Monday, 29 April 2013

The Dragon's Crown Controversy

Another lengthy gap between updates. Sorry about that.

Dragon's Crown is an upcoming action RPG by Vanillaware, as a spiritual successor to a 1997 Atlus game called Princess Crown. The gameplay is reminiscent of old side-scrolling beat-em-ups like Golden Axe and Streets Of Rage and a big part of the game's appeal is that all of the characters and enemies are hand-drawn.

Male characters, top to bottom - Wizard, Fighter, Dwarf. Female characters, top to bottom - Sorceress, Elf, Amazon.

They look phenomenal. In an age where most video game characters are bland, shaved-headed space marines, such exaggerated characters are a very welcome break. You don't often see characters so varied anymore. Muscular female characters extremely rare, for example, and although you can't see it underneath that helmet, the Fighter has more feminine features than we usually associate with such muscular characters, similar to the typical bishounen Japanese hero. Surely, in an age where, I'd say, ninety percent of characters belong to a standard "realistic" archetype with very little variation, everyone would welcome some fun character designs like these.

As if. A big deal was made over the Sorceress (and, to a lesser extent, the Amazon) character for her large breasts. Jason Schreier of Kotaku fired the most significant shot at the character but mainly, it was an insult towards the Art Director of Dragon's Crown, George Kamitani. In a very short piece, Schreier stated, "as you can see, the sorceress was designed by a 14-year-old boy".

Kamitani responded on Twitter by posting a message on Twitter saying, "It seems that Mr. Jason Schreier of Kotaku is pleased also with neither sorceress nor amazon. The art of the direction which he likes was prepared." It accompanied the following image:

It should be pointed out that while Kamitani's message and the above image might seem like a gay joke, that's apparently not what he intended; his message was translated from Japanese using an online translator and, according to Kamitani:
"In regards to the Dwarf image I posted on my Facebook page: This image was never intended to attack Jason. Originally, it was a promotional image that I created for my fan base in Japan, which I posted to the official Vanillaware Twitter account earlier.
We receive many requests from companies to create publicity illustrations for the game, but we never received any requests for the Dwarf. Also, as the game’s street date nears, most retail shops start requesting exclusive art for their retailer-exclusive bonus items. In Japan, these illustration requests can even be as specific as something like female characters in swimwear. In these requests as well, the Dwarf was nowhere to be seen.

So, I decided to unofficially draw a sweaty Dwarf in a bathing suit, with a bit of cynicism towards those retailer requests. I drew 3 of them to show that there are character color variations available."
So the image predated the tweet and, while there may be homosexual undercurrents, it's meant to be a jab at retailers who didn't show enough love for the Dwarf character.

Anyway, following the image being posted but before Kamitani's explanation, Jason Schreier released a follow-up article to explain his position on the Sorceress character more clearly. It was titled "The Real Problem With That Controversial, Sexy Video Game Sorceress".

In this one, Schreier singles out this one character, the Sorceress ... and proceeds to rant illogically about gaming being a "boy's club", about #1ReasonWhy, about women in the gaming industry being mistaken for receptionists at PAX East and how the Sorceress is representative of a much bigger problem. He does apologise for calling George Kamitani a fourteen-year-old boy but goes on to deliver far worse -- and more questionable -- criticism. Also, believe it or not, Schreier does use the phrase "male power fantasy" while writing about the Dwarf:
"Some have pointed out that the dwarf character—a shirtless warrior with disproportionate muscles—is just as sexualized and over-exaggerated as the sorceress. That's true. He's also straight out of a straight male power fantasy, tailored for men just like the sorceress's skimpy clothing and ridiculously jiggly breasts. The design comes across as juvenile, like a hackneyed comic book or a God of War game."
As ridiculous examples of "male power fantasies" go, the Dwarf really takes the cake. This is not an attractive character or, as far as we know, a popular character or a particularly powerful character. It's a short old man with so many muscles that he'd have difficulty moving his limbs in real life. Yet he's a fantasy for men?

However, the main point of Schreier's rant is to portray the Sorceress' design as representative of all the sexism against women in the video game industry. At one point, Schreier goes so far as to say, "hordes of sweaty male attendees trample one another in order to get the best photos of booth babes". So in trying to denounce a fictional female character for being sexist, Schreier uses sexist insults against men in real life.

Let's start with that; Schreier already made it clear that he wasn't above insulting others, including people in the gaming industry like George Kamitani -- which is about as unprofessional as it gets, in my opinion -- and cements this reputation by going on to stereotype male con-goers. Why? To protect the integrity of fictional women. Jason Schreier wants to see a change; he's fed up of the stereotype of the large-chested female video game character. So fed up, in fact, that he's willing to sell everyone down the river for the sake of this principle; original video game art, the artist responsible for them and male gamers.

Schreier's justification for this is "I don't want to look at this game in a vacuum, or laugh off the sorceress as harmless sexual exaggeration, or accept that this is just Vanillaware's style". However, the big question is, why Dragon's Crown? All Schreier has done by complaining about it is give publicity to a game that likely would've slipped under most people's radars before he criticised it. I certainly intend to buy it. Trying to make Dragon's Crown into some kind of anti-martyr -- using the game's art style to rant about the treatment of women in the game industry -- all Schreier has done is shoot himself in the foot. People who weren't going to buy it before still won't and plenty of new people will.

It has to be pointed out that Schreier is not even right; we're used to seeing this response by now. It's reminiscent of Anita Sarkeesian and the idea that "I don't like it so it must be wrong". While female characters in gaming may be stereotyped as simply being large-chested sexualised objects, it's nowhere close to the truth; I'm sure anyone reading this right now could come up with at least ten video game series featuring small-chested and non-sexualised female characters. Mario, Zelda, Metroid, the Final Fantasy series, Half-Life, Portal, Uncharted, the Tomb Raider reboot, Resident Evil, The Sims ... and those are just the high-profile ones I could come up with. Lesser-known series, take your pick; just looking at the small collection of games next to my PC, I spy Freedom Force, Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic and Fable.

Going back to Dragon's Crown, the problem with Schreier's reaction -- and he's not the only one -- is that his opinion stops dead in its tracks as soon as he sees that the game has a sexualised female character. It happens often. People see what they want to see, to maintain a victimhood narrative; it's why there was a backlash against Bayonetta, in spite of the fact that the character's sexualisation was meant to be over-the-top to the point of parody. It's why people heard Lara Croft making "orgasm noises" when she got hurt in the Tomb Raider reboot. And now ... Dragon's Crown.

With three male and three female characters, all with varied body types, and all the focus from Jason Schreier is on one of them (or two of them at the most; the Amazon sometimes receives flack, for the same reasons as the Sorceress). It doesn't matter that the men are as exaggerated as the women or that two characters -- the Wizard and the Elf, male and female respectively -- aren't exaggerated at all (and never mentioned by Schreier, incidentally), the mission seems to be "stamp out all examples of sexualised female characters", even if there are non-sexualised examples in the same game and men are treated the same way. I saw a comment on Kotaku that pointed out that the Sorceress would have back problems if she had breasts that large in real life. Nobody pointed out that the Fighter's legs wouldn't even be able to carry his colossal torso. People don't seem to realise that these characters are meant to be exaggerated; that's the point.

Thankfully, in spite of many Kotaku comments agreeing with Schreier, there are plenty of people who disagree with him. Schreier himself said that he likes the art style, just not the Sorceress' and Amazon's character designs. I have two big problems with this; firstly, it's completely sex-negative. In spite of Schreier's insults towards Kamitani about being a fourteen-year-old boy, isn't Schreier's reaction towards a woman with large breasts rather childish? Isn't being unable to handle mildly erotic content in a game a sign of immaturity? If a game developer goes so far as to put pornographic content in their games, I think it'd be fine to complain. I wouldn't consider that sex-negative at all. That's not the case here, however. In this case, the art director for Dragon's Crown created one character with deliberately exaggerated sexual characteristics and several people are now reacting like he should be ashamed for drawing what he wanted instead of what they wanted. After the controversy above, George Kamitani even went on to apologise in an e-mail to Kotaku. That's not right. It leads me to my second point.

My second point is why did Jason Schreier think he knew better? In fact, why was he given the time of day? It disturbs me to know that game journalists have the power to sway game developers just by throwing a few insults in their direction. It certainly seems that way from Kamitani's e-mail to Kotaku:
"I am not sure if I can implement the critiques from him and others around the internet into my future artistic creations, but I will definitely keep in mind that these opinions are out there and affect people on a personal level."
Those of you who weren't following the Dragon's Crown controversy at the time might find this hard to believe but there was something deeply shameful about the way Kamitani was treated; first as a sexist, then as a homophobe. Although it was Schreier's entitlement that started it all. In spite of the fact that there was at least one other female character without a large chest, Schreier felt that this one also shouldn't ... because he didn't like it. And the sake of all the women in gaming was at stake!

As for the Sorceress? She wasn't necessarily intended to be sexualised anyway. In George Kamitani's own words:
"I exaggerated the silhouettes of all the masculine features in the male characters, the feminine features in female characters, and the monster-like features in the monsters from many different angles until each had a unique feel to them. I apologize to those who were made uncomfortable by the art’s appearance, and did not see the same light-hearted fantasy in my designs."
So there you have it. More than that, however, someone on Kotaku named RPGFan copied a post by a blogger named HokutoAndy that shed a lot of light on Dragon's Crown's character designs. The level of detail is astounding; for both the Dwarf and the Sorceress, HokutoAndy brings up imagery from historical works and other Vanillaware games. An incredible trend that he noticed is that in many of George Kamitani's works -- Odin Sphere, Grim Grimoire and now Dragon's Crown -- several women with something in common have large breasts; the Queen of the Underworld, two professors of necromancy and now, the skeleton-summoning Sorceress. Why? Well in his words; "the functional purpose of breasts in mammals is to provide milk for offspring, they give life. George Kamitani uses this motif for his characters who give life to the dead." He compares them to fertility statues and analyses the poses. It's remarkable. I can say without any fear of contradiction that it gives better counter-arguments to Schreier's complaints than my petty rant.

As for Jason Schreier, and all video game journalists, in fact, I'd like to say this; if you want to change the video game industry, learn to write, draw or code and do it yourself. Just don't use high-profile websites as a soapbox to air your personal issues. You don't speak for everyone. While I was looking for the Sorceress picture above, I came across a lot of fanart for Dragon's Crown, even at this early stage. There were even some Sorceress and Elf cosplayers. There are people, women included, who are mature enough to deal with characters who have large breasts and even -- shock, horror -- like them. Stop insulting your audience. Stop trying to "dumb down" character design.

Edit: Everyone must read this article from Giuseppe Nelva of DualShockers. It's perfect. It encapsulates what an ugly situation Jason Schreier created and I think "when an artist feels compelled to apologize for his art style it’s a clear sign that video game journalism has reached a new low" says it all.

Let's finish with something cheerful; a video of Dragon's Crown! For the love of God, buy this game in August!