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November 12, 2015

It’s Super Dynamic Controversy Time!

Oh wait, what am I saying?  It’s always Super Dynamic Controversy Time.  I’m just taking time out to highlight it because -- well, why not?

Obviously, I’m prone to thinking about video games, and thinking hard about them.  I want the medium to evolve and reach its full potential, even if the journey to that ideal form is rough and sluggish.  Certain mindsets and practices aren’t helping, though; big businesses aren’t always the most eager to explore the art forms, but it’s not as if we can blame the suits for all of gaming’s ills.  Problems exist on, and are exacerbated by, people on every rung of the ladder.  The sooner everyone understands that, the better off we’ll all be.  Self-reflection, open-mindedness, et cetera, et cetera.

I’ll come back to that later on.  But for now, let’s talk about Metal Gear and gigantic asses.  Given sneaking suits of games past, those two are far from mutually exclusive.

I haven’t played as much of MGSV as I could (or should, in terms of staying culturally relevant), but I’ve played enough to know that I like it.  Hideo Kojima and his crew managed to turn the grisliness of tactical operations and turn it into an art -- a blank canvas that allows the player to express himself or herself with whatever comes to mind.  Sure, some approaches work better than others depending on the mission, but it’s good to know that even the greatest screw-ups can be transformed into moments of triumph.  I’d even say it’s a relief; my skills at Metal Gear are, historically speaking, nonexistent.

But there’s one thing that I noticed about it.  I was playing the game one day, and as usual I reached a point where I screwed up the stealth and had to bust out the guns.  So I did.  After a grueling battle, I managed to capture an outpost and go about clearing the mission.  Before that, though, I happened to see something clearly for myself: one of the enemy soldiers I hadn’t blown away with a sniper round or silenced with my assault rifle. 

Anyone who’s played the game long enough knows that there’s a certain quirk of the game when dealing with enemy soldiers: if you don’t score a lethal blow, then soldiers will stay alive for a short while.  As a result, I had the golden opportunity to walk toward a soldier and look at him -- and I got to watch as he writhed on the ground, face contorted in pain and groaning with every last ounce of strength he had.  For a moment, I thought about firing one last shot to put him down permanently, but there was no need; he bled out and died.  And the next thing I knew, the iDroid congratulated me for capturing the outpost.

And you know what?  I was okay with that.

Well, I was as okay with it as I could have been.    It’s not exactly the most comforting sight; not only was there a person rendered lavishly for an eighth-gen console struggling just to breathe, but that person only ended up in a sorry situation because I put him there.  Because I had to switch into All Guns Blazing mode, someone lost a life -- and had to suffer on his way out.  But even so?  It’s not real.  It’s all just a fantasy; I didn’t kill anything but a mass of polygons and programming, just as I had in countless games before.  No reason to get weighed down.

I mean that quite literally -- because the golden rule of any situation, and plenty of forms of expression, is context.

You’re playing as a guy who goes by (among other things) Punished “Venom” Snake.  He is not a nice guy.  Nor are his comrades.  He and the Diamond Dogs are out for revenge, no matter what it takes; it’s reached a point where arguably, they’ve put their ideals -- which are troubling and borderline-villainous in their own right -- on the sidelines so they can do missions, make cash, and earn the right to kill people.  Of course you’re going to leave people struggling to draw breath.  It’s a marvel that the Diamond Dogs didn’t try to blow up the ocean or something.

Context is important.  It’s what informs and silently explains the reasoning behind the art.  It’s the set of facts and factors that help give insight into the creative vision, along with the processes tied into it.  The age-old question with video games resurfaces yet again: “Is this game too violent?”  And yeah, MGSV is a violent game.  It pretty much has to be, because the player typically has to use some lethal force -- and the last time I checked, bullets fit the bill quite nicely. 

But in the case of MGSV, that violence is purposeful.  Maybe not 100% justified, per se (though opinions may vary), but there’s a reason behind it.  It’s not just about cheap thrills or flying viscera, but the communication of ideas.  Even if Venom Snake isn’t the most talkative character, he and his game say plenty through their artistic expression -- and the context that hides underneath them.    That’s how it should be.  If a game (or any art) is going to take its audience through subject matter that’s contentious or divisive, then the journey’s a lot easier with good context acting as foundation.

Okay?  Okay.  Now that we’re all settled in, let’s move on to some of the hardier stuff.  (Minor spoilers ahead.)

I want to start off by saying that, on a base level, I think Quiet’s all right.  She delivers all of the weirdness I expect from a Metal Gear game and then some; I knew going in that she was an ultra-skilled sniper, but I never would’ve guessed she could turn invisible, ink up her face on a cellular level, or for seconds at a time show off her bare musculature.  There’s a part of me that wishes she actually got to talk, but it’s not as if she’s incapable of expression.  She’s a gunwoman, and if nothing else?  No one can say she isn’t interesting.

I could think of more nice things to say about her (even more once I actually progress through the story/take her on a mission), but I guess I have to address this: why is Quiet dressed the way she is?  When I first heard the reasoning -- that she breathes through her skin -- I snorted and had to force back a laugh.  So basically, Quiet is a plant in human form; even if that made the slightest bit of sense, it’s still dumb.  Why wear see-through stockings if she needs maximum exposure just to survive?  Why does she only need to breathe and drink to live, given that plants need nutrients from soil?  What happens when she needs to go someplace chilly, or if the winter weather settles in?  I mean, I don’t want to imagine a human being wilting, but it’s a bit of a design flaw in this bona-fide super soldier.

Kojima and crew deserve respect for what they’ve done, but they overthought Quiet.  Their “justification” has long since been noted, but they didn’t have to go that far; they didn’t even have to say “because we wanted to put a sexy lady with minimal clothes in the game”.  You fight against her in Afghanistan, right?  And with desert environments all around, it has to be on the warm side, right?  Then all they had to do was say that she got hot during her mission -- acting as a sentry out in the Afghan heat -- and she took off her clothes.  Then when Snake and the gang take her in as a prisoner, she’s caged up before she gets a chance to suit up.  There.  Done.  Granted it wouldn’t explain away her need to show off bikini bottoms, but I’d imagine that she would’ve just taken off her shirt and worn more sensible pants (and she could roll the pants up to create makeshift shorts). 

I don’t know everything there is to know about Quiet, but I wonder if more time would save her.  In terms of context?  There’s no in-universe reason for her to be dressed like that; that’s doubly the case, because they namecheck fellow photosynthetic sniper The End in the same breath.  Oh, but there’s an out-of-universe reason; if we’re cynical about things -- and we have every right to be -- then Quiet looks the way she does as a way to hyper-compensate for the lack of ladies in the game (though there are female recruits you can bring back to base).  Diamond Dogs is a boys’ club, and the only way they’ll let a g-g-g-g-girl stick around is if she looks good and provides…uh…quality entertainment.

There are times when I feel embarrassed about the way Quiet gets paraded around.  Disdainful, even.  But even so, I don’t hate her.  In fact, there’s something I’ve been wondering: should she be hated and scorned because of the way she looks?  Should anyone?

I don’t know.  I’m wary of even wondering it, because that threatens to dive head-first into seedy territory.  But I’ve seen comments and posts all over the place talking about the way Quiet looks, and they venture into that territory with gusto.  Based on my understanding of Quiet and where I am in the game, I have to say that some of her character elements (the sexy-sex-sex time bits) aren’t congruous with either her world or her persona.  That’s a problem.  On the other hand, how much do we really know about Quiet?  How much context are we given?

Dressing like she’s ready for a day at the beach and doing poses that wouldn’t be out of place in a gentlemen’s club is troubling, to say the least.  But there are two counterpoints to that.  First, are we all absolutely sure that Quiet’s actions aren’t a conscious choice, and only ordered by the KojiPro puppet masters?  It’s true that as a fictional character, she doesn’t have the agency to decide everything about her circumstances or attire.  Even so, she can create the illusion of agency -- of being a living person capable of making decisions for herself -- by virtue of her character.  As an example: I believe that Batman puts on the cowl (complete with pointy ears) because he wants to be a symbol of fear.

So how does Quiet fare?  I don’t know.  I’m working under the assumption that she stays mute throughout the entire game, but I’m not about to write her off because she shows some skin.  And here’s why: I can’t say for sure that Quiet doesn’t enjoy acting and dressing the way she does.  Even if Kojima and the rest tried to justify her looks to the masses, Quiet doesn’t have to justify anything to anyone.  Maybe she wears a tiny top because she feels like it. 

Maybe she slinks around in the rain because it feels good.  Or maybe she just thinks -- or knows -- that she’s hot, and she’s got no problems flaunting her stuff.  And since she’s got so much skill and borderline-supernatural powers, no one can force her to conform to their standards.  She’s untouchable; she’s got the skills to back up her proverbial trash talk.  Well, inasmuch as a muted woman can trash talk.

But it’s the second counterpoint that’s worth remembering: Quiet’s worth as a character shouldn’t be nullified because of the way she looks, or because her actions emphasize her sexuality.  I know that those can be problematic elements, but they aren’t enough to make me ignore that she’s a strong ally with an interesting story and a unique skill set.  Is there a fanservice element to her?  Yes.  Is there a super soldier element to her?  Yes. 

That’s why it’s important to understand the context -- both what’s provided in the story, and what gamers derive over the course of a playthrough with her.  There’s always going to be a personal evaluation of characters and stories, but that’s how it should be.  And we should evaluate things with level heads and open minds.  We won’t get anywhere by mindlessly spewing bile at anything that doesn’t suit us.

Okay?  Okay.  Now it’s time for this post’s final boss.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise that R. Mika would return for Street Fighter V, given how many people (including the game’s producer, apparently) wanted her back in the roster despite only appearing in one game.  But now that she’s officially back, I’m happy.  Granted I probably won’t use her any, since my brother’s called dibs on her, but I appreciate her presence.  I’ve always lamented the sheer lack of female grapplers there are in fighting games, and Mika’s return means tipping the balance just a tiny bit in a positive direction.

I would have guessed that her debut in the HD generation would raise a huge amount of controversy, but imagine my surprise when -- outside of a minor comment here or there -- Mika’s been well-received.  (Plus, if the beta and gameplay demos are anything to go by, she might be one of the best characters of the initial sixteen fighters).  But now she’s at the center of a whole new maelstrom, alongside the eternally pants-free Cammy; recent builds of the game have apparently shifted the camera angles so that in the latter’s case, you can’t see traces of her no-no bits.  In the former’s case, you can’t see her spank herself before unleashing her strongest attack -- itself the subject of some curious edits.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first.  My opinion?  I was never that big on Mika’s ass-slap before her Critical Art; the camera swivel seemed to lay it on thick for a character that absolutely didn’t need any more thickness.  With that said, I’m a little wary of the edits made to the game.  It’s a work-in-progress, sure, but it seems as if some things have been lost along the way.  Mika’s Critical Art in general looks rougher and less stylish, as if Capcom now has even more work to do.  It’s almost as if these edits were done on the spur of the moment; the new camera angles to preserve Cammy’s modesty look off, while the angles to hide Mika’s spanking take away some of the dynamism.  Also, it’s not as if they gave the animation itself the boot, so has Capcom really solved anything?  Hard to say.

What I’m more concerned about isn’t the loss of some fanservice, because Mika’s still more than capable of providing that.  (As are the other ladies, newcomer Laura well among them.)  I’m concerned with what it means for Mika as a character.  She’s a supernova of passion and energy barely contained in a frilly leotard, which complements her wrestling persona perfectly.  She’s a fighter in the truest sense, someone who not only idolizes series standby Zangief, but can fight toe-to-toe with the Red Cyclone -- and with no shortage of spirit.  She loves what she does, and is practically immune to people telling her she’s wrong, or she’s dumb, or she’s awful.

Even if it’s with a heaping helping of cheesecake, Mika’s ass slap is a part of her character.  As gratuitous as the original camera angles and her Critical Art might have been, Capcom owned up to that.  Call me optimistic, but I figured that they wanted to show off that aspect of her; if we assume the worst and expect that Street Fighter V won’t have the major, dedicated, NetherRealm-style story mode that’s been teased (in exchange for the paltry comic panels of the Marvel 3 games), then it falls on the gameplay to characterize the World Warriors -- to flesh them out through audiovisual expertise.

So what bothers me about the edits isn’t necessarily that players don’t get to see a close-up of dat ass (or that as of writing, those edits seem poorly-implemented).  What bothers me is that there’s the chance for a de-emphasis on what makes Mika the Seven-Colored Bomber fans have been waiting for.  It’s one thing to have changed the Art’s animations, however half-assed (it still features scantily-clad women butt-slamming their foe into oblivion, so why even bother?).  It’s another thing entirely to strip away something as critical as Mika’s smiling face.  Is a Mika that isn’t hyped up or raving like a loon even Mika at all?  In form, maybe.  In spirit, that’s debatable.

As with most things, though, this is a multifaceted issue.  There’s no cut-and-dry, no right and wrong.  I have issues with Mika’s changes, but I’m more willing to accept Cammy’s changes.  In terms of context, Cammy is a hardened and serious soldier out to protect what’s precious to her while eliminating her foes (BISOOOOOOOOOON!). So why would she run around in a skimpy leotard?  That’s one of the great questions of our time, and it has yet to be answered by Capcom.  So minimizing her ass/crotch shot makes more sense, because it fits better as an expression of the Killer Bee’s character.  Well, as far as we know.  Like Quiet, Cammy could just enjoy going into missions sans pants.

There is something worth noting, though.  Capcom, KojiPro, and plenty of others chose specific means to present and elucidate their characters -- and designed them as such, no less -- but no one forced them to do it exactly like that.  No one threatened to hunt down every Capcom employee unless they gave a low-angle shot of Cammy’s underside.  No one clawed at Kojima’s heels and begged for Quiet to do sexy rain dances.  The heat those guys have taken is entirely their creation, as a result of decisions half-built on annoying others.  BUT those same decisions are part of their creative vision; knowing full well that not everyone can be pleased, they took a calculated risk for the sake of their ideals and what would be best for the game. 

There are things worth deriding, and there are things worth celebrating.  Like I said, this is a multifaceted issue -- especially because opinions and preferences will always factor in.  Art has that effect on people, I’ve noticed.

There you go.  Those are my opinions on certain matters, trends, and controversies.  That’s the end of it…is what I would like to say.  But there’s more to it than that.

What’s happened with Street Fighter V, Metal Gear Solid V, and plenty of other games -- past, present, and future -- have all been the stuff of controversy.  I think that’s the wrong approach to take.  I’m not saying that there aren’t problems, though; I’m saying that these instances and events should be points of discussion.  We should be able to talk things out and understand the reasoning behind every action, every change, every step of the creative process.  That tends to not happen very often. It seems like every time there is news or an opinion worth sharing on sensitive subject matter, it’s not long before things devolve into -- as Shakespeare once put it -- a total shitshow.

One comment section after another goes from talk on the subject du jour to attacks on other people; blanket insults get thrown out, even if there’s no evidence or grounds for it.  That’s in the best-case scenario; in the worst-case, commentators won’t discuss anything, and just assume it’s the work of some invisible enemy.  SJWs, feminists, Puritans (in spirit, if not in denomination), focus test groups, cowardly companies and businessmen, the works -- it’s as if some people would rather chase after demons than look at the evidence sitting right there.  As gamers, we don’t always get insight into the effort behind the creative processes spearheaded by developers; still, we can come to solid conclusions by looking at the art in question, however offensive.  Especially if it’s offensive.

Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I have to ask: am I the only one who’s tired of this back-and-forth?  Am I the only one who thinks there’s a problem here?  I mean, think about it: remember the whole fiasco with the Sorceress and Amazon in Dragon’s Crown, and how their designs had everyone at each other’s virtual throats?  What was the payoff for that?  Was anything solved? 

Did anyone learn anything, or walk away with a fresh perspective, or dissect the merit and intent behind an artistic work?  Or did it all just peter out after everyone had enough finger-pointing and attack-deflecting?  I ask this because Dragon’s Crown came out years ago, but it doesn’t feel like there’s anything that’s been gained on that ground.  We can’t talk about the intent behind George Kamitani’s work and the overall effectiveness of the game’s stylistic choices -- and certainly not the fact that it’s an exciting throwback gameplay-wise -- because every talking point has been sucked into the Sorceress’ Grand Canyon-sized cleavage.

It doesn’t feel like there’s been any progress from that controversy.  It never does.

I remember when people were up in arms over Zero Suit Samus’ look in the latest Smash Bros.  What became of that?  Lots of online mud-flinging, but it all petered out eventually, and now those heels only get a passing mention.  Now people are going off about the censorship (and I’m hesitant to use that word, but whatever) in Xenoblade Chronicles X and Fatal Frame.  What’s going to become of that?  Probably nothing. 

It’s a safe bet that there’s a hardline stance taken on the changes made, and no amount of shouting will bring back things like teenage underboob or lingerie fit for a horror game.  So that leaves people to curse the name of whatever demons they can think of -- and instead of conversing with others about subjects that are worth discussing, with people who absolutely see the merit of the changes to their beloved hobby, the comments sections become battlefields.  I can’t even write a line about or post a picture from DmC without a sudden spike in heat; God forbid I toss up my thoughts on The Last of Us.

Controversies should be an opportunity to reflect on matters within and without, and come out stronger because of it.  That doesn’t happen very often, if at all.  And sure, that’s a part of internet culture and how a lot of its conventions work.  But even so…does it have to be so vicious?  Does it have to be so cyclical, so exhausting?

Does this have to be our culture?  Does it really?  I say no.

Look.  I know it’s presumptuous of me to write all of this, as if I’m trying to be some great herald of change (or even thought-policing).  But what I do, I do for a reason.  As someone who wants to be a creative tour de force in his own right, I need to be able to understand creative processes and contexts no matter where they may appear.  I may not agree with every choice, or even like them, but I can at least understand them.  I should at least understand them.  And when I do, it feels like I’ve learned something, even if the source is contentious.

I’m not that tour de force yet, but in the meantime?  I’ll provide points of discussion so that people can understand my reasoning -- see why I argue for one thing or another, and understand that there’s a level of thought that needs to follow every proclamation.  Learn from the self, and learn from others, no matter where they may stand.  It’s more than possible, even if stuff like the internet doesn’t lend itself to the most scholarly forums.  Don’t chase after demons, and don’t make everyone out to be enemies.  Think, learn, accept, grow.  That’s the one way we’ll ever see any progress -- and maybe push those in control to not create controversies in the first place thanks to a united voice.

There are some things out of our power, but there are others well within our reach.  We can enact change on a small scale, in ourselves and others, by working with others instead of blindly hating them.  We can build those bonds, prove our strength, and maybe -- just maybe -- make games a little bit better.

We can do it.  We’re gamers; we’re all in this together.

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