Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Torture Double Standard


I had two topics in mind for this blog post. One was about good female characters and how they tend to get overlooked in favour of the bad ones. I can save that for next time. There were two reasons I settled on the torture double standard instead. The first was because I'd already mentioned it in my last post. The second, surprisingly, was thanks to Feminist Frequency and the Tropes Versus Women Tumblr.

I've been checking the Tumblr since it was created, just to see which games make the list. However, after my mention of torture in Dishonored in the last blog, there was one game that I was actually hoping would be added: Final Fantasy VIII. Two days ago, it was.



I wanted FFVIII to be added because if they did, in my opinion, it'd be a perfect example of the double standard that Feminist Frequency promotes when picking the games they want to catalogue. Now, Final Fantasy VIII does feature a damsel in distress; Rinoa, the love interest, pictured above. That's the picture posted on the Tropes Versus Women Tumblr, although personally, I wouldn't have picked that one. I would've chosen a moment earlier in the game, when Rinoa is backed into a corner by two Iguions (half-iguana, half-lion monsters) and the main character Squall has to rush in and save her. The moment pictured above is shortly before Rinoa would have been blasted into space in a device designed to suppress her sorceress powers (it's a long story) and Squall rushed in to get her. However, this isn't a damsel in distress moment because Rinoa actually goes willingly. It's more like a moment in a romantic comedy where the hero rushes through a crowded airport to try and stop his love interest from getting on the plane. Albeit a Final Fantasy-ised version ...

The reason I wanted to single out FFVIII for the double standard was because, with the exception of Irvine, all of the six main characters in the game are damsels in distress at one point. Except for Irvine, they're all held captive in a prison in the middle of the desert. Negotiations are made for Rinoa's release and she talks Irvine into returning to the prison to save their friends, who are pinned down by gunfire at that point.

Squall, however, is given the worst treatment. He's severely beaten by his nemesis, Seifer, and then tortured for information that he doesn't have (and, in fact, doesn't exist).


Not only is this an example of a game on the Tropes Versus Women Tumblr that features male characters in distress as well as female ones but also an issue where men are predominately the victims but isn't considered an issue; torture.

Right from the off, I'll point out that men aren't always the ones being tortured. I don't have a list as comprehensive as Feminist Frequency does, so I'm putting a lot of faith in the examples listed at TV Tropes instead. From my own experiences though, Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic is the only game I can recall that features a woman being tortured. It actually doles out the torture relatively equally -- the Sith like to use Force Lightning to torture prisoners and even potential recruits, both male and female -- but the most high-profile character that suffers torture is Bastila Shan, the first named Jedi the player meets.

In spite of that example, however, torture does seem to be directed at men more than women. Most people who've owned a Playstation in the last fifteen years will recall Metal Gear Solid's torture scenes very vividly. They were significant moments in MGS1, 2 and 3, to the point that it was a surprise when the fourth game didn't feature one. The first two games featured Solid Snake and Raiden, the main characters in their respective games, being bound to a metal slab -- much like Squall in the picture above, actually -- and being tortured with electricity. The third game featured a much more grisly example. It featured Naked Snake being bound from the ceiling by his wrists, suffering beatings and electric shocks until he wet himself, and it ended with his eye being shot out (albeit accidentally, although had the bullet gone where it was supposed to, Snake would've been killed).

Fans of Metal Gear Solid 1 will point out that it's possible for Meryl, Snake's naïve companion-slash-misandrist extraordinaire, to be tortured too. If the player chooses for Snake to give in to the torture, Meryl is supposedly subjected to the same treatment and dies (and the player gets an alternate ending). However, there are two reasons this doesn't really compare to the torture of the male MGS heroes, Squall or even Bastila. First of all, it happens off-camera. There's a logical reason why -- we follow Snake's story and, since he doesn't see or hear Meryl being tortured, we don't either -- but nonetheless, we're exposed to Snake's pain and not Meryl's. Secondly, it's not "canon"; Meryl isn't actually tortured according to the game's storyline, doesn't die and is still alive for Metal Gear Solid 4. So, while I don't want to say "Meryl's torture may as well not have happened", because I feel like that undermines the seriousness of the story if you take that choice, it's clearly not in the same category as the torture of Solid Snake, Squall or Bastila. Just like I'd say none of those are in the same category as Naked Snake's torture in MGS3.

One last thing to note before I move on from MGS is Tropes Versus Women's damsel in distress pictures of Meryl. They post three of them, all showing Meryl lying on the ground in various stages of distress. This implies that she's a damsel frequently in the game but, as seems to be a trend with Tropes Versus Women, this is misleading; Meryl is captured in the second picture (or shortly after, off-camera) and isn't rescued -- or found dead, depending on whether you gave in to the torture or not -- until the third. It's one long instance of being a damsel, rather than happening on separate occasions. The first picture, I don't recognise. It looks like the area before the fourth boss, Psycho Mantis, but I can't recall Meryl being a damsel in distress during that part of the game. Hypnotised, yes. Damsel in distress, no. Perhaps it's because those screenshots are from Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, which I've never played, and it's a moment that wasn't in the original.

So why is torture a fine thing to use against men in games but not women? My theory is it's used because it's one of the few ways you can shock the audience using a male character. Modern audiences don't react to male characters being killed unless it's in an especially gory manner, in games such as Mortal Kombat and Manhunt. The same goes for pain; unless it's something like Ethan cutting his finger off in Heavy Rain (which could be considered torture in itself), with its disturbing, realistic and drawn-out screaming response, then pain is normally just a small depletion of a character's health bar. It's something your character takes and then keeps on going. Torture doesn't do that. It treats the pain seriously, makes you realise it's horrific. And in the examples mentioned above, it doesn't serve to show how tough the male hero is either.

"It was hell ..." says Squall, after his friends finally release him. "I've been better," Naked Snake croaks, his voice weary and cracked. It humanises these heroes a lot but have we really come to a point that we need to show men in severe, prolonged pain to see them as human?

There is room for that, so I'm not saying I want to eliminate torture from games. Given the choice, I'd prefer it if torture did bring out a male character's emotional side rather than ignore and gloss over it quickly. That would be a mistake. In fact, all the examples above except for Metal Gear Solid 3 have all used fantastical elements -- they all use electricity but from futuristic machines and, in Star Wars' case, the hands of a Sith Lord -- so it helps separate it from reality, even making it appealing to the player. The environments are interesting, the tense dialogue has the player on the edge of his/her seat, etc.

However, I think if you want to humanise these characters, there are elements to use as well their pain and fear. Being tortured shows these characters in their moments of weakness, so do developers really want to send the message that being human is a weakness for secret agents and teenage soldiers? Or men in general? Torture has a place in games but in Final Fantasy VIII, Squall's romance with Rinoa does a better job of defrosting his icy exterior and showing his human side. It's not an either/or situation though -- FFVIII features torture and a romance plotline -- but it seems that developers enjoy sticking to gender roles, giving women the more emotional moments and men, the Hollywood one-liners.

One thing I haven't touched upon is the likelihood of more women being tortured in games. Well, it'd be an interesting thing to see, especially if it revealed their more human sides, and I say that because groups like Feminist Frequency are already heavily critical of damsels in distress because they exemplify weakness; a woman is captured and has to rely on a man to save her. Place a female character in a situation like any of the Metal Gear Solid heroes -- who, unlike Squall, don't need anyone else to rescue them -- and you'd have an interesting dynamic. Would they be criticised for their weakness by these groups? If they were shirtless like the Snakes (presumably with something covering their private parts) or completely naked, like Raiden, would they criticise the torture for being an example of violence being sexualised? Especially if Colonel Volgin, the torturer in Metal Gear Solid 3, made the same remarks about a female torture victim's body that he did about Snake's. The thing is, we've seen plenty of female characters these days delivering quips while shooting bad guys and spouting the Hollywood one-liners in the face of danger. Making these female characters vulnerable at a time when they really should be vulnerable would be the daring, courageous thing for a developer to do.

As it stands now, there's a double standard. Even if you ignore my theory of torture being used to humanise the male characters, it's strange that men are subjected to the treatment more often than women anyway.

I know this blog hasn't been as example-heavy as some of my others -- I only mentioned three series' and one of those was about a female character being tortured -- but these were the ones that raised the most issues. They went on for the longest, for example, and don't gloss over the issue. One of the other games in my collection that featured torture significantly but didn't make the cut was Condemned: Criminal Origins. There's a serial killer in the latter half of the game called the Torturer, who tortures his victims, lets them go, and then stalks them until they commit suicide. We meet one of his victims, still alive but covered in blood, missing an arm and even his lips have been removed. Very grim. The Torturer soon finds himself being tortured by the game's main villain, who copies the modus operandi of the serial killers he murders, although we only catch a glimpse of that. The Torturer eventually commits suicide by impaling himself on a fire poker. There certainly wasn't any humanising there but Condemned is meant to be dark and shocking, so I give it a pass. However, the player character, Ethan Thomas, gets his finger cut off at the start of the game's last level, so even he faces being tortured. And let's not forget Dishonored ...

I wrote this blog entirely from my own experiences with games I own, in spite of saying I'd be using TV Tropes for reference. Still, feel free to check the Cold-Blooded Torture and Electric Torture pages for examples I glanced at. I'm particularly interested in the example from Wet. From the sound of things, it seems like that example of torture is used to empower its female character while the examples I listed are used to weaken the male ones. It's times like this that it frustrates me to not have Feminist Frequency's resources because it'd be interesting to find out if that's the case with more games.

... And after thirty seconds of searching on Youtube, look what I found. The torture of Rubi Malone in Wet highlights the double standard I was writing about four paragraphs ago. While Squall in FFVIII mocked his torturer with a one-liner if you chose the right dialogue option, every one of Ruby's lines is like that. She shows no vulnerability. Just the tough-talking Hollywood one-liners I mentioned earlier. Now fair enough, I haven't played Wet. It doesn't look like the kind of game that "does" vulnerability in its heroine. It calls for an action girl, so the writers wrote Rubi as an action girl. What concerns me is that it might be an example of the way female characters should be treated in games; there are so many pitfalls concerning showing female characters as anything but strong that Rubi, and others like her, will be the standard.

As always, feel free to leave a comment or write to me at themalesofgames@gmail.com

2 comments:

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  2. I actually don't really enjoy watching a protagonist being tortured at all in a game, especially since a lot of it seems (to me) fetishistic in nature. it's like kojima has mel gibson syndrome or something.

    will women ever campaign or protest to see more women being tortured in video games or movies/tv? I doubt it very much.

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