Hello Everyone! I got bored while driving for hours across the state, and I started thinking about Soulworker. I've been a big fan of in-depth character analysis in video games, and so I thought it would be neat if I posted something for the game I enjoy. A big shout out goes to StrikeRaid for posting gameplay videos about the story which I used for reference and quotes. This is a 2651 word informal essay, where I go in depth about why Iris
is best girl has a good character arc.
Needless to say, this informal essay has SPOILERS, so please go through and play the game before reading this.
Amazing voice acting, sound design, weapon design, game mechanics, and animation all contributed into Soulworker's great overall character design that I want to talk about one day. But aside from all of that, in this informal essay I want to talk about one important quality that usually falls by the wayside in many MMOs, but is strongly represented in Soulworker - character arcs. I will be taking a look at how Iris' character arc is a great example on how to write an understandable coming-of-age character arc in a video game, and what we can learn from it.
To understand her development, we will first look at her personality and beliefs, and how those contribute to her flaws. Then, we will see how she overcomes these flaws through her experiences during the story events.
At first glance, Iris is the stereotypical poster child of a high school teenager on a reality tv show: stubborn and arrogant. We are immediately presented with Iris' attitude as soon as she falls out of the Great Void. The first instance of this is when Major Benjy orders her to save Miriam at the drill site. Iris responds by saying that she will follow through with his orders, but only because *she* believes that it is the right thing to do, and not because he told her to. While slightly annoying at first, this shows that Iris is an active character.
As an active character, Iris is not afraid to speak her mind, and this is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the other characters in Soulworker and in MMOs in general. Miriam literally states that Iris is the type of person that "wears her emotions on her sleeve." While on the surface both of these actions seem to indicate typical rebellious behavior, this can be interpreted as Iris trying to gain more control in her life. Let’s look at her backstory for more context.
The opening cutscene gave us a glimpse into Iris’ life before the events of Soulworker. There, her parents constantly restricted her freedom and compared her to her sisters (due to her being “different”) and caused her to feel inferior. To compensate, Iris developed other habits that would increase her own freedom and feeling of self-worth such as driving a motorcycle and arguing openly with her parents.
I’d like to mention that this is also hinted at by her weapon - the Hammer Stol is the bluntest weapon used by any other character (other than Jin’s fists, but I'll get to that in a future article). Additionally, it’s the largest weapon in the game, which practically screams “Look at me! I’m important.”
Because her parents constantly punished and restricted Iris for being different from her sisters, this caused her to develop a deep seated belief that would drive all of her actions and not change until the end of the game. I also think that this belief is more meaningful than the official Lion Games description of anger. I call this belief “the illusion of leadership.”
---The Illusion of Leadership---
Iris acts the way she does because she wants to be the perfect leader, unlike the adults in her life that claim to be. In her mind, the perfect leader is the person that shows confidence, never runs away from a fight, and (perhaps most importantly) makes sure that her followers are treated fairly and given enough freedom. This is established early on through her dialogue with Major Benjy, Dr. Seoni, and Colonel Aaron.
I think it’s also interesting to note how her fighting style symbolizes her outlook on leadership. The Hammer Stol, being the largest weapon in the game, is an excessive show of force that symbolizes Iris’ strength of will by swinging it around effortlessly. As a melee weapon (for the most part), it also shows how she is not afraid to fight at the front as a leader. And in terms of game mechanics, the cooldown for Iris' Soulstrike while airborne is much shorter than all other characters in the game. In other words, she gains more Soulforce while using her right click in the air. Being in the air more often is a reference to "flying," which symbolically represents how important freedom of spirit is to her.
On the surface, this is a pretty fair view of what the ideal leader should be. You might even say that these are traits of a "perfect" leader. But even though her views of a leader are justifiable, Iris has two character flaws that cause this belief to become problematic. First, she blindly follows assumptions that cause her to automatically disregard people as leaders. Second, she only follows leaders that she recognizes are worthy of following.
The first issue is that her assumption that "adults are not good leaders" is so generalized that she tends to distrusts any adult at first glance. This comes from her own personal experience of her parents restricting her freedom throughout her life, by forcing her to act like her sisters and to act "normally." Due to this experience, she believes all adults (aka all leaders) are capable of restricting their children’s (aka their followers’) freedom just because they call themselves adults. This causes her to have beef with normally passive side characters such as Wilba, as when he gave Iris advice to be more cautious, she mistook it for him being overbearing and restrictive.
The second issue is that she doesn't realize her expectations of what a leader should be are impossibly high. In other words, the "perfect leader" can't realistically exist, so she will never find someone worthy for her to follow. She calls adults that aren’t confident “weak,” adults not on the frontline "cowards," and adults that don't treat their followers justly "oppressors." This causes her to lose respect for her superiors if they do one thing she doesn’t like, while disregarding all the other positive traits. Later on, this will also cause her to lose confidence in her own leadership ability.
Iris didn’t respect Commander Avon because he didn’t seem serious about his job, while behind the scenes he worked his butt off. Iris didn’t respect General Toru because of his seemingly jokester attitude, which caused her to be surprised by his commanding presence when lives were in danger in Cold Rain. And most impactfully, Iris didn’t respect Colonel Aaron because of the way he treated Catherine.
Speaking of Catherine,
---The First Blow---
To understand why the Candus City arc was so impactful to Iris, we have to understand what Catherine was to Iris. Where does Catherine fit into all of this?
Well, a key difference between Iris’ narrative and other characters is that Catherine is "freed" from Aaron, rather than being placed under house arrest. When introduced to Catherine’s struggles with her father Aaron, she immediately empathized with Catherine’s lack of freedom because she saw a bit of herself in the girl. On a deeper level, this was also a chance for Iris to prove to herself that she is the capable leader that she imagined herself to be.
What made this more emotionally impactful to Iris was that she was initially successful. Because of her actions, Catherine obtained more freedom and immediately gravitated towards Iris, making Iris feel self-validated that she is doing the right thing as long as she stuck to her beliefs. This positive response from Catherine highlighted Iris’ perceived ability for a moment, only for it to come crashing down in the next.
When Catherine dies, this is the first blow to Iris’ illusion of leadership: not only can adults make rules for reasons other than to restrict their followers’ freedom, but she might not be the leader that she thought she was. Much like a child would, Iris actually continues to act in her typical behavior, refusing to accept her shortcomings and becoming emotionally unstable in the process. Although Operator Chloe eventually calms her down while in Grace City, this only reduces the amount of anger Iris feels, and doesn't do much to change her own illusion of leadership.
---The Shadow Walker Arc---
Iris refuses to change her beliefs until halfway through Grasscover Camp during the Shadow Walker arc. During which, Tenebris refusing to reveal Iris’ past causes her to become even more desperate to prove herself, making her seem even closer to her past self.
She continues to deny that her perspective is wrong until she meets her Shadow Walker in Grasscover Camp, where is greeted with an extremist version of her views. How extreme? Let's suppose that 15 years in the past Iris had just been sucked into the Void right after the fresh memory of her heated family argument. There is chaos everywhere, and nobody knows what to do, not even the supposed "adults." This would only reinforce her belief that adults are wrong, and so she eagerly stepped up and became a leader to prove that she could do it better than them. Iris’ leadership ability is hinted at by Miriam while in Rucco Town.
However, due to constant exposure to sinforce over time, this position of power would corrupt her and cause her to believe that *only* she could be a better leader than all adults in the world. After this, she became a dictator/sinworker, which Tenebris mentions during the "Your Story" quest.
But Shruikan, you may ask. How could Iris be a dictator if she believed that a leader's followers must be treated fairly and be given freedom? This is because she believed she was perfect, and therefore exempt from the rules.
After confronting her Shadow Walker, Iris is exposed to the harsh reality of her flawed beliefs; if she continues on her unrelenting rage, she will fail.
Yada yada yada, through her conversations with her Shadow Walker, she learns to take responsibility for her own actions and acknowledges that she is not perfect but strives to be a better leader as she grows up and becomes an adult.
But this change of mindset did not come without a risk. Iris’ soulforce was being threatened because her belief has changed. If she no longer believes the perfect leader exists, she can no longer be angry about people who fall flat, and because she feels less anger, wouldn’t her power decrease? How does she resolve this? Well, even if she knows she isn't the perfect leader, that doesn't mean that she's going to give up trying to achieve that. As a mature individual - an “adult” - she felt responsible for Catherine's death, and so her drive to become the best leader she can be continues to power her abilities.
When Iris promises to her shadow walker that she will never become "that type" of adult which her shadow walker fought so hard against, that concluded her character arc.
As much as I like to discuss the good parts of Iris’ character arc, I do believe that more could have been done to make it easier to understand.
There are a lot of different themes that are thrown around regarding Iris’ character, and they don’t have that much room to stand out on their own. The idea of Iris redefining her concept of maturity and leadership is a key point of her character arc, but it could be stronger by adding more contrast.
When Iris first returned to Candus City for the final stage of her awakening, she found Colonel Aaron acting like a dictator, exhibiting uncontrolled anger and desire for revenge against the Souldregs. Iris resolved this issue by stating that “using [her] power of anger for this just [didn’t] feel right.” After she apologized to Colonel Aaron about Catherine, he accepted it, magically turned back to normal, and proceeded to lecture her about the importance of rules. This doesn’t make sense for two reasons. First, Iris’ source of power is not revenge - her name is not Haru. The addition of a second motif - revenge - dilutes the importance of her central message of leadership, so the awakening arc becomes confusing. Additionally, it doesn’t make sense for Iris’ character to immediately respect Aaron’s opinion about rules considering his earlier aggressiveness towards her.
Here’s one example of how I think it could have gone better.
Let’s go back to when Iris cleared Junk Hive, when she apologized to Colonel Aaron about Catherine. What if, instead of Colonel Aaron immediately accepting her apology, he lashes out at her?
As Iris is shocked in disbelief, Colonel Aaron continues to verbally assault her by stating that she is in his way and that his actions are the only way to save Candus City. Iris retaliates by calling out Colonel Aaron’s actions as childish and immature, and that he should know better as a leader. But Colonel Aaron doubles down and openly blames Iris for Catherine’s death. Infused with anger, Iris temporarily gains the power of her Shadow Walker (represented by a dark red aura around her character portrait) because she is reminded of her anger towards all adults. Colonel Aaron is speechless. After a few moments of silence, Iris’ power wears off, and she admits responsibility for Catherine’s death, acknowledging how she could be a better leader. She then proceeds to lecture Aaron on the right way to be a leader in the face of adversity, and walks off to Shiho to obtain her final Dark Fragment.
I do admit that this example is somewhat extreme, and this does reflect poorly on Aaron’s character design as a Colonel. However, this is intentional because it creates the juxtaposition of a person in a leadership role who is unfit to lead, which is the whole point of Iris’ source of power. By lowering his personality, he would serve as a foil so that Iris’ character growth would be more substantial.
Besides, Lion Games already threw Colonel Aaron under the bus with Dipluce Horizon.
I’m glad you made it this far! Lion Games definitely put effort into making Iris’ character arc memorable and impactful. So why is learning about Iris’ character arc important?
I would say the most obvious take-away is to recognize your own illusion of leadership.
An important part of Western culture is the idea that success is measured by one’s ability to lead other people (this is also becoming relevant in industrialized Asian countries such as Korea [Soulworker is a Korean MMO]). As such, the term “leader” is often thrown around loosely and both creates unrealistic standards and unfair measurements of a person’s self-worth. In Iris’ case, it was her parents’ overbearance that caused her to create the idea in her mind about what a leader should be like.
In life, it can be scary when others compare you to these impossible “leadership” standards that just don’t work for some people. Be outgoing. Be charismatic. Be assertive. I’m sure that you have heard at least one of these phrases directed at you before. I certainly have. But it hurts even worse when you direct it at yourself after hearing it for so long, and that is what happened in Iris’ case.
It’s important to recognize whenever you or someone else has set up unrealistic goals, whether it be about leadership or anything else, and to not beat yourself up about it. Don’t force yourself to be a “leader,” and try to find healthy ways of achieving yours or other people’s standards without worrying whether or not other people judge you too much. All we can really do is try our best to do what we can.
And when people see that we are making our best effort, then other people will naturally follow.
Isn’t that what makes a perfect leader?