A lot of people are having a lot of discussions about characters in video games recently. As of late, female video game characters are a hot topic among these discussions. Specifically, their portrayal in video games, and lately, in Japanese video games in particular.
With this in mind, I find it strange that there's very little discussion going on about any of the actual characters. As in, you know, the characters? Isn't that weird? For all this talk about how these characters are doing it wrong, no one really talks about that much.So considering that, I'd like to describe some characters for you now, and maybe we can get the ball rolling and see where it takes us from there, eh?
B. B is trying to find their way in life. In B's game, they're dealing
with some serious self-esteem issues, to the point that despite B being a
comparatively minor character, the game's plot takes a road trip as a
result of their worries over how their peers view them. B goes through a
character arc because of this that leads to them working past their
issues and becoming more confident as a person. Though perhaps
stereotypical in some ways, B's troubles are ones that many of us have
had to deal with, making B a character someone of any gender can relate
Meet D. D has very, very strong beliefs about right and wrong, to the point that they'll occasionally fly off the handle and start large scale fights and battles in order to protect their perceived notion of "right" and eliminate their perceived notion of "wrong." Over the course of D's game, D learns that there's more to the world that "right" and "wrong," and even offers friendship to someone they set out to kill early on. Even though these beliefs are the product of D's upbringing, by the end of the game, D is able to see the world for what it is.
Meet E. E grew up in a pretty unorthodox situation, filled with brawling and bright, shining stars. E wanted to grow up to be a star, and went through quite a few trials to become noticed. E had to not only deal with the disapproval of their father in the pursuit of their dream, but also repeated battles to claim stardom, which they did obtain. Eventually, though, E forgoes stardom to pursue a political career, once more against the wishes of E's father.
Meet G. G is typically found in the position of "straight man" in situations, but G doesn't let this interfere with the bigger picture too much. You see, G is the ruler of an entire country, and though they do find themselves suckered into helping out others at times when they would rather deal with paperwork or defending their own borders (or so they say), their country is always still an important priority to them. G is one of the most powerful people in their game, and though they've gained the ego to match it, their devotion to (and at times obsession with) making their country and the best isn't fake.
Meet J. J was taken into a family of nobles when they were young as a result of their tremendous abilities, despite being from a family as far from noble as possible. There was never a connection with J's new parents, and J's elder sibling, whom J is essentially replacing, resents them for simply existing. With all of this on their shoulders, J still pushes onwards, looking after the younger warriors in their care and in turn being looked after by them, much to J's surprise.
Meet L. L is a young servant of the deceased king who now serves the prince, who L seemingly isn't as fond of as the king. L is devious, at times plots against the prince, and while L does return to the prince's side after some events in the first game of L's series, there is plenty of friction to be had. Ultimately, L is both loyal to the prince, but also the prince's equal and a constant source of frustration for the prince and the prince's other underlings. L owns L, is more independent than one would think, and surprisingly strong despite L's tendency to laze about.
None of these characters are owned by their gender in their respective games.
Yup, just look at those... Wait, sorry, I think I got the wrong picture.
Sorry, while I go find that, maybe go reread some of their bios a bit? Get a feel for who we're going to meet. Can't be too prepared before the first date, after all!
Okay, found it!
Alrighty, now that you've gotten a feel for these characters, I'd like you to take a look at what they all really look like.
Are you looking? Are you surprised about some of them, maybe? Maybe not? Probably expected it, perhaps?
Still, I want you guys to really look at them. Get a good, long look at who I wanted you to think about here.
If what these characters look like or what they're from changes anything about what I said about them before, if you feel that this new information is in any way more relevant than any of the above, then congratulations! You are probably objectifying these characters. Yes, that's right. You.
You might argue that no, they were designed to be that way, or no, they're clearly made that way to evoke certain responses... If you might do that, consider what it would be like to say that to a real woman or to say that about what a real woman might be wearing. Consider that real women are told this, and while I'm not at all equating these two things, consider when real women are told this.
I'm not saying this situation is necessarily or at all equivalent to that one, but at least consider it, that's all I'm asking for the moment.
Now then, let's keep this train moving! Where will we stop? Who knows?
the above tangent, if you're gearing up to argue that these
characters aren't real, and thus we can stop at their appearance...
then, I hate to say it, but yeah, it does sound to me like you're still
kind of objectifying them. Whether you're saying it positively or
negatively, whether you're unzipping your pants or trying to criticize
them, that's still what you're doing.
Obviously, there is the point to be made that in reality, these characters are technically objects, but that's ultimately something we need to accept as true of all fictional characters, whether they're fleshed out or just plain fleshy. No amount of character development or programming will change that, short of the implementation of genuine artificial intelligence.
Yes, I know that's not technically what objectifying means in the context it's used, but in the context it's typically used, that is a situation that ignores most other game characters... are also technically objects too. All characters are products made to appeal to someone. This is not something exclusive to female characters with big proportions or less clothes, and it never has been. That's just how it is.
no, let's clear the air on this one right now. I'm not at all saying we shouldn't recognize the difference in fantasy and
reality. In fact, I've repeatedly said just the opposite! What I do think, as many point out, is that we get do
drawn into fantasy, and for some, this is especially true when we can
connect to it in some way, though it's not always. Still, we empathize
with characters, feel for them, hate them, hope for them, and so much
... Yet in cases of characters like these, many people refuse to acknowledge them as characters at all. Many act like a woman's body is something to be ashamed of, unless she's running around and owning it like Bayonetta does. Often, even when other characters do own it, if their game isn't up to par or if they're from "that kind of game," they aren't given the same dignity or recognition (or simply exception) that Bayonetta gets for whatever reason.
You also have the fact that characters like Kratos (yeah, I put him there for a reason) can run around in a loincloth, with bodies most men can only dream of, but somehow, we can just say that that's okay because it's a "male fantasy," but never the opposite. For more on that tangent, check out this blog response I wrote to a question VeryImportantQuestion posed a few months back, which covers the topic of male characters being allowed to wear less while women can't a bit more than I will here.
Though if you do,
check the comments on their and my entry there, since the conversation
didn't stop at just my response, and it adds a lot.
With that plug out of the way, let's get this back on track.
As I said, and have said multiple times, it's a problem when characters are taken for what is ultimately just their appearance. I'm sure all of us have had things that we know differently about described as "just..." or "no more than..." before. Dynasty Warriors and Pokemon fans in particular could probably say a lot about this, but the list goes on.
whatever reason, though, when it comes to characterization of female
characters, particularly ones who just commit the crazy crime of looking
nice... Not only do we give these characters the benefit
of the doubt significantly less, but when it comes to the people who try
to point out what they might have going for them, we just label them as
perverts and creeps.
Which brings us to when things are
out of context. Be this scenes or lines of dialogue, or even just
designs taken away from the world and setting in which they were
If we're trying to look at these characters as characters, we have to look at them as such. We have to look at them as people in the context of their fictional worlds, and then we can assess this.
Yes, these things are all creations of people in our world, but so, technically, are real people. We are but the sum of our experiences, which are, until we're old enough, largely outside of our control. Again, I'm not comparing the two, and if anything I'm just getting off topic, so I suppose I'll just say that my point here is the whole "they're not real so..." responses just strike me as avoiding the issue and trying to deflect.
Interestingly, Etna up there made a list of great game role models for women in 2008, and I'd be willing to bet most people these days who didn't know Disgaea (and even some who have) might just take a look at her and not think twice before judging.
What I'm trying say here is that people really shouldn't put so much weight onto what characters look like or even stuff like jiggle physics. Not by themselves, at least. Yes, those all have demographics and stuff, sure, but here's the thing people forget when they make that claim: Women can fall into that demographic, and not just women who happen to be attracted to other women. Though shouldn't those women have something too? Why should they lose out just because it's previously only been boys that those things were made for?
People who like those things for reasons other than wanting to jump polygons and pixels can fall into that. Yes, even Dead or Alive 's ridiculous penchant of giving characters tons of costumes has people
outside of those wanting to bone the characters who appreciate it. I was
surprised too, but they're there.
If you want to really judge or analyze a character, I think the best way, and maybe only way in some cases, is to do it by seeing how they interact with other characters and how they interact with their world. Judge them by the context in which they exist, in which they are judged in their world, and how they handle it.
Are they treated like a sex object in the context of their game? By the cast, the world, their society? To that end, and some of you won't like this, is it necessarily bad that they are? In some settings, some things are unavoidable, and more importantly, if we pretend the world is, always was, and always will be perfect, we're not only lying to ourselves, we're robbing ourselves of potentially striking narratives. Even if we achieve some perfect world, it doesn't mean stories have to have perfection in them every single time. Conflict, if nothing else, makes for good stories. Perfection and everyone only getting along... not so much.
Beyond that, are they one note characters who exist just to show she doesn't take sass from The Man? Is that the only way they show that they're competent characters? Because the unfortunate thing I see a lot of is that "strong female character" just translates to the character only showing how independent she is in scenes with male characters, but otherwise... not really being a character.
Or are they, despite their appearances, a character that has more going for them than that?
Let's consider how two of the main characters from Senran Kagura, Asuka and Homura, interact with each other. Each the leaders of their different teams of ninja, their rivalry is a big thing in the series and has become a recurring thing to see since the first game. While Asuka was initially the obvious underdog of the two, she's since grown much stronger and become a capable foe for Homura, even leading to Homura assisting her later on due to the fact that "only I can kill her!" and all that tough gal stuff.
Popular relationships that parallel theirs would not be cute girl friends, like the girls of K-On, or "mean girls" from many movies here in the West for girls,
or any traditional stereotypes you would typically pin on two leading
female characters. The popular relationships most similar to these
characters would be ones like Dragonball's Goku and Vegeta, Naruto's Naruto and Sasuke, and so on.
Heroes. Rivals. Enemies.
And like all of these other duos, there's the tension that the fans loves to look at in... certain ways. But because their girls...
These characters have taken roles seemingly once "for boys only" and shown that they can transcend gender and then some. There are even super powered transformations and everything for them, and I don't mean the ones that come with the exploding clothes the series is known for.
Yes, they've come into the world in a fashion that came with ripping clothes and what comes with, but let's be honest. The same is technically true of Goku and Vegeta's relationship.
The only difference with characters like Asuka and Homura, or with many of the characters I listed above, is that, for whatever reason, we can look at Goku and Vegeta and Kratos and say that their idealized bodies and say that's okay, or that it's okay for that to be considered a fantasy. If not that, then we can look past their ridiculous bodies and muscles and hair, and recognize them as characters we enjoy.
We can also look
at these kinds of characters, when they're in badly written games or
series, and just recognize that maybe those things just weren't as good,
and not pin the blame exclusively on the idea that it all must have
been because it was pandering.
Why can we not do the same for characters like Asuka and Homura and the rest, then?
For all the issues people have with games like Senran Kagura or Neptunia, one thing they can do really well if you look at just the writing of most of their main games is make clear that its leading ladies can hold their own and take the lead for themselves. In some cases, these character barely let sass from each other slide, and at the very least, you'll typically be treated to a full cast of varied and unique individuals whose gender, in context, isn't something holding them back.
Yes, you do have boob jokes, but on the flipside, we also have dick jokes, even to the point of them being slipped into Disney movies of all things. It's that we can have these jokes, but that they're not treated like some weakness or flaw or special need, that sets them apart. Whether they're good jokes or not, that's one thing, but simply being about body parts? It's not equality if we can go on about dicks manboobs and not the opposite.
In Senran Kagura , the primary male characters don't look down on the female characters,
at least to any noteworthy extent that isn't forgivable or
understandable (as in when in teacher-student or parent-child
relationships). One male character, for example, is a strong, legendary shinobi, yet he's terrified of his wife, who is going to be a major player in the upcoming Senran Kagura Estival Versus. And yeah, he does play with the old "perverted old guy" trope, but not to the point he's really taking advantage of people.
One could honestly make the argument there's some weirdly progressive themes in these series.
The male characters in both have thus far only ever NPCs (helpful and otherwise) or villains, save only a couple of exceptions in some offshoot games and one DLC character in Senran Kagura 2, leaving center stage exclusively for the female characters. Said female characters are all either proud goddesses ruling over different parts of their fictional world, shinobi students working towards their dreams, or perhaps the compansions of said goddesses or students, in either case a varied cast of secondary characters in its own right.
The big bosses of Neptunia, every single time, have also been female, and their reason for being so hasn't been related to their being female either.
Not to mention that, while it's oft used for fanservice purposes, it's pretty clear that some of these characters might be learning at the other ninja school (if you know what I mean), and that's not treated like it's a problem or something to be ashamed of for the most part. Admittedly, it's also not typically explored to any great extent, though considering the state of these games and Japan with these issues, this may in part be less because of the developers but more not wanting to rock the boat when your games already don't sell terribly much as is.
The real point I'm trying to drive at here is, when you look at these things beyond face value, these characters beyond their appearance, there's often more than people give them credit for.
And don't get me wrong on this, it is very true that attractive girls fighting each other is obviously something that would appeal to men, it's not exactly universal or "boys only" either, nor are other aspects of these series. I've known more than a few women who like both series over the years, believe it or not, and according to the company itself, 40% of Neptunia's Western fanbase a few years back was female. Apparently. No idea how they know that, to be honest, but considering they added that their female fanbase was super small in Japan, they did seem to know something.
Yet whether it's Neptunia or Senran Kagura, like with many anime these days, like with just about everything out of Japan that is deemed "too anime" or "controversial," as soon as people look at these things, its fate is often sealed as soon as one of the female character designs is spotted.
Never mind the fact that many Japanese games have always been "anime" and this has never not been a thing.
not saying characters will be written perfectly every time, or that
attempts at depth "forgive" something shallow. Execution obviously
won't, nay, can't
be perfect every time, but this is true of games without this dreaded
art style that can turn a character with a full character arc and story
into nothing more than eye candy to some.
For some reason, though, lately it's mostly ones drawn like this that have these kinds of comments tossed at them. When characters who aren't in this style are written badly, we can just acknowledge that, hey, this game didn't have the best writing. We don't put on our internet detective caps and try to act like other games' very existences are lesser because of their aesthetics or use of sexuality, and it couldn't possibly be that the writing just wasn't up to par, despite writing being an issue for gaming in general.
For these, we do. We don't have faith. We aren't open minded. We don't have the benefit of the doubt.
In reality, sometimes the stars just don't align, and something intended to be more ends up as less.
And sometimes something intended to be more can be a lot less than it could have been...
you were to ask me, genuinely ask me with the intent of having this
conversation, whether or not there is a problem with fanservice
regarding female characters in games... You might be surprised by my
answer! Even if you've read some of my older blogs about it, in fact, since this wasn't really covered there.
I actually wouldn't say that this isn't necessarily a situation without problems here. However, the problem probably isn't where you'd think it is. This is especially likely if you're the type of person who has already made your judgements about these things based solely on the name of the developers, the type of art style the game's artist uses, or of the appearance of the characters.
The problem isn't how they're designed, or even necessarily the so-called "creepy" aspects of their games, like clothing destruction, as these often only show up as a result of characters fighting each other, contextually meaning it happens in a situation where the characters are being strong and independent. That's not really any different than stuff like Mortal Kombat X's crazy gore close ups. It's not even characters of smaller stature or body types.
These are all things that should be able to simply be noted by a description, a rating, whatever, and then given to consumers to purchase or not at their choosing.
because you lost me.
[A POINT] IS APPROACHING!
You want to know what I, personally, feel the real problem here is? I don't think some of you guys are going to like this one! Some of you guys who might've been with me alllll the way up until this point might really not like this one, in fact!To soften the blow, I think I'll be going for a visual aid on this one
First, look at these (warning: a biiiiit NSFW) images:
Let those sink in. If you need a minute, then, uh, well, this is a blog, so I can't really stop you or... know...
Anyway, just as soon as you're done looking at those images, I want you to take a look at some more images, and here's another warning for y'all: They're NSFW too.
Here we go!
Check these out.
to say about these? Extreme examples, with room for ones in the middle,
perhaps, but I don't want to clog things up with pictures of naked
girls. That's Dreamweaver and SeymourDuncan's
sacred duty schtick.
Well, in both cases, you've got a bunch of bouncy looking anime characters, in some cases clearly bathing, in others minding their own business in their room, and in all of them clearly looking provocative. Is there much of a difference at all between these two sets of examples here?
There's nothing... riiiiiight?
In the first set of images, the characters are all still acting within or appearing as though they're acting within the context of their world for the most part. A crazy showdown in a pool, a trip to the hotsprings, bandages gone wrong, public displays of affection, or just chilling out listening to music. All things you'd either expect to see from the characters or wouldn't be surprised to see from them at any given time.
In the second group of pictures, the characters pictured have all been turned into "living" blow up dolls. Whether these pictures are from actual merchandise, promotional art, or the games themselves, it's the same deal. They're just offering themselves to the viewer, in a stark contrast to their typical behavior, largely in part because of the added element of the viewer.
This is especially troubling in the case of Asuka over there, who actually tackles the subject of romance in the game in a surprisingly level headed and reasonable fashion for a girl who for all intents and purposes looks to most like just another fanservice girl.
She does this by saying she would rather pursue her dreams-slash-career, by the way.
Point is, when characters are put into compromising positions in these games as a result of other characters, as is wont to happen, there isn't a complete and total sense of submission and loss of their character like there is when it's for the viewer, and these are both series with over half a dozen characters on both ends of the S&M spectrum when you put them together.
When you do this to these characters, what it does is it strips away all the independence and personality from them, which they do have, and just turns the characters, and even the series they're from, into so many of the things that they aren't. In the cases of those pillows, you're basically turning them into love dolls, really, and the fact that some of these games give those away as preorder bonuses? Yikes.
"What about that last one of Neptune?" You might be asking right around this point. "What's wrong with that one? It looks fine. Cute, even."
That is from a preorder bonus DLC where Neptune is (supposedly) marrying the player.
The problem with fanservice isn't fanservice itself, but when you turn characters who otherwise are characters all their own into bait. It's when characters, even with their appearances being as sexual as they may be, have their character taken away from them for the sake of a portion of the audience that may well not even be the majority, but simply the one with the most money to spend on merchandise and limited editions and preordering right away. It's when you sell out certain characters to popularity contests or hug pillows.
Turning these characters into lapdogs in ways that distorts their personalities that, outside of these instances, might be independent, strong willed, capable, or at the very least much more than pretty objects of a player's affection, that's the real problem with these kinds of games. It's these small teases for a small part of their fanbase that gives the whole of them a bad reputation. Not to mention it just makes the games and developers look a lot more shallow than they may actually be. Wanting some easy money, maybe, but that's not quite the same thing.
To put it another way, "the male gaze" isn't so much the problem as it is when characters start gazing back where they normally would never do so.
you can take a character with a defined sense of self and personality, a
character with their own person and spirit, and turn them into someone,
even if just in a picture, who looks up at the screen "asking for it,"
you've... kind of messed up. I will disagree with every argument that smaller characters and even flat out naked characters don't belong in games or other manner of media, but when you get to this? Even a fully clothed adult character in this position is probably not something you want to have, at least in my opinion anyway.
Yes, "love (in some cases) does that," and yes, when developers go as far as to make full blown spinoffs shoving this element right into the narrative, "the developers are trying something different," this is all true, but this, far more than any amount of clothing loss, bouncing boobs, lolis, nyuunyuus, and everything else combined is degrading to these characters.
It's not like we're talking about characters from dating sims or games released with these aspects from the start, like the more recent Persona and Fire Emblem games. These characters were written and conceived to be love interests. In those situations, if something goes wrong, I tend to feel that leans more towards poor execution and poor writing of the core concept, or perhaps the concept was to be that from the beginning, which as I mentioned before, isn't necessarily bad.
The same is true for when games want players to get their waifu on with its cast of girls or boys from the getgo, and yes, both of those exist.
On the other hand, in situations involving established series with established casts, where you only truly add these elements after the fact, we take characters whose concepts and personalities contextually have nothing to do with this sort of thing, and just, well... Treat them like they're just...
... you know.
Well, that's it for this blog! ... Kind of. I actually cut about a third of what made it onto my draft on the site, since some of it got a little off topic or just detracted from this, and then another chunk of it never even made it onto the site from where I wrote it.
Will these pieces reappear in another episode of Zetta's Really Long Blogs? Will they appear in the comment section of this one?
Only time will tell us the answer to that mystery! And tune in next week, where we ask the really important questions, liiiiike...
it wrong to love a Japanese-created cowboy character whose quirks
include taking selfies, liking hamburgers and rock and roll, taking
selfies, partying, speaking gratuitous English, taking selfies, randomly
inserting Western phrases into sentences, and did I mention taking selfies
with his cell phone that is also a hamburger?
Because if it's wrong... I don't want to be right.