Wednesday, 3 October 2012

The Sexism Of Heavenly Sword

Hey all. Another long blog.

I know it sometimes seems like I fall back on the same games on this blog -- Heavenly Sword and Tomb Raider, or at least Lara Croft -- but trust me, it's not intentional. I actually intended to write about something else in this post but, thanks to a slow internet connection, I wasn't able to get onto YouTube to do some research. So we end up back at Heavenly Sword, which I've finally played through again.

First of all though, an apology; I stated a few posts back, and elsewhere online, that Heavenly Sword features only male enemies. That turned out not to be true and I'm sorry for misleading anyone who's never played the game. Ninety-nine percent of Heavenly Sword's enemies are male but there's that one percent that isn't. That's actually important because, for all my talk of how much I dislike the groin attacks against the "all-male" army in HS, the groin attacks can all be done against female opponents too. I want my research on this blog to be accurate, so I have no problem setting the record straight.

That aside, there's still plenty of stuff in Heavenly Sword worth talking about. I hope people who've played Heavenly Sword forgive me for this but since a lot of the sexism in the game takes place in cutscenes, I'm going to be explaining the whole story for people who've never played the game. Expect heavy spoilers. So first things first, here are the characters you need to know about:

 Top Row, L-R:

Nariko: The game's main character and narrator. Wields the Heavenly Sword for most of the game.

Kai: Also a playable character. Uses a crossbow. She became Nariko's "kind of" adopted little sister at some point before the game's beginning, after her mother was killed (more on that later). I'm not sure if she has mental disabilities or if she's simply "quirky" but she treats battles as if they're a game.

Shen: Nariko's father. Leads the clan that Nariko and Kai are a part of. The clan's job is to protect the Heavenly Sword at all costs. Described by Nariko as "a tutor first, a father second". That'll be important later on.

Clan Member: Honestly, I just included the clan member in this picture because I didn't want an odd number of faces. Clan members are all male and all serve the same role; to be selfish, cowardly, helpless and sexist against Nariko.

Bottom Row, L-R:

Bohan: The game's main villain. A rapist. Played by Andy Serkis.

Flying Fox: One of Bohan's "generals". Really annoying voice. Killed Kai's mother.

Roach: Bohan's son. He suffers from mental disabilities and Bohan hates Roach calling him "daddy". Frequently suffers verbal abuse at the hands of Bohan but loves him anyway.

Whiptail: Bohan's "consort". I have a theory on Whiptail's role and treatment in the game that I'll go into at the end.

Now onto the game's story. It opens with Nariko narrating about a prophecy that stated, "a deity would be reborn, in the body of a mortal man". Nariko was born instead and many of her people view her as a curse because she was born female rather than male. At the start of the game, Bohan's army attacks the clan because he wants the Heavenly Sword. One of the clanmembers voices his displeasure with this turn of events and states it's because of Nariko, since she's a curse. This earns him a choking from Nariko.

Now basically, even if you've only played this far, it kind of sets the tone for the game; we've already received the message that "being female is a curse". Even her fellow clanmembers voice this opinion, earning themselves a choking from Nariko in return. Let's start with the "being female is a curse" part; already, the more "Genre Savvy" player will know what's going to happen. It removes any doubt that Nariko will screw up in some way or fail at her quest. Now, I'm not specifically blaming Heavenly Sword for that, since the hero rarely fails in any game, but it actually stops Nariko from being a hero just because she can be; her sex is being insulted and degraded by being described as a curse and that makes her a representative of womankind in this fictional universe.

The choking is unpleasant for more obvious reasons; a male hero could never choke a female hero and still be considered heroic. Even if a woman referred to the man as a "curse", you wouldn't see him choke her in response. The only example I can think of in gaming is in Resident Evil 4, where Leon becomes possessed by the parasite infesting his body and attempts to choke Ada (who isn't even especially heroic). This earns Leon a knife to the leg and a swift knee in his midriff, to free him of his possession. The clanmember didn't do the same to Nariko, obviously.

Anyway, at some point during Bohan's attack, the clan flee their base but Shen tells Nariko to stay behind to fend off the attackers. She's also left in charge of the Heavenly Sword, which seems like a bizarre thing to do, since the clan is running away from the attackers but she's standing her ground against them and she's all alone. It works, however, and she survives the assault while the clan make their escape. Once she's done, Nariko has to escape too, and it's during this part of the game that we get a truly excellent piece of dialogue.

The first time I played this part of the game, five years ago or so, one of the enemies you ran into mocked Nariko for being "an under-dressed angel". I actually really liked that. It was clever and self-deprecating, willing to joke about one of the minor features that so many messageboards would be up in arms over; yes, the main character is female and yes, she's wearing somewhat "inappropriate" clothing for battle. It was what TV Tropes would call a "Lampshade Hanging". However, that was five years ago. This time I played the game, the enemy said something even better: "Take that carving knife back to the kitchen, wench". A "stay in the kitchen" insult! Just in case you weren't aware that women in Heavenly Sword are treated like crap, there's that hi-larious line of dialogue. So if you think Ninja Theory were being unfair by making Nariko's clan sexist, don't worry, a soldier in Bohan's army managed to top it by being more sexist.

At the end of this part, it turns out that the clan didn't escape after all. Bohan makes his first speaking appearance, with Shen as his prisoner. Shen is badly beaten and Nariko appears sympathetic. She decides to make use of the Heavenly Sword (which mustn't be done) rather than just protect it. Bohan sends some soldiers to attack Nariko, as an excuse to give the player a tutorial on how to use the sword. During this fight, you can hear Bohan say, "Bring me that sword. If she still happens to be attached to it, so much the better." Yes, Bohan is implied to be a rapist. This becomes even more overt later on.

Nariko runs, unable to defeat every single one of Bohan's army there and then. As Shen and the rest of the clan are taken back to Bohan's base to be held captive, Nariko is reunited with Kai, who managed to escape by hiding. Now, it's reasonable to think that Kai is better at hiding than the rest of the clan, which is why they didn't hide (or maybe they did, but were found) but let's recap; all the male clanmembers are taken prisoner. Both the female clanmembers were able to escape. Worst of all? This isn't even the male clanmembers' lowest point in the game. In any other game, it might be, but not Heavenly Sword. The epitome of their uselessness comes up shortly afterwards.

We get a cutscene introducing us to the villains. This is meant to be an analysis rather than a review but it comes across as a bit forced; they spend time talking about each villain, then moving onto the next without so much as a line of dialogue explaining why. We have Flying Fox, a creepy teleporting man who speaks in a very irritating voice. There's Whiptail, a scantily-clad snake-fish lady who is also Bohan's "consort". Many of her lines are about how much she admires him. And there's Roach, who is a huge overweight beast with mental disabilities and suffers verbal abuse from his father, Bohan, and the occasional object thrown at his head. However, he loves Bohan and can't seem to grasp that Bohan hates him.

Nariko is able to rescue the male clanmembers, except Shen. The first thing they do is thank Nariko for rescuing them but, when she suggests they help her find Shen, they selfishly refuse. They only care about their own lives. Then, the same clanmember that thanked Nariko says Shen was foolish to trust her with the Heavenly Sword … even though she just used it to rescue them. So the clan continues to be sexist towards Nariko and now decide to show their true cowardly colours. This is the epitome of their uselessness.

Shen is found by Nariko soon enough, being held captive by Whiptail. Earlier in the game, Nariko narrates a tale of a recurring dream she has of her father, Shen, killing her. After Shen is freed, Whiptail reveals that this stems from a moment when Shen wanted to kill Nariko at birth but couldn’t. Nariko actually reacts angrily at Shen not killing her and tells him to leave her. Somehow, I can’t imagine Mario basically telling Princess Peach to piss off after rescuing her. Combined with the rescue of her fellow clanmembers, there seems to be a recurring theme of Nariko rescuing men who she then deems unworthy of rescue. According to the game, Nariko and Kai are the only heroic souls in a sea of complete jerks.

Shen makes his escape, having suffered injuries while being held prisoner. Kai uses her crossbow to kill all of Shen's attackers. When he's finally to safety, Shen holds his arms out for a hug but Kai runs past him because she only cares about saving Nariko. Shen says, "I have led hundreds of men through life and death. Why do these girls never listen to a word I say?" It's kind of amusing but also sad because of how true it is and how little it makes sense; even before basically giving him a big "screw you" after rescuing him, Nariko was disobedient and disrespectful towards Shen. She ignored his orders to help Kai and it turned out that she was right to do so. I have no idea why it was so important to have Shen come off as wrong in that situation. Why not have him tell Nariko to go and help Kai? Without it, and with his capture, he comes across as an ineffective leader. Bear in mind that this is a man who was described as "a tutor first and a father second" and who tried to murder his own daughter at birth. So he's hardly winning father of the year but apparently, he's no good at being a leader either. He's portrayed as useless so the two women can be portrayed as wonderful. Lionising women at the cost of men.

Meanwhile, Nariko is fighting Whiptail. Heavenly Sword shows cutscenes during boss battles and during one of Whiptail's cutscenes, Nariko mocks the gashes on her cheeks with the sentence, "Was it your master who turned you into a slit-faced psycho?" Whiptail reacts with a shocked expression but that doesn't necessarily mean that Bohan did cut her cheeks. She could've been shocked at the insult in general. She neither confirms nor denies that Bohan made her look the way she did but the implication is that someone sliced those markings on her cheeks. I'm inclined to think it was Bohan but, without it being conclusive, I'll leave that one alone.

Anyway, Nariko defeats Whiptail but is knocked out in the process, meaning Bohan can finally get his hands on the sword, which is lodged in Whiptail's chest. Bohan taunts Nariko's actions by saying, "You’d never see me rescuing my father, the crusty old pervert", continuing the trend of bad fathers. Bohan runs his hands suggestively across Whiptail’s legs even while she’s dying and then, after exchanging a few "sympathetic" words, he snaps her neck and turns his attention back to the sword without a second’s thought. Remember earlier, I said that Flying Fox killed Kai's mother? There seems to be another trend in Heavenly Sword of the villains showing how evil they are by killing women. That's the threshold that turns regular bad guys into complete monsters. Whiptail wasn't exactly good but she was probably the least evil of Bohan's generals and, frankly, by being the victim of Bohan's uncaring murder, she becomes a martyr; all of a sudden, this horrible man she loved shows his true colours and how little he cares for women by murdering the woman closest to him. Honestly, the only thing worse would be if Whiptail switched sides and joined the good guys. That would really hammer the "men are evilz" point home. Actually, as I come to think of it now, Whiptail may be the only character Bohan kills in the game. Ditto for Kai's mother and Flying Fox.

With Nariko taken prisoner, Bohan taps his codpiece with his fingers suggestively and mentions to Nariko that they should “get to know each other a little better”. This is the more overt display of Bohan's wish to rape Nariko I mentioned earlier.

Bohan puts the Heavenly Sword in his armory and makes the classic villain mistake of leaving the hero alone rather than killing her on the spot. So Kai has snuck into Bohan's base and she visits Nariko in prison. Nariko wants Kai to get the Heavenly Sword back and Nariko says, "I don’t have anyone else", because, of course, the male clansmen were too injured, selfish or cowardly to help. This is an interesting bit: during the conversation, Nariko mentions being alone. Kai says, "Kai was alone once. But then Nariko found Kai. And Kai wasn’t alone. And Nariko wasn’t alone either". Wait a second … unlike Kai, Nariko was never alone. She always had Shen and the clan. So the only explanation for Kai’s "Nariko wasn’t alone either" remark is that men don’t count as company and either Nariko, Kai or both only value women as companions.

So Kai goes to get the Heavenly Sword back from the armory but to do that, she needs a password. And to get that, she finds the guard captain who knows the password, points her crossbow at his crotch and threatens to fire. Obviously, this is treated as comedy.

I'd like to pause for a moment because I'm sure people will point out that other games/films/television shows have treated groin attacks as comedy. Heavenly Sword is nothing new on that front. Why single out Heavenly Sword?

Well, I don't want people to think I'm singling out Heavenly Sword because there are other games with uses of groin attacks that I object to. However, it is slightly different in a number of ways. Most notably, it actually serves a purpose in the storyline; unlike, say the one-hit-kill groin shots in Metal Gear Solid and Johnny Cage's crotch-punch from Mortal Kombat, Kai threatening the guard in Heavenly Sword with genital mutilation earned her the password. She was actually rewarded for threatening to destroy a man's genitalia. What's the reward in Mortal Kombat and Metal Gear Solid? Removing a bit of your opponents health and a one-hit-kill, respectively. There are other ways to do those things in those games. However, even after Kai destroyed his hiding place, the guard captain refused to talk. He spoke up immediately as soon as his genitalia was threatened. So the message, apparently, is "women, you can get what you want from men if you threaten to mutilate their genitals. And it's not a bad thing to do, it's funny!"

You also have to take into account that because this happens during a cutscene, it's not comparable to the MGS or MK examples; those serve a purpose in gameplay while the scene pictured above could've been completely avoided if Ninja Theory didn't want it in the game. There is no equivalent in Metal Gear Solid or Mortal Kombat. Remember the keycards in Metal Gear Solid 1? You usually received a new one after each boss fight, to access new areas. Imagine if Snake had to threaten every boss' genitals while saying funny lines to get them. Sniper Wolf's death would certainly be a lot less depressing, although to say it would be in bad taste is an understatement.

There's also the issue of the misandrist themes in the rest of the game. Unlike MGS and MK, there aren't any positive male characters in Heavenly Sword. On its own, the threat of a groin attack from the quirky comic relief character of the game might serve as the fun little one-off joke that it was meant to be. Combined with the rapist, woman-killing villain (who later gets a completely serious elbow to the groin), his woman-killing sidekick general, the ineffective leader and father of the heroine, the sexist bad army, the sexist good army and the flawless heroines, a far worse light is shed on the supposedly-funny threat of genital mutilation.

Anyway, back to the game. Kai gets the Heavenly Sword back but Flying Fox attacks her. This is where we learn that he killed Kai's mother and kept her corpse on display in the armory as a trophy. So Kai has a flashback to this and runs away from Flying Fox, who she's terrified of.

For his own entertainment, Bohan pits Nariko against her clanmates – who were apparently recaptured off-screen, without mention – and states this simple outcome; “last man standing lives, everyone else dies”. For some odd reason, however, there’s no in-fighting between any of the male members of the clan. As soon as you gain control of Nariko, it’s everyone vs. her. I think this was just to make the game less hectic than a free-for-all but it certainly comes across as odd. All the male clansmen want to kill Nariko but she’s given the option to kill or paralyse all of them. Maybe they figured she was bound to win unless they banded together against her? It's probably best to not read too much into that one, since I think it was a deliberate gameplay choice rather than just to show how sexist the clan was against Nariko. Again.

So, Nariko wins, Kai gives her the sword back and Nariko goes on to fight Roach. Not much to say here. Nariko wins but Roach survives. Nariko escapes. Flying Fox almost kills Kai, Nariko fights him, Kai ends up with enough life left in her to land the killing shot on Flying Fox, as revenge for killing her mother.

Nariko finally returns to the clan, carrying an injured Kai in her arms. She gives Shen the cold shoulder when he greets her. While Kai was kidnapped, Nariko narrates that when she found Kai, she didn’t want her to face a life of battle. So when Nariko returns to the clan, we get this exchange:

Nariko: "That is why I have returned."
Shen: "To fight for us?"
Nariko: "No. To fight for her."

In other words, it’s only Kai’s future that Nariko cares about. Not the other male clanmembers. Strictly speaking, hasn’t Nariko already failed to save Kai from a life of battle? Surely, there are better examples of innocents than a girl who has murdered hundreds but no; it’s Kai, and only Kai, that Nariko cares about.

Bohan's army attacks again and during a cutscene, Shen acknowledges his failure to be a father to Nariko with the sentence, "I know that in my desire to be your tutor, I neglected you as a father. It was a poor decision, for me and for you". Nariko replies with, "if you hadn’t, I probably would’ve died a long time ago". It’s pretty much the only moment of father-child bonding you see in Heavenly Sword but it also has what TV Tropes refers to as "unfortunate implications"; Nariko outright says that she values Shen more as a tutor than a father. Combined with Bohan’s verbal and physical abuse of Roach, the game practically sends the message that "fatherhood isn’t needed". At best, there’s no value in it and at worst, fathers are abusive scumbags. Shouldn't the game have pointed out that teaching a child to protect themselves is part of being a father?

Anyway, typical final battle stuff happens; Nariko fights army, then fights Bohan, elbows Bohan in the groin during the final quick-time event and wins the fight. During the final cutscene, Bohan gets his eyes pecked out by a Raven-God that he worships (it's complicated) and, just as Nariko wants to kill him, Roach shows up and begs her to stop. He says he wants to take care of Bohan and finally, Bohan seems to acknowledge him as his son. So maybe I need to amend my previous paragraph; fathers are worthwhile people after they've suffered severe injuries. Only incredibly severe though. Shen is captured and beaten? Not good enough. Bohan has his eyes pecked out? Yeah, alright.

Nariko dies at the end of the game -- the sword eventually kills whoever uses it -- and she gives it to Kai to hide. That's that.

So let's look over the characters again. Nariko and Kai are flawless. Shen is useless as a father and ineffective as a leader. Bohan is an abusive father, a rapist and a woman-killer. Flying Fox is a woman-killer too. The bad army is sexist. The good army is sexist. Out of all these characters, Shen is slightly sympathetic but you only sympathise with him because Bohan's treatment of him is so brutal. You could fit any character in his place and the audience reaction would be the same. There's literally no other reason to care about Shen; he tried to kill Nariko at birth and Nariko herself admitted he was better as a tutor rather than a father; emotionless rather than emotional. Roach, who I haven't written much about in this blog, is actually the only male character who's sympathetic and that's because he suffers from mental disabilities and has an abusive father. Plus, lest we forget, even though I learned that there are female enemies in the game and you can perform the same groin-attacking moves on them that you can on the males, the ratio of male-to-female enemies really is more than 100:1. The female enemies are so few in number that I had to replay an area with female enemies just to do more groin-attacking moves, to make sure they could be used. So 99% of the enemies you slaughter are male.

What about Whiptail? Well she's an interesting one because I have a theory that she represents everything that feminists criticise in games. She's scantily-clad. Her dialogue is sexual. She only exists to serve a man. She's even the first boss and the first character to be killed. Just to make it clear that all these things are bad, she's a villain. Nariko and Kai are everything that Whiptail isn't. In spite of what feminist critics of Nariko might say, she's not an example of an over-sexualised female character. The only skin she shows is on her arms, legs and midriff. She's reasonably small-chested. Her outfit doesn't reveal her cleavage. There are no gratuitous shots of her rear. None of her dialogue is sexual. The same goes for Kai and, being a teenage girl, her outfit is even less sexual, covering her midriff. The heroines are complete opposites of the villainess; they are enlightened while she is stuck in a dark age.

The thing is, I've heard certain works described derisively as "a male fantasy". Usually any show or film where an unattractive man ends up with an attractive woman. So why isn't something like Heavenly Sword described as "a feminist fantasy" or at least "a misandrist fantasy"? I don't think I've ever heard those phrases used outside of stories featuring female-only utopias. However, if I had to come up with a mainstream work that fit that description, Heavenly Sword would be it.

So is Heavenly Sword an awful game that you should never, ever play? No, actually, it's not. It's worth playing once. Rent it, if you can. I said in a previous post that games can feature content that deeply offends you, but you can still enjoy them if the gameplay is good enough. Heavenly Sword is one of those games. It won't keep you playing for months on end but it's fun for a little while. I like the blocking system and the quick-time events are nowhere near as annoying as I remember them being. Probably because I played games featuring much worse QTEs since then.

Phew! So that's finally over and done with. Sorry that this blog took so long, by the way. As always, contact me at or leave a comment below if you want to give feedback or suggest a topic for a blog post.