When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.
One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realize it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.
A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.
Rated M for Misconception
Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:
“Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.
It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.
So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.
VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?
All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”
For there are tits. So many tits in this game. Let us revisit Mr. Gillen’s review for an interesting look at that… dimension of the story:
Take the most obviously eyebrow-raising character, Jeanette (The goth-schoolgirl whose top strains with obvious implants). While on the box you may take her as mere wrist-fodder for the strained-testicle-possessing members of the audience, she’s not treated as such. When she speaks, she’s a babble of egocentric nonsense – predictable, as she’s a Malkavian. However, it’s carefully judged egocentric nonsense. She’s essentially a goth LiveJournal with legs, and, in her extreme way, credible. Even the fact she has a ludicrous cleavage ties in tightly to the plot. Rather than many games where every woman thrusts D-cups and upwards in your direction, Vampire chooses. In Santa Monica at least, no-one has a cleavage like Jeanette. Why is she like that? To Troika’s eternal credit, it provides a reason. And if you ever wander into something that plays to what’s cheerfully described as “fan-service”, it’s because you’ve gone out hunting after it yourself.
When I read over this paragraph I felt an indescribable weirdness. I understood what he was getting at and for what it is worth, I agree to a limited extent, but the manner in which he chose to express himself is quite interesting to say the very least.
Before I analyze this further, I’d like to draw your attention to the words of a retrospective panel at Computer and Video Games about this particular title.
The panel’s views:
Steve: “It’s got that one with the big tits who looks like Britney Spears in it!”
Dan: “And the twist with her, which I won’t say out loud, is just ingenious.”
So. Reality. It apparently has big tits.
I find it fascinating that Gillen proclaims himself an expert on spotting implants. He reminds me a bit of the cis men who proudly bleat about their ability to “spot the tranny.” What is interesting to note is that the model of breasts used for Jeanette is in fact quite common throughout the game, to the point where it’s clear that (implants or no) they are simply Troika’s vision of “breasts” en toto. Jeanette is indeed a character, and one that I actually like, along with her unmentioned sister Therese. While embodying certain cliches, the pair of them do present some interesting characterization that transcends them with the power of each woman’s personal history.
Now, note how I could discuss that without speculating about the nature of Jeanette’s bosom? But why does all of this talk of cup sizes and so on become relevant? Well, it’s because of another fact. Gillen says no one in Santa Monica (an area of the game that is relatively self-contained for most of its opening acts) has “a cleavage” like Jeanette’s. Unless he got out a mental measuring stick, I’d have to dispute this.
You see, this game includes sex workers, lots of them.
And this is where pocketwatches begin bending over trees, melting.
All over Santa Monica you find scantily clad women mincing about, fitting the perfect stereotype of the ‘streetwalker.’ For 40 dollars, your character can pay them to wander off into some alleyway with them and suck their blood to replenish their essence. Realistic, no? Quite mature. You wouldn’t find that in the Sims. But that’s not all. You see, in VtM:B, whose blood you suckle upon matters. The game makes very explicit that the blood of sex workers and the homeless (yes, they’re there to add ‘maturity’ as well) is inferior. If you play as a vampire of the noble and upper class Ventrue clan, you will actually vomit if you drink the blood of either.
It would act as a commentary on classism if this was shown to be entirely in the heads of Ventrue and other elitist vampires. But it isn’t; it’s instituted as a game mechanic. Even the wild haired anarchist vampire Smiling Jack waxes gleefully about how good the blood of a PhD tastes. This reification, aside from feeling very strange, has the entirely expected knock off effect of imputing an intrinsic inferiority to the homeless and to sex workers.
Each group is interspersed among the other random NPCs mindlessly milling about the darkened cityscape as a little bit of ‘flavour.’ And that’s what the sex workers and homeless are in this game. Flavour. It wouldn’t be mature without them, of course, and so they stand on the game-scape like poorly painted theatre props. But sex workers say naughty things, so this is a mature and honest world.
The invisibility of sex workers in this game is of a rather interesting sort. They, like most truths about women in society, hide in plain sight. They are there in Bloodlines, but they are truly not there. Masquerading as the truth about the ‘dark’ side of society are these nameless, samey, cliched street sex workers who are cast as being objectively inferior human beings.
Like most games of this sort, there is a modding community. Indeed, Bloodlines was infamously shipped in poor condition and has been restored to playable vigor by a dedicated community that created their own repair patches. Along with that extensive labour of love came other mods, one of which caught my eye as I was browsing.
Take a look at this. In particular, take a look at some of the comments from Bloodlines players.
Rofl well lets face it if they where gorgeous they would be in the porn industry not Pros. XD
I like how you made them graphically better, but still kept the ugly look.
Prostitutes should always be women who are on the verge of being attractive, but have tons of minor flaws.
So, what do we have here? What I find intriguing is the way the ‘truth’ is manipulated in games like this. Who are sex workers in a ‘truthful and honest’ game? Is this the sex that Mr. Gillen spoke of that could be described as such? One wonders where these young men in the comments section of ModDB got their ideas about how sex workers ‘should’ look.
Thus at last we stumble onto the real meaning of ‘reality’ here. It is hyperreality. Reality that, in the words of sociologists Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, has always already been reproduced. Put another way it is ‘reality’ that makes no reference to the real world yet purports to do so. While the postmodernists who gave birth to the term would howl at the idea that there is a real world, I contend that for sex workers there most certainly is, and that Bloodlines does not present it. In its place is a different truth written by white, cis, and middle class men based on what they think they know about the gritty realities of sex work and then present it as a courageously told and daring realism.
What is even more interesting is how these male gamers wish to modify that hyperreality further to better fit their stereotype of what a sex worker ‘should’ look like and be. To what are they making reference, precisely? Real women? It does not seem so. Rather, it is the streetwalker from countless movies and television shows, the woman heels up in a dumpster on CSI, or the modern damsel in distress that Richard Gere saves with his expense account. The Bloodlines vision of sex workers is a copy of all the above.
To use another ten guinea word from the often insufferable canon of postmodernism, this is a simulacrum of sex workers. Simulacra are copies with no true original, something that- I would contend- float beyond lived reality while able to pass themselves off as representations of that reality.
To return to Edles and Appelrouth:
As we have seen… hyperreality [refers] to this state when the distinction between “reality” and the model or simulation is completely dissolved. In the condition of hyperreality, simulations stand in for– they are more “real” than– reality; the map of the territory is taken for the territory itself.
And I might add, when the map is deemed insufficiently “accurate” a gamer will make a mod to “remedy” that fact.
The Pearl in my Eye
Dragon Age: Origins is another game released to cavalcades trumpeting fanfare about the grit and realism of their title and another game that presents a hyperreal vision of that reality that cannot be excused by its fantasy setting anymore than Bloodlines could be forgiven due to its supernatural themes.
The City Elf origin’s treatment of rape, for instance, is a lengthy and bloodsplattered caricature of patriarchy that strains mightily to immerse you in the sanguinity of its mature bonafides and yet fails to tell a story that coheres with any kind of reality. Real life rapists are rarely cackling mustache twirlers like Lord Vaughan, the ringleader of his posse of overtly misogynist gang rapist guards. We are presented with a vision of the rapist as a thoroughgoing, unlikable human being walking around with a neon sign saying “Uncouth Misogynist!” over his head.
That’s the hyperreality of sexism in society that too many men still think they see.
The reality is that rapists have included “nice men”, “likeable men”, men who “believe in equality” and so on; that people who claim to adhere to even feminist ideals are still very often sexist in ways overt and covert. The Origin here ‘deals’ with rape in a manner none to dissimilar from how Bloodlines ‘deals’ with sex workers. A distinct vision of reality as a bloody escape from the quotidian is passed off as mature and real.
Finally we come to what is nearest and dearest to me about these critiques: the Pearl. When your character visits this brothel she has the option of asking the madam for a bit of time with one of the sex workers there. Aha, this must be mature realism. I toyed around with the options and settled on asking to be “surprised.” I was then presented with an array of sex workers to “choose from” which included several ‘“Female” Companions.’
Could this possibly end well?
I chose one- the auction block or meat market atmosphere of all this ‘simulation’ was not lost on me- and slept with her to see what would happen. In a short cinematic before each session you’re treated to the sex worker lounging on the bed in their underwear making a quip before the scene fades to black. For the trans sex workers, the ones whose gender was called into disrepute by the quotation marks put around ‘female’ in their floating text nameplates, there was often a lot of making light of what is actually a very serious trauma for many trans women: revealing that we are trans in a situation where power is thick in air around us. As she lounges there she is shown talking in a deep and clearly male voice set, the sight of a bulge in her panties, and some quip about how the player ‘shouldn’t act surprised.’ It’s a reiteration of the old ‘deception’ trope about how trans women deceive cis men into bed with them, revealing their genitals as sort of a “gotcha” surprise.
In that moment I realized this was what Bioware thought of me.
Much work has already been done on the nature of ‘lenses’ as held and espied through by the powerful. That is what hyperreality is, fundamentally, a lens through which the lived reality of the less-powerful is warped and distorted. What makes this pernicious is that the distortion is then presented as the real. The ‘easter egg’ style gags with the trans sex workers at the Pearl were clearly meant as ‘mature’ jokes for a ‘mature’ audience that could handle this ‘reality.’ One wonders if Mr. Gillen would also have said we could “do nothing but applaud” this “honest” recounting.
In all of these settings we see a common, bright line of a thread. Rape survivors, trans people, sex workers, the homeless, are not agents. They do not speak with much of a voice except the ventriloquy of the powerful. As I saw that trans woman in Dragon Age sprawled out on the bed in her underwear I saw exactly what cis men want to see when they look at me and my sisters. The forbidden pleasure, the easy fuck, the fantasy. The joke.
And this is “reality.” This is grit, and this is maturity.
Yet where are we?