Intercom Girlfriend

Cortana

Cortana, Intercom Girlfriend

You’re in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. The enemy’s right behind you. Looks bad. But then you hear her.

“I’m reading a weak wall up ahead. If you can hit it with a rocket, you might be able to get through to the generator room.”

Say hi. You’ve just met our generation of videogames’ most important stock character: the intercom girlfriend.

Her voice is pleasant, light, feminine. Occasionally she’ll have an accent, and if she does it’s probably British. One part the operator from The Matrix, one part Majel Barrett’s computer voice from Star Trek. She’s there to guide you through every convoluted mission objective, relay plot we don’t have a cutscene budget for, and in general make sense of your crazy life of demons and shotguns.

There are dozens of her by now, if not hundreds. Cortana from Halo, Anya from Gears of War, Tannenbaum from BioShock, Juno from The Force Unleashed.

But who is she, and why do we need her?

She’s often a scientist or military type, but, then again, in a lot of games everybody is a military type. Generally geeky, or just a touch sarcastic. Every once in a while she’ll laugh with you at your shared predicament, before she goes back to crystal clear guidance. She might even flirt… but for the most part, your love must remain not only chaste, but unstated.

If you’re betrayed, then some way or another she’ll go rogue with you, hacking security systems and forwarding intel. She’s clarity and purity in a world of gritty browns, blinding bloom and flying bullets. She’s part character, part UI function, a voice you can always trust.

Almost always. One of the earliest intercom girlfriends actually subverts the trope. System Shock 2 paired you with Dr. Janice Polito. At first, she does everything right: saves you from a hull rupture, runs you through the tutorial, tells you what checkpoints to hit. But partway through, she turns out to be a mask for the villain, SHODAN.

This is such a classic twist that it’s reused almost beat for beat in BioShock, which takes the unusual step of giving you an intercom boyfriend: Atlas, later revealed as Fontaine.

Most of the time, though, your girl’s faithful through thick and thin. Sure, she’ll static out a couple times, and in some games her advice is more annoying than helpful, but her heart’s in the right place and her voice is in your ear.

Truth is, we need her. As game set pieces become faster paced and more visually complex, we need that voice from the heavens to help us find the next switch to flip, the next wall to blow up.  I said it before: she’s half character, half interface, and that’s a necessary role.

In the process, though, she’s become the most common female character in video games, more ubiquitous than the battle babe or the damsel in distress. She’s not a “strong” female character, really, but she gets excused from most of the bullshit strong or weak characters get subjected to.

So tonight, wherever you are, raise your glass and set a drink aside. Let’s celebrate the intercom girlfriend in all our lives.

8 thoughts on “Intercom Girlfriend

  1. While the twist in System Shock 2 is the prime example of subverting this trope, I’d suggest that GLaDOS, of Portal fame, is a different kind of subversion. Rather than a Big Reveal™, from the start GLaDOS comes across as not being quite right, but never to the point of being deliberately antagonistic. While Polito holds your hand as a supporting character and SHODAN belittles you like the antagonist and leather-clad upper-class Domme I dearly wish she were, GLaDOS instead slowly reveals herself to be an unreliable narrator. She’s the girl-next-door who slowly reveals that she’s been freezing your semen while you sleep and framing you for killing your friends so you have to run away with her, to continue the tortuous girlfriend metaphor.

    Admittedly, most people playing Portal came in knowing that GLaDOS was the baddie, and thus had a paranoia-filter already running to pick out the bits, but speaking as someone who avoided spoilers like the plague, that sense of discovering that your Intercom Girlfriend is an unreliable narrator felt surprisingly fresh compared to the stock examples of the form.

  2. I cannot BELIEVE you left out Mei Ling and Rose of Metal Gear Solid fame. 🙂
    Still and all, it’s an interesting insight. The Intercom Girlfriend joins the illustrious ranks of those tropes and stocks whose existence is rendered necessary (or at least useful) by gameplay concerns: the Quest-giving NPC, Ubiquitous Shopkeeper, the All-Powerful Final Boss, and so on. The question is (case-by-case, not once and for all), when we discover these contrivances, do we find a workaround, or embrace them?
    Another interesting subversion: Alyx Vance, the Intercom-less Girlfriend who entirely fills that role, but also fights alongside you!

  3. I’d argue that Aura from EVE Online also fits this, even if the New Player Experience downplayed her status as a “character” compared to the older tutorial.

  4. Star Wars: Dark Forces has an early Intercom Girlfriend who our hero has to rescue in the kidnapped-by-a-side-quest level and gets together with in the novelisation and second sequel.

    Jedi Knight runs with Ben being able to talk to Luke as he approaches the Death Star run to give him an Intercom Ghost Mentor as well – an example of a voice in the head providing helpful plot hints in other media, because in Star Wars having a voice in your head telling you to destroy government property is a good thing.

  5. Kind of sad, I think, that the most important stock character in video games shows up mostly in modern-to-sci-fi shooters, and not as much in other genres. Makes me feel that I’m missing out. Wait, wait… Persona 3 and 4. Okay, I’m good.

    I think the Intercom Girlfriend is potentially the largest and most widely seen trope in a greater set; the Familiar might be another extrapolation of that. The disembodied presence, often sarcastic or “witty”, who wants to see you succeed but isn’t going to hero-worship you or anything. (I don’t play so many Zelda games but I hear you get some fairy girlfriends or something.)

  6. It’s also a way to help the player learn to play the game while garnering emotional investment. That investment stops me from minding that I’m being railroaded through the plot and, sometimes, makes me willing to be railroaded again just to experience it unfolding again.

    Theora Jones is still my favorite (if non-game) Intercom Girlfriend.

    Whatever you do, don’t go to TV Tropes to explore this. There went my afternoon.

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