Like many other Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing games, Scarlet Blade is a game in which a player designs a character, both physically, by selecting options that define their characters appearance, as well as functionally, by choosing a class (damage dealer, tank, support, etc.) to play. That character is then launched into a world in which they will kill monsters, level up, collect loot, and craft items. Nothing exceptional going on here in terms of the conventions of the genre.
The one notable difference between it and other games of this sort, though, among all of these fairly standard MMORPG conventions exists in character creation. Simply put, there are no men.
That is, there are no male avatars for the player to choose from. Assigning a gender to the player’s character in Scarlet Blade is not an option at all. Instead, the player will take on the role of one of seven buxom (and one notably less buxom and more creepily underaged looking) female avatars that represent each class in the game. While the player may alter some elements of this avatar (you can choose eye color, hair style, and facial appearance, for instance), the bodies of the characters cannot be manipulated in anyway. The curves of these Barbie Dolls are predetermined, defining these women’s roles as characters and, one assumes, their relative sexual desirability.
Now, Scarlet Blade does actually feature a back story that explains its lack of male heroes. As a science fiction game, a planetary invasion and plague released by the invaders has made the world of Scarlet Blade uninhabitable for normal humans. Human beings have retreated to an artificial environment called the Ark and through cloning technology have developed a series of super soldiers that can return to the planet’s surface to look for other survivors and possibly reclaim the planet. As it turns out, the modifications necessary to create a super soldier is not something easily assimilated into male physiology, but female physiology just happens to be perfectly suited to such adaptation… for some reason.
Thus, a host of scantily clad women (and scantily clad is really more of an understatement in terms of the aesthetics of Scarlet Blade, as nipples peek out from under breast plates and crotches are often covered by what appears to be a mere splash of paint rather than an actual garment) explode into the world to explore, battle, level up, and dance in the discotheques of the game world.
Yeah, it’s pretty salacious to say the least.
That being said, the pornographic is not a new phenomenon in video games from Custer’s Revenge to Leisure Suit Larry to Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball, video games have included voyeuristic opportunities aplenty, particularly for the male heterosexual demographic often presumed to be the dominant audience of the medium.
While hardcore, vaguely interactive experiences, like the low res, Atari action game Custer’s Revenge have existed in the medium (Custer has to avoid cannon balls and arrows to reach the other side of a screen in order to have sex with a Native American woman), most examples of video game pornography have generally been more soft core versions of pornography that feature bodies to ogle at, not interact directly with. Certainly, a game like Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball allows the player to photograph its bevy of beauties and thus control how they view them. However, few of these “softer,” more passive games have, in a sense, been highly conscious of the medium of video games and the level of interactivity allowable as such in order to use the medium of the game to pornographic ends. In some sense, video games have assumed that a passive experience of sexual simulation, viewing, not controlling, manipulating, or engaging with sexual subject matter must be a passive experience like it is in film, photography, or literature. While the audience for a pornographic magazine or photograph might be aroused by those mediums’ subject matter, so too does the audience of a comedy laugh at what is presented on screen. Pornography in more passively experienced mediums traditionally provokes reaction, not interaction.
What is unique, perhaps, about Scarlet Blade is its extreme consciousness of the medium and how it exploits the medium to create what may be a new kind of pornographic experience. And it does so by acknowledging the player’s role in the game as a player, not a mere voyeur.
Games like League of Legends have incorporated the player themselves as a kind of character in the world itself in order to clarify how the game and game world works. While players of League of Legends have over 100 avatars to choose from in order to play the game, all of which have their own unique abilities, stats, and appearance, at no time does the game suggest that you are playing the role of Miss Fortune or Dr. Mundo or Tristana, as one assumes when playing a character like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider. Instead, the game suggests that the League of Legends champions are characters controlled by an outside source, summoned to battle by you, the player, which the game refers to as the Summoner. Indeed, a player’s account contains a series of Summoner screens that allow you to keep track of your successes, your persistent level in the game (as all champions level up only during a match and return to level one in later matches to be leveled up again), and you win-loss record, since you are not acting in the role of any one of these champions. Instead, you are playing the role of some individual who decides which one will fight for “you” for this match.
Scarlet Blade, likewise, suggests this same conceit by acknowledging the role that you take on as the player, which is not directly that of taking on the role of the avatar, instead you are one of the humans (presumably male, as much of the in game dialogue suggests) secured in the Ark, tasked with watching over the progress of and directing the goals and purposes of the onscreen female avatar.
As such, the game is strangely cognizant of power relationships and gender roles in the plots of its missions. Avatars frequently look directly at the player and address you “in your armchair there” and how you determine the destiny of your “doll” or “action figure.” Indeed, the avatar will allude to how the player’s relationship to her is metaphorically much like a “marriage” in its familiarity and intimacy. An opportunity to critique power relations between men and women and what it might mean to be subject to the male gaze is, thus, present in the game, which seems potentially rather interesting. However, the manner in which these interactions between player and avatar, player and subject work clearly do not function as some kind of high minded cultural critique. Instead, they reinvoke the traditional rhetoric and messaging of soft core pornography, just in a more deliberately interactive way.
In many ways, this acknowledgment of the player in the game is very reminiscent of the presentation of the centerfold or playmate’s acknowledgment of the viewer in the early days of Playboy. Hugh Hefner’s insistence that Playboy models should look outward “through” the lens of the camera at her audience was intended to be inviting, as was his additional insistence that models should look both inviting and “wholesome” by smiling out at that man looking at her, as if she both knows you and likes you.
Of course, Hefner’s smiling girl-next-door of the 1950s and 1960s can and has often been replaced by other pornographic images of women that acknowledge the existence of their viewer, perhaps, the glance of the coy pinup up or the smoldering gaze back of the less than coy bad girl. Contrast such images with the presentation of the artistic nude, which far more often has her attention fixed on her own world, not the world of the viewer, and it suggests that “being acknowledged” may indeed be a part of what makes pornography effective in evoking a reaction and response from its viewer. Infamously Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said that while he couldn’t easily define pornography, nevertheless, “I know it when I see it.” Perhaps, this statement should be revised to something like, “you know something is pornography when it sees you.” And, I think that Scarlet Blade, indeed, goes out of its way to let you know that it “sees you.”
This, it seems to me, is what Scarlet Blade is after. It is unflinchingly and unapologetically offering a soft core video gaming experience, in which the player gets the opportunity to leer, as the voyeur has always done, but also gets the opportunity to play with, not just look at, the subject of his gaze. In some sense, Scarlet Blade has not merely been able to signify a sexual object as pornography has done, it has been able to simulate a pornographic relationship, a pornographic marriage between the viewer and his subject through the co-operative efforts of player and avatar.
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