So, if you’ve been on the internet recently, you’ve probably heard some of the controversy surrounding certain design choices made regarding the soon-to-be-released 2d fantasy action RPG from Vanillaware entitled Dragon’s Crown. And for those precious few of you that have only just recently returned from whatever magical kingdom you got drawn into and were forced to save with the power of friendship, let me acquaint you with the design decisions in question:
NSFW, I guess, or something.
Art Director George Kamitami, in a statement released long after the internet hordes had bared their teeth and set fire to all of the things, explained that his intent with the design of Sorceress and Amazon, two of six playable classes within the game (and two of three of the available female options), was to “exaggerate all of my character designs in a cartoonish fashion (so that they would) stand out amongst the many fantasy designs already in the video game/comic/movie/etc. space.” Which is an entirely reasonable justification for his decisions. Kamitami seems, on a whole, to be a pretty reasonable and intelligent individual, barring a casually homophobic joke or two. On the other side, Kamitami’s detractors have called the designs off-putting at best, and sexist at worst. And it’s not hard to see why.
For the record, before I go about getting to the point of why I’m writing this piece (and there is a point, I promise), I feel like I should clarify on my own position, regarding Kamitami’s art. I’ve loved Vanillaware’s games, Kamitami’s work in particular, in games before. Odin Sphere was jaw-dropping. Muramasa was gorgeous. And much of the art in Dragon’s Crown is equally stunning. But I have to admit – I do find some of the designs on the playable characters to be unsettling. They remind me of humanoid figures sculpted out of Play-Doh – all lumpy and wrongly proportioned. The emphasized characteristics are so emphasized as to be grotesque. And before you say it, let me clarify – I’m referring to male and female characters both.
A little while ago, as part of my series on gay portrayals on the community blogs for Destructoid, I wrote a post lamenting the fact that developers seem all too content to provide plenty of reasoning and justification for who the player character might kill or wish to kill, but very rarely seem interested in actually providing reasoning or justification for whom the player might love. Gaming protagonists commit murder for reasons reaching from self-defense, to bloodlust, to revenge. They can be conflicted or gleeful in the violence they commit. But if the playable character has a love interest, it’s usually brushed away with “they are your love interest. You love them. Now save them from a monster or something, shit.” If the game includes some sort of romance mechanic, wherein the player chooses someone to love, the means of courtship and bonding will rarely extend beyond “buy them gifts and maybe let them follow you around if you want.” It invariably feels weightless, pointless, tacked on – which is a shame, as who we love and why tends to be such a large part of human identity. Not just that, but a lackluster romance system can negatively impact the way we view the rest of the story, our characters, or their place within it. Which brings me to the subject of Dragon’s Dogma.
In honor of the release of Dark Arisen, I’d like to share a story with all of you. A story about how half-assed game mechanics lead to the creation of something terrible. A cautionary tale about how freedom of romantic choice, without any substance to back up that freedom, made me into a monster. The story of how Dragon’s Dogma turned me into a pedophile.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that those of you reading, by and large, appreciate when a title has “something to say.” It may not be a necessity, or even something you think about incredibly often, but when a game deftly and artfully addresses a contemporary social issue (or issues), it can add an extra bit of weight or artistic clout to a game that might have lacked it before. Beyond Good and Evil emphasized freedom of expression and of the press, what kind of power those freedoms can wield, and the consequences when they’re taken away. Spec Ops: The Line addressed the tolls that “wartime ethics” can take on a human soul. When a game does social commentary well, it can be intensely rewarding. When it does not, it can drag down the whole experience into a preachy, incoherent mess.
“Capturing animals and forcing them to fight for you is wrong, except it’s not because actually they love it.”
For the most part, this is something that triple-A titles tend to try and avoid, in favor of addressing the very pressing “should I shoot this zombie/foreigner/foreign zombie with a pistol or a shotgun?” dilemma. And while there seems to be a trend in the industry right now towards slightly deeper, more mature, character-focused big budget games (Far Cry 3, Tomb Raider, Spec Ops: The Line), it’s still rare that we encounter a triple-A game with “something to say” that displays any measure of competence on the subject. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to find this content within one of the more obscure big-budget games released this season, a little title called Bioshock Infinite.