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.
I have a confession to make: I often listen to podcasts while playing video games. It's something of a shameful secret of mine considering my championing of the artistic medium of video games. That said, I know I'm not alone in this. Maybe it's a show or movie playing in the background, maybe it's music, or perhaps the radio; whatever the distraction may be, the presence of one while playing games is common practice. A common practice, I believe, that's indicative of a much larger problem plaguing video games as a whole.
When one engages in any manner of media, be it active like a video game or passive like a podcast, what is the essential goal of that endeavor? In my mind, the least contentious answer to that question is that one seeks to be entertained. Why one is seeking said entertainment to begin with, be it boredom, escapism, emotional catharsis, or whatever, is besides the point. With entertainment as one's goal, what is to be concluded from one engaging in multiple forms of entertainment simultaneously originally intended to be experienced distinctly? While this answer will be more contentious than the first, in my mind, it seems to be that one doesn't find either form to be wholly entertaining separately, and thus combines them in their pursuit of entertainment. The only other answer coming to mind is one simply lacks the time required to experience both individually as intended, and while this is technically within the realm of possibility, surely this answer only applies to an insignificant number of instances and can thus be disregarded for the purposes of this post.
If my conclusions are correct, then what does this say about the entertainment one derives from video games? It seems to me, in accordance with my reasoning above, that when one enlists the aid of an additional form of entertainment whilst playing video games, one does so to account for whatever deficiency in entertainment one finds in playing video games. Meanwhile, speaking personally, rarely do I find similar deficiencies in television, film, or literature. Instances exist with particular shows, movies, books, etc. when I will boot up a game or put music on, I will admit, but they occur not nearly as often as when playing games. Accordingly, I believe it reasonable to conclude that I personally find more video games to be insufficiently entertaining than I do works in most any other media. If I may be so bold as to speak for others, I also believe it reasonable to conclude that many of my fellow podcast players feel the same, even if some are reluctant to admit it.
As I mentioned at the outset of this post, I don't resort to other media for every video game. Games such as The Last of Us and The Walking Dead are prime and relatively recent examples of those I prefer to experience individually. These titles and those like it are typically narrative-driven experiences wherein important information would be lost if podcasts were playing over them. They are games which feature relatively tight pacing, infusing even their more action-oriented sections with snippets of dialogue and characterization to further narrative threads along. Even titles such as Grand Theft Auto IV, a game which affords the player large, indeterminate stretches of time without any narrative progression whatsoever, fall under that same banner by continuing to build the world around the player while not directly furthering any plot, often through ambient NPC dialogue or and radio stations in the case of the Grand Theft Auto series specifically. Even a title like Journey, which features no intelligible dialogue whatsoever, commands one's full attention by the pacing of its nonvocal narrative and the sheer beauty of its design.
Meanwhile, for me, titles like Dark Souls II or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim are usually prime candidates for podcast playing. These games typically feature extremely large portions of time with no significant narrative progression whatsoever, or narratives so poorly done that their progression is uninteresting. Too many RPGs to count, both Japanese and Western, exhibit one or both of these characteristics, instead letting stat progression dominate the bulk of one's interest in playing them. Action-heavy titles, brawlers, MOBAs, fighters, RTSs, and the like, meanwhile, either fall into the latter category or simply forgo plot entirely, focusing instead either on character progression or competition and leaving a narrative vacancy that can easily be filled by a podcast or show playing in the background. In my experience, games primed for podcast playing are those that feel the most like virtual taskmasters. They are games which fail to provide compelling reasons for the player to best their challenges besides a promised feeling of accomplishment. They are usually, but not entirely, games without message or artistic expression (the Souls series being a notable exception). They are games designed to occupy the player's time with little to no return beyond improving the player's skill at the games themselves.
That isn't to say these games can't be fun or enjoyable. I will gladly admit to enjoying my time with many of them, Dark Souls II being amongst the most recent. However, I understand that my enjoyment of these titles wasn't of a similar depth as it was with games like The Last of Us. I didn't enjoy Skyrim for its artistic merits as a piece of interactive media, but rather as an escapist power fantasy that indulged my innate desire for personal growth by allowing me to fill up tiny progress bars with every enemy I killed. I did enjoy Gone Home because of its artistry in conveying personal, affective, non-linear narratives through the interactive exploration of a three-dimensional space. I did listen to podcasts while playing Skyrim; I didn't while playing Gone Home. One wasn't wholly captivating as a solitary work while the other was.
I believe, then, that when games are living up to the artistic potential of the medium, they demand more of our attention than those that don't. They dissuade the use of additional media in one's pursuit of entertainment by providing engrossing experiences throughout. Meanwhile, those games which allow for other media to be experienced simultaneously likely aren't what most would consider to be works of "art," enjoyable though they may be for whatever reasons. Therefore, as one who wishes to see artistry flourish in video games, I've resolved to ween myself away from those games I don't find wholly engrossing and encourage you to do the same. You may have your own criteria for which games command your full attention and which don't, and that's perfectly okay. It could be that the games you find fulfilling are the ones I don't and vice versa. However, regardless of your criteria, we've reached such a critical mass of video games these days that there is virtually no reason for us to be spending our gaming time with anything we don't find wholly engrossing. Not every game need be the best thing you've ever played, of course, but at the very least, you can find ones which don't feel in part like wastes of time.
After finishing my first playthrough of Dark Souls II, reflecting on the experience left me with a feeling of awe. Awe not at its improved combat systems, leveling mechanics, or game engine, but rather at its story. Specifically, the story of the protagonist him/herself. The narrative surrounding the protagonist has always been an intriguingly obtuse component of the Souls series, and while the protagonist's narrative has been similar throughout all three games, it has culminated in such clarity and poignancy in this third installment that I believe I finally understand From Software's vision for players and their experiences with Dark Souls II.
For the uninitiated or the unobservant, the narrative I refer to follows closely along these lines: the protagonist begins her quest seeking to right some wrong that has befallen either herself or the world at large. Through toil and hardship, the protagonist succeeds in conquering whatever it was she set out initially to conquer. However, being bound by some otherworldly force, either by fate or by curse, the protagonist is doomed to repeat this cycle of conquest again and again ad infinitum. It is a pitiable fate, to be sure, but one that is expertly presented in Dark Souls II.
How it differs in Dark Souls II from its predecessors comes largely by way of the narration within the game's opening cinematic. Its cryptic tone bears no small resemblance to the opening of the first Dark Souls, but its actual content couldn't be more dissimilar. Rather than introducing the player to the world and its lore, Dark Souls II's narration instead introduces the player to the role she is about to assume: a person in the most dire of straits, traveling to a land shrouded in mystery and rumor with hope of a cure. A person cursed with an appetite for souls and a memory swiftly fading. A person of cyclical fate, doomed to exist in perpetual strife for all time. While this role is consistent with the Souls series' protagonist narratives, more than in any previous installment, it becomes clear that this narration isn't directed solely at the player's character; it is directed towards the player as well.
En route to Drangleic
The player, by seeking out some manner of fictional entertainment, is turning away from her life in some respect, if only temporarily. That isn't to say her life is in a similar state of disrepair as the protagonist's appears to be in Dark Souls II, but perhaps there is some real-world impetus for her seeking out works of fiction, be it loss, disappointment, or sheer boredom. In any case, both the player and the protagonist find themselves in the world of Drangleic for their respective reasons. Yet once they arrive, as is our human wont, merely existing within that new world fails to suffice. The urge to explore sets in, be it the physical space, one's physical limitations, or the extent of one's agency within the world. Through their exploration, the game eventually pits the player against enemy combatants should they wish to proceed onward. Initially, the enemies she faces are relative pushovers. In time, they grow in both strength and numbers, until eventually, she cannot best them. At least, not in her initial state. That is when the thirst for souls, the economic and leveling currency in the Souls series, sets in. For it is through souls that the player can gain enough power to best the foes impeding her progress. Eventually, given the sheer difficulty of the game and its enemies, souls become virtually synonymous with progression in the mind of the player, and the pursuit of souls becomes ever-engrossing. Yet even after every facet of exploration has been exhausted, every boss slain, every weapon and spell acquired, every secret unearthed, the desire to explore and grow fails to tire. Eventually, the player elects to begin the cycle anew, albeit with stronger faculties and against stronger enemies, allowing herself to continue pushing the boundaries of her prowess with each repetition, time and time again. And thus, the narration's prophecy comes to fruition for protagonist and player alike.
Furthermore, what's equally intriguing about the prophecy of Dark Souls II is its remarkable and presumably intentional similarity to the metaphysics of self in Buddhism. For those without any degree of familiarity with the religion, the grossly oversimplified version goes something like this: life is suffering. Suffering is begotten from earthly desires. So long as one still suffers by maintaining these desires, one remains in an infinite cycle of death and rebirth. Only by achieving enlightenment and transcending those earthly desires can one be released from this loop and finally extinguished. Now, by replacing the concept of life here with one's time spent playing the game, and earthly desires with the pursuit of progress and souls, does this not sound virtually identical to the situation the player finds herself in in Dark Souls II? One continues experiencing the same hardships again and again in the pursuit of a currency that will only temporarily alleviate some of one's suffering. The only true end to one's strife lies in recognizing the futility and fruitlessness of that pursuit and removing oneself permanently from that cycle, i.e. cease playing the game.
These same parallels could be sussed out of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls as well, to be sure, but it has only been made obviously clear in From Software's latest. Which makes sense; launching a series where the player's explicit goal is to stop playing the game would likely not have fared terribly well, and even in Dark Souls II, while every other aspect of the player's condition is explained upfront, its remedy isn't. Which is somewhat unfortunate, I think. To have a game whose expressed goal is for players to stop playing it would be fascinating to say the least, especially if it reached the same heights of popularity as the Souls series has, for that would surely mean that players were intentionally disobeying the game's orders. But I digress. To have a game that implies as much is fine for now, I suppose.
I'm a sucker for tycoon games. The Roller Coaster Tycoon series reeled me in at an early age, and while my tastes have expanded to city-builders and 4X strategy titles, I still yearn for the days of five dollar bathroom admission fees and colliding coasters. While Sony's BigFest likely/sadly won't feature either of those things, the novelty of its concept could very well make up for their absence. Assuming, of course, it manages to avoid the obvious pitfalls set out on the path ahead of it. Given their sheer numbers, though, it seems almost inevitable for the project to stumble.
The fundamental ideas behind BigFest are actually rather enticing. Players are tasked with the management of a music festival à la traditional tycoon games, providing amenities, setting concession stand prices, and drawing in paying crowds. The twist here is that players can also select the music played at their festivals in a non-trivial capacity. Real-world music will be featured in the game, and the songs and artists featured at highly-attended concerts will receive in-game notoriety as well, giving them more exposure to BigFest players as they ascend the in-game charts. It's a symbiotic relationship of sorts between virtual concert promoters and real-world musicians, with each satisfying the unique needs of the other. With the addition of an Animal Crossing-esque online component where players can attend rival festivals, however, the game also provides players an outlet to put their musical tastes on display for friends, allowing for the introduction and sharing of new music in a more intimate setting than the game's global "Hot 100" list.
There's a lot to BigFest that could go right, especially if its gameplay is satisfyingly deep and its online components are handled well. However, for every thing that could go right, there seem to be ten things that could go wrong. For starters, note that the game is being published by Sony. On one hand, this could be something of a blessing; because this is a Vita title, Sony may be able to advertise this game more than it likely would be through a third-party publisher. A higher playerbase is always a good thing for any game, but with BigFest's focus on online music promotion and festival sharing, it seems especially vital for this game in particular. On the other hand, Sony has a horse in the music race already through Sony Music Entertainment, and it's unclear as to how that might influence the very structure of the game. The reveal trailer states that at least some of the music offered in BigFest will be from unsigned bands, which is great. In theory. Because this is from Sony, however, how this music will be obtained is at this point questionable at best.
Like them or not, an entire library of KoL knockoffs wouldn't be good for anyone
The worst thing that can happen to BigFest is having an overly-curated music library for players to choose from, and because Sony is in the business of music, the pessimist in me foresees only that future being brought to fruition. Sure, players can promote unsigned artists, but what if those artists are prescreened as potential (read: commercially viable) additions to some Sony-owned label? What if those artists with the highest rankings get fast-tracked to record deals? While this arrangement may be beneficial for Sony and the select artists who rise above the chaff, what was once a symbiotic relationship between them and the players of BigFest would become an almost parasitic one, with Sony all but neutering any sense of musical discovery afforded to players while manipulating them under the guise of gameplay to act as focus testers for their next musical investment. It's a pessimistic prediction, I'll admit, but until Sony offers more details on the matter, it seems to me a more likely course of events than the idealized alternative.
In order to retain that symbiotic relationship between players and musicians (and publishers) which makes BigFest so promising in the abstract, I feel as though a Bandcamp-style business model would be the way to go, albeit with some tweaks. Any artist whatsoever would be allowed to upload music to the service, and any player would be allowed to host that music in their festivals for the enjoyment of their virtual audiences and any visiting players, perhaps for a certain fee of in-game currency to stay true to the actual world of concert promotion, with fees getting higher as songs and artists get more popular, and lower as they get less so. In addition to their global leaderboard standings, this could also be a good metric for bands to gauge their popularity amongst players should they choose to care about such things.
Much like bandcamp, artists could also allow for downloads of their music that could be linked to the player's PSN account, redeemable on any device capable of accessing the PS Store (PS3, PS4, Vita, computer, etc.), either for free or for a fee as designated by the artist. Paid transactions could be handled through the PS Store and Sony could take a percentage of the sale like Bandcamp does, ostensibly eliminating any need for curation on Sony's part as they would inevitably see money coming in from players who make these purchases. It really is a win for every party involved when it comes right down to it. Players will have access to a substantially larger library of music to pick and choose from, thereby allowing a greater sense of musical discovery, as well as offering more opportunities for personalization, which is always a plus as any Animal Crossing player will tell you. More musicians will be allowed to access what will for them be a promotional tool and will have greater control over how their music can be consumed by fans. In addition to any introductory price points they may wish to charge for the game itself, Sony will also see returns from this system by way of those musicians who decide to charge players money to download their music, all without alienating players or less commercially-viable bands in the process. So Sony, if you're listening, please don't go down the road I think you will with BigFest. As gamers, we can often tell when we're being used or manipulated, and mismanaging your approach with this game is a surefire way to lose consumer trust and loyalty in turn.
Before reading this post, please take the time to watch the video in question in its entirety. If you're feeling particularly bored, I would also recommend their previous two videos on the topic as well, though I believe they're listed under "Game Addiction" rather than "Game Compulsion." They aren't prerequisites for this post, but they're good watches in their own right. While I'm generally a fan of the Extra Credits series, there are occasions when I take some issue, often a minor one, with the stance it takes regarding a certain topic. This is one such occasion, though the issue I find myself taking with this video isn't so much what they are actually advocating. I do believe that game "compulsion" is a real issue that plagues a lot of players in some capacity, and I agree with many of their postulates of the sources for game compulsion amongst a large majority of those afflicted. I even have a couple blogposts which detail my own experience with game compulsion which some may find interesting. Rather, the problem I have with the video is the naïveté of its message.
The message is naïve in two ways: it belittles the problem of game compulsion, and it grossly misunderstands the nature of today's gaming landscape in kind. The final minute or so of the video more or less boils down to, "buck up, kid," offering little to no practical advice beyond simply telling players to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and overcome their problem with game compulsion. Which is unsatisfying to say the least. How do you overcome game compulsion? By overcoming game compulsion, of course. Thanks, Extra Credits.
I don't want to be too harsh with my tone here, as Extra Credits is one of the few outlets I've seen address this issue beyond the more extreme cases like those who die of starvation at the hands of League of Legends. But there's only so much credit one can give to those who offer such an impotent and ineffectual message. "Using" the feeling of accomplishment in games to compel oneself to action in real life is much easier said than done when actually gripped with game compulsion. The courses of action one could apply that feeling to in real life don't simply appear to be greater obstacles than we feel we can accomplish; they seem less important as well. Making progress towards one's virtual goals begins to take precedence over making progress towards one's tangible goals, and soon enough, those goals get pushed to the side in order to power level a character for yet another 14-hour day. One's virtual goals not only begin to feel more attainable than real-life goals (because they intentionally are), but especially within RPGs or other narrative-driven experiences, they begin to take on more significance in one's psyche. Saving the world feels a lot better than retouching your résumé, even if it doesn't yield tangible rewards, but that immediate feeling of accomplishment you feel from games begins to overwhelm any sense that the endeavor is ultimately an under-productive (if not unproductive) use of your time.
And that's even after one has come to terms with how patronizing video games are at their cores. Virtually every video game is crafted to be completed by its target audience, and as such, the obstacles games present offer enough challenge to make the player feel accomplished after overcoming them, but not enough challenge to prevent that same player from surmounting it. The feeling of accomplishment in games is ostensibly an empty one, yet even being presently aware of that fact, there is a comfort in being all but guaranteed success in one's endeavors, be they virtual, tangible, fruitless, or rewarding. When one is suffering from game compulsion, that comfort can be intoxicating, making tasks without that safety net feel not only more daunting, but futile as well. Why try and possibly fail when given the opportunity to try and almost always succeed, especially when the fail-safe task is so much more interesting than the minutiae that plagues our everyday lives?
The industry is, in many ways, well award of this mentality, and it could be said that many are exploiting it for financial gains. That Extra Credits failed to mention the outright Skinnerian feedback loops that developers often consciously design into their games is a terrible shame, as gaming compulsion could easily be thought of as a two-way street rather than a solitary addiction. Some obstacles and tasks offer greater challenges, some offer less, each offering rewards of corresponding values to the player upon their completion, and game designers, especially those who design MMOs, are perfectly aware of how best to craft the experiences of their games so as to provide the optimum experience of progress for their players. Whether that gambit is being employed to extend players' accounts beyond monthly subscription dates or to coax players to purchase some time-saving mount using microtransactions, it's not-so-ulterior motive is always clear: keep them playing. Get them hooked, make them come back for more. More and more MMOs are going free-to-play these days, and the cynic in me thinks it's because MMO and mobile developers are finally learning that the first hit should always be free. Not everyone's going to come back after the initial taste, but those who do will be hooked for quite some time and eager to pay for more.
Game compulsion can be a serious problem for gamers, and isn't something to be brushed aside in the manner Extra Credits was apparently wont to do in their most recent episode on the topic. It's a surprisingly intricate issue that can't simply be addressed and corrected en masse in one web video, especially one that glosses over nearly everything that gives it its depth. Attempting to do so doesn't respect those who have experienced game compulsion in the past nor those who are experiencing it now, and it's sad to see an institution I otherwise have little issue with make such an error.
I had originally planned to break this recent blogging hiatus of mine with a characteristically pretentious post on The Last of Us and all its artistic doodads and thingamajigs, but a recent playthrough of a game which had swum under my radar for three-odd years now prompted me to shelve that project and begin furiously typing this very post. I was reminded of this game by a recent IGN video covering its sequel which is set to proudly debut on the PS4 as an example of Sony's commitment to independent developers, and while its successor looks great, I figured it was high time for me to give the original a shot. The game, of course, is Octodad, which can be downloaded for your OS of choice here. It's free, and it's fantastic.
There's so much to love about Octodad. The entire premise is ridiculous, and the game very well knows it, playing up to great effect the dynamics between an octopus masquerading as a bipedal family man and his oblivious nuclear family. Much like QWOP and Surgeon Simulator, Octodad is all about control. The game provides the player a meticulous level of control over the titular character's movements, but it soon becomes apparent that such nuance is more of a burden than a blessing, as simply walking to an objective becomes a challenge in and of itself. One can imagine, then, what kind of chaos would ensue when tasked with mopping up a floor, or reading a bedtime story to Octodad's inexplicably human daughter. It's goofy, slapstick fun, and a great example of how a game's mechanics can be used to greater effect beyond simply being means to a narrative end. While the game's short cutscenes had me smirking on occasion, there's no greater joy in Octodad than throwing all the contents of a shelf onto the floor and calling it "clean." Simply put, if a game makes you excited to wash dishes, you know it's something special.
Octodad is indeed special, but not for that reason alone. While admittedly this could be reading too much into a game about an undercover octopus, I think there's ample evidence to show that beneath all its tongue-in-cheek hijinks, Octodad is actually something of an undercover art game. Not only do its mechanics facilitate a large portion of the game's "fun," in conjunction with the game's premise, they could also be seen as artistic and humorous commentary on the very nature of fatherhood.
The character of Octodad is an octopus who manages to convince his family that he's a normal, human husband and father. How he does this initially is thankfully unexplained, but the player is tasked with keeping his cover in check while performing the husbandly and fatherly tasks required of him by his family. Strange or ludicrously destructive actions raise the family's suspicion level, and once that level reaches maximum, the game is over.
Octodad isn't simply a secret cephalopod, though; in truth, he's a representation of family men everywhere, particularly those who are new to the occupation. Octodad's gameplay in turn simulates the bumbling, blundering feeling of being asked to meet particular expectations while having virtually no clue how to do so. Nothing prepares the player for the experience of Octodad, just as nothing prepares men for the experience of fatherhood, yet there's still an underlying desire to assure others that you are readily capable of the respective tasks at hand, even though that may very well not be the case. Not being able to do so in Octodad reveals Octodad's true identity and spells game over for the player. Not being able to do so in fatherhood reveals a man as the veritable fish (or octopus) out of water he is, dissipating the air of paternal certainty he so desperately wishes to convey despite himself. In both Octodad and actual fatherhood, every second of maintaining the illusion of control and preparedness is a small victory, and every accomplished task, no matter how clumsily it was achieved, is a momentous occasion. Every dad is Octodad, albeit with half the limbs, and by the game's end, the experience feels far less ridiculous and foreign than it was at the outset, which is quite a feat for a game with such an alien premise.
I would love a chance to ask the game's creators their thoughts on this interpretation of their game. It has certainly given me a deeper appreciation of Octodad beyond its ludicrous and comical gameplay, and I would hope that it was the intended effect. Then again, the question arises of how much stock should we place on the intentions of a work's creators in our evaluation of it, a question which we've come no closer to answering since its first proposal. At this point, all I know is that I loved Octodad for all the potentially mistaken reasons above, and I encourage everyone to give it a try before the release of its sequel, Dadliest Catch, on the PS4. I can at least promise it'll be time well spent.
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.