Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in. I hail from the now-defunct 1UP and am looking for a new home/community for the grand reopening of my blog. Why I didn't think of Destructoid earlier is anyone's guess, but it seems like things will be a good fit here...or at least I hope they will. If you like esoteric ramblings on small, nitpicked issues in gaming, you've come to the right place. Maybe I take things a little too seriously, but I like to think of it as passion rather than pretention. Please to enjoy.
The internet has been abuzz lately following the six character reveals of Vanillaware's upcoming brawler, Dragon's Crown. While its art direction, compliments of lead artist and Vanillaware president George Kamitani, is gorgeous in true Vanillaware fashion, the design of one character, the Sorceress, has caused a rift in the gaming community regarding depictions of women and sexuality in our medium, as well as the extent to which the community can hold developers accountable for questionable portrayals such as the Sorceress in Dragon's Crown. Much of the discussion thus far has been fueled by mutual ire on both sides, and I'll admit to slinging my own fair share of mud in the comment thread trenches. In an effort to rectify this lack of true discussion and atone for my past locutionary sins, I'll try to provide my account of these issues with as little contempt and indignation as possible.
The Sorceress, for reference
Already one can see where controversy may crop up with images like the one above being published by Vanillaware itself as official character art. This post isn't necessarily on why the above image can be seen as problematic, though I'll address that to some extent. Instead, I'll try to focus on the nature of the controversy itself, sussing out what rests at the heart of this issue. Furthermore, in no way will I suggest that Kamitani should be censored in what art he is entitled to produce for his games on legal grounds. As consumers and potential consumers of Vanillaware games, however, we are entitled to criticize his work and even condemn it should we find its content to be suitably appalling and possibly even detrimental, much as we would criticize similarly egregious utterances if they appeared in mundane, non-artistic conversation. A work of art which advocates against marriage equality may be legally protected from censorship, but can (and I believe should) still be criticized for its message much as anyone stating it plainly in speech could (and should) be. Accordingly, if I use language such as "fault," "blame," or "should not," understand that I am appealing to the court of public opinion, not an officially recognized court of law.
With the housekeeping more or less out of the way, to begin the discussion proper, let's begin from as similar a starting line as possible by all donning the hat of one particular demographic: straight, adult men who are able to be aroused by drawings and have preferences pertaining to the physical appearances of their sexual partners which encompass at least those traits emphasized in the above image (red hair, large breasts, slender waist, wide hips, long legs, seductive postures). For those who don't fall under this demographic naturally or who are uncomfortable with the exercise, please bear with me and try to follow along; I promise it won't be long before you can take the cap off. Alright, with our new identities assumed, let's look at the above image again. Despite the artistic liberty Kamitani took with the size of the Sorceress' various assets, while it likely wasn't a sincere reaction for those not already of this demographic, for those who truly got into the spirit of the exercise and viewed the image through the glasses of another with the appropriate proclivities, I think it's safe to say that some manner of attraction was felt on behalf of your newly-adopted identities, as you would have felt for yourself had the image been of a character with those physical qualities which you prefer. For the purposes of this post, it's through this lens of attraction I'd like us to look at the Sorceress, unless otherwise specified: to whatever extent, perhaps even sexually, let's say that she is attractive.
Given the character's posture in the above image and the visual emphasis placed on those traits which are found to be sexually desirable by a sizable population of the intended demographics for Dragon's Crown, it seems that our attraction to the Sorceress was an intentional aim of Kamitani's in designing her. Are we to fault Vanillaware for doing this? Intuitions may conflict between parties on this issue, but intentionally creating attractive characters has been a staple of virtually any narrative medium for decades, if not centuries. To keep the discussion within the medium of video games, even relatively uncontroversial games like those of the Uncharted series, which are often praised for their portrayals of women, intentionally feature casts of almost exclusively gorgeous people, both male and female, Is the Uncharted series, through characters like Chloe and Elena, accordingly problematic in the same way Dragon's Crown can be considered problematic given the Soceress? It seems not. The fact that the Sorceress is attractive alone doesn't appear to be the reason why her character design upsets as many people as it does.
Unlike Elena and Chloe, the Sorceress' design is inherently sexual in nature. In the image above alone, it's clear that skin is showing all the unnecessary places, and one look at the position of her staff, the skull of her skeleton, and possibly even his sword (should one wish to read into it on a Freudian level) reveals a rather thinly-veiled pantomime taking place between the master and her undead servant. Now, admittedly this is speculation as we have received very little information about her as a character up until this point, but I would hazard a guess and say that sexuality is not a central character trait of the Sorceress. The image above isn't some depiction of sexual empowerment, featuring her brazenly entreating her undead companion to enjoy an evening of carnal pleasure with her. If she were a sexually empowered character, I can assure you this post would read rather differently, perhaps much more positively. But alas, such is not the case, and instead what we are left with is a character who is not sexual, but rather sexualized. And that, I believe, is what rests at the heart of this backlash against the Sorceress' design.
Sexualization can be a tricky topic to discuss, particularly from my male perspective, as it can quickly lead to infantilization, but I don't think I'm doing this here. There is virtually no reason to understand the Sorceress as a character who is sometimes compelled to act by any sense of sexuality, as there's virtually no evidence for that sexuality in her character. It's hard to infantilize the sexual agency of a character by claiming its the product of external sexualization when there doesn't seem to be much of that agency there to begin with, essentially. But what do I mean when I say that the Sorceress is sexualized? In broad, nebulous terms, I mean that the "sexuality" she exudes is an external quality ascribed to her solely for the benefit of the viewer, not in accordance with any character trait she exhibits.
If the Sorceress is indeed a sexualized character and not a sexual one as I argue, I must have evidence for this sexualization, for this external quality being ascribed to her. Fortunately, I think I do. If I can direct your gaze back up to the image provided, take the two agents involved, the Sorceress and her skeleton, and separate them. Now, do whatever you wish with the skeleton, but have the Sorceress assume a neutral standing pose directly facing the viewer. With your hat on still, here before you stands an attractive woman wearing clothing which greatly accentuates those of her features which you find desirable. At this point, I would say that the Sorceress has not yet definitively been sexualized, at least not by the artist. The viewer may have, but that's his or her own prerogative as far as I'm concerned. A strong case could be made for her outfit being an example of artist sexualization, but for the sake of simplicity, I'll leave open the possibility that she selected those clothes for whatever reason of her own volition, and acknowledge her right to wear whatever the hell she wants, no matter how revealing it is. In fact, for those who have been uncomfortable with her inhuman bodily proportions and the lack of fabric covering her breasts and legs, at this point, feel free to change those things in your posed version of her to make her more anatomically sensible and modestly dressed. She is still a sexualized character without these qualities.
Alright, now, contort the frame of the Sorceress back to her original position along with the skeleton, taking note of each movement she would need to make in order to assume that pose in relation to the viewer. As you do this, assume, as we have thus far, that the Sorceress, much like every other playable character in Dragon's Crown, is not a sexually empowered or even a sexual character. With that in mind, watch as this effectively nonsexual character arches her back to assume what some have called a "courting pose," angling her buttocks to the viewer, twists her upper torso around to reveal the sheer size of her breasts and plant her staff behind her that she may grind upon it, and brings the head of her reclining skeleton, as well as the gaze of the viewer, up to her breasts. At this point, you should feel at least some degree of sleaze start to creep up from your stomach. Now, ask yourself: is there any reason why this presumably nonsexual character would perform these actions, and thus strike this pose, of her own volition? If she is as nonsexual as the rest of Dragon's Crown's cast seems to be, then no, there isn't. The only reason why this nonsexual character would perform these actions at all, regardless of her agency or lack thereof, is to pander to us, the viewers who find her to be physically attractive. The exercise I just walked you through is exactly what Kamitani had to do with the Sorceress to produce the above image, dressing, contorting, and presenting her as an object of sexual desire for the pleasure of the viewer, not in accordance with any manner of sexuality inherent within the character.
Up until this point, we've operated under one large assumption about the Sorceress in determining whether or not she's a sexualized character, namely that she is not an inherently sexual or seductive person. For the sake of thoroughness, let's abandon this assumption momentarily and grant that sexuality is indeed a notable character trait of hers. In doing so, it would seem that my issue with her posture in the image above wouldn't hold up, as her sexuality could be cited as a reason why she might strike that pose of her own volition, though why she would be getting fresh with a skeleton instead of someone more, well, living is anyone's guess. Conceding this counterpoint, I still think we can consider this sexual variant of the Sorceress to be sexualized on another front.
If the Sorceress is indeed a sexual character, what her pose in the above image implies is that her sexuality is a central component to her abilities in combat. Her character trailer doesn't show this to be the case, which is partly why I think the Sorceress isn't actually a sexual character, but if her abilities of bewitchment were fueled in part by seduction, that would certainly explain why she's attempting to entreat a skeleton through sexual provocation. And since the playable characters of Dragon's Crown don't seem to be much of actual characters, replete with personalities and backstories, but rather avatars to assume control over as a way to expereince a classically-inspired fantasy brawler, it would also make sense that a trait such as sexuality would be used primarily as a way to explain gameplay mechanics, not really as a way to flesh out the character of the Sorceress at all.
Dragon's Crown certainly wouldn't be the first game to treat the magical abilities of its female characters in such a fashion; Kamitani did draw heavily from established fantasy tropes in the creation of these characters, after all. One shouldn't attempt to defend this treatment of the Sorceress on these grounds, however, given that it's merely a fallacious appeal to tradition. In fact, the following criticisms of her treatment can be applied interchangably to many other instances of this trope as well: consider the other playable magic user in Dragon's Crown: the Wizard. Ignoring the fact that his use of offensive magics and the Soceress' use of supportive magics enforces the engendered roles of the active, male combatant and the passive, female caretaker, notice that the Wizard's magical abilities aren't fueled by sexuality as the Sorceress' are. The Wizard conjures his destructive spells using only a staff and a book while the Sorceress must additionally use her sexuality to entreat her undead minions and turn foes into frogs. Accordingly, it would seem that the Sorceress' abilities, and therefore her value in combat, are based in no small part on her attractiveness to others. It's in this sense that we can still say she's a sexualized character. Had Vanillaware reversed the roles of the Wizard and the Sorceress, giving him the powers of necromancy and transmutation and her the power of destructive magics, I can guarantee that there would be no prerequisite of sexual desirability for the Wizard to raise the dead or turn foes into frogs.
Okay, so the Sorceress is a sexualized character. Since this post is admittedly dragging on already, I won't spend the time explaining how the sexualization and/or objectification of women and female characters isn't a good thing. If you've lived long enough to start reading blogs about video games, chances are you've already heard that explanation, anyway. What I'll address instead is perhaps the most pervasive line of reasoning in defense of the Sorceress' design, something I'll call the argument from profit. The argument from profit more or less states: the design of the Sorceress is Kamitani's attempt to appeal to the target demographic of Dragon's Crown so as to sell more copies of the game, nothing more. As the video game industry is just that, we shouldn't fault Kamitani or Vanillaware for taking such steps to increase their profits.
At their cores, female sexualization, and in turn female objectification, are both expressions of sexist attitudes towards women. While some may argue my claim that the Sorceress is, in fact, sexualized, anyone who argues against the claim that sexualization is a form of sexism doesn't understand at least one of those terms. Assuming, as I believe I've shown, that the Sorceress is a sexualized character, then it can be said that her presentation is sexist in nature, and that Dragon's Crown contains sexist content. This is true regardless of how well or poorly the game sells. Had Kamitani not sexualized the Sorceress, even if not doing so negatively impacted sales, it would still be the case that Dragon's Crown would be without that sexist content. Similarly, since Kamitani sexualized the Sorceress, even if Dragon's Crown becomes a lucrative moneymaker for Vanillaware, it's still a sexist game. Economically sensible or not, sexism is sexism, plain and simple.
Vanillaware is legally protected to produce virtually whatever content they so choose, sexist or otherwise. Accordingly, Kamitani has absolutely no legal obligation to change the design of the Sorceress. However, I think it's fairly uncontroversial to say that most people consider sexism to be a bad thing. More often than not, when debates arise such as these, what is being debated isn't whether or not sexism is wrong, but whether or not the thing in question, in this case Dragon's Crown, is sexist. The presence of sexist content indicates a problem, whereas the absence of it doesn't. Furthermore, there seems to be a pervasive notion that sexism is something society should be actively combating. Again, opinions may differ on what exactly is sexist, and the lengths to which we go to eradicate sexism may be debated, but sexism itself is still seems rightly demonized.
Tl;dr: this is how I justify my criticism of Dragon's Crown. Sexism is bad. Because of that, I feel obligated to combat it in order to reduce its presence in society. Regardless of its critical reception or sales figures, Dragon's Crown is, I believe, a sexist game in its sexualization of the Sorceress. While I cannot mandate that Dragon's Crown stop being sexist through legal means, one of the means I do have at my disposal is appealing to the public. I can critique the game online and in-person, I can explain to others my reasons for thinking the game is sexist, and I can urge others to spread the word. Another one of my means is my purchasing habits. I can refuse to support the production of sexist games by not buying Dragon's Crown, and I can encourage others to do the same. Will I be "missing out" by not playing the game? In some sense, perhaps, though it's an experience I would gladly forfeit if it means playing however small a role in promoting and facilitating a gaming culture which cannot be viably pandered to through sexist portrayals of women.
I love BioShock Infinite. When taken as a complete package, It absolutely deserves every word of praise it's received and every perfect score. Yet as I go through my 1999 playthrough, some of its blemishes have begun to show. The old adage of no game being truly perfect remains as apt as ever, though Infinite's strengths make what few qualms I have with the game little more than nitpicks. One nit I found particularly interesting, though, isn't one I've seen as a common detraction from the game. I have little problem with the game's combat, the frayed ends of its interweaving narrative, or the disappointing contextualization of Vigors in the world of Columbia in comparison to that of Plasmids in Rapture. Rather, I take issue with the conflict between its BioShock gameplay and its Infinite narrative, which compelled me as the player to simultaneously adopt two contradictory play styles in attempting to compliment each one's strengths. A change in altitude wasn't the only distinction Irrational Games attempted to make between BioShock and BioShock Infinite, and unfortunately, some of the more promising changes were ultimately hampered by a reliance on series convention.
There are two essential ways one can play video games such as BioShock Infinite: one can either move rather linearly and therefore relatively quickly through the experience, or one can stop and smell the roses at any given opportunity. Some will split the difference between these two, while others will fall rather squarely under either camp. While neither approach is objectively wrong, certain games are clearly designed with one style of play in mind rather than the other. The campaigns of most military shooters fall under the first category, technically giving the player control over her position within the game world while almost constantly encouraging her to push forward to experience the next big set piece or spectacle. Role-playing games often fall under the second category, giving the player control over her position within the game world while constantly encouraging her to explore the world for loot and quests. While RPG purists may scoff at this assertion, the original BioShock is often considered a hybrid between an FPS and an RPG, with elements of survival horror added in for good measure. Accordingly, the game embraces both philosophies of agent progression in its design: there is always a clearly-defined objective to propel the player forward, but there's also ample reward in scouring every corner of Rapture in the form of both supplies and information. This hybridity would come to be a defining characteristic of the series, replicated by 2K Marin in BioShock 2 and used again in BioShock Infinite. Given the similarities between BioShock 2 and its predecessor, again allowing players such freedom in its ultimately directed experience worked similarly well. BioShock Infinite's departure from many of the first two games' defining characteristics and its retention of certain others, however, made this hybrid approach to agency far less effective its third time around.
One of the major ways in which Infinite departs from BioShock and BioShock 2 is when it takes place along the dystopian timeline. When players assumed the roles of Jack and Subject Delta, the respective protagonists of the first two games, and entered Rapture, its idyllic, utopian golden age had clearly already come and gone, leaving behind only the corrupted remnants of an ideology taken to its logical extremes. When the player, as Booker DeWitt, reaches Infinite's Columbia, however, the windy city is still thriving in many regards, only just beginning its ultimate dissolution. By shifting back the game's timeframe, Irrational is able to explore a lot more narrative threads in Columbia's thriving streets than was possible in the ruins of Rapture. This is due in large part to the explicable presence of non-combative NPCs, allowing the actions and conversations of the residents of Columbia to happen in real-time, rather than relegating them to posthumous audio logs the player happens upon throughout her playthrough.
Irrational had a vision for Columbia all their own
Unfortunately, the manner in which Infinite presents these NPCs strongly encourages rapid forward momentum on the part of the player despite the environments strongly encouraging the opposite. The actions and dialogue of Infinite's NPCs, like in many games without a consistent input method for character interaction such as a "talk" button, are based on player proximity. Events and conversations are triggered by the player steering the vessel of Booker DeWitt into designated areas carefully selected by the designers to ensure that the player's attention will be drawn to the action. Approaching an NPC from behind, for example, despite being well within their personal bubbles, often won't trigger the same event that approaching them from the front would, as it isn't clear whether or not the player's attention is focused on that NPC. Since most NPC events can only be triggered once per playthrough in Infinite, it makes sense that the developer would be particular in determining when and how they should be triggered so that as many players as possible experience that content during their playthroughs. If it was the developer's intent to create the illusion of bustling city life through their NPCs, though, as seemed to be the case in Infinite, it doesn't make sense to encourage the player to scour every environment, including those heavily populated with NPCs, for resources and audio logs as Infinite is wont to do.
After every NPC event is triggered and exhausted in a particular environment, which doesn't take long when hunting for Silver Eagles in every last barrel, crate, and register one can find, the game world quickly looses the sense vibrancy those events were meant to imbue it with. The inevitable silence that befalls each environment is disquieting to say the least, and the utility of each NPC to the narrative begins to overshadow their credibility as autonomous inhabitants of Columbia. Having the player witness a man and woman expressing their concerns about the Vox Populi can be a great way to flesh out the nuances of Columbia and its people, but when it becomes clear to the player that their conversation ends after four sentences, the man and woman no longer lend credence to the assertion that Columbia is a living, breathing world. At that point, what information they provided could have been presented equally effectively through kinetoscopes and voxophones. Moving through a crowd of people with whom one can't converse, all standing about in absolute silence causes such unease for the attentive player that one can't help but feel removed from the experience whenever that silence falls.
One way to remedy this could be to simply move through environments faster. After all, if the brevity of NPC interaction is never revealed to the player by maintaining a brisk pace, the NPCs themselves would seem more person-like in that player's mind than in the minds of those who moved slowly through the world. Doing so would be a concession made to the game, sure, especially for those of us who prefer exploring at our own pace through game environments, but it's one we often make for games designed to be played speedily. The problem with this plan is that BioShock Infinite simply isn't one of those games. Moving swiftly through an environment could cost players valuable resources which could halt one's progress, especially on higher difficulties. Or worse, it could cost players valuable information, some of which is integral to understanding even the central arc of the story. In order to experience NPC events in a more organic fashion, the player risks hampering her overall enjoyment of the game by making combat unnecessarily difficult or missing vital information.
She's upset you two don't talk much anymore
Another way to address this issue is to remove the need for extensive exploration in environments which have a higher event density than others. In an effort to avoid writing and recording hundreds if not thousands more lines of dialogue for these NPCs, this is perhaps the best option available to Infinite while still keeping the experience relatively tight. There are actually a few instances in the game when Irrational does this, propelling the player through environments with little to nothing to search for that her attention may be focused on the narrative elements of the world about her. One such instance happens midway through the game when Booker is chasing after a character through a series of hallways. At certain points through the chase, certain events would happen that any player looking forward would easily be able to see, and during my second playthrough, knowing this chase was coming, I kept my view forward and my movement brisk. During my first playthrough, though, I didn't. The hallways in which the chase take place are littered with barrels and crates, containers which the game typically loads up with resources like ammo and food. The barrels and crates in these hallways, however, were all unsearchable. As the game provided no cue for me to know this, since I had been conditioned to search every barrel and crate the game populates, especially on the Hard difficulty I was playing on, my focus wasn't on the person I was chasing as the game expected. Instead, I was looking downward at each and every crate to see if perhaps the next one would have a sniper rifle round or a silver eagle inside, missing almost completely every event I was generating by progressing through the environment.
Had BioShock Infinite approached non-combative NPC interaction in a similar manner throughout the experience, keeping areas laden with events and dialogue sparse while loading up those without many non-combative NPCs with the necessary supplies and voxophones, I'm positive I wouldn't have had the issue I did during that chase sequence my first playthrough. I would have been conditioned to expect character interaction to be paramount during that portion and would have moved at an appropriate pace to account for that, knowing that it would only be a matter of time until I'd be able to scavenge to my heart's content without fear of missing vital content. In that way, the playstyles associated with both halves of the BioShock gameplay hybrid could be fostered in Infinite while changing as little as possible to the core experience. If this alternate version of Infinite were to exist, though, something tells me a small change in level design ain't the only thing that'd change.
I recently had a chance to sit down with with a friend's copy of Far Cry 3 and was excited to give it a go. Save the malaria, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed its predecessor, and with its favorable reviews, I had high expectations. There were some things I knew about the game going in that didn't thrill me, such as the ever-present minimap, but I wasn't prepared for the dealbreaker that cropped up about twenty minutes in. Those who've played it may already know where I'm going with this, but for those who haven't, let me warn you right now: Far Cry 3 is a racist game. To anyone who wishes to contest that claim, I suggest you familiarize yourself with the following narrative tropes: the noble savage, the magical negro, the sexualized other, and the white man's burden. All four of these I encountered within the game's first half-hour, with each feeding the flames of my confusion and offense in kind, and by the time I had reached and liberated the first privateer settlement, I knew I was done with the game.
Yet, in looking back, the foulest taste still lingering in my mouth isn't even the presence of these decidedly antiquated plot devices. What concerns me the most is that I received virtually no forewarning of their existence, not from news coverage, not from previews, not from reviews. The only person I've seen address the game's racism in any capacity is Destructoid's Jim Sterling, yet in his review of the game, he brushes it aside in literally one sentence. Considering the amount of coverage Resident Evil 5 received for its racist content, why is Far Cry 3, whose content is arguably just as questionable, treated with such impunity? Must games have white protagonists killing "traditionally" garbed Africans à la Resident Evil 5 to register on the gaming community's racism Richter scales? As far as I can tell, there are only a handful of possible reasons why gamers didn't raise a fuss over Far Cry 3. Some are more plausible than others, but all are equally disconcerting.
The first possibility, likely the furthest from plausibility of the lot, is that the game actually isn't as bad as I'm making it out to be. Clearly I'm biased against this assertion, what with my writing a post arguing to the contrary, but I'll concede the possibility that I'm making mountains out of molehills. But the molehills seem to me rather sizable as they are; little effort is needed to understand the Rakyat's exaltation of the first white non-pirate with a gun on the island as their savior as an example of white imperialist fantasy. Or to understand the Tatau and its transformation of Jason Brody as a primitivist wet dream. Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer of Far Cry 3, has adamantly held that his use of these devices was meant to be hyperbolic, but since virtually no one picked up on the plot's subversive intentions, the whole affair feels uncomfortably sincere. The game effectively shot itself in its narrative foot by seemingly embracing the very same questionable action game tropes it was apparently trying to comment on. While I'm often a champion of the artist's intentions in one's understanding of a work, it's hard to interpret Far Cry 3 in the manner Yohalem apparently intended given how poorly its disingenuous nature was conveyed. But an intention is still an intention even when revealed to no one but the artist himself, and in that sense, one might say that Far Cry 3 isn't actually a racist game so much as it's a poorly written one. However, I would hazard a guess that most works of fiction with racist elements were not conceived with racist intent, yet we still feel justified in criticizing those works for that content. Despite its subversive intentions, I think we can and should do the same for Far Cry 3.
Yeah, white people!
The second possibility is that the majority of players somehow failed to notice the racism in Far Cry 3's narrative. Perhaps their tolerance for that sort of content is greater than my own, with anything shy of caricature failing to register as racially insensitive. After all, the game thankfully isn't as overt as it could have been with its themes, and perhaps it was subtle enough to remain undetected by most. But then why was it so readily apparent to me? I don't think I'm a particularly offensible person when it comes to artistic expressions, yet I stopped playing Far Cry 3 out of protest and indignation. Unless, unbeknownst to me, I'm actually hypersensitive to potentially offensive content, I don't think the game's racism is possible to miss, assuming one knows what to look for while playing it. And maybe that's exactly the problem: perhaps the majority of players aren't aware of these tropes or why they're considered offensive. They're nuanced in comparison to overt caricature, and it very well could be the case that many people simply haven't been exposed to critical understandings of them in their daily lives. The fact that many people remain convinced that Resident Evil 5 isn't at the very least insensitive seems to confirm that to some extent. If ignorance is indeed the reason for Far Cry 3's free ride, though, while we can't blame the players themselves for not being exposed to such knowledge, it paints a rather unlearned picture of the gaming community nonetheless. If we cannot acknowledge such shortcomings in the content we consume, our medium clearly isn't as mature as we posture it to be.
The third and most unsettling possibility is that players noticed these tropes, acknowledged that they were racist, but simply didn't care. Perhaps players valued the gameplay of Far Cry 3 enough to ignore the insensitivity of its narrative. Or perhaps they didn't feel that its racist content significantly hindered their enjoyment of the game as a whole. Regardless of the specifics, if this does describe a sizable portion of Far Cry 3 players, I think we as both a community and as an industry have a problem. While I understand that aesthetic tastes are subjective, and that people are entitled to value whatever they wish in their art, I feel as though not acknowledging the racist content of the game, even as Jim Sterling did in his review, is at the very least dishonest. Even when discussing the game with those players who don't play video games for their narratives, to not at least bring up these themes as a cautionary measure seems like a manner of trickery. One wouldn't discuss let alone praise Triumph of the Will without first acknowledging and condemning its pro-Nazi message, even when recommending it to those who have a penchant for cinematography. Why we don't have a similar attitude towards Far Cry 3 is utterly beyond me.
Furthermore, if we allow this content to be swept under the rug in our community's public discourse of games, we're all but condoning its presence, letting developers know that relying on antiquated and offensive tropes isn't something they need to worry about as it won't affect their sales or their standing in the court of public opinion. But shouldn't it? Shouldn't we as a community refuse to buy games that marginalize and discriminate against peoples? Or at the very least, shouldn't we as a community be vocal in our disapproval of that discriminatory content? Those who bought Far Cry 3 and enjoyed what else it had to offer could still be honest with both others and themselves in admitting that the game has questionable content, even if they don't take to the streets or contact Ubisoft personally. I guess where I'm going with all of this is that we as the video game community often shirk our responsibility to police this kind of content when if comes to light; sometimes it goes undetected, other times it's thought to be insignificant. The point we often seems to miss, however, is that it shouldn't even exist in the first place, regardless of its subtlety, and the only way we can ensure that is by at least addressing it when it arises. I won't be buying Far Cry 3. To those who haven't yet, I encourage you to follow suit.
By current predictions, from console reveals to new installments in venerated franchises, 2013 is looking to be a momentous year for video games. Outside of these developments from within the industry itself, however, stands something equally exciting upon the horizon, something both familiar yet foreign. At the outset of August, gaming will add yet another convention to its ever-growing roster of community-focused events. Called GaymerX, formerly GaymerCon, this new convention seeks to be the first of its kind in the gaming community, tailoring its content specifically for LGBTQ members.
As gamers all, we're no strangers to gaming conventions. Industry events such as E3 or GDC have attained an almost holiday-like status amongst the community, with consumer-focused events like PAX giving us the chance to experience the magic firsthand. By all accounts, the announcement of a new community-focused gaming convention should have been a fairly unremarkable affair, piquing the collective interest momentarily then quickly quieting back down. However, with the reveal of what would become GaymerX through Kickstarter last fall, the gaming community practically imploded in attempting to compute the very notion of a gaming convention which catered exclusively to LGBTQ members. The question most often asked on comment threads and message boards about the event was simply, “why?” Why did anyone feel such an event was necessary? Why would LGBTQ gamers want to splinter off from the community at large? Why wouldn't they wish to always operate within a larger community which implicitly champions both masculinity and heteronormativity simply by virtue of the content it consumes?
Indeed, for whatever reason, queerness in the gaming community has historically been treated as a non-issue. Let that not to be confused with respect and acceptance, however. Sexuality, much like race and gender, is often downplayed in its effect on the dynamics of the gaming community. The inexplicably intense desire for homogeneity under the unified identity of “gamers” often leads to the vilification of those who choose to embrace additional identities beyond that, as evidenced by the overwhelming reaction to the GaymerX convention. Furthermore, despite the slowly growing number of LGBTQ characters in games, more often than not, their inclusion only serves to reinforce this desire for similitude, however unintentionally. Even titles which strive to include LGTBQ characters and accommodate non-heterosexual players in their romantic options tend to gravitate towards the homogenous, as evidenced by their depictions of these characters' sexuality, as well as their statuses as queer individuals within their respective game worlds.
Given the trilogy's conclusion last year, Mass Effect 3 serves as one of the more contemporary examples of this trend. The first thing to note about the Mass Effect series as a whole in its handling of LGBTQ characters is that not one is poorly written or negatively portrayed. It exhibits no propensity to stereotype its gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters, and that's reason enough to applaud BioWare for its efforts in tackling non-heterosexuality. However, to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, it did take a full five years for the series to include homosexual characters in addition to its bisexual cast. Furthermore, one finds an unsettling quality about the portrayals of the series' only gay and lesbian characters, Steve Cortez and Samantha Traynor. For both, the sole manner in which they express their sexual orientation is through their use of same-sex pronouns.
Being a no-nonsense military man with classically masculine traits, Steve Cortez could easily have lost a wife in the Collector raid of his colony rather than a husband. Nothing intrinsic to his character would require revision in order to depict him as heterosexual. Similarly, the traditional femininity of Samantha Traynor lends itself extremely well to an alternate portrayal of her as heterosexual. The sexual identities of these non-heterosexual characters have been crafted to be as utterly underwhelming and unobtrusive as possible. Both characters stop at the barest minimum point away in their deviations from heteronormativity, subscribing even more strongly to traditional gender norms than some of their heterosexual counterparts. Consequently, while the inclusion of gay characters in its games ultimately represented a progressive and commendable step forward for BioWare, it's a timid one at best.
Reaching back further, another game which treats its LGBTQ characters in a nearly identical fashion is Fallout: New Vegas. There are two main characters with non-heterosexual identities in New Vegas: Veronica Santangelo, and Arcade Gannon. As with their Mass Effect 3 counterparts, neither character is poorly written or insensitively portrayed, and their sexual identities are similarly subdued. Despite Veronica’s desire for a pre-war dress, neither she nor Arcade subscribe as heavily to their respective gender identities as do Traynor and Cortez. Veronica wears an unflattering canvas hood and robe with a pneumatic gauntlet with which she pummels her enemies, and Arcade is a man of medicine, letters, and relative passivity. While Cortez and Traynor reigned in their sexual identities by adhering more strongly to the normative traits of their respective genders, Veronica and Arcade do so through their embodiment of traits likely desired by a large population of New Vegas’ demographic. Effectively, Veronica and Arcade are what are known as Mary Sue characters, characters which satisfy a sense of wish-fulfillment on behalf of their authors, or in this case their audiences, through which they insert themselves into their works in highly-idealized forms.
Veronica and Arcade both are strong-willed, quick-witted, and sharp-tongued. Every remark from the player is volleyed with an intelligent, often cynical retort. Though lacking in inherent physical prowess, their affinities for technology help ensure their survival and strength in combat. To the demographic of players who enjoy games like Fallout: New Vegas, who also likely list Nathan Fillion or David Tennant under their favorite actors, these characters hold those traits they themselves admire and strive to embody. Furthermore, by the nature of both characters’ personal quests, it’s also possible for the player to convince both Veronica and Arcade of their own personal allegiances and ideologies. The player can encourage or dissuade Veronica’s negative opinion on the isolationism of the Brotherhood of Steel, and can convince Arcade and the rest of the Remnants to fight either for the unbridled libertarian association of Mr. House or the expansive republican democracy of the NCR. In effect, these already idealized characters can be made that much more so at the player’s discretion; the fact that both characters are also gay is only auxiliary to their awesomeness in the minds of the game’s intended demographic.
Just look at those glasses
In that sense, Veronica and Arcade’s sexualities are rather politicized. By creating these characters many players would find admirable and even enviable, Obsidian afforded themselves the opportunity to transitively associate any positive feelings felt towards Veronica and Arcade to homosexuality itself, to destigmatize it through its association with these infectiously likable characters. Though any effort to improve public perceptions of LGBTQ peoples has an inherent degree of merit to it, Obsidian’s handling of homosexual characters is just as underwhelming and pandering as BioWare’s. On one hand, they managed to create two strong, queer main characters who were received with relatively open arms by players, with one managing to attract a sizable fanbase in the process. On the other hand, this embrace was largely due to the concerted Mary Sue quality of these characters in accordance with the sensibilities of those within the game’s core demographic.
Though Fallout: New Vegas has queer characters who deviate further from heteronormativity than most, characters like Corporal Betsy for example, they’re relegated to minor, non-companion roles. Their existence alone is admittedly great, but there still looms the fact that only those gay and lesbian characters whose personalities inherently make them virtually impervious to disapproval from players made it into the game’s main cast. There is still a clear apprehension on behalf of the developer to fully embrace those characters who substantially challenge what players consider normative, opting instead for those who embody players’ homogeneous ideals in virtually every other respect besides their sexual orientation in order to better “sell” what little deviation there is.
While others may exist, there’s one game in particular from this generation whose gay main character is strongly and sensitively portrayed while simultaneously deviating significantly from heteronormativity and the homogeneous ideals of its playerbase. That game is Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony, and that character is the titular Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince. It’s surprising to see such a character born from a Rockstar game, let alone a Grand Theft Auto title. Even Grand Theft Auto IV, which Ballad acts as an extension of, has Bernie Crane, a gay character whose depiction is objectionable to say the least.
Whereas Bernie acted perhaps more as a caricature of a homosexual man than an honest portrayal, Tony outwardly presents his non-heteronormative traits tastefully by comparison. His sexuality is readily apparent throughout the game yet isn’t used to any sort of effect as was Bernie’s in Nico’s confrontation with Florian Cravic, Bernie’s former identity. Tony’s non-masculine traits are similarly laid bare before the player without resorting to the extremes of Bernie’s hyper-effeminacy. Rockstar makes no effort to eschew or obscure Tony’s queerness to players, and in the face of games which further the convention to do so, Tony is nevertheless a great character. He’s sarcastic and self-aware, yet lovelorn and tragically flawed; he’s likeable yet pitiable, and relatable yet individual. And that individuality rests at the heart of Tony’s strength as a queer video game character.
Queer without compromise
It isn’t Tony’s personality or his flaws which warrant admiration in this regard. They may make him an interesting character when divorced of any qualification, but they don’t inform his quality as a queer character. Nor should they. Anthony Prince doesn’t represent some pinnacle of gay representation in games by virtue of those extra-sexual traits he possesses, for indeed such an honor doesn’t exist. To exalt him and his traits to an enviable status would simply encourage a new homogenization of queer characters under an Anthony Prince archetype, a state little better than the one currently at hand. No, Tony’s strength as a queer character comes from his, or rather Rockstar’s, daring to be different in the establishment and presentation of his unequivocally non-heteronormative identity. Inherent within him is both an acknowledgement of the differences between persons and a celebration of the individuality begotten from them. He challenges players’ desires for homogeneity by reminding them that non-normative persons such as himself indeed exist in the world, no matter how many portrayals attempt to whitewash this fact, and that these persons are no lesser of beings by subscribing to traits and personalities which differ from those held or envied by players themselves.
Are there gay and lesbian peoples like Steve Cortez and Veronica Santangelo whose sexual identities aren’t easily identifiable by their outward presentations? Of course. Homosexuality isn’t inherently coupled with deviations from gender normativity, and for many queer individuals, sexual identity doesn’t inform other facets of their sense of self. Accordingly, developers need not avoid creating characters of this sort. But there are gay and lesbian peoples like Anthony Prince and Corporal Betsy, whose sexual identities are rather easily identifiable from the outset and are coupled with deviations from gender normativity. To insinuate otherwise by excluding such characters from casts of hundreds or by tucking them deep within those ranks is, at best, a dishonest attempt at mirroring contemporary demographics in a fictional world. At worst, it reaffirms the community’s intolerance towards those with significantly deviant traits from what it considers normative, the very same intolerance brandished in the reaction towards the announcement of GaymerX last fall.
While it could possibly be argued that the abstract concept of queerness is accepted by however slim a majority of the gaming community, if developers indeed feel pressure to obscure this quality when present in their characters as implied by the trend seen in games like Mass Effect 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, it’s clear that one cannot do the same for queerness in application. Ultimately, the onus for change will rest squarely upon the shoulders of the community itself, but developers too can help begin the process simply by refusing to pander to heteronormative audiences in their depictions of queer characters. Perhaps then the community won’t freak the hell out the next time an LGBTQ gaming event is announced.
This was my last post on 1UP before the site went bust and the community was all but dissolved. Reposts suck, so this will be my first and last, but I figured I'd offer a sample of what I'm all about before getting back into the swing of things here on Destructoid. Here's hoping you enjoyed it, despite the copypasta