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The Immature Medium

Sexuality in video games. Is it mature or immature? Context is the key.


Boobs. They pop up every now and again in video games these days. None more so than in Dante's Inferno, an action game from Visceral Games and EA. You are virtually assaulted by them in the opening few minutes of the game and at times the appendage in question fills most of the screen. Indeed, one level finale has giant breasts filling the entire background during most of the lengthy battle. It's not the sort of game you can play with any sense of seriousness in the company of others, that's for sure.

Bayonetta, another action game in the same genre, this time however developed by Platinum Games and published by Sega, is another crowd cringer of a title. Bayonetta is literally and figuratively bulging at the seams with sexuality, with each cut scene finding a new angle and way in which to ruthlessly expose the heroine's slithering form. Packed with innuendo and blunt over-sexualised dialogue, the gameplay too joins in on the orgy leaving the star of the show almost entirely nude during certain attacks in game, with only a sliver of cover granted for the very extremities.

Dante's Inferno had the pleasure of being at the centre of another controversy however, but one which can be linked to the display of the virtual boob. Many were adamant the game had committed some kind of catastrophic blasphemous sin against the medium and that it was the absolute example of immaturity in the gaming industry. You see, the game was loosely based on the classic poem the Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri, a work that is widely regarded as one of the most important in all of world literature. Visceral Games certainly didn't aim low, but they were shot high, low, and in all weak spots for their trouble. One major gaming forum playing host to a thread with the title “Dante's Inferno is the most insulting game ever made”. The author, 'Dacvak' going on to say:

“...they're trying to tell the tale in a similar fashion of God of War, except they manage to make the epic completely uninteresting by focusing on the most mundane but "shocking" details. And tits. So many tits. With the exception of the hilarious sex mini-game in God of War, the tits made sense. They weren't a big deal, nor were they emphasized. I'm halfway through the demo, and I've seen, like, 20 nipples already.”

To the authors defence, he hardly mentions the terrible sin of the 'bastardisation of the Divine Comedy', only calling that aspect in “bad taste”. The crux of his problems being that it copied many features of another popular series of games, God of War. However, bringing up the subject of tits, and my running boob theme, lets us in on an interesting observation. That God of War's sex scene was 'hilarious', and that the 'tits made sense'.

Now, I'm sure from a perspective of the mainstream tits make sense when they are a side distraction and a simple visual stimuli for the average teen male. Turn on any music channel and you'll be bombarded with video clips of women simply being used as hooks to keep the viewer interested, long enough for the song to be cemented in the mind as catchy. The boobs make sense, the exploitation of women makes sense, because that's what we are used to. They exist so we feel that the singer is sexually desired by all and perhaps if we take part in the enjoyment we too will be sexually relevant to the desired partner of choice.

The sex scene in God of War 3 goes like this: You pilot Kratos, the hero of the game, toward the door of Aphrodite's chamber, and as you enter a cut scene begins. Female moaning and groaning can be heard before the camera pans up to Aphrodite's bed, where she's busy having a pretty good time with her two bare breasted servants. She notices Kratos and bids them away. A short dialogue ensues where Aphrodite complains about her worthless husband and begs Kratos to join her in bed. She hasn't had a real man in her chamber for a long time, she mentions. After a prompt of Yes or No to join her, the sex scene begins and the camera pans away to the former servants who are now watching. During the scene the player is prompted to press certain buttons and move the controller in various ways to fulfil the scene requirements, all the while the servants watch and say they wish it was them with Kratos. Eventually they get too turned on and start having sex with each other.

Once the scene is over you move on, entering the portal behind a curtain next to Aphrodite where your next mission begins, and where Kratos' real man adventuring of ripping heads off bodies and well, angrily killing anything that dares step in his path continues.

The scene is a distraction, and has no context other than to cement the fact that Kratos is a man that kills who he wants and is wanted by every woman, reasonably similar to most themes in mainstream music. One youtube video uploader of the particular scene (as there are many) uses this as the comment: “Kratos Fucking The Hell of Aphrodite in HD The New God of War's Sex Scene is Epic and horny !!”.

The games director, Stig Asmussen, was himself unsure what the point was for the scene when talking to UGO: "It was more a debate between me and several of the story writers. I was like, 'I'd rather not have it in there at all.'" When asked what the purpose of the sex minigame was he said "You asked a very fine question, and I felt sort of the same way. What is the point? If we do it, it has to have a point. Women like sex too... I don't know, it's not like we're doing a porno or something," he said.

Asmussen went on to say, "I definitely think about the female audience when I think about violence against females, though. "We always try to do (the sex) in a way where the woman had a choice, and we wouldn't want to do something like a rape scene or anything like that. I get what you're saying, but violence against women is something we definitely avoided."

How does this differ to the rampant breasts flung around in Dante's Inferno? Well again, I believe it all to be a matter of context. You may be getting an eyeful of boob every few seconds during the first areas of the game, yet it is the story which takes the forefront here. Dante's wife being laid bare to the viewer as he finds her dead body represents a loss of innocence, as she's been betrayed by Dante and made a pact with demons. Her nudity following is testament to this as she is courted by her new demon lover, innocence now a thing of the past. Nothing is sexualised, no innuendo, just the sad tale of a man who has lost virtue and his lover as a result. 

A later level is indeed sexualised, with the aforementioned boss fight where boobs fill the entire background for extended periods. While cringe worthy if anyone happens to walk in the room at the time, once again the context is there. The player is battling through one of the circles of hell, Lust, and as cliché as it is these days, in hell it's not like they'd try and be a little more understanding of one's surroundings or PC culture. Temptation is the running theme and I have a feeling Satan wouldn't hold back.

The controversy of the bastardisation of the poem didn't last as long. Most people and critics alike came around to the ludicrous idea of video games being expected to hold a higher standard than other forms of media. Movies have been borrowing ideas from classic literature for nearly a century and doing a worse job representing them too. EDGE magazine came to their senses when they realised they had mistakenly hopped on the hate bandwagon when it came to review the game, saying in its reviews introduction piece:

“A classic is whatever you say. Case in point: The Divine Comedy. It wasn't called that at all until Giovanni Bocaccio decided that the Dante's plain old Commedia deserved the added Divina. It wouldn't be published under that name until over 200 years after the poets death. And who was this saint Dante? It was a mere two years ago that Florence, the city of his birth, got around to rescinding an order he be burned at the stake if he ever returned. That must have been a relief."

"You sense Dante would have had nothing but scorn for the current spectacle of hand-wringing critics having a whinge about the reinterpretation of his work by Visceral Games. The Inferno is a section of a poem, let's not forget, which isn't especially pleasant."

"When you get to the likes of William Blake's interpretations, it's pretty grim stuff. Nobody would criticise him, naturally, because he's an artist, and he's entitled to interpret. Mickey's Inferno, a Disney retelling with its own characters? The bits in Dungeons & Dragons' own Nine Hells that are directly ripped from Dante's version? Professor Fate's 2007 album The Inferno? Entitled, entitled, entitled. Regardless of what anyone thinks of them, no one believes such references shouldn't exist. History shows that the poem will survive and grow through whatever is done to it."

"Except, it seems, in the anxious critical atmosphere around videogames, where even approaching a 'classic' is subject to so much speculation that it's a wonder Visceral is able to hold its tongue. Rather than engage with the game and figure out what it's doing, many have dismissed it based on assumptions about what it'll be. Dante's Inferno isn't a great game, but that's beside the point: before playing it, many have decided that a combat-focused videogame isn't capable of doing anything with this source material. (Looking back, we were too cynical in our post-E3 report last year.)"

"The quality or otherwise of its interpretation should be held distinct from the fact that it is an interpretation, and its right to exist is sacrosanct to anyone who claims to evangelise the medium. You can think anything you wish about Dante's Inferno as a videogame – but at the same time you have to be prepared to defend its right to exist.”

I don't think much more needs to be said on that matter.

But boobs, sexuality in video games. Is it mature or immature? Context is the key. Is the flamboyant escapades of Bayonetta wrong? Is it an exploitation of women or empowering? Again, context, and context is only discovered by the will to explore it. The casual viewer may dismiss Bayonetta as the typical buxom image of women in the medium, but the player knows different. Gamasutra's own Leigh Alexander wrote a piece on this very subject for Gamepro and surmises:

“That emphasis on style over character substance isn't every player's taste, but it's not inherently unfair to women in this case. Kamiya's thematic choice for Bayonetta is an undercurrent that unifies the entire game, thus giving her sexuality context -- and context is the most important consideration in judging whether an element is appropriate or not.”

It's an interesting subject for thought as to why Bayonetta's themes and the context they are in work so well. One that I'm not going to go into detail here. But it does work so well and even while gyrating and thrusting the game still maintains a level of sophistication and context that holds it all together. Personally I can't help but think it's akin to an Austin Powers movie, where the innuendo and sexual content is so over the top you can't help but marvel at its own self-awareness.

Immaturity in the medium of videogames is more a fault of the critics and gamers than the games themselves. We are so obsessed with being taken seriously (see the furore over Roger Ebert continuing to say videogames aren't art) that more often than not we are our own worst enemy. While it's somewhat impossible for people outside the industry to appreciate and understand due to the interactivity of the medium – which means they never gain context – we ourselves need to understand that boobs may sometimes represent more than titillation.

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