By Christopher Warman
This past fall, five years after the original, Bayonetta 2 was released exclusively for the Wii U. The game places players in the role of Bayonetta, a witch that sets out to save her friend, Jeanne, from the clutches of Hell and kick maximum ass along the way, à la God of War. The game is a lot of fun, featuring an easy to pick up, but deep combat system, technical and aesthetic presentation that capitalizes on the capabilities of the Wii U, and an unyielding string of high-octane, larger-than-life scenarios. The standard retail edition even comes with a copy of the original Bayonetta, which never appeared on a Nintendo console. There’s really only one problem with the game: Bayonetta.
Bayonetta is a tricky character to process. You see, her clothes kind of unravel the more effectively the player plays the game. Stringing together attack combos results in all but her negligible negligée dissipating from her body and triggering her showstopper final attacks, called Climaxes—leaving Bayonetta fully nude, albeit carefully, almost sitcom-esquely censored. That probably doesn’t sound complicated at all; however, Bayonetta is also presented in the story as a strong, independent woman. She is, in a sense, a spiritual leader in the world of the game. Her central motivation in the narrative revolves around her friendship with Jeanne. She is possibly the most sex-positive lead woman in video games.
For those reasons, she is often held up as a strong female lead in a medium that lacks them. And in other media she arguably could be. The most ubiquitous test for detecting sexism in media is the Bechdel Test. Originated by cartoonist Allison Bechdel in 1985, the test poses three criteria for evaluating whether or not a piece of media (originally film) is sexist. To summarize: if there are at least two named woman characters (1) that talk to each other (2) about something other than a man at any point during a story (3), then it isn’t as sexist as over half of the fictional media that exists in the world. Both Bayonetta games meet that test.
But as I was playing the game, I still felt very uncomfortable with her depiction, though I struggled to formulate precisely why. I realized that the problem was that I was considering the character of Bayonetta with a limited perspective. While there are many feminist critics of games, there aren’t really any rules as sweeping as Bechdel’s for video games. But why do video games need a separate set of rules? The Bechdel Test is applicable to all fictional media, theoretically.
There is one crucial difference between playable characters in video games and characters in other narrative forms: agency, or the capacity to act independently in the world. In almost every fictional medium, characters are presented as autonomous and the consumer of the media is an observer of the actions they take based off of their fictive agency. In a video game, by the nature of the medium, the player holds the agency over the main character’s actions during gameplay. But that agency is not unlimited; as both a technical and design limitation, the player may only do what the developer has enabled the character to do. So the most essential consideration when evaluating a character’s representation in a video game should be the very intentional choices for what the character can and cannot do during gameplay, under player control.
When considered in that light, it is clear why the Bayonetta games feel like sexist affronts. Almost every action the player can take in the game is designed to maximize the hypersexuality of Bayonetta’s body. She cannot fight enemies without her clothing deteriorating. She cannot pull a level without straddling her legs around it. She cannot walk without sashaying her hips and butt. She cannot even die without striking a come-hither prostration on the “Game Over” screen. The player has no choice in the game but to partake in the objectification of Bayonetta. In short, it doesn’t matter how independent and strong she is during cutscenes; when control reverts to the player, Bayonetta is little more than a sexed-up puppet whose body is only an object with which the player can be rewarded. It’s impossible to concede to the fiction that Bayonetta owns her sexuality when the player, guided by the game developer, is making that choice for her 90% of the time.
To be clear, this is not a value judgment of those that enjoy the Bayonetta series; as I said, the gameplay mechanics and scenarios are very fun and engaging. Nor do I intend to pick on Bayonetta, which is only the pinnacle of a pile of propped-up “independent” women in games like BloodRayne and the pre-reboot Tomb Raider titles. This is a call to action to recognize and resolve a problem in one of my favorite hobbies. It’s a problem for players, who face this abuse, permit it, and, perhaps, exploit it. It’s a problem for game developers, who have enabled and commodified it. I can’t offer a metric as succinct and pithy as the Bechdel Test to help address it, but a conversation on how women are represented in games, especially during gameplay, must be had and I, for one, am eager to take part in it. Instead of treating Bayonetta 2 as a sexist boogeyman or ill-begotten rallying point, let’s take it as a turning point, a teachable moment, and get down to the work of changing video games for the better.
All photos courtesy of Nintendo