When I first saw footage from Japanese action game Bayonetta, I wrote it off as selling itself solely as an overtly sexualised slice of Japanese insanity. Then the reviews hit in December praising the beauty and precision of its action gameplay and it garnered 9’s and even a perfect 10 from the typically critical Edge. It’s not that my first impression was wrong — it is both those things — it’s just that it might not be such a bad thing.
Bayonetta is making people uncomfortable. There exists an age divide of sorts. Broadly speaking up to the age of around 22 guys find her sexy and (gaming) girls find her empowering. Above that both genders begin to view the game as awkwardly exploitative. The question is, in a medium where female portrayal is a major issue, is Bayonetta a step forward or backward?
Bayonetta’s appearance is clearly stylised, with impossibly long legs and the fashion sense of a latex-clad librarian. This is beyond mere Lara Croftian unrealistic body image and more in the sense of Gears of War’s steroid-fuelled juggernauts. But the entire game feels like an ode to this one character with sweeping camera angles sliding between her legs or focusing on her pursed lips as she gazes suggestively into the camera, sucking a lollipop. Meanwhile her clothing is formed from her hair meaning that when performing her powerful “hair attacks” she is left momentarily disrobed. The game’s insanity is infectious and soon you don’t even question the idea of strapping pistols to stiletto heels. I mean why wouldn’t you?
Yet while the development team was led by Hideki Kamiya (of Devil May Cry fame), the character designer was a woman, Mari Shimazaki. This means her provocative character is female-driven rather than being an expression of male fantasy (or at the very least represents female exploitation of male fantasy). She’s certainly no damsel in distress — an intimidating, strong character (mentally and physically) who dispatches throngs of enemies with deadly feline grace. Stylised physical appearance is par for the course in videogames, with both overly muscular male and excessively lithe female characters. Videogames certainly revel in hyper-stylised men, be it their brutishness or androgynous allure. Why should they bar women from receiving the same treatment? Is the largely desexualised approach with characters like Half-Life’s Alyx and Portal’s Chell really the ideal, or is there room for something at the opposite end of the spectrum too? The bottom line is this: I fear I feel Bayonetta is exploitative because some part of me is trained to believe it must be, irrespective of whether or not it actually is.