Oh My, Shiranui! AJ Brooks Talks Grappling, Costumes, & Video Games

Guilty Gear’s Guilt-Free Wicked Woman: I-No

Guilty Gear is a fighting game series that began in 1998. Guilty Gear: Xrd SIGN came out in 2014; with a pachinko game and a free-roaming melee-action title also in the bag, the franchise is going strong. In the two-dimensional Street Fighter mould, the main games star two serious men with a rivalry—one blonde, one brunette—who secretly love and understand each other.

But unlike Street Fighter, it has an evolving story, and elaborate worldbuilding, and really cool character designs. They retain the graphic solidity of SF, but add the hip swagger of King of Fighters, and a rock sensibility that game-runner Ishiwatari Daisuke reinforces with elaborate metal theme tunes and a band-reference naming scheme. Heard of Venom, Testament, Slayer, Zappa? Well, they’re characters now. How about Meliah Rage, Cloudberry Jam, Shiina Ringo? There are greater and lesser name-plays to spot, which is fun for fans and word-nerds, and impinges not at all upon the gaming experience for those with no interest in fierce guitar solos or symphonic echo.

Guilty Gear is a favourite of mine. I was captured by graphic showmanship, further enticed by the fantastic soundtrack, and finally cemented as a fan with the pretty great showing for its women. There are parts that I hate—Johnny’s a bit of a Sergey Wang, Millia keeps being dragged back to those boring Assassin boys—but on the whole it’s approaching transcendent. The gameplay’s demanding but while there are fairly elaborate rules, they are at least clearly defined. It’s possible to “learn how to play” Guilty Gear, if you’re so inclined, and watching a match between experts is a treat. But I want to talk to you about great visual design! So let’s get down to that.

I-No is a sexy witch.

I know, right? U SERIOUS, BRA? Actually…

I have no bad word to say about her, though I reserve a qualm or two for her designer. I-No is a final boss and playable character, and of a great cast, she’s one of my faves. And one of contributor Amanda J’s faves too—she caught my attention calling I-No her unproblematic fave. Which really felt like a good catch.

We had a think about why that is.

I-No, Guilty Gear, ArcSys, Daisuke Ishiwatai. A black-haired white woman with a red hat.I-No: why do we like her?

  • a witch (this is an acceptable assumption noted by her rad hat and her ability to shift reality)
  • super cool move sets
  • shreds on guitar
  • name may or may not be a subtle nod to Brian Eno
  • name, guitar name and look are definitely nods to Shiina Ringo
  • confident (in abilities and sexually)
  • body language is robust
  • not incredibly jiggly, really—animation priority is not given to dem titties
  • good voice acting
  • makes titular protagonist Sol Badguy upset & uncomfortable (more like Lol Badguy, amirite)
  • SUPER important to the plot; literally nothing we see in-game would have happened if she hadn’t “initially” time-travelled to save Ky.
  • a rude girl: As the GGWikia has it, “[s]he is somewhat crude in how she speaks to others, as she is always either cursing, insulting her opponents, or making sexually charged comments, usually using musical references as double entendres.” See also: inclined to call Sol, or anybody, a shithead, and try to murder them.

Claire: I feel like her being ALL red is helpful. It’s very cohesive and suggests that she is designed to look as cool and solid as everybody else, as well as having no shirt on. It’s also very aggressive, a DANGER COLOUR. It’s classic femme fatale stuff, which at this point is code for Of Course You Would F— Her, but you know how every now and then someone will make a big deal about how “actually men HATE red lipstick! They’re afraid of it!?” I-No looks like she’d eat you and suck the bones dry.

Amanda: I-No’s blue guitar (I’m estimating that it’s supposed to look like a typical Les Paul, but since the knobs are inside of the pickguard, a typically Fender or Rickenbacker trait, we’ll just suspend disbelief. Headcanon: I-No’s guitar is a classic Gretsch White Falcon painted iridescent baby blue) is the perfect accessory. And when I say “accessory,” I don’t mean it’s just there for show. My favorite I-No victory pose is the one where she finishes with a blistering solo (actually it’s just a bunch of hammer-ons and pull-offs that anyone with some practice can master BUT HEY). The calming color of her guitar really sets off the rest of her severe look. It fits because it doesn’t fit.

Claire: You’re right. She’s like a neon poison fish. The clear electric bright of Marlene (of course the guitar has a name) cuts through the sticky red, it’s incongruous, which is a neighbour to unsettling. Nothing—well, much less than you might assume from a written description—about her makes lechery particularly easy.

But why is it so charming to me that like 50% of I-No cosplay has added bustier bits? On the one hand that makes it clear that the character design is less than 100% “reasonable.

Amanda: This is absolutely because Daisuke Ishiwatari, like most character designers, has a limited understanding of a woman’s body. It’s either that or they’re just more willing to give in to fantasy over reality. You know, in a fighting game where there is nothing but high-fantasy elements.

Claire: It’s true. Her victory pose where she whips off her jacket (in the GIF gallery above) is just… literally impossible, unless her arms aren’t solid. “She wears black leather choker around her neck with a gold ring that is connected to her shoulderless red jacket that she can easily take off and put on,” says the Guilty Gear wikia, and that’s just totally wrong. It’s incorrect. And the loose flaps of the front of her jacket would not stay covering her nipples. Maybe she uses magic? I’d like if that was actually put in the story. Then again, her boots fit so realistically, and that makes her seem more like a reflection than an idealisation.

And on the third hand—people, women, love her so much they just go ahead and add spare bits to make her sex-witch costume reel back into their comfort zones. I feel like often with very small, gappy cosplay, there’s a sort of invisibly enforced bravado amongst cosplayers; this is canon, so you have to do it that way. A sort of constructed nobility about it. Kill la Kill philosophy? I’ve certainly gone back and forth on whether or not I’ll do an outfit because it’s way briefer than I’m comfortable with, and erred on the side of “no” because I’ve not been so invested in the cosplay that I can build up the performance bravado to redesign it with my own public comfort in mind. I’ve been averse to the possibility of being challenged or invalidated as a prude, I suppose. There’s a lot of prude-vs-empowered floating dialogue it’s easy to get tangled in, around cosplay. So to see multiple I-Nos making I-No-Prime’s outfit conform to their own comfort standards—!

I-No’s philosophy is “do wot I want;” these cosplay redesigns are true to the gist of the character without being slavish to others’ descriptions of her. I know it’s strange to suggest that the character has any life that wasn’t breathed in by her designers, but…if we don’t believe in magic even a little bit, why do we care about fiction at all.

Amanda: Isn’t it odd that “sexy witch” is so embarrassingly played out as a costume, but “sexy, super cool, evil, will alter-space-and-time-to-get-her-way rock-n-roll witch” is great and necessary.

Sol Badguy, Guilty Gear, Daisuke Ishiwatari. A brown-haired guy pointing forward.


Claire: So how do you feel about (brusque, loner main character) Sol? Do you like Sol? I think he is a berk, which is why I so enjoy how much I-No discomforts him. She tends to greet him as “shithead” in the English translations. I hope it’s not even due to a Secret Plot Event, I hope he just feels bad when she’s there.

Amanda: A large part of my love for I-No stems from the fact that she never seems to get intimidated by male characters. Even though Sol’s known as the Relatable Anti-Hero, I-No constantly makes him aware that he’s not in charge here. And I-No’s verbal jabs at Sol endear her to me even more! I’m sure his feelings of discomfort are For Reasons to Be Explained (or slightly gleamed upon half-assedly). Sol is okay. I don’t think about him too much. Faust terrifies me.

Claire: Ugh I hate Faust! He’s a serial killer. I guess that maybe I-No is, too; she’s certainly a villain. But I want her around anyway. She’s got such a lot of (NO LAUGHING) spunk.

Amanda: Yeah, but Faust doesn’t have the panache and even-temperedness (thanks to her voice actress’s dulcet tones) that makes I-No more palatable. She’s mad, yes, but at least she’s cool.

Claire: I think I could sum up by saying that we love I-No because she has enough to her, enough written and animated in, that she seems counter-compliant enough to produce the illusion of agency. We’re both real people. We know that some people always, and lots of people sometimes, just want to be really rude to tough buff men and frighten them with tittery.

There are still ways we can criticise the creative decisions around her (for example, the way she’s repeatedly, boringly punished in her endings) but there’s enough character informing the design that I don’t feel shortchanged; given a sorry wank puppet from a shuffly, excuse-me loser perv instead of a viable fictionalised human to follow through a narrative. I-No is a Lil’ Kim for fighting games, if that’s not too weak a showing for Lil’ Kim? It probably is. But I-No still matters.

Read the rest of the U Serious, Bra series.

Oh My, Shiranui! AJ Brooks Talks Grappling, Costumes, & Video Games

Stay Quiet: The Staged Body of Phantom Pain’s Sniper

Spoilers, alright?

Quiet is the single woman combatant in the list of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain‘s primary characters. Men outnumber women nine to one in this list, at time of writing, if personality-imprinted AIs count as people (nine to three if not). Other than Paz, the tiny blonde latina beauty who was manipulated into evil and genitally bombed for her troubles, Quiet is the single woman involved in the heavy advertising campaigns for the game. Quiet has normative beauty and sex appeal and she wears a bikini, one opera-length glove, severely ripped tights, boots, and a pouch harness. For soldiering. Naturally this appeared to be sexism. But was it? Yes. Here’s a video that you don’t have to watch. (more…)

Lara Croft, Ledge Hanger: However Much She Weighs, She Can Lift It

Lara Croft, Ledge Hanger: However Much She Weighs, She Can Lift It

I like Lara Croft. I have always liked Lara Croft. The Lara Croft that I understand—which is not always the Lara Croft described by her production companies, or her fans, or commentators.

Tomb Raider 3 promo art, Eidos, 1998, via Robert Browne's Infographic Faces of LaraI look at Lara Croft and see: a woman in her thirties of independent means who does what she most wants to: running around amongst cool, forgotten ruins, connecting with history and with objects that saw it. She wears shorts and a tank top and walking boots with thick socks. She wears a belt and a second belt with gun pouches attached to it, and a small backpack presumably full of kit. Her hair is tied back, obviously, and sometimes she intimidates people with Lennon/Osbourne glasses. Lara shoots people if they’re going to shoot her, and she is rarely happier than when she’s climbing a thing. I see a person I could be under certain circumstances. (more…)

Oh My, Shiranui! AJ Brooks Talks Grappling, Costumes, & Video Games

U Serious, Bra? Game of Boobs: Boob Age

Welcome to the very first installment of U Serious, Bra?, where Claire and Wendy discuss the proper use of boobs in gaming. The topic stemmed from Games Editor Al Rosenberg’s simple question: What does it mean for a game that they have to sell it with boobs (see: Game of War: Fire Age by Machine Zone, Inc.)?

First off, let’s talk about where we stand on boobs in general.

Claire: Well. I remember the moment that I realised my forecasted eventual boob-ownership made me preemptively responsible for the rudeness of my upper torso, and I think I was four and a half? So “conflicted” is a good word here. I’ve no hatred of any given living boob, but a lot of vicious resentment for the dominant narrative on boobs that I took in as a Baywatch-era child in a family containing no breast-emphatic women. It gives me a hard time, the way Society Talks About Boobs (save the boobies! From CANCER, for example). I believe that breast fetishism is more prevalent, and far more unrecognised, than is generally healthy, frankly; I don’t think that most people who yak on about sex selling are listening to reproductive urges or the desire for human connection. Breasts are treated as inventory (gaming!).

Wendy: I quite like boobs and am particularly fond of great artistic displays of side boob. My own breasts are fairly small and, while I wished they were bigger when I was young, I took comfort in the fact that they would never be affected by gravity. Turns out I was wrong about that. Turns out, a lot of the things I believed about boobs as presented to me by the media was misleading in so many ways. Breastfeeding my own children has increased my awareness of breast fetishization, while the continued (social) media attraction to the breasts (as opposed to the actual women and men) that might fall victim to cancer continues to disgust me. I don’t mind seeing breasts in the media, but I’m tired of the complete lack of understanding in regard to how they work and the fact that they are actually attached to a human being.

With this in mind, we can turn our attention to the cleavage that inspired our train of thought, and the woman it belongs to: 23-year-old model Kate Upton, who currently plays Athena in advertisements for the mobile strategy app, Game of War: Fire Age. Prior to this ad campaign, Upton has gone on record expressing her discomfort with objectification following the reception of her 2012 Sports Illustrated covers:

“I’m not a toy, I’m a human, I’m not here to be used. I am a grown woman, and you need to figure your s— out.” — Kate Upton, The Christian Post

Yet here we see her in commercials for the base-building strategy war game that capitalize, not on her acting ability or anything about the game itself, but on Upton’s ample breasts:

Claire: I want to show friendship to Kate Upton whilst questioning the direction and costuming of her Game of War adverts. I don’t think she performs particularly well in them, but I think if she had managed a star performance it would have been a miracle; the scripts are weak and her armpit-grazing bodice is as strong as a thousand Samsons. Unfortunately, it is also as misguided, and attempts to launch her cleavage into the sun. And the cleavage, if you watch the adverts, is the only thing “about the game” that’s being emphasised.

Kate Upton
Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!

I first saw a Game of War: Fire Age advert in the cinema when I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road. It was incongruous. I thought it was a parody until it was clear that there was no joke; holy shit, I thought, that’s nakedly crap. I think I may have laughed out loud, what with being all het up from Mad Max pre-show adrenaline.

And I also wondered: what is a pop-up ad doing on a cinema screen, with dialogue, and an entertainment professional whom I vaguely sort of recognise? Where’s the money coming from here? And why’s it been spent on low-key torturing a pair of professional, publicly approved tits? Kate Upton’s main claim to fame, as touted by Wikipedia, is being in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues. Her filmic ventures are carefully defined there as “financially successful”, i.e. critics were like “ehhh.”

She’s a national-level horsewoman, so it’s nice they let her ride a bit in some I guess?

This is breast-based advertising, and yet everything about it seems to be working against success in that forum. The fit of her various bodices is baffling. Upton already has cover model, centrefold breasts when they’re left to their own comfortable devices. She’s a highly paid breast and face model. Casting her and clothing her in a less aggressive rig would still be associating your crappy build-a-civ app with sensual womanhood. Still crass, still unpleasant, still sexist–but not so stupid as to be laughable. Not patronising! Although I suppose that the game is called “Game of War”, so the weakness is chronic. Nobody, even the most dedicated everyday perv, wants to feel like an ad company is just yelling “hey, shithead, have some TITS or whatever!” Do they?

Wendy: The commercials have become a regular part of our viewing schedule since they often play during our favourite television shows. I wanted to believe that her presence served some purpose beyond being a beautiful woman seductively inviting gamers to play with her. Now, I just roll my eyes every time I see her boobs bouncing and floating across my screen or invading my Twitter feed. But my hope when I first saw the ad was that she was actually a gamer and that this wasn’t just capitalizing on her assets. I am not entirely opposed to sex-based advertising if there’s context to go with, and I particularly like the idea of advertising that reminds us that yes, women play video games, too. For example, actress Megan Fox, a known gamer, appears in a Call of Duty commercial as an active–and fully dressed yet still sexy–participant. But who was I kidding? There is nothing inclusive about these Game of War: Fire Age commercials and Upton’s role therein. Unfortunately, Upton does not play the game herself and despite what she might believe–

“It is fantastic to be instrumental in the start of a new era in gaming and communications. I love playing the part of Athena—she’s such a bad-ass character, commanding armies, slaying hydra, charging into battle—the work shows how much fun it is, and I am proud to be part of it.” — Kate Upton, AdWeek

–Athena is a static character that does very little in the game itself. She appears from time to time in the early levels to guide you and encourage you to fork up your cash for perks. In other words, Upton plays Athena the Goddess of Give Machine Zone, Inc. Your Money.

Does breast-based advertising really work?

Wendy: Game of War: Fire Age currently sits in the top three in app sales and has more or less maintained a high rank since its introduction in 2013, holding court alongside Candy Crush, a puzzle game, and Clash of Clans, another strategy war game. Both Game of War: Fire Age and Clash of Clans involve base-building, gathering resources, and training troops in order to defend and/or attack and amass more power and wealth. Or, you can amass more power and wealth by spending your own real dollars. The pre-boob revenue–that included a 15-year-old boy who spent almost 37,000 euros on the game (translation)–was enough for the company to sink $40 million into the current ad campaign. Presumably, some of that budget goes to the duct tape required to keep Upton’s ample breasts from spilling out of her ill-fitting attire. Thanks to those boobs, Game of War: Fire Age now boasts over two million players and rakes in approximately one million dollars a day in microtransactions. In a Gamespot article, Machine Zone, Inc reported:

Game of War: Fire Age by Machine Zone, Inc“The free-to-play game’s in-app purchases–which range in price up to $100–have doubled since the advertising campaign started.”

Microtransactions are the bread and butter of these mobile apps, and clearly Machine Zone, Inc. is getting it right with the results, if not the delivery, according to Paul Tassi of Forbes:

“Though both are in the same genre, [Clash of Clans] makes subtle use of its monetization strategy, while [Game of War: Fire Age] constantly assaults your eyeballs at every turn, trying to extract money from your pockets in a half dozen different ways from the moment you log in.”

Clearly, subtlety is not a strong point for Machine Zone, Inc.

Kate Upton in Game of War: Fire Age by Machine Zone, Inc

So the simple answer is yes, breast-based advertising does work, but is it necessary?

Wendy: Clash of Clans’ 2015 Superbowl ad featuring Liam Neeson’s vengeful Taken persona was the most popular Superbowl commercial viewed on Youtube, according to VentureBeat, while Game of War: Fire Age did not do quite as well. It seems that Kate Upton can’t compete with Liam Neeson in terms of player engagement.

The game itself is not particularly good. It scores 67% on MetaCritic with a 1.9 user rating, which is lower than both Candy Crush and Clash of Clans, its biggest competition. Both of these games also have mainstream advertising campaigns, but neither of them have resorted to breast-based promotion. It should also be noted that, while Neeson did appear in the $9 million Clash of Clans Superbowl ad, the rest of the app’s commercials simply feature humourous CGI spoofs of in-game battles. Writes The Fiscal Times’ Andrew Lumby about Game of War: Fire Age:

“It’s strange that something so mediocre has maintained the No. 3 position in the mobile apps revenue chart for so long. The burnout rate for players is ridiculously high, and Machine Zone needs a constant stream of new players to replace those who fall away or get frustrated and leave.”

Is it really that strange, Andrew? Is it? The video game industry is, on one hand, trying to show us how it has matured and how it isn’t just about boobs and marketing to a demographic of teenage boys, but Machine Zone, Inc. has invested $40 million into maintaining the stereotype. Is this really the reputation we as gamers of any gender want our industry forever reduced to?

Claire: And are “breasts are for marketing” or “breasts provide worth” messages what we as people want out in the ether? Because that’s the state we’re in here. Patronisingly blunt breast-based advertising really does “work”. Whether through genuine enjoyment or ironic clicks, these Upton adverts are providing enough monetised, rollover interest in a basic, minor, generic game that it can sustain a place in million dollar economies. That’s plain fucked up. A product is given capital by widespread reception of the application of a woman’s displayed breasts. There’s very little to take from that beyond harm. If this is gaming, then gaming is being bad to humanity. If gamers are people–studies suggest that many are–then humanity is doing itself a disservice.

Read the rest of the U Serious, Bra series.