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.
Elena doesn’t have much agency or self-determination, because that’s what depression does. It leaches out your drive, your joys, your sense of worth. It takes you to a pale little wasteland where even some facile gesture or cheap gift might shake you to happiness, just as a minor disappointment might destroy everything. Once depression takes hold, it’s hard to go outside, hard to get yourself moving, hard to even sit down and play a dumb video game. Or write about one for your seldom-updated website.
Elena grows easier to understand as her flighty moods and small pleasures become tolerable and, in time, sympathetic. We’ve all met people who are far too cheerful all of the time, and perhaps we’ve learned that their irksome rays of sunshine are merely how they deal with something horrible. Your annoyingly upbeat co-workers who make the same jokes every Monday and actually have “Pobody’s Nerfect” mugs just might need loved ones to coax them out of bed in the morning and call them twice a day so they don’t fold up and bawl right next to the vending machine.
All of this builds up the core of Pandora’s Tower: Elena is the main character. Despite all the talk about courting male audiences, Aeron remains a cipher, an instrument of the player, and in the broader symbolism he may even be a reflection Elena herself, the surface worn out in the world (the two of them even have similar haircuts, as Elena apparently trims both). The game’s about her at all times, even when Aeron’s swinging through the heights of a clockwork maze or battling some moss-covered titan.
The varied endings of Pandora’s Tower serve this point in unexpected ways. For one thing, the easiest failure isn't really the worst ending. If Aeron doesn’t get Elena some monster snacks in time, she’ll morph completely into some unseen horror and apparently devour him. But she’ll also go on to conquer the world, and a somehow-cognizant Aeron observes that they’re still together in a way that the game has the good sense not to detail.
The most uncomfortable ending transpires after Aeron explores the ninth tower, and only if he and Elena have little to no relationship. Elena, lost in the despair of her transformations, pleads with Aeron to kill her, and the game requires the player to pull the trigger. It’s a disturbing scene, and it even appears in a recent Feminist Frequency video alongside Prey, God of War, and other games that appropriate killing a mutated woman to advance the storyline. Yet Pandora’s Tower isn’t cut from the same pattern. Elena’s effective suicide isn’t couched as a boss battle or a plot device, and it’s not a stepping stone for the player to surmount on the way through the game. It’s the result of an incurable emptiness, the act of someone with no reason to go on. That applies to the player as well. When Elena’s story ends, so does the game.
In fact, the most misogynistic ending occurs at the climax if the player’s done just the minimum of interaction to keep Aeron and Elena going. After a boss battle with Elena’s fully overtaken form, the army of Elena's homeland shows up and, after a little finagling from Mavda, decides to use Elena’s monstrous form as a weapon in their crusades. They turn to Aeron to control her, and he does so without acknowledging her. She’s only an instrument of war as Aeron and his superiors conquer rival nations. That’s entirely fitting when the player sees Elena merely as a play mechanic.
Should Aeron and Elena reach the end of the game on better terms, there’s still a sad conclusion. Elena gives in to her curse, transforms, and takes off to the tower. Aeron arrives there to find Elena under the control of Zeron, the mysterious female entity responsible for Elena’s plight. The player defeats Zeron (curiously, without attacking her directly), but Elena throws herself into the chasm beneath the towers. If Aeron’s grown close enough to her, they jump in together. Sometimes you just can’t save yourself.
However, Pandora’s Tower is a nice, Nintendo-backed video game deep down, and it must leave the player fulfilled. Should Aeron and Elena’s relationship get near the top of the gauge, the game reveals all and solves everything. Elena’s curse is the result of an ancient experiment where a woman was separated from her husband and, in her grief, became Zeron. In a ridiculous turn, this same woman didn’t realize she was pregnant, and her child was born and grew without her knowing. Aeron’s a descendant of that kid, and so Elena was cursed just because she’s in love with him.
So it’s all the fault of a woman who perhaps suffered post-partum depression? Maybe. Every major character in the game underscores the need for support in a relationship, reflecting Yamakura’s stated theme of “true love.” Aeron and Elena stick together, while Mavda, in blatant symbolism, carries around her huge, skeletal-faced husband in a jug on her back. The one open question is Zeron’s husband, who apparently didn’t stand by her or even explain what happened to her child. Yet even the two of them are set to rights in the last lines of the game, as Aeron and Elena stand smiling on a hillside and a vocal version of Franz Liszt’s “Liebestraum” summons up the credits.
Pandora’s Tower softens itself too much for the sake of happy endings, and its harsh moments are never quite as daring as, say, Nier or The Last of Us. Even so, it’s unexpectedly compelling in what first seems its weakest link: Elena. She’s enfeebled, driven to despair, and forced to put a pleasant face on it all…and there’s something authentic beneath her doll-faced candor. Pandora’s Tower has a sharp little point. Perhaps its creators perhaps didn’t intend that, yet it's there if you go looking.