Context is important in virtually all aspects of life. We can’t understand why we should sympathize with a character in a film, without understanding the context of the situation. You can’t review a piece of art (whether it be a book, painting or piece of music) without understanding the context and purpose behind why it was created. It’s hard to even understand a text message from a friend without understanding the context in which they sent the message.
So it’s obvious that context would be just as important in regard to video games. Bayonetta is a prime and recent example of the importance of context within this medium. Yes the game launched in 2009 originally, but it was remastered and released for free in 2018, for anyone who purchased the Bayonetta 2 remaster on Switch. The game is a little rough around the edges, but the fast paced hack n’ slash gameplay Platinum has mastered, and sheer scale and absurdity of combat scenarios, is still enjoyable for the most part. However did you know that Bayonetta is a witch who uses her demonic hair to fight angels? Well she uses her hair to cover up her body too. It kind of looks like the type of latex body suit a dominatrix might wear. Did you also know that during combat she transforms her hair to murder enemies, but in doing so the hair is removed from her body, leaving her virtually naked mid fight?
That’s right. How grotesque is that??? The whole design of the character is sexualized! She has enormous breasts and hips, but her waist is tiny. She literally spanks enemies when she has built up enough combos. So yes, without the right context this may seem vulgar. By watching a gameplay trailer or looking at the cover art, you may find yourself offended at the over sexualization of women, at the hands of men.
If you actually take the time to play the game, you’ll find you couldn’t be further from the truth. Bayonetta (the titular female lead) isn’t a damsel in distress, only prominent in the story due to her appearance and her objectification. It’s much to the contrary. The character embraces her own sexuality, it empowers her. She’s a feminist, not a sex object. Her physical and magical abilities are substantial. From playing several hours of the game, you begin to see how she takes pleasure in flaunting her sexuality, because she and the male characters she deals with are fully aware that her strength surpasses theirs. So she never takes combat all that seriously, allowing her to enjoy the situation.
That’s the problem with the games industry. Consumers, parents and politicians are ready to demonize something, without actually experiencing it in the context it is designed for. Games like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus are damned by those looking to point the finger at video games instead of gun issues. They preach its manipulative presence in the households of wholesome families, convincing children that gore and violence is cool.
Yet if you actually play The New Colossus you’ll find it tells a truly moving and enlightening story about domestic abuse, racism and American society. I recently wrote a piece about how it shows more respect for World War 2 than the latest Call of Duty does. I also debated the quality of this game in great detail on the Fist Fight podcast. A similar argument can be said for the Far Cry series. American consumers never had an issue with Far Cry 3, where an American tourist is killing Pacific Islanders. They didn’t have a problem with Far Cry 4 either, where you slaughter the people of the Himalayans. However there was an uproar when players found out the enemies of Far Cry 5 were Americans, more precisely a savage religious cult from the south. Petitions were put together to have the game banned, because some Americans felt targeted and demonized. Context is important. When you have no relationship with the people you’re killing, it’s just an open world FPS. However when your country or people you relate to are villainized, you start paying attention to and complaining about the very nature of the game.
The greater context behind narrative, technical and design decisions in games is often lost. Bayonetta is a high paced action game with a protagonist proud of her sexuality, but the public will still see it as the objectification of women. Far Cry is an open world first person shooter series with powerful political and moral stances, but whenever it deals with an issue close to home, it will be demonized. Wolfenstein II is a modern classic, with an intense story that urges us to criticize our own society, yet it will be pointed at once more when there is another school shooting. It’s a battle we can’t win. Yet we shouldn’t let it faze us. We should continue telling stories about sexuality, religion and violence. Let the uninformed and ignorant judge. The players looking for context, looking for a deeper understanding, will continue to show their support where it is deserved.