A story can be offensive yet critically valid as long as the overall message is one grounded in its conviction. Take for example A Clockwork Orange, a film by Stanley Kubrick. A horrible story to witness, yet within lay many things to think about and reflect on of which the creator is attempting to convey. Without the surrounding frame the content would fall apart as the scenes would be nothing more than brutality, pornography and an insult to any thinking human being.
Two games of late that have made me think about this is Test Drive: Unlimited 2 and Saints Row: The Third, as both have received their fair share of criticism for offensive depiction of female roles, and critics thoughts oscillating back and forth as to which is more insulting. Let’s have a look at two outlet’s views for comparison:
Saints Row: The Third – 4/5 Stars
“Saints Row: The Third finds the series all grown up. Not in sense of humor, mind you (very much the contrary there), but simply in confidence, wisdom, and overall comfort in being very much its own thing. Whatever similarities Saints Row: The Third might have to the GTA series at this point are purely mechanical. In truth, it has more in common with the imaginary game every obnoxious parent group, pandering state senator, and hack activist lawyer believed Grand Theft Auto was during those tumultuous San Andreas years. It’s Grand Theft Auto filtered through the mind of a fucking lunatic, pushed to boundaries of ludicrousness that make things like giant dildo clubs and man-launching cannons seem altogether reasonable compared with much of the other batshit nonsense going on in here. In a sense, Volition has succeeded in making the mayhem and murder simulator that Rockstar never even tried to make in the first place, and it’s hard to argue that we, the video gaming public, aren’t better off for it.”
Saints Row: The Third – 6/10
“Saints Row’s weakest parts are hand-me-downs from its GTA source text, uncomfortably echoing the squalid business of pimpin’ and hustlin’ in the form of a lame cartoon, a whooping fratboyish endorsement of crime and female degradation, devoid of any conscience or commentary. GTA takes pains to voice moral unease. In doing so it may not offer up reconciliation with the violent mechanics of the game, but the best solution to that dissonance cannot be to pitch the entire thing into a swamp of near-uniform toxicity.
By the time you’ve ploughed through the mission in which you murder dozens of busty stripper assassins (‘Trojan Whores’), dabbled with the option of slaughtering waves of sex workers (‘Whored mode’) or packed whimpering trafficked sex slaves from one container crate into another to either be sold back to their pimps at a premium or put to work in your own prostitution ring (‘The Ho Boat’) you might find the sheer amount of violent abuse of women reaches the point of being oppressive, a sensation so bleak that the taste has to be swilled out with back-to-back episodes of Adventure Time. Clearly it’s possible to take dark themes and spin them into effective humour, but if there’s a hilarious joke about sex trafficking to be told, then it’s not found here. This representation serves no purpose other than shock value. We’re not saying the creation of something in which women only exist to be sold, killed or fucked shouldn’t be allowed, but what does it say for gaming as a type of entertainment?”
Test Drive: Unlimted 2 – Not reviewed
Test Drive: Unlimited 2 – 7/10
“Fundamentally, TDU2’s entire social games broken by its avatars, their lifestyle and the options they inspire. Based on the severe miscalculation that reality TV is not a Circus Maximus for grotesque urban hobgoblins but actually something glamorous and inspirational, it makes you choose your model from a handful of fish-eyed freaks and then advises you to head urgently to the nearest plastic surgeon. Only there do you discover that no amount of tweaking can fix your malformed skeleton or face, so it’s on to the game’s racket of designer clothes stores to conceal as much as possible. We cannot stress this enough: there is nothing you can buy in this game that doesn’t make you look like a high-class rent boy or prostitute.”
My own views tend to align with Edge, as while every character in TDU2 looks and sounds either like a prostitute or stoner, it leans so far on the vapid side that it’s almost entirely throw away. You don’t need to hear the characters talk because the framework of the game – buying cars, houses and racing – is the structure. It is the game. All the women may sound like washed up 1980s porn stars, but no one is listening anyway.
Conversely, Saints Row: The Third relies on the story to drive a disconnected play experience and the player must take this in or lose the framework. And while the voice acting is much better here, what they say is far more insulting – consistent use of the term ‘pussy’ to describe someone scared or unsure, and a response to someone being cautious of a situation being “Put in your tampons and let’s do this” or “She needs a tampon more than I do”.
The final test is in the playing, and I think it speaks volumes that I’m still playing TDU2 whereas I gave up on Saints Row long ago. Shortly after the tampon antics if truth be known.
2011 certainly felt like a step backward for female representation in video games compared with 2010. I’m hoping 2012 shows an industry more willing to challenge the player base.