This weekend I had the pleasure of going out with a few friends for dinner. There were three ladies seated at our table: there was Chelsea, the unstoppable marathon-running yoga instructor whose arms rival Michelle Obama’s in their toned and powerful awesomeness. There was Emma, the almost disturbingly-beautiful raven-haired ingenue with eyes the size of an anime character’s and curves the size of, well, an anime character’s. And there was Lauren (hey, that’s me!), the perennially slender yet deceptively out-of-shape waif whose dormant athletic abilities only roar pathetically to life if pizza and beer is on the line.
“Huh,” I thought to myself as I surveyed the group, “Here we are. An amazon, a sorceress, and an elf. Looks like Kamitani was on to something.”
Dragon’s Crown caused a minor kerfuffle when some criticized its artwork for being sexist. I pulled up a screenshot of the sorceress and my heart sank: such achingly beautiful artwork wasted on big, big, big titties—titties so big they defied the laws of physics, titties so huge they eclipsed the sun! I wrote the game off as a depressing waste of artistic talent.
But then it came out, and I started playing it, and my opinion changed. As usual, context is everything.
The much-maligned sorceress does indeed have gigantic, gravity-defying knockers on extremely prominent display, but the two other female playable characters provide an illuminating contrast. The elf is a petite rogue clad head-to-foot in practical light armor, her only exposed skin a tiny gap between boot and cuff. The amazon is a nearly-naked superwoman with bouncing mid-sized breasts perched atop rippling pecs and thighs of pure thunder. Although she’s admittedly scantily-clad, the amazon is a revolutionary depiction of a physically strong female. Though strong women have become a mainstay in fantasy, they are almost always of the Buffy variety: their strength is magical, thus editing out the necessity of huge muscles, because gross! The female body-builder type is very rare, and is often depicted as being grotesque, freakish, and terrifying. Instead, Dragon’s Crown‘s amazon has soft features, flowing hair, glowing skin, amble breasts and hips—and the musculature of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. A character like this comes around only once in a great while, and she lingers in the public consciousness for many years afterwards.
I recognize that this argument isn’t good enough for many feminist critics of video games. “Why isn’t the amazon fully clad in practical armor? Shouldn’t her breasts be smaller? Why isn’t she also black and transgender and differently-abled!?” Me, I’m a realist, and I see progress for what it is. Dragon’s Crown is not the definitive game for revolutionary gender presentation, but it’s certainly more progressive than many. Besides offering a wide range of female body types, these three female characters constitute an equitable half of the six total playable characters, a vast improvement compared to many games that don’t even offer a female choice at all.
There’s an important note to be made here as well regarding the type of characters we’re talking about. Gaming is a unique medium, and its characters can’t be measured on the same scales as movie or novel characters. These are not characters, after all, but classes: the personification of fantasy combat styles. They don’t have names, they don’t have individualized identities, they are merely physical manifestations of the game’s willingness to cater to different playing styles. It’s important it consider that this format can incentivise male gamers to play as female characters. The sorceress is the most difficult class to control, but the payoff is so amazing that primarily hardcore gamers are flocking to play as her. The least-played character so far seems to be the fighter, a hulking male character recommended for beginners.
And let’s talk about those boys for a moment, shall we?
I think it’s worth examining the breasts in context with the rest of the artwork as well. Kamitani’s style is incredibly lush and beautiful, clearly inspired by old Dungeons and Dragons and Tolkienesque imagery but reimagined as sexier, more exaggerated, more beautiful and strange. Kamitani clearly delights in the female form, and he doesn’t censor himself for finding them sexy—but his female bodies aren’t censored either. His mermaids may have gorgeous asses and his battle-nuns may be sprawled provocatively, but their elbows are knobby; their legs sinewy with musculature; their breasts aren’t just big round bubbles but lovingly, painstakingly detailed depicted portions of their anatomy. Compare his artwork to that of almost any other mainstream animated game, and you will see an almost reverentially realistic approach to female anatomy. Object to the poses and the sizes and the parts, but taken as a whole, Kamitani’s supple, soft, breathtaking style is in many ways an ode to women’s bodies. Anatomy matters—not just the “fun stuff,” but all of it.
What are we really wailing and gnashing our teeth about when we talk about women and video games? There are two main problems. The first is a real-world fight to convert the boys-only space of gaming into an open club. Nobody likes having their safe space intruded upon, no matter how open-minded they are. (Ask a gay man in a gay club that’s been invaded by a drunken bachelorette party. Or a college kid when Facebook suddenly opened up to high schoolers. Inviting others into your clubhouse sucks in almost every situation.) So female gamers are being marginalized, disbelieved, mocked, and even threatened for butting in and making them clear a spot for them.
The second problem is with the games themselves. Women are sick of male power fantasies, where all the men are cool and heroic and strong, and all the women are pretty and weak and useless. We’re sick of women’s roles being purely auxiliary in these fantasies—a prop to propel the male hero to action, to motivate him with our pain/death/abduction/suffering/romantic disinterest. We’re sick of the notion that maleness is the default, that women are expected to role-play as men but never the other way around. We’re sick of being sacrificed, being silenced, being side-lined.
Context is everything. Consider the phrase “you have a beautiful body” coming from both a lover and, say, a parking attendant: it’s pretty different. Personally, I don’t mind seeing flirty, sexy, silly images in a silly game. Dragon’s Crown is about running around beating up orcs and krakens; it’s not a gritty real-world drama with a serious tone and complex, true-to-life characters. Yet there are so many games that do aim for high drama, yet see fit to occasionally pause all gameplay to give the gamer (who is male by default, obvs) the opportunity to dominate or sexually humiliate an on-screen woman.
Dragon’s Crown’s crime is objectification, and I think it’s a petty misdemeanor. Do bouncing buxom wenches populate the game? Yes. Can you poke their bubbies with your cursor? Yup. Are a lot of them portrayed in sexualized positions and costumes? Check. But let’s look at the big picture here. Do you have the option to play as a woman? A woman who isn’t kidnapped, tortured, or raped? A woman who can save the day completely independent of male assistance? Can you play as a woman who’s stronger and more muscular than the men, where you aren’t penalized with weakness for choosing to play as a woman? The answer to those questions is also “yes,” and I think that’s more important.
Large breasts are not an obscenity, and a large-breasted cast is not a feminist death-sentence. If you want to dismantle conceptions of feminine beauty that exaggerate or emphasize their secondary sex characteristics, you’re going to need a much bigger boat than Dragon’s Crown. I’ll take a big, beautiful, jiggling rack any day, as long as it’s one that I’m in control of.