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May 15, 2014

So What’s the Deal with Sexy Characters? (Part 1)

I hope you read that title with your best Jerry Seinfeld impression.

This was originally supposed to be one of those short, open-ended question posts I’ve started doing, but this is a topic that I want to dig into to make my case.  So it’s a good idea to strap in early.  Of course, like any given post, there’s nothing stopping you from weighing in with a comment once all’s typed and done.  It’ll just take a bit longer to get down to the bottom of the page.  Okay?  Okay.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it seems like nothing has really been gained when it comes to the discussion on the depiction of women in games…and media in general, but I see the most conflict pop up in games.  The whole Zero Suit Samus/high heel debacle brought the debate up again.  Just as it did with the Sorceress/Amazon designs of Dragon’s Crown.  To say nothing of intermittent arguments, like when there’s an article on Senran Kagura, or Dead or Alive, or whatever.  It almost feels like there’s moral outrage just because some designs pop up…and then there IS moral outrage when you get articles like this.

I’m not going to say that article wasn’t purposefully rabble-rousing to generate traffic…but I am going to think it.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not about to shoot down anyone’s argument, because there are some legitimate complaints.  There are real problems.  Women in games need better depiction (and usage in general), and having them look like this on occasion doesn’t do anyone any favors.  There’s work that needs to be done on all fronts -- and while it’s obvious that giving them better roles or writing them better would help, the character design is pretty freaking important.  So giving them a non-repulsive visual representation?  Probably a good idea, guys.

That in mind, I’m going to have to play devil’s advocate…again.  Because there are some factors that need to be considered, and I figure I might as well spell them out if everyone else is too blinded by righteous fury and uploaded JPEGs.  Fair warning, though: in order to make my point, I’m going to have to show off some improbably buxom women.   So if that bothers you, bailing might be a good idea now.  No nudity, of course, but still, I figured I should make that warning…again.

Damn it, why does it seem like with each passing day I end up being closer and closer to the internet’s premiere sexy girl enthusiast?  Oh well.  I guess there are worse things to be an enthusiast of.

See?  This is why people should stay the hell out of the ocean.

All right.  The first thing that needs to be tackled is “why do people react the way they do when there’s a sexy character?”  Presumably, it’s because at times…okay, often times when they show up, it’s positively cringe-worthy.  I’ve heard pretty much nothing but good things about Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, and I suspect that had something to do with its charm and grace -- and that was on top of a genuinely airtight set of game mechanics.  There was a lot to appreciate in that game.  

But then the sequel Warrior Within came around, and suddenly the Prince was a grim, angry tough guy in a world rife with butt rock.  And on top of that, you had the introduction of the new character Shadee, who in her first appearance has the camera practically glued to her swaying, metal thong-brandishing ass.  She wore pretty much nothing else, had no personality besides mirroring the Prince’s generic rage, and I’m struggling to remember if she did anything in the plot besides appear in a couple of scenes and boss fights.  I’ll go ahead and assume that she was, but damned if the game made a good case for her.

First impressions are important.  Seeing Shadee go at it in some razor wire and proceed to do nothing of value besides get wrecked by the Prince doesn’t make a good one.  Besides, The Dahaka was the real threat from that game, and I can remember it a lot clearly than I remember her -- because it actually had menace and weight to it.  That was a character -- a creature -- with a purpose, well beyond just some cheap attempt to get a rise out of the player.  Though who knows?  With Rule 34 long since established, it’s possible that there are some Dahaka lovers out there in the wild.

Video games have it especially rough when it comes to first impressions.  By definition they’re an audiovisual medium, but the tradeoff for their mechanics and particulars is that once you get past those first impressions, there’s usually a chance that there’s not much else there.  That’s been changing in recent console generation, especially now that we can have endings that aren’t just a “CONGRATULATIONS!” screen that probably takes up a fourth of the memory space, but that inherent nature is still in there.

I can only imagine what it was like for Street Fighter II fans back in the day; there are tournament players to this day that admit they chose the characters they did back then because of the way they looked.  People gravitated to their mains just because of looks.  The character loyalty that arose from hard-fought battles, syncing up with their play styles, and of course their stories at large arose afterward.  If at all.  So people leapt at the chance to play Guile because Guile looked like Guile.  And given that he was apparently designed to appeal to American players, I’d say his first impression was a good one for a lot of people.

I’ll admit that I’m not immune to knee-jerk reactions either.  I picked up Street Fighter Alpha Anthology some years back, and that was pretty much my first experience with a lot of the Alpha characters.  And on top of that, it was my first experience with all the Final Fight characters outside of glimpses of their names in a magazine. 

So why did I choose Cody?  Because I thought he looked cool (because characters that wear cuffs are insanely cool, and hand wraps make every fighter that much more badass).  Same goes for Karin.  Again, seeing her on Alpha 3’s character select screen was the first time I ever really saw her.  Same goes for Rose.  The same DIDN’T go for Sodom, because I couldn’t get over his look…and then he was a total pain in the ass to fight, crystallizing my hate.

Sodom wasn’t up to my tastes, in the same sense that a lot of people hold up their hands at the sight of a sexy character.  Granted that’s because of a lot of negative connotations, in the sense that it’s easy to assume a sexy character was ONLY made and ONLY exists to get in some sex appeal, but like it or not a character’s appearance can’t be divorced from a character in general.  No amount of backstory or development can change that. 

And if a character designed solely to appeal by way of appearance can’t appeal by way of appearance, then what’s left?  Not much.  And even if they do succeed, there’s always going to be the stigma that they’re only liked or memorable because of the way they look -- whether it’s deserved or not.  I know there’s more to Mai Shiranui than meets the eye, but that’s only because I had the curiosity to read her wiki page.  (Turns out she’s a fan of metal.  Who knew Japan’s number one liked throwing up the horns?)  As a result, most people can’t be arsed to see what else there is to her because of two very large reasons…and also, because of her arse.

Man, King is such a cool character.  Forget Mai; Venom Strikes all day every day.

So in that sense, assuming that their looks don’t dull an audience’s senses, sexy characters have a long way to go when it comes to winning an audience’s favor.  Or if not that, then appealing to those that think they’re beyond the lowest common denominator (i.e. those that feel impassioned enough to write comments or posts on the subject).  

These are characters that invite hate and derision upon themselves, and by extension invite hate and derision upon their creators.  “This character only looks like that to get some fanservice!”  Or “She’s just some perv’s fantasy come to life!”  Or “This just proves how crazy/stupid/twisted the creator really is!”  Any one of those things -- maybe all of them, and more. 

HOWEVER.  There is one thing that I think it’s best to keep in mind.  It’s the same factor that informs plenty of things, in fiction or out of them.  And that, my friends, is context.

CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT.  It’s the collection of particulars, in-universe or out of it, that tells us just as much about a character, creation, or even concept that couldn’t be said even if a character suddenly came to life and told us ourselves.  That’s the clincher.  That’s true of character design as well; you have to take into account how a design would come to pass in terms of a character, and how it would come to pass in terms of a creator.  It’s the difference between a Watsonian outlook and a Doylist outlook

So let’s try using a couple of examples.  Two sexy characters -- one with good design, and one with bad design.  And let’s start with the good.

It really says a lot about a game and its cast when, over some twenty-five years of existence, outside of alternate costumes there has been almost NO tweaking to the characters’ looks.  At least nothing too drastic; give or take some tweaks (and artist interpretation), 2014 Chun-Li is the same that she’s always been.  Now, you might think that it’s a little silly to think she’s a “sexy” character -- given that she shares a virtual space with the ass-tastic Cammy -- but given that in-universe she’s supposed to be the world’s most beautiful woman, let’s go ahead and roll with it.  What have we got?

From an out-of-universe perspective, it’s easy to see why Chun-Li came out the way she did, and it’s what makes her design so enduring.  Obviously the idea was to make her look Chinese, and that was accomplished pretty quickly with her qipao and hair buns.  Fair enough.  But the one thing that Chun’s famous for -- well, two things is her legs.  They’re meaty and fully-borne, but always adding in some feminine charm. 

But note that from one artist and one JPEG to another, Chun’s legs are always sheathed in a color that’s unique to the rest of her palette -- not quite the same color as her hair in some cases, and other times different enough to make them stand out.  Indeed, “stand out” informs her design overall, both to put her “hardness” and “softness” on display.  For the softness, you’ve got things like her red eye shadow, and the yellow highlights on her qipao, acting as reminders of her femininity.  On the flip-side, you’ve got her massive spike bracelets -- indicators that you probably shouldn’t mess with her.  Mix that up with her variable build and poses, and you’ve got a character that consistently shows off the best of both worlds.

Okay, so what about an in-universe perspective?  Setting aside questions of practicality (because think about what kind of people she shares a world with), there’s a question that has to be asked: is that something Chun-Li would conceivably want to wear of her own accord?  And if so, why?  If those are questions with good enough answers, then it makes a case for her looks.  And indeed, there are some possible answers. 

It may seem strange for an Interpol agent to dress so conspicuously, but the impression I get from the canon is that Chun-Li is proud of who she is and how she looks.  She’s the one that makes mentions of being the world’s strongest AND most beautiful woman, so it’d make sense for her to look fashionable.  And beyond that, her famous “Yatta!” victory quote tells us that she’s got the flightiness needed to put on an outfit like that.  She knows when to be serious, but she’s not afraid to have a little fun.

All told, Chun-Li’s likely a proud (if forceful and overbearing) person in general.  Think about it; the entire thrust of her story is to bring Bison to justice for crimes wrought on her family.  So why not represent that family, and her country, with imagery that evokes that?  Why not make a name for herself like some sort of Chinese Lady Batman?

It’s an iconic costume, it helps her look good and powerful at the same time, and if we absolutely must bring matters of practicality into the mix, then it’s probably comfortable to fight in.  Though to be fair, I can’t help but wonder if she’s pants-averse because she bursts through jeans faster than the Hulk.

Am I 100% spot-on with my theories?  Probably not.  But I’ve at least offered up a possible context for her look -- and with that context, we get some much-needed, highly valuable justification.  Granted, a character or creator shouldn’t have to justify the way she looks/was made to look, but that’s seedy territory based on precedents.  Making judgments based on how people look is as much a part of human nature as eating, sleeping, and having weird dreams where you turn into a man-spider or poop your pants.  (Note that those are mutually-exclusive events.) 

What’s important is that there’s a bigger reason behind a look than “BECAUSE SEX, YOU GUYS!”  As someone who buys heavily into the Simpsons design philosophy of instantly-recognizable silhouettes, a visual look is a tool that can be used along with backstory, personality, character arcs, relationships, mannerisms, and more.  The expectation -- or rather, the tradeoff -- is that the design has to be viable.  And in some case, that expectation doesn’t come through.

Which brings us to a shot of bad character design: Soulcalibur IV-era Ivy Valentine. 

…You knew this was coming, didn’t you?

I can defend and forgive a lot (I must be the one and only Senran Kagura apologist in the universe), but I’m utterly at a loss when it comes to this character.   It’s the biggest example of “what were they thinking?” that I can come up with -- and it really doesn’t say good things about her portrayal when the devs gave her a more conservative look in the game that followed.  They either knew they made a misstep, or fan outcry forced them to pull in the reins.  The only reason they might have had to make her look like that was to test out the new hardware; remember, going from SC3 to SC4 meant a leap from the PS2 to the PS3, so they had a chance to go all out.  Except they did it in the dumbest possible way. 

They got diminishing returns; by exposing more, they ended up with less.  Whereas Chun-Li’s design was a definitive statement that told you everything you needed to know when choosing your character, Ivy’s design here -- and elsewhere, arguably -- doesn’t say nearly as much.  Maybe it says that she wants to dominate others, given her height, attire, sharpness, and weapon choice, but I don’t feel like those are design elements that could ONLY appear on her.  You could say the same about Chun, sure, but her design emphasized her strength as well as her sexuality, even if it could be reproduced elsewhere.  With Ivy, the scales are tipped overwhelmingly towards being sexy.  There’s nothing she can say besides “I am become sex.”

But what really kills me about her design -- her SC4 form more than any other -- is that it’s damn near a betrayal of her in-universe context.  Fun fact for those of you unfamiliar with the canon: Isabella “Ivy” Valentine isn’t just some 16th century stripper.  She’s an aristocrat, an alchemist, and the daughter of a ghost pirate.  Setting that last little outlier aside, Ivy never struck me as the sort to go out in her “Sunday best”, especially since certain factoids suggest she’s a virgin. 

You could argue that what Ivy’s wearing is a way for her to step out of the bounds of social mores and limitations put on women -- sexual liberation, or something like that -- but I have my doubts.  The SC cast pretty much exists in a vacuum, so any statements they want to make end up getting hamstrung.  Or not made at all.  They’re “transcending history” by skimming over history.  And throwing in a Devil Jin archetype for some reason. 

Then again, Tekken tends to make everything better, so I’ll let it ride.  

(Side note: you think it's any accident that Tekken's Julia Chang is the cover girl of this post?  Please.)

The real issue comes with Ivy’s story in SC4.  Like I said, this is pretty much the game that has her wearing the least amount of clothes, and likely has her at her biggest.  So you’d think that much like Chun-Li, she’s incredibly eager to show off, and she’s proud of the way she looks…except that doesn’t work, because her arc in the game revolves around her trying to use Soul Edge so she can die.  She’s given up on life, has a death wish, and considers her existence to be 100% cursed.  Does that sound like the kind of person who would go strutting around in purple fishing line?  No.  And that’s why it’s a bad design.  It doesn’t fit the character, it doesn’t fit the context, it actually hurts the character in the long run, and it comes damn close to exposing her creators as frauds. 

But you don’t need me to tell you that.  Remember, despite giving Ivy more clothes to wear in SC5, this is how they used her to promote the game.

That says a lot more than I ever could.

But you know what?  I’m going to end up saying more anyway.  (I know myself well; by accident, the file this post comes from has already grown big enough for two posts.)  So let’s pick this up again in a few days, yes?  In the meantime, you can use this space to comment -- or if not that, then at least digest what I’ve force-fed you.  I hope it was delicious.

In any case, make sure you tune in next time.  Because I’m going to make my point once and for all…by using my creations as an example.

God help us all. 

...But me in particular.


  1. Great read. Context isnt considered nearly enough anymore, and its always a dog pile of the same old autopilot thinking traps 'Always always always' 'everything everything everything'.
    And a lot of it is the result of a basic misunderstanding of sexism. Apparantly a large conglomeration of the loud parts of the internet are under the impression any female sexuality at all is sexism. Or that unequal representation is inherently sexist.
    Its not. Sexism is actually considerably meaner than making game characters sexy, even when it absolutely failsin the most ridiculous manner like Ivy. Or... otherwise forgetting about them. Sexism is actually active discrimination against women, and the vested belief that they are inferior beings. Bringing up your key word, the context is very very important. Thats not to say that omitting the inclusion of relevent female characters is 100% A-OK and the way to go, and metal camel toes all around. Its not, and it needs to change. But not with pitchforks and angry mobs, or hyperbole and misinformation, thats an extreme reaction to a mild, unintenional, non malicious, offense.
    What about... Just talking about it?

  2. Ah ha, but you must never forget the golden rule of the internet: why talk about it when you can shout at others in the almighty CAPS LOCK OF RAGE?

    In all fairness, though? It probably is easier to conflate sexy characters with being sexist, because there have probably been a fair share of ladies that have been groan-worthy (I would bet that Ivy's just one of them, especially in light of some of the anime out there). But I can only begin to wonder how exactly the net at large CAN start talking about it; I'd imagine that even a post with purely good intentions can come off as manipulative clickbait.

    Nothing's going to change if we don't change ourselves. The question, of course, is how we enact that change in the first place.

    I'm not going to be THAT GUY and say that things would probably be better if we had more female characters in games (and those with some genuine physical distinction, in the same way that fighting games have some very diverse casts)...but I am going to think it. Loudly.

  3. Even groanworthy smexy female characters arent really exist.

    Poorly written, absolutely. Character abominations? Definitely. A huge pet peeve of mine? Oh yeah. But not really sexist.

    It is however a sign of male privilege.

    The main problem with talking about it is actually getting to talk about it, instead of hitting the reactionary 'defend mah games from anything' mentality that arise from being so emotionally invested in something that they cant differentiate criticism of a part of something, from criticism of the whole, and through association criticism of themselves.

    Perhaps the best way is through praise of great games they like that get it right, they dont feel the need to get defensive because their game isnt being 'attacked', they feel good because the game they like is getting praised, (and thus they feel they are by association). They will hopefully be highly receptive of the information provided as to what was done right, associate that with what effects it had on the game and how they liked it, and learn from it.

  4. Oh, absolutely. There are a lot of games out there with a lot of problems, but it's definitely easier to figure out what works -- and what's good -- by taking a good hard look at what the best parts of good games. Granted, that has the consequence of making games that DON'T feature good elements look worse in comparison (it's hard for me to take a lot of games seriously after playing -- and getting stiff in the trousers over -- the Devil Survivor games), but the learning experience is always welcome.

    Critical thinking would probably solve a lot of problems the game industry faces. When we realize when we're being rewarded and when we're being fed bullshit, we're more likely to ask for and expect more from the bigwigs. And if they don't deliver, they don't succeed. That's how it should be...in theory, at least.

    But whatever. Things will get better eventually. The industry's getting too big and too popular NOT to invite deeper thought. Or, alternatively, more righteous (if blind) fury. The best kind of fury, one could argue.