Roger Ebert once claimed that games are difficult to consider as “art” because they do not have specific authorship. This is partially because they are often a result of design by committee, but also because they only “exist” as a conversation between the game itself and its player. I bring this up not to malign Ebert, who was brilliant, and whose opinion was unfairly maligned often, but as a conversation-starter about the idea of games and authorship. Clint Hocking and I both disagree with Ebert; games are, indeed, authored works.
This is one reason why I like to engage with indie games, since their creators are often people we can finger by name. Even if I may not agree with the visions of a singular creator such as an Alexander Bruce it is wonderful that they exist, are visible, and have things to say through their artwork. Of course, some big-budget titles are also ascribed to their designers: it’s Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri; it’s American McGee’s Alice. Though gaming has its share of auteurs usually this singular credit is typically handed to a programmer, to a gameplay designer, or the rare “triple-threat” who does programming, design, and art or sound. Rarely is a game considered the singular vision of its visual artist.
Now we have this game, this artifact, this Dragon’s Crown. Though multiple artists worked on the title and contributed to its signature style, credit for the final results could be laid, without much argument, at the feet of its head artist, Vanillaware president George Kamitani. Kamitani is the vision-holder for Vanillaware and his work spans several titles, all which feature his particular look. Once upon a time, he was also behind much of the iconic art in Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, which was re-released recently for Playstation Network and is as fun a romp now as it was in 90s arcades.
The re-release of Shadow Over Mystara was not without controversy, a controversy that was entirely a reaction to its visual art. I watched this happen in real-time on Dungeons & Dragons’ Facebook fan page, because of course I am a fan of Dungeons & Dragons on Facebook. Dungeons & Dragons dared to post Kamitani’s art of Moriah, the Thief character from Shadow Over Mystara. She happens to be a dark-skinned woman wearing a cloak and crop-top. She has powerful arm muscles and a confident stance.
Negative reaction was overwhelming. Moriah “Looks like a man.” Is “a bad direction for art.” But most crucially, she “needs to put some real clothes on,” a sentiment that was echoed ad nauseum until Dungeons & Dragons finally relented and took the picture down. For a while, there was still a link back to the Shadow Over Mystara page at least. Now most references to Mystara are gone from the page entirely. I don’t really blame D&D for this decision, though, considering just about any time they dare to post art of a woman, no matter what she’s doing, they’ll be shouted at for making her butt too big, or her face too pretty. They’ll be drowned in arguments over whether she is wearing too much clothing or not enough (and it’s almost always not enough). “I’m glad to see a reasonable female character who is not easily confused with a hooker,” says one commenter about a picture of a Tiefling that many others felt was still too objectifying. Lately, D&D has erred on the side of just not depicting any female characters. This is the worst possible solution, but since it is so terrible and shameful, they are called out on that, too. They just can’t win.
I am a fan of fantasy art, and I have written before about how, while discussion of “reasonable armor” is all well and good, the backlash against sexy women in the context of games is starting to feel increasingly puritanical. I consider it a problem that so many on the internet feel a need to “repair” the clothing of fictional women who are wearing too little for their taste. It often feels like slut-shaming, and alienates and demeans women who actually like these fantasy portrayals. Perhaps being seen as sexy or desirable while kicking ass is not a suitable fantasy for us.
The Dragon’s Crown art style is a high fantasy throwback style, executed with modern technology and techniques. It could be described as a combination of anime styling and Frank Frazetta paintings. It is well-informed, with artistic references to multiple classical works and created with full knowledge of a history of fantasy art that came before it. It’s lovely and it’s fresh, and it’s a joy to watch it in motion. It does not care one whit about “reasonable armor.”
The backlash against this game, which has been documented all over the internet, was totally predictable. The game’s art is called juvenile and puerile by many critics. These writers were reacting not only, but mostly, to two characters in the game; really one character design in particular, and, even more particular, two things about that one character design. Let’s call them Lefty and Righty.
Many reviews so far of Dragon’s Crown have scored the game qua game, while others scored the game by, mostly, scoring their reaction to its art style. Positive reviews of Dragon’s Crown seem to say it succeeds in spite of its art style, or, they barely discuss the art at all, trying in vain to avert their gaze and look Dragon’s Crown in the eyes. I frequently review games based more on their storytelling or mechanics, but really, it’s impossible to separate Dragon’s Crown from its visual art. I think we should go ahead and gaze into the cracks here; let’s stick our faces in and motorboat the hell out of this controversy.
Not only did I buy Dragon’s Crown, I got the art book. Haters, you are totally right: boobs don’t work this way.
The shadow at the top of the breast that separates it from the body is the culprit here. This only occurs with breast implants – which are generally harder and firmer than natural breasts – or with a push-up bra or corset that shoves the breasts into this position. It does seem like Sorceress is wearing a ribbed corset as part of her dress, but it’s an underbust corset that doesn’t provide much breast support. If you’ve ever seen a woman at the RenFaire wearing an underbust corset with no additional undergarments, she’ll flop over the top of the corset rather than be pushed up by it.
But wait, this is promotional art that was drawn by a secondary Vanillaware artist. Let’s look at Kamitani’s artwork:
Hey. Boobs kinda do work this way. No, they don’t typically take on such epic proportions on small-waisted women. This is obviously designed to be hypersexualized, especially with the way she’s positioned a skull’s head against one teat and her staff perched suggestively behind her equally-oversized rear end. But the way that the breasts are attached to the body and the way they are reacting to gravity is well-observed. It’s highly stylized, but it’s intentional, not ignorant.
The walk cycle on the Sorceress reminds me of a demonstration video series I used to show to student animators, The Animators’ Survival Kit. Richard Williams, the series author, was an animator on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and intimately familiar with the nuances of Jessica Rabbit’s signature swagger. He demonstrates in his series many different concepts, including that of “secondary action,” as demonstrated by the Jessica-look-alike fourth from the right in this animation loop. Every motion the Sorceress makes is like this, with well-timed secondary motion. And it’s hysterical. When she’s running, she holds on tightly to her hat, while her comedy bosom flaps around in the wind.
Boobs are great, so this isn’t the first time I’ve written about boobs. Steerpike also has previously discussed the problem with making women’s breasts all large in video games for no real reason. This is absolutely a fair criticism of, for example, the new Lightning Returns controversy where the game designers, faced with a female lead at the center of their next title… decided to make her breasts bigger (and more jiggly!) for, well, no real reason. That kind of thing is annoying and insulting. But so, to me, is the notion that only small breasts are “acceptable” on a character. It was annoying when so much marketing about early Lara Croft focused on her cup size, but, it’s also annoying that in order for her to be a “serious character” now her breasts must be smaller.
Breasts are a body part; they are present on about fifty percent of human beings (you don’t have to have breasts to be a woman or be a woman to have breasts, but that’s not the point I’m making). Yet they are so often treated as mysterious and mystical instead of ordinary parts of human anatomy. It’s this kind of thinking that inspired games writer Jenn Frank to propose a “Boob Jam” where new games are created around the idea of breasts as something other than sexualized objects that exist for the male gaze.
Some people are made very uncomfortable by the Sorceress’s large breasts. They are angry at them. I am obviously not in the head of all of the people who dislike it and there are myriad reasons. Some people are reasonable and rational in their disagreement about this art and with them I have no quarrel. But some of the people who feel truly enraged, I feel, should examine the root cause of their reaction. Maybe they sense they’re being picked fun of by this design. Women have been dealing with these sexualized depictions for years; they are the background radiation of our lives. Every weekday I drive home past a sexy woman lounging around enjoying a Pepsi on a billboard; she is Photoshopped to perfection. Kamitani came along and, deliberately, turned sexualization up to eleven. The Sorceress is a supernormal stimulus of a sexy game girl, a modern-day Venus of Willendorf. She holds a mirror up to things that have been in our culture all along. Frankly, she’s not bad. She’s just drawn that way.
The Sorceress might actually be proud of those big boobs. Perhaps she created them for herself with her magic. We don’t know. Of course, that is a ridiculous statement; she is a piece of artwork; she is a fictional character. Yet this argument is really only one step removed from the argument that it’s “not realistic” for a woman to go into combat this way, as “in the real world” she’d be stabbed in her exposed flesh.
Dragon’s Crown consists, in the real world, of hitboxes, with pictures on top of them representing characters. When a hitbox connects with another hitbox when the first hitbox is in an “attacking” formation, it chips some numbers off of a total amount of “health points” contained by the second hitbox. If a hitbox loses all of these points that hitbox goes away. At that time it matters not in the least what the hitbox is depicted as wearing.
There are some games that aspire to be realistic and in those games a realistic art style, along with realistic armor, is appropriate. But to say that the character art in Dragon’s Crown is not realistic is a silly argument, because the game is not trying to be realistic. Critique of fantasy art, both in the tabletop gaming and video gaming spheres, has moved into a place where its “realism” is in question too often, an argument which frankly makes for a pretty effective straw man.
It is better to argue about consistency of depiction. This is the realm in which people have leveled somewhat stronger criticism against Dragon’s Crown’s artwork. There is a double-standard in some games, MMORPGs in particular, when the female version of an armor set may only cover half of what the male armor covers. Some obviously disagree, but I find the art style in Dragon’s Crown very consistent. It is true that the Knight wears full armor, while his female equal, the Amazon, wears a chainmail bikini. When I rolled up an Amazon to give the class a try, the game provided me with a potential default name of “Sonia,” which is definitely appropriate. Wearing next-to-nothing on the male side is reserved instead for the stocky Dwarf. It’s hardly sexualized and could easily be regarded as humorous. But the Sorceress is also humorous; she’s just picking fun of something totally different. There is also a powerful witch NPC, who happens to be half-naked, and a powerful princess who is fully and elaborately clothed. There is a mermaid with butt-cheeks: the apex of silly, painted-on-your-van heavy-metal-tattoo exploitation. It’s all in fitting with the milieu.
I am not among those who say the Elf is somehow the best female character depiction because she is less sexualized. In fact I was more drawn to both of the other female characters. Dragon’s Crown has three playable female characters, and they have three different body types. Compare that to, just as an example, League of Legends, which has 39 female Champions and only two body types: “cute” and “sexy.” Sometimes “sexy” has room for monsterous bits thrown on, but it doesn’t have any room for anything like fat, big muscles, or wrinkles. Where it comes to female portrayal, I consider this a much bigger problem.
Having established my own point of view that the game is inseparable from its art, and the art is fantastic, how, you may ask, is the rest of the game?
Dragon’s Crown is one part loot-dropping dungeon crawler, one part 2D brawler. It has a satisfying, tight core loop with high appeal: kill things, take their stuff, get that stuff identified and sold, equip better stuff, use better stuff to kill bigger things, take their stuff, repeat and repeat. The level design is set up in short, tight corridors. These are never long segments, broken up with a variety of different level background art. The game’s grand reward for completing segments isn’t really getting new items, but in seeing new art. This is baked into the design of the game, which depicts a wide variety of level settings, and gives out unique gallery pictures as rewards for completing side-quests.
The story of the game is standard genre fare, with castles and dragons, court betrayals, and mystical McGuffins galore. It’s mostly an excuse to go to different exotic thing-killing locations, like an old-school D&D campaign. Game sequences are narrated by the sonorous voice of a patient Dungeon Master. The boss fights are the biggest spectacle in each level. Later boss fights get trickier, requiring some puzzle-solving and prioritizing targets rather than being straight-up brawls.
There’s a good variety of combat mechanics with enough variety among the six playable characters to suit about any playstyle. Even the “expert” characters really aren’t terribly difficult to pick up and play, but they do have different factors of risk and reward. Characters level up and upgrade as you go, with a series of customizable move sets that varies per class. The flashier, range-oriented classes have a bigger variety of available moves, which require some planning ahead, while melee classes have straightforward skills. They can sometimes be surprising, though; for example, the Amazon makes a very fun air-based character, floating high above battle in an axe whirlwind, Wizard can animate objects found in the dungeons to make helpful golem companions, and Dwarf can double as a bomb-toting demolitionist.
The game shines most in co-op, which can accommodate up to four players on the same adventure. But if none of your friends are interested, AI NPCs can accompany the player character to create a party for soloing the game. The NPC data is sometimes generated from other player characters who have fallen in the dungeons, leaving behind their “bones” in a mechanic that feels a bit like a shout-out to Demon’s Souls.
In addition to the fighting NPCs, there’s also two other AI characters, a thief and a fairy. The thief starts the game with the player, but the fairy is acquired slightly later. Between the two of them they can open locked doors and chests, and locate secret treasures, items, and magical runes. Revisiting old levels is part of the design of Dragon’s Crown, and there’s a variety of secrets to find on every map in the game.
Being a loot game, Dragon’s Crown requires a lot of bookkeeping, and any amount of playtime will be spent poring over menus and comparing sets of stats on a bunch of similar-looking gear. Systems like rune magic and cooking are introduced gradually enough that it never gets overwhelming, but it is there. The bookkeeping can be a little more contentious in co-op, and takes longer, because you have to argue over who gets what share of the – excuse me – booty. This is the one thing I will suggest as a flaw; if you, personally, hate sitting around comparing two similar-looking staves trying to figure out whether you want a 12 percent defense against Fire damage or +2 Dexterity instead then maybe Dragon’s Crown is not for you. Fortunately this loot-juggling is never really painful; identifying loot is straightforward and your bags are huge.
I mean the treasure bags. The stuff you store the loot in.
Dragon’s Crown is exactly the game we needed right now. Not merely because there is a grand nostalgia in this time period for 2d Beat ‘Em Ups, though there certainly is. Not merely because a well-done loot-drop game always provides a reliably good time to an invested fantasy lover. But Dragon’s Crown is more than those things; it is a cultural artifact. It is a nuclear salvo tossed into the conversation about games and sexism, whose fallout will scorch earth around it for years to come.
Developer: Vanillaware | Publisher: Atlus | Released: August 2013
Available on: PS3, Vita | Time Played: 13 hours
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