We all had our ambitions. We all have high expectations from others. We pursue our aspirations on the side while fulfilling our other priorities, such as education. The question we ponder: how can I work toward both my education and my dreams at the same time? Is it possible?
Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire by French artist and animator Pehesse, takes that concept of balancing everyday life while attempting to achieve the dream and puts it into the form of a visual novel and beat ʻem up hybrid game. The story is about a young woman named Red, who desires to become a professional masked fighter. There is just one problem; Her grades from the previous semester have been lacking. She has the remainder of the year left to improve before graduating college. However, Redʼs parents and her friends donʼt know she is the masked fighter, Honey Rose. She keeps that part of her life secret as she takes care of her studies and maintains her relationship with the other characters.
Itʼs a difficult task as with real-life and thereʼs no perfect answer to what Red should and shouldnʼt do. In an interview with editor at IndieGames.com and freelancer at Gamasutra, Joel Couture, Pehesse describes the gameplay:
“The game is driven the the choices the players make, which in turn directly affect the numbers hidden behind the screen. Stats will govern which events happen, how Red will perform during those events and during battles…However, contrary to most life-management sims which display said numbers and prompt you to base your decisions on your knowledge of both your current status and the exact thresholds you aim to achieve, here I purposefully let the player wonder about the specific numbers and ask them to navigate through “gut feeling”, an unquantifiable uncertainty of ʻDid I do enough?ʼ, which is the uncertainty Red gets to live with every day”.
Like life itself, we strive to make the best decisions based on what we think is right, be it by our own bias or the suggestions of others we may not fully agree with, but take into consideration without sacrificing our true selves. In the end, it is the person making those choices who has to sit with the results. Once again, we revisit the life-box where our early life experiences shape who we are and the motives behind the choices we make. We all have this metaphorical box, meaning we all have a bias and we have the decision to either let that bias close our minds to any kind of advice or accept some of it. All together, the game play, mechanics, first person perspective and interactions with the other characters are what shapes Red as a character.
When starting a new game and after selecting a level of difficulty, the player sees from the first person perspective, someone is heading towards a light at the end of the door. They then see a profile image of Red in her mask as the titular character in a comic book/graphic novel styled panel. She is seen taking a deep breath and clearing her mind. In the next panel, she tightens her fist. Once she feels confident, the next panel shows her looking up and facing the door. At that point, thereʼs no turning back. There is a transition from comic/graphic novel-esque panels to a side-scroller, leading the player to the ring. The pace in Honey Roseʼs playable walking animation shows sheʼs a bit tense even so with the flashing of cameras in her face, yet maintains her focus throughout the fight.
During the fight with her opponent, Queen Bee, the gameplay transitions into beat ʻem up elements. In the ring, there are two health bars for both characters, with no score or stats attached to them. The focus here is solely on what Honey is trying to accomplish at that very moment. Upon claiming victory, the fight is covered in a news report. Redʼs parents are revealed to be watching the report on their living room television. From there, the gameplay transitions into a visual novel, where the player learns about Red, what her parents are expecting of her and what her goals are.
From what the player gathers early on, they understand why Pehesse purposely left out stats numbers and why it was more important for players to make the decisions based on what they think is right.
Upon examining what is going on in the fight scenes, our main concern is what weʼre doing in the moment. From what we know about Red, receiving a perfect score is not her main concern in the story. Her concerns are that she wants to be the best fighter in ring she can aspire to become while being able to graduate college as her parents hope. Realistically, when we come face to face with, say, a performance, public speaking or any type of event where we are in front of the public and trying to put our best foot forward, we donʼt think about a score over our heads telling us whether or not weʼre doing it right or wrong. Whatever happens will take shape on its own based on the effort we put into it.
As with the visual novel aspects, the layout consists of an overhead on the upper side of the screen depicting how Red is feeling in terms of her energy and her activities, the month and date and two bars indicating her reputation and how suspicious others are becoming of her. Redʼs energy levels are color coated to indicate how invigorated she is feeling along with a silhouetted animation of her as Honey in the circle. For example, when the energy is in teal, it represents when Honey is at her most refreshed. The animation displays an image of here with a book in one hand and a barbel in the other. The lowest is in red where Honey is shown hyperventilating and slouched over. In the center of the overhead, there are the indicators with Honeyʼs face depicting how she is doing in her training (left) and her classes (right). For her training, ʻStrengthʼ, ʻDefenseʼ and ʻAgilityʼ are the areas she has to work on and for her classes, ʻBiologyʼ, ʻLinguisticsʼ and ʻMathematicsʼ are her priorities. Depending on how well or rather how much time Red has devoted to that aspect, the player will see that reflected in her facial expression, also color coded. For example, if she hasnʼt put much time and effort into her studies in math, or improving her agility, players will see a concerned-filled look on her face where she is nervously looking to the side and the circle is marked in red. If she’s spent some time working to improve those areas, sheʼll have a calmer expression, where she is at ease and the circle will be a golden yellow. When she has dedicated enough her time to her area of study and/or her fighting techniques, Honey will be seen gleefully shifting her head from left to right in excitement and the circle will be in blue.
The reason color coding and animation succeeds in Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire over stats or numbers is because when we evaluate our situation and the things we hope to carry out, numbers arenʼt exactly the first thing that come to mind. Color tends to convey more emotion, whereas numbers are too technical and create a more robotic feeling than the use of color and character expression. Because of its subjective nature, color blends best with the type of mood a character is in, what they are feeling and what troubles them. In his 2011 book, The Art of Pixar: The Complete Color Scripts and Select Art from 25 Years of Animation, animation historian and editor and publisher of Cartoon Brew, Amid Amidi starts off his introduction with what painter and teacher Josef Ablers would say regarding the color red. “[I]f you asked a group of people to imagine the color red, every person in that group would have a different hue of red in mind” (Amidi p. 10). One simple color is subjective to the minds of different beholders as he continues:
“Color is elusive. Take that same color, red. A heart is red, but so is a stop sign. It is a color equally capable of arousing pleasure as it is of warning of danger ahead. Across different cultures and religions, red symbolizes feelings and concepts as varied as happiness, bravery, luck, sin, and mourning. There are also psychological effects─seeing red can alternately make us irritable and elicit happiness─and physiological effects─studies have shown that the color red simulates brain-wave activity, increases heart rate, and causes blood pressure to rise.”
With that being said, ranking from reds to yellows to blues, this color palette reflects what it feels like to be low on strength or have an excess of it and to have less or more experience in a particular subject or skill. The color red can make one feel urgency to focus on where they are failing. Yellow signals that, while it may not the best that it could be, itʼs not as stress inducing as if it were in the red zones. It gives off a sense of comfort, yet at the same time, reminds the viewer there is still room to further develop. Blue denotes that progress has been made. Because it is a cool color, it suggests calmness, security and composure. The meter on the upper right hand side of the screen for ʻReputationʼ (light green) and ʻSuspicionʼ (orangey red) are also color coded to convey a positive and a negative.
In real life, we never measure our passions or what we are trying to pursue by a number, and when we relate to our emotional and physical levels, our responses resonate more with a color than a statistic. This leads us to how seeing everything through Redʼs perspective tells us more about our main character and why players relate to her on a personal level.
Outside the beat ʻem up elements, as a visual novel, the player is seeing the environment Red lives in from the third person perspective. On the lower left hand side of the screen, there is a box with text and the characterʼs name as to who is speaking at top on the upper right hand side. There are also cutscenes that show what Red sees in her dreams at the start of a new day. There are even playable fight scene dreams where Honey is face to face with her opponent where the backdrops animatedly morph into all the places Red frequently visits.
Each day will start with an animation of the sunrising and shining into Redʼs room with the date. In some instances, there will be a comic/graphic novel styled thought balloon indicating what Red is dreaming about. Some of her dreams consists of her parents expectations, her friends inviting her to join them, an unmasked Queen Beeʼs heated expression of anger for failing, results on her tests and conceiving defeat during a fight. While Red doesnʼt always dream during these transition, this is important to note, because dream interpretations are what goes into a life box package. Itʼs what adds to a characterʼs credibility and what makes their hopes and desires even more relatable. When Red is dreaming about something related to school, or fear of failing to achieve her dream, the player is getting to know her more as a character. They understand how significant her issues are and why she cares about them. Without any depiction of what she dreams about, it would almost seem like our protagonist is just programmed to do what the gameplay and story tells us about her and we would get no sense that she actually cares about the outcomes.
One important principle in story telling is show, donʼt tell. By incorporating these cutscenes, players see that the character they are playing as has ambitions and desires they want to identify with as with any other main character in any other form of media.
Aside from Redʼs dreams, the player learns more about her character as they progress through each day. From waking up in her position to ending the night trying to decide what to do, the player gets to know how Red thinks and feels via interaction with other characters and her environment.
Upon starting a new day, Red will speak to the player while making a decision about how she will spent her day. She will ask what they think she should do first. It sounds like fourth-wall breaking and self aware that this is a game, but it could also be interpreted that the player is Redʼs conscience, guiding her in making the best choices possible. On the lower right hand side of the screen, there are a list of options to choose from as to how Red will go about her day. Highlighting each option will prompt Redʼs dialogue on the left to comment on whether and/or why this choice might be ideal either for her own benefit or what others from school or the gym are expecting of her.
For example, choosing to look through emails and/or the schedule, Red might comment that it would be a good idea to do so in order to “plan ahead” and that email “is a good source of info! _ and distractions”. The calendar shows she circles when tests will take place while fighting related events are underlined. The “Write in Diary” option serves as a save point mechanic that will prompt Red to say “[l]etʼs take the time to review everything, nice and slow” which not only saves the game, but within the gameʼs diegesis gives her an opportunity to reflect on her journey so far. By selecting the “Check Self” option, Red will pick out a new outfit and might comment with something like “[w]ould this one bring too much attention? Or not enough?”, which might suggest she is incredibly self conscious about how others will or will not perceive her.
Basic interactions aside, the ʻhidden cacheʼ, where Red conceals her Honey Rose persona costume prompts her to debate to herself if she should take the suit with her or leave it. “Everything okay in there?”, Red ponders and second guesses that “[i]t sure is. Though, just maybe I should…”, which gives the player an option to take or leave the suit in its place. Because Honey Rose is her secret identity that she is trying to cautiously keep out of sight, her dialogue reads as someone who is carefully thinking this through as to whether or not carrying it around would raise suspicion.
When highlighting the option to head down to the University, the main reason Red cares to go is “if the gangʼs there, maybe it wonʼt be so bad”, which indicates that Red does have friends she cares about and would like to catch up with. Outside of her room, the player gets to know more about Red and how she honestly feels about being in school vs. going to the ring to practice. Clearly, the player knows she is not too fond of the idea of attending classes and only does so because of her parentsʼ concern for her well being. Nonetheless, if the player chooses to attend classes, Red will admit that her graduation is equally important as her aspirations. She may be tempted to try to sneak out to avoid sitting through another lecture, but the player choice to stay will prompt her to express her dissatisfaction, yet realization that this is also something she has to devote her time to. Even so, Red will ask the player if she could take a nap during the lecture. Upon selecting the “[s]tay focused!” option, sheʼll respond with disapproval, but accepts the option with a reluctant dialogue like “[f]ine, fine! Itʼs your head! Uh…actually, it would probably have been mine”. Again, the player knows Redʼs temptations, and while it may seem like a simple fourth wall, itʼs also the player serving as the main characterʼs conscience, knowing every choice will have a consequence attached to it.
With cutscenes depicting dreams and reading how Red reciprocates the world around her, players are able to connect with her as more than just the main character they play as who just has a goal in mind, but with a meaningful purpose behind it. Imagery and learning a character’s innermost thoughts are what separates a round character from a flat one. This leads to the relationship with the other characters.
When relating to the NPCs in the story, it serves as an opportunity for Red to get to know everyone better and even learn something about herself in the process. For example, after defeating Queen Bee, if Red takes a stroll downtown, sheʼd eventually run into her without her mask. Red will recognize her, and while Queen Bee will deny it a few times, she will finally let her emotions of shame and failure go and admit to Red how she has been faring since their fight. Like in the dream, Queen Bee is clearly distraught and angered by the humiliation she faces. After getting to know how she is holding up, having a few other encounters and based on what the player decides Red should say to her, she will admit she might have more in common with Queen Bee than she initially thought:
“Though I shouldnʼt judge her too harshly. In the end, we may not be so different. Really, what would I do if I were in her shoes? Especially if Mom and Dad knew about me? Thatʼs one scary thought”.
Here, Red realizes that she and Queen Bee are both after the same ambition. She too, hopes to aspire to being a professional fighter. Red questions what if she was in the position Queen Bee was in, which appears to be the case. She thinks about what conceiving defeat feels like as seen in one of her dreams. If her parents found out about her secret as Honey Rose, what would they think about their own daughter? How would their perception of her change?
In addition, in some scenarios when Red returns home for the night, either or both parents will check up on how she is doing in her studies and what she has been up to. Their conversations depend on Redʼs progress in school and their suspicions about what she is up to. Interestingly, in one conversation with her mother, albeit, intended to be light hearted, Red jokes with her mother “[w]hat if our whole lives up to now have been a lie? What if Iʼm actually not who I pretend to be?”. In another conversation with her father, Red comments how she isnʼt trying to be anything other than herself. In another conversation with him, where heʼll comment about how early sheʼs come home. Red will say in response “[y]eah. Canʼt stay out forever, you know?” With that being said, her father tells her “Iʼm not blaming you, your mother and I like to see you around from time to time”. This prompts Red to say “especially when Iʼm in my room with one of your books, studying hard, right?”. In this scenario, neither of Redʼs parents suspect anything, but she knows that sheʼs keeping them out of that other part of her life only because of how they want her to succeed. While Red talks to her parents as cryptically as possible and makes some light of the situation, itʼs obvious that eventually they will find out one way or another or that she would have to tell them the truth.
Apart from her parents potentially expecting anything, there are also the people from the University who notice any changes in Redʼs habits and behavior. In one instance, if she decides to skip classes even after improving her grades, sheʼll possibly run into one of her professors downtown. It could even be a Saturday when it seems the safest to sneak into the gym and Red could still run into Mr. Nader, who make a sarcastically suspicious remark about where sheʼs heading. To avoid any further suspicion, Red turns around to attend classes. Redʼs friends will make observations and even comment on them to Red. If they notice something is out of character or sees a certain change in her habits, they will react to it. Sometimes it depends on the personality and biases of the characters. For example, Alice is carefree and up for anything. Curtis is also a fan of the matches and enjoys seeing them in action. Karine is studious and amiable. Leslie is the most outspoken and critical.
No matter who Red talks to or how these characters respond based on player choice, the opinions, judgments and values share one thing in common: the life box package. Every character is written with personal biased based on what is important to them while the player makes the decisions based on what they think is right. Similar to our everyday lives, we make our choices based on what we hope is best without knowing how it will actually eventuate as well as their own biases or contrary to them. Those around us know very little about what we do and therefore, will make an internal movie in their minds. Whatever choices you make or what you say, people make judgements based on their own experiences and biases. When Red interacts with her friends and, knowing their personalities, their dialogue is based on what they think is right and what matters to them. Even when Red is training for her upcoming matches as Honey Rose, her coach will remark that heʼs “glad [she] is taking [her] training seriously” and even asks to make sure sheʼs at the gym for that reason.
When relating to the other characters, players get a glimpse into who they are and as a result, Red begins to question some of her choices and self discovery. It adds to the life box package of our choices and how we identify with others and in return how others identify with us.
Honey Rose: Underdog Fighter Extraordinaire goes beyond playersʼ normal expectations from a visual novel, beat ʻem up or life management simulator. It reflects our ambitions and how we balance what we want to pursue along with what needs to be done. Most of those choices are based around the life box package, trying to do what we think is right without any knowledge of what happens next. The story and gameplay mimic life by creating that sense of ambiguity. Through the first person perspective, interaction with the setting and relating to the other characters, Redʼs character development takes its shape. She is relatable by expressing her innermost thoughts, worries, aspirations, likes, dislikes and interactions. Even more, without the use of stats and numbers, she is easy to identify with by color coding the representations of how things are going for her.
Pehesse not only created a story about life management, but better yet, a narrative and gameplay reminding its players that the most important thing about being in a characterʼs position is not solely about whether the character succeeds or fails, but that they put their best foot forward. As former Pixar employee, Emma Coats tweeted as part of The 22 Rules of Storytelling, According to Pixar with #storybasics, audiences “admire a character for trying more than for their successes”.
Perhaps itʼs time players appreciate the playable character for more than just a guaranteed success if they follow a specific order of gameplay and let that appreciation stem from both successes and failures and watch them grow from that.