Friday, April 13, 2012

Young Benicio Del Toro Goes To Hell With the Skull from the Dresden Files - Or Shadows of the Damned

It's taken me so long to get around to playing this game for one major reason. It seemed to be marketed and reviewed as a sort of Devil May Cry/Bayonetta type game. When I saw Shadows of the Damned suggested to me on my Xbox dashboard next to Alice: Madness Returns, I finally gave in to the little nagging voice at the back of my head. I'm really glad that I did.

First, my sole experience with Suda51 - who at first I thought was kind of a douche simply for his name, but then found out his first name is "Goichi" which translates to 5 and 1 in Japanese - had been playing the sophomoric, but very enjoyable No More Heroes. If these two games are anything to make a judgment from, Grasshopper Manufacture and Suda51 have a great sense of humor and make interesting games.

The story starts with Garcia Hotspur - a more balls than brain demon hunter who resembles a young scarred Benicio Del Toro - standing over a nearly defeated demon in a dark alley. They banter and the demon gives him the typical villainous "It's not over" blah blah blah speech before G, as his gun/sidekick is fond of calling him, blows the demon's brains all over everything. He returns home expecting to find his loving girlfriend Paula and he does find her, but he finds her hanging from a ceiling fan. And then a demon bursts out of her back and all Hell literally breaks loose. The Lord of Hell, a guy with the very unmenacing name of Fleming, shows up with Paula tucked inside his coat (leaving me with the question of where does he keep his body?) and basically tells Garcia that this is revenge for all the demons he has killed. The exchange between the two of them is a lot of creepy sexual innuendo with Fleming saying, "Admit my... endowment is larger than yours and I'll let her go." Either a sense of stereotypical Latin American machismo or a need to drive the plot further causes G to basically tell him to shove it. Fleming threatens her with all sorts of rape, torture, and repeated murders because it is hell and that's the sort of thing they are into before he jumps out the window taking Paula with him and Garcia follows into the vortex to Hell. And that's the start of the game. It's your typical damsel in distress story where the hero has to fight his way through Hell to get his girl, more often referred to as "Angel" pronounced for authenticity with the g as an h.

Before I touch on some of the problematic social issues with the game, I will tell you this was fun as hell to play. And here I apologize for the unintended pun. It's full of immature dick jokes... his transforming weapon/sidekick is named Johnson, but the primary pistol is called the Boner - eventually becoming the Big Boner and the Hot Boner. His method of transformation is basically calling a phone sex line to become a cannon like weapon that the main character fires while shouting things like "Taste my Big Boner!" There are some really cool 2d levels that look like they were made out of paper and are reminiscent of old style arcade games. Level design is beautiful, there are some simple puzzle elements, and the music is amazing. I would actually listen to the Spanish guitar style track that starts the game because I really enjoy it. There is fantastic world building here and each of the major bosses in the game gets a back story that makes them sympathetic. I actually kind of felt bad for killing some of them because their human lives were so depressingly sad. 

And here, where I talk about the gender and ethnicity problems of the game, I'm going to get a little spoiler riddled. Just a warning, not that there is any great twist.

The first thing that struck me was the main character. Hurray, an ethnic main character in a video game and one that is Hispanic! That's pretty uncommon and I love seeing diversity in video games. And then you start to listen to him talk. He's a ridiculous stereotype. A swaggering, tequila (to be fair hot sake and absinthe as well) swilling, cowboy boot wearing stereotype. He swears in Spanish, throwing out "puta", "cabron", and "pendejo" frequently. I lived in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood and don't think I ever saw anything as ridiculously stereotypical of this. It's also offensive that he comes off as nearly illiterate. Those books I mentioned earlier giving the back story for each demon boss are read alternately by Johnson and Garcia. Johnson zips through in his sophisticated British accent making witty quips, while Garcia struggles like a second grader. He sometimes even has to sound out words. It was painful to experience.

And yet our hero's treatment is nowhere near as bad as the way they treat women in this game. First thing is first, but holy unhealthy relationships and objectification of women, Batman! Paula is your typical blond, alabaster skinned, perfectly built video game girl. After the initial scene where she is found hanging in a nightgown, she spends the rest of the game running around in white lingerie. There is very much something of the virgin archetype in her treatment. She is a possession caught in a tug of war between Garcia and Fleming. I'm not even sure if we ever see her as a real person. Garcia eventually tells Johnson as they are traveling through Hell that he found Paula in a dumpster. Johnson says, "Hey, I thought you met at a supermarket." Garcia admits it was a dumpster behind a supermarket. The closest this game gets to remarking on Paula's treatment as a possession is Johnson's response of "And you just brought her home and kept her?" Like she was a puppy that you found whimpering in the rain. You don't do that with people! Their "love story" evolves further as the game progresses and Garcia tells Johnson of how she didn't speak for weeks until the phone rang and she screamed at him not to answer. When he went for the phone, she tore it out of the wall. This all makes sense later when you find out - I told you spoilers were coming - that Paula is essentially the Lord of Hell's mistress and Fleming likes to harass people over the phone. There is a dynamic of Paula being highly jealous and slightly unhinged; Garcia reminisces fondly over telling her he was married (as a joke) and laughing when she came at him with a knife. The end speech even solidifies Paula's place as an object in Garcia's eyes. "I fell in love with the Lord of the Underworld's mistress and I will keep fighting until she is mine alone... because I still see love in her eyes and I love killing fucking demons." He doesn't fight for her because he loves her, but because she is a possession to him. Her adoration - which may or may not exist because I'm still not sure we ever see her when she isn't possessed in some way - is certain, but his feelings are just that he loves killing demons.

The objectification of women goes further as there are sequences where a giant topless dancing stripper - very reminiscent of Paula, but probably a result of Garcia's psyche - moans orgasmically and then bends and becomes part of the walkway that you must traverse. Paula is frequently disassembled or beheaded, literally reduced to objects and pieces. Or turned into a vessel for a demon to inhabit and as our hot-blooded Latin American stereotype main character can't keep his hands off her, he is surprised when yet another demon pops out of her. Or she goes crazy and starts chasing him, leaping to wrap her legs around him and kill with a simple kiss. Dude never learns. There is also a lot of creepy rape-y overtones to the game. An opening scene with "dead" Paula on the bed and demons crawling over her running their hands over her body. Fleming saying, "Hey, she came onto me" and referring to her as a "peach".

There is a strong female character that you never see, but is referenced in Johnson's favorite story. A story called "The Unbreakable Huntress" that he tells as you find a series of pieces of art depicting scenes from it. Basically, she is the only woman who ever made it to challenge Fleming. He makes pretty short work of her and then there is an implication of rape, where she says something along the lines of "You may have me, but you'll never own me." Fleming is impressed and she's punished for being strong by being made Queen of the Underworld so Fleming can brutally murder her over and over again. Like I said, women are NOT well treated in this game.

I will give it to the game that they give you a lot of female bosses, though all of them are or were prized for their beauty at some point. The Sisters Grim are terrifying and some of the toughest bosses in the game. Justine is easily defeated as she is fought in one of those artistically styled 2d levels, but she basically runs around in combat lingerie singing a sort of siren song and dancing in most of the cut scenes. Even Paula becomes a sort of boss at the end - though your goal is not to kill her but take off the six wings she has sprouted from her back. When she goes from damsel in distress to crazy codependent "Why didn't you save me? Why didn't you die with me if you love me? Why did you let them kill me over and over again?" shrieking angel, her hair turns red and her lingerie black. 

When Garcia ultimately saves the girl, she wakes up in their bed, surprised and grateful. They are sitting at a table where she has prepared the caprese salad he enthused about earlier in the game and some hamburgers. She says they are a "special recipe" and continues to giggle mindlessly and talk about planning a trip to Mexico to see if they'd like to settle down there. Once again, for authenticity points, Garcia says Mexico where the x is an h. The phone rings. It's Fleming, clearly, joking about how you can tell a lot about a man by what kind of meat he likes between his buns. Like I said, it's sophomoric humor and dick jokes, but it somehow works. The demons come, Fleming kidnaps what he considers his girl, Garcia goes after her, wash, rinse, and repeat I assume. 

One of these days I'm really going to have to analyze why I continue to play games where females are marginalized and treated the way they are in games like this. I even enjoyed this game and feel a sort of shame about that. More so, I'm looking forward to Suda51's next venture with director James Gunn - who did the movies Slither and Super - called Lollipop Chainsaw. It's got a female main character who is a blond pig-tailed zombie-murdering cheerleader. I guess I'm just going to have to balance out my desire to see "real" or at least real adjacent female characters with the fun experience of playing games from Grasshopper Manufacture.

And I really need to hook up my Wii and go play No More Heroes again. It was sophomoric, but I can't remember if the women were treated anything like this.

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