Given the recent furore over the lack of female playable characters in Assassin's Creed: Unity — and the fact that the previously controversial action RPG Dragon's Crown is currently part of Europe's PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection — I've been having plenty of time to think about how sexism manifests itself in the video game industry, and perhaps more importantly, how the gaming press reacts when it spots something it finds objectionable. Unsurprisingly for a hobby which is dominated by teenage males, women are often treated as objects of lust rather than living, breathing people; an irksome issue which is by no means exclusive to video games, and can be found in practically every other type of media — music and movies especially.
Firstly, let me state that I'm a massive, massive fan of the work of Vanillaware and its founder, George Kamitani. From the moment I saw screenshots of Princess Crown on the Sega Saturn in a copy of GameFan magazine back in the late '90s, I fell in love with the 2D art style which would become the studio's trademark. Odin Sphere, GrimGrimoire and Muramasa: The Demon Blade all followed, and when Dragon's Crown was announced, it quickly became my most wanted release. Then the storm hit; critics started to point out — quite rightly, too — how ridiculous the female playable characters looked, with their massive, heaving bosoms and impossibly proportioned behinds.
While Kamitani has never shied away from such overly-sexulaised portrayals of women in the past (even the impossibly cute Princess Crown turned its wide-eyed protagonist into an S&M freak towards the end of the adventure), Dragon's Crown takes things to an entirely new level of absurdity. The two playable female characters — the Sorceress and Amazon — boast physiques which would make Jessica Rabbit blush; the former has a pair of breasts which look like they could tear free of her chest at any moment, while the latter is blessed with trunk-like thighs and a derrière so massive it presumably requires her to book two seats instead of one whenever she takes a horse-drawn carriage ride through the leafy suburbs of Hydeland.
Quite rightly, many of the reviews which appeared when the game was first released gave a significant amount of attention to the character design, with many pointing out that the impossibly burly appearance of the some of the male characters was equally disturbing. While the majority of reviewers could agree that the game had merit (we gave both the PS3 and Vita editions 8/10 scores), there was little doubt that the questionable visuals had tempered the appeal somewhat.
I played the game briefly when it was first released and for some reason or another wasn't able to give it the attention it deserved — ironic when you consider how excited I was pre-launch. It's highly likely that subconsciously, the drama surrounding the game's art style had put a dampener on my enthusiasm, but when Dragon's Crown became part of Europe's PlayStation Plus collection and I heard others talking about it, I decided it was time for me to give it a second chance and fully devote myself to the title. Not only have I massively enjoyed my time with Vanillaware's latest epic, but I was surprised to find that I wasn't totally and utterly repulsed by the visuals, as some of my fellow critics had been.
In fact, what struck me was the fact that so few of the game's attackers had even bothered to point out that Dragon's Crown has its tongue so firmly planted in its cheek that it's practically bursting through the skin. Unlike western fantasy role-playing games — which typically showcase sexualised, scantily-clad females without a single trace of irony — Dragon's Crown is clearly poking fun at the tropes which litter the genre. The male fighter character has a massive upper body but scrawny, child-like legs, while the dwarf is short on stature but has more muscle mass than Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone combined. It's clear that Kamitani and his team are having fun here, rather than seriously presenting what they think a game of this type should look like.
Indeed, in his response to Kotaku's Jason Schreler, Kamitani made it clear that the graphics shouldn't be taken too seriously:
I decided to exaggerate all of my character designs in a cartoonish fashion.
I exaggerated the silhouettes of all the masculine features in the male characters, the feminine features in female characters, and the monster-like features in the monsters from many different angles until each had a unique feel to them. I apologize to those who were made uncomfortable by the art’s appearance, and did not see the same light-hearted fantasy in my designs.
It seems almost churlish to point this out, as this is a game which also features a homage to the killer rabbit scene in Monty Python's Holy Grail and parodies Disney's Fantasia by having a magical mouse appealing to you for assistance when a spell goes wrong. Unlike western RPGs — such as Diablo, Elder Scrolls and The Witcher 2 (the latter of which has a sex scene which is almost entirely focused on the Triss Merigold's naked body — a character who would later star as a virtual Playboy model) — Dragon's Crown doesn't even begin to take itself seriously.
However, this alone doesn't excuse the fact that even through the mirth, women are still being treated predominantly as sexual objects in Vanillaware's title. The infamous interactive cutscenes — one of which sees you touching a shackled, barely-clothed woman as she moans and twists — can hardly be described as parody, even when the game informs you that your ever-present fairy companion is "judging you" as you gleefully prod away with your digit. It's at these points that it becomes harder to defend Kamitani claims that the game is deliberately over the top, and to be honest Dragon's Crown would have been better off had they not been included — they serve no other purpose than to titillate male players.
Even so, it still strikes me as strange that many reviews didn't pick up on the degree of humour which exists in Dragon's Crown. Much of the dialogue is very funny indeed — even more so if you're familiar with the kind of nonsense which often gets spouted in RPG titles — and the distinctly "western" feel that the game has lends credence to the view that it is very much a pastiche of North American and European role-players, seen through the eyes of a Japanese studio which has poked fun at the genre's obsession with muscle-bound warriors and female characters who dash into battle wearing little more than underwear. Dragon's Crown may have overstepped the mark when it comes to wantonly objectifying women, but the western critics who came down so strongly on it should perhaps direct some of their venom closer to home, primarily at those western titles which make the same mistake but make no effort to add a humourous slant.