Pandemic time is so weird. It feels like Tales of Aria’s spoiler season just happened, but here we are mere weeks before Everfest’s release. This is going to be a bit similar to my Tales of Aria Spoiler in terms of the formatting. I’ll drop the actual spoiler right after this introduction so that people who just wanted to peep a new card can get what they came here for. After that, I’ll give some very surface level thoughts on the play/financial impact of the card, and then whoever wants to join me on a leisurely ramble can strap in for a longer discussion on, well, actually, let’s just get it started with the drop:
Yep, Data Doll is back with some hardware upgrades. Data Doll is up there with Shiyana and Kavdean in terms of being among the weirdest hero designs (and I love her for that). While some people have really enjoyed toying around with her, her Intellect score of 3 has generally been seen as too much of a burden to really get her to work well, although her ability is potentially quite powerful. For now, we’ll skip over how thematically weird it is that the AI is the least intelligent character in the game, and instead we’ll focus on how Micro-processor could be a game-changer for her. As a Specialization, Micro-processors can only be used by Data Doll, but as you get them online, they begin to open her kit up a lot. If you can make sure that the top card of your deck is a Mechanologist item with cost 2 or less (say, via Opting) then the processor can put it into play for free using her Hero ability. Significantly, the first use of the processor refunds an action point, meaning that, if you can get her items assembled, she starts to look a lot more powerful as a hero. This sort of approach of fitting pieces together Voltron-like has traditionally held a strong appeal for certain types of players.
I’m not going to go much further than that into mechanical analysis. I am, after all, not really a FAB strategy writer. Moving into an area I’m more confident discussing, this is a really harmonious marriage of design and flavor. Creating cards whose mechanics feel narratively fulfilling and make it seem like you’re actually doing thething the card depicts is usually a pretty difficult task to achieve. I’ve written previously on how FAB manages to evoke a drawn out battle though things like starting with all of your resources and growing weaker via armor degradation, and here we see Legend Story Studios creating new experiences along that line.
Micro-processor’s art depicts our girl upgrading her own brain, and the functional ability of the card acts in many ways as a virtual improvement to her Intellect score. She’s installing upgrades, and it opens up new abilities- harmonious design. This is one of the things that really makes the Mechanologist an interesting class, as you’re going about the game differently than most other classes. Generally, when I describe the game to people, I pitch it with the theming I described above: “you start at full strength with your equipment out in optimal condition, and then you have a drag-out fight where you exhaust your resources.” Mechanologists’ core use of Items sets them apart from other classes in this respect. Yes, there are classes that build up temporary resources like Runechants or Auras, but these tend to be created and then destroyed. Sure, Mechanologists do that too sometimes, as with Teklo Core, but historically Dash has seen success when building up a set board of items (starring notable besties Induction Chamber and Plasma Purifier). With Micro-processor, we’re seeing the suggestion of a similar approach for Data Doll. This would make Data Doll’s play pattern about assembling your rig over the course of the match and closing it out once you have sufficient pieces together.
It’s a really lovely implementation of what the class is about thematically, expressed via play. You’re tinkering with devices to cobble together some sort of mad science assemblage that will beat your opponent –and sometimes you get a bit too weird (maybe you boost too much) and it all comes crashing down. When you’re focused strictly on how good a deck or hero is in competitive play, this sort of thing really falls into the background because it’s not that relevant, the question is just how good your deck is at winning. However, for more casual play, this sort of narrative cohesion is the type of thing that helps heroes or classes really appeal to people and serves as a way to draw them deeper into the game. You can wrap your head around what Datadoll is doing via a narrative, and the way you actually play the game flows from that.
I’ll give a brief aside here to talk about the financial relevance of Micro-processor. It’s a Majestic. LSS sent me a rainbow foil copy (which, while pretty, will not command the sort of prices the cold foil Pulse cycle does). So, unless there is an additional variant, I don’t expect it to be a particularly expensive card. Non-foil Majestics from Monarch forward rarely get over $10 (there are currently four Majestics from the last two sets over $10 and none of them are Specializations). So I would expect Micro-processor to be pretty reasonably priced even if Everfest suddenly put Datadoll on the map for competitive Blitz play (which seems like something we’re a long way from). So, that’s a light set of first impressions on the card. Now let’s get into some Wild Freyja Digressions™.
Who is Data Doll?
Data Doll’s available lore is relatively limited. She processes a constant “influx of data reported from all across Metrix,” and we know that she was the first automaton on Rathe who began to ask questions, which, if you have any familiarity with robot fiction, means that she eventually became self-aware. On that note, we also get a pretty clear impression that her realization of her own identity includes gender. We see her story using she/her pronouns, and her visual design incorporates traditionally feminine features like an obvious suggestion of breasts and an hourglass figure. That means that, while we may only know a little bit about Data Doll as a character, we can see her as a proud participant in:
The History of Robot Girls
We could call them “gynoids” (Asimov’s “technical” term for a female android) though we tend to use “android” for humanoid robots regardless of their gender expression. We’ve also got the term “fembot” floating around, but that tends to carry some distinct baggage related to how these beings are often sexualized. Beyond purely mechanical beings, there are also bioengineered synthetic ones like Blade Runner’s replicants. And the human/machine hybrid figure of the cyborg like Ghost in the Shell’s Major Motoko Kusanagi. Although there are certainly differences between these types of characters that can be teased out, the ways they are employed often overlap, and from here on I’ll be collectively talking about all these riffs on the robo-girl using “robots” generically unless otherwise noted.
Regardless of what term we’re calling them by, artificial humanoid beings have been a fixture in legends and stories dating back thousands of years. There are many ancient traditions and stories that involve magical or divine animation –golems from Jewish folklore or Daedalus’ statues, for instance. This fascination with creating artificial beings is by no means limited to Western cultures either. There are Chinese stories and historical accounts of both humanoid and animalistic automata and clockworks, some of which go back thousands of years. However, the modern conception and depiction of robots, and indeed, the word “robot” itself, emerged in the 1920’s. The Czech writer Karel Čapek is credited with coining the term in his play “R.U.R.” in 1920, a few years before we would see the first filmic depiction of a robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
This is where our story really gets started because, from the get go, we see robots depicted as gendered beings, with the female duplicate of Maria being one of the foundational depictions that later media would draw inspiration from. The robot (or maschinenmensch) in Metropolis undergoes this neat transformation scene not long after she is introduced
This is partially because special effects technology of the time would have made performing in the costume untenable. But there is also a clear intent to blur the line between obviously artificial maschinenmensch we see at first and the human Maria. We should also recognize that the pre-transformed robot already had a decidedly feminine form, one which makes it clear that Data Doll’s design aesthetic owes a debt to her robo-girl progenitor. And she’s hardly the only artificial woman who builds on the legacy of Metropolis. In the near century’s worth of post-Metropolis robot stories, we continuously see female robots that grow from this foundational design. At the turn of the century, Bicentennial Man’s (1999) Galatea was drawing on the visual aesthetics of Maria in very obvious ways.
And, although their forms have been modernized, the bodily transformation of a metallic looking robot woman into a fleshy one that Metropolis started can be seen in recent robo-girls, like Ex Machina’s (2014) Ava. So, while the actual Maria costume has been lost to time (some sources say it was essentially destroyed as part of filming), filmmakers and audiences remain deeply interested in the visual blending of human woman and artificial construct on the big screen.
(Note: from here on out, I’ll be discussing sex and gender a bit and some of the video clips will involve sexualized robots – there’s no nudity, but some of these clips, even when they’re coming from films from the 20’s, are probably going to be considered NSFW in some places. So if you’re sneaking in some FAB reading at the office, bear that in mind.)
So what’s the deal with making so many of these characters women? Well, there are a few different reasons, but let’s start with the most obvious one: the dudes who make them are exceedingly horny. I thought about trying to come up with a way to sugarcoat that or make it more tame, but nah, that’s a very real part of robot girls from Maria forward.
Like, right from the get go our first robot is dancing provocatively for an audience of leering men. She is cast here as the Whore of Babylon, ushering in the apocalypse by driving these frenzied men to lose control and threaten the very city. Together, the real Maria and maschinenmensch Maria form a Madonna/Whore dichotomy. The “true” Maria is framed as virginal, pure, and wholesome, while the “false” Maria serves to warn of the dangers of female sexuality (which, here as is so often the case in real life, is actually the danger of men responding to female sexuality with violence). But by the end of the film, our virginal Maria is saved, and the too-sexual maschinenmensch is burnt at the stake.
Sexbot cinema is nothing if not diverse, however. In 1975, The Stepford Wives, which would go on to inspire Jordan Peele’s Get Out, gave us a film where a woman moves with her husband and daughters from New York to an idyllic Connecticut suburb. Once there, she finds that all of the other women in the community are model homemakers, mothers, and wives with no real inner lives of their own. Over the course of the film, Joanna (our lead) discovers that these women were once far more interesting and vibrant people, and her investigation eventually reveals that they’ve all been replaced by robot doppelgangers. Joanna is ultimately killed and replaced by her doppelganger (whose naked body is readily visible beneath a transparent gown at the time). The movie closes out with the doppelganger moving through a grocery store alongside the other fembots in almost dance-like choreography as dreamy music plays. Here, robots serve as replacements for the messy complexities of real women, instead giving the men on the town what they’re actually looking for: quiet and obedient domestic slaves and sex machines.
This is a good time to pause and emphasize that media often works on multiple levels. So, while a lot of these films definitely do have a surface-level interest in questions about artificial beings, there are compelling readings of many these stories as an expression of anxiety about what happens when people that society is marginalizing manage to gain power. (This isn’t always about gender, robots coded as racial other or lower class slave/servant is also common.) We can see this in Blade Runner, which is one of the best “artificial being” movies in terms of how it tackles the question of “what makes someone a person?” But it also retreads familiar ground in terms of what it has to say about gender. (I’m going to assume people are familiar with Blade Runner and skip the summary, but if you aren’t, go watch it and skip this section –specifically, watch the Final Cut or Director’s Cut- the work print cut is interesting but not as good, and the theatrical cut is used in film courses to discuss how studio meddling can lead to bad movies.) Anyway, the female replicants in Batty’s group are presented as heavily sexualized –Pris is a “basic pleasure model” who will later try to kill Deckard by crushing his head between her thighs, and Zhora, an assassin working as an exotic dancer, is described to Deckard as both a “beauty” and a “beast.”
Unlike the male replicants, who get quick clean deaths (Leon) or one of the best death scenes in all of cinema (Batty), the female replicants are dispatched in messy, gruesome ways. Zhora is shot and falls crashing through glass in slow motion, all while the copious blood is captured by her transparent raincoat for our viewing. Pris fares no better, dying by being shot several times to finish her off after a disturbing set of shots of her spasming wildly and wailing. Rachael is the only female replicant who makes it out the film. Despite her femme fatale look, the powerful presence she exuded in her introduction falls away after she discovers that she’s a replicant, and she is notably virginal in her sex scene with Deckard.
Do Women Ever Win?
They do! Recent films have played with robo-girls in interesting ways. Ex Machina is a film that follows programmer Caleb Smith as he meets with reclusive and eccentric tech CEO Nathan Bateman, who reveals that he wants him to conduct a Turing test of sorts to see if Bateman’s AI, Ava, passes as human. On the surface this is very stock sci-fi “is the AI aware” stuff, but the film actually doesn’t have a ton of new things to say about AI. I find that it has more interesting things to say about the sort of men who view women as puzzles to be solved. Bateman is written as a sort of odious douchebag who sees women as objects with discreet and limited use. He literally keeps a collection of female AIs boxed up in one of his rooms, and his mute servant Kyoko is a fetish object paraded before Caleb to assert Nathan’s alpha male status. Kyoko is, on the surface, a wildly offensive stereotype of the submissive Asian woman, but I think she can also be read as pointed critique of nerd cultures obsession with the imagined submissive Asian woman as sex object. After all, Kyoko isn’t a fully formed self-identified woman; she’s a version of a stereotype created by an egotistical misogynist. Whether delivering this critique justifies having the problematic portrayal in the first place is an entirely different discussion.
Over the course of the film, Caleb falls for Ava and conspires to help her escape. What’s interesting about Ex Machina is that Caleb, who, on first glance, looks like a sympathetic character and potential hero, is revealed to be just another type of misogynist. He’s the “nice guy,” the white knight standing up for a woman not because she is being wronged but because he believes that by standing up for her he will ultimately be rewarded with sex. He is the guy who, upon finding out that a woman he was nice to isn’t sexually interested in him, complains bitterly about being put into the “friend zone.” That he views her this way is so overt that at one point, Caleb asks if Ava’s appearance was based on his porn-viewing habits (data that Bateman, as the avatar of Big Tech, very creepily has access to).
This framing of exploited artificial beings taking their revenge is by no means unique to Ex Machina among robo-media, and we’ve certainly seen other stories end poorly for the men who attempt to claim ownership of female bodies and sexuality.
But robots and cyborgs aren’t always busy killing their creators for their sins. Sometimes their parents do play nurturing roles. Robots generally, and cyborgs in particular, are ripe ground for discussions of bodily autonomy and gender identity. From Maria onward, the bodies of female robots frequently transform as a way of expressing and realizing gender. Alita: Battle Angel (which I’d say is an overall “meh” adaptation of the quite good manga Battle Angel Alita) features this scene, which a trans friend (and a defender of the film) once described to me as, to paraphrase, “the dream”
Here we’ve got Alita, a woman, whose head (mind) has been placed on a male body that changes itself to reflect her internalized conception of her gender identity. In this reading, this scene marks a triumphant turn towards Alita finding her place in the world in a body that “fits” her.
Alright, but What about Data Doll?
Thanks for indulging that jaunt through film history. Since there’s so little in-game information on her, I’m hoping that contextualizing Data Doll among other similar characters will provide an opportunity to speculate on where her story might go within the lore of Rathe. Does she have anything to tell us about gender? Well, at a minimum her body was designed to look female, and all references to her use she/her pronouns, so she is gendered. Why did the people who built her body make it feminine? From her lore: “Her purpose: to provide pertinent data to the Iron Assembly’s most elite members” seems to suggest that she’s in the sort of gendered tradition of assistant or secretarial work being “woman’s work.” That’s not a critique per se- the way I’d judge this choice will depend on how she responds to the role ascribed to her. How does she feel about the Iron Assembly? We know that “All the while, she performs her duties for the Iron Assembly without fail and never lets on how she has changed,” so she is intentionally keeping them in the dark about her true nature. Will she follow the tradition of AIs who rebel against their servitude?
Looping back to Micro-processor, we now know that she is modifying herself physically, which opens up questions of whether she’ll make additional changes to her form as the game’s narrative progresses. How will Data Doll manifest herself? What about her name? Will she continue to go by “Data Doll,” or will she leave the depths of Metrix and move about under a new one? How does she conceptualize herself? While that’s a lot of big, open-ended questions, one thing we do know is that she believes that “dark days are on the horizon for Metrix,” suggesting that we’ll likely see bad events going on there in upcoming expansions, which sets the stage for her to move her own story forward.
As we dive further into speculation land, my tendency is to assume that the Metrix narrative will key in on class. From Dash’s stories and the Regions of Rathe description, we get a clear impression that Metrix has a stark divide between the wealthy and the lower classes –and it’s turned up to eleven if you consider the Pits as part of Metrix. Dash herself is a sort of champagne socialist (which I mean in the best possible way); she’s the daughter of influential and wealthy parents but finds herself more at home among and sympathetic to the lower classes and the downtrodden (it’s taking everything I have not to make a long comparison to Caitlyn in Arcane). If some sort of conflict between the people of the streets and those living in the towers breaks out, I would hope to see Data Doll, who essentially began her life as the Iron Assembly’s compliant slave, work against those structures –certainly to liberate herself, and perhaps to find kinship and aid with other people who have been marginalized by Metrix’s elite.
For now, it seems like we’re going to be left wondering what the future holds for our copper girl. But it definitely feels like the “Metrix set” is on the horizon.
I wanted to tack on a note at the end here to say two things. First, good media tends to be complex. That means that you don’t have to respond to it monolithically. So, while I am critical of things like what Metropolis has to say about female sexuality, I also love the film pretty dearly. I don’t intend for this to read as me bashing the films I’m discussing. By the same token, I’m not endorsing them unreservedly, as I think all of them can have some valid critiques that can be leveled against them.
Additionally, film, like all media, is a product of the places and times it is made in and the people who make it. This means that a lot of things in a film can express ideas, feelings, and issues of a particular timespace, even when the creators of the media didn’t plan it. That is to say, authorial intent does not preclude unintended elements or themes from existing in film. Authors can rarely piece together where all of their ideas and inspirations emerge from, so media often has things to say that its creators did not anticipate. Moreover, authors can be wrong about what their own work says, especially in films, which are almost never the products of any one person. So while Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina) has stated in interviews that he thinks of Ava as “literally genderless,” this is pretty obviously not how she is depicted, and this failure to convey her as such can also be something worth investigating.
Similarly, the fact that I can’t find any indication that Robert Rodriguez considered Alita as a trans metaphor doesn’t invalidate my friend’s reading of the film, especially as a film made in the past few years where gender has increasing moved to the foreground of the public consciousness.
*Header Image – Metrix by Grafit Studio