Spelunky for XBLA was recently released, earning well deserved praise for its rougelike gameplay and possibly endless replayability. Mossmouth (game company of reknown indie dev Derek Yu) overall created a fun and positive game about adventure, treasure and bravery.
But one set of very poor design decisions heavily taints the experience for socially and culturally considerate players, who refuse to see things through the rose-coloured indie-glasses.
About (accidental?) glorification of abuse, disguised as heroism.
UPDATE: there is a follow up article with a few clarifications and some learnings from the debate. Go here.
Pitchforks and Torches
Hold it! Yes, you Spelunky fan! I’m not dragging a fun game down, calling Derek Yu a sexist for making it or you a sexist for liking it, nor do I demand boycotts or something. I’m just critically pointing to a specific set of design decisions and explore their connotations and effects. That’s it.
Yes, there are way bigger fish to fry ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ big corporations enforcing stereotypes to sell units. So why crack down on this indie game from this indie dev? For one, I’m an unhappy customer. The problematic content really spoils a lot of the fun for me.
But more importantly, from a cultural perspective, it is just sad to find an indie dev being so hardcore reactionary on gender issues or at least oblivious to the backward-thinking nature of his designs. And it is not okay for indies, as it is not okay for big-players. Spelunky is now on the home-console stage and its performance on gender issues needs to be evaluated like the AAA performances, since it now has similar effect.
At the core of my problem with Spelunky lies the rescue mechanic. On an abstract level the idea is, that you save someone from the underground mine (or cave or temple or whatever theme the level currently has) and get rewarded by receiving one health point. So far, so good.
Now, the way you get hearts ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ the metaphor for health points in the game ‚Äö√Ñ√¨ is by getting a kiss from whoever you just saved. A gesture of affection and gratitude for the hero. This is at least how it is verbally described in on-screen prompts. But what actually happens couldn’t be farther from the truth.
After physically abusing the helpless damsel (the name for the game object), he drags her deeper(!) into the underground structure. After he got his kiss, he abandones her incapable ass in a shaft with only these options: to return to the mine she just got “saved” from or going even deeper into the structure. This is not how you save somebody.
Here is a walkthrough of the problematic mechanics and images in order of appearance:
The damsel’s only active contribution is a kiss, while her appearance is of an attractive blonde in a red cocktail dress. Beyond her sexuality, there are no more aspects to the character. Maybe except her incompetence.
Oh, and you can buy a kiss in shops from time to time. So, prostitution, yeah?
The character is completely unable to do anything without the hero physically making her do it. On her own, she is either standing around yelling for help or walking around blindly until a wall stops her or she falls down. You can’t talk to her and she is unable to follow you. So the character needs to be picked up and carried. When you pick her up, she gets unconscious.
Once you picked her up, like any other item, you can use her as a projectile or shield if you like. You will get your kiss-reward by carrying her to the exit of the level, like you would with other items.
4. Justification of violence
These women need to be physically hurt for their own good. For their own good here meaning, for the player to get a kiss before he abandones them even further down the mines.
The AI is programmed in a way, that the character is walking back and forth without any perception of her environment. Walls will force her to switch direction, while she just blindly falls down any slope in front of her. This often can result in her death… so to keep her from walking into her doom, like a lemming, you need to knock her out with your whip.
5. Trivialization of violence (including murder)
She will never be angry with you. You can slap her or throw her around, in the end she will want to kiss you. But if you overdo the hitting or the using-as-projectile or if you plant a bomb too close to her… she dies. The only negative consequence here is, that she is now too dead to give you a kiss. But you still can pick up her corpse and use her as an object.
6. Glorification of sexual exploitation
Winning scenario: She is dependent on you, promises a sexual act as a reward, you physically abuse her, pretent like you are there for her, get the sexual reward and immediately abandone her.
I’m sorry to be such a killjoy here, but this is a horribly offensive presentation. With the original and default damsel-style of …uhm… “women”, this is like a complete shopping list of the grossest sexist sentiments. And it is presented as the desirable outcome for the player.
Just A Misfired Gag
Personally, I don’t see this sexist presentation as a result of sexist intentions. The graphical style does not allow for arousing images, so the sexual aspect is more symbolic than anything. Also the target audience for the game is not the typical AAA bro-verload (Sadly, I did NOT invent that word myself!).
Judging from the overall stylistic throwback to old pulp novels and serials (which also inspired the Indiana Jones movies) and to video game classics… it is just a reference to the classic “damsel in distress”.
But an hommage to sexist content is still sexist content itself. As long as you do not reference the sexist sentiments to break them or offset them…. you are just spreading sexist sentiments yourself. Looking at the poor state of female representation in video games and society in general, the decision to go all-out on the damsel in distress is a very poorly timed gag.
We are not past that sexist ideas yet, they are still mainstream. It is waaaaayyyy too early to attempt at scoring funny points with a throwback to those ideas.
But With The XBLA Version the Player Can Choose!
The PC version of Spelunky only featured the female damsels, while the new XBLA version let’s you pick from several styles (which is celebrated as a great new feature).
On an abstract level, I appreciate the choice for players, not only to pick their avatar’s gender but also the gender of the love-interest, therefore allowing for all sorts of heterosexual and homosexual pairings… and also allowing the player to completely desexualizing it via the cute pug option. This is very progressive and forward-thinking. Great concept.
But in a concrete manner, it makes everything even worse. Since saving is not an option, you get to choose not who to save, but who to exploit and abuse. Since we do not have as much problems in popculture and society with abuse of men for being men… the buff guy is not that much problematic as a damsel style. It still is kinda ugly to witness, but at least it does not endorse common real-life abuse.
Animal abuse on the other hand is quite real, so smacking a dog around and using the dog as shuriken, maybe accidentally killing him, really does not feel any better, then doing it with another human being. Remember that outrage about that video where an US soldier threw a puppy over a cliff? That’s the pugs gameplay of Spelunky in a nutshell. (BTW, I have 2 dogs in my family).
On top of that, it also exacerbates the sexist connotations of the female damsel, by telling the audience, that the standards for treatment of dogs (and a very questionable standard at that) is equal to the treatment of women. They are interchangable without any adjustments to interaction. You can’t verbally talk to dogs and dogs are not fully fledged persons… sometimes they even need to be kept on a leash or otherwise physically dominated… why does this apply to women (and men for that matter) as well?
Why not really save damsels, instead of just dragging them deeper into the abyss and abandoning them? Why not have a rope coming from the ceiling, where damsels can climb up into their freedom? Why health upgrades through sex-acts? Why can’t we save other adventurers/tourists/indigenous people and they share food or medi-packs with us?
Why do we need to knock the damsels out? can we just ask them to stop running around like blind idiots? (Oddworld did that quite well.) Why is there no negative feedback for killing damsels? Why can we kill them at all? It would be enough to have them attack us like the shopkeepers do or just have them run away from us.
Why do all the design decisions regarding damsels focus straight on playing on hardcore misogynistic ideas? And why did anybody think, it would be less sexist, if we just equate women with dogs?
There are a thousand things you could have done to not pander to sexist stereotypes, sanctioned abuse and power fantasies. How about a patch? Come on!