Pandora's Despair

[What follows spoils pretty much every ending in Pandora’s Tower. If you want a more even look at the game, you’ll find my review here. I also agree with IGN’s take, but I think we’re supposed to pretend that nothing worthwhile ever comes from IGN.]  

Pandora’s Tower sets its tone quite early. Timid farmgirl Elena and her reticent soldier boyfriend Aeron head into a wasteland, hoping to revoke a curse that’s turning Elena into some tentacle-sprouting nightmare. Their hunchbacked guide Mavda lays it all out: in other to get better, Elena must wolf down the flesh of the creatures who dwell in a ring of towers suspended above an ominous chasm. So Aeron heads out to slay some monsters and bring back their purple innards. Elena, shakily recovered after her first taste of monster spleen, says that she wants to come along. Aeron shakes his head. Off to the kitchen Elena goes.

That is no real exaggeration. For most of the game, Elena stays at an outpost that she and Aeron find near the chained-up towers. She does the laundry, cooks the meals, sweeps the floor, sews the curtains, and generally keeps house while her man is off killing lizard-knights and giant barnacle cannons. Each beastly organ he brings home is devoured by Elena—reluctantly at first, and later with alarming rapacity. On top of fetching these grotesque cures, Aeron helps keep up Elena’s spirits with compliments and gifts. She responds with childish extremes, her anime-mannequin face brightening at the sight of a new dress or recoiling in horror if Aeron presents an animal fang or something else mildly unpleasant. Elena seems an embarrassing and simplistic stereotype of femininity, a coquettish phony girlfriend for the insecure young man. It’s not helped by her actress, who was apparently told to play the character as though she’s not a person but rather a half-blind kitten.

This chauvinism dominates most of Aeron’s interactions with Elena, and developer Ganbarion evidently intended some of that. Company director Chikako Yamakura states that she thought up Pandora’s Tower as a game for male players ages thirteen to twenty-ish, and the central idea became “a woman who was pure being somehow spoiled or corrupted and then becoming pure once more.” The game bears this out time and time again, repeating positioning Elena as a delicate country blossom in need of constant tending. Her relationship with Aeron is measured by a glowing line of links at the edge of the screen, and it can be raised by any insipid kindness and lowered by even mild setbacks. Poor Elena. Thank heavens she has a man to fend for her.

Yet there’s more to Elena and Pandora’s Tower. At first her affliction is just a nasty bit of body horror; if she’s left without monster flesh for too long, she’ll sprout tendrils and degrade into some barely human aberration. At her last stage, she’s melting into some legless creature and seeping ichor all about. She’s broken down to the last shred of her being, and watching her fight for it is the most disturbing scene in the game.

It’s also the most intriguing. It reveals Elana’s curse as more than just a gruesome motivator or pitiable flourish. It’s a degrading affliction she faces every moment. From there the game easily becomes allegory for something far more understandable than a distressed damsel. It could be the slow agony of cancer treatments, with Mavda peddling lengthy and uncertain remedies. It could be some other illness that leaves Elena fragile and domestic. Or it could be the vaguer bindings of depression.