Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"I Should Have Been A Pole Dancer"-- Bayonetta

I was thinking Bayonetta should be my new girlfriend, but now I’ve changed my mind.

I know I know. Back when I still felt we could have something, one could have said ‘get in line’. There must be an army of gamers, nerds, bi-curious goth girls and whole lot of other people who want to be Bayonetta’s special someone.

But she’s just too devoted to her work. She’s got the looks, the confidence and a caboose full of talent (her caboose in fact took weeks of design work to get just perfect)… but when would she ever find time for me? I think I’m a pretty cool guy, but I’m not acrobatically-blasting-angels-all-the-time cool.

In all seriousness though, for all the praise her game gets… and the verdict from those who’ve played the game is overwhelmingly positive… Bayonetta as a character seems to polarize opinions.

Whether her visual design is appealing, it’s going to come down to individual taste, of course. I just find it really interesting how many people are willing to come out with their opinion ‘heatedly’ on this topic. Male characters? Oh, there might be an occasional ‘I think he looks cool’ bandied about, but it is pretty rare that I’ve ever seen fans wax prolific on the aesthetic appeal of Master Chief, Ryu, or Mario. JRPG players don’t count of course.

I haven’t seen this much love her/hate her stuff since early Lara Croft appearances, and she was FAR less realistic. Back in the Saturn/PSX days when Tomb Raider first came out, artwork for Lara Croft showed a very stylized, but confident heroine. And that was sexy. But looking back at those days of crude polygons, a lot of that sexiness was projected. In the promo art, Lara was drawn with tools orders of magnitude more powerful than the graphics engines in the Tomb Raider games themselves. So though she looked video game-y in the art, she was still recognizably a woman and she had some power to emote her toughness and confidence. In-game, like most characters of the day, she was more of a mess. Polygonal graphics were new and exciting so we all got kind of hyper and romantic about it, but those visuals have dated badly. If you look back at Tomb Raider now, you might think its cool from a nostalgic view but you could hardly call Lara (or Sarah from Virtua Fighter or any of the first wave characters) attractive. Sprite art, as old-fashioned as it is technologically, has aged a lot better. There’s a really humorous page on IGN (normally a place I’d stay the hell away from) somewhere that goes over a lot of the old ‘sexy’ polygon characters and serves up a big dish of ‘what were we thinking?’. The Dead or Alive girls are probably the first place an inkling of ACTUAL attractive starts to show. A little.

That’s really not the case now. Remember when you played a game, and when the rendered cutscene came up how cool you thought it’d be to play the game if the graphics were like that? I know a lot of players thought that very thing watching the intros to Tekken.Well, that day has come already. For some time now, not only have in-game graphics surpassed the cutscenes of the nascent polygon games, they typically don’t bother pre-rendering the cutscenes at all. I actually kind of like this. Even in the days when graphics were cruder, I always preferred narrative stuff to be delivered in the same graphic style and at the same graphic level as the parts I actually played. Cutscenes pull you out of the game as it is, I’d rather the visual transition not be so obvious.

So now that the bar has been raised very high on character design and the power to deliver is in the hands of developers, we’re getting games where a character can literally have a power to appeal in a real sense. The characters are frequently stylized, as Bayonetta is, but the weight, textures and movement scoot them close enough to reality for more than just the otaku to love. Hell, when I worked at GW I saw dudes get uncomfortably sweaty over inch-tall female elves… Bayonetta is practically a porn star next to that!

So Bayonetta at least looks, moves and talks something akin to a real-world woman, and like any person in the media (even though she isn’t real) she has gotten public scrutiny. For better or worse, like Lady Gaga if she were on your Xbox 360. Bayonetta’s design derives from a mix of runway fashion, goth/fetish style, and the Japanese pop culture aesthetic known as visual-kei. If it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, that’s fine. Personally I like her looks. But couple that with her in-your-face sexuality and she’s got some people freaking out. She doesn’t actually perform any sex acts in the game, but she has a slightly foul mouth, a suggestive manner, and her clothes (made of her hair) mostly come off during her finishing moves… though no ‘bits’ are shown.

I find it annoying (and even slightly disturbing) that people have a problem with this. Annoying because it is the same Puritan braying one can always expect from certain corners, but coming now from corners I wouldn’t expect. Slightly disturbing because this is an obviously adult woman displaying confidence in her abilities and sexuality… a SIGNIFICANT occurance in video games, let alone one hailing from Japan. Remember? The country with a rep for demure schoolgirl and lolita fetishes? Bayonetta is like the complete opposite from so many of the women and girls populating games and anime from Japan that… I dunno… Is culture shock of some form causing people HERE in the USA to react so strongly? Like OUR video game players are so condition to lolis now?

In Japan Bayonetta has been pretty well embraced. Developer Platinum Games kinda skipped around the loli & fuku thing by casting Bayonetta as British/European. Japanese boys and men often find western women exotic and their storied forwardness (compared to Japanese women) is part of the appeal. So Bayonetta is probably not a direct reaction against the pedo grain, but she’s something. She’s a better character, male or female than most western games manage too. I think that Ruby from Wet, and Faith from Mirror’s Edge are great. And they are sexy in their way. But they don’t flaunt it like Bayonetta does. And that seems to be a large part of the problem for people, even some reviewers who should know better. A lot of people are acting like this is a stereotyped portrayal of a woman in games, ‘when are we going to see a character that isn’t all about skin and sex?’ they say. I don’t know the answer to that, but this is one of the very few times when I’ve seen a female protagonist that KNEW she was about skin and sex and not just being vampy to achieve an end. It may be fan service but because with Bayonetta it doesn’t seem accidental or voyeurish it doesn’t FEEL so much like fan service. It’s just out there. How is that a stereotype in video games?

Don’t think there are women that act like that? You need to get out more. Most women don’t act like Bayonetta outside of partying on a Saturday night (and at the goth club you get the looks too) but for Bayonetta it’s a party all the time. She’s always ‘on’ cuz it’s a fantasy world, duh. Nothing about her world is supposed to be truly realistic. Everything’s exaggerated. They don’t have guns strapped to their heels but given the right context there are plenty of women who will give Bayonetta a run for her money in attitude and confidence in their sexuality.

If you don’t like the character, you don’t like the character. Maybe it shows just how far video games have to go when a character like Bayonetta is such a standout. While I can’t recall a film character that’s a lot like her, there are all sorts of female leads available… and portrayals get more diverse all the time, even if only by inches. Kate Beckinsale’s character in the Underworld films probably pulls a lot of the same strings in fans.

As to the game: I’m not the biggest 3D action gamer on the planet. I gave the Devil May Cry games a miss and most players seem to think that is the game’s closest relative play-wise. I’m not completely at sea… I know God of War, Shadow of the Colossus and some others. I found Bayonetta’s game world to be hugely interesting, and the foes really cool and different. Having one foot in goth-dom as I do, that artistic sense probably a lot of the appeal. The game’s hugely violent and gory. Probably another plus.

The combat engine is smooth and has a really cool dodge mechanism that activates Bayonetta’s version of ‘bullet time’… a thing so many action games seem to think they need these days… but here its pretty damn awesome. Blah blah blah you can find this stuff on any review site… they mostly think the same thing I do.

There’s a ton of hidden shit, and I didn’t find the game to be too short. I thought it was a good distilled action experience. So many gamers want these humongously long games and that’s just crap. Some of the best films and novels aren’t padded out just to make sure you got your money’s worth, but the game market is what it is. Perceived value is such a pain in the dick. Bayonetta was the right duration to get through the basic game if you include a bit of exploration in each level instead of just bashing right through it. Doing it that way you’d get 14 to 18 hours out of it. Then you have additional hours of going back and playing to find all the hidden Alfheim portals or perfecting your level medals.

About the only complaints I would have are that getting really good score medals is almost too hard and takes more practice and replays than I care to do… enh, not really a complaint, I guess. I just have too many other games to get to. And kids. I have those also. Some of the QTEs (quick time events) come up on you quicker than you can react and are lethal. You can have spent a whole level in near perfect combat, fuck up a QTE, and then get a shit medal because you had to use a continue. That’s probably a complaint a lot of games would get for their QTE events, wouldn’t they? There are a few more (and longer) cutscenes than I would prefer, but at least they were entertaining and I was interested enough in the narrative as it went along. It is never good when you feel like you are watching more than playing and Bayonetta ALMOST crossed a line there.

I bought the Japanese version of this game in November of last year (2009) but didn’t start playing it until the western release at the beginning of 2010. Bayonetta sold pretty well in Japan. I don’t know what the numbers here in the west were, but when I went into a Gamestop on release week I was pretty dismayed to find Darksiders released at the same time. What marketing strategy fucknut at Sega came up with that? Darksiders is also a you-versus-the-angels-and-demons semi-apocalyptic 3rd-person action game… only it stars a huge Games Workshop-looking MALE badass with a sword bigger than he is. Who do you think Johnny 14 year old is going to buy that week? He might like Bayonetta’s boobies, but he might also be intimidated by them given the whole package from which they jut forth. The protagonist of Darksiders is just much more (homo)cozier and familiar. Don’t get me wrong. I bought Darksiders and will probably like it. But Bayonetta did NOT need that kind of competition. And what was being advertised in the shop at the time (besides Darksiders and not Bayonetta)? Dante’s Inferno! ANOTHER dude fighting quasi-religious entities in a 3rd person action game. So now Johnny 14 year old has to think about maybe saving his ducats for THAT game. Or maybe getting Bayonetta AFTER he’s got his second helping of heretical gore. By that time he’ll be all heretical-gored out and won’t want our heroine’s game. Unless he REALLY likes her boobies.

I’m actually being a little sarcastic above. All the mentioned games are rated M, and we know no video game stores would ever sell a 14 year old a forbidden game, yeah?

In the case of Dante’s Inferno, all the glorious nudity and perversion that people think is inherent in Bayonetta is right out there in the game. Dante’s Inferno is so closely based on the old epic poem that they actually have his girlfriend Beatrice nude the whole game. What? You missed the part where Dante wrote Beatrice was naked and had great tits when he saw her after the Inferno? Me too. Wait’ll you see the region of Lust in the game.

I would kind of like to get the guidebook for Bayonetta. I don’t normally go in for guides, but a) I wouldn’t mind some combat tips and help finding the Alfheim portals… I just don’t have time to invest in it the old fashioned way, and b) the limited edition is really super spiffy. Black hardcovers and red ribbon. Not released in the USA, though. In fact, our fucking guide got canceled. Could that be because it didn’t look like it would sell well enough amongst all the Dantes and Darksiders? And because Prima still holds the rights, this cool European one can’t be sold by American dealers. So I gotta try to find some UK or continental seller that’ll ship it to me.

Anyway, its early going, so leading contender for my Game of the Year though Bayonetta is, there’ll be a lot more going before 2010 is over. Bayonetta, I love you, but it just wouldn’t have worked out.

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