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October 3, 2016

Who’s the Sexiest Character in Gaming?

Not to start this post off with a controversial opinion, but I have to be honest: I think underboob is the worst thing ever.

It’s fine if other people like it, of course.  But for me?  It actively makes anything it’s attached to demonstrably worse.  I remember when BlazBlue was first bumping around and it revealed squirrel girl Makoto in her school uniform -- pretty OK, more or less.  But then when her combat form was revealed for her stint in Continuum Shift -- notably, as one of the very first DLC-specific fighters -- she showed off no shortage of underboob.  And I thought, “I’m done with this character.”

It just strikes me as trashy -- and tryhard, while we’re at it.  It’s an unnatural attempt to get a rise out of others, with means that are entirely unnecessary.  Like, we can all agree that breasts of any kind are fine on their own, right?  Why go out of your way to highlight them in such an awkward way?  Or is it just a means to show that the woman in question doesn’t know how to wear clothes?  Either way, I think it’s the worst.  I’m pretty biased, though, thanks to that one time on the night of a full moon.

But let’s not dwell on it.  Let’s talk about sexy characters instead.

There’s an entirely-justified debate in the gaming world about the representation of women (or lack thereof in some…okay, many cases).  Granted that’s not a debate strictly limited to video games; merely the fact that we have something like The Hawkeye Initiative bumping around means that something’s gone awry in fiction overall.  I’ve never been a woman (as far as I know), but I’m pretty sure that the fairer sex doesn’t approve of being used as the fall guy in one story after another -- used as the damsel, or the wet blanket, or the love interest, or the eye candy, or whatever.  Of course, you don’t need to be a woman to cringe whenever a female character is used poorly; seeing them in some games is so painful, I can feel my soul scraping its way out of my throat.

One of the most contentious points, I’d wager, is that in a lot of cases women are removed of their characters and turned into things worth lusting over.  90s-era Lara Croft is one of the biggest examples, considering how she was used in marketing.  Dead or Alive proudly bears the torch of scanty clothing and ridiculous figures, to the point where I’d say there’s no company that’s ever had a harder runback than when they went from their “I’m a Fighter” phase to “we’re adding a squeaky-voiced schoolgirl with the biggest chest yet”.  And then there’s Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel, which not only has an art book I’m wary of even looking at, but also makes one of its central gameplay mechanics the lavishly-rendered stripping of likely underage girls.  If I hadn’t already condemned myself to hell, I certainly did by playing a few hours of that game.

But these days, I can’t help but wonder: is it wrong to be sexy in fiction?

The way people act, it seems as if there’s no bigger fail-state than putting one of your created characters in a bikini (or other states of undress).  Well, either that, or giving her outrageous proportions -- or you can double-down on your sinfulness and do both at once.  I get it, though.  There’s an extremely fine line between making a character look hot for a good reason, and making a character look hot because then the character will be hot.  Even then, you have to deal with audience perceptions and judgments; even if there was a character that had a legit reason to strut her stuff, there are going to be people who assume the worst almost immediately.  It’s a dance we’ve done too many times, so it’s only natural that the stigma alone is (or should be) enough to make a creator think twice.

To be perfectly honest, this is an issue that means more to me than it does to the average gamer.  As I’ve said before, I’m a guy who wants to create no shortage of characters and stories -- and I can tell you right now that some of them could probably be called sexy.  I’d think that I’ve put enough thought and depth into them to make them rise above just being easy on the eyes (as an example, imagine Christina Hendricks as the size of a kaiju -- with all the negative circumstances to follow).  But appearances do matter, whether it’s in fiction or the real world.

So let’s invert our thinking here.  Instead of arguing why sexiness is bad for characters (females in particular), let’s wonder aloud: why is sexiness good for characters?  And who walks away with the crown?

What a pun.  What a thrill.

The answer’s going to be different for everyone, which is exactly why I’m opening the floor for your responses (though as a friendly reminder: we can’t all pick Bayonetta).  Even if liking a character just because of some choice attributes comes off as sleazy, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be, of course, but think of it this way: how much a character puts on airs of sexuality is a way to prove just how competently she (or he, but mostly she for now) was designed.  It’s an aspect that a creator can develop and push with skill.  If said creator has a keen mind and a steady hand, it’s more than possible to make a character that’s absolutely stunning with just a glance.  In an audiovisual medium like video games, that’s unbelievably crucial.

So let’s not act like being sexy is inherently wrong.  It’s an aspect -- a tool at a creator’s disposal to be used as needed, albeit wisely.  It can go wrong -- so very, very wrong -- in a matter of seconds; there’s a part of me that thinks the game industry will never recover from Ivy’s costume from Soulcalibur IV.  But it can also go right, and show off a character in a way that fully conveys ideas while inspiring emotions in an audience.  And not just lust, either.  Just slapping a bikini on a busty girl and calling it a day isn’t going to impress anyone -- but doing the same to a woman with that certain je ne sais quoi can really help a character sing.  In turn, it can inspire feelings of respect toward said character.  Of understanding.  Of a perception of depth, even beyond her official measurements.

How do I know this?  Well, I don’t know with 100% certainty.  But I am changing my way of thinking -- thanks to Xenoblade Chronicles X.

With the delay of Final Fantasy 15, I’ve been trying to burn through as much backlogged JRPG content as I can before the big day.  Xenoblade Chronicles X is at the top of the to-do list, and it’s done me a great service each time I boot it up.  I’ve talked at length about my created character Lariat in the past, and how I accidentally ended up making a badass super-soldier.  But the more I play as her, the more I realize that she’s the strongest, coolest, most invincible woman in the universe.  And part of that is because, yes, she’s more than a little sexy.

Even though people have lamented the loss of the bust slider in the western version, the devs have done all they can to put a hot lady at the player’s fingertips.  There’s no shortage of scintillating costumes, be it alien armor that’s anything but, bikinis of every persuasion (including total garbage like underboob-bearing tops), and even Playboy bunny suits you can unlock because of course you can.  With the “Fashion Gear” option, you can have those costume pieces take the place of your normal armor without sacrificing stats, all so you can coordinate the perfect outfit.  But even if you forgo the clothing options, the animations baked into the game make it damn near impossible to be anything short of a Victoria’s Secret model.

I’ve never made it my mission to carefully analyze women’s walk cycles in real life, but whether I’m running or walking with Lariat, I can’t help but notice how much tilting and swaying she does with her hips.  Especially when she’s walking; I swear the devs had to fight their urges to turn the game into a fashion show (which in all fairness I would’ve played the crap out of).  Make her sit down, and she’s basically posing for a photo shoot; beat a baddie with Overdrive activated, and there’s a random chance that she’ll blow a kiss. 

And beyond all that, there’s the fact that countless cutscenes manage to put her backside -- or the backside of other ladies -- on full display, as if they’re monsters that need to be confronted.  Given how 80% of the leg options in the game exist to frame those glutes, I have a sneaking suspicion that somebody at Monolift Soft really likes butts.

There’s a wide range of options when it comes to decking out your BLADE fighter, so you can likely create whoever you want without having to sacrifice your creative vision.  I managed that thanks to a smattering of sidequests, and now I have Lariat in a costume I more or less consider her default form with the headcanon to support it.  (Well, it WAS her default form, but that’s a story for another day).  With that said, I’m always on the lookout for new items that’ll give her a different look, and characterize her even more.  Those pants that she’s wearing?  They may frame her ass better than The Louvre ever could, but unlocking them for the first time was basically a revelation for me.

They weren’t alone, of course.  Whether you like it or not, swimsuit options will eventually drop straight into your lap.  For the longest time, they went untouched -- but as I strove to customize Lariat and find different looks, I stumbled upon a camo-printed bikini top in my inventory.  And you know what?  I thought it looked friggin’ sick on her.  It didn’t make her any worse of a character, or take away her credentials as a woman who could singlehandedly smash robots five times her size; if anything, it only made her more badass.  It suggested beauty, but confidence in turn -- assuredness in her looks as well as her strength.  No rules could constrain her; no foe could best her; no social mores could shame her; no terrain could hamper her.  She was -- and still is -- strong because she was sexy and sexy because she was strong.

I leaned toward the camo tank top and black leather pants/boots as her default look (along with the red hair, freckles, and robot arm).  Still, the game allows for mutability, and I see now that I should take advantage of that to get the most out of my character.  On a technical level, that includes switching her from the unstoppable tank to the sure-killing sniper -- though my plan is to hybridize her classes down the line.  But on a superficial level, I’m not opposed to putting her in more clothes, less clothes, or outfits you’d think would be a forgone creature comfort while besieged on an alien planet.  It’s a way for me to explore and accentuate aspects of the character that would’ve gone muted otherwise -- because as much as society might like to pretend otherwise, sexuality is something at least worth keeping in mind.  If it’s not expressed in the real world, it’s at least something worth exploring in fiction…where it’s a lot safer to get a little kinky.

Sexiness has many forms, I’d wager.  As long as it’s used effectively -- with style and skill, and within reason -- then it can add plenty to a character.  Countless fighting games have done it with varying levels of success.  Is it all for the sake of conning gamers with the promise of bountiful bodies by the boatload?  On some level, yes.  But we’re talking about an artistic medium here; the means can be corrupted, but the impact can be legendary.  Even if Mai Shiranui is world-famous for her lack of clothing and preponderance of volatile adipose tissue, she’s still earned herself legions of fans over the years.  And who knows?  Maybe there are those who were lured in by her body, but learned to love her because of her fighting style, or story, or -- gasp -- her personality. 

To be clear, it’s not as if you can just make a sexy character and shrug off all criticism because you’re following a creative vision.  No one’s forcing sexuality; you can just as easily appreciate a woman who sidesteps that aspect.  Still, it is something you can use to great effect.  So it’s not about what characters should be, but rather what they can be -- and yes, having some bodacious bods can go a long way toward that.  What does she look like?  Does she care?  Does she like the way she looks?  Do others like the way she looks?  Does she care about what others think?  Those are just a few possible avenues to explore, any one of which can maximize the depth of a character.

Obviously, video games don’t always lend themselves to that full exploration; Lara Croft’s more focused on her tomb-raiding adventures, pre- and post-reboot.  It’s not impossible, though.  I may give BlazBlue guff for its characters (more and more with each new installment), but it still manages to get something out of “boobie lady” Litchi Faye-Ling in the design, in the animation, in the story, in the dialogue, and even -- if not especially -- in conversations at the start of, during, or after a fight.  Do her looks rev up someone’s engines?  No doubt.  Yet she transcends being “the busty one” and becomes “THE busty one”.  A subtle difference, I know, but it’s worth celebrating.

And I want to use this space to celebrate that.  The infinite possibilities of fiction make themselves known on every level of the process.  Sometimes those possibilities are good.  Sometimes they’re not.  Sometimes they’re built around the sort of thing that earn the average Joe a slap in the face so fierce it’d shatter cheek bones.  But considering and manipulating them can lead to something truly special -- fulfilled potential, and a way to make an audience consider things in a whole new light.  Is it possible with something like a nice pair of gams?  I really think so.  And I have a feeling that you do, too.

So let’s hear it, then.  Who do you think is gaming’s sexiest character, male or female?  What makes them stand head and shoulders above the rest?  Their looks?  Their poise?  Their strength?  Would others feel the same way about that character?  And perhaps most critically: is your character of choice someone you’d bring home to meet the parents?  I feel like that should factor in at some point.  Whatever the case, tell all.  Show the world who you’re willing to stand by -- without fear of persecution, I hope.

Although I’m going to go ahead and nullify your choice right now.  THIS is gaming’s sexiest character.


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