When Bayonetta was released, it sparked discussions in many blogs, news outlets, and podcasts about the portrayal of women in games. When WET was released no one really seemed to care. Buy why? Why did Bayonetta incite such discussions, both defending the overt sexualization of her character and condemning it, whereas nobody paid any attention to Rubi Malone, a similarly strong female character that (despite the name of the game) isn’t sexualized at all?
I believe that there are two reasons.
The first is a matter of stereotypes. Rubi is a typical badass character. She’s tough, as displayed by her vulgar speech and indifference to danger, she’s a loner, she drinks vodka for health, she uses two guns instead of one, she uses a sword (a katana at that), and she enjoys all the killing that she does over the course of the game. She is everything that we have come to expect from a “strong” character but nothing more than that. We never get to learn about her past, about what makes her so angry all the time. At least the always angry Kratos has a dead wife and child to grieve over that makes him slightly sympathetic. Rubi has no such attachments. She’s a stereotype without context and that makes her boring.
Bayonetta is also a stereotypical character, but she’s a combination of two wildly different stereotypes. She has all the same badass traits that Rubi does: She’s indifferent to danger, she’s a loner, she uses two guns (hell, she has four), she uses a sword, she enjoys all the killing, and while she’s not necessarily vulgar, she is patronizing and sarcastic to those around her. But she’s also a stereotypical big breasted, long legged, scantily clad, overly sexed up heroine, no different than Rachel from Ninja Gaiden or the girls from Dead or Alive. Bayonetta doesn’t assume, as most games do, that these two stereotypes are mutually exclusive, so the resulting character becomes a lightning rod of discussion because both her supporters and detractors have valid arguments.
But other games have tried to produce this combination in other characters but didn’t generate the same level of discourse about those characters, which brings me to the second and arguably more important reason: control. This is an issue unique to games — how a character controls affects our perception of them. Rubi is somewhat difficult to control. If she hits a barrier while sliding, she’ll just slide in place, which looks awkward. She floats when she jumps, which makes the character feel oddly weightless. The camera always requires adjustments, and the combo system in her game is so simple that earning new moves really just means that you can now shoot from a different position.
Compare that to the fluid controls of Bayonetta, in which the exaggerated physics of a jump feel perfectly normal and different weapons beget new combo strings. There’s an undeniable pleasure to certain kinds of movement in games. That’s one of the reasons that Mario has remained consistently popular over so many years. The sheer act of moving and fighting in Bayonetta is enjoyable. Even someone perturbed by the rampant sexualization must admit that at its core it is a damn fine game. The skill based combat makes a player feel empowered, regardless of gender. Finishing a combo and obliterating an enemy in a flourish of violence gives us the same kind of power fantasy that God of War offers. Because we feel badass, we believe that Bayonetta is badass, and any argument supporting her gains traction. If she controlled poorly, then no amount of cut scenes could convince us she was strong. They would all ring hollow.
We feel an immediate connection with these kinds of empowering characters. Rubi’s unlikable demeanor isn’t the only reason that a majority of gamers don’t care about her. She’s unlikable and disempowering because of awkward controls. Kratos is also a jerk, yet, he remains popular. People don’t like him because he’s sympathetic. We like him because he makes us feel that we too are a ruthless killing machine capable of mowing down any living thing in our path. Good controls create feelings of empowerment, and those feelings allow gamers to look past perceived character flaws, such as Kratos’s violent anger or Bayonetta’s explicit sexuality. People talk about Bayonetta and ignore Rubi because the former is far more interesting than the latter from the outset, and the more time that we spend as the witch the more we like her, whereas the more time that we spend as the mercenary the more we hate her.
I guarantee you, if Bayonetta controlled like Rubi then no one would remember her in six months.