Code name: S.T.E.A.M. is an interesting game. The art style is something reminiscent of the Silver Age of Comic Books mixed with Victorian undertones. Gameplay wise it takes mechanics from two popular, yet very distinct genres. Regardless of how the game looks or plays, one aspect that really baffled me when the game was announced was the inclusion of characters from numerous works of literature.
I’m not well versed in the world of literature, and my knowledge of American literature is almost non-existent. I remember hearing or watching references to some of these stories in other media, such as The Simpsons Tall Tales episode, in which one of the segments retells the events of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. However, the reality is that apart from some obvious examples, like the hugely popular Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan (which I have to note, I was surprised that the original story is from the UK and not the US), I really don’t know much about the characters adorning the main campaign of Code Name: S.T.E.A.M.
While the game does offer some insight as to their origins—either by dialogue or journal entries by the remarkable John Milton Hay—their personalities are rarely developed. Nevertheless, the little info I got from the game piqued my interest into exploring some of my favorite agents of S.T.E.A.M.
From: The Adventures of Esplandián (Las sergas de Esplandián) by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo (1500s).
Role in her story: Commander of an army of women warriors and of 500 Griffins, Califia is the regnant queen of the Island of California. Proud and courageous she’s often regarded as the most beautiful ruler the kingdom has ever seen. During the course of the Adventures of Esplandian, she is convinced by a Moslem fighter to join him in the siege of Constantinople. She willingly accepts the invitation, blissful to the knowledge that she was participating in a war between Muslims and the Christians who had occupied the city.
S.T.E.A.M.’s role: The self-described “Queen of the island of California” is a master of exotic ordnance. Her skills are useful, but authorities are mindful of her leadership role in a mysterious offshore military organization. President Lincoln treats her as visiting royalty. She in turn addresses him as a peer.
My Take: I fear that Califia’s representation in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. was included because of her symbolic significance with the state of California. She’s one of the two characters whose book is not of American origin, thus not falling under the American Literature label. In the game she shows a strong demeanor and willingness to fight.
The biggest missed opportunity regarding her character is not how she is portrayed in the game, but rather the name of her weapon of choice. A rocket launcher called the Rhino Blaster could have easily be named the Scorching Griffin. Which would do a better job of representing the character’s infamous army of 500 griffins that took on enemies and allies alike during the Constantinople siege in the book by Rodriguez de Montalvo. Plus the idea of a griffin obliterating everything in it’s flight path sounds way cooler than a rhinoceros.
From: Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Role in his story: Successor to the throne of a cannibalistic tribe in the South Pacific island of Kokovoko. Queequeg is introduced as a proud member of his society, feeling no shame of the customs and practices, to the extent that he even jokes that the only time he ever felt sick was after a fight in which 50 men were slain and devoured.
In the tale of Moby Dick, Queequeg meets a stranded whaler who goes by the name of Ahab. Curious to the world that surrounds his island, he persuades the captain to let him join in a quest to explore the Christian world. Little did he know that what once started as expedition later became a journey to hunt the infamous albino whale.
S.T.E.A.M.’s role: Born the prince of an island kingdom, Queequeg decided to see the world before taking the throne. After surviving a terrible struggle against some sort of albino whale, he was lost adrift at sea for weeks before S.T.E.A.M. rescued him. Stoic and powerful, he is a survivor, first and foremost. The subject’s background in the South Pacific is somewhat mysterious, but his career in the whaling industry attracted our interest — in particular, his deadly accuracy with harpoons and mechanical sea-fowl.
My Take: Forget his cannibalistic past. Queequeg represents the relaxed presence in a group where everyone is a bit too eccentric. He’s shown to have some crafting abilities of his own, as his weapon of choice is a lobber of lovely mechanical penguins rigged with explosives. He usually acts as the voice of reason in the group under dire circumstances. He will always be ready to lend a hand when needed, probably because fighting an unknown and powerful entity reminds him of his whale hunting days.
From: Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)
Role in her story: Barbara Meredith is the great granddaughter of the legendary hero of California, Don Diego de la Vega. Zorro’s Black Whip tells the story of how Barbara takes on a group of corrupt politicians led by a powerful man named Hammond, in retaliation for killing her brother Randolph Meredith, the owner of the local newspaper. Proficient with the bull whip and pistol, Barbara dons the costume of her late brother, and adopting the name of The Black Whip. In her quest she’s joined by an government agent named Vic Gordon as they unearth the secret behind Hammond’s intentions.
S.T.E.A.M.’s role: A skilled sniper who carries the baggage of certain controversial political causes in her past. Field commanders have praised her precision and bravery on the battlefield, but have yet to grasp her motivations. The Fox enjoys the mystery that surrounds her. She has earned the reputation as a defender of the downtrodden in the Southwest. Her work drew the attention of S.T.E.A.M. and President Lincoln, and she has been a valuable asset ever since.
My Take: The first thing that struck me about The Fox was her terrible VA work, think of an accent as terrible as a combination of Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz. Her one liners can be cringe-worthy to say the least, plus she’s a bit of a narcissist. Now don’t get me wrong at least she’s not as offensive as some other Mexican stereotypes out there, in fact she’s not offensive at all. As a person of Hispanic heritage, I feel the way the Hispanic characters are portrayed in the media are still inaccurate.
Putting aside her negative character traits, The Fox became my go-to scout in Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. Unlike the source material, she does not wield a whip nor a pistol, but a more sophisticated sniper rifle. Her marksman skills combined with her high mobility made The Fox one of the most valuable assets in my quest to eliminate the Alien Menace. Her name suggests that she could be an alternate version of Zorro, instead of being his great granddaughter.
From: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)
Role in his story: Thomas “Tom” Sawyer is a recurring character in the Mark Twain books. Loosely based on his own childhood, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer tells the journey of a young troublemaker from St. Petersburg, Missouri, who dreams of becoming an Indian Pirate. In his quest full of mischief, Tom is joined by his two best friends, Joe Harper and Huckleberry Finn. During the course of his tale he becomes infatuated with a fellow classmate Becky Thatcher.
S.T.E.A.M.’s role: Tom Sawyer is a young boy from Missouri who has seen more than his share of adventures. After a little-remembered escapade abroad, he discovered an interest in, and talent for, devising gadgets and solving problems-ironic, perhaps, given his reputation for causing them. This juvenile subject was reprogrammed and recruited for combat after several run-ins with the Missouri authorities. His improvisational skills have been put to good use as an agent.
My Take: Much like in the stories by Mark Twain, Tom is a prankster at heart. Serving as the comic relief of the game he can appear to be immature at times. Confident in his abilities and traits, maybe a bit overconfident, which gets him in trouble more often than he would like to. Tom is one of the most versatile characters in the game. He enjoys making fun of the enemies with his arsenal of pranks and practical jokes. Like using his trademark weapon, the Punch Gun, a melee device procured by himself. This effective weapon, combined with numerous sub-weapons can lead to devastating and hilarious effects.
From: Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J. M. Barrie (1904)
Role in her story: Kidnapped by Captain Hook, believing she knew about Peter Pan’s whereabouts. Tiger Lily regarded as “The princess in her own right” is left to die on Marooners’ Rock only for Peter Pan to show up and save her from her demise. She’s the daughter of the Chief of the Piccaninny Native American tribe of Neverland and a longtime friend of Peter Pan. Later in the story it is hinted that she’s in love with Peter.
S.T.E.A.M.’s role: The official story about this tribal princess is that she was rescued by a classified—and apparently ageless—flying youth. She has medical training and is a skilled corpsperson. Tiger Lily describes herself as a Native America, but her tribe and homeland remain a mystery. She is stubborn and willful but serves as an extremely capable healer and scout.
My Take: To be honest, I don’t recall ever hearing about Tiger Lily when I watched Peter Pan as a kid, maybe I was too focused on the flying powers of Peter and his band of misfits. But even as I was searching for information regarding her role in Peter Pan, I couldn’t find much. Actually her numerous appearances in media have stirred controversy due to the portrayal of Native Americans in the plays.
In Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. she appears to be headstrong, to the point that she raises her gun in defiance to Henry Flemming questioning her abilities due to her young appearance. All that initial friction is magically lost as soon as John Henry interjects. Sadly her personality dims down as the game progress, and ultimately feels like a filler character.
From: The Statement of Randolph Carter by H. P. Lovecraft (1920)
Role in his story: Considered the alter ego of Lovecraft himself, Randolph Carter is also an author whose stories are often dismissed or ignored. Faint of heart and a sensitive soul Carter is constantly dreaming about the occult. Nevertheless his ventures into the Dreamlands ( a vast, alternate dimension that can be entered via dreams) have given him enough courage and mental strength to survive any hardships he might encounter.
S.T.E.A.M.’s role: Randolph Carter has always been a dreamer, with his head in the clouds as much as in his books. A professor at Miskatonic University, he spends more time with the Necronomicon than he does with any living human. His research has contributed directly to the most advanced technology of this age. The standard psychological assessment was waived to get this agent into the field quickly, as his understanding of alien behavior has proven uncanny. His research at Miskatonic University is under investigation.
My Take: Snarky and witty. His dry and dark humor can stick out like a sore thumb amongst his peers. Well versed in the occult arts, Randolph (voiced flawlessly by James Urbaniak) has amassed a series of disturbing, yet detailed, dossiers on the various alien species, But he’s not all brains, or well actually he’s all brains. Rather than solely fulfilling the role of an strategist, he prefers to use his intellect to gain an advantage over the enemies in the battlefield. His weapon of choice is rather unique, as it is one of the two non-violent weapons in the game. Even better, is how he’s able to use his knowledge of the occult and summon the Cthulhu itself (himself?) as he casts a protective shield around his teammates.
In the end I don’t feel like any of these characters are extremely offensive, but the fact that they are as shallow as a back cover synopsis of the books they come from, feels like an insult sometimes.
For the purpose of the main plot, some characters fulfill a supporting role, existing solely as additions to give some variety in gameplay, rather than getting involved in the events of the game. Such is the case of Tiger Lily, who may be one of the most useful assets in the battlefield, but once the fight is over she is simply a carcass to represent an ethnic group. On the other hand, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. offers a great iteration of Randolph Carter, who fits perfectly in the lore of and actually adds a lot of value to the game.
I fear that the people at Intelligent Systems were torn between portraying these characters as they were taken from their original stories and adapting them to our modern themes and be criticized for not paying respect for the source material. Instead of acting like a Fire Emblem character would, they resemble the one-noted nature of the COs in the early Advance Wars games.
Despite these flaws, Code Name: S.T.E.A.M. is a really interesting game, that deserves your time.
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Follow J. Acosta on Twitter @Nach212 He may not tweet much, but when he breaks away from the Dreamlands, he might talk about food.