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.