Friday, January 25, 2013

What happened to Ninja Theory's portrayal of women?

About two-thirds of the way through DmC, I found myself troubled by the game's girls - and looking back at the developer's history, that represents a surprising about-face.  Above you'll see Kai (foreground) and Nariko from 2007's Heavenly Sword.  Both are injected with huge amounts of personality by Lydia Baksh and Anna Torv, respectively, and both feel like relateable, rounded character.

Kai is a mentally-damaged misfit, due to some unexplained past trauma, who carries around the mother of all crossbows on her back and enjoys playing Twing-Twang with enemy forces.  Nariko was shunned by her community all her life - as her cursed gender was seen as a harbinger of the apocalypse - who goes on to single-handedly oppose the warlord who threatens to rule the world.

Strong women.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (2010) featured Trip, who was somewhat more stereotypical than her predecessors.  Trip is thoughtful, intelligent and tech-savvy, but she can't throw a punch to save her life.  The fact that she spends a great deal of the game clambering on the back of the hulking, savage Monkey for protection from the game's beasties does lend her an air of the damsel in distress...

...but the truth of Trip's matter is that she is the leader, the decider, the moral authority of Enslaved.  It is she who chooses to enlist Monkey's assistance via the threat of lethal force, it is she who calls the shots throughout the game, and she who carries the entire story.

A strong woman.

Mundus (left) and Lillith in DmC (2013).

In DmC: Devil May Cry, a woman/female demon's sexuality - or otherwise, ability to seduce - tends to be a defining feature.  The demon mummy Lillith is Big Boss Mundus's right-hand harpy, who serves more as a narrative feature than a character.  She lives only to please her man, get violently fucked by him, and bear his evil child.

One should note, when that child - and so, her connection to power - are risked, she folds in to a pile of wimpering sobs.

The Succubus

The Succubus is another of Mundus's pets - in this case, a gigantic bug-thing that secretes a foul ooze to be distributed to the masses via popular soft drink (heheh, Futurama).  I won't belabor the point of a lady whose greatest strength lies in corrupting and befogging the minds of men - but that's fine!

After all, demons are demons and demons are bad folk.  They suck!  It's fine for evil to be evil - 'cause we've got Kat.

Kat sports a low-cut top and short shorts because science, I guess?

Kat is our Basil Exposition.  She's the guiding voice in your earpiece, and Dante's connection to humanity - but in classic Ninja Theory style, it's important that we understand her as a person.  With a hood over her eyes and a weird star where her third eye should be, Kat's capable, knowledgeable assistance sees our hero through his trials - laying a bread-crumb trail of mystery as she occasionally mentions how she would go to Limbo to escape her "nightmares," where she was eventually rescued by Virgil.

Limbo - your relaxation destination.

Dante asks her about it a couple times, but she dodges the question until they're driving along on their way to one demon-extermination gig or another, and she finally pulls back her hood to reveal a mop of brown hair.  This is Kat allowing Dante to see all of her, as it were, and she explains that her inciting incident - the trauma that cracked her psyche and drove her to find solace in Limbo - was sexual abuse at the claws of the demon who ran her foster home.

And with that, the penny drops and every lady in DmC: Devil May Cry is now, in one way, shape or form defined by their sexuality.  Either as a tool to corrupt (Succubus), as a path to power (Lillith), or as The Victim.

Taking any of these characters as individuals, I have no problem.  I dig the concept of The Succubus, Lillith's motivations are crystal-clear and I've honestly met many women very much like Kat - and likely, so have you.  Individually, they work just fine.

Together they form a theme that is not present in the rest of DmC's narrative - the sexuality of a woman both as a threat to be destroyed and a weakness to be conquered - and applies only to its three ladies.

If exploration of sex and sexuality were central to DmC's themes, I'd have less of a problem with it.  If The Succubus, Lillith and Kat were only part of a larger conversation the game was having - a conversation with balance to counter-weight the themes detailed above - I'd have less of a problem with it.  But it's not.

DmC: Devil May Cry is Dante's origin story, and when Kat says "I know exactly who you are - you are Dante," we love her.  When Dante stands up for Kat, detailing her bravery and heroics, we agree with him and cherish her.  Taken as an individual, she's another strong Ninja Theory character in another strongly-written Ninja Theory game.

As part of DmC's trinity of ladies, Kat is part of a somewhat disturbing conversation - unseen, elsewhere in Ninja Theory's work - that condemns the female gender as inherently weak, or a tool of evil.

What the F, Ninja Theory?


  1. great read man, it got me thinking... lady's arc in dmc3 was pretty damn good as a story and (if she was wearing pants)was completely un-sexualized.

    but after finishing this thing up i wondered about a couple things, was ninja theory chafing under capcom's directions or at the thought of being shackled to an established franchise?

    because it felt as if there was a lot of wasted effort behind the scenes, i'm not sure why, its just a really strong feeling.

  2. I feel a lot of the storytelling in DmC suffers in comparison to NT's other work due to the absence of Serkis (who directed the cutscenes for Heavenly Sword & Enslaved). I don't know why they keep having Alex Garland (The Beach) write their stuff, 'cause it feels comparatively two-dimensional.

    And I, too, loved Lady.