A Study in Sado-Masochism: ‘Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars’

Designed by indie developer Anna Anthropy, Adult Swim’s latest flash game, Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars, is punishing.

The punitive nature of the game is derived from two sources, both of which appear to be clear inspirations for the game. The first influence is obviously a retro game aesthetic. Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars apes ’80s arcade retro gaming in its low res graphics, simple gameplay, and even down to its pre-game splash screens that describe the point values of the slaves that you will be “reacquiring” throughout the game. And, oh yeah, it also borrows from the punishing difficulty of 1980s-style quarter eating masochism.

Which is all well and good, given that the other influence that the game is obviously borrowing heavily upon is a kind of 1970s exploitation theme, more specifically Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars is more or less a “women in prison” movie ported to game form.

The premise of the game, such as it is, is fairly simple. The player takes on the role of the lesbian spider-queen from Mars (the reason for the pluralization in the title remains unclear until the end of the game), a woman-arachnid hybrid with tantalizingly red skin whose palace is in revolt. Her all female complement of slaves has decided that it is time to slip the bonds (assumedly in the form of webbing) of their master and are now running roughshod over the palace grounds, from places like the Chapel to the Armory to (of course) the Bathhouse. As the spider-queen, the player will use her crystal scepter to ensnare slaves in webs and recapture or devour them (as much of the voice over implies).

With “titillating” low res graphics of slave girls in chains and the like, the game is a campy, retro romp through the fields of exploitation, and it is an appropriate mirroring of the kind of exploitation media that focuses dominantly on punishment, sexploitation. The focus of “women in prison” films is in exciting desires through leering at female flesh, but more to the point, at female flesh held captive, punished, and humiliated. The faux lesbian veneer is an additional layer of this tried and true genre model, but the interesting thing about Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars is the manner in which it inverts the normal leering sadism of such cinema — which is enjoyed by the viewer through voyeurism and distance from the subject matter — by capturing this imagery of sexual mastery and servitude and putting it in the form of a game. In other words, this isn’t an experience that is just intended to be watched.

While the spider-queen is certainly powerful, because of the manner in which the game ratchets up the difficulty of slave capture (and don’t let the earlier, easier levels fool you — by the time that you reach levels 10-12, the difficulty is Robotron-style, panic inducing insanity – the final “boss fight” ain’t no walk in the park either), the game more often punishes the player than the queen manages to consistently punish her slaves.

Indeed, the Game Over screen speaks rather directly to this inversion of sadistic voyeurism into masochistic participation. After losing all of your lives, almost at once a still of the now captive spider-queen appears surrounded by approaching topless slave girls eager for revenge (a nod to the voyeurism inherent in the “women in prison” genre), but then a continue screen appears that offers two options: “Accept your final score” or “Continue the game with no score.” A sympathetic palace denizen stands above the right hand choice with a blade in hand, ready to cut the queen free if she wriggles over to choose the right hand option (and the player must actually cause the queen to wriggle agonizingly towards one side or the other if they wish to choose either option). That sympathizer also declares, “Your former majesty, I can cut you free but it will cost you your dignity.” In this sense, any real humiliation in the game belongs to the player who is losing their dignity (their score) by copping out and continuing rather than trying to accomplish a victory with a single playthrough (something that I expect is nigh unto impossible except for only the most persistent, hardcore player). In this sense, that the player will have to give up their score at some point and submit to that “humiliation” is nearly inevitable for any player of the game, or in other words, submitting to humiliation is essential and an expected outcome of any full playthrough of Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars. You are expected to become a masochist and victim, either by losing or submitting to humiliation.

Adult Swim has offered other such gaming experiences before in its line up of flash games that are often seemingly as committed to the cable network’s own cynicism in its cartoon output for adults. Shows like Robot Chicken, Family Guy, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and the like are all committed to a frequently sneering, absurdist, and often nihilistic form of comedy that revels as much in its cleverness as the discomfort of its audience. I frankly think that (and have written a little bit about) the brilliant takedown of optimisim and idealism that is among Adult Swim’s most popular game offerings, Robot Unicorn Attack (that game promises you right from the outset: “You Will Fail”) and how it is a similar study in self flagellation. I also think that Robot Unicorn Attack is kind of a must-play.

Like that game, Lesbian Spider-Queens from Mars is a pleasure to play but only if you are a player willing to suffer and be punished by the game itself. These are games for masochists, not leering, sadistic voyeurs, and I guess that I have found that I have a penchant for suffering some indignity for the sake of playing a well crafted and challenging game.