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Dead or Alive 5: I Feel Pretty


You know, I’ve never been someone too in tune with religion. My fondest memories of the church include being bored out of my mind, listening to the pastor go into a rant that involved Batman and salt, and falling asleep on my mother’s lap. So, yeah, I’m probably going to hell. But at the very least, I can appreciate the concepts behind certain religions. (And of course, I can tolerate people believing in their chosen religions.) But one thing that always interested me was the concept of reincarnation. I’ve always wondered how something like that would work -- if there’s a “waiting line” of sorts, if you remember your past life…and of course, if you get to choose what form you’ll take next.

That last one makes me raise my eyebrows with intrigue. If we get to choose what we reincarnate into, then -- and don’t think me odd for this -- I want to come back as a supermodel. Or…you know, someone that’ll grow into a supermodel.

I’m happy with who I am right now, of course, afro and all. But I’m someone who is -- or is trying to, at least -- make a name for himself by way of his brain. That’s fine, of course, but if I’m going to reincarnate (and NOT go to hell), I’d want to see how the other half lives. I’d want to give modeling a try, and let my radiance and charisma guide me to glory. I’d want to look in the mirror and feel -- and KNOW -- that I’m sexy. Is that an ill-advised wish? Probably. Is it short-sighted? Likely. But I’m just so curious I can’t help but wonder…and if I’d really have no memory of my current life, the present me probably wouldn’t be able to raise an objection.

But seeing as how I’ll have to wait until I’m dead (and possibly thousands of years later) to see what it’s like to be truly beautiful, I guess I’ll have to turn to video games for my wish fulfillment.

Or will I?

Let’s be honest here. When it comes to improbably buxom ladies and obnoxiously-proportioned manly men, few do it better than video games. It’s something that’s earned a lot of ire from gamers male and female, but it’s also something we’ve learned to deal with and joke about. Even so, I feel like there’s kind of…well, a gap between the player and the character. That’s to be expected when you’re playing as someone with supermassive secondary sexual characteristics, but I wonder if it has to be that way.

Let’s think about this in terms of -- what else? -- the upcoming Dead or Alive 5, or just the franchise in general. The series is partly built on the strength of titanium-reinforced bra straps, for good and for ill…all right, mostly for ill. But as bad a reputation as DOA has, and as many times as the masterminds behind the games put themselves into a hole, I suspect that it wouldn’t take that much work to make the DOA ladies respectable. Bear in mind that this goes well beyond reducing bust sizes; I would argue that it’s very possible to turn them from gelatinous gravity-distorting virtua-girls into…well, gelatinous gravity-distorting virtua-girls with real style.

As I’ve said before, there is nothing inherently wrong with making a sexy-looking character; it’s the USE of that character that invites criticism. Shadee from Prince of Persia: Warrior Within is a fine example by virtue of her ridiculous looks and attire…but more importantly, because she has jack-all to do with anything for what must be ninety percent of the game. Was there anything she said or did that couldn’t have been said or done by a random goon? Was there anything to her personality besides callous rage? Did we learn anything about her? Did we feel anything for her besides profound sympathy for her undoubtedly-ruined posterior?

Compare her to the more-recent Juliet Starling. She’s sexualized as well, and while it’s hard to crown her as a brilliant achievement in gaming (or even a successful character, thanks to that pesky “opinion” gamers have) she’s leagues ahead of Shahdee. Does she have a big effect on the plot? I should think so, given how she’s the star of the game. The role she takes couldn’t have been played by anyone else -- and hat goes double for the things she says. Her personality shows shades of bubbly optimism, murderous intent, disregard for her boyfriend’s feelings, love for her boyfriend (and family), and outside of maybe one or two scenes complete confidence in her handle on the situation. We learned that even if she is insane -- or at least severely disturbed -- she’s still a good, earnest zombie hunter at heart. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I had a good impression of Juliet from start to finish, and only came to enjoy her more as the game went on. This, in spite of several hundred panty shots; her beauty was an aspect of her character that wasn't shied away from, and arguably added more to her and the overall tone of the game.

I’m not about to say that writing a mysterious and elusive “strong female character” is easy -- but then again, writing ANY good character is never easy. It takes work, and reasoning, and planning, and an understanding of your character on an intimate level…and of course, you have to try.

And you know what? I honestly believe that Dead or Alive can make the leap with ease -- if only they’re willing to try.

“What, are you kidding me?” you yell, thinking about throttling your computer for the chance to try and strangle me. “You really think the guys that pioneered asynchronous breast physics care at all about giving their ladies depth? Especially for a fighting game? And you really think the company can handle it when their best story was Ninja Gaiden 3?” To that I say…yes, that’s a good point. Dead or Alive has no right to be good given previous efforts. And with DOA5 barely a month away from landing in gamers’ hands, I’d say the time to start hoping for a revelation had best wait for DOA6. So will we have a chance to see what makes Lei Fang tick? Probably not, and not for a while. Will we dissect the process that turned scientist Lisa Hamilton into luchador La Mariposa? Doubtful. Will we get anything that elevates DOA to a more respectable level on an intellectual level, or is the mere thought laughable -- and the series, in spite of being infamously button-mashy, tries to prove itself as a more sophisticated fighter? As they say, the more things change, the more things stay the same…and that’ll likely be the case with this new game.

But with all that said, and with all the disdain the franchise earns and deserves (I’m still baffled by Kasumi’s DOA4 ending that takes her from fighting a clone of herself in the baddies’ lab to dream where she’s a singing topless mermaid), I still see potential in the franchise. This should be no surprise, given that I’m the “Eternal Optimist.”

Hear me out on this. What other franchise puts a bevy of varied beauties on the center stage, rather than support (or damsels) for the men? What other franchise gives them backstories that lead to interpersonal relationships and traceable motivations? What other franchise gives the impression that it has a deep, meaningful story that focuses on their tribulations? Even if you’ve only played one game in the series -- or not even that -- all it takes is a cursory glance at the wiki to realize that there’s something there.

So what’s the end goal here? The same thing every game aspires to: it should make you BE the character. The divide between the player and the player character has to shorten, and maybe even disappear entirely. DOA stumbles in the sense that it revels in reminding you that you aren’t your lady of choice; you aren’t Hitomi, you’re looking at Hitomi. It’s better when you get into the actual fighting, but there’s still a gap. You could successfully argue that’s the case with ALL fighting games (regardless of the character’s gender), but it’s still one that’s notable in this franchise: you’re playing as Ayane, but you aren’t really Ayane. It’s a double-headed alienation.

So how is anyone supposed to fix it? One obvious answer would be to “tone down the fanservice,” which is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that it’s the clearest way to cut down the cynicism, create more player-character synergy, and get some much-needed legitimacy (I’d wager that “she kicks high” is still a memorable slogan). But it’s an approach that’s not without flaws. Reducing the bust sizes can come off as a sloppy shortcut -- “They’re not as busty, so now they’re good, respectable characters” is a fallacy. There’s a risk of betraying the expectations of fans that’ve come to accept and even ignore the fanservice. Assuming that the sexy looks are the only problem and tending to that alone means that other problems can still slip through the cracks. And of course, you can’t have your cake and eat it alongside nubile young women in bunny ears and swimsuits.

What to do, then? Well, I think IGN put it best: “Anyone who says that the face of Dead or Alive is anything besides a set of hooters is just kidding themselves.” As problematic as DOA’s design philosophy may be, it’s an inherent part of the franchise -- and at a base level, there’s nothing wrong with that. Creative liberties, artistic expression, and the like are all conscious motions by the developers. The problem comes when that’s the ONLY aspect of the characters. People will call you out for filling up the cast with super-duper-sexy girls when they are nothing BUT super-duper-sexy girls. And therein lays the solution: given them more than just good looks, and you’ve got yourself a shot at making a case for your game.

Have another look at the wiki. Click on one of the girls’ pages at random. For argument’s sake, let’s focus on one of my favorite characters, Tina (because, of course, RASSLIN’!). There’s actually a fair bit to her personality, backstory, and past events in the canon, more so than her “award” as G4’s Video Game Vixen of the Year would suggest. She has dreams of becoming a big star in one form or another -- ironically, in anything BUT wrestling. She’s got a rivalry with her dad, an established “king of the ring” as well as a member of the “brains > brawn” camp, Lei Fang. She is…well, very confident in her abilities. Among other things.

The framework is all there. Someone just needs to take it a step further. And I think I know just how to do it.

1) A short-but-dedicated Story Mode path for each character.

If the recent successes of BlazBlue, Persona 4 Arena, and Mortal Kombat 9 have taught us anything, it’s that there doesn’t have to be a divorce between telling a competent story and building a good fighting game (take notes, Capcom). Putting in time to give players a chance to explore both the canon and its characters is a venture that takes effort, but gives its own rewards. If DOA is really about to plunge into “fighting entertainment” with its cinematic battles, then wouldn’t it make sense to add a story mode that at least tries to string together a narrative?

This could be the evolution that all the characters -- not just the ladies -- need. Going back to Tina, there are at least three games where her story arc is as follows: Tina wants to be a (insert high-publicity job here). But Bass and/or (insert rival here, if applicable) won’t let her have her way. So Tina enters the Nth (insert shady, unscrupulously-backed tournament here). She fights (insert rival here) and wins. And with that, she goes on to become (insert high-publicity job here). If she succeeds and becomes famous once, that should be it. She should already earn public attention; she doesn’t need to enter a tournament multiple times for permission to become a rock star or actress. The problem here is that Team Ninja isn’t willing to give their characters the time of day to develop or move out of their ruts. And it’s more than possible to do so. Give them -- Tina or otherwise -- something new. Give them a connection to the main plot, but a side story that lets them go on their own separate journeys.

2) A glimpse at the inner workings of the characters’ minds.

If there’s one thing I like about Persona 4 Arena -- you know, besides everything else -- it’s that it gives us players a chance to see inside the minds of everyone’s favorite investigation team. It’s one thing to play as a silent protagonist and hang out with your teammates, but it’s another to hear their inner thoughts and see their daily lives. What are they up to? What makes them tick? What kind of problems do they face, and how do they go about solving them? Admittedly, P4A has a problem with showing TOO much and dragging its feet when it comes to plot progression, but there is still a lot to love -- and a lot that DOA can learn from it.

I’m just going to throw this out there: the women of DOA are sexy by nature. Do they succeed at it all the time? No, of course not. Maybe it’s because of personal preferences, like thinking that purple hair is repulsive. Maybe it’s just revulsion by exaggerated, flawless features (and the physics therein). I personally have a problem with the faces in the game; in DOA4 there was something unnervingly creepy about them, even with my acceptance of anime-style sensibilities, and in DOA5 there’s still something off-putting about them. Whatever. What’s important is that they were made to convey information to us gamers at a glance -- and because of it, all of them (even the men, arguably) are sexy. But I want to see their thought processes. What’s the mentality of someone like Tina, who’s likely proud of her body? What about Kokoro, the would-be-geisha? I’m not suggesting that she should just have boobs on the brain throughout her story; I want to know more about her, through her eyes. What’s her life like? What’s it like being a geisha? Does she enjoy it?

I ask these questions because I actually know a male model, and he once wrote a brief story with a few particulars about his life for class. Everyone agreed it was not only a good story, but an interesting one by design; it’s a perspective we never get to see, or even think about. Why can’t we have some of that in the series?

3) Focus on creating a bond between the player and character…by way of focus.

I like Tina, but Eliot’s my favorite character and main. He’s got an interesting fighting style, he’s got a simple yet satisfying personality, and he’s not a ninja (fun fact: I hate ninjas). But his ending in his debut game, DOA4, is enough to give me hope for the canon and its masterminds. Even though there are only a couple of scenes in his “story mode” just like everyone else’s, there’s enough for someone to latch onto. He’s concerned that he can’t follow his master’s standards in pedigree, and worries that he’s not a worthy successor -- and why Gen Fu even picked him in the first place. But after besting his master, Eliot ends up taking a step forward in his life…in more ways than one. Even if a DOA game opts for a story path you can finish before your ramen’s done heating up, I’ll accept it if it’s full of poignant, meaningful moments. Eliot’s story chronicles his growth as a martial artist, from start to finish; his story ends with him figuratively becoming -- maybe even surpassing -- Gen Fu.

Lei Fang’s story ends with her getting groped. Hitomi’s story has her getting ready for her day as sexily as possible. Christie’s story ends has her grinding against a pole -- whoops, I mean assassinating someone…while masquerading as a stripper. Yep.

Is it so wrong of me to want a little consistency here? I know DOA is all about the sex appeal, but I don’t think I’m being that unreasonable. There ARE threads to follow. There ARE ideas being put on display here. There ARE chances to make the ladies more than just the stuff of hug pillows and oppai mouse pads. The problem is that the developers are too eager to throw all their goodwill and thoughtfulness out the window for a chance at more titillation. Lei Fang wanted to prove herself to Jann Lee. She does. What happens next? We’ll never know, because it’s gropin’ time. Hitomi wants to save her father’s dojo, but gets into fights over cabbage and T-rexes…and we never DO learn how things turned out with the dojo. (This is especially baffling in light of her DOA3 ending, where we see how much the dojo and her father meant to her.) Kasumi has the mermaid dream, Christie puts on an unflattering costume, La Mariposa…wrestles some more…the moments of focus and insight are few and far between for reasons that only the girls’ surgery consultants know.

In DOA4’s defense, not all the endings lead to big lipped alligator moments. Even though Tina’s story is straightforward and more than a little shallow, at least it comes to a conclusion. She wants to be a rock star. So what’s her ending? She’s a rock star -- a skateboarding, city-leveling rock star. She has a goal, and she reaches it. Her motivation has led to a successful venture; because of that, even if it is shallow, at least we know it wasn’t a waste of time. She had a focus, and because of it, WE had a focus. Her goal is our goal, and her quest is our quest. If it’s completed, we’re satisfied. If it’s not, we’re disconnected from the character. If we’re allowed to follow the journey from start to finish, we’re more likely to insert ourselves into it, and want to become a superstar just as much as the southern belle brawler. If we’re thrown about from one silly sequence to the next, we aren’t allowed to believe any of the sequences have any impact or legitimacy -- and thus, we’re led to believe that the character we’re playing as really is nothing more than fighting fertility goddesses. (Actually, fighting fertility goddesses would make a pretty cool game…somebody should Kickstart that.)

All right, here’s the thing. I know that wishing for DOA to be something it isn’t (or may never be) comes with more than a little futility. Likewise, I don’t think the franchise is inherently awful or abhorrent, and needs to be remedied for the sake of keeping our impressionable minds pure. I know there are people who don’t have a problem with DOA, and rightly so; in spite of my ranting, I accept the franchise for what it is: a fun, if shallow and unambitious fighting game that rightly deserves whatever ire it receives. That’s fine. I get that. But do we have to accept something just because it’s not a complete affront to our senses? Is it okay to give a company a free pass just because “no one cares about the story” or “it’s just fanservice”? In a word, no. In two words, hell no. Even if one’s lofty aspirations never come to pass, they can still voice their opinions and suggestions, especially if it’s for the sake of helping someone improve themselves and their work -- doubly so if the company itself wants to improve. Even if we aren’t technically in power, it’s a gamer’s duty to rationally and intelligently offer their thoughts whenever and wherever needed. We’re the unseen support of the industry, helping to maintain its shape and keep it perky, and doing whatever we can to keep the industry from growing lax and saggy and WOW there are a lot of breast references in this post.

My ultimate point is this: DOA has sexy ladies. That’s fine. We can play as sexy ladies. Also fine, more or less. But one day, someday, we’ll reach a point where games -- DOA or otherwise -- have evolved thanks to enlightened design, dissection, and discussion. And when that day arrives, we’ll all be better off. Because at long last, I’ll finally be beautiful.

When’s that day coming? No clue. I mean, who knows? Maybe DOA5 will give me the story I want. And if that’s the case, I’m considering eating my own afro for my impertinence.

…Okay, not really. I like my hair as-is…which is to say, on my head and NOT in my stomach.

- Thanks for reading! And remember -- if you want to see more content from me, anytime, anywhere, be sure to check out my blog. Give it a read, so we can all become heroes! http://cross-up.blogspot.com/

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About Voltechone 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.

Be a hero. Check 'em out.

Cross-Up -- head here for posts on games, movies, and more
My Troper profile
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I Hraet You -- the over-the-top web serial novel...of love, maybe