Monday, March 4, 2013

On Video Game Dresses and Unnecessary Boobs

This article contains at least one spoiler (Xenoblade Chronicles). Just so you know. The twist is pretty damn predictable though after not-so-many hours into the game.

Lately I have encountered a lot of talk about how women are represented in video games. The topic itself is hardly new - after all women have been represented in video games rather poorly since the dawn of history. My stance? I definitely agree that there are severe problems in this area. I don't fully agree with all the criticism towards games, largely because to me it seems some feminists are seeing enemies absolutely everywhere and - spoken as a male - their attitude can be rather hostile. Then again, the gaming community's common reactions are even more hostile. I'm not here to argue this issue though - I'm more interested in design implications. What we're gonna look at is how the poor visual design of female characters can be quite harmful to a game's enjoyability.

This is KOS-MOS. She is a battle android from Xenosaga - which you might have guessed by looking at the big-ass guns she's packing. She is also packing something else: big boobs. What exactly is their purpose in the design, do they deflect bullets better because of the round surface or what? Also note the skin-to-armor ratio. Okay so she was built by a big nerd, which explains why she is female in the first place (there is no in-game explanation as far as I recall, and she doesn't pass as a human in any scene) - although said nerd had a girlfriend who was actually working with him on the project. Actually - this part is a bit hazy I'll admit - but the girlfriend (actual protagonist of Xenosaga) must have been the one to upgrade KOS-MOS frame into this:

So I am guessing maybe she did the original design too. To get to the point: there is no in-game reason for KOS-MOS to look like this. Sure there is no in-game reason for her to not look like this either, but the design doesn't make much sense. This didn't actually bother me while playing the game - you watch enough Japanese anime and come to accept this as the norm. KOS-MOS is also an interesting character and forms a solid duo with the series - also female - protagonist. Both are actually what I think passes as quite good female character design in terms of writing. In KOS-MOS's case, she remains a good character despite having an overly (and unnecessarily) sexualized body. Maybe it is easier to ignore because she doesn't really care either - there is no sense of sexuality in her programming.

This is also why I am not particularly bothered by what girls in fighting games are wearing. They have no personality at all; they are practically just dolls that fight for their master (you, the player). They make no effort to even pass as women so they don't really portray any kind of image about women. This is why I think it's wasted effort to get offended by the way they dress - it is much akin to being offended by porn. That effort is better spent on criticizing characters that actually try to pass as women - characters with actual personality. Characters that suggest that an actual woman might wear something as ridiculous as we often see in games - even when the dress is in direct conflict with their personality. KOS-MOS looks ridiculous, yes, but the way she looks doesn't draw attention away from her role in the game. Let's talk about someone who doesn't enjoy such a benefit.

I find it somewhat uncomfortable to say out loud that Tifa is my favorite character in Final Fantasy VII. What people remember first about Tifa is her boobs. Let's face it - it is rather hard to not pay attention to them because they're just ginormous (more so in the game than above!). The realism card usually flies right out of the window when discussing games, but seriously, if you've seen actual athletic people you know there is no way she can have boobs that big. It's gotta be the mako energy. Useful stuff for powering reactors, creating power-granting materia and I guess concentrating all of your body fat into boobs. Of course her cloth-to-skin ratio is below 0.5 to boot. What makes Tifa far more offensive than KOS-MOS is the fact that the writers have actually spent a great deal of effort to create a quite realistic girl with strong character.

Tifa is in my opinion a much stronger character design than Aerith (although Aerith's personality does get some curious implications when we get to look at her past in Crisis Core). The problem is, this is often lost because people mostly associate Tifa with huge boobs. So it's not just that her appearance is both unrealistic and offensive, it also very successfully obfuscates the marvelous job done by the script writer responsible for her personality. Whoever did the visual design for Tifa clearly did a huge disservice to the rest of the game. Unfortunately, "unnecessarily big boobs" is a rather common syndrome in games (from top to bottom: Lara Croft (Tomb Raider Underworld), Selvaria Bles (Valkyria Chronicles), Beatrix (Final Fantasy IX)):

Dress design can also have rather large impact on how seriously a game can be taken. It is actually Xenoblade Chronicles that gave me the spark to write this piece. The game features armor that actually changes the character model (this is rare in Japanese RPGs so it's noteworthy). The game does this actually quite well - it even remembers what pieces of equipment characters were wearing when it shows flashbacks from earlier (or it fakes very convincingly). However because it is stats that dictates what equipment is worn, the combinations can look rather awkward. Which would also be fine and expected, but some pieces are in fact rather humiliating. It is rather difficult to get into the right mood when two characters are having a meaningful conversation while the other is in what looks like underwear and the other with a torso like this (couldn't find a full pic - it looks worse in-game):

Mind you, Fiora is not an android void of human personality - she's a cyborg. Moreover, when asked about how she feels in her new robotic body she keeps convincing everyone that she really feels comfortable with it. We are talking about a sexually inexperienced young girl (she has her first kiss during the game), who apparently is very comfortable with baring a major part of her breasts and some of her buttcrack to the world (the latter spotted during a camera drive while she was in that outfit). What is up with her breasts anyway? Did they purposefully upgrade them to practically point upward? Puts a whole new meaning on the word firmware. She actually has at least semi-decent outfits and now I kinda see another reason why a lot of games that have alternative character models still use the default models for cutscenes. If for instance Xenosaga II had shown its swimsuit models outside of combat I would have found it very hard to take the game seriously. Here is Fiora's default btw:

So whether you care about how women are portrayed in games or not (you should though!), there are other reasons to not let male fantasies dictate costume design. These reasons affect the gaming experience as a whole. The designers of KOS-MOS got away with her sexualized appearance, but others like those responsible for Tifa or Fiora certainly do not. I get the desire to create hot characters - attractive characters get a game more attention whether we like it or not. I also get why there are fighting sex dolls in fighter games - although they give gaming a bad image they don't really do any harm to the game. So I say let them have their softcore porn. This kind of design just should not crawl into games with actual characters. Tasteful can just as well be hot - perhaps even more so than tasteless.

It was refreshing to read the Persona 4 Official Design Works. The artist interviewed for the book emphasizes how much effort they put into matching each character's appearance to their personality - and vice versa! Of course there is no need to emphasize this, the advantage is obvious from just playing the game. With good synergy of visual design and script writing, the game succeeds in having some of the most convincing girl characters in its genre - even across genres really. Since we started with a robot girl, and they have been an ongoing theme, I want to throw you one more because Persona 3 shows much more taste. Although it is not clearly stated why she is a girl, storywise she needs to pass as human which explains all her anthromorphic features (i.e. breasts).

The Persona example, conveniently from the same genre as the rest, goes to show that by putting emphasis on plausible visual design the end results are simply better. Getting away with sleazy design is not exactly something to be proud of. Yet it seems that developers try to do it all the time. If overtly sexualized characters ever end up on lists like "best female characters" know that they are there despite their ridiculous appearance. Hell, even on "hottest female characters" lists they could rate higher with more tasteful clothes. So as a closing shot, here is Karin - she would probably love to have more decent clothes.


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