Thursday, June 28, 2012

Lollipop Chainsaw or Why Buffy Did It Better

Before I even started to talk about this game, I thought it might be nice to open with the video that plays as you start the game. This is our first introduction to Juliet Starling. She's the typical ditzy blonde head cheerleader who just also happens to fight monsters. Wait.... I'm pretty sure I've heard this story before. As a geek girl, the Whedonverse is pretty much unavoidable. I've been a fan of the movie since I was probably too young to understand a lot of its implications and I remember being scandalized in middle school when I found out they were making a television show out of it. The television show (full disclosure here and something I am completely ashamed to admit... I haven't ACTUALLY finished it despite owning every season on dvd... bad geek, i know) did a pretty good job of portraying her as a well rounded and flawed human being once you got past the ditzy candy shell. In Lollipop Chainsaw, they never manage to crack that shell. 

From minute one, Juliet is portrayed as hypersexualized and pretty much clueless. She does very flexible and suggestive yoga on her bed, takes a steamy silhouetted shower, talks about how she eats lollipops to keep her energy up (or constantly keep the gamer in mind of her oral fixation... or OMG blowjobs!), and also manages to - despite being the ideally built girl for most men - show off her insecurity about her "great big fat butt". They made it the morning of her eighteenth birthday, though most of the game she comes off sounding like a fifteen year old girl. I guess it's easier to masturbate to a scantily clad cheerleader when she's legal... even if she is just a virtual fantasy.

The most fully developed character in the game is her boyfriend Nick. I'll throw in a spoiler alert here just for courtesy sake, but it's ironic that he is one of the better characters in the game because he is actually a disembodied head. Sure, he doesn't start the game off that way, but in the prologue poor letterman Nick gets bit by a zombie while waiting for ditzy Juliet. She then does what any well-adjusted and not psychotically attached person would do and cuts off his head then performs a magical ritual to keep him alive. Nick spends much of the game attached to Juliet's belt like some sort of horrifying keychain. He gets some of the best lines in the game, but still manages to insult Juliet's "driving" (chainsaw dash is one of the skills she acquires) and objectify her as she changes between any of her barely there costumes by saying "Man, I wish I had a penis". I will give them credit as not all of her costumes are super revealing. There are two that I have unlocked so far (one a bonus for preordering with Gamestop) that actually give her a little bit of coverage. One is Ash from Evil Dead or Army of Darkness fame and the other is a version of that stuffed bunny she is hugging in the opening video. Mind you, that's two among about fifteen or so costumes.

I'm a big advocate of putting your money where your heart is and I'm not really a huge fan of the way that women in video games are treated. I could tell from minute one that this was going to be a lot of scantily clad, yet somehow virginal (she has a line about having lots of experience keeping guys out of her body), idiotic portrayals of women. That mother who causes Juliet and her sisters to "wear their vaginas proudly" is completely oblivious to the fact that her daughters and husband are monster hunters, despite the fact that her father calls it "the family business". And yet, here I am, playing this game. Why? In short, games with female main characters seems to generally do poorly. I'd rather support games with female main characters in the hopes that developers continue to make them and eventually get it right. It's a lot more complex than that, but I'm sure I'll get around to writing about that later.

It has sucked up the better part of my gaming time for the last two weeks or so because, like Shadows of the Damned, it is just fun to play. It's goofy and it's got a great sense of humor. It references George Romero (Juliet cheers for the San Romero Knights) and James Gunn's Troma days. It's not a stupid game, but it is a game clearly written with the male gamer in mind. I knew this going in because I'm familiar with the movies James Gunn has written and directed and I've played at least two Suda51 (now three) games. I adore the movie Slither and find Super to be a good though incredibly disturbing movie, but the women in them are not well-developed characters. In either movie, the female characters are reduced to little more than pedestal inhabiting virginal angels (Elizabeth Banks in Slither or Liv Tyler in Super) or hypersexualized manic pixies (Ellen Page in Super).

Quick rundown of the ways in which Juliet is poorly treated. 

1) The pole dancing combat sequences which pop up a couple of times in the game.... It's just a button mashing sequence where you get to see a cheerleader swing around a pole. At one point, she even exclaims that she could do this better in her clear lucite heels. Yeah, I'm sure Daddy was teaching Juliet pole dancing to fight monsters (or maybe it was her pervy old Japanese sensei who manages to fall face first into Juliet's breasts before !spoiler alert! dying pretty early in the game). This comes from a girl who actually did pole dancing for fitness reasons, but just playing those sequences made me feel squirmy and like I needed a shower. Not the sexy, steamed up shower door kind, but the scrub the skin off my body to get the dirt off because I'll never feel clean again kind of shower. 

2) There is actually an achievement for looking up her skirt called "I Swear! I Did It By Mistake!"... and I actually did. She generally covers up her girl parts when in a standing position, but then goes flipping around with her legs at angles I'm pretty sure can only be reached by a contortionist. The hints section makes comments about "Hey! Please don't look up my skirt!" or "Fighting in that outfit is pretty scandalous! Perv!". It's kind of ridiculous. 

3) Through the game, Juliet is supposed to rescue survivors. Most of these survivors are male and most of them manage to say pretty horrifying things. Things to which I personally would respond "You realize that I just saved your life and I'm carrying a chainsaw, right?" For instance, "I'm totally masturbating to you later" and "I never thought I'd be saved by someone with such sweet tits". Yes, this is apparently where I live now.

4) The worst offender is during one of the early boss fights with their punk rock character. This mohawked "My Chemical Romance wannabe" calls her a number of pretty horrifying things. I made a list while one of my guy friends played through the boss fight..... "stupid cooze", "whore", "sleaze", "slag", "fucking bitch", "cocksucker", "vanilla slut", "dirty slut", "barbie-looking slut", and "zombie-hunting slag" were among the ones that I caught. Would I have as much of a problem if they didn't generally pertain to her sexuality? Probably not. But that's how you go for the throat when you're a misogynist zombie punk, I guess. I mean, aside from literally lunging for the throat. Sure, Buffy was punished in the series for her sexuality quite a few times - I swear, y'all, I'll get around to finishing it and see if that trend extends past the first five seasons - but I really don't remember her often being called a whore or a slut. Generally, the vampires were pretty much just terrified of her. Or got some sort of weird undead erection over trying to kill her.

(Ending spoiler type stuff here... Just skip this next paragraph if you actually care)
5) I think the worst thing about this game for me was the fact that despite Juliet being the main character and the supposed heroine of the game, she doesn't even actually get to be the one to save the day. It is through sacrifices made by the two men in her life that the emo goth kid who orchestrated this whole zombie apocalypse is defeated. The final boss fight is a giant late in life Elvis lookalike called "Killabilly". Juliet's father makes it possible for her to reach the monster's core by jumping his motorcycle (with an absurd amount of dynamite attached to it) into Killabilly's chest. Then Juliet runs into the hole, finds a headless zombie body, and has to attached Nick's head as a "Nick bomb" to send a detonate message to the giant zombie's body. Yeah, it's a ridiculous game, but it's fun. And all is well that ends well because dear old Daddy is safe (though he thinks he lost a teste and repaired "the ol' scrote" with a staple gun) and Nick gets to return though his head ends up stuck in Juliet's sensei's body. The sensei also makes a last request of Nick... he asks that he make Juliet do lots of cartwheels in "those little white panties with the teddy bears on them".

The interesting thing is the way that Nick is an object in the game. It's the first time I've ever seen a guy's choice and agency removed in a video game. He protests early on about how he isn't sure if he can do this whole "just being a head thing", but Juliet is kind of emotionally abusive in the way that she laughs off his concerns. Her reasoning? It's like totally awesome to have a decapitated head for a boyfriend (I guess despite her oral fixation, she doesn't like giving blowjobs?) because she can sneak him into movies and he's super immune to carpal tunnel. Nick even tries to get her to leave him behind and she yells at him and tells him that he doesn't really get a choice in the matter. He points out that she has taken away his choice and made him no better than the zombies they have been fighting. They definitely aren't a picture of healthy relationship conflict resolution. It's an absolutely fascinating dynamic though, since I am so used to watching guys be the dominant decision makers in video game relationships. They get to save the girl, run off into danger without a thought for anyone else, and generally act like insensitive dicks. Juliet (despite all the aforementioned objectification and "OMG, she's a hot chick who fights zombies with a chainsaw.... let's look up her skirt or try to hang out with her after school 'cuz maybe she'll sleep with the pathetic sniveling dude she saved from zombies despite her boyfriend's head being attached to her ass like a keychain") acts like most dudes in video games.

Again, it's not a perfect game when you analyze it from a social or gender perspective, but very few things come even remotely close. Remind me to play through Heavy Rain again sometime soon and think the role of women in that one through thoroughly. I will say it is a fun game with a fair amount of replay value. I mean, she does fight zombies with a chainsaw that shoots rainbows (when asked where the rainbows come from, she just says "from awesome"... which is basically true). The controls are solid and the camera doesn't provide the same sort of frustration I've experienced in similar games. The script is pretty funny in a lot of places. James Gunn did a great job of fleshing out the concepts and characters he was provided. I will say that the soundtrack is pretty fantastic and you can customize it during replays when you find a few tracks that make you happy. It even got me to listen to a Skrillex song and (oh, man, I can't believe I am admitting this in a public forum) enjoy it. I tend to play with a four song playlist of Skrillex, Sleigh Bells' "Rhythm Riot", Toni Basil's "Hey, Mickey", and "Lollipop"... I can not remember the artist on that and I'm too lazy to look it up right now.

To finish this up (since I'm starting to rearrange my letters... apparently I get a bit dyslexic when I'm sleepy), it did bring up an interesting conversation with my fiance. He asked me at what age I would be okay with our imaginary future daughter playing a game like this... considering all of the fantastic things said to her by the males in the game. I told him that would really depend on her maturity level, but with me as a mother I doubt she would look at the behavior of the males in the game and think that their behavior was okay in any sort of way. Despite Juliet's ridiculous body image issues, she's still pretty kick ass. He didn't ask at what age I would be okay with an imaginary future son playing the same video game. Hmmm... That should be an interesting conversation.


  1. I was browsing through twitter and I saw your profile through some webcomic artists twitter accounts, I started reading, and I think I've gone through your previous 4 posts or so at this point. So, I thought I would offer up some thoughts.

    "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."

    This quote is from one of your previous articles, and it really stuck out. As a man who was raised in a very conservative and for the most part Republican household, these aren't really questions I've spent much time contemplating. I've never needed too. Admittedly, I think my sisters were treated better than me for the most part......

    But as someone who worked in the video game industry, I do feel as though I have a little bit of insight on that particular thought.

    While obviously the storyline should be the driving force of the game, nowadays it seems like quite a few games are mostly loosely connected happenings that are tied together with only the barest of plots and contrivances. Deus Ex Machina is the writing mechanic in not just our video games, but also in our movies and many modern novels.

    The questions of Video Games as Art was one common when I was in the industry, and it remains today. Any art is made to be consumed. Most art isn't really made for mass consumption, nor is it made to be 'marketed', and I think that's where as an industry, video games run into issues. You have to make any game to appeal to your lowest common denominator out of your consumers. If they can put a busty blonde bimbo with a chainsaw out for the masses to consume, their target audience (teenage boys & men between the ages of 12-30) are going to eat it up. Not just because it appeals to their libido's, but because it's also a stereotype that they're familiar with. It's easier to digest than the idea of women who act as people. Why wouldn't they when they see so many examples of it on a cultural level?

    That's painting with a broad brush of course, but there's definitely a social imperative towards… vapidness? I suppose that's the best way to put it. But the imperative isn't just for girls and women, but for men as well. I think as a society we're moving away from critical thinking, of introspection, and of contemplation

    Overall I believe that the reason why you're going to continue to play video games that have elements of bigotry encapsulated in their execution is the reason why we're all going to keep buying them. Because they are fun. Because they fulfill some deeper more private need to be entertained on a level that we may not be getting otherwise. I think that change will come; albeit slowly, and it's dependent more upon women being more of a viable demographic to marketing divisions of corporations. It's also very dependent upon the entry of more female designers into the workforce. When I worked in the industry, we had a company of some 200 people, and I can't remember a single female designer. Perhaps there were a few, but they were more… esthetic designers than writers. Level design and that sort of work.

    I think you've made some excellent points here, very evocative and provoking.

    1. Thanks for reading! I have been letting this blog languish away while my laptop is in limbo. An iPad isn't great for typing up lengthy entries or responses. Every point you make here is absolutely valid - although females are a growing demographic as gamers.

    2. I wanted to discuss this further, but my iPad is not cooperating with the reply box here. Can't edit my thoughts or start new paragraphs, but a more thought response should be coming soon. Again, thank you for the well thought out response.