Thursday, August 1, 2013

Editorial - okay, maybe I can enjoy Dragon's Crown without approving of it.

For those new to The Games of Chance, below you'll find the latest entry in a series of explorations of sexuality and gender representation in video games.  It began in earnest with this post back in 2011 (which details why, precisely, gender representation in video games is a problem), and - specific to Dragon's Crown - was represented earlier this year with the George Kamitani/Jason Schreier snark. 

To see all posts on the subject, click here : the continuing discussion of sexism in gaming

Polygon's review for Dragon's Crown went up last night.  I'm getting a bit sick of Polygon, between this and the Last of Us review - and it bothered me a bit that so much of the review focused on the reviewer's sense that Dragon's Crown was designed purely to appeal to pubescent boys, not people who would love a modern-day Golden Axe or Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom (like me!), or people who follow and adore the previous work of developer Vanillaware (like me!).  

When I stopped in to my favorite internet haunt today, the Dragon's Crown thread was lit up with a very heated discussion of whether or not the game mistreated the female gender.
I called for peace.  I said we didn't know, yet, but it's something to keep an eye out for when we finally get to play the game - a judgment we can make for ourselves.

Last night, after reading the review, feeling a bit disheartened, I came across a wonderful piece highlighting the incredibly wide net of artistic influences that Dragon's Crown has thrown. 

Check out this article at Art Eater, which looks at how many images from classic mythology, painting and sculpture have found their way into Dragon's Crown - focusing just on this trailer - from Mickey Mouse's iconic hat in Fantasia to Peiter Bruegel’s wild painting of the Tower of Babel in 1563, to Greek amazonian statues from around the time of Christ.

The game is an explosion of expertly rendered and interpreted art.  It's also the next thing from a wonderfully solid game developer, whose titles have reliably granted me dozens upon dozens of hours of joy between Odin Sphere and Muramasa alone.  It's a throwback to classic fantasy brawlers of yore, from one of my favorite directors, and no - contrary to what some writers would posit - my interest in it has nothing to do with the Sorceress's cup size.

But after that Polygon review, I was concerned by it. Perhaps Dragon's Crown really is vile in its treatment of women, and the damned controversy seems more important than the game itself.  Perhaps if more videos of Muramasa showed Momohime strolling in to a hot spring half-covered in a towel, the wonderful Rebirth would've gotten more coverage?

Probably.  How depressing.

Anyway, I was all set to give Dragon's Crown the benefit of the doubt - innocent until proven guilty - until someone in the thread dropped this on us:

And I literally facepalmed.  I smacked my hand into my forehead.  D'oh!  Goddamnit, Kamitani!

I was in your corner, here!

Prior to seeing that video, I was mindful of Kamitani's exaggerated female figures (which, to be honest, he hasn't really done in any of his previous games, save I suppose for the occasional boss in Odin Sphere & Mura), but didn't feel that he'd ever made anything that treated one gender or another unfairly. If anything, I like how strong his female characters in Muramasa and, in particular, Odin Sphere were. It always felt even-handed.

In Muramasa, for example, both the male and female lead get almost-naked for dips in hot springs that refill their life and spirit meters. It's cute and sexy towards both genders.

This is different. Unless this is a one-sided video designed to rile us up and there actually is a sexy man in Dragon's Crown whose bum you can tickle to make him squirm, this is... well, fuck, regardless, it's totally demeaning. To both genders, I should note.  What is the point of giving your players the option to sexually assault the captured victim of your enemy?

The negativity it endorses towards women is obvious - this woman is half-naked, chained up and (seems to be getting) touched against her will by the player - but it seems to be equally guilty of the bigotry of low expectations towards men, suggesting that if a man came across a woman tied up, it's normal behavior to feel her up, because as walking penises we aren't capable of empathy.

(The Bound Spirit in the video above is a spirit kidnapped by Dragon's Crown's big baddie to "power their rune magic."  Directly after the above scene, the player frees the spirit and fights one of two bosses - chosen through selecting A or B.)

Speaking of the classical art references found in Dragon's Crown - the Bound Spirit recalls (1780 – 1867) Jean Auguste Dominique's Odalisque Slave (an Ottoman empire harem slave).  

Is the Bound Spirit the only character in the game who has an accompanying animation for being "touched" in the game's static scenes?  If so, are she and her predicament simply a reflection of historical truths some may find titillating or disturbing - and is Kamitani conscious of the contrast?

Does he intend for the Bound Spirit to suggest both?  Her predicament would indicate that he does - but permitting the player to abuse her does not feel... insightful.  I don't believe the game is leading us towards a Hotline Miami or Spec Ops: The Line-style reflection on our actions towards her.

I love Kamitani's art for depicting both uniquely feminine and uniquely masculine body types as beautiful, but that's not what this is. Or what it feels like, at least.  There's a part of me that wants to suggest the player's ability to not click on her is Kamitani's way of letting the player choose, but the option to feel up a bound woman comes across as deeply distasteful when the game surrounding it doesn't seem to be all that concerned with depicting female NPC characters as anything but fantasy objects.

It feels exploitive. And cheap. An "adolescent fantasy", and beneath what I expect of Vanillaware, given its history.

I'm still buying Dragon's Crown.  I love Vanillaware, and just as I intended to keep an open mind in determining if the game was as bad as its accusers believed, I'll now keep an open mind in the hopes that it proves it isn't.

Damnit, Kamitani.

Princess Vivian?  Thank you for having clothes on.

Worst-case scenario, I expect I'll be able to enjoy Dragon's Crown for its stellar production values and solid brawling.  After all, you can enjoy something without approving of all of it.

I guess I'm just... disappointed.  Games can absolutely have erotic content without demeaning or flatly objectifying a gender, and Kamitani could easily have his sexy cake and eat it too.  He's done it before.


  1. I literally just ran over here to tell you about this, the comment section is positively EPIC.
    Much more reasonable than I feared.

    But if it's infuriatingly unfounded last of us hate you're after, No punctuation make me ill the other day.