Studying them in greater detail not only allows us to understand them better, but to challenge them and come up with healthier alternatives; ones that center female characters as subjects in their own right instead of objects for others to use as they see fit. To turn this back to Stella Glow, I find it telling that after spending enough time with Alto, a Witch evolves into what it considers their ideal self: a Goddess. We’re meant to see this as a step up from being a Witch, yet the two are actually the same: neither one is human and both exist as constructs to be used at society’s leisure.