Oh, Hideo Kojima, what are you up to with Metal Gear Solid 5?

Fans have been waiting for the latest installment of the Metal Gear series to catch up on what Solid Snake has been up to since we last saw him. So when Kojima got on his twitter earlier this week and started releasing information about the new character to be included in the series, I was excited. Her name was Quiet, she’s a sniper, and that alone made me happy. Until Kojima started talking about the art design.

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I’m sorry, what was that now? More erotic? I thought maybe you meant exotic? But nope, it was erotic. But of course, as a thoughtful designer, there had to be a good reason why a video game designer would want to make the costume of a female character more erotic. Especially in the age of discussions about sexualization of women in video game design. A follow-up tweet gave us the real details:

kojima2…Oh. Because that just makes it a whole lot better. I can’t wait to see the tasteful little one piece Snake will be wearing for the game too. For all those cosplay guys out there who want to go to conventions in a speedo.

Metal-Gear-Solid-5-QuietKojima announced that the design for Quiet’s costume was going to be released this past Friday. And he sent ahead a little photo to give people a head’s up what it was going to look like. Or rather, a butt’s up. Because this is the pic, folks, of a part of Quiet’s outfit. The news about this announcement and the picture went viral just about everywhere, and folks started tweeting up a storm about the costume design. Or rather the lack of costume. And why wouldn’t it? In a time when the industry is positively a-buzz with discussions about sexism, misogyny, equal representation and sexualization, this was just additional fuel to the fire.

I particularly found it amusing in the face of a fantastic panel at PaxPrime, which spoke about the representation of female military officers in video games. The panel pointed out important issues about how women are usually presented as only romantic attachments for male characters or either cheesecake characters wearing utterly impractical outfits. This pointed towards an issue brought up by one of the panelists, namely that the misrepresentation of military women in such degrading light can port over into the real world and translate to a disrespect towards women in uniform (check out a great recap here on PlaywithPixels). Whether or not you believe that the view of oversexualized and two-dimensional female characters in games can lead to consideration of disrespectful treatment in reality (and I believe there is a correlation, though more evidence is needed), these women held a panel on the eve of this wackiness right here.

Friday came. And Kojima put out his photos. Ready folks, cuz they’re a kicker.

Meet Quiet.
Meet Quiet.

….where do I start?

You know what. I don’t have to. Because that photo does all the talking in the world. But I’ll just add this one to help out.

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“I know. I’m not happy about this either. I’m going to catch my death in this thing.”

I’ve said a lot recently in a previous post about over-sexualization in game ads, and the same argument is about video game art in general. But this one REALLY takes the cake. They don’t even leave her stockings alone, those have to have holes too. I don’t know if I have to reiterate this, but I don’t have a problem with sexy. Sexy is different then blatant over-sexualization and impractical. And this, folks, is the height of both.

Where do I start with this? Where do I begin? With a long, heaving sigh, a roll of the eyes, and a slow clap at Kojima’s perfect plan.

Because folks, he got us. He trolled us so hard it’s not even funny. And we’re going right after it.

Check out some of Kojima’s tweets after the explosion happened online about QuietGate 2013:

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You see, internet? You’re just wrong about MGS 5 – it’s all about proving how wrong we all are about differences in culture, custom and preference! If I’m reading this correctly, then the reason for a lot of the choices Kojima is making is to point out that there are differences in our perspectives based on all of the above (language, race, custom, culture and preference). And once he makes that point in a game about military folks shooting the heck out of each other, then we will understand the wisdom of why a woman is dressed like her dryer shredded all her clothing. Really, there’s a secret reason and we’ll all discover it when we play MGS 5.

Seriously. Just go buy the game and you’ll get the hidden meaning. You’ve got the sixty bucks to drop on the game to get let in that secret. That’s all you need to do.

Well done marketing strategy there. Well done. First, you point to the cosplay community and use them as a marketing tool (“I’m releasing this for you, you sexy girls, who are going to dress up for me in these outfits! You like doing that anyway, right? So I’ll just pander to you in the hopes you’ll help me sell this game!”) Then next, you stir up a little internet controversy with a sexy costume to get folks fighting about it. Next, you reveal on Twitter that there’s a hidden meaning about why these things exist, and state that you just have to play the game to understand. I see what you did there, and I’m slow-clapping at the sheer guts it takes to do something like this. Because if seen one way, Kojima is just hopelessly out of touch with or doesn’t care about the discourse going on about women’s representation in games. Or else he’s purposefully baiting the supporters of that cause, and cosplayers, and his own fans, to raise sales on Metal Gear Solid.

Now, Kojima has never been known for being subtle. I mean, this is from the designer who brought us THIS:

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Adorable and hilarious, but not subtle.

So in a lot of ways, this whole thing isn’t surprising. What is surprising to me is how much this whole thing is doing to bring Metal Gear Solid 5 into the discussion about video games. It’s doing exactly what it was supposed to do. More people are talking about the game than before. Will this stunt boost sales? Probably. Will some of those sales be because Quiet is wearing what is effectively dental floss? Probably. Will there be a secret meaning in Metal Gear Solid 5 about tolerance and cultural understanding? Sure, maybe, who knows. But does it even matter? Kojima is blatantly using the conversation about women in video games and the cosplay community to garner attention for this game game, and that makes me all kinds of sick to my stomach.

Other industry folks have started responding to this, like Alex Kertz from the Battlefield 4 series (his tweets are kind of spectacular). But as a last parting thought, I’ll just walk away, shaking my head. While I appreciate this situation giving me something to write about this week, we could have saved all these words if the MGS 5 team had just trusted their product to attract fans without the reliance on sexism and marketing tricks. This just comes across the way it should – as a blatant cash grab that’s using the very market that they calls fans.

In a recent Q&A in which Kojima attempted to explain this situation further, Stephanie Joosten (who is the voice and motion-capture figure for Quiet) was quoted as saying this about her character:

“Of course, I was surprised to see Quiet’s outfit at first,” said Joosten. “But, you know, it fits in the Metal Gear universe, I think. I don’t think I’m allowed to say a lot about this, but, well, Mr. Kojima has his reasons for deciding why Quiet [is] wearing what she’s wearing. Players will just have to look forward to that.”

Of course there’s a reason for what she is wearing. It’s called dollar signs. And it’s pretty blatantly obvious.

I’m done with this discussion on principle alone. But I’ll just leave this last one here, for the road.

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What actual military women look like.

And my personal favorite:

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Didn’t need sexism to make a point. Or money.

Sexism in video games. The conversation has echoed through the internet and the halls of game development companies for months now, as it has seemingly become the topic whose time has come. With women like Anita Sarkeesian doing her best to get the message out there (despite heinous threats against her person), there finally seems to be some serious critical attention being paid to the choices designers make in creating their female characters. If you aren’t familiar with Sarkeesian’s work, I would point to Feminist Frequency and her video series Tropes Vs Women to get some background.

Part and parcel with the discussion of character design has been questions of how female characters are depicted in game advertising. However even in a time when companies are examining how to reach their audiences, there are still some stellar examples out there of blatantly sexual advertisement that is ignoring the conversation altogether. They just seem to be skipping the discourse completely in return for one thing: boobs.

This article is brought to you by some late night reading I was doing that was interrupted when this advertisement caught my eye:

"IN CASE YOU DIDN'T KNOW WHO THIS WAS FOR, WE KINDLY LABELED IT FOR YOU! YOU'RE WELCOME!"
“IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW WHO THIS WAS FOR, WE KINDLY LABELED IT FOR YOU! YOU’RE WELCOME!”

Well, if that isn’t a way to interrupt what you were doing. Ironically I was actually looking up an article on sexism in games when this little jewel popped up. After I finished staring, I then went from laughing my butt off to horror back to laughing. Because – really guys? REALLY?! In the face of such ridiculousness its hard to not laugh because such ads just jump the shark from sexism into plain preposterous.

Once I’d recovered from my laughing fit, I got down to looking this gem up to find out what the heck it’s all about. Wartune labels itself as an “Epic Strategy MMORPG” that secretly seems to wish it was World of Warcraft. But since it isn’t, I suppose its advertisers wanted to find some way to lure in players. So they decided to just forget about, you know, TACT and went for the obvious advertisement choice. With a pop up ad so tacky that it might make some porn execs roll their eyes, Wartune is just another example of the silliness that goes on.

Now, you might think that this is an isolated case of the silliness of internet game advertisements. But it’s not.

"Come play, my Lord." Yeesh, I've seen better dialogue in porn.
“Come play, my Lord.” Yeesh, I’ve seen better dialogue in porn.

Remember these, folks? For a while, you couldn’t log into a website without tripping over the awful advertisements for Evony. It was a city builder that promised it would be “FREE FOREVER!” and decided to use heaving breasts as their primary way to draw people to their game. The amusing part was the game was clearly aimed at a fantasy audience, but as their advertisements went on they just plain through out the premise of sexy elves and went right to modern-looking women on display. The thing became such a huge internet joke that Plants Versus Zombies made a great parody of it for their own game, with a boob-showing zombie asking you to “Save Your Lover!” It was so ludicrous as to become a joke. The game still exists, though now the woman shown smiling at you from their front page is in a Renn Faire style gown and far more covered. As you can see, the precedent was always there for Wartune to build on.

But surely these are just internet games, right? Nothing so egregious could exist in mainstream-

Sorry, nope. Couldn’t even get through the sentence. It isn’t just the tiny online games that do it, folks. The nigh ludicrous objectification lives and breaths in AAA games and has for years. There are so many examples I could give, but let’s just put out a couple here to give some context to the conversation:

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Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior – 1987 – Palace Software

Here’s just an example of the historical context. This is a Commodore 64 game called Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior. This is in fact the back cover of the game. The front shows a giant muscle-bound male Barbarian standing over the above woman as she reclines in his shadow. At least on the back they let her stand up and hold a sword. Remember, this is a Commodore 64 game. All the characters are on wee little pixels so basic they make your Super Nintendo look like Star Trek technology.

Want to get more mainstream? Let’s have a conversation about some ads for Soul Calibur. Now I’m a huge fan of this fighting game series but the advertisements for Soul Calibur 5 made me wonder if they forgot they were marketing a game and not skin care products or butt floss. Meet two characters from Soul Calibur 5. Who are they? I can’t tell because no distinguishing features of theirs are actually showing!

Now look, I get it. Sex sells. But there are lines sometimes that just seem so ridiculous that you can’t help but laugh. And then maybe get mad. Mostly at such blatantly over the top examples, however, I have to wonder how worried the designers must be about the weakness of their product that their answer is: “We just have to have boobs! More butt! Whatever you do, don’t put a face on it! Just maximize the sexy factor and they’ll come and play!”

And the sad part is that it kind of works.

Take Dragon’s Crown. This game created a whopping controversy by first creating characters with such gravity-defying proportions that they made people across the industry cringe.

Hi there Sorceress. Nice to meet you. It must be really hard to concentrate on magic with the massive back pain you must have.
Hi there Sorceress. Nice to meet you. It must be really hard to concentrate on magic over the massive back pain those must cause.

Then it made even more headlines when the designer tried to explain away the ridic proportions of his women by pointing out the guys are just as bad, and then turned the whole thing into a bad gay joke. It was kind of a nightmare all the way around PR-wise but the game came out. And all the gravity defying boobs did their job – they got the game the PR it needed to garner more attention. Am I saying that is why they designed it that way? Maybe not. But maybe it sure didn’t hurt either. The game’s out there. It’s part of the discussion now. And no amount explanation can justify the chiropractic nightmare that is that character design.

Not all examples of bad representations of women in game ads are so blatant of course. These just stand as the eye rolling, knee slapping, I have to laugh so I don’t get furious examples of the egregious sexist representations in games. They exist, I believe, so that when people come out to say that there isn’t a problem with sexism in the industry and that women should just calm down, I can pull these beauties out of the drawer. I keep them around so as to provide juxtaposition to other examples of sexist ads to ask ‘how very different are they?’

Case in point the comparisons being made between how the female characters are portrayed in two of 2013’s biggest AAA titles, Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us.

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Now I’m a huge fan of Bioshock Infinite but when the cover to the game came out, there was an uproar over the design. Elizabeth, our female companion to the hero Booker DeWitt, is relegated to the back cover of the game box. Sure, she’s clothed as heck (thank heavens for small favors) but she’s on back. Heck, even the Barbarian bikini woman got to be on the front too! Kenneth Lavine, lead designer of Infinite explained his choice as meant to appeal to the “uninformed” consumer. He described actually visiting frat houses to find men who hadn’t heard of Bioshock and then designed the cover based on their suggestions. Dude on front? Check. Gun? Double check. Woman relegated to somewhere less important? Done!

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By comparison, The Last of Us placed lead character Ellie front and center in the advertisements for the game despite pressure not to do so. In fact, designer Neil Druckman reported in the above linked article that their company Naughty Dogs was under lots of pressure to take Ellie out of the ads altogether. Still they stood their ground and right now, you can’t throw a stone in the game industry without hitting praise for The Last of Us and its brilliant Ellie. This was a conscious choice that Naughty Dogs made about how they were going to present their female lead and it paid off big time. 

Comparing the over-the-top T&A show of the above ads to the more subtle question of representation in Infinite versus Last of Us does nothing if not to point out how insidious the problem really is. While critics can discuss the problems of the big name titles, though, and the more subtle choices designers are making, sometimes it bears pointing out the blatant ones too. Otherwise stuff like this might slip us by:

51107And really, we can always use a good facepalm in our day once in a while.