Don’t let your audience get in the way of a sophisticated character

Dracula will be real, and gritty, and awesome, and gritty.  Please play our game.

Imagine, if you will, a game you’ve been looking forward to for so long is nearly here: Battleduty V: Revelations of War.  You and your friends are ready, both near and far.  Prepared to marathon your way through the campaign, and then climb the ranks of multiplayer mode – it’s going to be great.  But, oh no, something has gotten in your way to truly realizing Battleduty bliss: political correctness!  Someone who probably doesn’t even play Battleduty is judging you for enjoying a game that most women don’t, and they are spoiling the fun by beating on their dead horse of “sexism in games.”  What a nuisance!  Congratulations, you can now begin to consider what it’s like to be harassed for going about your business.  Can you imagine having to put up with unwanted attention while tending to life’s less exciting activities?  Instead of having your leisure experience, interrupted, you could just be walking to work and get sexually harassed.  What a bummer.

Perhaps that’s not a fair comparison to make against fans of Battleduty.  After all, nobody is forcing you to play it, so you need to be going out of your way to play it and be offended.  That person must be a jerk!  Perhaps in some cases.  But there are many instances where issues of sexism and controversy are unavoidable.  We do share a space as a community of gamers, and you don’t always get to choose your neighbors.  Sometimes ignoring behavior that’s offensive is the same thing as enabling it.  Kat Bailey recently wrote about her experience playing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 and then her participation in a round table interview with producer Dave Cox.  I don’t assume Bailey gets to select which games she writes about, but even so there’s been nothing to suggest that LoS2 contained offensive material.  Apparently it does, and it made her uncomfortable.  And instead of producer Cox trying to understand why it might be offensive, he declared “mission accomplished” in the goal of making LoS2 effective.  She found this attitude to be problematic.

The response to her thoughts on the matter have predictably raised the ire of gamers annoyed at the introduction of a controversy to the discussion on the game.  Many are upset or dismissive of the notion that the scene she references is controversial.  But it’s not as though Bailey sought this game out to make a controversy out of it.  And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to filter her opinions so that the audience that Dave Cox is pandering to won’t have their feelings hurt – especially when her opinion on it was solicited directly.  So let me take a moment to carry the sentiment a bit further.  Dear Dave Cox, while you probably didn’t mean it this way, what you said makes you come across like an asshole, and you should consider handling “the family” scene more delicately than you’ve so far demonstrated.

What exactly is “the family” scene?

…the scene in question being one in which a withered Dracula stumbled toward a family with his arms outstretched, the camera abruptly switching to a first-person perspective. He kills the father outright, then grabs the mother and sinks his fangs into her neck, draining her life energy to restore his.

Bailey feels that…

…it’s clear that the scene was constructed with the intention of evoking sexual assault. … That it’s being used almost exclusively for shock value serves to trivialize a very real horror that women must deal with every day.

Now, this is a game that hasn’t been released, and I would say it would be fair to wait and see what the scene amounted to in execution.  Cox’s affirmation that the scene should have made Bailey uncomfortable, that it’s caused “discussions” with the marketing team for the game, and inferred they were being bold (by claiming they weren’t “timid” in the face of controversy) is reason enough to subject the scene to further scrutiny prior to the game’s release.

It’s reasonable to conclude that the scene is about victimizing the woman, and in a way that preys on a real fear for women – to be overpowered  and assaulted by men who want to use you while you are just trying to go about your business.  This fear is what makes cat-calling inappropriate: it puts women on notice somebody wants to use their body and they need to understand if they are being threatened.  It would appear that “the family” scene throws this possibility in the audience’s face with no degree of subtlety or nuance. Dave Cox is completely oblivious to the possibility that the audience might be repulsed by the game itself, rather than by Dracula.

Did you know that Dracula is a bad dude?

This is what makes inclusion of the scene in it’s present form a jerk-like thing to do.  You are catering to one audience (a male audience) by trying to use a “gritty” scene to give a character depth.  And it’s at the expense of another audience (a female audience) for which this scene is far more likely to be off-putting; off-putting in a way that takes you out of the game, not in a way that gives the character depth.  It wouldn’t be surprising to find that a publisher is trying to cater to a male audience without regard for any others, but the criticism is relevant and at the very least deserves to be acknowledged.

But doesn’t that type of criticism beg for censorship of the game though; a compromise of artistic intent?  Not at all.  I wouldn’t say being oblivious to the effect of your work demonstrates artistic intent, but this scene can be executed any number of ways, most of which could be handled with more finesse than spelling out with bright neon letters that “Dracula is a bad dude™, you know?”  Perhaps LoS2 will place a cost on being Dracula that will make the player feel bad later on.  It would be a sentiment similar to what you find in Shadow of the Colossus.  But I am doubtful that a publisher would want to do anything that would make a male audience feel disempowered or remorseful.

Now, with a pinch of speculation, I’d like to provide some constructive criticism for the Dracula character in LoS2. I know Dave Cox is worried about differentiating Dracula from vampires in broader popular culture at this time (though I don’t think any fans of Castlevania have managed to get their Dracula confused with the likes of Edward Cullen.)  But for the most part, vampires (in and out of popular culture) are depicted with some degree of class and not with the sense of desperate urgency of somebody with food poisoning trying to find the bathroom.  And you could just try to make Dracula effective with something other than a cheap grab at your audience’s emotions.  

Vampires are monsters, but what makes them interesting (and even more monstrous) is the deceptive appearance that they give themselves; the appearance that they are powerful, and prey upon a human’s desire to close to that sort of power.  Twilight might try to make sexiness for vampires literal, but it’s a common trait for vampires to seduce prey using charm and allure.  The LoS2 Dracula doesn’t quite fit that model though because he needs to star in an action game.  So you end up with a compromised character who may just be more sociopath than vampire.

Kat Bailey is right to share why Lords of Shadow 2 should make you feel uncomfortable.  And that feedback is valuable to publishers competing with a mobile industry that’s perfectly happy to take in excluded audiences.  Dave Cox is promoting a method of pushing the envelope for male audiences that actively repels female audiences, and he can’t seem to be bothered with understanding why that might be.

And with that, I’ll leave you with John Funk’s explanation on why exclusionary trends in gaming are worth criticizing.

And you know what? I love games so much, that that made me feel pretty fucking shitty! That this hobby that meant the WORLD to me couldn’t be shared by so many hundreds of millions who weren’t LIKE me. That it pushed them away.  I love games. … I want everyone ELSE to be able to love games like I do.

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