julio 31, 2012 at 8:50 pm (Reviews, Sacred Cows, Sacrificial Goats, Videogames & Vidcons) (Albus, Barlowe, Big Brother Instinct, Castlevania, Diplo, IGA, Just because you didn't mean it doesn't mean it's not hurtful, Koji Igarashi, Leigh Alexander, Order of Ecclesia, selectbutton.net, Sexism in Videogames, Shanoa)
I’ve never had high expectations for the stories in Castlevania games. The series have never really been at home with anything more elaborate than instruction booklet blurbs, and it seemed to me that the best one could ever hope for, given the series’ gameplay mechanics was to get one that at least managed to be low-key and inoffensive. So when I eventually went and got my used copy of Order of Ecclesia—with most of its secrets (including—YES!!– Hard Mode) unlocked—I wasn’t expecting a lot. I certainly wasn´t expecting to be disgusted.
The facts are these: Shanoa and Albus are both members of Ecclesia, an anti-Dracula group founded in the wake of the Belmonts’ disappearance. What distinguishes Ecclesia from the various other similar groups is their possession of Dominus, a power which, it is claimed, will finally defeat Dracula permanently.
The game begins with a conversation between Shanoa and Albus, where Shanoa announces that Barlowe, Ecclesia’s founder, has chosen her to bear Dominus. Albus is visibly shocked and angered by this, since apparently Barlowe had previously and privately promised Albus that it was he who would be the bearer, despite apparently being physiologically unable to do so. The conversation ends without resolution as Shanoa is called away, upon which point Albus grows silent, despite hints that he had something else to say (you are given control of Shanoa at this point, and initiating a conversation with your co-worker gives you no dialogue).
Soon after, as Shanoa is about to be imbued with Dominus, Albus interrupts the ritual, taking Dominus for himself and making his escape. Shanoa, for her part, loses her memory and emotions—due to Albus’ interference, Barlowe claims.
Faced with this setback, Barlowe tasks Shanoa with finding Albus and retrieving Dominus. Long story short, it turns out that Shanoa had not been told the whole story, and that:
a) Dominus’ power is Dracula’s own.
b) It was accepting Dominus, not anything Albus did, that caused Shanoa to lose her memory and emotions.
c) Using Dominus would kill the bearer.
d) The ritual that would supposedly use Dominus to kill Dracula will instead revive him; this is Barlowe’s aim, because he’s secretly but obviously Eeeeevil.
When he stole Dominus, Albus knew a) and b), and suspected c). His aims, it turns out, were to use Dominus himself in order to prevent Shanoa having to do so and therefore preventing her death—something he says is his duty, as Shanoa’s adoptive Big Brother.
Now, the trope of the big brother who feels an instinctive need to protect his younger (often female) siblings had a long and storied past. Depending on how it’s used, the trope can be sweet and innocuous; the desire to protect those who cannot protect themselves is often considered a noble one, and if it’s accompanied by a respect for the agency of the person being protected, it can indeed be so. However, it can also turn problematic, especially when the Big Brother starts prioritizing his sister’s safety over her right to make her own decisions.
Unfortunately, Ecclesia’s case falls squarely in the condescending and patriarchal side of things. We’re told that Albus loves Shanoa, but this is demonstrably false. He loves the idea of Shanoa, and the idea that he’s a good big brother to her, but he doesn’t love Shanoa. If he did, he wouldn’t have conspired to take away her agency, after deciding that she, contrary to all evidence, wasn’t capable of making her own decisions. He wouldn’t have kept her in the dark about things which concerned and affected her, and would have helped her make informed decisions. If he had loved her, and she had chosen that he would sacrifice herself for the cause no matter what, he would have left her do as she wished, despite his feelings on the matter.
It never occurs to Albus to trust Shanoa with the information he’s learned, despite the fact that it is by far the easiest thing to do and the one that allows Shanoa greater agency over her decision. In doing so, he fails to prevent her from losing her memory and emotions, and, what’s more, forces her to risk her life in her subsequent search for him. In the end, he tries to use Dominus and fails, opening himself up to getting possessed by Dracula. After Shanoa stops him, she learns the truth, and before he dies, Albus manages to extract a promise that she would not use Dominus (gee, that was hard. Guess how much easier it would have been if she didn’t have reason to mistrust him).
Stuff happens, Dracula gets resurrected anyway, and Shanoa sets off to stop him, using Dominus in the process. However, thanks to random plot luck, it turns out that the fact that Albus fiddled and died using Dominus meant that Shanoa doesn’t need to (which, to be fair, was hinted at by the fact that Shanoa losing her memories was enough so that Albus didn’t need to when he accepted Dominus), meaning that he gets the pleasure of dying a hero to be mourned by Shanoa, and I get the displeasure of wanting to throw my brother’s DS against a wall. No Albus, you aren’t a hero, you’re an asshole who deserves to have his ghostly balls kicked for all eternity.
Okay, so videogames aren’t strangers to stupid, occasionally offensive stories (hey, Metroid: Other M). Part of what bothers me about this is that the Castlevania franchise—particularly under then producer Koji “IGA” Igarashi (*1)–had a history of sexism-related fail, and this seemed like a step away from that. Shanoa is the first woman to be the sole protagonist in a Castlevania game since Sonia Belmont, whose entry into the series, Castlevania Legends (GB, 1997) was decanonized and who was for some time the source of some animosity from IGA. Aside from her, prominent female characters had mostly been villains, damsels in distress and supporting characters; those few that managed to actually be playable were limited to the same mage template and were always secondary to the main male hero. After all that, Ecclesia, I initially felt, was a good effort. While a mage, she was so in a way that allowed her to get up close and physical and use the classic Castlevania weapons (*2). While unrealistically costumed, it is done in a way that reads as elegant instead of exploitative and was perfectly in keeping with past Castlevania costumes, as was her personality, i.e.: there wasn’t much of one beyond determined and stoic (*3). Plus, it helps that Shanoa isn’t the only woman in a world that is otherwise filled populated exclusively by men: not only does Ecclesia boast the usual catwomen, cute witches and ghosts among its rogues gallery (although not as many as the previous entry in the series Portrait of Ruin, which had enough of them to inspire Leigh Alexander to write about it), Wygol Village, which features prominently in the story, features in its five female villagers (versus eight men—not great, but not bad, either) surprising variety in both looks and personalities. So the game in general features, I felt, a nice evolutionary step for the series. And then the story happens and it all goes to hell.
The other thing that bothers me is that, stupid stupid story aside, Ecclesia is a great game. While it may not be as aesthetically pleasing as Symphony of the Night (or so people who’ve actually played the older game say), it tightens the established Metrovania gameplay into something that for once actually takes into account the way the character actually moves and positions enemies and obstacles accordingly. In its harder mode, the constant barrage of enemies and Shanoa’s paltry defense makes surviving feel like the most badass of achievements. The stage design, while not perfect, is far more varied and includes more interesting stuff to do, rather than just to look at. It’s just really fun.
Stories in videogames, I’ve found, are pretty easy to ignore, at least whenever they are not the actual point of the game; you can skip every cutscene in Metal Gear Solid 3 (although you shouldn’t, the first time around) and still have a more-than-solid gameplay experience. It’s been a rare experience for me to have a game where a bad story actually makes the non-story bits less enjoyable. And yet it’s hard to play Ecclesia and feel perfectly gleeful playing as Albus and spamming his super-fun “You can’t hit me. You can’t hit me.” teleport move when I know he’s a misogynistic twit and that the creators have no problem with that. It’s impossible to root for the otherwise awesome Shanoa when she’s canonically okay with what her so-called Big Brother does to her. While Ecclesia is still a game I enjoy a lot (ohmycrap, Level 1 Albus vs. Boss Albus is so spice) I’ll never really be able to love it, and that makes me sad.
(*1) Who could really use a PR person to prevent him from making comments like this:
EGM: Would you make a Castlevania with a female main character?
IGA: Hm, there are difficult problems with that. As a gamer, I think that you become one with the character, and since Castlevania has a lot of male players, it’s natural to have male characters. In Rondo of Blood, Maria was a silly, cute aside, but you still had Richter to make it serious. Plus, Mr. Hagihara (the director) had a playful sense of humor. He worked on Symphony as well, and he made the telescope part where, if you pan over to the left you can see a little mouse, and also where Alucard can sit down on the chair and prop his feet up.
EGM: After Tomb Raider, don’t you think a female character is more acceptable?
IGA: It’s possible I guess. Although, I purposefully left the Sonia Belmont character (from Castlevania: Legends for GBC) out of the official Castlevania chronology. (laughs) Usually, the vampire storyline motifs, females tend to be sacrificed. It’s easier to come up with weak, feminine characters. I’ll think about it more in the future, though. It’s tough to fit a female hero into the early history of Castlevania, but as you move into the modern day, females can then more easily become a hero.
Normally I’d source this, but there doesn’t appear to be a reference to this interview that isn’t from a second hand source. In any case, here’s one of those.
(*2) Except for the whip. 😦
(*3) Although it’s necessary to note that it explicitly comes about because she’s been stripped of her memory and emotions (*4). Just how close this is to what she would have been in an unaltered state isn’t really elaborated on.
(*4) This is a bit where I feel that what the writers intended and what they actually showed are not quite the same thing. While mind-wiped Shanoa isn’t overly expressive, she is, I feel, far from emotionless. Anybody who wants to verify for themselves can take a gander at the game script here.
The original version of this essay included a paragraph, which, I’ve begun to think, was problematic in its generalization of Japanese people. My apologies to anyone whom I might have offended or hurt.