Vanquish is a futuristic, science fiction third person shooter from Shinji Mikami (the creator of the Resident Evil series). The game begins with Russian troops taking over a space station and using it’s weapon to destroy San Fransisco with a threat to destroy New York City next. The enemies in the game are robots created by the Russian military and vary in size: small compact machines, human sized robots, and gigantic building sized opponents. The protagonist is a man named Sam Gideon that is outfitted in a unique suit from DARPA that gives him amazing defensive and offensive powers in battle. The commander in charge of the unit that Sam joins during his missions is Lieutenant Colonel Robert Burns. The commander is a swearing, angry pile of muscles and it is his dialogue that I have the most issues with in this otherwise fun game.
The disappointment with Vanquish comes partially from the fact that the game has some positive aspects. The President of the United States is a woman. The DARPA researcher helping Sam Gideon understand the powers of his suit and also acting as the computer expert/hacker on the team is a woman named Elena Ivanova. The action sequences in the game are great fun! Within the suit, the protagonist can literally slide around the battlefield and slow time to shoot enemies. The sequences are exciting to play and visually entertaining.
Despite a female presence in the game, the overall tone of the experience screams that women are not full equals in the world of Vanquish. There are no women soldiers on the field. The game is set in a world where robots are part of a battle, the President of the USA is a woman, DARPA can create super suits for soldiers, and Lt. Cm. Robert Burns has several powerful artificial limbs and implants but women are still not seen wielding guns in battle. If they control anything then it is done remotely; they are hidden far away from the shooting. Even in this future women are considered too frail to be in battle. Elena, a character that aids in both reconnaissance and battle, is not among the ground troops. Toward the end of the game, she falls from a standing position and sprains her ankle. This just enforces the idea of women as weak in this game setting. As the only woman that you interact with in the game, Elena does not escape being a sexual object. She wears a short skirt and the camera angle is often directed from below and behind the character. I guess the camera used was simply too heavy or cumbersome to lift up above waist height. Oh wait, there is no physical camera in video game cut scenes…. Then why is the image done as if a camera is dangerously close to an up skirt image? There is no reason to do this other than pandering to a male gaze.
Trigger warning: I will be discussing several misogynistic and homophobic slurs used by Burns. The dialogue in the following paragraph is directly from the game and it uses very strong language.
The idea of women as lesser than the men is solidified by the foul mouthed Lt. Cm. Burns. In both Acts 1 and 2 of the game (there are 5 Acts total) he fires out a number of powerful slurs. The words used by Burns have a mix of misogyny and homophobia that is used by some in society to diminish another as weak. In regards to a robot enemy, he once shouts, “Over here you pansy ass vacuum cleaner.” He is not referring to the robot as a pretty multi-colored flower. Pansy has been used since the 1920s as a slur for effeminate gay males thus blending a negativity toward things coded as feminine and those coded as homosexual. This slur shows a anti-gay and anti-female bias from the commanding officer in that troop. It is enforced again when Sam asks if taking control of a hill in the game will be “strategically important”. Burns responds with “They teach you those big words at DARPA pussy academy?” A brief several seconds later Burns adds, “No pussy footing up here, ladies. We run out and take them down.” All of the troops in the squad are male. The use of ladies here means that female = weak = lesser. The slurs are used by Burns as a way to show that he is tough and strong, all things that his character presumably does not associate with women or gay men. He is never rebuked or challenged regarding this language. He is in charge of the troop and his voice rules all. No one questions any of this hateful speech, even Sam whose dislike of Burns is made very clear throughout the game. Because of this acceptance of the slurs, these lines dominate the tone of the game. This is disappointing because the slurs are not used in cut scenes during the second half of the game. It becomes clear that they are not necessary to paint the characters as strong fighters. Since they are not necessary later in the game, why use them at all? They could have been emitted from the dialogue entirely.
Vanquish is a game set in a futuristic America. It is a game that still portrays women as weaker than men. It does this both in how it treats the character of Elena and in the slurs of the commanding officer’s dialogue. By never addressing these as negative, it accepts the attitudes as commonplace and acceptable. Even in the made up world of Vanquish, gamers cannot escape misogyny and homophobia.