As I watched advertisements for Lollipop
Chainsaw and, eventually, as I reviewed the game, I couldn't help but imagine a
few improvements. The game's juxtaposition of classic tropes of femininity
(sparkles and flouncy ruffled skirts) with hardcore horror (zombies and
chainsaw-induced blood spatter) caught my attention, but the game fell short in
a few areas.
Above all, Lollipop Chainsaw couldn't seem to
decide whether it was for or against the sexual exploitation of its high
school-aged heroine Juliet Starling. The game purports to be a comedy, but
the dialogue never quite settles on who is the butt of its joke ... and
unfortunately, Juliet's own butt seemed to be the joke all too often.
Should gamers be laughing at Juliet? Or at the genre of games to which she unfortunately
belongs (e.g. Bikini Zombie Slayers, Skullgirls, etc.)? Lollipop Chainsaw couldn't decide: the game tries to make Juliet seem strong and empowered while also sexualizing, objectifying, victimizing, and
humiliating her. The
result? Mass confusion and disagreement about the game's meaning.
At least part of the comedy in Lollipop
Chainsaw is that femininity and horror don't "fit" together.
Never mind that women buy more horror movie tickets than men do; horror as a genre is
still seen as masculine, especially within the sphere of video game culture. If
it's bloody, it's for boys. That's why it's considered hilarious to see a pink
chainsaw with a heart on it.
Although I don't find this juxtaposition funny -- after all, I'm a woman who enjoys both violent video games and
ruffly skirts -- I didn't mind Lollipop Chainsaw's jokes. I did take issue with the game's sexual exploitation of
its heroine, because those scenes undermined the rest of the game, which took a chance by shaking up audiences' expectations for what feminine
cheerleaders "should" and "shouldn't" be able to
accomplish. I wondered what Lollipop Chainsaw would look like without the
sexual exploitation, and I envisioned a sort of self-aware story reminiscent of
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with further commentary on video game
horror tropes specifically.
As soon as I saw Spooky Squid's demo for their
indie platformer They Bleed Pixels at PAX East 2012, I thought of my imporovements for Lollipop
Chainsaw (which had its own over-the-top booth not so far away). They
Bleed Pixels has no dialogue and a simple story,
but it still shares similar themes with Lollipop Chainsaw. TBP's heroine,
a young schoolgirl growing up in the oppressive Victorian era, has a
flouncy dress and a bow in her hair. Like Juliet, she has been
blessed -- cursed! -- with unusual super-powers. Her school has a library full
of mysterious, glowing books that turn their readers into powerful monsters.
TBP's heroine does manage to reverse her transformation at the end of the game,
but the library of magical books remains, to be found and further misused by
enterprising enchanters or hapless victims.
Unlike Lollipop Chainsaw, They Bleed Pixels is
not funny. It's also fiendishly difficult. The game's seemingly basic controls will
require intense practice of timing and precision to master, whereas Lollipop
Chainsaw babies you, pushing you into hack-and-slash animation sequences, and
guiding you through gated, predetermined pathways and obstacle courses.
The one male character of They Bleed Pixels, the
headmaster at the school for young ladies, has indoctrinated all of the girls of his school with these magical books, which will systematically turn them into
unrecognizable monsters. As your heroine loses control over her own body's
transformation, so too will you, the player, feel helpless in the face of the
game's impossible challenges. But should you succeed and defeat all of the
game's levels, our heroine will succeed as well and defeat the man who has imprisoned
her with the enchanted book.
Over the course of the game, TBP's heroine wakes
up night after night with blood on her hands. Her hands begin to turn into
claws, and her skin darkens to purple. Sometimes, supernatural coming-of-age
stories like this serve as a metaphor for puberty, but in this case, the
heroine turns back all the signs of transformation upon defeating her
headmaster. Her monstrous transformation, brought on by a teacher and by books, is an unnatural one that she gains the ability to
reject. In other words, she learns that she has the power to reject her
headmaster's attempt to control and define her body. This is no metaphor for
puberty, but more likely, for Victorian-era patriarchy.
The juxtaposition of the heroine's bloody claws
with her feminine dress (complete with Princess Peach-esque puffed sleeves and a hair bow), as well as the difficult feats required
by the game and the sheer volume of blood spilled, never invites the player to
laugh. Yes, our schoolgirl heroine is fighting in a dress -- so what? Nothing
is made of this, least of all up-skirt shots. Yes, she is diminutive and young
-- again, so what? She has the power to become the person who she wants to be,
and damn all else.
Perhaps the reason why They Bleed Pixels feels
cohesive and structured in terms of aesthetics and message is because Spooky
Squid Games is made up of only two people, so keeping the game consistent
wasn't as difficult as it might have been with a big development team. James
Gunn's intentions for Juliet in Lollipop Chainsaw -- that she be
"sexy" but not "sexist" -- resulted in a somewhat contradictory game that wanted us to take its heroine seriously as a powerful woman, but also wanted us to relate to the men sexually harrassing her.
Although sexual exploitation is not an explicit theme in They Bleed Pixels, as it is in Lollipop Chainsaw when Juliet's sensei
molests her or when her enemies call her a "slut", the games both contain heroines who want to reclaim ownership of their lives, choices, and bodies. They Bleed Pixels ends up being the happier game, despite that it isn't supposed to be the comedy of the pair:
although TBP's school library still contains corrupt books, the game's heroine now
knows how to fight off their influence and has reclaimed her humanity, her
agency, and her body. Juliet's game ends with her loving boyfriend's head on the
body of her disgusting sensei. Sorry, Spooky Squid -- Lollipop Chainsaw's
ending is the one that will give me nightmares.
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