It’s unfortunate that my favorite female video game character exists in a game that few people will play despite owning it: Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s expansion Justine. For this Saucy Saturday, I’d like to introduce you to the most underrated badass lady in contemporary gaming: Justine Florbelle, the questionably sociopathic main character of one of the scariest games ever made.
Like GLaDOS, the character Justine is the unseen antagonist of the game whose voice instructs and informs you as you progress through the halls of the mansion she has left you in. You play an initially unnamed, unseen woman who wakes up in a locked cell with a phonograph.
The phonograph plays a recording that Justine has made for you to explain your situation. She begins by saying, “Bienvenue, you are now listening to the sound of my disembodied voice. It will serve you no purpose to look for me, for this is a voice from the past.” She goes on to explain that she’s placed you in her “Cabinet of Perturbation”, meant to study your psyche. She notes:
There are a few parts to this study and it is up to you – not only to pass, but figure out what elements are important. Please go on, move into the next chamber. Just remember they can all be saved, there is always a way.
What she means by “they can all be saved” becomes clear only once you’ve entered the first room. It’s a room with cells lining either side, all of them unlocked except for one. In that cell is a man tied to a table with a bag over his head and a red hot pyramid pointing down above his chest. Next to the locked cell is a lever. Without an exit to the room, and for lack of ideas of where to go from there, the player is tempted to pull the lever.
Luckily, the game is merciful enough that your first pull of the lever only triggers the trap part way—the pyramid lowers itself over the man’s chest. That’s the puzzle: either pull the lever all the way to trigger a ladder to drop down from the ceiling which will allow you to progress, and at the same time kill the man (who is completely alive and conscious), or take the extra time to try to find another way out.
The next phonograph that Justine has prepared for you (there is another one that you can find and then play, but it is not pre-prepared like the rest) states:
Congratulations for coming this far, I am so excited for you. I do hope you managed to save Monsieur Fournier. He was a friend and a colleague of my papa, you know…
And that’s the basis of the game, with three puzzles in all. The identities of the men Justine has kidnapped, Justine’s own history, and the identities of the monsters (which aren’t really monsters) that patrol the mansion are all revealed in notes and the phonographs found scattered throughout the different rooms. The roles of these characters are important to understand why I think Justine is a frighteningly awesome woman.
Her victims are Doctor Fournier, a doctor sent to diagnose Justine as a hysteric in the hopes of incarcerating her for “stealing” the son of Lucien Racine, named Alois; the second is Father David, a priest in the service of Justine’s deceased father; and the third is Inspector Marot, a police officer who was beseeched by Alois’ father to retrieve Doctor Fournier from Justine’s house after his diagnostic visit with her.
There are also three monsters, which like I said aren’t monsters. The first one you meet in the room with Doctor Fournier. If you hide well enough, you hear him pacing the room saying, “Is that you, my love?” and, “Please, come back.” This, readers, is Alois. These “monsters” are actually Justine’s suitors—men she had been dating that were now trapped in the mansion, horribly mutilated, their eyes gouged out with hot pokers or abacinated, wrapped in chains with a cart wheel around their neck. Unlike the enemies in Amnesia, these three men are human beings that are still alive, who speak and have parents that are looking for them. Alois was a former racquetball or tennis player of immense talent, who became so obsessed with Justine that he would mutilate himself for her, and even writes her a touching love letter:
Justine, my love, I know I am not as talented as Malo or as strong as Basile, but I am certain my love is truer. Do not my scars tell you so? I will continue to cut myself as long as it pleases you. I would even kill Basile if you wish. I know you say you like it, but he is hurting you. I will trick him to consume the Bromide. Poor Justine, I will help, just ask me to help.
This letter reveals the name of Justine’s other two paramours: Malo and Basile. I mentioned that you could find a phonograph between the first and second rooms, and in this phonograph you hear Justine and Basile speaking to each other. In it, Basile groggily asks Justine what she put into the wine, and she laughs, “Absinthe, silly Basile, strong men like you don’t drink wine – wine is for helpless women like myself.” Basile then struggles with something around his head and asks for Justine to get him out. She says she’ll let him out if he tells her how beautiful she is, and he gives her a rehearsed line of, “Your beauty is blinding.” She then burns his eyes out with the hot poker you find lying next to the phonograph, and you hear him scream, “I’ll kill you, you whore.” From clues given at the beginning of the game, and from Alois’ letter, it’s clear that Basile is a carpenter of some sort, a strong man who likes to throw his weight around, a stark contrast to Alois’ tender voice and confessions of love.
Malo de Vigny is the third and final man you encounter. He is also the only one who interacts with the kidnapped men—Alois ignores the man in the first room, and Basile is never in the same room as anybody else. Malo, in fact, is the trap to the final room. He was a renowned violinist before he met Justine, and a newspaper article you find on him states that he showed up to a performance visibly intoxicated and was booed until he threw his bow into the audience and collapsed, while Justine, “who is according to rumors romantically involved with Monsieur de Vigny, looked quite amused by the event and had two of her friends, Basile Giroux and Alois Racien carry him off the stage.” Whether he was mentally unstable before he met Justine, or if Justine broke him grievously is uncertain, but he follows the player around threatening to eat you, and will do, in fact, just that if he catches you. In a cell belonging to him at the beginning of the game, you see chunks of flesh and smears of blood, assumed to be his own. He will wander around the final room saying, “I grew tired of my own flesh,” and, “Justine…. Let me taste you.” Your choice here is to either go through the trouble of closing a gate to protect the police officer, or keep running from Malo, allowing him to be eaten.
So why do I think Justine is so great, if she has tortured, enslaved, kidnapped, mutilated, and destroyed the lives of these men? First of all, she doesn’t fit into the typical portrayal of women in games: she’s not a virginal maiden, she’s not a mother or a mother figure, and she’s not a monstrous crone. But that’s not quite enough to warrant greatness. So, we know everything about these guys, but we don’t know anything about Justine. Justine’s mother died giving birth to her baby brother, who died as well. Her father is a psychiatrist of sorts who performs experiments on Justine. In a letter he writes before his death, he states:
I am at loss with my studies. My daughter has become distraught and distant. I did very little to control her behavior, yet I believe the very notion of my observation has made her this way. My scientific indifference to our tests has not left her with an indifferent opinion. She finds my lack of reaction disappointing. She judges me, and most importantly herself, by the results of these tests.
The reason I have trouble finding any consistency within her character, is because she tries to different approaches to provoke me and her actions only become more and more disturbing. Yesterday I lost myself and scolded her, she was terrified and humiliated.
It saddens me greatly to bring my studies to a close without seeing it to the end, but I can no longer justify my research, I have to mend my relationship with my daughter…
Around that same time, Justine writes in her diary at age 11:
Today father came for me in my room. I still couldn’t look him in the eyes. He said I shouldn’t feel ashamed and that I only tried to fill the void left by mother. When he wasn’t looking, I took the star stone from his collection.
Today I was the one with the sword.
This notion of sexual abuse is further confirmed later, when the players learns that Justine’s father would describe her mother’s beauty as being blinding—the same words she forced her suitors to say to her. At 11 years old, then, Justine killed her father.
So is she a sociopath, if at 11 she was capable of murder? Note that this is actually the only murder she’s committed—she didn’t kill any of her suitors or the men she kidnapped. But I don’t think she is a sociopath. A diary entry from when she was 8 states:
Today I played outside with Clarice. We saw a bird pick at a snail. It carried it off and landed on the lawn fence. The snail had a shell and it cracked. Clarice cried and I comforted her. The new maid heard us and came out and scolded Clarice for playing with me, the bird took off into the air.
Today I was the one with open arms.
Sociopaths do not comfort people. They don’t have the capacity to understand tears, or people being upset, and at the age of 8 they don’t understand that in a situation like that, to “comfort” someone is what’s normal. Furthermore, the fact that the maid scolded Clarice for playing with Justine shows that her father is trying to keep her isolated, that nobody wants her playing with children her own age.
So what we have with Justine is a young woman who grew up without a mother, whose father sexually abused her and justified it by saying she was only trying to take her mother’s place, psychologically manipulated her for the benefit of his research without giving her any proper attention outside of their tests, socially isolated her, and gave her no indication of his thoughts or feelings towards her outside of clinical analysis. So why take it out on Alois, Basile, and Malo? Because Alois showed her affection, the kind of love and tenderness she always wanted from her father; Basile abused her, showed her love the way her father “showed” his love; and Malo was vulnerable, an ideal “test subject,” the kind of person she could experiment with the way her father experimented with her—the only kind of relationship there is.
So why the doctor, the priest, and the police man? I’m going to wax theoretical here for a minute. These men represent Men in general, as a gender. Jacques Lacan is a French psychoanalysts and psychiatrist that divided the world into three orders: the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real. In the simplest terms I can muster, the Imaginary is where Women, as gender, stand because they give birth to children, because they can create but cannot maintain or bear meaning. The Imaginary is where the ego is formed, where a baby Realizes that what it is and what other things are aren’t the same. The Symbolic gives meaning to things. It gives the baby the concept of “me” and “other”, it is the Realm of “Law” and “Structure,” it establishes order. It’s also the Realm of Men. The Real isn’t “Reality,” per se. It’s the complete and utter break down of the order established by the Symbolic, its insanity gnawing at the border of law, it is anxiety, it is fear. The Real is that moment when the fear of death grips you around your throat and threatens to rip your heart out.
So why the doctor, the priest, and the police man? Because those three occupations are responsible for upholding the Symbolic order. The doctor battles illness to keep your body alive; the priest keeps away those demons, the Devil that threatens to tear the veil of balance; the police man keeps the structure of society intact and protects people from lawlessness. Where their job is keep the Real in check, Justine wants to make them face it. Justine isn’t just targeting them as men, or as threats to her “plans”—she targets what they represent, what they stand for. They represent oppression, subjugation, and forced order. And it’s up to you, the player, to decide whether they live or die, whether you want to maintain order and the law, if you want to express empathy and sympathy, emotions fostered by the Symbolic’s use of notions like virtue and righteousness, or if you simply want to survive. If the feeling of the Real biting at your heels has you crazed enough to let Inspector Marot get eaten alive if it means you make it to the next room alive.
And what’s the biggest mind fuck of the whole game? What clinches Justine’s position as #1 lady in my book of ladies in gaming? THIS IS A HUGE SPOILER SO STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW OR PLAN TO PLAY THE GAME. The biggest mind fuck is this—you, the player, the primary subject in this whole nightmare of a psychological experiment, are Justine.