Hey, happy Valentine’s Day. Let’s talk about breasts.
A while back, I was on The Escapist sifting through the forums -- something I don’t do all that often, unless there’s an interesting topic listed on the front page. But as internet-surfing tends to go, one thing led to another, and after a while somebody asked an interesting question: “If Alyx Vance had big breasts, would she be a worse character?” I don’t know Half-Life well enough to comment, but I’ve heard of her before (since she’s a top-tier female character). And I know that her abject non-sexualization is part of her appeal. “She’s got clothes! She doesn’t have big boobs! She’s not just eye candy!” And so on.
But would making her improbably buxom automatically hurt her appeal? Her credibility? Well, yes and no. “Yes” in the sense that a bust boost threatens to head into seedy territory, and couldbe exploited. “No” in the sense that just because a character is busty doesn’t make them a bad character. (See: Lulu, Cortana, Juliet Starling, Bayonetta, Elizabeth Comstock, several Mass Effect characters, several Dragon Agecharacters, at least one character per Talesgame, and virtually every female character in the Devil Survivor games.) If a character only exists to be objectified, that’s a problem. If a colossal chest -- for a variable definition of “colossal” -- is used to make a character visually distinct, and as a trait of a character than a defining characteristic, then it makes for more stable ground.
Which brings me to Senran Kagura -- the seediest of all seedy games.
I don’t think I need to go into grave detail about the kind of content that’s in what’s now a healthy franchise (for better or worse), especially seeing as how I’ve already talked about it in the past. Nearly any given screenshot will have generously-proportioned ninja schoolgirls, who range in size from extra-large to back-snapping delight. Nearly any given article will bring up the clothing damage or maelstrom of panties therein. Nearly any given video will have more bouncing than ten years’ worth of basketball seasons, offset only by blushing, doe-eyed maidens. They’re not the sort of games you’d want anyone knowing you own, much less know about. Unless you belong to your town’s chapter of the Breast Enthusiast Society.
In a medium that’s struggling and often failing to find a place for females in their narratives, Senran Kagura as a whole feels like a step back. This is a series that was literally conceived when one man realized he could use the 3DS’ power to create dimension-crossing breasts. I have my sincere doubts that anyone cares about the plot of the games, because there’s a lot of focus on the…plot.
And while I’m a supporter of distinct visual design, SK almost gleefully straddles the bra straps (in more ways than one). When everyone is improbably buxom, no one is improbably buxom. They’re getting diminishing returns on their efforts, and the only way they’ll be able to counteract that is by going even further beyond and just adding a boss fight against barn-sized sentient breasts. But then they wouldn’t be able to add any butt shots, so they’ll just have to come closer and closer to a schoolgirl singularity.
It’s easy to look down on SK scornfully. Very easy. Would the series be what it is without its supremely-squishy swordswomen? Not a chance. I’m sure it’d have its fans, but as a game series -- based on what I’ve seen in videos, admittedly -- it’s hard for me to think that they’d sell based solely on the quality, or lack thereof, of its combat systems. I’ve had a look around on TV Tropes and the wiki and know that there’s an overarching plot, as well as a story behind each character, but I wonder if that’s enough to leave an impression -- or if the story is even remotely well-executed. I’m willing to give the franchise the benefit of the doubt, because once upon a time I did the same with Dead or Alive. But I understand why people take issue with SK. I really do.
And yet, despite that, a funny thing happened a while back. There was a Destructoid post (and a Siliconera post, and probably posts elsewhere, for obvious reasons) on one of the upcoming games -- a cooking battle/rhythm game, of all things. I’d heard favorable comparisons to Iron Chef, so I thought, “Eh, why not? Let’s see what those madmen are up to this time.” So I watched the video from start to finish. It would have been the perfect opportunity to laugh, point, shout “LOL, Japan!” and leave it at that. And in a sense, I did laugh…but not in a way I expected. It felt more like I was laughing with them, not at them. Or rather, laughing because of them. I didn’t exactly know why, but as I thought about it -- as a result of this post, and ponderings beforehand -- I think I’ve realized something.
Something about that game makes me happy. And I bet it makes others happy, too.
Not that kind of happy.
When all’s said and done, I have to admit that I kind of like the franchise’s visual flair. Not necessarily the sweater-Cerberuses the cast seems to be packing, though I can and have looked past that before. I just kind of like the way the characters look and act. They may not be the deepest characters, but if nothing else they convey their personalities -- their archetypes, in the worst-case scenario -- pretty well. (It certainly helps that they each have a distinct weapon of choice, which says a lot more than just “guns guns and more guns”.) They’re colorful, they’re energetic, they’re distinct, and perhaps most of all they’re expressive. When a SK character smiles, it makes me want to smile. Breasts or otherwise, there’s something strangely pleasant about the proceedings. One of those intangibles, I suppose.
It’s certainly preferable to DOA, at least in my opinion. My first experience with the franchise was DOA4, and while I have fond memories of the fights in that game -- nothing beats hammering a teleport-happy ninja out of the sky with some sick wrestling moves -- there was always something that freaked me out about the game. Not because of the obvious reason(s), but because they felt like creepy dolls. I couldn’t bear the sight of Kasumi, much less be attracted to her, because back then her eerily-still face and constant look of pensive worry made me feel uncomfortable even recognizing that she had eyes. That's the case, even to this day.
Look at that last picture. Look at it. LOOK AT IT!OH GOD, WHY?
The same goes for the rest of the female cast, to varying degrees; they’re all swimming in the uncanny valley, and even the most asynchronous breast bounce isn’t enough to sway me. Not even a graphical update/reboot with DOA5 did the trick; they might have made the breasts smaller (for a debatable degree of “smaller”), but the faces are just as lifeless. Their eyes are just as hollow, if not more so. And on top of that, despite claims that they’d make the girls more than paper dolls, when push came to shove theydidn’t evenhesitate to give them sexy outfits. Nor did it stop them from continuing to release sexy outfits. How does the saying go? Something about a fool and money and soon being parted? It’s on the tip of my tongue.
The two franchises may have similar affects, but what sets them apart is the philosophy behind them. If you ask me, DOA comes off as something trying to be erotic. It’s aiming for stiffened trousers, no matter what half-hearted attempts they make with their “I’m a fighter” mantra. (Remember Christie’s ending in DOA4 where they just made her a stripper? I sure do.) I probably don’t need to elaborate, considering that there have been two games designed to capitalize on the eldritch creatures masquerading as curvaceous young women (three including a handheld game, if I remember right). You could safely argue the same about SK -- it, too, is exploiting “sexiness” for fame and fortune -- but to me, it comes off as being enticing. There's an ever-so-subtle difference.
It wants your attention, but it has something different in mind. “Hey, gang! You like boobs and butts? Well here’s ten million of them, each one the size of a regulation volleyball at a bare minimum! And then on top of that we’ll add in over-the-top special moves, ninety-nine hit aerial raves, breakdancing ninjas, and school life shenanigans! And now we have cooking competitions! You bring the money, we’ll bring the fun!” I suspect that not everyone who buys this game is in it for arousal, because the bonkers-as-sin physics and post-pubescent bodies of these girls alone make the whole franchise a farce. You saw that opening, didn’t you? They have to know that the female form doesn’t work that way.
They have to, but they do it anyway -- probably because they think it’s hilarious. And they want you to think it’s hilarious. They’re not in it to make you go “Aw, yeaaaaaaaaaaaah.” They’re in it to make you go “HAHAHAHA! No WAY! I can’t believe they did that!” I certainly hope that’s the intent -- but even if it isn’t, they’re doing it anyway. They’re making people happy, because that’s what they wanted in the first place: their design philosophy, unabashedly, is “to wrap the world with happy boobs.” They’re a company that wants your money, but they’ll achieve that goal on their own terms. They know that they exist to serve the customer. They know that in order to survive, they have to make people happy.
AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THEY’RE DOING. EVEN THOUGH THEY’VE ALREADY WON.
Part of the reason I like reading posts on SK is so I can see the comments that pop up. Seeing how people react and joke is a treat just as much as the games themselves could be -- probably more. Is it easy to snipe at the franchise? Yes. Are those shots justified? Pretty much. But it really is interesting, seeing people aim for their own laughs, because a “game for perverts” prompted them to. It’s throwing fuel onto the fire, along with a barge-load of bras soaked in gasoline.
And despite the eyebrow-raising material, it’s remarkable seeing how many people shout “localization, please” or “I want it” with all the force their keyboard strokes can muster. To say nothing of people who actually are fans of the franchise; they have their reasons, and it’d be outright silly to shrug them off. Even if it’s only for a moment, people are willing to drop their shields of cynicism and gather around the campfire. That’s a lot more than I can say about a game like Fuse, or Dead Space 3, or pretty much anything in a franchise featuring guns, QTEs, or EA these days.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not trying to pardon SK from anything. It’s a franchise that has a built-in air of cynicism, considering that on some level (maybe all of them) it’s high-grade otaku pandering. The devs knew they had an audience; they just had to tap it with the promise of supreme secondary sexual characteristics. They just had to put the bait on a hook and cast out a line. The fish would practically catch themselves.
Likewise, the fact that the entire franchise is built on the aching backs of its chesty champions will always be something worth contention; instead of building an engrossing world, complex narratives, or characters whose arcs take them to heaven, hell, and everywhere in between, the devs were content with shouting “BOOBS!” and working their way out from there. They may have found success, but no one forced them to do it the way they did. No one ordered them to be “a part of the problem”.
And yet, contentious as it may be, ludicrous as it may be, I can’t help but admire what they’ve done.
They had an idea, and they went with it. They created their own style, and didn’t even think of backing down. They found their hook, and dragged gamer after gamer after gamer out of the water. They’re doing their best to spread the word that “Hey, if you love some hefty PLOTS, get over here on the double!” (Yes, this time I’m talking about thoseplots.)
Their games may vary in quality, but if their latest announcements and videos are any indication, they’re dead-set on boosting their games’ standards to the next level, so that they can be about more than just well-insulated perpetual motion devices. They’re putting in effort, because they want to fulfill their creative vision -- even if that creative vision makes the average Joe want to do a spit take. With the industry the way it is right now, I’ll take an absurd vision over none at all. And by extension, I’ll take an absurd vision over one that’s treading well-worn ground. What was the last big shooter that didn’t take itself seriously? Borderlands? Bulletstorm? I’d say Duke Nukem Forever, but I suspect that one was a joke for all the wrong reasons. (Seriously, look at its Wikipedia page -- it links directly to continued obsolescence.)
But if there’s one lesson I think is worth taking away from this, it’s that creative intent. I’m the Eternal Optimist, so every now and then I don’t mind taking someone’s idealized claims at face value. So when somebody says “I want to wrap the world in happy boobs”, I focus more on the “happy” than the “boobs”. Making people happy with one’s creation is a good goal to have, simple as it may be. It shows a sense of focus, good nature, and humility.
They weren’t out to make an “epic, cinematic, filmic experience” or “take video game narratives to the next level” or “use the medium to make social commentary”. They just wanted to make a game, and make people feel good about it. There’s a real earnestness in there that keeps them from reaching for the fruit at the top of the tree, and tumbling into a clump of brambles because of it, as so many others have. Granted they did that by swiping at the low-hanging fruit, but as a whole SK strikes me as the type of series that would paint the apple in zebra stripes instead of just eat it…but then eat it anyway just because it could. That level of conviction, zeal, and all-out ballsiness is something to appreciate.
So, bottom line. Is this franchise actually brilliant? In terms of the actual game(s), probably not -- at least for a while yet. In terms of the underlying thought current, yeah, I think SK has something special. Something that’s worth remembering, when all’s said and done. Will it ever break out of the rut it carved for itself, and become more than just Estrogen: The Game? No, it’s going to stay in that rut, and just dig more so more people can nestle up beside it, just like DOA. But unlike DOA, I do believe that it can become more -- it can have better gameplay, a better story, better characters, better everything. There isn’t a single game or franchise out there that’s perfect, but anything can improve if they’re willing to put in the work. As far as I can tell, Senran Kagura is -- and that just might be one more facet to its brilliance.
You and your giant breasts have got our attention, guys. Now it’s time to bust out. For all our love.
Okay. Next post needs to be about something manly...in a sense.
About Voltech One of us since 10:40 PM on 02.06.2012
Long-time gamer, aspiring writer, and frequent bearer of an afro. As an eternal optimist, I like to both look on the bright side of things and see the better parts of games; as a result, I love a game with a good story and awesome characters...and anything that lets me punch the heresy out of my enemies.
I'm a big fan of Atlus' games, and I've enjoyed my fair share of fighters and RPGs. Just...please, keep Final Fantasy XIII out of my sight. It never ends well for anyone involved.
You can check out some of my game musinga/stories/random stuff at my other blog, Cross-Up. I've also got a TV Tropes thingamajig, and a web serial novel, too. Maybe my stuff here and there will be the start of things to come. Hopefully good things, but things all the same.