Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tired of Sex

Monday night I'm makin' Jen
Tuesday night I'm makin' Lyn
Wednesday night I'm makin' Catherine
Oh, why can't I be makin' love come true?
Weezer, "Tired of Sex," 1996

Played through the first hour or so of Dead Rising 2 last night, and I've already found something to gripe about that's not the save system.

(Note: minor spoilers ahead. Abandon hope all ye, etc.)

I like the game so far; it seems to be a solid iteration on the original, with a number of technical refinements and some welcome variety to the formula. I get to put on silly costumes and kill a bunch of zombies with found objects and that's all great fun.

But Christ, the women in this game.

In the opening sequence - in which protagonist Chuck Greene competes in the WWE SmackDown of the zombie apocalypse, a televised spectacle called Terror is Reality - we meet these ladies,

who immediately proceed to emasculate Chuck with some heavy-handed, confusingly unprovoked banter. The requisite innuendos - implying the dwarfism of Chuck's genitalia and/or his latent homosexuality - are delivered with the awkwardly stilted tone of a precocious ninth-grader's murder-mystery script. And it may just be a function of the cutscene's parody of a WWE broadcast, but as the camera swooped in to close on the girls' curvaceous figures, pausing to linger on their backsides, I couldn't help but think: the fuck is this all about?

Not that I had high hopes for a nuanced portrayal of character or a less-than-absurd tone in Dead Rising 2, but this was just weird.

Obviously, the game is setting up these women as future antagonists. Fine. It's a dumb tactic, but there's nothing quite like being emasculated - not even, say, devotion to God or country - to put a "real" man in the murderin' mood.

And given that this is a Japanese franchise - and a videogame, period - it's not especially surprising to see hypersexualized female characters front and center. Still, this encounter felt more gratuitous than usual.

Let's back up a bit. Just prior to this scene, we've witnessed Chuck being harassed by a fellow contestant as they prepare to enter the arena. Guy makes some stupid trash-talk comment about Chuck losing his wife to a zombie attack in Vegas. Chuck's reply - a quiet, terse "Save it for the show, shithead" - is a terrific little piece of characterization, with a great delivery by the voice actor and a smartly-framed closeup on Chuck's narrowed eyes. It's a small moment, but an unexpectedly interesting one.

Contrast that with Chuck's interactions with the similarly hypersexualized reporter Rebecca Chang:

You don't get a good sense of it from this screenshot, but so far, this character is even more absurdly and needlessly oversexed than the evil twins above. I won't give away the plot device, but for someone who should be, at least initially, fairly antagonistic toward Chuck, she is awfully flirty with him. Nevermind the huge chest, flawless skin, statuesque legs, and miniskirt; Ms. Chang's cloying voice and frequent, unprompted sexual innuendos are the primary culprits here.

At the point I got to last night, Rebecca bends over needlessly low to give Chuck (and the camera) a long look at her shapely ass as she unlocks a door. "What are you waiting for?" she asks, beckoning Chuck through. To which, our grieving widower, worried father, and potential fugitive from justice, replies, "Just admiring the view."

Again: the fuck?

You kind of have to see it firsthand to understand just how weirdly different the hypersexuality is in Dead Rising 2 than in other games, but, to quote Christian Bale: IT'S FUCK-ING DIS-TRACT-ING.

Setting aside any discussion of depictions of sexuality in games, or the ethical implications of the continued objectification of women in popular media, let's just agree on one thing: this kind of stuff adds nothing to your game. Unless Chuck's relationships with these women go somewhere - granted, I haven't yet seen most of the story - I don't understand what is gained by the game's insistence on fetishizing them.

It is possible, I suppose, that Dead Rising 2 is setting up a possible relationship between Chuck and Stacey, the zombie-rights activist he meets in Fortune City. So far, Stacey appears to be an attractive, but not overtly sexualized, female character.

Maybe there'll be some overarching motif where hypersexualization is linked to danger or betrayal and the game will become some kind of brilliant meta-commentary on sexuality and violence. But let's be real: it'll probably have the intellectual weight of a Miller Lite ad.

The thing about beer-commercial sexuality is that it's designed to sell beer. We've already bought the game, and we didn't buy it for gratuitous T&A. We bought it to slaughter us some zombies with chainsaws duct-taped to kayak paddles.

And that's why the hypersexuality here is particularly sigh-inducing. It's yet another reason we have to admit: this is why we can't have nice things.


  1. I agree with you about it being distracting. Feminist concerns aside, hypersexualized characters are often simply *unbelievable* to the point that they damage the credibility of the fictional world. This is what did in MGS4 for me in some ways. Highly advanced bionic soldiers who... wear make up? Uh... whatever, Kojima. Way to shatter my suspension of disbelief.

    Occasionally the sexualized nature of a character can have some coherent baring on a story, like in Haunting Ground, a fairly underrated game in which the sexualized protagonist (sexualized somewhat against her will, because she is forced to wear a certain outfit) is the target of sexual obsession from a series of stalkers the player must outwit. Her sexiness is, of course, there fore the (male) players as well, but at least it has a rational in the story, and voyeurism, the gaze, and sexual possession are potent themes the game feels rather self-conscious about.

    What you say about DR2 doesn't seem surprising, but I tend to cut Japanese games a lot of slack for it - different cultural norms and all that. DR2, though, is made largely by a Western developer... which perhaps complicates the whole thing. (Yet I'm willing to believe they had almost zero input over story, character design, etc.)

  2. See, that's the kind of game I want. As a male, I've never been subject to the catcalling and objectifying of the "male gaze." What if HEY BABY had been an actual full-featured game and not just an art project? Games provide this amazing opportunity to inhabit & experience the perspectives of, to use a tired academic term, "the other," and yet all too often all we seem to get is bros teabagging bros and Barbie dolls with chests that put Dolly Parton to shame. The sexuality serves no thematic or functional purpose other than (I guess) titillation.

    I suppose you could argue the sexuality in Dragon Age serves a narrative and gameplay purpose - but I challenge you to watch those cutscenes without cringing, chuckling, or both.

    And yeah, it would be really interesting to know to what extent Capcom actually gave Blue Castle the reins here. Something about the sequel, like the original, still feels indelibly Japanese.

    Will have to check out Haunting Ground. Dammit, you won't be satisfied until I've bought a PS2, will you? :)

  3. They're pretty cheap now. :)

    I highly recommend Haunting Ground actually. The sexuality is simultaneously crass and too complicated to blow off. It should come as no surprise that the game is heavily inspired by Dario Argento, and successfully embodies a lot of the sexual tension he was famous for. In Japan the game was called "Demento" which makes the Argento connection clearer and is a much better title.

    It's also one of the most beautiful games on the PS2, with art direction that rivals Ico, MGS3, and FF12. Save for sheer resolution, the graphics don't look dated in the slightest. It is really one of the best, unsung horror games of the last decade.