When I first met Genshin Impact’s mascot character, Paimon, I had serious second thoughts about playing any more of the game. This was an issue, because she first shows up approximately two minutes after the game begins.
Many things about Genshin Impact, the free-to-play Breath of the Wild-inspired JRPG that’s blown the absolute heck up over the past few weeks, are extremely anime. Paimon might be the most anime of all—in a way that’s divisive, to say the least. She’s the sort of character who makes people embarrassed to watch anime without headphones on; her childish looks and high-pitched, egregiously cutesy voice combine to fit a stereotype that makes passersby ask “What are you watching?” as though you’re hungrily hunched over a YouTube compilation of future serial murderers dissecting small animals. For much of my life, I was a weeb. I stopped watching anime due to lack of time more than lack of interest. That said, characters in the mold of “small girl who speaks in baby talk but is actually 10,000 years old for reasons that tend to have thorny implications” made me hesitant to ever resume that particular hobby.
For Genshin Impact’s first couple hours, I viewed Paimon as a nuisance. It was like somebody had somehow made Navi the fairy from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time even worse. In addition to tutorializing while I explored and tried to figure out why an elemental dragon had suddenly begun attacking people, she piped up in response to every little thing that happened to us. She did not seem to have much of use to contribute, her cluelessness outdone only by that of my own character, who is literally from another world. I saw Reddit threads begging for some kind of Paimon mute function, and I nodded in solemn solidarity.
But Paimon is not the worst thing about Genshin Impact. (That, for those wondering, is gacha mechanics that ultimately feed into a diabolically tedious endgame.) In fact, she might actually be... good. Over the weekend, I found myself warming up to Paimon’s particular brand of incessant (whether you like it or not) charm. Curious to see if this was happening to other people, I decided to run a highly unscientific poll on Twitter. When the results came in, it was a near-even split: 54.2% of respondents said that Paimon was “the worst,” while 45.8% said she was “good, actually.” While the numbers might be different, this schism is present in the wider Genshin Impact community as well. Doubtless, Paimon is irritating as hell, but she’s also something of an acquired taste.
There’s no better way I can sum up her appeal than this: She talks mad shit. She talks shit to basically everyone you meet, poking, prodding, and questioning otherwise generic anime archetypes until they’re forced to reveal hidden charms of their own. Anime heroes who are allowed to wax nonsensical and save the day at their own glacial pace? That’s boring. Anime heroes who are constantly being terrorized by a flying baby? Now that’s good television. The bard can’t get away with being charming because Paimon keeps questioning his motives and giving him mean nicknames. The tall, handsome knights can’t act like cool know-it-alls because Paimon won’t let them get a word in edgewise.
But Paimon also takes plenty of shit too, largely because of a running joke that the internet has transformed into Genshin’s most pervasive meme. Near the beginning of the game, the first party member you meet, Amber, asks what the deal is with your “mascot.” You can reply by saying either “We’re friends” or “Emergency food.” If you pick the latter, an enraged Paimon shouts that it’s “even worse than being a mascot.” This is a legitimately funny scene, which surprised me, because I came into Genshin Impact expecting a lot of self-serious anime monologuing. The joke persists throughout the game, with other characters asking if Paimon is “edible” or “some kind of food.” She rarely takes this lying down.
This gag has spawned a universe of memes. If you search Paimon on Reddit, Twitter, or YouTube, you will immediately find a whole host of “emergency food”-themed jokes, pieces of fan art, and videos. Many are fun and funny. Some are uncomfortably leery because, again, we are still dealing with the “otherworldly force masquerading as a baby-talking girl” trope. Regardless, it’s difficult to find Paimon fan works that don’t in some way involve the “emergency food” joke. Some fans have even literally turned her into food.
But there is more to Paimon than jokes. Despite her stature, she behaves in ways that can only be described as suspicious. Early in the game, she lusts after an all-powerful sword that turns out to be fake. She generally acts clueless, but there’s no other creature like her in the game world, and nobody questions her whole thing of being... whatever she is. Some players speculate that she might be the game’s villain.
In a poorly written game, a character like this might be Too Much, or her abrasiveness might push all the other characters to constantly be at each other’s throats. But while I would not call Genshin Impact a literary masterpiece, it’s proven to be cleverer than I expected. I enjoy traveling with Paimon. She adds much-needed flavor to otherwise bland scenarios, even if she’s annoying as heck. I no longer want to mute her, in a general sense. However, while re-watching scenes on YouTube in order to write this article, I did mute the sound, because I did not want to hear her voice. Such is the duality of her character.