You don’t like breasts? You must like men: The disappointing conversation and art of Dragon’s Crown
It all started, as these things often do, with Kotaku. Jason Schreier criticized the art in the upcoming game Dragon’s Crown, and the artist who created that art didn’t seem to enjoy the negative thoughts on the large-breasted, small-headed women in his game. So he posted an image on Facebook of a series of burly men.
“It seems that Mr. Jason Schreier of Kotaku is pleased also with neither sorceress nor amazon. The art of the direction which he likes was prepared,” artist and Vanillaware founder George Kamitani wrote on his Facebook page. Get it? Schreier must be gay!
He later contacted Schreier with something like an apology. “While the picture of the dwarfs was meant to be a lighthearted joke, after it became bigger than I thought it would, I reflected on the rashness of it. I am sorry. I have no hard feelings about the article,” Kamitani wrote.
It’s not depressing that the sort of art that started all this still gets made, and I think there is a place for that kind of character design. The depressing bit is that we can’t seem to have an intelligent discussion about it.
The tradition of big-busted female characters in fantasy stretches back decades, and this isn’t a surprise in an art form that’s so heavily consumed by men. The covers of the pulp novels showed that men were supposed to be covered in muscles, able to swing huge swords with little difficulty, festooned with beautiful women and their heaving, barely-covered breasts. These are effective, primal images.
This tradition is its own problem, simply because it’s been done. It’s old, creaky, and a relic from another time. There is nothing wrong with taking a swim in these waters, but it’s also worth pointing out how obvious, boring, and overdone they’ve become since the '70s.
We have yet to grow out of them, and the art style of most games can seem like an anachronism. It completely rejects the idea of women as characters in these fictions, and instead casts them as eye candy. The only reason they would dress like this is to sexually arouse men, there is no practical reason for these clothes. The bodies of these characters are distorted, twisted, and reshaped to call attention to breasts and butts in ways that look painful.
It’s not a problem that these games or this style of art exist, and I certainly don’t mind games that give me muscled-up men and barely-clothed women to look at. I enjoy grindhouse movies and pulp science fiction. I never saw anything wrong with the Hitman trailer with the sexy nuns. I actually thought it was pretty damn great.
What’s worth criticizing is how few people are doing anything else. When my daughter remarks on how stupid the clothing is in a game, it annoys me not because I worry about her becoming a strong woman - that shit’s going to happen regardless, at least if the first nine years are any indication - but because I’d love to play adventure games where I don’t feel weird inviting her to play. Let’s take a step back from the social justice aspect of this kind of artwork and deal with the fact 9 year-old girls find it stupid. I’d love for her to see games and want to be these women, not simply recoil at the fact they’re designed for my eyes more than her power fantasies.
Check out the image from the game's official site to the right: It's not just overly sexualized, it's incredibly strange. The head is tiny, the legs are monstrous, and the weight of the breasts would be crippling while walking around, much less in combat.
Penny Arcade’s Mike “Gabe” Krahulik and I sometimes have spirited discussions about this sort of thing, and I’m going to sound like a major kiss-ass here, but his illustrations of young women are, to me, amazing. I show them to my daughter and she wants to tell me stories about these characters.
Krahulik's design exists as more than something my male eyes are supposed to look at. Once that limitation is removed, you can begin to think of all sorts of adventures for these characters, with the bonus of not having to worry about how they keep their shirts on. There's no right or wrong way to draw things, but the lack of thought and the sense of coasting on old designs in female character design is holding the industry back.
You don't like my art? What are you, gay?
When confronted with criticism of just how obvious and bland the art from Dragon’s Crown seems, the artist lashed out and implied that if you don’t like looking at his character’s oversized breasts, you must be gay with the Facebook post described above.
Because being gay is a bad thing you don’t want to be, so shut up and stare at some titties.
This is the other aspect of the story that’s so troubling. Vanillaware creates beautiful games, filled with high-quality 2D art. Muramasa and Odin Sphere are both great games, and are worth playing. Gamasutra’s Christian Nutt is a big fan of the company, and it can be demoralizing to try to support a developer only to have them turn around and mock your sexual orientation in defense of lazy character design.
“It's not intended to hurt anyone's feelings, but that's the problem with it. If the person who makes the joke assumes that it doesn't hurt anybody, it's because he's assuming that nobody who might conceivably be hurt by it is paying attention,” Nutt wrote. “Either he thinks Dragon's Crown isn't for them, or he thinks they don't like video games, or that they don't even exist—who knows what?” The rest of his post is just as insightful.
The picture is of large, muscular, bearded guys. Gross, right? Who could be sexually attracted to that? Well, me, for starters. While the actual picture in question doesn't do it for me, that's broadly the type of guy I like. So now I feel stupid because George Kamitani thinks this is ridiculous.
So here's where I'm at when I see his comment. Normal morning, and then suddenly, I find out that the creator of a game I'm looking forward to thinks I'm invisible to him, then that I'm ridiculous to him, too. And my immediate reaction is to feel betrayed.
This is the second aspect of this story that’s troubling: The fact that it’s still okay to mock others for their sexual orientation, to laugh at what they find attractive and, even worse, to use those things as a way to attack others. It’s an indication that the artist making the joke finds anyone who thinks large, muscular men are attractive is beneath contempt, their existence only suitable to be used a crass insult against writers who dare criticize their work.
The whole sorry story is a depressing look at how adolescent this industry - and many of the people in it - continue to act. I would have loved to hear Kamitani talk about the work that inspired his designs, and why he finds women and men of a certain body type enjoyable to look at, or fun to draw. If he had simply engaged with the discussion and talked about his work, it would have been great. The whole thing would have ended as soon as it began.
Instead, he decided to double-down on homophobia, and only apologized when the story blew up. It's not just the work that needs to get better in the games industry, but how we deal with criticism. It only takes a few seconds to not alienate huge swaths of your audience, and it's certainly in your best interests to take that time.
A quick note on the image at the top of this story: Sophie and I discussed what we should use the header image at length, as we both despise the sort of story that criticizes sexually explicit content and then uses it in order to get hits. In this case the artwork itself is a large part of the story, so we decided to use that art to set the stage. In this case the woman in the image is so distorted it becomes almost satirical, and I think that's the reaction many people will have when the see the picture. You're welcome to share your thoughts in the comments.