Where do you draw the line between fan-service and creative expression, between marketing ploy and genuine artistic statement, between pandering and just playing to your strengths? If many gamers' skepticism about Bayonetta is any indication, it's "just shy of touting 'masturbation mode' as a primary feature of your game."
Last week, I wrote a pretty positive review of Platinum Games' latest stylized, hyper-violent beat 'em up. (Summary: The fantastic combat and world design more than make up for the obtuse storytelling.) It's a game that clearly knows its audience, slyly referencing everything from Sonic the Hedgehog to Resident Evil 4 and Space Harrier in its presentation and gameplay. Unfortunately, Sega's marketing team wasn't quite as aware of the player base as the developers. By focusing on Bayonetta's sexiness to the exclusion of all else, they encouraged players to view it as overpriced softcore porn rather than an incredibly polished action game with some serious pedigree behind it.
The lesson? Sex sells, but for gamers, it's just as likely to repel.
It's hard to fault Sega for emphasizing Bayonetta's titillating visuals when so much of the gameplay revolves around the main character's sexuality. And you certainly can't blame gamers for assuming that the actual product is as shallow as the advertising - thanks to the crass marketing of games like Evony, we're understandably sensitive to having our baser instincts exploited for profit. But by lumping Bayonetta in with Rumble Roses and Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, gamers are missing out not just on an incredibly well-built brawler, but a game that actually finds inspiration in eroticism rather than treating it as mere window dressing. Sega's marketing may have been relatively one-note, but they were only picking up on one of the game's most intriguing traits: Bayonetta is one of the first videogame characters to be fully aware that she's a sex object.
Perhaps it's not much of a revelation that women derive some power from their sexuality, but gaming's femmes fatales come across as half-assed at best and downright absurd at worst. Sure, they'll wear revealing costumes and cut down bad guys without skipping a beat, but you never get a sense that they lust for anything but blood. Perhaps developers are simply tiptoeing around their predominantly young male audience's anxieties, but the end result comes across as muddled, awkward and downright confusing. Take Ninja Gaiden's Rachel, for instance: She wields a massive scythe and dons a studded leather bodice that would make a dominatrix blush, but these implements are completely at odds with her tragic, innocent personality. You get the sense that her risqué clothing and massive mammaries weren't even a conscious decision by the developers - it's simply the default way to present a generic female character in a videogame.
By contrast, nearly every detail of Bayonetta reflects a commitment to a single overarching design principle: that the suggestion of sex in games can be just as enjoyable as the simulation of violence. Take the outfit, for starters: Yes, the form-fitting latex and ultra high heels are closer to fetishwear than a practical ensemble for ass-kicking, but they're both literally weapons that Bayonetta uses against her angelic enemies. (Her heels allow her to attach a pair of revolvers, while her suit can fly off her body and transform into a huge demonic creature that makes quick work of her opponents.) Similarly, it's no coincidence that many of Bayonetta's moves fall into categories like "punishment" and "torture," nor is it an accident that the game's bosses seem almost grateful after you've beaten them to a bloody pulp - Bayonetta clearly takes pleasure in inflicting pain, and her enemies seem vaguely aware that they only exist to receive it.
In a way, it's slightly discomforting that sex and violence can mix so seamlessly. But there's also something refreshingly honest about Bayonetta that unfortunately doesn't come through in Sega's scandalous marketing of the game. As gamers, we've been enjoying virtual violence for years; Bayonetta's simply a character who enjoys it herself. And while some have written her off as pointlessly provocative, she's really just being playful. It's a pity some people are too jaded to play along.
Jordan Deam never thought he'd be defending the artistic merits of a game that lets you use a halberd as a stripper pole.