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Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Power of a Non-Stereotypical Asian Character in Gaming

The early ’90s were a nostalgic and unique time in gaming. As a bookish 11-year-old in braces and a hot pink jogging set who didn’t fit in on the playground, my only comforts were my best friend Denise, our after-school episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation over Pringles, and the family desktop, in all of its beige glory. While most of my classmates in elementary school argued over whether the Super Nintendo or the Sega Genesis was the superior console, I turned my attention to PC gaming, then just an afterthought.

Most kids in my grade only used their family computers to boot up Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing or Encarta to finish their book reports. Because my mom’s longtime boyfriend was a computer repair person who often brought his work home, I grew up around piles of IDE cables and optical disc drives, excited about weekend trips to Fry’s Electronics to check out of the large, glossy cardboard boxes housing the latest entertaining floppies and CDs.

It was here that I eventually became enchanted with a real gem: Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. And it was the first time that I encountered Grace Nakimura, the first inspiring and realistic Asian character I discovered in gaming. Over the years I used my allowance to snatch up anything with the monolithic Sierra logo until I finally discovered, in that awkward preteen phase, that Sierra created games with mature, complex, adult themes.

At the start of the Gabriel Knight trilogy, the protagonist is a young, roguish ladies’ man who owns St. George’s Rare Book Shop in the French Quarter of New Orleans, writing horror novels by night. Intrigued by a rash of strange murders rocking the city (wherein the killer leaves only a few ritualistic clues), the “Voodoo Murders” end up on the front page of the local paper every morning. In between reading his daily Aquarius horoscope and drinking his coffee for breakfast, Gabriel decides to investigate and find the killer for himself, while getting a sense of inspiration for his latest book. It’s here the player meets Grace.

When we first meet Grace, she isn’t wearing a flowing silk gown with cherry blossoms or doling out Confucian wisdom passed on by the ancestors. She’s not an accountant, scientist, or noted for her proficiency in math. She’s an everyday person working as a cashier. I found it refreshing that she didn’t have an exotic backstory from “the Far East” and that there was no attempt made to emphasize her as a foreigner. 

In a nice pair of glasses and a coral blouse that could’ve come fresh from the Gap, she looked almost exactly like my aunt, who worked at the front desk for a local shipping company. I was even further relieved to find that she didn’t have an exaggerated accent—on the contrary, Leah Remini, the voice actress who played her, did an excellent job of making her sound slightly bored and disaffected, delivering zinging retorts to Tim Curry’s version of Gabriel Knight, her womanizing, flirty boss.

Each day, Gabriel leans over the bookstore counter and asks Grace if she can do some research in a husky, seductive drawl to help him get one step closer to cracking the case. After spending most of the day fielding calls from Gabriel’s ex-lovers, she remains immune to his “charms.” In between requests, we learn more about who Grace is. 

We discover that she lived in Japan until she was 3, before her parents emigrated to the United States. Eschewing the typical “model minority” stereotype, she confesses that her parents are angry with her for not completing her PhD—after getting her master’s degree in history and classics, she decided to take a break from finishing school. Her fondness for adventure (and old books) led her to take the job at St. George’s, where she does investigative research to help Gabriel as he tracks down the culprits. Though she’s inevitably abducted and saved by Gabriel, she changes dramatically in the other two games of the series.

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Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within had an exciting art direction for the time: full-motion video, or FMV. Classic gamers fondly recall FMV as an optimistic hybrid between gaming and film that was semi-common for a brief period in the ’90s as the industry attempted to suss out the Venn diagram of gamers and film enthusiasts. FMV adventure games employed the latest technology to use prerecorded footage of real actors and movie sets instead of 2D, hand-drawn pixelated environments. 

Armed with six-figure ideas and D-list celebrity budgets, studios like Sierra invested heavily in games that aged poorly (albeit humorously) due to camp and cheese factor. For its time, the realistic technology was a strange juxtaposition with GK2’s outlandish story, in which Gabriel discovers he’s the long-lost descendant of royal German witch hunters and inherits an old castle as his base to hunt werewolves (with a new research partner, Gerde). The tale eventually culminates in an epic finale at an opera house with a fully scripted, 10-minute-long performance, as if Sierra tried to tout how extravagant this game could become. Still, its redeeming factor was the visibility of an Asian actress as a major costar in a time when Asians in leading roles were unheard of outside of The Joy Luck Club and Margaret Cho’s short-lived All-American Girl tv series.

I remember thinking in 1995 that it might be the only time I would see an Asian woman with such an important role that focused more on her crime-solving and individuality and less on her cultural background. Taking on the role of Grace, Joanne Takahashi added an extra dose of flair to the character. Whereas the original game painted Grace as a sort of upgraded Daria, Takahashi’s version seemed to come alive on screen when played by a real, live person who delivered her lines passionately, even with palpable jealousy when she flies to Germany on a whim out of the sneaking suspicion she’s being replaced by Gabriel’s new assistant. 

What made things even more special was that, unexpectedly, the player switched to Grace’s perspective for a large portion of the game in order to solve the mystery. Here was a character that wasn’t a passive woman to be cared for or saved—instead, it was Grace herself who did the lion’s share of uncovering the secret werewolf behind the local disappearances.

Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned had an even more bizarre storyline than the previous ones, in which the two travel off to France to rescue an infant kidnapped by vampires. Still, it allowed the player to play as Grace for nearly half of the game, all while ratcheting up the attraction between her and Gabriel, until the two finally, at long last, sleep together. The most impressive thing about her is that, when it’s implied that she becomes pregnant with Gabriel’s baby (a secret hidden within the game’s files and later excavated by fans), she doesn’t end up settling down with him. After years of waiting for Gabriel to make a commitment, Grace decides their relationship just isn’t going to work. 

Instead, she leaves him a goodbye letter and opts to go to a training school in a faraway land to hone her skills, hunt down supernatural beings, and presumably raise the child on her own. It’s a remarkable arc for any female character in any game made in any year, and especially for an Asian woman. Grace’s story turned the hero’s journey on its head.

As I finished the trilogy, the ’90s were coming to an end and I neared young adulthood, packing cardboard boxes for my new dorm life. I cleaned out my bedroom closet, examining shirts, posters, and fan books of some of my favorite heroines of an era: Xena, the Spice Girls, Daria. Though each of them meant something special to me, none seemed to inspire me as much as Grace Nakimura, the one who taught me that an Asian woman could be anything she wanted. Thinking fondly of my favorite old Sierra games, I gently placed my own beige tower into a box with bubble wrap, ready to start my own adventure—one that I could choose on my own.

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