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Andros Odyssey
by Stavros Boinodiris

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Sarah Kerrigan
Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War
Reviewed by Michael B. English on 2/6/01
Overall Score: 8.4

Article Discussion Forum

Warning: contains spoilers.

Sarah Kerrigan is one of a handful of lead characters in Blizzard Entertainment's immensely popular RTS, Starcraft. She is also one of the most psychologically complex female protagonists ever to appear in a computer game. She is a former Ghost: a psychic assassin kidnapped as a child and brainwashed into becoming a conscienceless killer. By the beginning of Starcraft, she has been "liberated" from her unscrupulous masters by Arcturus Mengsk, the leader of a rebel faction named the Sons of Korhal. Over the first few missions, the player controls her as she fights against the Terran Confederacy and an unfathomable alien threat known as the Zerg at Mengsk's behest, gradually regaining her humanity and even falling in love with a fellow resistance fighter, Jim Raynor.

Then, on her last mission, Mengsk reveals himself to be as treacherous as all the rest, and leaves her to die as a horde of Zerg storms across the base she'd been setting up.

Instead of killing her, the Zerg Overmind uses its knowledge of genetic engineering and mind control to remake her yet again. This time she is turned into the Zerg Queen of Blades, a monstrous, evil being who remembers everything about her past life, but cares only for revenge against those who betrayed her: Mengsk, the Confederacy, and basically the whole human race. The transformation is tragic and chilling, especially since the player, who is now controlling the Zerg, has to use her against the same humans formerly played alongside her. This includes Raynor. She initially spares him, only to order his death later. To make matters worse, she is more powerful as a villain. By the end of the Brood War expansion, she has defeated every single opponent and mockingly killed half of the main characters. And you are playing her, every step of the way.

Pros: One of the most interesting characters in gaming history, and by far the most complex female villain, Kerrigan elicits both sympathy and hatred from the player. It is impossible not to feel sorry for her for what she's been through, but it is equally impossible to forgive or excuse her as she murders for the sake of expediency. In the second game, when she claimed to have been freed from the now-dead Overmind's control and hence was not responsible for her previous actions, I had a real emotional stake in seeing that her claims proved to be true. When, after a long series of missions fighting side-by-side with Raynor and Mengsk once again, it was gradually revealed that she was still every bit as corrupted as before, I felt personally betrayed. Never before have I had such an emotional stake in a computer game character.

Cons: The remade Kerrigan is basically a succubus, right down to a pair of skeletal wings on her back which, along with the Medusa-like tentacles replacing her hair, broadcast her psychic commands to the Zerg hordes like an antenna dish. In his extensive and thoughtful article on women in comics, Jim Burrows explained that this classical/mythological stereotype of women often served as a negative societal confirmation about gender roles and power. Burrows called this the Bad Girl stereotype, and wrote that such stereotypes only reinforced the idea that women should not be given the freedom to control their actions because only powerful and yes, evil, female characters enjoyed such autonomy. On the surface, Kerrigan seems to fit this stereotype well. It is only the complex nature of her brainwashing, combined with the amplification of negative character traits which might plausibly exist as a result of her background, that prevents this particular depiction of a "bad girl" from degenerating into that mythological stereotype.

Overall (8.4/10): Although in her current form she could never make a positive role model, Sarah Kerrigan remains one of the most convincingly tragic and enjoyably evil women I have ever seen in a computer game. She is every bit as imposing as Darth Vader, whom I am sure she would be more than a match for. Seeing her fall from grace (she is the exact opposite of Planescape: Torment's Fall-From-Grace) entirely as the result of other people's actions was heart wrenching. Helping her beat everyone else in the Starcraft universe was a fitting, if bitter, revenge.

The Look (7.5/10): This is somewhat uneven. In the computer game itself, both in the icons and the brief 3D sequence in which she is visible in the shadows (stretching her wings in triumphant repose), she appears to be a proportionally realistic, highly muscular but light-framed woman with green skin, skeletal wings, and tentacles for hair. On the box cover for Brood War, she might be unclothed, but only her face and extreme upper chest are visible. She is fully clothed, and wears body armor at all times within the game. The leering, psychotic grin with blood dripping from the corners of her mouth is entirely in keeping with the character she has become, though some might consider it to be excessive.

On the other hand, Blizzard has since produced some Christmas artwork in which she features prominently, with substantially increased breast size and frankly gratuitous clothing. I found the cartoon, which was published on their web site, to be highly amusing. The tone is less like some steal-your-boyfriend Lara Croft calendar poses, and more like light cheesecake. Also, other characters from Starcraft are featured in similarly exaggerated poses, though not quite in the same way. If Blizzard had a pin-up girl, she would definitely be it.

Attitude (9/10): If it is possible for a villain to get points for attitude (and Darth Vader indicates that the answer is yes), then she has it in spades. As a human, she is courageous, daring, and moralistic, particularly when expressing doubts about luring the Zerg to a populated world (shortly before Mengsk betrays her). As a Zerg, she is callous, spiteful, conniving, mocking, double-crossing, flamboyant without being stupid, and yet still just a bit human enough to regret having just killed an entire planet full of people in painful and messy ways.

Intelligence (9/10): After having waged war against humanity in Starcraft, she returned and played them all for saps in Brood War. In the end, after having made an uneasy peace with the heroes, broken it, and killed half of them, she beat a force three times larger than hers to win the game.

Stance (7/10): Kind of hard to measure. As a controllable icon, she is unique enough to be distinguished separately, but that's just about it. She appears to walk in at least as fluid a manner as every other icon. In the 3D sequence she stands straight, in a somewhat Pattonesque stance. Again, the artwork on Blizzard's site is cheesecake, but she carries it well. The look on her face as she sings Christmas carols with the other major characters is worth a million bucks. So is the one where she distributes a Zergling as a Christmas present to an ecstatic child. At least in that one she seems happy, though one wonders for what reason . . .

Voice (10/10): Virtually every piece of scripted text in Blizzard's games is delivered as dialogue, and Kerrigan is no exception. She is voiced by Glynnis Talken, a veteran voice-over artist whose other major roles include Diablo's Rogue and Julie from MTV's The Max. She went all out for her Starcraft role: Kerrigan is one of the best-sounding women ever to come out of a computer game, with vocal expressions that perfectly convey her personality and motives. Those who play Starcraft on the N64, which substitutes text for the voice track, are missing a substantial portion of what makes the game great. Often I find myself replaying the game not for the game play, but to hear what is, on its own terms, a great audio melodrama.

Scripts (9/10): Starcraft's superb storyline is every bit as engaging as the Star Wars movies. Each character, Kerrigan included, has an extensive and well-explored history which undergoes major upheaval at one point or another during the game. A short story featuring Kerrigan and delving into her childhood even appeared in the magazine Amazing Stories. This wasn't quite a first for computer gaming crossovers: another Starcraft story featuring the hero Tassadar appeared a few months earlier.

Marketing Effort Towards Women (7.5/10): Starcraft is, along with Warcraft, one of Blizzard's main products. The company devotes an entire marketing effort toward these two game series, and has released advertisements, demos, toy characters (though, surprisingly, none of Kerrigan herself), and the aforementioned magazine crossover stories to promote them. It seems to have worked: Starcraft is one of the best-selling computer games of all time.

However, their marketing effort towards women is very difficult for me to judge. At first glance, Blizzard would seem to have done admirably. Kerrigan is featured prominently on the cover of Brood War (her face, in fact, is the cover). She is a featured character in both games, and has had a short story written about her in a major trade fiction magazine (a pretty good story it was, too, though not a masterpiece). She is also featured in seasonal artwork released on a yearly basis. On the other hand, the artwork does sexualize her somewhat: her breasts in these pictures are at least as big as Kasumi's in Dead or Alive, and I was involved in a very long message board discussion about that issue. I have to wonder how many women would see her grinning and dripping blood from the corners of her mouth, notice her bare shoulders, and think to themselves, "Yes, a strong female character!" It is only after playing the game itself for a little while that one comes to realize how detailed and vivid Kerrigan's portrayal is.


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Score Scale:

10 - Awesome
9 - Excellent
8 - Very Good
7 - Good
6 - Above Average
5 - Average
4 - Below Average
3 - Unsatisfactory
2 - Poor
1 - Very Poor
0 - Disaster

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