Friday, March 25, 2016

Game Diary - Pernicious Kagura.

Look at me!  I actually have a bit of time to blog!  Wooooooooooo!  XCOM is out on Vita!  Salt and Sanctuary is finally on my PS4!  I still haven't finished Far Cry Primal!  I just picked up Tearaway Unfolded for twenty bucks at Wal-Mart!

...and I can't stop playing Estival Versus.

There is a GIF that I cannot wait to make with Yozakura. 

I don't know why.  Every time I even think about Salt and Sanctuary I get excited, but once again I haven't touched it since last Friday.  I rarely get to spend quality time with my PS4 lately, so you'd think - and I honestly expected - that I would be spending my time with XCOM's Vita version.  I have been dying for this since the Vita launched.  I've been begging for it for years, and it's here.

Alex will tell you that even with his top-of-the-line gaming PC, XCOM 2's performance is less-than-stellar, but when he was complaining about drops to 20FPS during explosions, I couldn't help but think "dude, at least you get to play XCOM 2."

I figured I'd have the same attitude about XCOM on Vita.  I didn't expect it to run at 60FPS or even a solid 30, but what does that matter in a turn-based game?

I need to put more time into it.  Definitely.  And I will.  Definitely.  But XCOM on Vita does not run well.  There are like, missing animations.  Graphics aren't actually a huge step down from the PS3 version, but there was one part in an early mission where I put a rocket into a building, took down its walls, and then the rookie I ran up the middle couldn't hit the Sectoid that was like two tiles away because the wall that I'd taken out somehow blocked the shots.

So I guess it's buggy too?  And I don't want to... I don't know, struggle against a game right now.  I'm still having a very rough time, personally, and I just wanna' have some fun.

And Senran Kagura: Estival Versus is some straight-up triple-A super-high-production-values shit on Vita.  It runs like a dream.

This post may make you very uncomfortable, via content and discussion
contains about 30 megs worth of GIFs.  I'll put it behind a page break.

And it's fun.  It's super fun, despite its simplicity.  It's fun to dance along with these characters again, it's fun to frolic through the campaign, which forces you to play as one different character after the next - and while every character works within the framework of identical mechanics, they all have a different feel and rhythm and flow to their violence.  Even within this simplicity and its broad application, there is grit and minutae here to the point that each hero can become triumphantly expressive in the hands of the player, while being both very similar to and very different from every other one on offer.

And it's still giving me cracks at characters I've never played as.  One of the new characters in Estival is Sayuri, Asuka's terminally-ill grandmother.

She loves her pipe.  Sayuri is an ex-Kagura - the legendary highest rank a Shinobi in Senran Kagura's world can attain - a hunter of demons, and she is the mastermind behind the mystery that has drawn the cast to the game's tropical island (which exists between dimensions and will magically transform into beautifully-realized environments from throughout SK's history).

On my lunch break today, I rocked my way through a series of missions in which she challenges each of the series' central schools to a one-on-five battle royale - and it remains exciting to discover a whole new playstyle in a game that already has 20+ characters.  She would actually make some awesome GIFs too.  In fact they all would.

Except Midori.  I kinda' hate Midori still, but she will kill you with giant pancakes, so that's at least interesting.

Katsuragi (a charge-based kicker) continues to rock socks. 

It's just fun and funny and entertaining and easy-going and... a pleasure to lazily backstroke my way through.  But something's stickin' in my craw.

Last week, on the podcast, I told Chamberlain and Alex that I'm finding Senran Kagura less offensive than I used to.  It occurred to me that I had simply become desensitized to it, but I became curious how the game would look and play on my PS4, so I tossed the disc in.

First, I put Katsuragi in Daidōji's coat.  You've seen the result of that.

Playing it on PS4 is so smooth and expressive that it actually made me better at playing it on Vita.  It looks (kind of shockingly!) sharp and colorful on Vita, but the difference between the two versions is so pronounced - with a buttery-smooth, rock-solid 60FPS and a ton more enemies onscreen on console -  that after seeing it, Kayla immediately started calling EB Games locations in our town to track down a PS4 copy (after I assured her that the game had cross-save functionality).

The PS4 presentation also makes it harder to ignore the game's problematic aspects.  At least for me.

At the end of the above gameplay sequence, I beat the shit out of the area's boss (Ryōbi, one of only two flat-chested characters in the game) so hard and so fast that she didn't even have time to call upon her powerful Shinobi form.  Katsuragi took her down so quick that I didn't even break one of her layers of clothing before it was over.

And what I was met with, upon beating the level, was a well-realized animation of this slight, slender girl in pigtails, in a Japanese highschool girl's uniform, being tossed to the ground - tears welling in her wide anime eyes, her face flushed in shame.

Very suggestive.  And what it suggests is fucking disgusting.

Ryōbi's un-transformed state.  

Now on the one hand, I like that the game permits itself even a shred of variation with Ryōbi, Mirai and, new in EstivalKafuru - acknowledging that a woman doesn't have to adhere to Senran Kagura's default large-breasted sex-goddess stereotype in order to be beautiful, heroic or cool.  

On the other hand, that image stands on its own.  Ryōbi serves as the older sibling to her masochistic sex-kitten sister - in terms of just personality, she's among the game's more grown-up characters - but I don't give a shit.  That image stands on its own. 

The difference between art and pornography is its intended purpose.  And a large part of Senran Kagura's purpose is to sexually arouse.  

And that image, standing on its own, on my fifty-inch flatscreen, intending to sexually arouse, is fucking disgusting.  

Feminist critic and brain trust Anita Sarkeesian has said that "it’s both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy a piece of media while also being critical of it’s more pernicious aspects."  Meaning, I suppose, that one must know evil before they can denounce it. 

And I do.  What's being done here crosses a line no one should be comfortable with.  That image is shown as the reward for defeating a level.  Just try and get that taste out of your mouth.

So it's more than a bit distressing that the game I'm enjoying the most has that aspect to it. It's thankfully rated M-for-Mature, so at least I feel somewhat assured that the people who are getting their hands on it are in my position - adults who can laugh at its comedy, love its characters, thrill to its action and judge the fuck out of it when it crosses the line.

Not exactly a fair comparison.

But it is kind of fair to compare the rampant, explosive sexuality and objectification of Senran Kagura to the levels of violence we accept, glorify and enjoy in western video games and media.  It is perhaps worth remembering that the difference between our reaction to the torture scene in Grand Theft Auto V and the dehumanizing objectification and implied sexual violence of Senran Kagura is the result of cultural difference between North America and Japan, where it's demonstrably fine for a high-profile, wide-release game to be conceived, successfully pitched, produced and sold purely on the lush sexualization of highschool girls.

The word "pernicious" means "harmful."   Perhaps it's my North American cultural bias speaking, but... I feel that normalized objectification of the female population is more harmful to men, women and children than the spectacular gore and violence of Dying Light.  It's dehumanizing.  I'm more okay with the decapitations of The Witcher III than I am with Lollipop Chainsaw's clothing options.

But the most harmful part of either, I would suggest, is that it be normalized.  That there are those who look at this IMAX poster for The Avengers and don't even see the fact that the only woman on display is posed perfectly to show off both her tits and ass, while the males are all in iconic power poses - or if they acknowledge the disparity, they don't see it as problematic.

When we call it out...  When we can perceive that it is unrealistic, unnatural and fails to adequately represent the world as we know it, it can no longer be considered normalized.  If it were - if we, as a culture, were so far gone down the path of valuing women only as sexual objects to be conquered or prizes to be pursued that any sense that things should be better is lost, Anita Sarkeesian would not exist in her capacity as a critic.  This blog post would not exist and the image of Ryōbi thrown to the ground, tears in her eyes and a blush across her cheeks, wouldn't make me recoil.

Thank goodness, Anita Sarkeesian does exist, and thank goodness that I do recoil.

That's not to say that games like Senran Kagura don't contribute to normalizing this type of objectification.  It does.  Undoubtedly, and unabashedly.  In that, it is harmful, and helps to maintain harmful cultural biases.  It's also... dismissive and convenient and requires little effort for me to suggest that this game, loose and free, out there in the world, may be painting impressionable minds with impossible expectations of the female form, and normalized objectification and sexual violence, but that feels... reactive and reductive.

Normalized objectification is harmful (in myriad, countless ways), but so is censorship.  As disgusted as I am with some aspects of Senran Kagura, I would be infinitely more distressed to have human sexuality completely ignored in our media.  Imagine if we never left the 1950s, and when the couple on your favorite TV show went to crash out, they each snuggled in to a separate bed?

Nope.  Nothing goes on here.  Just sleep, and catching up on the news.  Nothing else.  Ever.

Out of the closets and into the streets, I say.  The joy of sex isn't something that we should be ashamed of or feel the least bit guilty about - and to hide it entirely from view would be to suggest some dark ugliness at the heart of it - which would be profoundly harmful in many new (old) and exciting ways (requiring decades of therapy to even partially undo).  So as a rule, I'm fine with sex and sexiness.  There's a time and place for everything (and it's called college).

It's a shame, I feel, that there's little in the gaming space that champions the allure of the male form like Senran Kagura does for the female.

One could argue that the Otome visual novels that have (finally!) become popular in the west in recent years permits the pursuit of idealized male characters - and that's great! - but it's not quite the same, is it?  (Or really, even close?)

Really, the only two good examples I can think of (which don't even approach what SK does) are Devil May Cry and Metal Gear Solid.  There hasn't been a single Metal Gear Solid game in which Snake isn't stripped naked and objectified, at some point, and his ass in 4 is legendary.

*I didn't write the above, but the fact that someone did makes my point.

And I've always enjoyed the fact that Dante and Snake can be both the saviors of Earth and the subject of rampant erotic fan-fictions, the camera lingering on their buns and abs - perhaps for no reason more than it's so damned unusual.   But why should it be so strange?  Channing Tatum has a career for a reason.  There is an audience for it, I would imagine.   If we tacitly accept the way the camera will spend an extra second glancing across Chun Li's chest in Street Fighter, there's no reason Sexy Ryu shouldn't receive the same treatment.

[update] Anita Sarkeesian, for the record, would not agree with that.  Found this last week: 

But thankfully we don't have to agree on everything.  I'm not interested in dehumanizing anyone, and between you and I, I really like it when I get the sense that Kayla has reduced me to a sexy object - and I like sexy things.  I'll keep on liking them, thank you very much. [/update]

Senran Kagura: Estival Versus, at least, doesn't pretend to have greater aspirations that it does, or imagine it's more meaningful than it is.  It's not some magnum opus with delusions of grandeur that casually slips in the sexualization of every single character and pretends that it's perfectly reasonable to do so - it's aware of how ridiculous it is.  Thankfully.  Even it doesn't think this is normal.

It's also welcome and valuable that it invests its entire cast with a great deal of well-defined character, so these girls are never just sexual objects, but charming and sweet and funny and venomous and foul-mouthed (see: Ryōbi) and thoughtful and heroic girls who are also objectified.

It's a raunchy sex comedy that can, on occasion, take things too far for my tastes, and make me recoil in disgust - but I'm a grown-ass man.  I can easily identify this game as entertainment for its own sake, and I can boast the intellectual fortitude to sally forth without permitting Senran Kagura to color how I value the opposite sex, or infect me with appetites I don't already possess.

It's fun and funny and entertaining and easy-going and one of the better brawlers on the current gen, if we're being honest, and fails to offend me ninety-nine percent of the time.  Its cool, comfortable (strangely addictive!) gameplay has ensured I'm not interested in returning to the gorgeous forests of Far Cry Primal.  Its status as a smooth triple-A on my handheld handily trumps XCOM's shoddy presentation by comparison, and the way it's so damned positive and let's-just-have-fun about sexuality is... dare I say uplifting?

That was not a double-entendre.  There is something cheerful and happily erotic about the game - and cheerful, happy eroticism is my favorite kind - it's just not always and completely cheerful, happy or healthy about it.  And those 1% of times it suggestively goes down the dark path, it is fucking disgusting.

Yet I can't stop playing it.  Until my responsibilities are done.  Until it's a weekend, and I don't have to be up at six the next morning.  When the house is quiet, and I'm able to snuggle up with my PS4 for a few hours.

Then, I wander down the (ultra-gory, blood-splattered) dark paths of Salt and Sanctuary.

And I love it.   I love this game so much.  Last night I finally tumbled down its dim roads for two or three hours, exploring, meeting The Third Lamb and getting my ass handed to me for the better part of an hour before I finally took it down.  It's a beautiful, effective and sweetly-designed riff on Souls - brilliantly successful, in my eye - and I cannot bloody wait for this thing to land on my Vita.  I'm going to play the ever-loving crap out of this game on Vita.

But even on PS4, it can't keep me away from the idealized white shores of Estival Versus forever.  It's been a rough couple of months, you see, and lately I'm often more interested in something easy-going, without stress and heartache.

So around two in the morning I shut Salt down.  Opened up Estival on my PS4, and put Yozakura into Daidōji's coat.

Turns out I couldn't wait to make that GIF after all.

Senran Kagura is absolutely problematic.  It absolutely objectifies the female gender, and absolutely goes way too far on occasion.  But I can weather this - and my girlfriend can even fall in love with it to the point that she's getting two copies - because it's so much damned fun.

It's still fun to play dress-up with the fighters, but until some more interesting costume DLC becomes available, I've been putting all of my favorites in Daidōji's coat when they transform into Super Magical Ninja Girl mode.  I take them out of the schoolgirl uniforms they're usually in, prior to transforming, and set them up with a comfortable jeans-and-T-shirt ensemble.  I turned off the option to have the clothes explode off your foe in shreds when you deal enough damage to them (I didn't even know I had the option 'till last night!).

By putting them in more conservative dress, by turning off the clothes-tearing option, I'm acknowledging that I don't really love the super-sex-all-sexy-time thing SK does.  I enjoy a dirty joke as much as the next guy, but I don't need it all the fucking time - it's just what I have to accept, if I enjoy Senran Kagura.  And I do enjoy Senran Kagura.

Kayla and I were talking the other day about how we'd both like the game more, we think, if the cast had greater physical variation (say a cup size between G and AAA - thank goodness for Kafuru - and different body types), if there were male combatants with as much character and charisma as the ladies, and if this thing could be toned down to the point that it could comfortably be sold as T-for-Teen or even entirely stripped of the sexuality, and turned into an E-for-everyone.

"It would open it up to a way bigger audience," I insisted.  "But maybe they wouldn't have sold at all without the sex stuff?"  Maybe SK only became a franchise because of the whole "sex sells" thing, and it would have crashed and burned after the first instalment without boobs bouncing all over the place.

Maybe.  Maybe it would've been a failure, without the "fanservice."  But I think it would be a better game.  A game that you could enjoy without caveat, that you could pull off the shelf and hand to anybody with the confidence that they're going to have fun.

A game that I could tell you is a ton of fun, without then feeling the need to write another 2,500 words warning you of how offensive it can become, and whether or not it's okay that it even exists.

...I wonder if I'm just super uptight?

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