For players unfamiliar with Nuclear Throne, it’s easy to assume Rebel isn’t a woman. Not unlike Samus Aran, Rebel is hidden under layers of bandages with most official artwork presenting her as an androgynous character. Many fans only realize her gender identity after playing as her—in part because she screams nonsensical words in a high-pitched battle cry (courtesy of Isa And).
Rebel fits a niche as a character. Spawning allies robs her of precious hit points, forcing players to strategically spend their health in exchange for her additional firepower. While many fans love her active, she’s often overlooked in exchange for more popular mutants, and largely recommended for players experienced with Nuclear Throne’s gameplay.
However, Rebel is not a passive character, nor is she subservient to the men around her. Instead, Rebel is a violent mutant with a morally ambiguous past who leads dozens of allied bandits throughout the wastelands while attempting to reach the Nuclear Throne.
Rebel’s backstory rejects traditional expectations of femininity in apocalyptic narratives. Instead, Vlambeer characterizes Rebel as an anti-hero with a dark past. The game celebrates her ambitious drive to reach the Throne Palace, and presents her as a strong leader who stands among her fellow adventurers.
During early access development, Vlambeer regularly teases Nuclear Throne lore to fans through Twitter, Steam, and Twitch livestreams. As a result, Rebel’s backstory has already been pieced together by the official Nuclear Throne Wiki. According to her entry on the site:
“Rebel used to be a bandit wandering the wastelands like any other bandit. She killed to survive but purposelessly lived only to kill. After hearing the alluring tale of the Nuclear Throne countless times, Rebel gathered some allies and set out to make reaching the Throne her purpose.”
Vlambeer presents Rebel as an autonomous character. Instead of serving a passive role in the wastelands, she actively chooses whether to kill others and commits these murders based on her life purpose.
Likewise, Rebel foregoes her role as a bandit and alters her life based on the aspirations she chooses to follow. After hearing about the Nuclear Throne on numerous occasions, Rebel chooses to leave behind her past in order to find it. She holds direct control over her life’s purpose, and she executes her goals for her own personal benefit—not the whims or desires of those around her.
By the time the player begins Nuclear Throne, Rebel has radically departed from her former self. She’s broken from her fellow bandits, raised a personal army to reach the Throne, and befriended a group of adventurers destined for the Palace. Not only does Rebel defy the social pressures of remaining a wasteland bandit, she also rejects the misogynistic expectations of passivity among characters who are women, and instead chooses to fulfill her own aspirations throughout her life.
Rebel subverts sexist social expectations by actively searching for the Nuclear Throne. In doing so, she enlists a group of friendly bandits who follow in her footsteps and protect her as she travels through the world. But why, exactly, does Rebel rouse these allies to her side? The game’s official lore states that she simply “gathered some allies,” leaving the rest up to the player’s imagination. However, understanding Rebel’s strength as a leader within the gameplay mechanics helps fill in some of the gaps.
Like her fellow player characters, Rebel demonstrates expertise with various weapon types. Whereas enemy bandits are confined to a rifle that fires one bullet at a time, Rebel can simultaneously use shotguns, assault rifles, crossbows, laser pistols, sluggers, and nuclear launchers during combat. Her refined marksmanship makes her an exceptional leader, as she can make use of far greater firepower than the bandits around her.
Likewise, Rebel stands out due to her physical capabilities as a mutant. She utilizes the wasteland’s toxic radiation to her benefit through mutation perks, allowing Rebel to transform herself into a powerful creature that can withstand even the most dangerous enemies found within Nuclear Throne. Rebel’s ability to adapt to her environment makes her a powerful figure, influencing allies to follow her in search of the Throne itself.
Framing Rebel’s characterization through the gameplay mechanics explains why she is able to lead her allies. Even though each of these friendly bandits will inevitably die, Rebel’s enhanced abilities attract their loyalty, as they sacrifice themselves on her behalf in pursuit of their goal. Through Rebel’s interpersonal strength as a leader, she defies misogynistic tropes on women’s passivity, and directly commands a legion of bandits for her own personal benefit.
As Nuclear Throne’s development continues, Rebel’s lore and abilities are subject to change. Fans only have an outline of her characterization at the moment, and early ideas often expand as the team continues to add more content into the game.
But even during early access, Vlambeer takes Rebel’s character design very seriously. The team grants Rebel an active role in her own backstory, and crafts her as a powerful bandit who leads a personal army of allies to reach the Throne. Within the game, she serves as a visible model for women’s leadership in the wastelands, using sheer violence to accomplish her goals.
Writing playable lady characters who possess shades of moral ambiguity is an important step towards creating more inclusive video game narratives. After all, women perform both good and bad behaviors, and painting women as angelic creatures robs players of their complexity.
Strong lady characters such as Rebel celebrate ambitious women who aren’t afraid to kill a few hundred bandits to reach their goal. In the process, this deconstructs misogynistic expectations of women’s passivity in Western culture, and makes more room for a wide spectrum of representation for women in video gaming.