Games

Bayonetta Meets Beyoncé

The thing that attracts me to Bayonetta 2 is that it’s the closest thing to a Beyoncé concert that I’ve ever played.

Bayonetta is certainly one of the most discussed, most controversial video game characters of recent years and perhaps of all time. A search for her name on the Critical Distance web site yields thousands of words dedicated to analyzing her. Exploited sex object or sex-positive icon? Object of the male gaze or independant dominatrix? I get the sense that a person’s opinion of Bayonetta says more about them than it does her. She is a litmus test for how someone thinks about sex and gender.

Assuming that’s the case, I’ll open myself up for a little public psychoanalysis. As a fan of games that emphasize dexterity and tactical execution, Bayonetta 2 had me hooked. It’s a great brawler whose challenge scales based on how much you’re willing to learn about the fighting systems. Brawlers are relatively common though; I could play Devil May Cry or God of War to scratch the same itch. The thing that attracts me to Bayonetta 2 is that it’s the closest thing to a Beyoncé concert that I’ve ever played.

While it isn’t a rhythm game, truly succeeding at Bayonetta 2’s fighting requires a sense of timing. Mashing on the buttons will get the job done, but knowing when to rest for a beat in order to unleash a bigger move takes practice. If you’re doing well, battles are a few minutes long and tend to have little downtime between them. Even when you’re on the defensive, you’re dodging rather than hiding, and you’re dancing around the arena until you get an opening for the next combo. Bayonetta 2’s actual soundtrack is often a bouncy pop song, so the flow of the game often mirrors the verses and transitions of the game's actual music.

But its the image of her and the attitude that she displays that really makes Bayonetta feel like she would be at home in the Billboard Top 100. If you’re into leading ladies that aren’t afraid to sing about sex, these past few years have been pretty great. The last 12 months alone has seen some stuff that might even make Bayonetta blush: Queen Bey, Nikki, Iggy, and even J-Lo are putting it plainly. This isn’t the coy faux-innocence of early Madonna or the avant guard eroticism of Lady Gaga. This recent music has been about making a statement that these women know what a lot of people find attractive and that they will decide what to reveal and when to reveal it. They enjoy that power.

This sentiment permeates every level of Bayonetta 2. She refers to her enemies as “naughty,” before taunting them with BDSM moves that quickly turn into deadly attacks. She blows kisses at people and then fires off volleys of bullets shaped like hearts. Her admirers and rivals are labeled “stalkers.” Her approach is summed up by the first line of one of the game’s earliest trailers: “No one said you could touch.”

There’s no arguing that Bayonetta performs some provocative moves and possesses risqué outfits, but she is always portrayed as maintaining control of the situations that she is in. This is even manifested in the mechanics. You’re rewarded for letting enemies try to hit you and dodging at the last possible moment. A successful last second dodge slows down time, allowing Bayonetta to punish her enemies for being presumptuous enough to try to take more than she is willing to give. She sarcastically mocks them, condescendingly reassuring them that they were “so close” before unleashing attacks.

Read this way, Bayonetta fits into a declarative form of feminism that focuses on individual definitions and personal standards. While the term Beyoncé Feminism may not be widely recognized, its tenants are summed up by a song like “Flawless.” Sexy and downright explicit in some parts, it’s also a power anthem about recognizing what people think about you while maintaining control of your own self image. Thanks to the gender, socio-economic, parental, and racial implications, you could probably write a whole essay about a lyric like “you wish I was your baby momma,” but the one thing that I’ll focus on about this line is its frankness. It’s a plain spoken way of saying, "I know what you want, but you only get what I give."

Bayonetta’s actions are generated by other people, though. The designers and players ultimately define her character, whereas Beyoncé is free to shift her philosophy and artistic style on her own. Because of this, playing Bayonetta 2 will always feel a bit philosophically uncomfortable. There’s always the possibility that the next game (if I’m lucky enough to get one) will take an unwelcome turn and dip into something that feels more exploitative. For now, though, it’s a fascinating and entertaining tribute to the recent trend of powerful, sexually assertive pop stars.

That term is a bit ungainly, so perhaps Bayonetta can help out here. She is considered a “witch” in the game’s fiction, so maybe she can help reclaim and redefine the word? A woman who unapologetically mixes sexuality, confidence, and power. One who isn’t out to cast spells and doesn’t care if you think that you’ve fallen under the influence of one? Sounds like a cool idea for a Beyoncé concept album.

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Robert Christgau is the rare critic who can write insightfully and passionately about a sweaty performance by a popular Congolese soukous band and a magisterial show by Senegal's Youssou N'Dour. That magic is captured in his latest anthology, Is It Still Good to Ya?

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