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January 26, 2015

On Dead or Alive and Shortchanged Heroines


Disclaimer: all things considered, you can’t really call me a fan of the Dead or Alive franchise.  The only one I’ve ever really played is DOA4, and while I had plenty of fun with it, I’ve since moved on to…well, pretty much every other fighting game this generation.  I skipped out on DOA5 in its entirety, and even with the new editions that have popped up, there’s never been much of an impetus to jump in.

Still, I kept an eye on the news surrounding Last Round because of the prospect of a new playable character.  Who would it be?  I mean, Ultra Street Fighter 4 blew it with its hyped “fifth fighter” by just serving up Cammy clone Decapre, so surely competitor Team Ninja/Koei Tecmo wouldn’t make the same mistake, right?  And the potential was limitless; rumors and theories about a fighting female pirate made the rounds, so maybe -- oh, it’s just a schoolgirl.  Well, that’s still something totally fresh and interestizzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…


I will be fair, though.  No matter what form new challenger Honoka took, it was a given that she would be a fitting addition to Chesty O’Ninja and the Busty Bunch.  It’s a legitimate problem that the guys behind DOA feel that the only way they’ll put food on the table is by sexualizing the crap out of all its female characters (even if they’ve “compensated” by doing the “same” to its men).  But if nothing else, at least there ARE female characters.  There are people in the canon who matter.  People like to pretend that there’s no story, but there is, and I respect that; I want to believe in the franchise because it has the potential to do more.

I think that it’ll happen someday.  But that day is a LONG way away.

I don’t know what Team Ninja’s financial status is right now, but I’m going to guess that they’re at least doing better than “we can’t even afford to make a game” Capcom.  Team Ninja and Koei Tecmo aren’t the biggest around, of course, but I’d think that they have the resources to make someone beyond a Decapre analogue.  I’m not going to play the laziness card because there’s an insane amount of work that goes into making just one fighter.  On the other hand, I AM going to say that the effort was misguided -- because that’s the word of the day.  But I’ll get to that. 


Team Ninja teased the new fighter months in advance.  They kept their cards close to the chest, and in doing so hoped to generate interest.  They probably should have known that -- as per the informal golden rule -- the fruits of fan speculation are almost always going to be more interesting than the revealed product, but let’s set that aside.  There are two things that are important to note.  The first: that there was going to be a brand new female fighter.  The second: that she was going to be the “biggest” character yet.

Pretty much everyone jumped to the conclusion that Honoka would simply have the biggest breasts (which is true, apparently), but since I’m the same guy who argued that the latest Donkey Kong game was actually an unspoken tale of a king’s quest for redemption and knowledge, I didn’t exactly rely on common sense.  I thought Team Ninja was actually being sly and playing with fan expectations.  I imagined that the new fighter would be large proportionally -- but mostly because she would be large physically.


I don’t know the canon in and out, but outside of the Spartan guest fighter from DOA4, the two physically largest and strongest fighters are Tina and Rachel.  (Christie’s the tallest at 5’10”, so adjust your perceptions accordingly.)  Imagine if Team Ninja decided to put on their best trollface and made Honoka as big as or bigger than a faux-Master Chief; logically speaking, she’d have the biggest bust by a country mile. 

But the additional benefits -- a ripe opportunity, without question -- are that it’d be a chance to create a character with a more unique, if eclectic move set.  Okay, sure, leave her a schoolgirl for the lulz, but keep her huge; have her rely solely on brute force so she can fling ninjas around like she’s trying to win a pillow fight.  Make her slow and clumsy, but give her devastating power and range by virtue of her size.  That’s interesting, if you ask me.  And they didn’t have to stop there.


When a Famitsu article leaked what Honoka was really like, I was plenty disappointed -- and I can only imagine what hardcore fans felt.  But there was a glimmer of hope; translated articles explained that Honoka had a secret, mysterious power.  It’s par for the course when it comes to DOA, more or less, but it struck me as something with real gameplay potential. 

Some forum posters joked that her power would be to make her breasts bigger mid-match (which, to be fair, WOULD make use of Last Round’s new engine), but I took it a different way again.  What if she started out as a simple schoolgirl mid-match, but by making use of that power she went from sweet little girl to giant grappler?  The player wouldn’t be forced to use it, but it’d be a way to technically change her stance -- and certainly her stats/parameters -- in an unusual way.  How do you fight someone who can go from tiny to titanic over the course of a match?  How do you play as someone who ends up as big as Marvel 3’s Sentinel?  Or even Tatsunoko vs. Capcom’s Gold Lightan, if you really want to push it? 

I guess we’ll never know.  Honoka’s just a schoolgirl.  And her “power”?  Pretty much translates to “I have the same moves as most of the cast mashed into one move set”.  And she gets to hit people with some kind of burning hand attack.


If only.

Look.  I don’t care if my headcanon ended up getting dashed, because DOA as a franchise and Team Ninja as a developer know what they’re doing.  They probably understand that, hey, maybe introducing some wacky new character with special mechanics in a game that’s struggling to stay relevant isn’t the best idea; maybe save that stuff for DOA6.  I get it.  But even so…cripes, is Honoka really the best they can come up with?  Really?  In a universe filled with ninjas, wrestlers, assassins, a geisha-in-training, a slew of martial artists, and a damn opera singer, they couldn’t come up with anything more exciting than a schoolgirl with a mysterious power? 

Setting aside the fact that comparisons have already been drawn, what’s the strategy here?  How is this character different from any of the other DOA girls?  So what if she’s reportedly the bustiest when A) there’s virtually no difference in the girls’ body types, meaning the very concept of bustiness is worthless, and B) there’s nothing to set her apart from other characters, DOA or otherwise, besides her measurements?  And besides the hair?


Assuming that there’s no story for Honoka in Last Round, the gameplay footage released thus far hasn’t made an argument as to why this girl is different from the other girls -- and that’s even before you factor in her patchwork quilt of a move set.  Her profile sets her up as a Blood Knight, and I can’t imagine someone with explosive hand attacks avoiding some form of corruption.  But watch her mannerisms in matches and art, and there’s no trace of that.  She’s just a kind, earnest, hardworking schoolgirl who’s a little clumsy, but always tries to do her best…which you can use to describe a deluge of recent anime heroines.

It’s not enough anymore.  I thought that Team Ninja understood that; say what you will about the hyper-sexualization of the women (which, again, is a problem that doesn’t need to be there), but at least the games had the freedom to let its ladies do more.  Be more.  Tina’s a wrestler hungry for fame, be it via fighting, acting, or trying to be a rock star.  Leifang is a college student who perpetually sought out Bruce Lee fanboy Jann Lee to prove her strength to him -- and did, conclusively.  Honoka…is just a schoolgirl that wants to fight.  Oh, sure, she’ll get her story fleshed out someday, but…really?  This is supposed to be a compelling argument for Last Round


Note the word choice there.  I could have said “she”, but I used “this”.  Call me butthurt if you will (which is more than a little legitimate, all things considered), but Honoka just strikes me as a HUGE missed opportunity here.  This was Team Ninja’s chance to do something different -- to convince everyone that they could change, however minutely.  I thought that that was what they started with vanilla DOA5’s Mila, an MMA-style fighter and a push toward the “I’m a Fighter” tagline they wanted to codify once upon a time.  What happened to that?  Why did they back off?  Why resort to hundreds of dollars’ worth of sexy costumes almost immediately after claims of turning a new leaf?

Okay, sure.  There was another iteration of DOA5 that introduced the little lady Marie Rose, but that just plays to a similar set of…preferences.  The franchise should be evolving by now, but I’m struggling to give it the same goodwill and benefit of the doubt I once did.  I’ll concede that the gameplay is probably the best it’s ever been -- if reliant on/lambasted for button-mashing -- but DOA isn’t part of the conversation because A) it can’t decide what it wants to be, and B) it’s not doing “what it does best” very well.

The premiere franchise built on sexy, busty girls fighting has routinely failed to make its girls sexy -- just a bunch of virtual dolls that STILL have creepy soulless faces…which to the untrained eye is just the same face copy-pasted and recolored.  And again, what’s the point of having the biggest bust when that’s info you’re likely only to know by word of mouth and wikis?  Although according to the wiki, Honoka has a thirty-nine inch bust…while being only 4’11”.  I’m not one for anatomical correctness, but I don’t think that girl’s exactly built for fighting.  Or moving.


I’m 100% convinced that Team Ninja goofed with Honoka, but they’re just one group out of many whose creations have gone awry.  That should be obvious by now; DOA might not be a part of the fighting game conversation, but that’s because we’re all too busy having a legitimate conversation about women in games.  Frankly, I’d take it up several levels and just say we have a problem with women in fiction in general -- and the sad thing is that that isn’t breaking news.  This is something we’ve all had to deal with for a while, and the fact that there are still so many struggles across the board means that we probably haven’t made as much progress as we could.

I know the score.  I know the constant outcries.  “We need female protagonists!”  “We need strong female characters!”  “We need female characters that aren’t just damsels in distress, and don’t just get stuffed into fridges!”  “We need women that aren’t just sex objects!”  Those are all valid complaints.  Let’s face it: generally speaking, the treatment of women in fiction is bullshit.  It’s not fair, and it needs to change.  The common question that follows is how that change is supposed to happen, which is pretty viable…buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut I’m of a different opinion.

Maybe we don’t always need to ask how to change the poor state of affairs.  Maybe we need to ask why it happens in the first place.


Let’s go back to using DOA as an example, because there’s no better whipping boy right now.  It’s pretty easy to assume that the developers are -- in the worst-case scenario -- just a bunch of perverts who are convinced their job is literally just to make Las Chicas de las Pechas Grandes.  If you don’t buy into that, there’s always the more reasonable conclusion that they do what they do to stay afloat; considering how many studios have shut down in the past few years AND how expensive game development can be these days, it’s hard to blame them for banking on what they know will sell (i.e. sexy costumes for every member of The Boobs McGee Experience).  If nothing else, they’re at least upfront about it.

But here’s the phrase that’s worth keeping in mind for the rest of this post: “Oh, I never thought of that.”   As the self-proclaimed Eternal Optimist, I don’t want to assume that Team Ninja or any other creator with botched heroines did it out of malice, or laziness, or pandering, or even just to make a quick buck.  They did it because they didn’t realize that there were other options available.  In DOA’s case, they considered the possibilities and chose the ones best suited for the franchise, but ended up overlooking possibilities that would have made said franchise more than just a laughing stock.


If I remember right, the first DOA -- breast physics and all -- was made as a desperation move to keep a struggling Tecmo in business.  It worked, apparently, and it became a launching point for the rest of the franchise.  That sexuality (or a facsimile of it) courses through its veins, but there was the potential to be more than just “boobs on boobs on boobs” that to some extent was at least touched on.  Clashes between ninja bloodlines and traditions; corporations enacting world-ruining conspiracies; even beyond that, fighters striking out to make their desires a reality, and from that emerged the thematic conflict of tradition versus free will.  Duty versus freedom.  It’s when DOA5’s story explores that theme -- not the hokey action movie fluff -- that it’s at its strongest and most entertaining.

DOA is in the prime position to give us something special because theoretically, it has every tool it needs.  Yes, I would absolutely love it if it could offer a stronger story; I would love it if Kasumi’s DOA4 ending had anything to do with the plot or her character arc -- what with her being ostensibly the main character -- instead of just having her dream about being a singing topless mermaid.  I’m not exactly asking for the moon here.  I just want a little consistency.  

You can't bring in a new(ish) male character who looks like this...


...And throw out a new female character who is just this:


But you know what?  Even if Team Ninja didn’t, and even if they wanted to keep going down Tight Trouser Alley, then they could at least mix it up a little.  The only cards in their hand at this stage are “big boobs”, “less clothes”, and “more clothes, only this time they’re themed costumes”.  They’ve worn out what they’re famous for, and if they want to be the kings of eroticism, they need to go back to the drawing board and figure out how to capture the essence of sexiness.  I’m thankful that all the girls have different stances and fighting styles, but in a game that earns favor by dint of its bodacious bodies, why is it that their definition of “bodacious” is so bland?  How do you make boobs boring?

The answer that comes to mind is that DOA tries to make the boobs -- and tangentially, the bodies attached to them -- interesting.  The problem is that they should be trying to make the female form interesting.  It’s a strange day indeed when a Nintendo game understands that better than a game designed to get a rise out of its players.  Seriously, pay close attention to the animations of Smash 4’s female fighters, Palutena’s chief among them.  You’d be surprised.


The easiest fix I can think of for DOA6 is to just add a character creator, and let players handle the sexiness on Team Ninja’s behalf.  I don’t just mean loading up a fighter with your favorite attributes; I mean giving the player the chance to explore possibilities that the parent company won’t.  If pro wrestler Tina can’t be rendered with a suitable tone and musculature, then let the player make a fighter that can.  If sultry assassin Christie isn’t sultry enough, let the player make someone as tall, or willowy, or elegant as they can imagine.

If there can’t be a schoolgirl who wouldn’t snap in half in real life, then leave it to the player to do the heavy lifting -- up to and including full clothing options (which to be fair DOA5 offers, but that got buried by skimpy DLC outfits).  After all, I was under the impression that sexiness implied a set of qualities above the norm.  Putting those qualities in player hands to create the out-of-the ordinary?  Not a bad idea.

Here’s the thing, though: it should never reach a point where the tools should be put in player hands -- because offering up something bodacious is what Team Ninja should have done a loooooooooooooooong time ago.  And regularly.  And not just with a loli girl.


Audiences trust creators with more than just their money.  They trust creators to put forth the best effort possible -- to take a concept, choose the best possible options, and bring it all together for an affecting piece of art.  That’s how it should be, and how it has been pretty much since art’s inception.  On some level, even a bunch of goofs like Team Ninja understand that; the flashes of competence and potential are there, even if they are hidden in the valleys of the Teton Range.  The problem is that maybe they haven’t considered how things could be different -- or even that things can be different.  Sit them down and explain some of those possibilities, and I’d bet that at least one member would go “Oh, I never thought of that.” 

They -- Team Ninja, or just creators in general, game devs or otherwise -- just do what they think is best for their creations.  DOA5 could have been the game that established its ladies as more than just character outlines, but instead put most of its effort into an ersatz, limp-wristed summer blockbuster.  Why?  Not because they were idiots, but because that’s what they thought would win favor.  Granted that’s a misguided notion in its own right, but they had good intentions.  Conceptually, they weren’t wrong.  It’s just that they focused on the wrong things, when the right things -- those character interactions outside of non-canon beach lounging -- slipped into the background. 


Why did it happen?  Why is DOA’s story at large still irrelevant?  Why are the ladies still saddled with the stigma of being sex objects?  Because Team Ninja didn’t go far enough; the devs didn’t use its tools effectively, because they didn’t even realize they had tools.  Again, if someone would explain to them what they could do -- gameplay-wise, story-wise, whatever -- then maybe they could make something out of effectively nothing.  Maybe they could realize the problem, and do better.

Let’s be real here.  The pitfalls associated with that blindness to possibilities -- to making good female characters -- is an easy one to stumble into.  And I know this because I’ve made a lot of the same mistakes.  Probably even mistakes that would even have Team Ninja laughing at me. 

Among others.


Speaking personally, I want to be a creator someday as well -- a writer above all else.  Or rather, a GOOD writer -- which means that if it seems like I’m super-butthurt over the tiniest things in video games, it’s because A) they stick out intensely to me, and B) I probe others as a means of probing myself.  It’s the only way for me to learn not to make stupid mistakes and stupider decisions, because I will if left unchecked. 

Once upon a time, I had a female character whose role and personality in the story could be summed up in two words: “the girlfriend”.  That was it.  No part, no charisma, no dynamism, no arc -- just a rung on the ladder to propel both the lead and the story to where it needed to go.  She was a non-player in the events that transpired -- which extended to every other female character in that story.  Not even a spread of furious editing sprees could salvage the story, which kept the ladies on the wrong side of the fence during virtually every climactic moment.  It became pretty obvious that I was pretty much just polishing a turd.  So I had to flush.


I’ve gotten significantly better about things since then, but in order to do that, I had to understand that I screwed up in the first place -- and by extension, how it happened at all.  I can see why; the ladies didn’t get much attention because a lot of the focus and development went toward the lead.  Maybe a couple of other guys if you’re feeling generous, but outside of that lead, the overall development of the cast was pretty shallow. 

Only one character really got to shine or change, and while he did end up in a good place, the scope of the story was too narrow.  I didn’t use the very tools that I had created, and the story suffered for it.  The world was too small.  The plot was too small.  The conflict was too small.  So inevitably, the characters -- the most important puzzle piece -- ended up being too small, too.  I’m 100% convinced that it was an abject failure, and no amount of consolation will convince me of otherwise.


But that’s fine.  What’s important is that I did realize that I could do more.  I found ways to get the most out of my characters, and the elements surrounding them.  Granted I’ve got an easier time of it than others (I’m not a dozens-strong team handling either technology more advanced than a word processor or enough money to weigh down an armored truck), but the overall lesson here is the same. 

Because of that, I’d argue that there is something any of us can do, regardless of our place in the game industry and beyond: be aware that there is a problem, and we don’t have to accept it.  More importantly, there need to be talks about more than just “this is a thing that is wrong and bothers me”, though that helps.  Heroes stand strong, after all.


Collectively, we need to be open-minded.  It’s easy to dump hate on distant creators or seemingly-faceless organizations, but it’s worth remembering that there are people at work -- people who can make mistakes, just like the rest of us.  Maybe every word spoken and every post typed up won’t reach them, but they will reach others down in the depths.  Those people -- scorned so often by those they trusted -- can go on to become creators themselves, and take plenty of lessons to heart. 

Or, maybe those voices will end up reaching higher powers.  Maybe one outcry will lead to one million.  Maybe twenty years from now, people will be explaining why DOA15 is a stroke of artistic genius -- precisely because it has giant breasts.  Somehow.  Potentially.  I don’t know anything about art.

But seriously, Team Ninja?  Fix the faces, please.  All of your women look like they’re dead inside.


Have mercy.

4 comments:

  1. For some reason, I couldn't stop laughing at "Las Chicas de las Pechas Grandes". XD

    Really, though, yes, you let your imagination run a bit too wild and go outside the realm or likelihood and feasibility. But that doesn't make anything you said any less valid. The only point I disagree on is that it actually would be fine in my book if the series sexualized men just as much as the women. But that's not nearly the case here - the women have more costumes each, and they easily outnumber the men.

    What I find really amusing, though... You mentioned all the skimpy DLC outfits for DOA5? There are actually so many that you cannot download them all in one batch on a PS3. Or even in ten batches. It practically takes the whole day, or two if your connection is slow. ...Don't ask me how I know that.

    But yes, female characters get the short end of the stick too much. What's worse, when they *don't*, it's usually a hidden object game (BLEH), an indie game everyone ignores, or a title the non-niche market ignores because it looks too anime[1].

    Any exceptions inevitably cause controversy for no good reason (see: Bayonetta 2).

    [1] You really can't deny that stuff like Atelier and Neptunia are quite feminist, and not in the extremist way that term has been hijacked to mean over the years. Both have effectively no fanservice (with a few characters acting as exceptions on Neptunia's end), and the series' main themes are about a woman growing up and making something of herself (in the case of Atelier) or about a world where the women literally run the government and are in every single position of power (in the case of Neptunia).

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  2. When it all comes down to it there is a secret formula to making female characters interesting. "Make the character interesting." See what I did there? I dropped the female part.


    If you design a character without taking their gender into consideration and develop their design based around their back-story, the character will seem real. The problem with game development? They do concept sketches (a hot chick in a bikini) and tack on details after the fact.


    If they reversed the process you would have an interesting bad ass that wears a bikini under specific conditions. In the same way you could have a gun toting hero/heroine go to the beach... where they would wear a swimsuit. *mind blown*


    Take Samus Aran for example. She was presented as a bad ass space bounty hunter when Metroid came out, people were like man, this character is bad ass. Get to the end of the game and the game says Oh by the way, Samus is a chick. At that point, you wouldn't bat an eye at watching Samus relax on a beach in a two piece bikini-- it doesn't cheapen her character at all. You would howeve expect her to have a hold out pistol under her beach towel.


    THIS is the definition of a strong character. DOA loses points because you'd think large breasted trained assassins would have the common sense to wear a damn bra.

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  3. Oh, don't get me wrong. I'd actually like it if the men WERE sexualized just as much. Then again, that just brings up the question of how you're supposed to do that. With the exception of Eliot and Gen Fu (and Brad Wong, maybe), the guys are all muscular, powerful, and relatively willing to show some skin. But is that how you sexualize men? Because the popular opinion, as far as I can tell, is that that just makes men look better, while sexualizing women makes them look worse. Jim Sterling did a whole video on it a while back, if you're interested.


    Also, minor tangent, but am I the only one who thinks that giving guys in games supersized schlongs or crotch physics is kind of missing the point? I'm no biology ace, but I thought that breasts were secondary sexual characteristics. A man's...manhood...is decisively primary. Just sayin'.


    Back on topic, though. It really is a shame that games that do get it right (*stares wistfully at a nearby copy of Devil Survivor 2*) are considered so rarely that they might as well not count. BUT I understand why. The guys that do get it right don't exactly speak the loudest. The chorus of a job well done is pretty easy to drown out over the white noise/broken bagpipes that the big guys blare regularly. I mean, have you SEEN Watch Dogs? That's about as close to a hate crime as it gets...for more reasons than one.

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  4. How fitting that you'd bring up ninjas wearing bras when just a day ago I had a sudden realization: in her default costume, Kasumi doesn't wear pants. That cannot possibly be conducive to handling weather beyond a warm spring day, much less ninja missions. Though now that I think about it, I'd like to see some sort of DOA narrative where Kasumi runs us through her decision to forgo pants. A harrowing tale, to be sure.


    I guess it's hard to fault game developers for doing things the way you described, but it still ticks me off. Okay, I can understand why someone like Tina would shrug off wearing more clothes. That's a given. We can infer that she likes showing off, and her career is partly (mostly?) built on that. But it's 2015 now. Team Ninja's tacking on stories and trying to prove itself as something legitimate -- and it's kind of hard to do that when a stiff breeze could lead to one of these girls getting distracted just long enough to get punched off a building.


    But whatever. You've got it exactly right -- making an interesting character first should be the first thing on the list. Again, game devs have it rough, and I guess that they're trying to compensate with good game mechanics (their forte, natch), but yikesy mikesy. It shouldn't be THIS HARD to get some, unique, quality characters out there. Female or otherwise.


    Also? Not to go off on a tangent, but I wouldn't mind a new Metroid game. Maybe the Big N will get on that once they wrap up with Zelda and Star Fox. And on that note, new Zelda and Star Fox. #GoodGuyNintendo

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