She lies there, deep in the Haligtree’s belly, as if she’d just dozed off in the beams of light that trickle down. Malenia the Severed (defender of Miquella!) has fallen to pieces, her one good arm resting at the feet of the wreaths and knots that held her childish brother. This enigmatic warrior conquered audiences from the moment she appeared, and she was prominent in the rest of the game’s marketing material. But instead of becoming an undisputed favorite, she frustrated fans and revealed the limitations of FromSoftware’s imagination.
Malenia is a hard-hitting endgame encounter, and while optional, she’s a brick wall for many players. Reminiscent of other tough encounters, such as Lady Maria from Bloodborne, it’s a two-stage battle full of quick, deadly attacks as Malenia heals from the damage she inflicted on the player.
There’s a deep humor in the idea of a woman whose attacks steal your health from you to make herself stronger
When you meet her in Elphael, she is immediately imposing. Her presence is quietly scary. Her movements are sharpened and practiced. Her voice is calm and emotionless. Her face is impassive. Everything in the first phase of combat is designed to thwart and emasculate; there’s a deep humor in the idea of a woman whose attacks steal your health to strengthen herself. And the ultimate joke: Just when you think you knocked her down, she gets up one last time.
Malenia’s first death leads to her final transformation into the Goddess of Scarlet Rot, and she emerges triumphant from her blossom to spread tragically beautiful wings of skin, rot and butterflies. She is no longer clad in armor and the camera long and slowly reveals her nudity. Her body is covered in rot, yet her breasts and genitals are as smooth as a doll’s. It evokes a confusing mixture of fear and excitement, which makes looking at her body difficult. Her lack of protection feels not as a vulnerability but as a challenge.
The final part of the fight culminates in a whirlwind of aerial dive bombs, rotten explosions and multiple copies of itself flying around you. When she finally dies, she retreats back to the safety of the rotting blossom, quietly threatening to return in a future time for retribution beyond a typical life cycle.
Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco
Malenia is an example of how FromSoft writes women into its games. Whether you run into bosses or NPCs you encounter in the wild, these women share a common affliction. They exist in tragically decrepit worlds and share a specific brokenness; mutilation, abandonment and loss. They are affected by gender, and the “cure” for when they are obstacles rather than quiet helpful is for the player to use succinct violence. It’s a certain kind of idealized femininity, as fantastic as the ominous castles and gigantic trees – subdued, silent, with no needs or motivations – echoing the presence of dolls, mothers and even help-meets accompanying the player. Their emotions are muffled in their more docile counterparts, before erupting into shrieking, horrific hysteria when encountered in combat.
Malenia is made up of the same stuff and is not unanimously hated either; there is passion for a gigantic, red-haired woman in armor. Still, she is a controversial character subject to social media posts, memes and arguments. Obviously, there’s a section of the audience antagonized by her presence as both a boss (even if optional) and a figure in the game’s story.
Many of these archetypal FromSoft women are beloved by fans, such as the Emerald Herald (Dark Souls 2), the Fire Keeper (Dark Souls 3) or more recently Ranni the Witch (Elden Ring). [Ed. note: Nico is being quite generous here, not listing Demon’s Souls’ Maiden in Black, Dark Souls’ infamously heaving giantess Gwynevere, Sekiro’s Emma, and the quite-literally-named The Doll from Bloodborne.] The wider gaming community tends to react harshly to female characters, making the Soulsborne community’s embrace feel positive on the face of it. When that affection is based on that empty, emotionless state, or reduces it to infantilized “waifus,” you realize that animosity and that affection stem from the same deep sexist roots, twins intertwined.
To quote Matt Kim, in his piece “Why Are Female Characters in ‘Dark Souls’ Games Quiet and Alien?”:
While this type of archetype is not exclusive to Japanese anime, it is one of the most popular types of characters in the medium. Stranger still, these characters are actively fetishized for their alien nature. Their lack of a broad emotional spectrum is part of their appeal. Plus, these characters tend to be more resilient than everyone else in their story—perhaps because they aren’t burdened by emotions. But it could also be argued that their lack of “emotions,” used here as an unfortunate euphemism for men’s perception of female shortcomings, makes it easier to believe that they are capable of such great powers.
However, once she’s engaged in a fight, she reveals her true, monstrous form.
FromSoft’s female characters who deviate from this calm, pop-like look are still written with a lack of emotionality, which feels close to male stoicism. It’s a strange void that defines every permutation of character that women embody in these games.
Soulsborne games are notorious for challenging their audiences, and over the years they have attracted a certain kind of player base, often males, who take their boss-killing feats seriously. For some, the difficulty is the point of these experiences. This attitude has long kept many away from the studio’s games, but Elden Ring’s popularity drew a wider audience ready to have them pulverized to dust by bosses.
Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco via Nico Deyo
The fight with Malenia’s boss is punishingly difficult, and the public’s hostile and competitive attitude about it is often steeped in gender-based toxicity. Countless Reddit posts, YouTube videos and tweets talk about players’ failures or successes, while littered with sexist statements. People also fell back into the community’s usual discourse about which methods of hitting her were more valid and which made you a ‘puss’, and success over her sometimes got a weird male pat on the chest. These reactions are distasteful, but not surprising. This boss fight creates friction between the developer’s ideas about gender and his ideas about enabling a power fantasy. It makes for a weird feat when the game encourages players to embrace failure. This is only enhanced by Malenia’s character design.
The bravado about beating Malenia makes sense; she evokes the idea of a virgin warrior like Joan of Arc or Brienne of Tarth, her purity and strength existing in a place beyond femininity. Her aesthetic references to Athena or valkyries, but even taking that away, her nudity is more terrifying than provocative. Everything about her is hostile and taunts the player. When faced with a difficult, rebellious woman who has never been beaten, men can’t help but fantasize about being the one taking her down. (Or at least be in the room when it happens.)
FromSoft’s style of hiding the world and the story behind item descriptions and esoteric NPC dialogue both make the world unreliable and mysterious, but also reinforce fan prejudice towards Malenia. She is a receding figure in the story, either by choice or omission (there is some evidence of cut content that could have expanded her actual story). Her story is largely told in fragments, before encountering her in the Haligtree – the biggest being her battle against Radahn. Shown in a story trailer released prior to the game, the two demigods will compete against each other to claim the title of Elden Lord. Radahn cuts off her arm and in a desperate movement she takes her sword and jumps on him, plunging the blade into herself and exploding into a giant rotten blossom. The aftermath of this is clearly shown when the player steps into Caelid, ravaged from edge to edge.
As a fan missed that trailer, their first encounter with Malenia’s influence is felt when they go to fight Radahn. Witch hunter Jerren, a herald of Radahn, tells of the General’s decline as a result of the Scarlet Rot. He is a shadow of his former self, weak and mad, eating fellow countrymen like an animal. It’s not hard to imagine how this would affect the public to see her as an aggressor. It sparked discussions among fans about how her transformation “cheated” an otherwise fair fight. (The fact that Radahn was a master of gravity magic and also cut off her arm is not important.)
To shed light on Malenia’s journey, players must pursue a quest to rescue a young woman suffering from rot, someone who looks eerily like Malenia. The story reveals that the demigod dropped spore clones of himself, which flourished in Caelid. All roads in FromSoft’s games lead back to women who are mothers, even terrifying sword maidens.
What’s the scariest thing a team of designers can come up with? A distant warrior woman who cares nothing for them slowly succumbs to a rot that infected her from birth
These narrative choices quickly undermined its initially provocative design, diminishing their impact. What’s the scariest thing a team of designers can come up with? A distant warrior woman who cares nothing for them, slowly succumbs to a rot that infects her from birth. Although Malenia’s character writing had grown a little beyond the way women were written in previous FromSoft games, her arc is still limited by the same laws. What could have been a place for mechanical and narrative evolution decays to just a means to an end in a video game. Women continue to populate the path as either passive aid encounters or predictable obstacles, which the fan base is only too happy to step over.
While FromSoft’s games are often intriguing meditations on the corrupting influence of power, the inevitability of death, and the lurking fear of cosmic horror, the women in them feel stymied. Malenia is a semi-mature idea cut back too short. What could have been has been left on the floor of the Haligtree, shrouded in flower petals, and deeply dreaming of revenge.