princessThe fantasy genre of video games often takes many cues from fairy tales: knights, dragons, and magic are usually gameplay staples. Early on, the role of the princess was plucked directly from these stories. Kidnapped or locked away in castles (or taken hostage by a giant ape throwing barrels), the fair maiden would be in need of rescue by the hero. Females tended to occupy the role of love interest or white mage. But time went on and the female lead began to see other roles aside from damsel in distress; princesses in particular seemed to gain some newfound determination and a willingness to defy their parents. Elegant and devoted to their people, this impulsive and strong-willed stereotype offered a change from the helpless love interest, but still remained largely bound to their physically weak role. Newer games have gone on to explore the role in different ways, with magic replaced by swords (or turnips and umbrellas) and mages replaced with femme fatales. So where does Ashe fit into this spectrum?
Ashe, as a leader, subtly shows compassion for her people underneath her harsh determination and cold resolve. It's not merely a throne that she needs to claim, it's a nation of people in need of freedom from an oppressive empire. As the sole heir to the Dalmascan throne, Ashe likely had a sense of duty and leadership instilled in her while she was growing up. Though we never see the adjustment from cushy royal life to running-around-in-sewers life, it's safe to say that Ashe adapted to the life of a resistance leader quite well. She's strong and resolute, and though she ends up needing more than a bit of help, Ashe goes successfully underground, takes on an alias, and does whatever it takes for the resistance. Her use of an alias to travel without being noticed seems to hearken back to Garnet Til Alexandros XVII, a.k.a. "Dagger," of FFIX. But Garnet fled her castle of her own free will, distraught by her mother's actions, while Ashe was forced to go undercover. Still, both exhibit a strong desire to stop those who are doing wrong. And both Garnet and Ashe realize that they may have to take on the role of royalty, but they are still simply themselves.
On a similar note, the theme of royalty in exile is far from a new concept in games. For example, Princess Natalia L.K. Lanvaldear of Tales of the Abyss flees her homeland after accusations that she is an imposter, and Princess Alicia of Valkyrie Profile lives in exile because she is thought to be mad. Similiar too is Faris of FFV, who was not purposely exiled but lost at sea as a child and raised by pirates. Ashe herself is forced into fleeing her kingdom after Archadia's invasion and the announcement of her suicide. But Ashe also finds herself as the sole claimant to the Dalmascan throne, making it imperative that she work to reclaim it. Also, unlike many princesses of games past, Ashe's softer side is rarely seen. She maintains a very stern and serious approach to her goal throughout the game, which is necessary considering the odds she faces. And she's very aware of these odds, and thus lacks the naïveté of many other "princess" characters.
While I think Ashe is a unique "princess" character in many ways, I couldn't help but notice some similarities to a certain Princess who lends her name to an extremely popular game series (and you can actually blame this entire section on me playing Twilight Princess around the same time as FFXII). Princess Zelda of The Legend of Zelda series began as a damsel in distress but has evolved into a strong character who defends her kingdom yet never compromises her dignity. In Ocarina of Time, Zelda, forced into hiding after the takeover of her kingdom, dons a disguise and an alias to fight against the evil forces, very similar to Ashe. The latest installment in the series, the aforementioned Twilight Princess, places Zelda in her most difficult trial yet, as various dark forces have encroached on her kingdom and forced her into seclusion. But like Ashe, she doesn't sit around waiting for a hero to save the day. She orchestrates the liberation of Hyrule even while imprisoned, and even sacrifices her own heart to help her allies. Plus she wields a sword, and that's just awesome. Still, Zelda isn't nearly as cold as Ashe and seems much more outwardly compassionate, but still just as dignified and concerned for her kingdom.
So what does this tell us about Ashe? For one, she's not your everyday video game princess, and she's sure as hell no damsel in distress or pathetic waif-of-a-love-interest. She's not an over-sexualized femme fatale. Nor is she a spoiled brat or sheltered young girl. She's rebellious, and yet dignified. Really, I think she's one damn unique character that I've never seen the likes of before. Sure, there are some similarities that I've noted above, but part of what makes me like Ashe so much is that there's no one else like entirely her, both within the game and outside of it as well.