I’m not anti-sex, video games just suck at not failing at it

One of the charges that routinely gets hurled at me is that I’m a sex-hating prude that hates sex in games and thinks that people who put sex in games are just the worst. Which is pretty ludicrous, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit of dismissive criticism aside from “she’s crazy”, which means it’s something I hear a lot. For a lot of people, it’s easier to attack the messenger than it is to engage with the message, especially when the message is openly critical of something that you like.

However, it’s also true that about 99% of the things that I write here pertaining to sex and female sexuality as they are portrayed in video games are harshly critical. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since writing my last post, because Bayonetta is a character that you really can’t write about without examining how her sexuality is portrayed and how that portrayal is actively harmful.

Sex in videogames: seriously, why is it so bad?

The reality is that as a medium, video games are 10-15 years behind other art forms in their portrayal of female sexuality[1]. That’s not to say that the rest of art and pop culture get it right – there are still an awful lot of terrible things to be found in movies, comics, and television. But there are also a wealth of examples of non-video-game pop culture in which female sexuality isn’t demonized, punished, or objectified[2].

As for video games…? Even after wracking my brains, I was only able to come up with a handful of games with totally positive portrayals of female sexuality, and even then half of those had caveats:

good_depictions

Although romance has been a staple of the Final Fantasy series, it’s been pretty much void of sex, with the exception of that not-a-sex-scene-that’s-still-totally-a-sex-scene in FFX. Which is a shame, because as much as Squeenix fails at costume design, their writers are really top notch at writing believable female characters who are a mix of strong and vulnerable and everything in between. And despite the fact that they didn’t technically have sex, I thought X’s not-a-sex-scene was a really touching portrayal of Yuna and Tidus allowing themselves to be mutually vulnerable to each other. (And you will never convince me that they weren’t totally having sex offscreen and that the music montage was just some epic afterglow.)

BioWare is a better example in that its sex scenes are actually sex scenes, although this hasn’t always been the case. While Dragon Age: Origins takes the cake for the BioWare romance I found most compelling (I know he’s not to everyone’s taste, but my female warden fell for Alistair so frigging hard), the fact that the designers chickened out and rendered all of the sex scenes with characters in their underwear really bugged me. It actually felt more objectifying than the Mass Effect series’ sex scenes, which were underwear free, just because at least Mass Effect wasn’t specifically calling attention to people’s junk.

Still, ridiculous underwear aside, BioWare has done really well in their portrayals of female sexuality. There are women who are lesbians, bisexual, hetero, and cheerfully ambiguous. They have women who just want casual sex, women who are after romance, and women who aren’t really sure what they want. And none of these women are presented as wrong, or as being punished for their sexuality. Even better, there’s no difference between how sex scenes are handled between FemShep and BroShep. No matter who you play, there’s real tenderness there.

And sure, there are missteps. Like Morrigan’s blatant and stereotypical sexuality, or Jack with her ridiculous nipple straps and her MaleShep romance option of fixing her with sex, which I just find really terrible. (Seriously, feminists get told all the damn time that what we need to “fix” us is a good dicking, so I find that trope particularly offensive.)

But beyond Final Fantasy and recent BioWare titles, I was stuck. An informal straw poll on Google+ yielded a few more like Saint’s Row IV (which I haven’t played) – a notable example that was put forth by several people. (I’ll admit to being surprised.) Gone Home also came up, as did The Sims[3]. ..aaaand that was about all any of us could come up with. Sadly, it seems AAA game studios (that aren’t BioWare) simply don’t have a clue how to write sexual content that doesn’t exist to solely to objectify female characters.

Not that that should come as a surprise. 88 percent of game industry devs are male, and it’s been well documented that harassment for women in the industry is pretty much a given. (Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, Elizabeth Shoemaker-Sampat, Jennifer Hepler, Jade Raymond… the list is very long and very depressing.) Much as we think of games as an interactive medium, interactions have to be programmed. Every interaction has to be scripted and its potential outcomes defined, and the people doing that programming are largely white and male – and all of that is happening in an environment steeped in misogyny and brogramming culture.

Is it any wonder, then, that AAA games nearly always fail to deliver genuine portrayals of female sexuality? How can they, when the few women in the industry can’t effectively advocate for themselves, let alone for a fictional female character? So when AAA game studios try to include honest portrayals of female sexuality, the result is nearly always something like this:

So_romantic

Oof. Right in the feels.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this way.

Sex in tabletop game design: an example to be emulated [4]

The conversation about how to handle sex at the table is hardly a new one in tabletop land. Of course, being a different medium, that conversation has resulted in different tools. Some of those tools can best be described as “safety nets” – tools to help people feel safe in playing through content that makes them vulnerable. I’m only going to mention those tangentially as a separate conversation worth being aware of; though if you’re not familiar with lines and veils  and the X-Card, you should definitely read up on them.

What I find more interesting, however – at least for the purposes of this conversation – is the different mechanical approaches that varying designers have taken to solving this problem of how to address sex in a mechanical way in ways that feel meaningful, without resorting to cheap stereotypes. While this is far from an exhaustive catalog of games worth considering, here are some games that explicitly include sex mechanics I have played and enjoyed:

1) Kagematsu – a game in which the sole male character (a ronin) is played by a woman, and all of the other characters are trying to seduce him with the purpose of convincing him to stay and protect their village. In playing this, I loved how it greatly inverted players’ default point of view.

2) Apocalypse World focuses on the consequences that result from sex, with custom sex moves that only take effect after characters have sex, and with varying results, depending on just who it is that’s doing it. (And let me tell you, things get real interesting when it’s two PCs having sex.)

3) Much to my regret, I have yet to play Monsterhearts as anything other than a convention game. Still, Monsterhearts is a fantastic game for exploring themes of emerging sexuality – queer or otherwise – and the confusion that this can cause. As an Apocalypse World derivative, Monsterhearts has sex moves. However, it’s worth noting that a Monsterhearts-specific move lets all PCs make rolls to turn someone on – the person targeted is either turned on or not as determined by the dice.

Of course, the main thing that all of these systems have in common is that these are systems that aren’t exclusively engineered to model violence. Violence is definitely a large part of Apocalypse World, because hey – apocalypse. But Apocalypse World is also designed to model relationships, sex, fucking, psychic horror, and general social dysfunction. Monsterhearts does include harm (damage), but that’s far less central to the system than the mechanics modeling relationships, obligation, arousal, and sex. And Kagematsu doesn’t even have any violence mechanics at all! Kagematsu’s rules focus on modeling affection versus desperation, and about the most violent thing that players can choose to do mechanically is slap Kagematsu – which doesn’t leave any lasting effect, aside from the effect on what he thinks of you.

These sorts of mechanics lead to sex that feels messy and vulnerable and real. Sex that can feel fun or fraught; romantic or deeply unhealthy or even both; complicated and wonderful and meaningful. And the mechanics drive that story!

The best example I have witnessed of this is actually something that just happened in an Apocalypse World campaign that I’m part of. My character and another PC had been “circling the drain” (as I had previously described our relationship), with sex as an almost-inevitable conclusion that we somehow hadn’t managed until the end of our most recent session. And when it did finally happen, I was so very excited because of this little rule on my character sheet:

quarantine
For those of you familiar with AW, it was my Quarantine and the Hocus. Yes it was just as messed up as it sounds.

And let me tell you, knowing that this was a move that was going to come into play, the rest of the players were super invested in the scene! There wasn’t any phone-checking or side conversations, because the Quarantine sex move is so goddamn sweet in a post-apocalyptic world composed almost entirely of awfulness! Which is how this happened:

loved-oh-snap

And then the rest of the scene happened, and it was great and we moved on with our lives. It wasn’t until later that it really struck me that people had reacted as if we were playing D&D and I’d just rolled a one-shot on a dragon, which just goes to show why I love Apocalypse World so very much. It is absolutely possible to get player investment and excitement in things other than death and violence!

The problem is that the complete lack of these sorts of mechanics is where the majority of video games run into problems. The majority of AAA video games are violence simulators, with a couple other sub-systems thrown in. And that’s not to decry their worth as games – I’ll admit that I find using Adrenaline’s slow-mo effect in Mass Effect to line up a sniper rifle shot through an eye-slit in a riot shield immensely satisfying! But when 90% or more of a game’s mechanics revolve around various flavors of how to kill things, it shouldn’t be surprising that portrayals of female sexuality wind up as hollow retreads of awful sexist stereotypes.

Even BioWare games, which I feel generally handle female sexuality pretty well, rely on an incredibly shallow sub-system slapped on top of their violence simulator. If you do things a, b, and c and say things x, y, and z – you can accumulate enough points sleep with a woman, so long as the option has been programmed to allow you to do so. Their very sophisticated script-writing obscures the fact that the only design that has gone into modeling character relationships is a simple system of one-time bonuses and penalties, hidden behind pretty graphics and clever dialogue.

And as a game designer, I just feel like we can do so much better! Yes video games are a different medium with different constraints than tabletop. But tabletop designers have been learning from video game design for years. Maybe it’s time for video game devs to start looking at tabletop systems for solutions to the problem of how to use mechanical systems to drive satisfying stories about sex and relationships.

Sadly, until that happens I think the best we can expect is a thin veneer of romance on top of games about killing things and taking their stuff.

[1] Worth noting, that I’m almost exclusively writing about cisgender female sexuality here, simply because of the dearth of examples available to me.

[2] Granted, those examples are almost always indie-affiliated. But that’s a different conundrum.

[3] Which I wouldn’t have thought of, since the Sims don’t have any character beyond what the player constructs for them. But at the same time, any punishment of female Sims for having sex comes entirely from the player and not from the game. And given that having recreational sex is an entirely different option from having procreative sex, the mechanics are pretty darn feminist.

[4] I’m going to speak specifically about indie tabletop design, mostly because that’s the type of game that I play and the type of games that my friends design. That’s not to say that there aren’t games outside of Indie Tabletop Land that might not also provide positive examples.

Thoughts on Lightning Returns and cultural appropriation [SPOILERS]

[NOTE: I’m just about to finish Day 10, so please no spoilers on things that come after that.]

I was having a conversation with my husband the other night about cultural appropriation and Lightning Returns, in which I had occasion to make the following comparison: “It’s like an Evangelical white Texan decided to write a game about Hinduism. That’s how wrong it gets everything.”

And I’d really like to expand on that! But before we go any further, let’s break down the specific example I’m talking about.

Lightning Returns: the most bonkers take on Catholicism ever

So firstly, let’s just get started with the fact that in 13-1, Lightning becomes the pawn of the fal’cie, nigh-omnipotent servants of an omnipotent but mostly absent god who created the world and then abandoned it. She then spends the entire game fighting against entities that are roughly analogous to archangels, and soundly kicks their asses. And somewhere in there she somehow befriends Odin and he becomes her beating-things-up buddy, because, I dunno, I guess he just really likes that her name is Lightning?

Then in 13-2, she’s suddenly abducted by a goddess of Death-but-not-really(?) and turned into a valkyrie. And now in 13-3, she’s back working for God again, and she is literally the savior. As in, that is her title now – Savior Comma The[1].

So now 13-3, Lightning Returns, stars Lightning, The Savior, chosen of God – Bhunivelze the Lord of Light, who apparently decided that priestly robes were passe and that Lightning should have priestly bondage wear instead.

Lightning_LR_screenshot
Fetish messiah ftw

And then there’s a bunch of stuff about the end of the world because it’s Squeenix and let’s just cut to the fact that “God’s” base of operations is The Ark, which looks like a fevered acid-trip conjured by the love child of a Futurist and an Art Nouveau aficionado. And that weird tree there? Oh, don’t mind that, that’s just The Tree of Life, AKA Yggdrasil, AKA the World Tree of Norse mythology:

Ark_screenshot

Why is Yggdrasil a plot point in a game that is literally about making Lightning the Christian Bondage Wear Messiah? Let’s not worry about that, okay? Let’s also not worry about that in 13-3, Lightning saves a white chocobo named The Angel of Valhalla, who was really – surprise! – Odin all along! Only Odin is a giant white chicken now, because reasons. And Odin, Valhalla, and Yggdrasil… well Norse culture only predates Christianity by, like, a couple centuries, and Scandinavia is, like, in the same hemisphere and Norse people and Christians are both white, or you know, mostly white, or okay there are non-white Christians but we just won’t pay attention to them because that’s not important.

REASONS.

So, okay, Lightning the Bondage Messiah has been chosen by God to save the souls of as many people as she can before the end of the world so that they can live again in the new world that God is going to create. And no, none of that sentence was in any way a metaphor, because here is Lightning doing some sweet, sweet, soul saving:

saving souls

Oh, and then there’s the official church of God, who are, like, God’s official homies. Only they’re called “The Order”, and they are totes Catholic because seriously check out this badass Cathedral:

photo 2 - Copy

But even though the Order are God’s official homies, they’re also preparing to fuck up God’s shit by doing a ritual to destroy all of the dead souls still hanging around and shit, which would ruin God’s promise to bring back Lightning’s dead sister after she helps him save the world and stuff. Because holding family members hostage is something that totally happened, like for real the New Testament was full of DO WHAT I SAY JESUS OR I WILL FUCKING SHIV MARY SERIOUSLY DO NOT FUCK WITH ME JESUS.

Oh, and even though I haven’t finished the game, I know for realz that Lightning is going to wind up beating up and maybe killing God because Squeenix is telegraphing it so hard, which is also legit Christian, because don’t you remember that time that Jesus and God had that throwdown in the Octagon?

Jesus confirms that is totally what happened.

…I think you probably get the idea by now.

So what does this have to do with cultural appropriation?

What exactly does and does not count as cultural appropriation is always tricky to pin down. Myself, I would say that although Lightning Returns is a bizarre and misinterpretation of Catholic Christianity, I would not call it cultural appropriation, simply because of the context of the two cultures in question. While Japan did not suffer as many ill effects of Western colonial oppression as other Asian countries, it still left an indelible mark on Japanese society. And in general, it is certainly true that Christianity was often a tool of colonial oppression.

And yes Japan does have a history of colonialism itself, and yes it does have a problem with racism against non-Yamato-Japanese. But Japan has never colonized the West, nor has it attempted to forcibly convert Western people or otherwise destroy Western religion. And bizarrely-worded t-shirts aside, it certainly doesn’t have a history of selling misrepresentations of Western religion and culture for profit in such a way that would comprise a threat to the integrity of said religion and culture.

So while Lightning Returns is a deeply weird take on Christianity that some might find offensive (I don’t, but I could understand people who do), I don’t think it’s fair to call it cultural appropriation.

So why go on at such length? Because I think the close-but-not-quite nature of Lightning Returns makes it a useful illustration of what cultural appropriation looks like for people who might not be accustomed to looking out for such things.

There are, unfortunately, a lot of game writers out there who see nothing wrong with raiding non-European cultures for game fodder. Because these cultures are often seen as “inspiration” and not as cultures that belong to real, living people, the result can be big, dumb pastiches of stereotypes and misinterpretations that read as bizarre at best to members of that culture. And because the majority of game developers are still, sadly, white, it only perpetuates the cultural trend of white people commodifying and profiting from the cultures of groups that they themselves have historically victimized.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about writing a game about or set in a culture that you are not a part of. I’m a firm believer in promoting the stories of marginalized groups of people! Hell, I wrote a game set in the Reconquista specifically because I was bothered by the erasure of PoC from European history. But it is wrong to write a game about a culture that isn’t yours if you don’t treat it as something worthy of respect.

Which is where we come back to Lightning Returns as a useful example of What Not To Do!

Looking at Lightning Returns, we have:

* Casual conflation of two distinct cultures from ethnically similar but distinct groups of people (Norse paganism =/ Christianity)

* Use of a cultural or religious symbols to argue for the destruction of that culture or religion (because come on, I don’t have to have finished the game to know that Lightning is going to try to kill God)

* Characters represented in such a way that would be offensive to a significant portion of the real-world members of that culture (Lightning’s bondage messiah gear)

* Representation of a religious figure/cultural hero as something antithetical to their traditional representation. (Jesus was a Jewish carpenter and prophet, not a pink-haired Japanese sword-wielding lady badass who beats up gods for fun.)

So, you know, if you’re struggling with the whole “how not to do cultural appropriation”, you can at least not do those things, which will be a start.

[1] Because a Buffy reference seemed appropriate.

[2] Only it’s Thor that’s the Norse Thunder God, not Odin, but let’s not get sidetracked…

 

Lightning Returns is fun, but who do I have to kill for a pair of pants? [MANY IMAGES]

[NOTE: SPOILERS for pretty much all of the FFXIII games. ALSO – I’m writing this post before I’ve actually finished playing Lightning Returns, so PLEASE don’t spoil anything past day 10. Thanks.]

I’ve been working my way (slowly) through Lightning Returns the last few months. Despite the railroad-y nature of FFXIII, I did enjoy the characters – especially Lightning, whom I’ve written about as being one of my favorite RPG characters ever. I enjoyed FFXIII-2 even more, as it combined solid writing with more non-linear play options, even if the ending was 100% full of shit.

Hope can’t fucking deal with how terrible the ending was.

Especially since Squeenix was coy for the first several months about whether there was going to be an FFXIII-3. Yup! We’ve killed a protagonist, destroyed time, and ended the entire universe. The end!

…sorry. Got a little sidetracked there.

Anyway, when I found out that XIII-3 was going to be a thing, I knew that I was going to have to play. It was going to mitigate XIII-2’s crappy ending! And even better, it was going to star Lightning!

And then I started hearing… things. About how the game was going to bring back dress-spheres, and how the development team wanted to implement jiggle physics, and how there was a catgirl outfit that served no real purpose other than making Lightning look hawt. And suddenly I wasn’t so sure I wanted to pay money for the game.

Thankfully, a friend of mine had already purchased it before getting sidetracked playing the re-release of FFX/X-2. Problem solved!

Canonical Lightning’s Outfit sucks

Unfortunately, the facepalms started as soon as I fired up the game for the first time and saw Lightning’s new costume design. Yes, despite supposedly just having woke up from crystal stasis, which she entered while wearing her FFXIII-2 valkyrie armor, she woke up in this brand new outfit that honestly doesn’t make any fucking sense at all. Seriously, check out these stills, both of which happen in cutscenes within the first hour of starting a new game:

Opening cutscenes

The worst part is that the top image is from the very beginning of the game, the first time we see Lightning, the supposed protagonist of the game that I’m supposed to spend the next 40ish hours with. And the first thing I get is Lightning’s crotch.

Seriously, it would be impossible to overstate just how bad Lightning’s starting outfit is. Because while it might look borderline “reasonable” from the front, at least by the standards of normal video game oversexualization, what it looks like from the back is an entirely different story:

lightning default outfit

That’s right. Her flappy loincloth is designed to billow dramatically, which also, coincidentally, gives us a total panty shot. Also, it highlights that Lightning is really just wearing mostly straps and not much else.

BUT WUNDERGEEK. U CAN CHANGE WHAT LIGHTNING WEARS SO WHY DOES IT MATTER.

Well, yes, thanks internet. But that doesn’t change the fact that I had to play through the first hour or so of the game without any option to change outfits. Also, in terms of what has been established as the “canonical Lightning” for Lightning returns, this is, unfortunately, it:

toy
FUCK EVERYTHING.

But sure. Yes. Okay. There are lots of other garbs to choose from, so I don’t have to play with the default garb. True! Except…

The entire impetus for this post happened when my husband was watching me play last night and commented that I hadn’t changed any of my outfits in a long time. (As in 12-15 hours of gameplay.) And I groused that that was because the few garbs I’d encountered with better stats than my current garbs were garbs I wasn’t willing to wear because they were oversexualized nonsense.

So I decided that I was going to look at all of the available garbs in Lightning Returns and see how bad the actual breakdown was.

Sources, Criteria, and Caveats

I used the Final Fantasy Wiki to get a complete list of garbs, although there are a lot of limited edition preorder garbs that are nothing more than color- or pattern-swaps. So I decided to only include the 80 that either come with the game itself or can be gotten as DLC, so that the preorder only garbs didn’t muddy the results.

My goal was to classify each garb as either suggestive or not suggestive, using the same criteria established in my original article that started this blog. Tl;dr: anything showing cleavage, bared midriff or otherwise incompletely covered torso, or legs uncovered by a garment (skirts count, thigh-high stockings do not) counts as suggestive. (And honestly, all of the outfits classified as suggestive hit more than one, if not all of these.)

My hypothesis going in was that the breakdown would probably be 50/50 suggestive versus non-suggestive. So I was surprised when 44 of the 80 garbs counted as suggestive. No wonder I’d had trouble finding useful garbs that didn’t suck! The odds were actually stacked against me!

simple

The problem with the above chart, however, is that it doesn’t really tell the whole story. Because the problem is that while a 45/55 split still sounds okay in terms of reasonable outfits versus sexualized outfits, there were outfits that I wouldn’t ever consider wearing that didn’t count as suggestive.

For instance, there are no less than seven different evening gowns. EVENING GOWNS. Which makes no freaking sense. The entire series has been built up around what a martial badass Lightning is and how no one in the world is as strong or as good at fighting as she is, not even Snow. Not even Caius. So please explain to me how in a game based entirely around solo combat with a sword and shield, it makes even the smallest amount of sense to have Lightning run around in an evening gown while she swordilates things. (Yes it’s a word, shut up.)

In addition to the seven evening gowns, there were two other garbs that I categorically would never use, even if they don’t count as suggestive, simply because they feel so radically out of character that I wouldn’t be able to take the game seriously at all while using them.

OOC-not-suggsstive

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against non-awful schoolgirl outfits, and this one is certainly pretty decent. The thing is, throughout the entire series, Lightning is depicted as the hardened veteran, the one who knows what has to be done and is willing to walk the difficult path – pretty much the complete opposite of the naive schoolgirl trope. Which makes this garb read as a fanservice fetish outfit to me. Gross.

And the moogle queen? …do I even need to explain how weird and jarring it would be to play with this garb?

Anyway, when I factor the above caveats into the breakdown, it winds up looking a lot worse:

detailed

Wow. So now instead of having slightly less than half of the outfits being not-suggestive, not-immersion breaking outfits, we’re down to only a third. That sucks. That sucks a lot.

How does it suck? Let me count the ways.

First, let me dispel the notion that when I talk about sexualized outfits, that I’m talking about things like Lightning’s FFXIII-2 valkyrie armor, which was admittedly pretty cool even if it didn’t have pants. The stuff that I’m complaining about is this:

seriously wtf
No #2’s outfit doesn’t include the hat by default. That’s just an accessory that makes it worse.

The garb on the far left is actually called, I shit you not, AMAZON WARRIOR. Because nothing says “female empowerment” like battle panties. Or thigh-high stockings. Or lingerie ninjas. You know, because ridiculous oversexualization to the point of becoming the platonic ideal of the male gaze is, like, totally okay if it’s a strong female character.

The problem with these extremely sexualized garbs is that they’re actually what shows up in the game’s in-engine cutscenes, which has been pretty much everything past the first hour. And that radically undercuts any sense of drama or investment in the narrative that I might have. How am I supposed to pay attention to Lightning’s speeches about saving her sister or creating a new world when I can’t take my eyes off of her ridiculous battle panties?

wtf cutscenes
Like the power to somehow not be flashing you right now.

And again, some people might say BUT U DON’T HAVE TO WEAR THEM STFU. And sure, if you ignore the fact that the game mechanically punishes people not willing to use sexualized or impractical garbs by having them outnumber the reasonable garbs 2-to-1, that’s true.

But what is also true is that it isn’t possible for me to entirely ignore the sexualized garbs either. Whenever I visit an Outfitters, looking for new garbs, there isn’t any indication of which garbs are sexy versus which aren’t, so I wind up being frustrated half the time when all of my new options are just more ridiculous cheesecake.

There’s also the issue that some of the ridiculously sexualized garbs are actual plot rewards, which makes them doubly impossible to ignore. The above Amazon Warrior garb is an example of this – it’s a garb that you get as a plot reward upon completing one of the game days. But another equally egregious example is the Mi’quote garb, which you have to actually quest for:

miquote
LEFT: Actual victory pose. (The ears and tail are accessories, not part of the actual outfit)

SO GROSS. I did the quest, because I’m something of a completionist, albeit within reason. (I didn’t bother getting any of the ultimate weapons in FFX, for example, although I did build up a champion blitzball team.) But as soon as I saw what it was, I promptly wish that I hadn’t. Hope’s dialogue about the Mi’quote as a culture felt like a weirdly tacked on addition to justify putting Lightning in blatant fetish wear, which was jarring. The director might as well have come onscreen and said “hey, I just really wanted to see sexy catgirl Lightning. Sorry.”

And I hate that. HATE IT. Because the immersive qualities of the Final Fantasy series games are what keep me coming back for each new title. And having that immersion jarred SUCKS. How the hell am I supposed to take this game seriously when this kind of bullshit sexism is being continually shoved in my face?

Just look at the difference one of these stupid outfits makes:

cutscene contrast

The first screenshot is an epic fantasy hero who happens to be female holding her own against a dude wielding a seriously ridiculous sword. The second is a stripper in a cat costume using an improvised weapon to fend off some creepy dude.

Do some people want to play the second way? Sure. But the people who are actually invested in Lightning as a character and who want to see her treated like a human being and not a piece of meat shouldn’t have to have this bullshit sexualization rammed down their throats in order to even play the game.

In other words, I’m not even saying that the sexy costumes shouldn’t necessarily exist. I’m just saying that they should be optional, clearly marked, and NOT FUCKING PLOT REWARDS. In other words, they should be opt-IN, not opt-OUT.

Lastly, a point of pedantry for the Final Fantasy fanatics

My last beef with the bullshit sexist outfits is that they even spilled over into the classic Final Fantasy jobs that appeared among the garb choices. Here are the six iconic final fantasy jobs/classes that showed up as garb choices:

FF Class Garbs

And here’s how those classes have typically been rendered in other series. (Yes I’m ignoring X-2. It was one game and didn’t match with how the jobs/classes are typically portrayed):

jobs

So looking at the Red Mage and Black Mage garbs, I have to say that I actually really like them! The red mage is absolutely true to form. And the Black Mage is actually a really nice feminine version of the typical unisex Bklack Mage design while still not being ridiculously impractical or fanservice-y.

The Dragoon and the Dark Knight I was much less happy with. They’re certainly much better than most of the other sexualized armors, but would it have killed them to include pants? The armors are so good except for that pesky lack of pants!

The two I like the least are the Blue Mage and the White Mage. The Blue Mage, because it tosses all of the design history out the window in favor of sexay that happens to be mostly blue. And the White Mage, while I didn’t actually count it as suggestive, also feels really boring and girly. They didn’t include any red in the design, the silhoutte is completely different, and there isn’t anything remotely priest-like about that dress. Which, honestly. If even X-2 managed to have sexay outfits that still recognizably adhered to the iconic class outfit design, what was their freaking excuse? It strikes me as being just plain lazy.

Friday Freebie, plus some other stuff

The incomparable Leigh Alexander wrote this piece about Tidus and Final Fantasy X, which I can identify with deeply. I’ve played the game four times and sobbed at the ending every time. This is a game that will forever have a place in my heart.

With the approach of GenCon, a lot of people have been saying smart things about convention-preparedness. Rather than link to them all, I’m going to link to one post by Hans Cummings which starts with a roundup of convention advice posts and then goes on to provide some really great tips for how to make sure that you aren’t impinging on the con’s accessibility for people around you. (This should be required reading for people who attend conventions.)

Science communicator Vanessa Hill made this excellent video about the psychology of online trolling. So of course Lewis’ Law was proven once again when Vanessa Hill subsequently… got trolled. (Which feels strangely recursive.)

You look stressed. Have some animals taking selfies.


 

Now that things are calming down a bit at the day job, I’m starting to turn my attention back to more complex posts, as well as more posts about actual games I’m actually playing. I’ve also started chasing data points for my thing about sex workers in video games, although simply opening the spreadsheet makes me wince:

This is just a small snapshot.
This is just a small snapshot.

I fear this is turning into my white whale. I WILL CONQUER YOU! NO SPREADSHEET CAN DEFEAT ME!

…ahem.

I also intend to write about my thoughts on Lightning Returns, which I’m mostly enjoying. And of course I’m sure I’ll have several posts about this year’s GenCon. So there’s a preview of what’s brewing.


 

I’ve been really busy with prep for GenCon. That said, instead of actually finishing up GM prep materials, I found myself having to write this. And after writing it, I thought it would be good to put up a bit more visibly:

WRT “proof” of harassment, I am not obligated to “prove” my personal experience, not even to have it evaluated so that it might be (in)validated by an “objective” third party. The entire idea is nothing more than victim-blaming, because it places the obligation on the harassed person to “prove” that they have been victimized. If you’re not willing to believe me when I talk about my lived experience, how can I reasonably believe that you’re suddenly going to take me seriously if I jump through this extra hoop? Especially when that lived experience dictates that jumping through the hoop is useless, because the goalposts are just going to get moved anyway. “He wasn’t being serious”, “it wasn’t actual harassment“, “that’s just the way he is”, etc etc etc. So if I say “I’ve been victimized” and your response is “prove it”, you’ve already proven to me that you don’t have the basic human empathy for this interaction to be worth my time.

I get to decide who is worth my time and who isn’t. You are not entitled to my time OR my attention. Nor am I obligated to care if you think that I am lying.

Which, by the way, is an accusation that has gotten thrown around a lot. And you know what, FINE. We’re part of a hobby where the harassment and marginalization of women is so routine that it’s taken for granted. Anita Sarkeesian. Jennifer Hepler. Jade Raymond. All documented, all in the public eye. But if I speak up about my particular experience? And I don’t provide reams of documentation spanning multiple years, or if I say I don’t want to name someone because I’m trying to avoid the inevitable fallout of such an act? Easier to believe that I’m just making it up for the fun of it. You know, for attention. Because it’s not like women face social and professional consequences for speaking out about that stuff. And we certainly never have to try to balance the desire to speak truth to power with the need to protect our own personal well-being.

Lastly, the idea that victims of harassment would pay attention to what the person who instigated that harassment has to say on the subject of their harassment is, frankly, ludicrous. You know what many victims of harassment want? To be left the fuck alone. And that’s what block functions on social media are for! Which many victims of harassment use to keep their social media mostly tolerable. So if a guy that I’ve blocked makes a call to have people report his block-worthy behavior with a supposedly “neutral” third party… Good for him? I’m not necessarily going to be aware of that. Because again, NOBODY IS ENTITLED TO MY ATTENTION.

That said, it’s not anyone’s business but I have been having conversations with people behind the scenes and am trying to make something positive come out of all of this nonsense. Make of that what you will.

So that’s a thing that happened.

Gender swap! Yuna and Kuja

For this gender swap I wanted another pair of male and female characters. I liked the idea of the Fran/Balthier gender-swap, but didn’t really feel I nailed the execution. But as I was casting about for inspiration, nothing hit me. Then my husband suggested Kuja, and I thought yessssssssss! Kuja would be ridiculously fun to draw gender-swapped since he’s literally the only male character I can think of that is as sexualized as the ridiculous cheesecake women I mock here on a regular basis.

But then who to swap for the female to male? Well, I thought of this excellent pinup series of sexualized male comic superheroes, and that gave me the inspiration I needed. Yuna from X-2! I was going to turn those ridiculous shorts that expose half her ass cheek into stupid banana hammock shorts!

I was so, so psyched.

Now this involved more work than my previous gender-swaps, since I had to do an original drawing rather than just a trace-over (there’s a reason I stick to trace-overs. They’re easier and much less time-consuming), hence the lack of posts. Just to make things interesting, I decided to use poses from X-2’s transformation sequences. I searched around and found a pretty decent image of Rikku and Paine’s final pose for… whatever the hell they called the Gambler class in X-2. (Lady Luck? I’m feeling lazy here.)

Making myself draw these poses was quite a challenge and took quite a while to get right. I kept roughing in a body part, looking at the whole and realizing that the pose wasn’t extreme enough. And then I’d have to erase and start over. The resulting poses are pretty tortured. Rikku’s hips are arched forward even as she’s leaning backwards. It’s doable, as long as you have strong back muscles, but you’re going to regret holding that pose for any length of time.

Amusingly, drawing Paine’s pose made me realize that she’s pretty seriously over-balanced. I became skeptical that this pose was even possible when I failed to achieve it without toppling over after several attempts. When I called my husband in to look, he maintained that the pose is possible, barely, but only if you have really good core strength. As we didn’t have a mirror handy to verify, I’m not sure which of us was right. As yet I consider the matter unsettled.

Anyhow. Enough blather. Gender-swap time! First, Yuna and Kuja’s original designs:

and now… swap!

I can’t even begin to tell you how tickled I was to be doing this. I am so very, very pleased that this turned out as well as it did; I’m feeling a bit redeemed after the Fran/Balthier swap.

Yuna actually didn’t require much adaptation. I did have to do some *ahem* research into banana hammock shorts, since it’s not something I’m too familiar drawing. I’m pleased with how the shorts came out and consider male-Yuna to be one of my more successful swaps.

Kuja also required surprisingly little adaptation. I did change the top a little to make sure that the nipples (and yes, the areola too!) could stay covered – even if it would require much body tape.

I was told I had to scan this doodle in the margins.

All in all, I consider this to be a smashing success, and really – I think I had way too much fun doing this. I suppose I should do these more often.

Time for another gender-swap! (Fran & Balthier)

Well, folks. It’s that time again! A commenter (I forget who and am feeling too lazy to check, sorry) had previously suggested that I tackle Fran and Balthier as a pair for my next gender-swap, a suggestion which I found delightful. Final Fantasy XII was, in my opinion, one of the weaker entries in the series and while Fran was a pretty decent character, the transparently fetishized design of the viera was irksome, to say the least. Add to that the fact that Fran typifies the “lingerie ninja” school of character design and Balthier is completely covered from head to toe, and they seemed a ripe target for swapping.

So here’s the image that I decided to work from:

Fran and Balthier (Final Fantasy XII)And here’s my version:

Fran & Balthier - gender-swapped(Yes the quality isn’t quite as good as previous entrants. My printer is dead, which meant I had to color digitally. I work a lot slower that way and thus got lazy with stuff like shading, color blending, and background. Whatevs. It gets the point across.)

When I my last gender-swap, there were some people who argued that I shouldn’t have tried to use gender-equivalent garments and that I should have left the outfit unchanged. As an experiment, I decided to change absolutely nothing other than facial structure and anatomy to make them read as opposite gendered. The result, while a bit artistically disappointing, is certainly interesting.

As with previous entrants in the series, the changing of Fran from male to female causes a lot of the sexualization to be lost in translation. Here’s the thing. People like to look at faces – it’s a fundamental human impulse – so any face is going to be a natural focal point. In the original, Fran’s boobs and crotch are right next to Balthier’s face – a natural spot for our eyes to gravitate to. But that gets lost in the gender-swap. The weirdness of the pose does come through nicely, however. We’re so conditioned to seeing scantily-clad women lounging in almost torturous positions that it’s hard to really see how awfully contorted Fran’s pose is until you turn her into a man. So I will give my male Fran a thumbs up.

My swap of Balthier, however, was more disappointing. I wanted to keep as much as possible, including the hairstyles – since Fran’s hair style is so ridiculous. However, I’m not sure that the changes I made are enough for Balthier to read as female at first glance. (Thoughts?) The only thing that saves Balthier for me is that I think this is a great pose for a self-assured, not half-naked and not stereotyped female character. It makes me think of the maxim for writing great female characters – write a male character and then switch genders – and wonder if maybe that shouldn’t apply to making game art as well? Something to ponder.

So there we are. Not my most successful swap so far, but certainly not the worst either. If anyone has suggestions for a character I should tackle down the line, I’m all ears.

>Yuna: yes I liked X-2. Suck it up and deal. (possible spoiler warning)

>I’m having a really shitty day, so I thought that I’d write about something that I liked rather than going off on another rant that I really don’t have the mental energy for today. So today, here’s a love letter (so to speak) to one of the greatest female characters ever, who – like Lightning – would have been perfect in every way if she’d been wearing pants:

There’s a reason why I’m addicted to Square and BioWare games – both companies know how to write some fantastic female characters. And Yuna was the first character I ever encountered in my gaming life that made me sit back and say ‘holy crap, she is such a fantastic female character!’.

Okay. So enough peaens to Yuna. Just what makes her so awesome? Let’s start with the fact that she’s a complete and total badass. The first time you meet Yuna, she’s tired and sweaty from just having completed a huge ordeal – successfully summoning her first aeon:


Now that I’m a summoner, I could totally feed you your heart on a plate. Just sayin’.

So right off the bat, Yuna is established as a powerful character. She’s no fragile little flower, waiting for a big, strong, manly hero to solve her problems. Aeons are entities of unbelievable power, so being able to call and control them confers with it a certain base level of badassery. I mean, when someone can call something like this to do their bidding:


(Oh, she can also walk on water, bee tee dubs.)

…it pretty much means you shouldn’t mess with them.

What I liked even better about Yuna was that she didn’t fall into the “powerful weakling” trap that’s so common with many female characters in JRPGs. From the outset, Yuna was the leader of the party who had the skills and knowledge to get the job done. Really, Tidus – the protagonist – was just along for the ride. And how great is that? How many times in gaming do you see a female character really, truly in charge? Even the strongest male character, Auron, deferred to Yuna’s judgement when they were at odds.

And let’s face it, it’s not like Yuna’s job was all sunshine and puppies. Nope. She was walking a road that ended, as far as she knew, with certain death. What’s more, she had to deal with the aftermath of disasters that left hundreds of people dead in their wake, and she was constantly being scrutinized as a public symbol of hope. But Yuna never whined or complained like you’d expect of a more strereotyped character. She did what she had to do.

One of the things that I loved most about Yuna was that she was either the saddest happy character or the happiest sad character I’ve encountered. Both roles are pretty stereotyped – pretty much any JRPG you play will have at least one genki girl. And many JRPGs and anime have stereotyped sad girls (often sad girls in snow). I love the fact that Yuna managed to turn both stereotypes on their head. When Yuna is sad, the player is sad because she’s a genuinely endearing character. And when she’s happy, it doesn’t ring false like it would with a genki girl.

Furthermore, her sadness doesn’t detract from her strength or otherwise make her seem like a weaker character. She has her moment of sadness, then she straps on her big girl boots and gets on with what she has to do. Her sadness, rather than being seen as a weakness of character, helps to define her strength because even when she is most sad she doesn’t let that sadness control her life. That’s powerful stuff.


Let’s face it. If you found out the person you fell in love with wasn’t real, you’d be pretty sad too.

The thing that makes me appreciate it all the more is that Yuna’s sadness in X-2 mainly stems from not being able to be with Tidus. And that makes me appreciate her refusal to sit around and mope even more. She’s moving forward with her life, not sitting around and being all weepy because of a man. Yuna’s shenanigans in X-2 aren’t all about saving the day, sometimes they’re about having fun, pure and simple. And sure X-2 was full of fluffy “girl power” moments involving Rikku and Paine, but frankly I think that’s the sort of thing that gaming needs more of – not less.

In the end, Yuna manages to be a strong, well-rounded character who never loses sight of herself or her ideals. And maybe best of all, she manages to save the day and rescue the prince instead of being the damsel in distress. At the end, Yuna’s actions bring Tidus back – which wouldn’t have happened if she’d sat around being a sad girl in snow (or in sand, considering that Besaid is pretty tropical.)


I’m not too proud to admit that I cried.

Now if only more women in games were written as well as Yuna, I’d have a lot less to complain about. …and okay it would be nice if she was wearing shorts that didn’t expose the lower half of her buttocks. Details…

>Lightning is awesome. I just wish she was wearing pants.

>

I know I write a lot here about things that game companies and game artists do wrong, so I thought that maybe I should start doing occasional looks at things done right, or at least things done mostly right. I just finished playing FFXIII a few weeks ago (yeah, I know – I’m a bit late to the party), so I thought I’d take a look at Lightning, since she is now officially one of my favorite female characters evar.

[SPOILER WARNING: There be lots and lots of spoilers]

I’ve long enjoyed the Final Fantasy series of games because of the excellent writing and because they tend to be a bit more even-handed with the nudity. (Pantlessness is a bit more equal opportunity – just look at characters like Tidus or Kuja…) The more recent games in the series, from about Final Fantasy X onwards, have all had some pretty decent female characters as well. Sure there are some stereotyped characters like Rikku – the genki thief girl – or Lulu – the wise-cracking and sexy mage. But there are some really fantastic female characters – like Payne and Yuna in X(2) or Lightning and Fang in XIII. And even the more stereotyped characters are still engaging and three dimensional.

Anyhow. Lightning.

Lightning is probably one of my favorite female characters in a game I’ve played in the last couple of years.

I’ll admit to totally hating her for the first several hours; at the beginning of the game Lightning is pretty one-dimensional and unsympathetic. She’s completely focused on reaching her sister in time to save her, and doesn’t much care how her actions affect the people around her. When circumstances throw her in with people less capable of dealing with the chaos and violence that the game opens with, she doesn’t try to use her strength to protect those less able to protect themselves. Instead she bluntly tells her future companions to either keep up or get the hell out of her way. Not exactly an endearing introduction. (I’ll admit that I said “what a bitch” several times during the first couple hours.)

Still, there was one thing that I appreciated right off the bat. Lightning is portrayed consistently through the game as the strongest character, bar none. Snow might come close to her prowess, as does Fang, but when it comes to engaging the enemy and emerging completely unscathed no one beats my girl Lightning.

Is that all you got?

Lightning’s strength isn’t ever questioned – it just is. Even better, no one ever comments that she should be easy prey because she’s a woman. Nor does Lightning ever apologize for her strength or try to minimize her abilities to soothe male egos. She knows she’s stronger than everyone else, and she enjoys the fact.

Gotta love that cocky smile.

Now the downside to all of this is that for the first several hours, Lightning does seem almost as if she’s been written as a man with boobs. Out to rescue her sister from certain death, a cavalier attitude toward danger and a bold willingness to face danger single-handedly… these are traits we think of being the hallmarks of male heroes. Not to mention that Lightning does have a certain level of machismo…

Eventually, though, Lightning develops from a one-dimensional man with boobs into a sympathetic, engaging female character. The vulnerability beneath the bravado is revealed in glimpses until we get a picture of a woman who has become what she is in an effort to protect what is important to her. And we learn that the rudeness and unsympathetic behavior she exhibits at the beginning of the game are because she is consumed with guilt at failing at what she sees as her duty – to keep her sister safe. This is the kind of wonderful complex backstory that female characters almost never get. Here is a hyper-competent female character with complex motives and emotionally engaging goals who is allowed to be what she is without anyone ever second-guessing her because of her gender!

Eventually, as is inevitable in any game in the Final Fantasy series, Lightning forms close bonds with her companions and comes to value their safety just as much as her desire to free her sister from imprisonment by the Fal’Cie.

What really made me happy about the relationships she develops with the other party members is that Lightning is allowed to be a character without a love interest. She treats Hope as a younger, more vulnerable version of herself – responding to the fact that he has lost his mother just as she lost her parents, and repeatedly assumes the role of his protector and mentor. With Sazh, she shares the bond of experience and a certain world-weariness.


Incidentally, I was also very glad that Sazh wasn’t just another Wise Cracking Black Man. Thank you for resisting the urge to make him comic relief, Squeenix.

And Lightning’s initial antipathy for Snow deepens into a complex friendship between two very opposite personalities without ever once veering into romantic territory – despite the expectation for a romance between two of your party members. This makes her all that much more unique – how many strong and well-rounded female characters can you think of that don’t have a romance arc?

By the end of the game, I was completely love with Lightning as a character. She wavers in the beginning, but once she finds the path that she needs to walk she doesn’t falter in her resolve. She is strong without being unsympathetic, has complex and engaging relationships with her companions, and she becomes a source of strength to her companions.

At the end, I found myself crying just as much because of the touching reunion between Lightning and Serah as because of the bittersweet nature of Fang and Vanille’s sacrifice.

Lightning’s reunion with Serah

The final scene made me so very happy. Lightning doesn’t try to hide her feelings as she might have at the beginning of the game – she’s allowed to be both strong and sensitive and emotionally vulnerable.

The only thing…. the oooooooonly thing… I wish that Lightning was wearing pants. She’s such a wonderful, otherwise completely unsexualized character that from certain camera angles her lack of pants just felt really jarring – especially since all of the male characters (for once) were completely covered by contrast. She’s such a well-rounded and positive character that I wish that I could whole-heartedly embrace her as a universally positive character. As it is, my eyeroll is a very minimal one, and I very much hope that Lightning continues to be as well written in the upcoming FFXIII-2!

 

>Gender-swapping female characters: Vanille

>Some of the arguments here about the sexualized design of female video game characters got me to thinking about how I could illustrate this more clearly, since some people just seem to understand that idealization of male characters JUST ISN’T THE SAME as the sexualization of female characters. I got to thinking about a post I saw several years ago on LiveJournal in which a female blogger photoshopped hypothetical comic covers with extreme male fanservice.

I wanted to do something along those lines, only with game art and perhaps a bit less extreme. When discussing sexualized character design, people seem to focus on the body parts – perhaps just because distorted anatomy is very easy for us to recognize. But posing plays just as big a part – even when it’s not the subtle-as-a-brick “take me now” posing that all of us are pretty used to seeing. So I decided that I’m going to start doing a series of gender-swapped female game characters, starting with Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII – mostly just because that’s the game I’m playing right now.

So here’s female Vanille:

And here’s my genderswapped “Van”:


CLICK FOR LARGER VIEW

I did contemplate leaving Vanille’s ridiculous bikini top and mini skirt combo intact, but I decided that instead I would swap the clothing for their nearest gender equivalents – which is why Van is in a wife-beater and shortish shorts. Van here comes off as pretty gender-inappropriate by conventional standards, and not just because I kept the pink shirt. According to what we’re conditioned to expect, everything about the pose is incredibly inappropriate on a male figure.

Vanille’s spine is arched in such a way that her breasts are thrust forward. Her legs and clothing are arranged in such a way that your eyes are drawn to her ladybits that are just barely covered by the arrangement of her limbs. And despite this being a somewhat action-y pose, the posing of her arms doesn’t suggest strength or action – they suggest softness and femininity. Everything about Vanille’s pose is designed to be inviting and appealing to the male viewer. And yet a lot of that gets lost in the gender-swap. Van isn’t that much more covered than Vanille, but you don’t get the “collection of parts” impression looking at him that you do looking at Vanille.

So all in all, I consider this a pretty successful experiment, and one that I’ll definitely repeat. My only regret in that trying to go less extreme than the photoshopped comic covers, I think I went a little too far. Next time I’ll pick a character and pose that are a little more obviously sexual and see what happens. (Suggestions?)

Lastly, as recommended reading I’ll suggest you check out this great LJ post here with lots of scans from a book on how to draw comic characters that highlights a lot of what I’m talking about. Especially check out the first three scanned pages which highlight pretty much what I’m talking about here.