Tuesday, June 21, 2016

[AVW011] Doing Better - Semiramis, Builder of Walls

Previous: [AVW010] Doing Better – Psyche Loves Cupid

"There is a new element of rivalry in the picture: the son against the father for the mastery of the universe, and the daughter against the mother to be the mastered world."

- Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Of all the posts in this series, this one has the shakiest theoretical foundation. I'm going to take an idea from Campbell that I'm not 100% convinced of and use it to declare an entire genre of games feminine. This is less of a theory and more of a hypothesis. So consider your disclaimers disclaimed.

The Background

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell takes the Hero/Anima pattern a step further than (rather, lateral to) Jung. Instead of presenting the Anima as the Unconscious of the male and the Animus as the Unconscious of the female, he associates the Hero with the Consciousness and the Princess with the Unconscious:

"The hegemony wrested from the enemy, the freedom won from the malice of the monster, the life energy released from the toils of the tyrant Holdfast—is symbolized as a woman. She is the maiden of the innumerable dragon slayings, the bride abducted from the jealous father, the virgin rescued from the unholy lover. She is the "other portion" of the hero himself—for "each is both”: if his stature is that of world monarch she is the world, and if he is a warrior she is fame. She is the image of his destiny which he is to release from the prison of enveloping circumstance."

Campbell phrases this same basic idea in a few different ways, but the theme is the same: the male always represents the active principle (the Hero) and the female always represents the passive principle (the Prize):

"The mystical marriage with the queen goddess of the world represents the hero's total mastery of life; for the woman is life, the hero its knower and master. And the testings of the hero, which were preliminary to his ultimate experience and deed, were symbolical of those crises of realization by means of which his consciousness came to be amplified and made capable of enduring the full possession of the mother-destroyer, his inevitable bride. With that he knows that he and the father are one: he is in the father's place."
"According to one of the traditional ways of looking at these supports of meditation, the female form (Tibetan: yum) is to be regarded as time and the male {yab) as eternity. The union of the two is productive of the world, in which all things are at once temporal and eternal, created in the image of this self-knowing male-female God. "
"God, however, is but a convenient means to wake the sleeping princess, the soul. Life is her sleep, death the awakening. The hero, the waker of his own soul, is himself but the convenient means of his own dissolution. God, the waker of the soul, is therewith his own immediate death."
Now, there are many bones one could pick with this framework. In Campbell's defense, many religions and magical traditions associate the male with the active principle and the female with the passive principle. Certainly, we see many more stories in which the male Hero is the active agent and the female is the passive prize than the other way around. But that doesn't mean that this paradigm is the only psychologically satisfying route.

We've already looked at a few examples where a female protagonist is the active agent and a male character is the passive prize – Inanna, Paghat, and Psyche are all active agents in their own quest to liberate the Unconscious from its bonds. Jung would perhaps be the first to object to over-identifying male with active and female with passive, as his accounts of female patients' encounters with the Animus would attest.

But our goal is not to pit Patriarchy against Feminism in this series. So instead of picking apart the shortcomings of Campbell's interpretation, let's see where it leads us. After all, even if male=active / female=passive is an oversimplification, it is a common oversimplification. Let's pull a little more on this thread. How could we make a game from the point of view of the Mastered World – of the Anima?

The Story in a Nutshell

Since Campbell's assertion is that the woman represents "the mastered world," we're going to look at Semiramis. As a builder of walls, Semiramis is in many ways a representative of civilization itself, of the ordered and safe life. Without the protective embrace of the walls of Semiramis, the fledgling cities of Near East civilization would have fallen to wild animals, bandits, and enemy armies.

Semiramis is more of a legendary figure than a historical one, but there is evidence that her legend had its start in the historical Queen of Assyria, Shammuramat. Shammuramat was the wife of Shmshi-Adad V, and ruled his kingdom as regent after his death.

As always, the legend is more than the facts.

Semiramis was the daughter of a goddess and a mortal. After her birth, the goddess abandoned her and committed suicide. But the animals (in particular, doves) cared for the child, bringing her food until she was rescued by a "royal shepherd."

She grew and was married to a general, Onnes. Semirami followed her husband into battle and displayed such bravery that the King Ninnus demanded her hand in marriage. Heartbroken, her first husband committed suicide.

Semiramis bore a son and Ninnus conquered the neighboring kingdoms, only to die of an arrow wound. In order to preserve the kingdom for her son, Semiramis dressed as a man and led her latest late husband's armies on further campaigns of conquest, eventually ruling most of the Near East and Iran. She was also famous for restoring the glories of ancient Babylon, raising walls all around it. She was also credited with building palaces in Iran. Basically, if there's an impressive structure in the Near East, someone has probably credited Semiramis with its construction.

The name of Semiramis is associated with the building of walls, but in time it also took on less savory connotations. Later writers described her first as a seductress and a harlot, and later as a full-fledged prostitute. Dante includes her in the Second Circle of Hell, reserved for the 'Lustful,' and some Protestant sects still identify her as the creator of polytheism (and thus, the rejection of the One True God).

If the name of Semiramis has taken on some negative connotations over time, her fame as a builder, conqueror, and protector cannot be denied. While this very active woman may at first seem inappropriate for "the mastered world," her status as a patron of walls and construction make her something of a symbol for civilization – the world which has been mastered.

Like Psyche, Semiramis has a character arc. She does not start out as an active agent, but as a passive figure passed from parent to protector to husband to another husband. She starts out as a Prize, but grows into the role of conquering heroine when her husband dies and the kingdom threatens to collapse. It is her feminine attributes that allow her step up as protector of the kingdom, not mere imitation of men.

The Archetypes

If the Archetypal Hero's Journey is the quest to become the Master of the ruled world, what is the Archetypal Heroine's Journey? If we believe Campbell, it is to overthrow the Mother and become the world. But how do we build a game around being a passive object?

I'm going to argue that this genre already exists – the Tower Defense game.

In Tower Defense games, the agency of the player is limited to building up defenses and perhaps directing which direction to fire. One plays essentially as an avatar of the "ruled world," of the civilized sphere which must be defended against invasion from the outside. In this sense, Tower Defense is eminently in line with Campbell's concept of the feminine.

But as Semiramis herself did not conform to Campbell's concept (in history or in legend), neither must our feminine Tower Defense game be limited to passivity. Semiramis was a wall-builder, but also a border-expander. For a Tower Defense game to truly be in line with her legend, the player needs to be able to push the borders of civilization (the area under rule) outward in addition to protecting and nurturing the area already under control.

While this concept would work with the traditional Tower Defense set-up, we also might use this idea to reinvent the Dating Sim genre. What if we did an inversion of Huniepop? Instead of using skillful manipulation to seduce, the play could use skillful defense to ward off unwanted attention.

Capitulating to the attentions of the seducer too quickly could lead to the "pump and dump" bad ending, warding off all attention could lead to the "crazy cat lady" ending, and skillfully employing a tension between defense and encouragement leads to counter-seduction and success. Instead of choosing who to pursue, the player would choose who to allow to pursue.

While Campbell's view of the role of women in stories is perhaps overly limited and psychologically incorrect, it is not entirely without basis. It reflects the traditional roles of women in society, both for good and for bad. Demonizing traditional femininity wholesale also demonizes positive feminine attributes and roles – nurturing, protecting, motherhood, and so on. Traditional does not automatically equal oppressive.

Some of the most committed feminists find strength in frilly dresses and bodices. In Semiramis, I hope we can find a positive figure for some of the more passive elements of the feminine – as a protector of civilization instead of a footstool.

[AVW012] Doing Better - The Missing Half (Part One)


  1. I think you could modify a civilization type game into this fairly easily. You'd probably have to change the victory conditions and make the strategic emphasis a touch more defensive (possibly only cosmetically). Maybe have some go-like engulfment rules for capturing territory.

    1. Something similar to this exists in the Civ4 Revolution DCM mod, though I'd want to tweak it so that you're more likely to play as the local nation attempting to throw out the imperial power and restore your borders.