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July 13, 2012

Lollipop Chainsaw -- Or, What Makes a Character Attractive?

This is probably going to be the most asinine thing I’ve ever written (with the emphasis on ass), but bear with me here.  What I do, I do for the sake of…well, not science, but just to gauge the opinions of fellow gamers.  Or writers.  Or kung-fu cassowary slayers.  I know you’re a niche audience, but you guys need some love too.

Anyway.  A while back, the snafu with Jessica Nigri and Lollipop Chainsaw got me thinking.  The game’s lead heroine, I’d wager, was designed with a specific goal in mind to convey a specific feel for the game.  Say what you will about how many zombie games there are (too many, in my opinion) but there’s a contrast that I like in seeing rotting, moaning hordes of the undead going up against a cute, bubbly cheerleader.  As if to hammer that point home, this same character attacks with a roaring chainsaw, yet fires off rainbows and hearts just as quickly as she does zombie blood.

Juliet fulfills certain requirements that need to be checked off -- and at a base level, she does so with her looks.  She’s lithe and leggy, befitting her cheerleader status; in fact, some art I’ve seen depicts her as being roughly eight heads tall compared to the usual five or six.  (It’s a design decision that evokes thephilosophy of the much-discussed Bayonetta.)  In addition, being a blonde comes with all its own tropes -- doubly so thanks to the twin pigtails.  She was designed to be identifiable and quantifiable ten seconds after first meeting her, as she would if you were in high school and you cane face-to-face with a cheerleader.  In the case of “judging a book by its cover” Juliet makes an unabashed statement. 

Is that a good thing?  Yes and no.  Yes in the sense that -- for the most part -- I can see why the developers would give Juliet’s design the OK.  It’s all in the spirit of fun; in a console generation where armor colors and designs = personality (and bland ones, at that), it’s refreshing to see someone who isn’t covered in four hundred pounds of metal and muscle.  And SMILING, no less!  It’s like a dream come true!

And then there’s the part of me that says “No, this is a bad idea.  This is wrong.”  Like why does the heroine have to be in such a state of…shall we say, undress?  I know there are probably cheerleaders with uniforms like that (maybe), but that begs the question of why she has to be a cheerleader in the first place.  I’m anticipating no shortage of “suggestive themes” in the game, and the fact that some of the special costumes are from Highschool of the Dead -- an anime that is a verifiable singularity of lady parts -- led me to believe that there would be some fanservice throughout. 

And lo and behold, when I finally got to play the game, my suspicions were fulfilled.  But that wasn’t a deal breaker in the least.

Yes, there are an absurd number of panty shots.  Yes, there is a character that faceplants into Juliet’s chest, with an extreme close-up, twice.  There are costumes that would inspire a very awkward conversation between gamers and parents.  Juliet’s boyfriend Nick -- now just a head -- has been strategically positioned to allow for even more panty shots.  But I’d argue that in lieu of the game’s antics, the sexual appeal and the power therein are stripped away; removed from real-life consequences and mores (substituted for unrelenting absurdity), they’re little more than a harmless occurrence.  A panty shot is just a panty shot.  There’s Juliet’s ass, now go kill some more zombies.

It certainly helps that Juliet actually has a personality…albeit one I wasn’t expecting.  Yes, my expectations of a smiling, giggling, bubbly teenager were fulfilled (certainly helps that she was voiced by a formerPowerpuff Girl), but she handles every situation and every foe with frightening competency.  In one scene, she’s cocky and confident as she mows down the undead; while walking through the wreckage of her school, she’s asking Nick about his favorite color and trying to come up with a new catch phrase.  But what’s more important to lending both Juliet and the game a character -- and what makes obsessing over her anatomy a little more problematic -- is that she’s ostensibly insane.  She spends all but a few moments of the game in high school cheerleader mode; it makes her immune to the horrors of a zombie infestation, yes, but it’s both a strength and a weakness.  Consider this: would you want to date a girl who would gleefully carve up her former squad mates and then proceed as if nothing happened just minutes later?

…Put your hand down, you.  Yes, you in the back -- I see you there.

Now, is that to the game’s -- and Juliet’s -- detriment?  No, of course not.  I would rather have a colorful character with all these horrifying implications ingrained rather than a safer (and blander) character.  The writers and developers knew what they were doing, and I’d say they succeeded triumphantly.  Juliet is interesting AND fun -- a breath of fresh air on all accounts.  And not just in terms of the gaming industry, either; even if the world is slowly turning into a rotten, monstrous hellhole, her beauty is more than just a contrast -- it’s a bright spot in a darkening world.

You follow?  Good.  Anyway, back on topic.

I know that what happened at PAX and the belief that “more boobs = more sales” in some of the advertising are hot topics right now, but I’ll leave discussions on those fronts to smarter, less-bashful people.  I’ve played my fair share of games, seen my fair share of movies, watched my fair share of anime, and more; I know that women in fiction tend to induce Super-Duper-Sexy-Time.  What I find confusing is WHY it’s done.  At times I understand why; it’s sensical in Lollipop Chainsaw’s case, much in the same way it was with Bayonetta.  And then there are other times where I’m left confused, shaking my head and asking “Why would you do that?”  Creative liberties and intent can only go so far; I don’t think I need to remind anyone about Ivy’s Soulcalibur 4 costume. 

Why?  That’s the question I keep coming back to, but I wonder if that’s really what I should be doing.  Maybe I should branch out; maybe I should be asking others -- writers, gamers, real people who’ve experienced stories no matter the form -- what they think makes a character attractive.

Sometimes, I sympathize with the creators of characters, be they tame or raunchy.  Haters gonna hate, and creators gonna create.  That’s cool.  I get that.  But what decides those creative liberties?  Is it an artist’s passion?  Is it the need to scratch an audience’s itch?  A perceived notion of what a viewer wants?  Pandering to an artist’s own tastes?  Acting in defiance of rules or perceptions?  Celebrating one’s beauty?

I don’t really know the answer, but I’d like to know.  Like I’ve said several times before, I fancy myself a writer, and would one day like to be a writer renowned for his high-octane stories.  I know there are things that I can do, and things I shouldn’t do.  The phrase “improbably buxom” pops up a few times too many for comfort on this blog -- the same place where I make a list of commandments on how I’d write good femalecharacters in one post and suggesting that the Dead or Alive girls aren’t THAT bad in another.  (I’ve probably eaten several feet in the months since writing them.)  A part of me does what he can to avoid making fanservice a premiere part of the package -- and if I must, then I’m more than willing to make handsome men as well as women.  But a part of me suspects that one day, I might purvey fanservice just as readily as those I detract.  I know I’ve already got at least one improbably buxom female in my files; if I have my way in the writing world, there’s a chance that I might create a character with the largest breasts in the history of fiction.  (Granted that’s partly a consequence of eventually being tall enough to make Godzilla look like a dwarf, but the fact that she currently looks like a cross between Christina Hendricks and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle might make me a hypocrite.)

What I do, I do because I have a purpose in mind.  All my characters are supposed to have distinctive looks; from short, wiry emo-haired kids to muscle-bound bikers who can’t be arsed to wear a shirt; from circus girls with lean, athletic builds from acrobatics to Frankenstein-esque hitwomen that look like something out of a Tim Burton movie; I want everyone to have appearances that contribute to their personalities and overall presentation.  It’s the same idea as how so many characters from The Simpsons have instantly-recognizable silhouettes -- an appearance has so many variables that you’d have to be a fool to NOT take advantage of them.  Compare that idea to some video game trends; would you even notice if Marcus Fenix started wearing Cole’s armor, for example?  Or would you be able to tell one stereotypical, androgynous JRPG hero from another if not for their hair color?

I want to make characters that satisfy my creative vision; even so, I’m willing to compromise on that vision if it means not irritating the hell out of potential fans.  Which brings me right back to the title of this post: what makes a character attractive?  Personality’s a big part of it, of course.  And I’d wager that those with certain heroic qualities -- courage, intelligence, the ability to kick no small amount of ass -- contribute as well.  And no matter how much you want to argue otherwise, appearance will always play a part in how a character is perceived.  Is it reason enough to hate a character?  In my eyes, no.  In the eyes of others, maybe so.  Strange that a mere attempt at visual appeal would cause such a stir, but it can’t be helped. 

And now I’ll give my own preference.  If you asked me who I think is the most attractive character in gaming -- or just one of my favorite female characters, period -- I would present this picture with great gusto:

This, fair readers, is Julia Chang from the Tekken series of fighting games.  As you may or may not know, women in fighting games have very...er, distinct wardrobes and proportions.  Sometimes it's to make a statement about the character or her fighting style, like Street Fighter's Chun-Li and her infamous thunder-thighs born from her signature move, the Hyakuretsukyaku.  Other times...well, let's just say Mai Shiranui and leave it at that.  But Julia's different.  Her default costume shows some skin, yes, but it's nothing too extreme.  Likewise, her proportions are actually more realistic than what you'd expect.  She actually looks like she could fight, and win.  (Doubly so in Street Fighter X Tekken, where -- thanks to the game's art style -- she suddenly puts on several pounds of muscle.)  Compare her to...again, Mai Shiranui, and you have a reason to see games as something more than just fun-time fodder.   

But attractiveness in this case goes beyond just physical looks.  She’s a researcher, focusing intently on finding a way to rejuvenate the forests of the world.  As is the standard with fighting games, solving her problem (stolen data, in one instance) involves throwing down in a tournament sponsored by a mysterious benefactor.  Fortunately, she’s quite good at what she does; her kenpo and wrestling moves (!) make her a fearsome fighter, and the fact that she’s been in the games for a while -- including an upcoming stint as a masked wrestler -- means that she’s in a good place with the series.  But more importantly, she has a spirit to her.  She’s a fighter, but she’s also (obviously) very intelligent.  She’s pursued a scientific path, but she’s also got a spiritual understanding -- in some instances, she’ll pray for the spirits to give her strength.  She’s kind-hearted, but she’s also confident and even sassy at times.  Unlike other games content with having their ladies be stoic killers or wafer-thin wallflowers, Julia expresses a full range of emotions throughout her storied history.  Shock, happiness, sorrow, determination, relief…why, it’s as if Namco actually tried to make a real human character instead of a digital pastiche.

It certainly helps that she can do this:

Mmmmmmm…wait, wha?  O-oh, right.  The uh…the whole…post thing.

At any rate, that’s about where I stand.  What’s important now is that I hear from you guys and girls about what you think makes an attractive character, male and/or female.  Looks, personality, ability, competency, what have you -- whatever’s on your mind, let me hear it.  I might add a few more thoughts in a comment later, but for now, I’ll leave it at that.  Just…please, don’t bash me too hard.  I’m just a guy who’s a little bit too curious for his own good.

(Julia is mai waifu.)


  1. I haven't played enough video games, but in general, appearance is a major part, and personality is another. But it takes a lot for personality to make an attractive person unappealing to me, from a distant perspective. If I actually interact with the person, personality has a way bigger weight.

    By the way, I keep confusing this blog and "I Am Only Myself" (http://burnpsy.wordpress.com/2012/05/page/2/) with each other, since both you and burnsy are Tropers and blog about video games. But from different perspectives. (You as a gamer; him as an aspiring designer).

    Have you talked to him much?

  2. I follow his blog too. He's got some interesting stuff (if you haven't heard it, his a capella theme song is fantastic), and certainly some ideas that are universal regardless of medium. Anyway, here's a rule of thumb to remember whose blog does what: I use video games -- among other things -- as a launching point for discussions about writing, either about the product in question or storytelling in general. Burnpsy's blog makes sense.

    Also, mine is more green.
    But back on topic. I know that writing isn't exactly a visual medium, but regardless, appearance and visual data can play a huge role. Cynical as it may sound, appearance factors into both real life and fiction; a character with an afro is different from one with shorter hair -- in terms of personality and perception by others. As a writer, I want to play with those perceptions; it's mostly because in my style I put effort into readers knowing almost precisely what characters look like, but I'll play to (or subvert) expectations according to my plans.
    Just thought I'd throw that out there. At any rate thanks for dropping by. Which reminds me...I saw your new Twitter icon. I end up going HNNNNNNNNNNNNG every time I see it.

  3. Beyond looks and personality - the defining characteristic in what makes a video game character attractive for me is playability. I'm not going to struggle with a broken and unplayable character no matter how hot she is. Having fun playing the game is most important - a pretty face is just a little side benefit (because, after all, sex sells).

  4. Playability, huh...I hadn't really thought of it in that regard. I can't think of any broken female characters in a game, but -- again, speaking from a fighting game perspective -- the ladies tend to be of the fast but weak variety. In some cases that's a good thing (the ability to attack rapidly and safely is often much-adored in terms of tier lists), but it's kind of annoying that 95% of all female fighters have lower health than the men.

    I'm also of the opinion that fighting games need more female grapplers (a la Zangief or Iron Tager).Considering that fighting games aren't exactly a bastion for realism, is it really so unthinkable to have a lady bust out some wrestling moves? There are exceptions of course -- Tina from Dead or Alive, who's incidentally one of my favorite of the lot -- but still...

    My preferences aside, thanks for dropping by. Hope you didn't mind my little rant.

  5. I don't want to appear as if I am taking sides, but Jessica Nigri is hooot!

    Concerning your post. You like big tits and shapely asses (I do too, though I tend to prefer bottoms). That;s not a bad thing. You mind that some female characters' only defining characteristics are their tits and asses. That's also a good thing. Means you're not a hpocrite.

    What I don't get is why do you feel compelled to apologize for it? You want to be a writer who does not want to follow this trend and that;s respectable and the fact that you know this is what you want to do is more than enough.

    But you know what? You can't avoid T&A in viedogames. Cause that's what still sells and that;s what studios will ask for. Unless you are absolutely certain you can overcome the odds by creating an interesting character.

    And if you know what you're aiming for, then you will.

  6. "
    What I don't get is why do you feel compelled to apologize for it?"

    That reminds me...I need to dig up (and edit) an old file of mine. The events -- and near-destruction of my very being -- should provide a satisfying answer. A "method to my madness" if you will. A dark and brutal origin story. A horrific tale, and a revelation of the moment that twisted my psyche into its current form. It's pretty nuts, is what I'm trying to say.

    But in the meantime, I'll just say this: as a would-be "writer for the people" I intend to strike a healthy balance between my own design philosophies and the opinions of readers. I know there's always going to be a bit of backlash, but I suppose in the end there's just one thing I can do. I just have to do my best...and pray no angry mobs march up to my doorstep.

    Also? Miss Nigri is indeed a...shall we say, handsome woman.

  7. I think with regards to this game, it was always suppose to be a wacky over the top tongue in cheek game and the whole design of the lead character suits that entire look. It's got a feel of old B-films where this was the standard style of the females in it, that sort of exploitation era of bad horror films. When it's clear that it's not suppose to be taken seriously and when it's clear that it's not making a case for a serious topic I think people don't care. It's a ridiculous mad crazy ass game.

  8. Indeed. There'll always be detractors, of course, but I'm glad Suda51 and company actually went through with it. It's not the most technically or functionally perfect game (far from it), but I'd rather have an imperfect game that's oozing with style than a perfect game that retreads old ground.

  9. I don't know much about games at all. I just know about Lolipop Chainsaw because it was created by James Gunn who directed Tromeo and Juliet, and Super, but I like your post. I for one like a good personality. I have to want this character to win if I'm going to play as them