She Can Handle This: Crystal’s Characterization in ‘Nuclear Throne’

© Justin Chan
© Justin Chan

Last month, I wrote about the ways in which Rebel from Nuclear Throne is an ambitious, risk-taking adventurer who leads her fellow allies into danger for her own personal benefit. She’s exactly the kind of heroine that challenges Western views on femininity, and the sort of protagonist that many women would like to see in the gaming industry.

But what about Nuclear Throne’s other women characters? It would be a disservice to the game to simply focus on Rebel. After all, Vlambeer’s upcoming rogue-lite features multiple playable ladies—from a sword-wielding chicken, to an elite interdimensional police officer of color. So instead of discussing only one character, I’ve decided to return to Nuclear Throne in order to explore each of the game’s four women protagonists.

Hardened Skin

As one of the original five mutants from the 2013 Wasteland Kings prototype, Crystal is available to the player from the very start of Nuclear Throne. She spends her time on the character select screen shining her purple skin and sitting alongside her friends as Fish sings the opening theme. But Crystal stands out in comparison to her fellow player characters. She’s thick, she’s short, she’s purple, and she’s stocky. In other words, while most of Nuclear Throne’s mutants are animals or humanoids, Crystal is quite literally a rock.

This is important to point out, because large and bulky women are rare in video games. Samus Aran sports a prominent hourglass figure in her Power Suit. Mass Effect’s Shepard is designed as a slim, curvy character who easily slips into her form-fitting N7 gear. There’s very little diversity in women’s body sizes in gaming, as most playable ladies are tall and skinny, with large hips and unrealistic curves.

Yet Nuclear Throne strays away from this kind of character design. Instead, pixel artist Paul Veer and promotional artist Justin Chan accentuate physical features related to their characters’ personalities. Veer, for instance, draws the player’s attention to Rebel’s blue scarf fluttering in the wind. Her scarf is colorful and lively, stressing Rebel’s individuality when compared to her fellow bandit’s handkerchiefs. And Chan depicts Crystal with hardened, shiny skin that reflects the world around her. Her blocky arms and stone face stress her durability as a character in the wastelands. Both artists portray their women characters in a variety of shapes and sizes, focusing more on features that reflect their personalities than their physical figures.

© Justin Chan
© Justin Chan

A Shining Advantage

In Nuclear Throne, Crystal is easily the most durable player character in the entire game. She starts with 10 hit points and possesses a Crystal Shield that can deflect oncoming bullets, flames, toxins, and orbs. Compared to her fellow mutants, Crystal is essentially a walking tank—perfect for newcomers who can barely get through the first level.

Yet Crystal isn’t just a good starting character. In the Nuclear Throne community, players regularly compete against one another in Daily Runs—preset level seeds that rank players’ abilities based on the amount of kills they rack up during play. Players earn a high score by pushing as far into the game as possible, killing the Nuclear Throne and looping multiple times.

Sounds difficult, no? It certainly is. But throughout Nuclear Throne’s Early Access development, Crystal quickly became one of the most popular characters for Daily Runs. Thanks to her health buff and Crystal Shield, she can hold her ground against enemy damage and push further into the game than other mutants. In the right hands, Crystal can be devastating—racking up several loops and hundreds of kills at a time.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider watching Krinku’s record-breaking July 11th Daily Run in which he lasted six full hours as Crystal, looping eleven times and earning 35,421 kills before finally dying to an army of Big Bandit bosses. Although Vlambeer later reworked Crystal’s shield and teleportation upgrade, she still easily wipes away the competition on the Daily Run leaderboards.

© Justin Chan
© Justin Chan

#VerifyCrystal

When I first wrote about Nuclear Throne for FemHype last July, I argued that Rebel is an important character because she has moral shades of grey. She orders around friendly bandits that will inevitably die on her behalf. Vlambeer designed her as a complicated woman who helps diversify our understanding of femininity beyond traditional gender roles.

But if Rebel challenges femininity as passive and docile, then Crystal defies the physical expectations of women characters in video games. As a tough and durable mutant, Crystal isn’t objectified, nor is she frail. Instead, she’s designed as a solid rock, able to withstand a large amount of enemy fire before dying. She struts through the wastelands, confident in her abilities while searching for the Throne.

Developing strong women characters in gaming isn’t just about creating relatable protagonists. After all, Crystal stands out because she’s a large mutant boulder. She’s not human, and that’s perfectly fine. Her characterization celebrates the ways in which women can be strong, durable, and well-written even if they aren’t necessarily realistic.

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