The Impossibility of Satirizing Game Art [NSFW!]

Those of you who follow my art blog over on Tumblr will already know that I’ve been working on publishing a new tabletop game, a satire hack of Dungeon World that I’m calling SexyTime Adventures – meant to parody all of the awful sexism that gets included in just about every fantasy dungeoneering game ever[1]. For instance, here is my description of the Cleric:

Others may be ambivalent in their faith, worshipping whichever god in the pantheon most serves their needs in the moment. Some have no faith at all, citing the existence of monsters, demons, and war as proof that there are no gods. But you, you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is a god, and that god has touched you deep in your soul. Your bosomy, voluptuous soul.

You have been called to bring faith to a faithless world, to smash down the unrighteous and stand triumphantly over them without any pants on. For pants are the work of the devil. So sayeth the lord.

(You can find plenty more previews of the game text here.)

Satire is always challenging. No matter how hard you work, how carefully you craft it, how blindingly obvious you think it is that no one would ever actually say or think this, someone (or multiple someones) will always think that you’re being serious. Always. It’s one of the sad, immutable truths of satire. But that’s not to say that satire isn’t worth doing. Shows like The Daily Show and the Colbert Report illustrate the continuing relevance of satire as an important form of social commentary.

And honestly? Satire can be so much fun. Everything that’s in SexyTime Adventures makes me giggle. I especially had a blast with names for character abilities – “The Male Gaze”, “I Said Lesbians”, and “Which Way to the Beach?” are just a few of my favorites.

But then there’s the problem of art.

Any decent tabletop product has to have art. It’s something that people expect to get when they pay for a new game or setting book or supplement. And to be fair, a weighty tome of dry rules with no art would be a pretty unappealing product. But the problem of SexyTime Adventures that plagued me was the art. The text has been finalized for months now, but I hadn’t made any headway on finishing it because the question of how to tackle illustrations had me completely stumped. How the hell do you satirize something that is already its own satire?

My first attempt: well-meaning, but a dismal failure

Eventually I made myself a checklist of terrible things that I wanted to hit in each illustration and went to work. As it turns out, given that I actually have an education in anatomy, I wound up referring to Escher Girls as a reference in how to “correctly” break anatomy. Because honestly, getting it as wrong as some professional game illustrators get it on a consistent basis is, um, HARD. Really, really hard.

The problem was that when I looked at the finished products, they made me… uncomfortable. Despite the skull-sized anti-gravity basketball breasts, the broken spines, the stick arms, and the anatomically impossible poses – the art that I’d made still looked too… believable.

This was supposed to be satire. It failed.

These were meant to be illustrations for the Amazon and the Thief.

While I was doing the initial pencils, I was giggling to myself because it all seemed so ridiculous. Look at her waist! And the ridiculous breasts! No one could fire a bow like that! No one can possibly ever take this seriously! But the finished product wound up being completely indistinguishable from the real thing!

BIKINI. LUCHADOR. WTF.

Illustrations taken from Dragon Magazine – an official D&D publication.

And therein lies the problem. The games industry is so tragically, deeply invested in its bullshit sexism that it is practically impossible to out-ridiculous anything that has already been published. How can I possibly make art more ridiculous than a magic-sword-wielding bikini luchador? I CAN’T. I JUST CAN’T.

Because the important thing to remember about satire is this: what makes something successful satire is how it is viewed by the audience, not what the author or creator’s intentions behind the creation were. When you create art, you don’t get to tell people how they will respond to it. They bring their own feelings and experiences to the table, and the best intentions in the world won’t make offensive art any less offensive. And of course, that’s the trap that so many artists and creators fall into. YOU CAN’T GET MAD BECAUSE I DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY.

INTENT. IT'S FUCKING MAGIC.

Unsure of original source, image found here (tumblr sucks at attribution, sorry)

Sorry, folks. Artistic intent just doesn’t work that way.

At the end of it, I had a set of illustrations that I’d worked rather hard on that I couldn’t use because they didn’t read as satire, which sucked because that was the point of the whole damn exercise. So I figured a second attempt was warranted.

Attempt number two: satire achieved!

When I started drawing a second set of illustrations, I recycled poses from the first set. But this time around I threw out any pretense of anatomy. These weren’t human women I was drawing, but plasticine statues, twisted nearly beyond recognition. More importantly, I also changed the style. Instead of making my style more realistic, I deliberately went as cartoon-y as possible.

So much of the worst RPG art also has some of the most nicely rendered anatomical shading out there. Because even though the vast majority of pornified game women are not even remotely anatomically possible, the illusion of “realism” is important. Because sexy.

This time around, I was much, much happier with the results:

So sexay.

New illustrations for the Thief, Amazon, and Druid.

I think the tipping point (for me anyhow) are the ridiculous expressions, especially paired with the cartoon-y style. But even then, I didn’t know that I’d feel comfortable publishing something with just these depictions of women and nothing more. I needed something that would be an equally ridiculous treatment of male stereotypes in gaming…

Such masculine. Very muscles. Wow.

Illustration for The Dude. This is my fucking magnum opus.

The key to successful satire of awful stereotypes is context. And what could provide a better satirical context than a muscle-y Conan-type hero literally festooned in beautiful women? Especially women who don’t mind Conan stabbing them in the boob, or stepping on their head?

Lesson Learned: Satire takes work, it doesn’t just happen

So many times, game creators use offensive humor in their work, and then hide behind the defense of satire, because some people think “it was just a joke” gives you an automatic pass. All too often, people think that ironic sexism (I know that you know that I know I’m being sexist, therefore it’s funny!) is automatically satire because it’s ironic. But the problem that ironic sexism (or racism, or whatever) is still sexist because it does nothing to actually challenge sexism. In the end, ironic sexism and “actual” sexism have the same result, because both only serve to perpetuate a harmful cultural narrative.

By the same token, satire is only successful when deliberate thought and effort go into deconstructing the thing you are attempting to satirize. And even with thought and effort, it’s possible to fall short if you don’t find a way to make your work obviously distinct from the thing that you’re satirizing.

And now for something humorous

Just so I don’t end on a ponderous, pontificating note (I do hate doing that), here’s the first few paragraphs of the introduction to SexyTime Adventures. Enjoy!

The land of Sexonia is a dangerous place, a land of fantasy and adventure beyond your wildest imaginings. Maybe you got into adventuring because your village was destroyed by orcs, or to prevent fire elementals from taking over your kingdom, or maybe just because it was better than staying at home and settling down with that nice boy that your parents wanted you to marry. Whatever the reason, you can’t go home now. The kingdom needs you. And more importantly, that chain mail makes you look totally hot. Are you seeing anyone right now? Could I maybe buy you an ale some time?

…ahem.

Who can say what dangers you might face? What’s important is that you pick up your sword and set out to defend what’s important to you and yours while also looking sexy, because it’s important to always put your best foot forward, am I right? And because the world is a scary place, who better to go adventuring with than some of your closest (and hottest) friends? And if maybe some night you find yourself camped on a glacier with no fire wood and you have to cuddle together in one sleeping bag with no clothes on…

…I’m sorry, where was I?

Adventure! Danger! Sexy outfits! Come, fellow adventurers. It’s sexytime.

[1] I wrote this game entirely for my own amusement, but I admit it will be nice to have something to throw in dudebros’ faces when they get all angry and tell me to MAKE UR OWN GAME THEN. Make my own game, you say? Well! I already did!

About wundergeek
In addition to being a cranky feminist blogger, I am an artist, photographer, and somewhat half-assed writer living in the wilds of Canada with a wonderful spouse and two slightly broken cats.

2 Responses to The Impossibility of Satirizing Game Art [NSFW!]

  1. arti says:

    I think the satire will be complete with the addition of googly eyes for each character.

    • wundergeek says:

      I tried something similar, actually, but it looked kind of weird – like they were in distress. Since that wasn’t what I was going for, I settled for duck lips and closed eyes.

      If I was publishing a dead-tree edition, I’d consider trying to get plastic googly eyes to stick into the book. But alas! I’m releasing it as a PDF only.

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