Killer is Dead releases this week. VG247’s Dave Cook has both finished and enjoyed it, yet the sour taste of those exploitative Gigolo missions linger on his tongue.
Debate surrounding the perception of females in games has been on the upswing recently. The Tomb Raider reboot was – from where I was sitting – hailed as something of a success in dousing the frail, ‘woman in danger’ archetype, while Call of Duty now has female combatants.
Love or hate her, Anita Sarkeesian is encouraging debate around the portrayal of female figures in the industry, while BioWare’s stance on open sexual discussion and in-game relationships is indicative of the Western market’s quest for inclusion regardless of sex, orientation or creed. These are just a few examples of how the issue is being brought to the fore and is being addressed by different parties. It’s a vital and positive step for our industry.
The same cannot be said of Japan and its deeply-entrenched – some might say ‘warped’ – approach to gender and sex.
I think Dragon’s Crown looks like a brilliant game, yet I understand and empathise with those calling out Vanillaware’s anatomically exaggerated depictions of its female brawlers and damsels. Should Dragon’s Crown be marked down for this?
Polygon docked it review points because of its depiction of the game’s damsels and I get the feeling that Vanillaware – a Japanese company – has just fallen into a trap made of its surrounding culture, where disproportioned females are routinely used to bait and arouse without a whiff of irony.
Over-sexualisation is historically rife in many Japanese games but is that right? Certainly not from a Western perspective where real, sober debate on the matter is held with increasing regularity, and it’s an issue that is generating growing concern on these shores as our industry tries to distance itself from sexist images and depictions.
I’m not from Japan, I’ve never lived there, I’ve never even been there, so I can’t say for sure, but my suspicion is that this is a culture that simply exists there. It just is and it doesn’t seem to be up for discussion by many developers.
To that end I don’t think Vanillaware meant any harm in Dragon’s Crown’s female component s it was just giving content that its home market probably expects, but I got the opposite feeling from Grasshopper Manufacture’s slasher Killer is Dead. I finished the game recently and while I enjoyed the core experience it’s Gigolo missions left me confused, irritated and actually quite embarrassed.
The game itself is fine. It follows contract killer Mondo Zappa as he accepts execution orders from his employer while trying to unravel his own past and track down the notorious Moon King before he spreads his influence across the planet. It’s dark, violent, and utterly bizarre, but I’d argue that it falls short of No More Heroes and its sequel, even if they share common threads.
Mondo has a robotic arm called ‘Muscleback’. He uses it as a gun initially, but he can earn new upgrades and attack types by completing Gigolo missions. These task the player with dating one of two women – Natalia and Koharu – and building up Mondo’s ‘Guts’ meter, which – when filled – gives him the courage to make a move and secure a night of sex with his target.
Here is Natalia’s Gigolo mission, to give you an idea of how it plays out.
To earn Guts during these first-person encounters, players must look at their date’s breasts, legs, arms and face whenever they’re not looking. Get caught peeking and the date’s mood meter depletes. Once empty Mondo gets a slap and the date ends, but succeed and you get treated to an array of sexual moans and bonus Guts for your stealth perversion.
Once the Guts bar is full, Mondo can give his date a gift such as roses, a teddy bear, perfume, a necklace and so forth. This triggers a look of shock and a message of adoration from the woman, as if they’re mere prizes to be seduced and reeled in by material things. They giggle, they flirt and tell you how strange they feel around you. It’s embarrassing.
Your prize for a winning over a date fully is a cut-scene that shows the woman undressing, rolling around a bed in her underwear and ultimately, engaging in sex with Mondo. You are then given a new Muscleback attack for your trouble, and completing the Gigolo mission multiple times reveals more of the cut-scene and more nudity. You can also unlock a pair of x-ray glasses that shows each girl sitting in their underwear.
It makes no sense. At all.
Why would going on dates with women result in them giving Mondo an upgrade for his cybernetic arm? They wouldn’t. There is absolutely no reason for these missions to exist other than to titillate, inflame and underline just how out-of-step some developers can be when the issue of gender is at hand. It’s both counter-productive and counter-progressive at the same time.
I’m a big fan of Grasshopper Manufacture’s output – and I’m not just saying this to be apologetic – but these missions really put me at unease and yes, they did soil the experience somewhat. I could go on about how the game plays from a core perspective but you can read all the other reviews out there today for that stance.
I really enjoyed everything else on the side. The combat is fun, even if it’s as shallow as a paddling pool and the plot is deliciously insane, but the game just won’t let you focus on these elements and ignore the seedy nature of its Gigolo missions. That’s because as the dates call Mondo up mid-mission to express their lust and make clear that they cannot bear to be away from him. It’s horrible.
The real kickers are the achievement descriptions you get for completing these missions. For example, fully seducing Natalia nets you the Passionate Girl achievement, which bears the description, “Made Natalia your prisoner in body and soul.” Koharu has her own version that says the same. “Prisoner?” I read that line and just thought “What the fuck am I doing this for?” I am really struggling to rationalise or make sense of why these side-attractions exist and what Suda51 is trying to do here.
Well, early this year he made it abundantly clear what he was not trying to do with Killer is Dead’s Gigolo missions in an interview with GI.biz.
During the chat he said, “I think in a way when you get criticism, that means people are paying attention to your work. Any kind of artistic value, anything you create, there’s always some kind of criticism behind it. Which means we’re making an impression and an impact. So I think we’ll stay with what we’re thinking and just keep going with that way of thinking
“…And when I say that, sexuality is a touchy subject. We don’t want to make people offended, but we’re trying to create something that makes people laugh a bit because we’re [dealing with] that topic.”
In an interview with Eurogamer, he did admit that Japanese culture and the issue of sexuality are drastically different compared to the Western perspective. During the piece he said, “I don’t really use [sex] as something full frontal, but sexuality is a good way to express a certain element in the game. Maybe sexuality in games shouldn’t be as big a taboo, but at the same time I live in a country where sexuality is pretty crazy.
“I think Western publishers do similar things, like with [Grand Theft Auto], going out to a strip club and other things,” he said. “But I do understand that if a Western developer was to create something like [Gigolo mode] it could backfire.”
I’m struggling to understand what “certain element” Killer is Dead’s depiction of sex is trying to express. It expresses nothing and has no tangible message or reason to exist. Suda51’s rationale is a cop out, pure and simple.
So we’ll just poke fun at the issue and leave it as it is Suda? That’s the best course of action is it? It’s all too easy for some people to throw up their hands and ignore the elephant in the room, and it almost seems like he’s saying that the gender equality issue won’t be changing so he’s just backing off and parodying what is for many of us, a serious issue that needs addressed..
Look West Suda, and you’ll see how dead wrong you are.
Disclosure: To assist in writing this piece, Deep Silver sent Dave a copy of Killer is Dead on Xbox 360.