Saturday, August 24, 2013

FEATURE - On the Women of Dragon's Crown.

"It’s both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of it’s more pernicious aspects."
-Anita Sarkeesian
There's been a lot of talk about the ladies of Dragon's Crown leading up to its release - mostly negative, and mostly focusing on the proportions of the Sorceress.  In this post, I'm going to examine (almost) each and every woman in the game.  

Except the Elf.  All you need to know about the Elf is that she's awesome, and I'd suggest she's not represented in a way which contributes to the ongoing issue of inequality in character design. 

Let us begin, though, with a little boy.  The little boy with the bottle.  

What is he looking at?  What part of her?  What do you think he thinks of the barely-clothed hero standing before him?

He thinks enough to look - of that we can be sure.

The little boy with the wine bottle turns his head, and looks at you as you go by.  Every time you walk out of the Dragon's Haven Inn, you pass by the little girl on the stoop and the peasant woman with a pot on her head and a basket of rolls under one arm.

You dash past Morgan's Magic Shop and Lucain's Tower, and at the edge of town, there they always are - the man with the apples and the little boy with the wine bottle.

And the boy always turns to look.  If you're an Elf or Amazon or Sorceress, a Fighter or Dwarf or Wizard, he'll give you his attention for a moment.  What does he think of my Amazon warrior?

Is he thinking "there goes the hero who saved Hydeland - my kingdom, my King and my family"?

Is he thinking "one day I'll be as strong and brave as her"?

Is he thinking "man, I'd like to rest my head on those cheeks"?

Maybe he's thinking "put some pants on, lady, this isn't Jamaica."

The Peasant Lady.

You can knock the man with the apples over (if you do it twice, you get arrested), but the peasant lady will effortlessly dodge your every attempt to mess with her.

Dragon's Crown, as an example of a profound effort on the part of developer Vanillaware and a work of art, is fair game for scrutiny.  Folks interested only in pointing towards the Sorceress's silly proportions, (correctly) proclaiming boobs don't work that way and (foolishly) disregarding the game she's a part of as drivel do so to their own detriment.  Yes, Dragon's Crown is home to some nutzo, very "poppy" character designs, but it's also an all-you-can-eat buffet of reverence to classic art, and an homage to the types of fantasies that populated the last quarter of the twentieth century.

But let's start with the most obvious offender.

The Sorceress

Yes, the Sorceress is... striking. For the first week I had the game, Kayla made it very clear she would not so much as watch it, if I was playing the Sorceress.  In preparation for this article, I felt I should give her a shot.  I told Kayla about the Rock Crusher spell (a boulder appears from the heavens and pretty much obliterates everyone onscreen) and the way she holds on to her hat as she runs, and I told her about the way the sorceress will ride her staff sidesaddle and fly on it, as if it were a broom, when you triple-jump, and she let me show her the character.

"She's so cute," Kayla said.  And she is.  She is cute - but the fact that women do indeed exist with chests as bountiful as hers (I know a few - they favor sports bras) does not excuse the purpose of her deeply dynamic design.  She is cute and I'd go so far as to call her "beautiful," but her chest is outrageous   More specifically, the way her chest behaves is outrageous.

The way her breasts leap to and fro as she bounces across the screen, the way they fling themselves this way and that as she casts her spells, and the quite-intentional way her sprites always present them slightly towards the player is off-putting.

At first, certainly.  Then you stop noticing it and begin just having fun with her and enjoying her throaty yells as she bombards the field with house-sized rocks and flaming pyrotechnics. After the initial shock of it, it fades into the background.

...which is kinda' dangerous.  To just ignore what we're seeing, I mean.

While it can fairly be pointed out that (save for the Wizard and Elf) Dragon's Crown's character designs showcase warped proportions that represent each gender in extreme lights, I submit to you that the Sorceress would be just as successful and fit in just as well with the cast of Dragon's Crown were she a plain 'ol D or C-cup.

See?  Still works.  She fits in just fine.

At the same time, I must admit I wouldn't ask George Kamitani to change a thing. As a stand-alone character, she's stunning, and I have no problem with the Sorceress.  In fact, I think she's pretty awesome - but I've gotten to know her as a hero, and not just a piece of very suggestive art.

I love Dragon's Crown's art.  I love the hulking, swinging shoulders of the Fighter and the fleet handsprings of the Elf.  I love the impossibly muscular thighs, flowing hair and ripped arms of the Amazon - and I love the ridiculous hourglass figure, floppy hat and billowing skirt of the Sorceress.

I love beautiful things - and this is a beautiful game.  The Sorceress's physique may be extreme, and one aspect of her design is certainly going to raise more than a few eyebrows, but I will defend to the death the right of any artist to create what they see fit.  Whether or not I consume it is up to me - and I love way out-there designs.

I love characters we can't forget, and I refuse to believe the world would be a better place without Jessica Rabbit in it.

...and while it is true that the women of Dragon's Crown have deeply feminine proportions and the men have impossibly masculine physics, one should keep in mind that in the case of the Sorceress, at the very least, this game is simply the latest example of such false equivalence.  Here is a link to a similarly long post that explores the concept, but allow me to provide the Cole's Notes version.

The Problem

In discussion of Dragon's Crown, it's seductive to simply disregard the entire game as pandering - or worse, to ignore the fact that it is the latest addition to a very real problem that does genuine damage to both genders: the continuing inequality in character design and gender representation across almost all of popular culture.

Let us do neither.  As a stand-alone character, the Sorceress is beautiful and stunning - but she doesn't really stand alone.  Let us be mindful that Dragon's Crown is indeed part of a large, systemic problem.

Shortpacked by David Willis

And if a reader is having trouble empathizing with Amber above, let me put it another way.  Imagine if everywhere you went - everywhere - attractive men in popular culture, comic books, video games, movies, were represented like this:

Does this art make you uncomfortable?
Camili-Cat by Patrick Fillion

Which is a very, very far cry from this, and serves a very different objective :

The Dwarf  hero in Dragon's Crown.

So the Sorceress is pretty awesome in general and entirely outrageous, specifically.  Dragon's Crown is indeed part of a larger problem.  But we're not done with the game yet.

The cast is rather evenly-split between men and women.  You have the hulking Monk who runs the temple, the red-nosed politician scheming to steal the country and the slim, severe Count Dean.  You've got Tommitt the Rogue and Lucain the wizened Wizard, the fearsome Hermit of the Lost Woods and the tiny-headed, huge-chested knight who runs the adventurer's guild.

All of the game's male non-player characters are deeply stylish and beautifully presented, but - with the arguable exception of Roland the Brave (the spitting image of Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1982's Conan the Barbarian) they're never sexualized.

Let's talk about some of the female NPCs.

The Damsels

This is the witch Morgan Rizilla - she runs the town shop, repairs your gear after a trek into the wilds and sells you healing drafts and other potent potables.  One could argue she's a reference to the work of Frazetta or Princess Teegra from the 1983 movie Fire and Ice - personally I see a lot of Queen Gorgon from Zack Snyder's 300.

She does look powerful and mystical and mysterious.  She's also wearing next-to-nothing.

In the Ancient Temple Ruins, you will come across a warrior nun who's seen better days.

When you click on her, it reads "her body is heavily armored to protect her purity."

Breasts once again thrust forward, legs splayed open - but unlike Morgan, she's in an entirely submissive pose.  I needn't belabor the concept.

Well, as long as a Kraken was involved.  Mermaids being topless is nothing new, but her apple bottom doesn't seem to reference any classic art that I know of.  Unless you're talking about these cherubic sixteenth century mer-child buns - but, again, the above mermaid (beautiful though she may be) serves a different purpose.

In the Castle of the Dead, you come across kidnapped village girls who beg for your rescue.  If you do rescue them (there's three, and they're identical save for hair color), they follow you throughout the rest of the castle and you're obliged to protect them from all dangers.  They become an interesting addition to the boss fight as you square off against a half-dozen vampires who do their best to kill both you and the girls.  If they kill a girl, she becomes another vampire miniboss to take down.

They are helpless damsels in distress - much like the heir apparent to the throne of Hydeland, Princess Vivian - a mere pawn between two men vying for power.

Finally there's the Bound Spirit.  I already had my own knee-jerk reaction to her, but the added context of the localization soothes the burn, a bit.

But not by much.

Like every other character in the game in such scenes, the Bound Spirit can be clicked on to view additional text.  Unlike every other character in the game, she'll moan a little bit and squirm as you do it.

She's a barely-clothed, tied-up reference to a seventeenth-century painting called Odalisque Slave - an Ottoman harem slave - and the player is given the opportunity to, essentially, feel her up against her will via pointer clicks. 

Tiki, the fairy who assists you on your journey, not-so-subtly judges you for your encroachment.  Which doesn't excuse the fact that the game tacitly permits the player to engage in sexual assault.  Which doesn't begin to explain why the developer would feel the need to offer the player the opportunity.  Which stands out against the relative innocence of the rest of the game far more than the Sorceress's jutting jugs ever could.

"Tiki", your fairy companion, is as close to "Tink" as they could legally go.
There's also a wizard's apprentice - Rickey the mouse. 

The Bound Spirit remains the only aspect of Dragon's Crown I would deem inexcusable.  It is pointless and purposeless.  Its inclusion in the game tacitly normalizes sexual assault, implying as it does that if one were to come across a bound and nearly-naked woman, one's first and natural reaction would be to grope her - not help her.

Not feel empathy towards her.  Yuck.

So, let me say in no uncertain terms that - while, again, I adore the art of the Bound Spirit and the game entire, and feel she represents another striking visual in a game of striking visuals - the fact that the player can sexually assault her is disgusting.

Let's wash the taste of that out of our mouths, shall we?

The Bound Spirit scene aside, there is nothing I would ask changed in Dragon's Crown.  It is, first and foremost, a reflection and celebration of classic fantasy, from renaissance paintings to ancient Greek sculpture to the early work of Walt Disney to Golden Axe and George Kamitani's own Dungeons & Dragons: Tower of Doom. 

As such, it does employ unfortunately common tropes in the roles women play throughout its narrative - more often than not as victims to be rescued.  Every woman you meet in a cutscene (save for Morgan and a hideous, rotund Goblin Chef) are damseled.  Even the Goddesses who protect the Kingdom of Hydeland begin the game as broken statues that must be returned to their former glory through your defeat of progressively harder difficulty levels.

The fact that damseling is a classic plot tool of the fantasy genre does hold a bit of water, given the game's ambition, but more comforting is the fact that not all the women in Dragon's Crown are similarly helpless. I love that the Peasant Woman wields some omnipotent perfect dodge technique, while the Peasant Man carrying apples will fall over in a stiff breeze.

Barely-clothed though she may be, I love that you really get the sense Morgan is not to be fucked with.  Nearly-naked as the above Goddesses are - sexualized as nearly all women in the game are - I appreciate that they reflect classical sensibilities of beauty, and I like that even the Bound Spirit and weirdly splayed Warrior Monk represent healthy, nearly Ruben-esque figures.

I like that they all have bellies, weird though that may be.  I like that the story art you unlock through completing quests often casts women in a very different light.  Beware: spoilers. 

You collect Wyvern eggs for dragonriders.

On a whim, the witch Lima Rey decimated the elven enemies of the goblins, and thereafter they worshiped her as a god.

The young Lisley, it is said, could control an army of stone golems with nothing more than her raw magical talent.

Of course, they're not all like that...

After sacrificing herself to the Red Dragon, Princess Meriad was canonized as a saint.

...but it's pleasant that Dragon's Crown, in its side narratives, offers narrative roles for women beyond that of the victim - and, at the very least, some genuinely beautiful images.

The diversity is pronounced and appreciated within the side-quests the Adventurer's Guild tasks you with, but the main quest is almost entirely devoid of such welcome originality.  Thankfully, in Dragon's Crown, one actually pays very little attention to the story.

Dragon's Crown's narrative is such a small and almost inconsequential part of the game that I'm far less worried by its story than I am encouraged by its action.

The Heroes

Anyone who's followed the work of Vanillaware throughout the years should be rightly surprised that Kamitani's latest effort is so far afield of the precedents he set with Odin Sphere and Muramasa, where nearly every lady was a strong and well-rounded character.  Perhaps Dragon's Crown's narrative is so different simply because of its simplicity and adherence to its inspiration, but at the very least - as in Odin Sphere, as in Muramasa - ladies are front-and center in the story the player tells themselves.

Fan art.

Unlike the Bound Spirit, unlike the Warrior Monk and the village girls of the Castle of the Dead, the Amazon, Elf and Sorceress are heroes.  They are all beautiful (the Sorceress certainly has her sex appeal cranked to 11), they are all powerful and they are all absolutely thrilling in the hands of the player.

I am of the opinion that being easy on the eyes is a benefit (and often a pre-requisite) for both male and female heroes, and while even here inequality remains - the Fighter may be a dreamboat with his helmet off, but he's never precisely sexy - the female heroes of Dragon's Crown are not merely beautiful.

The Sorceress may have a lot of chest and the Amazon may have a spectacular derriere, but - unlike the Bound Spirit, unlike the Mermaid - that is not where their characters begin and end.  Their appearance is merely one facet of characters that become explosively, omnipotently powerful when combined with the player.

They have - to bust out that tired old chestnut - agency.  Take the Amazon, for example.  I love my Amazon.

Fan art.

Clad though she may be in boots, bikini and a headband, the Amazon is as Vanillaware described - a ridiculously mobile melee character who dishes out extreme damage in capable hands, but (due to her lack of armor) can't take many hits.  My Amazon is ridiculously powerful, side-stepping boss mechanics like cannons to take down possessed Gargoyle Gates, as - once I get a good Berzerk going and I'm spinning around the battlefield with wide, looping Brandish swings - she can just beat the shit out of the gate until it shatters.

She is a girl in a bikini, but I can't think of her as just a girl in a bikini.  Having spent time with her, I can only think of her as a seething mass of muscle and iron will, with a seven-foot axe at the business end.

The quick, agile Elf, the obscenely strong Amazon, the mysterious and sexy Sorceress - as with Momohime in Muramasa, as with Gwendolyn, Violet and Mercedes in Odin Sphere - the female heroes of Dragon's Crown never feel as two-dimensional as their sprites once the player actually begins playing, and discovers their power.

But the Amazon still wears a bikini, and consistently presents her rock-hard bum to the audience as she gazes across the haunting, ancient beauty of the Lost City.

Dragon's Crown achieves its ambition, at least, in being a supernaturally beautiful game that harkens back to classic fantasy brawlers while it celebrates and references art spanning the last two thousand years, spinning it out into big, bold, bombastic designs.  In doing so - in contrast with every other Vanillaware game - it contributes to the very real and problematic issue of inequality in character design and gender representation in video games.

I prefer a world in which which Jessica Rabbit sang Why Don't You Do Right to a dumbfounded Bob Hoskins, and I definitely prefer a world in which Dragon's Crown exists.  George Kamitani and every artist are free to create what they wish but we, the viewer, the player, the consumer, should be mindful of the culture we consume - and the culture that is created and permitted to persist through our consumption.

What the little boy with the wine bottle thinks of the Amazon remains a mystery.  He never says a word, and so we unconsciously fill in the blanks.  To me, he's in awe of the hero in his midst.

I'd hate to think he looks at what she's wearing and disregards her as yet another video game girl in a bikini, not worthy of thought.  I'd hate to think any gamer looks at Dragon's Crown and thinks that.

I would not ask any creator to change their creation, but even as we enjoy Dragon's Crown, it's worth being mindful that this beautiful and grand title is indeed a contributor to the long-standing problem of gender bias in video games.  The very fact that we are able to mark it, perhaps, sets our generation apart and lays the foundation of a future where video game heroes of both genders can be beautiful and ugly and strong and weak, celebrating and exploring ourselves without the imbalance one finds, here - and most everywhere else.

It's worth keeping in mind that Dragon's Crown, alone, is simply a very beautiful (and very fun) game that adheres to old tropes of gender representation.  It's equally worth noting that it presents yet another voice among a roaring chorus that stretches back to antiquity.


  1. It's great this game is worthwhile, but the pictures you used in this article alone made my skin crawl. I can't imagine how the animated version would feel like.

    It's miles away from something I'd call an artistic insult, but it sure as hell ain't for me. I... I just can't do it.

  2. Aw I'm sorry to hear that. The game is absolutely wonderful. I've got The Bureau: XCOM Declassified staring at me on a stool every time I come home, but nope - I just can't tear myself away from grinding gear on my level-capped Amazon.

  3. I sure would like to see an English language version of Grand Knights History on the Vita.

  4. Nice read. I finally got my hands on the game and so far I'm enjoying it. While there are certain aspects I noticed about the game when I first read about it, the fact that it's made in part by some of the guys and gals that did the Dungeons & Dragons arcade brawlers is what I was more interested. Short of Rastan Saga III, I haven't played any other game that has close to the same feel.

    That's not to say that there aren't any, nor am I saying that games have to be spiritual successors to tower Of Doom or Shadow Over Mystara. But it's why I was initially interested in Dragon's Crown; the art and character design comes second. I don't mind the proportions, though I've only played as the Amazon so far, therefore I have yet to experience the Sorceress' chesticle physics yet.

    I'd like to think that the boy looking on doesn't have any bad thoughts come to mind when seeing the ladies of Dragon's Crown. Maybe he sees what we see at first, maybe he doesn't. Or maybe he knows it doesn't really matter - what these women do is more important than the outfits they're mostly wearing. I haven't gotten very far (low battery, my charger's at home), but so far I like what little I've done and I look forward to wasting an entire afternoon or evening with the game.

  5. The game tries to include some classic RPG elements. You can get thrown in jail for violently attacking the townsfolk, and you can "touch" anything. I thought you misconstrued the bound spirit, as you're not really depicted as literally groping her in any way, and it's taken completely out of context in a game where you can overtly injure townspeople. Well before the bound spirit, when you save the 3 women from the vampires, you're actually not able to do anything more than save them and protect them, so saying that the game normalizes sexual assault is a stretch. As for the "damsel in distress" argument, I was saving the 3 women with a party of four muscle-bound Amazons, who do not in any way fit a stereotypical male fantasy, and certainly not my own. I'm not saying there's no gender bias in the game, but for a game based around medieval myths, I thought women were treated pretty fairly to have the inclusion of so many strong and powerful women. Saying this game has a gender bias against women is similar to saying that Super Mario 3 has a gender bias because the princess is captured again. Yeah, and what about the 7 kings whom you save in worlds 1-7? I just feel like the problem that exists is not going to get any better while we stretch the truth and manipulate facts to make the gender bias argument look stronger than it needs to be. If there is a bias in Dragon's Crown, which there may well be, it's not nearly as egregious as this article makes it out to be.

  6. Really good article. This game is my favorite game on my Vita and PS3. It's nice to see an article that can view it both as the quality game it is and look at the underlying issues it has.

  7. It's great to see the inspiration from Frank Frazetta! The only thing I don't like is Frazetta really balanced his women well, with large breasts, bums but also a little chubby midsection, and I think my initial shock would have been dulled a little bit if the Amazon didn't have a 20 inch waist!