Monday, June 25, 2012

Sexuality and Visual Storytelling in the Witcher series

    This is an essay sparked by a recent discussion of the game Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings over on the Witcher forums. Basically, the heart of the controversy was the fact the Witcher 2 had a lot of attractive female characters who were sexualized at the expense of their believability. The usual response to this sort of thing occurred. Plenty of people said that men were sexualized in video games as well, that complaining about attractive people is silly, and the ever popular "if you don't like it, don't buy it."

    I'll be honest, there's merit to the rebuttal even if I agree with the overall impression there's something slightly off in the games. Sex is a natural part of life and everybody should have it (save children and people I don't like). There's nothing wrong with attractive people and physical beauty is something the world could use more of. Certainly I could stand to look less like Jonah Hill and more like Channing Tatum.

    The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is also an odd game to complain about. The Witcher 2 is filled with assertive, intelligent, multi-faceted female characters from all walks of life. It has female villains, heroes, and side-characters working alongside the male protagonist. They routinely interact with each other as well as Geralt, passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors. It even drastically dials down Geralt's James Bond-like habits from the first game, to the point I was disappointed in some places (I really wanted a Saskia and Sile romance option).

    The sexual content was drastically amped up in other areas, admittedly. It's one of the two mainstream games I can think of with nudity (the other being Heavy Rain). There's a four minute sex scene involving Triss Merrigold and Geralt taking a bath together in an elvish underground springs. Triss even made an appearance in Polish Playboy, joining the not-so illustrious ranks of Bloodrayne and the girl from Indigo Prophecy. I don't think nudity is a big deal, personally, but that's not what's bothering me.

    No, I think there's a point to the naysayer's argument. Sex has a tendency to inundate every element of visual storytelling to the point that it actually starts to dilute itself. For example, let's look at what the elven women are wearing in the game versus what they were wearing in the original.

This is the elven outfit from the first game. Very practical and woodsy, good for the Witcher's terrorist-like Scoiatael.

    This is the outfits the elves are wearing in the second game. I must say, I'm surprised to find they have tape to keep those outfits on. It must be an invention of the local alchemists. I'm not interested in a bunch of random elves so it doesn't serve any purpose to titillate while it distracts from the realism of the game. In short, their sexualized appearance only hurt the game's immersion.

    Now, I'm not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I have a healthy interest in the opposite sex, just ask my wife. However, I do think there's a point where sexualization actually undermines the narrative. It offends me not as a red-blooded American male but as an author where the storytelling is undermined.

    Let's take another example from the original Witcher in the opposite direction. The character of Princess Adda who is, not to spoil, a manipulative psychopath.

     Forget the anachronism of the fact she's dressed in fishnets and a mini-skirt, the visual storytelling indicates that Princess Adda is a femme fatale. She overtly uses her sexuality to try and manipulate Geralt and is unafraid to flaunt it in court. This kind of storytelling says a lot about a character without words. Now if we put every woman in court in the attire of someone off to go clubbing, the effect is lost. What is a statement about the character becomes nothing more than the current fashion.

    One of the cool facts about the original Witcher was also the fact that it had a variety of female character models. Plenty of them were reused but they were notable, at least to me, for bothering to include old women. The male character models also included "obese merchant", which I appreciated.

    I think it helps the storytelling to include different sorts of body types and faces in video games. Princess Adda, Triss Merrigold, and Shanni are meant to be breathtakingly lovely compared to the average woman in the game world. We get a better sense of who they are if there's a greater contrast to draw. Unfortunately, that's somewhat diluted in the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings because almost all of the women you encounter are gorgeous. Let's take Saskia, the Joan of Arc-esque peasant rebel you encounter in the second act.

    Bluntly, Saskia is beautiful and I don't have any problem with her character design. It's a different sort of beauty than Triss and I applaud the game for taking time to show varying kinds of feminine beauty. The problem is that the visual storytelling is slightly incongruous to the character of Saskia. Saskia is a firebrand rebel, a serious knight, and a dragonslayer. The fact she has her upper cleavage exposed is one of those, "something is not right with this picture" moments.

    The irony is that I think the artists are underselling themselves. If Saskia had a proper breastplate capable of defending her bosoms against arrows or whatnot, she wouldn't suddenly become a hideous troll. No offense meant to Mrs. Troll in the Second Act, who is one of my favorite third-tier characters. No, Saskia is lovely and practical clothing wouldn't change that. I'm just saying believability is hurt by an element of her outfit.

    It's ironic because I support the ridiculous outfits that the Lodge of Sorceresses wear in the game series.

    The Lodge of Sorceresses is a collection of vain, scheming, and thoroughly unpleasant women who live in a world where the only method of control a woman could exert was through magic or manipulation. They dress like peacocks and keep themselves magically beautiful as a way to bolster their self-image and exert a subtle form of control over the men around them.

    This would be a form of sexism by itself if not for the fact that it is not the only method for women to exert themselves in the game, it's only their method. The Witcher 2 is kind enough to provide counter-examples of heroic women like Saskia.

    The male form of visual storytelling can be equally important. The character of Geralt could very easily have been a white-haired pretty boy like Sephiroth if not for the fact that the game goes out of its way to illustrate he's scarred and battered by his many experiences. Let's take a look at him, shall we?

    Compare and contrast Geralt to his bard companion, Dandelion.

    A picture is worth a thousand words. You learn a great deal about both men just by looking at them. Geralt is a battered warrior who is still attractive in his own way. Dandelion is a flamboyant ladies man who would be at home in an Errol Flynn movie. The fact the two men are friends despite their widely disparate personalities helps fuel most of the comedy in the game.

    I don't mean to write this article to bash the Witcher 2. Really, I don't think I would complain this much if not for the fact that the Witcher series is head and shoulders above 99% of games out there in its gender policies. Halo is great, but there's like three women in the franchise and one is a naked computer program. The Witcher 2 has a huge number of empowered female supporting characters and that's rare enough in the gaming industry, let alone a genre traditionally dominated by male heroes doing manly things.

    Indeed, I would argue the Witcher series is usually above the curve when it comes to presentation of feminist issues. Women may be sexualized and the portrayal of things from card-hunting to attire is a bit on the immature side but it is a series with countless female characters who are fully realized with roles beyond eye-candy. They are proactive with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires that Geralt does not dominate.

    Yes, there's sex and lots of it but mature subject matter doesn't preclude a proper handling of gender issues. A good place to start would be giving characters appearances appropriate to who they are and what they're supposed to be, not necessarily making them hideous, but acknowledging the characters don't have to be sexy 24-7. I doubt this will change but I hope future editions of the Witcher franchise will fix its mistakes while continuing to have so many strong, intelligent female characters.

    Thanks, everyone.

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