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Bayonetta: A Problem of Sex, Violence, and Excellence

Adrian Hatwell
Adrian Hatwell

Sega’s latest exuberant action title seems to have divide critics in a very particular way; in the same breath commentators have hyperbolically praised the game’s achievements and decried it as an embarrassing shambles. Only sex could complicate something as nerdy-dry as video game reviewing like this.

Acclaim for the game has been uniform and thunderous, Bayonetta occupies an absurdly high position on review aggregators Internet-wide and critics haven’t been shy in saying way. The game knows how to fight, as an example of manic 3D hack-and-slash action it’s a real achievement. Stupidly complicated, physically impossible combat is stitched together and controlled so tightly that even when your eyes don’t keep up with the action you’re fingers will always have the right idea.

With technical foundations so expertly laid it falls to creative decisions to muddy these waters. The game is directed by legendary Japanese designer Hideki Kamiya, the talent responsible for the birth of such stylistically distinct series as Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe. His name automatically connotes a level of spectacular violence and idiosyncratic vision, and this time around that vision’s theme was to be ‘sexy’.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any sort of cultural product aiming to titillate or indeed move merchandise through sex. But as I’ve alluded to previously, the video game medium is uniquely inept at being sexy, and as the philosopher Timberlake once remarked, one cannot bring sexy back where it’s never been. With the industry’s boys-club culture in a stunted period of adolescence the savvy gamer knows to be inherently suspicious of digital lasciviousness.

And in Bayonetta’s case the suspicion proves more than warranted. The game’s titular protagonist is a practicing witch, though her impossible figure strikes more of a naughty librarian-cum-BDSM devotee note. Her exaggerated combat techniques, while undeniable in their brutal efficiency, are decorated with lipstick marks, a lot of suggestive bending and the tendency to require complete nudity. To regain health Bayonetta sucks salaciously on lollipops and her more powerful attacks take the form of sadomasochistic sex play. A wickeder witch one would be hard pressed to find.

There’s been a wealth of analysis on the topic of Bayonetta’s Mardi Gras-like tendencies from some of gaming’s finest commentators. Wired’s Gus Mastrapa found the game’s thematic silliness to overpower fundamental brilliance, whereas Iroquois Pliskin of Versus CluClu Land argued for the game as a triumph over its creative mistakes. Over at GamePro Leigh Alexander found the title to be empowering rather than exploitative, a position Tiff Chow disagrees with vehemently on her blog.

Those fine writers have all done a wonderful job of breaking down the game’s individual ass-shots and double-entendres, so rather than add my own close-reading I thought I would just share my first experience with the problematic Witch.

Whenever possible I like to play games as a social undertaking, even if its just a bunch of spectators passively watching a single-player game while drinking away the evening. This is more often than not a crowd of friends, most relatively intelligent, interesting, discerning individuals who aren’t necessarily all that fascinated by video games. It’s cool to be able to show off a well-made game to an audience unfamiliar with the medium’s possibilities and it’s equally valuable to hear outsider opinions on the things we gamers take for granted.

When I loaded up Bayonetta in such an environment, however, the experience wasn’t quite so positive. Within minutes the derisive chuckles had started up as the catsuit-clad heroine swished across the screen in fully loaded five-inch heels. When the hodgepodge of western religious iconography began to rain down the mood went from jovial to incredulous, and after the third nonsensical cinematic filled with stilted dialogue, ridiculous posturing, and impenetrable plot points things turned poisonous; worse than being offended, the crowd become bored.

I lost the room so completely that I couldn’t even summon the courage to at least commend the tight mechanics, at that point the observation would have meant less than nothing.

Still, in my capacity as a reviewer I know there’s a good, perhaps even great, game buried beneath all that lipstick and hair. I came back to the game repeatedly, as is my duty, but found the trappings increasingly aggravating even when alone.

Whether or not the game’s style does indeed drown its substantiative achievements will be, I think, a matter of personal taste. But as far as an objective (ha) test goes, my ‘Room full of Partially Interested Observers’ method rules Bayonetta an unprecedented failure. For all that’s worth.

When trying to asses a game on a less technical, more creative level I like to think of the simmering anger I felt when first reading Roger Ebert’s ‘games aren’t art’ comments. If we made him sit down and take notice, told him we were about to prove him wrong, would the game in question confront Ebert’s assumptions, subvert them, surprise him, and make him think again?

Most of the time probably not, that doesn’t necessarily deem a game worthwhile or not. But if the suggestion would cause the verbose critic to involuntarily double over with mocking laughter, however, then I think the case is pretty cut and dry. Sorry, Bayonetta.

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