This year in gaming has had seen one of the most ridiculous trends in game development in recent memory: the conceit that there is a reason for nude or near-nude female characters in a game outside of the obvious one involving giving straight male players a boner. Studios that really, really should have known better keep trotting out pretentious narrative reasons in order to explain away any criticism about portrayals or sexual objectification of women in the media.
First there was Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The sniper’s skimpy outfit drew fire prior to the game’s release and director Hideo Kojima took to Twitter explaining that once we knew the reason for her being underdressed we would all be “ashamed.” When the reason ended up being that Quiet has to breathe through her skin the only shame I felt was for the MSG franchise. Leaving aside the fact that if this was true you’d expect her to shave her head and that a male character with the same ability was allowed to remain fully-clothed for the moment, if this was the reason then why does Quiet spend a good deal of her time posing as if she was a cat in heat? What does breathing have to do with wriggling her breasts at the camera?
Next up we got Cortana in Halo 5: Guardians. She’s an artificial intelligence and she appears completely in the buff. Franchise director Frank O’Connor explained this in a Games Radar interview thusly…
She's not really nude … but that's what it makes you think of. So one of the reasons she [chooses to appear without clothes] is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so that they're on their guard when talking to her and she has the upper hand in those conversations. It's kind of almost like the opposite of that nightmare you have where you go to school in the nude. You're terrified and embarrassed and she's kind of projecting that back out to her audience and winning intellectual points as a result.
Which, again, makes no sense at all. By O’Connor’s logic Cortana would be just as effective if she was a giant floating head, a talking snake or that winged eyeball thing from A Wind in the Door. Yet we’re supposed to believe that through sheer luck the attention-grabbing mechanism Cortana settled on was butt-naked hot chick.
Game developers have got to stop trying to find the “smart” way to exhibit nude female forms. I understand the desire. The last several years have seen a lot of discussion about how women are portrayed and game studios want to do better or at least appear to do better. However, they seem to want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to flash some sizzle at a presumed straight male gamer audience while at the same time give feminists an art reason to dissect so it doesn’t feel boorish.
It’s not working. It’s never going to work.
I recently replayed Beyond: Two Souls. In that game Jodie has not one but two shower scenes, and they both play out roughly the same way. Jodie gets naked and then Jodie gets scared. This is an old trope in horror and Beyond: Two Souls doesn’t treat it as anything but that. Women having scary stuff happen to them while naked in the bath isn’t a new thing in fiction. Their nudity is supposed to heighten our appreciation for their physical vulnerability and our arousal by the subject deadens our fear sense so the surprise is greater.
There’s a question to be had over whether Jodie’s shower scenes are a good trope or a bad trope and what their inclusion in the game says about how we treat female protagonists, but we can’t have that discussion at all if we’re busy pretending there’s a secret reason that makes the nudity off-limits in the discussion. That’s what MSGV and Halo 5 both tried to do, and in both cases it was laughable.
It’s important to remember that video game characters do not themselves make choices. Cortana does not actually choose to appear naked and Quiet doesn’t choose to breathe out of her cleavage rather than through the top of her bald head. These choices are made for them.
I was following a discussion online about the new Tomb Raider game following the Feminist Frequency review. In the review Carolyn Petit remarks it’s nice to see Lara Croft dressed for her mountain adventure rather than in her eternal tank top from the last game. The people I saw talking about the review chimed in that in the first game Lara is left with the clothes on her back after her ship capsizes so the tank top makes sense.
Except it doesn’t, not really. She couldn’t scavenge a jacket from any of the people she later kills? She absolutely had to be wearing something that would let us look down her shirt as the game began? Lara Croft isn’t real. Her level of dress is entirely dependent on the people who dress her.
I’m not saying nobody should ever be naked in games. I like the female form as much as the next guy. However, there are two things I’d like to see games do better. The first is technical. If you’re going to strip Cortana quit trying to skirt the issue by blurring the sex characteristics. I’m starting to wonder if anyone at 343 Industries has ever actually seen a vulva.
Yes, that would change the rating of the game which brings us to the second thing; stop lying to yourselves and the audience. We don’t see Cortana’s genitals because then the game would seem explicitly sexual in her regard. However, Cortana is already being displayed as explicitly sexual and there’s no point in trying to deny it with coyness.
If you want a badass sniper, make a badass sniper. If you want to see her naked write a tender love scene. Don’t have her sunbathe topless and try to convince us it’s her genetic heritage or something. Nudity in media is like buying a condom: if you can’t openly admit what it’s for you probably aren’t mature enough to be using it as intended.
Jef's collection of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is out now. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.