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 I'm trying to get some freelance work going. Among other things. Like a web serial novel. And getting books published. If ever there was a time for the world to learn the joys of ghost-punching, this is it.
You know, I’ve been thinking. (Cue the panicked shrieks of the masses as they run desperately for cover.)
So word on the street is that Senran Kagura is coming to the West. That’s interesting, I suppose. I can’t personally summon up too much interest in the game, but if it’s set to make plenty of gamers happy -- and of course let the devs offer up something to a wider audience -- then I’m glad this is something that’s happening. Of course, I can’t help but get a little nervous about reactions to the game being released; the whole Dragon’s Crown brouhaha is still a sore point for a lot of people, and has opened up debates that have likely done nothing more than spin in circles at 8000 RPM.
I’d argue that Senran Kagura has its own merits as a game and a series -- artistic merit, creative liberties, etc., etc. -- but even so it’s a bit harder to defend than Dragon’s Crown. That game has more overt throwbacks to fantasy artists and games of the past, with its eyebrow-raising designs a consequence of applying the amped-up aesthetic and design philosophy to everything and everyone. It’s very likely -- probable, even -- that Senran Kagura exists on the same axis (as an over-the-top parody of fanservice-laden elements, or if not that then winking tributes), but the line between playing it straight and playing it for laughs is…er…hazy.
So why is it that the more I hear about the game, the more I’m intrigued by it?
Don't make that face just yet; let me explain. I should back up and say that, even though I know of the game, I don’t know much about it. As a frequenter of Siliconera and TV Tropes, virtually everything I know about the game comes from random posts, basic summaries, and a small potpourri of gameplay videos. That’s about it. Well, that’s not 100% true; I know there was an anime of it semi-recently, but as I’m terrible at committing to watching anime -- I’ll finish watching you someday, Heroman-- I haven’t seen a single episode. I don’t know if I’ve dodged a bullet or missed out on the greatest masterpiece of our time. But I suspect only one of those options is viable, and you can guess which one I’m leaning toward.
That said, I’ve heard that the games are actually pretty good. I guess I was watching the wrong videos, because what I saw looked functional, but a bit clunky. It must have been the YouTube transition; it’s distorted my perception of plenty of fighting games prior to release in the past. I guess for whatever reason, the games have been doing something right consistently. And while I’d like to think that they succeed independent of the space-time-distorting-bosoms, I’d be lying if I said that the fanservice wasn’t a part of the package. It’s hard for me to approve with anything more than a nervous smile and unsteady clap, but hey -- they’re allowed to express themselves, gamers are allowed to enjoy what they may, and as long as they’re not actively forcing the world to see everything their way (to the point of attacking other players, artists, and styles), that’s fine. We can coexist. We can all go on our merry way.
…Is what I would like to say. But I think we know how this story plays out -- if it hasn’t already.
Let’s pretend that Senran Kagura is pretty much just a big joke. Let’s pretend that the game isn’t necessarily geared toward getting players’ engines revved up, and that anything beyond its purpose is just a happy side effect. Let’s pretend that what the devs are after is to put forth a game with giant-breasted ninja girls in an OTT game…and that you’re not supposed to do anything else besides laugh and have a merry old time. Even IF the intent was to make a joke out of the game, it’s a joke that’s not designed to have everyone laughing. In the same sense that some people find political jokes hilarious, others are turned off to them merely by design. “Ew, politics!” they’ll say out of reflex. And they’ll show disdain for whoever might make a joke like that. I know it’s not exactly a one-to-one comparison, but there are similarities. Bring in an offender, and people, gathered from all walks of life but many of them sharing similar tastes and ideals, will get offended. That’s just how it goes, no matter how much rationalizing you try to do. Is it fair? Unless the “joke” is seriously tasteless, no. It’s just life.
So is it fair to hate on Senran Kagura because of its intended goal? Moreover, is it fair to hate the game because of what it offers? Probably not. After all, I’ve not only heard that the gameplay is pretty good, but there’s more going on under the hood. Just looking at the non-spoiler-tagged stuff on TV Tropes says that there’s more than a little darkness to the cheery proceedings (the life of a ninja is not just about doing sweep-kicks and flip-flops), and the stuff that IS spoiler-tagged implies that a high percentage of the characters have grim backstories and reasons for why they fight. The fact that they got the guy who worked on the stories ofOkamiden, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney, and Chaos Rings has to stand for something.
On the other hand, I wonder if it’s enough. Dead or Alive also has a cast largely dominated by its full-figured females, and while they’re largely capable, strong-willed, independent of men, and have their own personas/backstories, sometimes I wonder if those are token additions. Kasumi’s wiki page is more than four thousand words long, but I feel like could sum her up in almost the space of a tweet: “runaway ninja who seems timid, but bravely and skillfully gets the job done.” (If you’re feeling facetious, you could add “probably has a brother complex.”) I’m no expert on the canon, but I suspect that in spite of the things that we’re told about her and the things that have happened to her, Kasumi hasn’t significantly evolved as a character from where she started back in the nineties. And I suspect that she won’t evolve because the devs would rather backpedal on their “I’m a fighter” mantra and put her and the other girls back in sexy costumes.
It seems that Senran Kagura is in a very tricky territory -- a gray area where the rules are just as hazy as the shinobi world it takes place in. At what point does the fanservice become a detriment, or nullify the creators’ intent? Has it gone far enough to offer up something more than questionable fanservice, or are its attempts at making its merits as developed as its cast ultimately a shallow affair? Can it win over the hearts of even rightfully-jaded gamers, or is it destined to become yet another sore point in gaming discussions everywhere? Without question, this is an extremely difficult topic to even talk about, let alone peaceably sort out. I’m hoping for the best -- if not with this game, then whatever draws heat next time -- but I know that there’s still a ways to go. I know that nobody has an answer that can lay this conversation to rest…and there shouldn’t be, so long as we have something to debate. Conflict can (not does, but can) give way to organized thought, rational discussion, an impetus to learn, and conclusions that people might not have considered on their own. If we can discuss, then by all means, let’s discuss.
Now then. Let’s talk about breasts.
It seems like whenever the topic of women in games comes up, someone usually says that when women appear, it’s as barely-clothed, big-breasted beauties. It’s very true that there’s a severe issue with the portrayal of women in games, and I can only hope that things get better as time passes. That said, every time the allusion does come up, I’m left more than a little confused. Where ARE these improbably-buxom clusters of data? Maybe this is just a consequence of women becoming increasingly-absent in the games industry, but for now let's just consider this a thought experiment. Strictly speaking, it’s hard to decide just what exactly the bar is for “improbably buxom”, but let’s go ahead and expand the scope to “remotely sexualized” female characters. The ones that seem to pop up most are pre-reboot Lara Croft, post-Soul Calibur 1 Ivy Valentine, Bloodrayne on occasion, and all the DOA ladies. And…who else, exactly? I’m not trying to take the piss out of anyone here; I’m genuinely curious. I want a record for future posterity from as many gamers as possible. (So yeah, comment as needed to shut me up.)
Still, I can think of more than a few on my own. Blaze from Streets of Rage and Tyris Flare from Golden Axe are a couple of old-school examples, and not too long ago we had Shahdee and Kaileena from the almost-hilarious Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. There's also Lulu from Final Fantasy 10, Tifa from 7, and (disturbingly enough) Rouge the Bat from the Sonic universe. If you’ll let me play the role of my own worst enemy, it seems like a LOT of the examples -- at least those that spring to mind -- are those from fighting games. Which is to say, almost all of them.
Street Fighter has Cammy for sure, but I’d assume that Chun-Li, Sakura, Elena, R. Mika, and C. Viper have to cater to someone’s tastes. BlazBluehas nearly every female character “remotely sexualized”, starting from the top with resident Boobie Lady Litchi and working down to Noel Vermillion, a character that many gamers assumed wasn’t wearing underwear…to say nothing of her Mu-12 form. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance made a note of inserting jiggle physics, and the most recent version put some of its ladies in costumes destined to make opponents blush. And let us never forget the great legacy imparted upon us by SNK, for they willingly unleashed Mai Shiranui upon the world. And then unleashed her again in HD. I sincerely hope there are laws in place to prevent anything like Mai's sprite being created ever again.
I know there are more examples than that outside of fighting games -- WAY more, I’d guess, but I’m at a loss to name as many as some of you out there -- but there’s a specific reason I bring up fighting games. Remember, kinetic motion is a form of expression; that’s why dance is an art form, to the point of having entire schools built around it. And on top of that, we gain more data from non-verbal communication than from merely spoken words. So with that in mind, think carefully about the application of fighting games. I know for a fact that in Street Fighter 4, telling Ryu and Ken apart could be done by more than just their designs. Ryu’s default stance has a slower, straighter bounce, while Ken’s is a bit more active and swagger-laden. Simply put, there are things we can get from characters in ways we might not have expected. If memory serves, King got some...physics in King of Fighters 13, but that doesn't stop her from being awesome in terms of both her character and her motions.
In an ideal world, video game writing would be enough to satisfy us, and turn every character -- the women included -- into the “strong female characters” we’re all searching for. But alas, that’s not yet the case. (I honestly think we’re getting there, though; even if some of its ladies are notably chesty, the Tales Series has always made a note of making them more than breast-carriers -- as seen in Symphonia, Legendia, Abyss, Vesperia, and most recently Xillia.) But I know what video games are about. It’s not just a matter of telling a good story; it’s about making an input-output device that performs satisfying actions using its myriad elements. Simply put? Press buttons, and cool stuff happens. In its distilled, hyper-generalized form, that’s what a game is.
And believe it or not, I think Senran Kagura has the right idea.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that games need more improbably buxom women. And indeed, I’d say that the franchise is doing something you don’t usually see, buuuuuuuuuuut it could still do more. Much more. (Though in its defense, from what I’ve gathered it’s also a game about camaraderie and living life to its fullest.) What I’m arguing for isn’t necessarily about embracing fanservice -- to an extent, at least -- but more about applying that fanservice. Games are going to keep throwing more stuff, and bigger stuff, at us in the future; much like the triple-A market and company opulence at large, it’s going to be a matter of how you use what you have, not what you put in. The command shouldn’t be “We made a mountain. Look at it.” We should be able to do something with the mountain. Climb it. Search it. Go inside it. Slide down it. Or perhaps the mountain should do something independent of our input, or in-game triggers. Maybe erupt for whatever reason. Or have an avalanche. Or barf out some wooly goats. It shouldn’t be a static element…not entirely, at least.
Now imagine that concept applied to fanservice. The problem here is that the mindset is “There are breasts here. Look at them.” That’s not enough anymore -- not for everyone, at least. You can throw that stuff in haphazardly and get a few stiffened trousers, but you can take a shot at earning respect if you go a step further. Use elements for expression. Use them to make a statement. Use them to make your intent clear. Use them for originality, and make yourself stand out from the crowd. Use them to make the command “There are breasts here. Do something with them.”
…That came out a lot more sexually-charged than I would have hoped.
Maybe this is the product of my hot dog-addled mind, but I can’t help but see possibilities and ask questions about Senran Kagura’s universe -- things that could elevate the world-building and push its potentially-joking nature to insane levels. So let's see if we can get the old noodle working...with the proper music, of course.
I’ve said this about games in the past -- Devil Survivor 2 comes to mind -- but I’ll say it here again: in a world where everyone is improbably buxom, no one is improbably buxom. What might make the average gent crane his neck in our universe is barely worth a shrug in their world…and as such, their world must accommodate their norm. What would that mean for clothes-shopping? Or better yet, clothes production? How much more fabric would have to be produced just for the average department store catalog? How would that affect prices? How would that affect the fashion industry? How would that affect the economy, and the resource management needed to support such industries?
And I can’t help but wonder how it’d affect society at large. The ladies of the canon are ultra-skilled ninjas in the process of furthering their training -- so what if the struggle to become a splendid ninja is as much a measure to support certain organizations as it is a means to alleviate back pain? Could it be that athleticism is merely a means to allow these ladies a chance at simply living a normal life? Or could it be that said athleticism -- the myriad styles of each character -- is merely a means of expression, independent of bra size? Is it artistry personified? Are they trying to make their bodies art personified? Are they just trying to express themselves on the battlefield, ergo their unique costumes and propensity to get blown into their swimsuits? Is that how they view themselves?
How DO they view themselves? How do they view others? If “improbably buxom” is -- give or take a few inches -- the standard of their world, then what happens for those notably above or notably below the curve? Are they ostracized? Made into walking punchlines? Shamed and harassed? Genetically speaking, how did they inherit the potential to be above or below the curve? How are any of the characters as well-built as they are now? Is it dietary? Supplementary? Is there something in the water? Is it all a part of some hidden organization’s scheme to overwhelm the world with a torrent of estrogen? Or could it be that -- as per my theory on the DOA universe -- the series actually takes place in a totalitarian future where all the women are given nanomachine-filled injections to make their chests swell up? (It’d certainly explain the why the physics are bonkers -- their tissues are filled with tiny machines programmed to move asynchronously.)
Let it be known, then, that there are a lot of different ways you could explore the concept of a world full of hyper-bosomy ladies. You could take an investigative route and figure out what you can do with the setting and characters. Or you could take those ideas (and more) and play them for laughs. There’s just so much you could do JUST with the concept besides just shoving fanservice in someone’s face. Sure, you can find some fans with that alone…but you can do more. You can always do more with a creative outlet. Style, substance, whatever -- it’s one’s duty to explore a creation with as much skill as one could muster. That’s what being a man is all about.
But you know what? Even beyond Senran Kagura, there are still ways you can play with concepts and conventions. And I’ll prove it. So let’s shift the concept from merely “fanservice” to something with a bit more of a positive connotation: beauty.
This should be obvious to anyone who’s read my posts over the last year or so, but here I go again. I consider it the greatest idiosyncrasy of the gaming industry when, with all the technological prowess we have today, so many developers would fill their games with destruction, decay, and despair. Okay, sure, there’s creative liberty and the need to stick to an appropriate tone and canon’s demands, but I have a hard time believing that every dev and every company out there wants to make another war-torn or post-apocalyptic environment just for kicks. As gamers -- critics in our own right -- we’re on the lookout for the much-adored “beautiful graphics” seen so often in reviews. The problem is that in terms of aesthetics, sometimes that’s not quite as easy. I’m not trying to heap (too much) hate on modern games; this is just common sense. Flowers? Beautiful. Crumbling walls? Not beautiful. Babbling brooks? Beautiful. Glass shards strewn all over a street? Not beautiful. Golden, picturesque sunset framed perfectly on the horizon? Beautiful. Chest-high walls? A masterpiece of the modern age…but still not beautiful.
Obviously, this is something that applies to characters as well. Say what you will about any given lead in a Final Fantasy game -- especially post-Dissidia -- but the designers have to really try to make someone who’s not attractive on some level. Granted those designs have become improbable and bordering on self-parody in recent years, but the intent is there: make something pleasing to the eye while simultaneously expressing something about the character. It’s an effort that goes beyond just creating a character to fulfill a function while being as inoffensive as possible. It’s an effort meant to make a character -- and if possible, a world -- memorable to a gamer, as he/she is a person that can appreciate beauty wherever and however it pops up. Simple, yes? Common sense. Something worth pushing towards, without a doubt. BUT, I feel as if there’s more to it than that. More that can be done. It feels like there’s an entire untamed wilderness just itching to get tapped and shared with the people, if only some brave -- and only slightly-crazy -- pioneer is willing to venture in.
So I guess I’ll go ahead and give it a shot. Here’s a possible example: make a game centered on beauty pageants.
Don’t raise your halberds yet, people. I know that sounds a little too on-the-nose, and there is the possibility that people will shoot down the concept immediately (or just call it sexist outright), but hear me out. Consider this a little “what-if” exercise. Or if not an exercise, then a reimagining; after all, IIRC Gen III of Pokémon-- and to some extent, Yakuza 4 -- made entire gameplay segments around putting out the best beauty you could. And really, what is a model if not a well-trained Pokémon? (Please don’t answer that; I don’t think I want to hear the answer.)
Now then. Let’s start with our lead -- we’ll call her “Rally” for now. At the start, she’s just whittling away her days -- she’s lazy, unmotivated, scatterbrained, and more than ready to play games all the way to her grave. But when her carelessness leads to an accident that leaves a young model injured, said model’s coach/manager -- let’s call him “Jimmy Hotpants” -- furiously demands that he reimburses her. And since Rally can’t offer him the money he’s demanding, she offers her services instead; she agrees to enter the local pageant in the model’s place, so that Jimmy Hotpants can lay claim to fame. But what starts off as getting dragged into the “world of beauty” ends up becoming something more for Rally. And so begins the duo’s whirlwind adventure to make Rally into The World’s Most Beautiful Woman. (And if at all possible, Universe.)
One of the key elements of the game would be attending to -- and altering -- Rally’s appearance. Ideally, every player starts out with the same Rally -- a very tall, if lumbering and sleepy-looking, strawberry blonde. But depending on choices, training, and events, the Rally at one player’s endgame will be incredibly different from another player’s endgame. The real world has plenty of different aspects that affect one’s appearance -- diet, exercise, stress, good/bad habits, hygiene, esteem, and more -- so those aspects could carry over in some capacity to the game.
I imagine some sort of Sims-styled meter management, where you’ll have to cater to a few of Rally’s base desires, but everything beyond a certain point (and a notably low threshold, so you won’t have to spend the entire game just making sure she goes to the bathroom on time) is up to you. On one hand, you decide things like how often she goes to the gym and what she does, such as more strength training or more cardio -- and in addition, keeping an eye on what food she eats and how often. On the other hand, you still have a healthy degree of control over outward appearance. Makeup, hairstyle, clothing…and if you so deign, plastic surgery. Or since this would be a video game, perhaps some sort of herbal enhancers are on the market.
And even beyond that, there’s more to be done. You still have to balance Rally’s normal life with her newfound career -- i.e. taking care of business and earning some extra cash (and winding down with video games) while taking time out to do charity work/good deeds to increase your standing with others. It’d be a system that fuses the fundraising minigames of No More Heroes with the schedule management of Persona 4. Preparation is vital -- but if you got the skills and the savvy, you can always carve out a win.
“Now hold on there, Voltech!” you cry out, reaching for your halberd once more. “I thought you were trying to propose a game, not some virtual act of voyeuristic godhood! You’ve clearly underestimated me; as a virile man who demands a set of blades forged by Hephaestus just to tame my illustrious beard, I’ve no interest in playing with a digital doll! Away with you!” And to that I say…you’ve got a point as nice as your beard. But don’t shrug me off just yet. Training is as vital as the combat itself -- and if that’s the case, then I’d advocate the advent of beautiful combat. Because if there’s one thing I love in games and stories, it’s a heaping helping of absurdity.
I brought up that Yakuza comparison for a reason. In the same sense that Kazuma Kiryu and friends will get thrown into sudden brawls on the street, so too could this game play to its theme to an absurd degree…in which there are impromptu “beauty battles.” In this world, beauty means everything, to the point where people will do their damnedest to prove their beauty if and when the need arises. But instead of throwing hands, as Rally you’ll be engaging in appeals to the audience for victory. Think of it as a hybridization of Pokémon, Elite Beat Agents, and the Ace Attorney series; you’ll select your “attack” -- a cute smile, or a sultry strut, for example -- from the outset in a menu, and then execute it via well-timed button presses. It’d be something like this (albeit a bit quicker in pace):
The better you press the buttons, the more effective your attack will be, and the more points you’ll earn from an audience. And there would be a risk-reward system; simpler moves have simpler (randomly-generated) sequences, but won’t net you as many points as a complex move. Of course, if you have the energy for it you can change the momentum of a battle (even during an opponent’s turn) by appealing to one of your Rally’s Charm Points -- a physical or mental attribute that can steal away favor. Basically, it’s a system that demands decision-making, tactical use of one’s tool set, and a bit of rhythmic skill to earn the points needed to finish a battle. You know, just like a real beauty pageant!
And indeed, the beauty pageants -- such as they are -- would be the true test of skill and beauty, not unlike a Gym Battle. You’d have to work your way up through several rounds, as if you’re part of a tournament bracket. You’d be going up against entire groups of opponents instead of just one, and to qualify for the next round you have to garner enough points. And of course, each pageant would conclude with a climactic, OTT final showdown/boss battle with the rival du jour. (You’d get to save, cram in prep work, or quit the game between rounds, of course.)
The key difference? Instead of an undiscerning audience, for pageants there are judges that’ll put the contestants to work, pressing them with questions and demands as well as having tastes that you can play toward. In the same sense that you can interrupt opponents with your Charm Points, judges can interrupt you or your opponents with their supreme authority. What you can answer with will depend on how you’ve prepared Rally up to that point, and how you meet their challenges will affect both the character and her chances of victory at large. Again, think of it as something along the lines of Ace Attorney-- or if you prefer, Dangan Ronpa. It’d be a simple-enough process given a bit of flair by virtue of absurdity.
But make no mistake -- just because this all sounds like an idiot’s fever dream doesn’t mean that there aren’t ideas to take away from the game. The theme of beauty is one that’s being explored by virtually everyone and everything. As Rally goes from place to place and encounters new friends and rivals, they’ll each have their own answer to the question of “what is beauty?” Pride in one’s body. The courage to present something before others. Vanity that breeds conceit and corruption. A duty to gain favor and use it to change the world’s circumstances. A desire to put smiles on the faces of others. Many people, many answers -- including ones that you and Rally will offer over the course of the game. She’ll be changing on the outside (naturally), but she’ll change on the inside as well. Will she become a better person, and use her blooming fame to make the world a better place? Will she turn into a beautiful beast, and sit atop her throne as a wicked queen? What happens when the model whose place she took gets back into the action?
And there you go. That’s just one way you could do it -- take a theme, put a new spin on it, and turn what might have been repulsive to some and pointless to others into something that demandsfurther exploration. It’s not impossible. As with all things imaginative, it just takes a little thought and ingenuity. Be willing to explore the possibilities -- and have the open mind to do so besides just shouting “ew, gross!” and there are plenty of new avenues to explore. Or…hell, I don’t know. It might make a heartwarming story, at least.
So. What’s the moral of this story? Uhhhhhh…I forgot. This post kind of got away from me. I think it had something to do with ninjas at one point, but then I migrated to theoretical beauty pageants or something…
…You know what? I just realized I’ve made more ruminations on the female form in one post than most gamers will do over the course of their entire lives. I’d say this is a cause for celebration. Or despair.