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February 1, 2016

Xenoblade Chronicles X: A Double Lariat

Is there anyone reading this that laments the loss of the game’s bust slider?

Just before Xenoblade Chronicles X hit store shelves in the west, there was that controversy over “censorship”, i.e. gamers couldn’t raise or lower the size of their created female characters’ breasts.  The argument, or something like it, was that Nintendo decided that gamers weren’t capable of handling those matters.  Or, if you want to play strawman, they didn’t want to deal with outcries from the “dreaded” SJWs.  It was either that, or they caved into demands as part of an overly-PC culture, even if it meant sacrificing artistic merit.

I think that -- as usual -- there’s no right or wrong answer to this controversy.  On one hand, I can see the issue; as a guy who hopes to write about characters of all shapes and sizes, including the improbably buxom, it’s disheartening to know that I can’t create whatever I want because somebody decided to take certain tools away from me.  And again, it implies that the mere presence of sexuality (such as it is, given that breasts are simply body parts) is the problem, not the context or execution of it.  On the other hand, it’s still possible to define a character by more than just a body type, especially since the potential is definitely there to cause a controversy.  Although given that the default bust size is generous, I wonder if it would make for some little girl avatars that raise a lot of questions.

But enough about that.  Let’s talk about my avatar for the game, Lariat.


Note: picture may only be tangentially related to the subject at hand.  Still funny, though.

I didn’t exactly go in with a list of demands or requirements.  True, I usually take character creation pretty seriously (I went full ham with a handful of wrestling games), but with the knowledge that Xenoblade Chronicles X would prominently feature a silent protagonist, it wasn’t a high priority to have every feature molded to my tastes.  Not at the outset, at least.  But once I actually got my hands on the GamePad, certain elements came together.

Like I said, I didn’t have a list of demands, but there were a couple of things I wanted to nail.  The plan (or something like it) was to have my character play the tank and/or meat shield, in the same way that Reyn -- the character I used 90% of the time -- did in the original Xenoblade.  So I thought, “I need to make a grown-ass woman”, because it’d be more than a little strange to have a tiny girl wielding massive weaponry and absorbing hits like a steel wall.  And then the game trots out Lin, who does exactly that.


In any case, the character.  Continuing a recent trend of naming my female characters after wrestling moves (like a hostess in Yakuza 4 I dubbed Pile Driver…which in hindsight is rather unfortunate), I christened her “Lariat”.  True to the concept of “grown-ass woman”, I maxed out her height, partially to see just how tall that would make her in-game.  (For the record: taller than every other female character so far, but beat out by a few men.)  I gave her curly, shoulder-length hair and shaded it a deep red, and added a pair of serious-looking green eyes.  Well, relatively speaking; you could argue that she still looks comparatively young.

Things went awry before I wrapped up, though.  For starters?  You may be able to change eyes and hair and add little extra features, but in the US version, the only mod you can make to your (female) character’s body is the height.  In an ideal world, Lariat would have a height and build that’s practically Amazonian, as you’d expect from a tank -- and especially if she’d follow in the footsteps of beefy battler Reyn.  It’s a shame, but not a deal-breaker.  Besides, my lack of a plan going in forced a detour; I noticed that there was an option for freckles, so I slapped them onto Lariat’s face and didn’t look back.  It’s not that I have anything against freckles, but in terms of image -- especially in the magical domain of Anime Land -- freckles aren’t exactly commonplace on what might as well be a super-soldier.  Except she wasn’t really a super-soldier.  Not yet.  Honestly, given the classes that were in the game, I could’ve gone in any direction.

But then I noticed that you can give your female character the voice of Mary Elizabeth McGlynn.  And I hammered the A button as hard as I could, because why the hell wouldn’t you?


To my surprise, those elements ended up really coming together -- and as they say, everything went better than expected.  I knew some stuff going into XCX, but of all things, I was not prepared for basic movement.  For the uninitiated: you can run and jump as you would in any other game, and there’s also a sprint toggle on the left stick.  But what shocked me was that when you sprint, you seriously sprint. 

You move fast enough to potentially outpace speeding cars.  If you jump while sprinting, you’ll jump incredibly high, and leap even farther horizontally if you so choose.  On top of that, you can sprint infinitely -- and as an added bonus, you can seemingly fall from any height without having your shins shoved through your shoulders.


So imagine my surprise when my unusually tall, freckled redhead could clear entire city blocks in a single bound, and run at sixty miles per hour from one end of a valley to the other, while also casually jumping from cliffs twenty stories high.  All of that is before taking into account her combat skills.  She’s got hundreds, often thousands more HP than her comrades. 

Her melee weapon of choice is a shield, and no matter its size she uses it to punch giant insects in the face for huge damage.  Her ranged weapon is a Gatling gun she can cart around on her back, and wield without tearing her arms off.  Coupled with her class-specific auras -- Supershield to reflect enemy attacks, and Enhanced Stand to boost power while regaining HP -- Lariat is virtually un-killable.  So basically, I stumbled ass-backwards into making a super-soldier.  Not that I’m complaining.

Well, I say that, but there are some things that have been on my mind.


Despite being a newbie in-universe -- the game starts with your avatar getting rescued from a downed space pod -- Lariat arguably slots into the role of cool female soldier (which, of course, is helped by the voice).  The problem is that the role is filled by default; Elma is your first party member, and one that sees a lot of play in the story.  So even if Lariat takes on a commanding role as a soldier, she’s still stepping all over the feet of someone with a far greater presence -- since, you know, Elma actually talks.  But in all fairness, I actually like Elma a lot.  She brings a level of maturity and professionalism to the party -- and the game at large -- but she’s still capable of things like compassion and camaraderie.  It still leaves Lariat in a weird situation, but the circumstances could be a hell of a lot worse.

Except they kind of already are, in a way.  Elma forces Lariat to lose some of her impact as a character story-wise, but then Lin goes on to do the same gameplay-wise.  Despite looking like she belongs in middle school, Lin can lug around the same Gatling guns and giant shields that Lariat can -- and since both of them are basically following the same character tree, some of their moves in battle overlap.  How is Lariat supposed to express her individuality when the two individuals joined at her hips are constantly doing what she does?


I had a conversation once with my brother, and he revealed that he absolutely hates silent protagonists -- Ludger from Tales of Xillia 2 being a prime example.  I can’t say that I share his hatred, but I do see things his way.  Setting aside the barely-justified way games handle silent protagonists (apparently everyone can understand Link, because he’s secretly speaking in full), dialogue is one of the ways a character conveys his or her personality.  Take that away, and you’re taking away a very important tool.  Talking isn’t necessarily a requirement, but you don’t have to be a world-renowned novelist to know that it’s pretty beneficial.

But video games are in an audiovisual medium, and so they can take advantage of that.  It’s still more than possible to communicate nonverbally, for example -- and even then, it’s not as if Lariat is 100% mute.  During battle, she’ll call out all sorts of actions and commands, and help make fights in XCX feel like a coordinated team effort; like the original game, it really helps sell the synergy when your character of choice is actively directing the flow of combat.  It’s through even the most standard of battles that Lariat’s personality shines through, coupled with the level of activity the player can influence.  Elma may act like a cool soldier, but Lariat is bursting with authority and power -- almost as if the former is the newbie, while the latter is a veteran that not even a towering mech should trifle with.


Here’s where things get complicated, though.  Like other RPGs, XCX extends its customization to armor, wherein you’ll deck out your avatar with gear for his/her head, torso, legs, left arm, and right arm.  That can potentially mean you’ll strut around wearing a getup that’s less coherent than a patchwork quilt knitted by a moose, but you’re still very likely to create a solid outfit for your avatar.  For the longest time, Lariat managed to look like the super-soldier I had long since started to envision. 

But what I’m starting to suspect about XCX is that it’s not exactly conducive to dressing sensibly.  I don’t want to be that guy, but I have to be honest: the skimpy and scintillating armor that people have complained about for ages is here, and in full force.  Well, maybe not for the guys (I wouldn’t know, since as of writing everyone in my party is female), but I put on some armor for Elma to boost her stats, only to not realize until a cutscene later on that -- despite having legs that wouldn’t look out of place on Jehuty -- it shrouded her ass in a sparkling latex sheen, and capped it off with a protruding metal thong.  And I was just like, “Aw, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.”


I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given that a female villain shows up early on and struts around in what might as well be alien dominatrix gear -- complete with a slow and deliberate pan up her thong-laden backside.  Again, the concern has been there for years, but not since Prince of Persia: Warrior Within have I been forced to stare it in the face (relatively speaking).  Some of the armor in this game makes me cringe, because every time I see a new piece of armor and watch as it puts the ladies’ assets on display, I can’t help but think, “Come on, guys.  You’re better than this.”

Not all of the armor is like that, for sure.  And yeah, you could make the argument that it makes sense contextually; alien technology is bound to have some unusual designs, after all…though that argument breaks down when you remember that said armor is specifically designed to reveal the skin of an entirely different species.  Alternatively, Earth-based companies are replicating alien tech to create “stylish” “armor”, but it doesn’t explain why that armor is being sold to people who’d want to boost their defenses, not strut their stuff in front of monsters.


And the disparity between male and female armor is even more depressing.  Again, I haven’t seen everything that armor for the guys has to offer.  But I do know this: there’s a guy named Phog you can recruit if you do his sidequest.  By default, he’s wearing a basic shirt and shorts -- and if you add him to your party, you can switch out those clothes for better armor.  Notably, it’s possible for male and female characters to wear the same armor -- so I thought I’d see what Phog’s equipment looked like on Lariat.  As it turned out, it looked nothing like what Phog had on.  When Lariat put it on, it suddenly turned into a tanktop several sizes too small; a toddler would’ve had trouble squeezing into the shorts she got.  Hell, they weren’t even the same color as Phog’s outfit.

The problem here isn’t necessarily that the costumes exist; it’s that they threaten to act in stark defiance of established context.  Remember, I came to understand Lariat as a super-soldier, an iron-willed (and iron-bodied) woman exploding with authority and force.  The idea of putting her in armor that dove deep into her cleavage made me wince.  Is it something that she would wear?  Every fiber of my being said “No, it is not, and you’re stupid for even asking.”  The same goes for Elma; nothing about her character suggests she’d be okay with going out to battle in what might as well be titanium floss.  I would sooner dress up Lin as The Littlest EVA (and did) than show exactly why her clothes got edited.

And yet, despite all that, maybe it’s not as big a deal as I make it out to be.


It took me a while to remember this, but in XCX there’s a special function: you can put your equipment into the “Fashion Gear” slot so that it overrides whatever armor you’ve got without losing any stats.  So for example, if you really dig Elma’s starting shirt, you can set it to her torso Fashion Gear slot and let it rock.  Certain equipment takes up multiple slots -- like a couple of uniforms -- but the important thing is that if there’s a certain combination of equipment that you feel captures the essence of your avatar (or others), you don’t have to junk it to keep a competitive edge.

But a funny thing happened the other day.  Like I said, I forgot about the Fashion Gear option because I’d only found it at random on Day 1.  Once the possibility of a dedicated costume crossed my mind, I felt relieved.  Lariat could be the soldier I envisioned!  At long last, her persona would be intact!  But there were two issues.  First off, by that point I had already put her in some alien armor -- a skirt, top, and heels that wouldn’t look too out of place at a beachside resort.  And also, she had neon headgear that looked like petals; basically she looked like some kind of gigantic fairy princess.  It was weird…but kind of fitting, in a way.  I put it on her for the stats, but I could still imagine Lariat scowling and going “This is complete horseshit” all day long.  And it was actually pretty cool.


Then when it came time to put on the Fashion Gear, I didn’t immediately go straight to the soldier outfit, but instead cycled through some of my options.  And you know what?  For a little while, I actually put Lariat in “Phog’s clothes”.  To my surprise, I didn’t cough up viscera and cry bloody tears at the sight of a woman in fewer clothes.  If anything, it seemed fitting (and not in the obvious physical sense).  It made me imagine Lariat going out on a mission after an extensive workout session at the gym -- and not even giving a damn about it.  I didn’t stick with it for too long, though; I traded it out for a camo tank top, a ribbon on the arm, and cargo shorts. 

Then I finished up a quest that earned me some glasses.  And when I slapped them onto Lariat, it was practically a revelation.  Suddenly, infinite possibilities opened up to me; in that moment, I realized that I could see Lariat as more than just a super-soldier.  She could take on a life of her own, well beyond the bounds of her non-committal creation.  True, she started off as a blank slate, but I could chisel her into something much bigger and better.


Thinking back, there’s a part of me that’s embarrassed that I had to learn that lesson.  I’m the guy who’s argued that Samus’ alternate costume -- and the Zero Suit, by extension -- is much more than just a shot at fanservice.  I’ve also argued in Bayonetta’s favor, still think that Juliet Starling is one of gaming’s best female characters, and even say that Senran Kagura is better than its bra-busting image would suggest.  So who the hell am I to say that this costume or that pair of pants is off-limits?

Yes, context is important.  But playing as Lariat reminded me that context isn’t this unflinching, immutable thing.  The circumstances can change it, informing both the particulars and the results -- what works, and what grinds against it like a brick in a grandfather clock.  The different elements in the game are all there to act as means of nonverbal communication, taking advantage of the medium to characterize in the absence of dialogue.  The tools may not always be what you asked for, but they’re still tools.  And indeed, any one of them has a probability -- however high, however low -- to open minds.

  
Who is Lariat?  She’s big and strong, freckled and redheaded.  She’s a superhuman soldier out to help colonize an alien planet, and rescue humanity from a fatal end.  She has a commanding presence, befitting a soldier that opens fire on wolves the size of charter buses.  But there’s more to her than that.  She’ll geek out at the sight of a fancy robot.  She’ll point out that one of the natives is incredibly cute.  She’ll boast that she’ll kick enough asses for everybody.  And she’ll wear whatever the hell she feels like wearing.  As expected of a grown-ass woman.

But there’s one moment in particular that, to me, is incredibly strong.  Occasionaly when a battle is won, Lariat will nonchalantly comment that the barren winds aren’t good for her hair.  The first time I heard that, I was genuinely shocked -- shocked, but no less amused.  And depending on the party member, she’ll get a different response.  A guy like Lao will gruffly tell her to cut it off, because she shouldn’t care about her coiffure when lives are on the line.  But Elma will join in on the fun, saying that she knows a treatment and that she should ask about it when they get back to New Los Angeles.  (Also, Elma will opt to go out shopping with Irina during their spare time -- so the cool soldier and a cooler soldier have made a date to paint the town red.)

So the lesson here is that characters don’t have to be exactly what you expect or demand.  The qualities you never expected or even wanted can be the ones that you secretly wanted the most.  Or if not that, they’re the ones you can appreciate the most.  Lariat is a soldier, but she’s more than just a soldier -- and she can become much more than a soldier.  The blank slate is a representation of infinite possibilities, of avenues that lead to countless smiles.  That’s what it’s all about. 

And I have Lariat -- and one kickass game -- to remind me of that fact.


Now enjoy this picture of Zangief.  Thanks to this, the subtitle makes slightly more sense.

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