Thoughts on Sexualization and the art of Dragon’s Crown

So there has been some drama over Dragon’s Crown and it’s art for quite some. Some more got started when, in typical link baiting fashion, Jason Schreier of Kotaku attributed George Kamitani’s art to that of a 14-year old boy due to the sexualized imagery (a 3 sentence piece Jason dared call an ‘article’).

So Kotaku sucks (big surprise), but George’s response was…. interesting. Also here is an article talking about the response from the perspective of a gay man, for reference. I think it’s a good writuep and you can see our short exchange at the bottom of the comments where we’re both like “Well to be fair, this is JAPAN and they’re weird with how they handle homosexuality”. Because damn, separated from context, it’s hard to tell if the image is mocking or celebrating homoeroticism. Hell, without context, I’d actually strongly lean toward celebrating. Anyways, George took it down and sent an apology letter to Jason (the right thing to do) who then went on to write what came off to me as a half hearted attempt to take the high ground. He name dropped #1reasonwhy and sexual harassment in PAX and other big issues as to why stuff like Dragon’s Crown is a problem. Not that I think Jason’s respect for these issues is insincere, but I think that in this case, he’s using them as a ‘get out of jail free’ card for being a shithead link baiter in a previous ‘article’. Don’t just name drop a bunch of very important issues to pretend that you were being thoughtful. I think it was a pretty poor indictment and not particularly interesting (again, more of an escape attempt if anything).

Anyways, this is all complicated and interesting and stupid and all that and I only bring it up to segueway into ART and why we shouldn’t rake groups like Vanillaware over the coals for their artistic choices.

So who Gets to be a Pervert?

2342142-sorcererandamazonDragon Crown’s art is pretty ridiculous. No one is going to deny that. The Sorceress is, as they say on the 4chans, a ‘titty monster’ and you have the goliath, near nude Amazon. Everyone beside the elf and the Wizard are of truly ridiculous proportions. The style is an extremified, crazy anime version of the style seen by the likes of Frank Frazetta(almost literally referenced in how some of the coloring is done) and Boris Vallejo while also referencing the tropes of of old RPGs and classic beat’em ups like Golden Axe and the two DnD arcade games… All with a touch of ‘Vanillaware’ thrown in. Whether you like the style or not, George Kamitani is an extremely good artist

Now before we talk about anything else, lets get this out of the way. I don’t think you can fairly compare the sexualization of the Sorceress and Amazon with the hyper masculinity of the Fighter and Dwarf. This is a common thing that comes up in this kind of conversation. All the characters are thoroughly objectified (they practically exist as tropes, afterall), but there is a big difference. People like to say “Power Fantasy” in this context a lot and I don’t think THAT is fair either. I don’t think most people relate to characters like that (in games, anyways) — if we experience power fantasies, we do it through action, not through the anatomy of the characters we play. Bayoneta can be a power fantasy regardless of your gender. Instead, it’s really this simple: All characters are designed with the male viewer in mind. The “male gaze”. It’s that simple. The women are meant to be hot (though the Amazon is only hot to some of us more perverse perverts) and the men are designed to look ridiculous and awesome. That said, I don’t think that is inherently bad. Especially since the women are awesome too.

A lot of people writing on this issue like to write stuff like “I’m not saying artists shouldn’t draw what they like” (though they basically end up saying that) and other stuff and they seem to have a hard time figuring out where that line should be. You can’t expect a straight artist to be able to properly sexualize a male character for female characters, for example. Unless we assume any sexual orientation that isn’t ‘everything’ is sexist, we have to accept that the works that come from individuals that reflect their orientation aren’t inherently sexist. Simply bias. We don’t really see many complaints about women focused media. In fact, it’s existence is generally valued. Hell, if we complain about women’s media, it’s not because it exploits men, but because it’s still exploiting women. We complain about work targeted at men because it’s grossly disproportional and often cynical (not that cynical womens media doesn’t exist, but they’re sorta in a situation where they take what they can get). It’s problematic when a big company, employing hundreds of employees to make a “mainstream game” can’t really represent women very well and will throw women gamers under the bus to try and appeal to male players just a little bit more. It becomes a real problem when we’re talking about virtually every big game company. Bioware has shown that you can do a much better (though not perfect) job just by having a lot of women on staff.

So what about Dragon Crown? A small, niche developer. Their president is their lead artist who likes big thick ladies. These are the ideal developers to do what they’re doing. A big part of this is authorship. Vanillaware isn’t being cynical. They’re not being thoughtless (Though George’s comments on facebook may have been). They’re not throwing female players under the bus to appeal to men a little more… because that was simply never the game they were going to make. They’re not a big studio and their work is very much George’s work.

You might go “How is that not cynical”, but really, George’s over the top style is not ideal for that. To put this another way — perhaps what I said earlier was inaccurate about designing the characters to titillate men. In a very strong sense, it could be said they were designed to titillate George. It’s the same with Skullgirls. Being headed by artist Alex Ahad, the game can’t help but to be about sexy, curvy monster girls. It’s not a mistake or something that could have been avoided as part of development. It’s part of it’s identity. It’s different than someone at Namco saying “Hey for the next Soul Calibur, lets crank them titties up to ‘redonkulous'”. It’s a lot more personal and expressive… and this sort of thing isn’t exclusive to niche indie games. I’ll defend Bayonetta to the death because the project could have never been any other way… and because of it’s ridiculous, honest nature, Bayonetta has a surprising amount of female fans (though plenty of detractors and neither side is wrong for their preference).

Jason Schreier commented that Dragon’s Crowns’ art was embarrassing and he couldn’t play it in public. But George Kamitani and Vanillaware has no responsibility to Schreier. They are a small studio of about 2 dozen employees working on a niche product and their sexualization is very much part of the game’s identity.

Now, this isn’t a shield from criticism, but intent and context are key. It is fair to say that Dragon’s Crown sexualizes it’s women and objectifies the whole cast. Can we ask it to ‘do better’ like we ask a lot of games? We CAN (people can always do better) but if a game is doing what it’s trying to do very well, it can’t change very much. It’d be like criticizing an Edmund McMillen game for being gross. That’s KINDA WHAT THEY ARE. Asking them to change is ridiculous, we can only hope they do what they do well, which I think Dragon’s Crown does. I kinda wish Dragon’s Crown could have say, sexualized the Wizard, TERA Online style or something to have some vague notion of fairness, but again, the company is somewhat bound by the creative direction of a single person and that is actually one of Vanillaware’s strengths (also if his naked Dwarves picture is any indication, the Dwarf is the sexy one~).

“But I don’t want video games to be a ghetto of male centric media!”

Me neither! You’ve read my blog! You’re just barking up the wrong tree. It’s easy to get concerned with ridiculous, niche things like Dragon’s Crown, or Vanguard Princess or even really out there stuff like Rapelay, but these barely contribute to the problem. They barely contribute because they were never going to be another way. These are passion driven independant games — the only other option is them basically not existing. These are the types of games that SHOULD be doing this. Even something like rapelay, in my opinion, is far less harmful than the subtle sexism that we see in most video games. When something is horridly depraved porn, we KNOW what we’re looking at and we know it’s not normal. When we play play an MMO where women wear daintier armor than men, we don’t think much of it and it brings about the assumption of normalcy which is a far greater problem. It’s designs and storyline choices that were easily avoided mistakes that are the problem. It’s not trusting that female characters can lead a game that’s the problem. Sexytime is not the problem, especially very uncynical sexytime like Dragon’s Crown or Skullgirls.