Heroines of horror games: Lollipop Chainsaw vs. They Bleed Pixels

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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