Kat, the surname-less heroine of Gravity Rush 2, isn’t driven by pain, revenge, or anger. If you have to link the character to one “tragedy,” it’s that she, like so many Japanese game protagonists before her, begins the game having lost her memory. Admittedly, it probably sucks to be adrift in the world without memories to inform your choices about where to go, or what to do next – but Kat is used to being untethered from the same weights that keep us with our heads firmly beneath the clouds.
Kat is a “Gravity Shifter,” or just “shifter” for short. As the name implies, together she and her equally mysterious pet cat can alter one of the fundamental forces of the universe. In Gravity Rush and its recent sequel, that power allows her to walk on walls, “fall” upwards at high speeds (flying, effectively), and lift objects with her mind. They’re the kind abilities we’ve seen in half-a-thousand superhero flicks and comics — mostly for putting thigh-high boot to butt against the forces of evil.
What Kat does with that world-shattering power is what makes Gravity Rush 2 so endearing, turning Kat into exactly the kind of superhero the world needs right now.
Gravity Rush 2 is about smaller, kinder acts of heroism. The player uses Kat’s powers of flight and telekinesis to literally gain a wider perspective on the world. In the first half of the game, her ability to fly allows her to see the mist-shrouded ghetto just a short fall below floating estates, where rich families waste resources that could keep their starving neighbors alive.
Yet she always returns to solid ground. Not just to beat up monsters, and a corrupt military, but to talk to the people who can’t simply fly away from their problems. Kat listens to them, and learns about their lives. Then she uses her power, one so immense should could topple skyscrapers, to instead combat income inequality, and the loneliness of strangers, whether it’s to reunite a mother with her faraway son, or help a dockworker struggling to make ends meet. At one point, the player even waits in line to buy crepes for a sad, older man coping with the loss of his daughter. Kat does all of this without provocation, and without even the memory of being taught right from wrong.
Unlike Kat though, most of the superheroes I’ve read about and watched all my life might not have done that without some hidden internal motivation inspired by their past. Ever since I was old enough to need heroes like Superman and Batman to look up to in life, those characters have required motivation , a greater reason to do the things they do. There’s even a name for it: “origin stories.”
Most of the time, origin stories are there to educate us about why these larger-than-life figures are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, or strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Continuity, we think, demands a beginning. So elaborate backstories fill that gap and pave over any disbelief that a man can fly or build a seven quadrillion-dollar suit of armor.
Quietly, though, these oft-repeated tales serve another purpose. Our disbelief doesn’t just extend to Superman being so super, but to why he would turn his godlike power towards truth, justice, and the American way, instead of domination (insert your argument for those last two not being mutually exclusive here). We need an outside reason — our own motivation — to believe that our only-just-slightly-more-than-human heroes would act for good, instead of evil.
And nothing motivates more cleanly than tragedy: a murdered loved one (maybe two), a quirk of fate, or just outright cruelty. Tragedy — not the small, quiet indignities we all suffer every day, but the loud and isolated ones that make Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker tick — is impersonal and indifferent. We have no say in when it strikes, or how it affects us.
If Batman’s parents hadn’t died, he’d have grown up in the lap of rich, white family luxury. Who’s to say how that would have turned out. Meanwhile, Superman’s blue boy scout valor is in response to the kindness of strangers, his adopted parents Jonathan and Martha Kent. Yet even their adoption of the last son of Krypton is tainted by self interest, as the couple is unable by to have a child of their own.
This assumes that we, the audience, need to have it spelled out for us. It assumes there must be a canonical reason for people to use power selflessly, the same way that we need to know Peter Parker was bitten by lab experiment to understand why he can do whatever a spider can.
For stories that are supposed to make us look up to these modern demigods, it’s pretty cynical. It projects the assumption that, without outside pressure, the human condition is more evil than good. In recent months, as the Internet and smartphone cameras have let me watch more people in power abuse it than I ever thought possible, it’s harder and harder to disagree.
And that is exactly why Kat is such a crucial hero for me right now. She, by virtue of that old, Japanese cliché, has no tragedy to fall back on. Amnesia might be scary, but it also frees her from the literary chains of “motivation.” Every act of charity and love Kat pours into the world comes from Kat. Not a thirst for revenge. Kat’s actions don’t presuppose that someone needs an outside motivation to do the right thing with the abilities they have. Whatever good she puts out into the world of Gravity Rush comes from her and her alone, not the end of Joe Chill’s gun, or a doctor’s fertility test.
Of course, continuity gets its way eventually. Near the very end of Gravity Rush 2, Kat’s own origin story is revealed: she’s the long-lost queen of a powerful empire above the clouds, a chosen Dalai Lama-like from among the common people. She gained her powers after being betrayed by a court advisor, and was sent tumbling over the edge of her known world. The shock of the fall is what caused her to lose her memories.
Crucially, however, Kat’s betrayal only comes in response to her desire to help the people outside of her kingdom. That is to say, the very people she winds up helping even without her memories of the world above. Even when we learn about her own tragic past, it’s just there to reinforce the fact that she was a naturally good person all along.
Now more than ever, I need to believe that people can be inherently good — that we don’t need to be coerced or cajoled into doing the right thing. Maybe that’s not true. I doubt I’ll ever live to know for sure, but Gravity Rush 2 and Kat have given me more than just a world where that’s possible — a world and a hero that I can aspire to — they let me live in it, just for a little while.
Steven Strom is a freelance videogame journalist, critic, and video producer lost in the cold heart of North Dakota. You can find his work at Zam, Ars Technica, IGN, and more. Or just follow @StevenStrom for the highlights.