This old man has a complaint: why does everything have to be cool?
Today’s game is Bayonetta. Do I need to explain Bayonetta at all? Since its release six years ago (and even before), Bayonetta has been the subject of a lot of videogame news coverage. Good news: this isn’t a Time Killers or Hatred situation, Bayonetta is, from an objective perspective, a good game. It’s a Platinum action/beat ‘em up game, which means good things for anyone that enjoys a lot of action. Need to unlock a door? A key is boring, how about throwing the doors wide by dodging a bolt a lightning. It worked for the titular Bayonetta, and it worked for some truck robots a few years later. And it’s not just about squeezing excitement out of a game’s every pore, Platinum games are all about careful, deliberate challenges that start small and scale to extreme levels. Whether you’re summoning a hair monster or revengencing yourself upon your enemies, Platinum generally knows how to show the player a good time.
The bad news, though, is that Bayonetta got a lot of attention for its… let’s say questionable aesthetic. According to the head honcho of Bayonetta’s development, everyone’s favorite pop sucker was designed every step of the way with “sexiness” in mind. Her gun-heels, magic hair, and general personality type were all designed to titillate. Personally, I find this idea fairly ridiculous, as I believe it was Sharkespeare that said “I know sexiness only when it swims up and bites me on the ass.” In other words, sexiness is interpreted by the audience, and Bayonetta fits a very narrow interpretation of seduction. Personally, I didn’t even think about it until the game has these two standing next to each other…
… And I realized that maybe Bayonetta isn’t even completely shaped like a human. We’re not quite in the realm of Liefieldian anatomy yet, but we’re still hovering somewhere around “what is wrong with that woman?” Sorry, I know it’s a personal hang-up, but I demand my objects of desire actually look like humans. So, yes, pose and preen all you want, witch, I’m still seeing a woman about as desirable as a Gardevoir.
But that’s the thing about this whole debate: Bayonetta is a divisive character because she’s so stylistically unique. Whether you think she is a “sexy” character, an empowering character, or an object to be ogled, she was basically designed to be everything, so your reading is equally valid. Yes, she’s an objectified heroine, but she also kicks a metric ton of ass through brains and brawn, so she’s a fine role-model. … I mean, if you’re into that kind of thing. It’s all up to your interpretation, and if someone disagrees with that, fine, that’s how opinions work.
But there is one thing Bayonetta absolutely is. She may or may not be sexy. She may or may not be objectified. She may or may not even be remotely realistic. All of that is up for debate. But there is one thing I can say with absolute certainty.
Bayonetta is cool.
And, honestly? I’m tired of cool. Videogames shouldn’t overwhelmingly feature cool characters.
Now, to be clear, this isn’t some old nerd ranting about the days when he used to get transformed into an eggplant and like it, dammit; no, this is about how videogames work. Have you played Bayonetta? When you first started, were you any good at it? Did you score an S rank on every battle, or were you limping along with a sliver of health? Bayonetta’s gameplay is all about dodging, so how good were you at dodging angel monsters and giants (and giant monsters) you had never seen before? Yes, you might be an S-class angel slayer now, but I’m going to guess you weren’t when you first picked up the controller. You got better at Bayonetta, and, technically, Bayonetta herself got better with you.
Except… from level one (even before that if we’re including cutscenes and prologues) Bayonetta was already cool. She was already harvesting the hosts of Heaven and dropping pithy one-liners with or without your help. If anything, you playing as Bayonetta made her less cool. Way to go, poindexter.
I maintain that Mega Man X is the ur-videogame, because the titular X grows exactly in pace with the player. X gains abilities as “you” find upgrades (and learn to explore the stages), defeat bosses (and learn their patterns/weaknesses), and maybe even acquire a hadouken (and learn to read Nintendo Power). This is perfectly mirrored in the plot, as old, “outdated” X must be rescued by cool Zero during the opening stages (when you’re absolutely more likely to be running low on health while getting acquainted with the controls anyway), but is able to avenge and triumph where Zero fails much later during the final siege. Mega Man X doesn’t start cool, but he gets there, and eventually surpasses the game’s own definition of cool (who, in retrospect, I guess is kind of a zero).
But modern (predominantly Western) videogame character design wants to skip to the end from the first moment. Bayonetta is never not cool. Nathan Drake is never not cool. Kratos, God of War, is never not cool. And, in cases like Kratos, sometimes the “cool” character is rewarded time and time again for simply being an asshole. Kratos ushers in the apocalypse on more than one occasion, and the narrative seems to be unironically shouting, “Are you not entertained!?” Kratos killed everyone in Ancient Greece (literally), and because of his unimpeachable coolness, you’re supposed to celebrate his victory.
This, really, is my issue with the character that must always be cool. It creates the dual problems of “there’s nowhere to go but up” (which is antithetical to how videogame skills work) and “they’re cool, so they must be right”. Bayonetta, let’s face it, is kind of a jerk to everyone in her immediate area. Her abilities on the battlefield are empowering and unrivaled, but she also treats nearly every other character in the cast like a clown. But it’s okay! Because she’s cool! It’s all in good fun, what’s to worry about? Well, how about the fact that she’s yet another hero in yet another game that acts like everyone that isn’t the protagonist is disposable? In a medium that has an unfortunate stereotype about attracting a number of antisocial loners, maybe we shouldn’t be elevating the concept of “I’m the hero, I’m the only person in the world.”
But, hey, ya know, it’s cool. Cool heroes and heroines sell videogames, nobody wants to play as some tubby guy in overalls or some kind of anonymous goat herder. We want to be the coolest right now, and damn character or skill development. Who cares about empathy for the less privileged when you’ve got snarky comebacks?
Bayonetta is yet another too cool heroine fighting against a world of squares. She’s the only thing in her world that matters, and I feel like that should matter more.
FGC #145 Bayonetta
- System: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and, in a late entry, the WiiU.
- Number of players: There can be only one “coolest”.
- So your ideal videogame heroine is…: Tina Belcher. Obviously.
- Hail to the Sega: Space Harrier and Hang-On, classic Sega arcade games, both get dedicated levels. I barely noticed the Hang-On stage, but, despite my general shooter prowess, I got hung-up on the Space Harrier stage for what seemed like ages. I want to say it was because its checkpoint distribution may not have been all that great, but it also might be because I have never been good at Space Harrier.
- Admit it, you’re not very good at this game: I’m not! I’ve completed Bayonetta, but I simply don’t have the reflexes to finish everything with S rank or gain enough coin to buy out that shop. It’s really what got me thinking about this, because Bayonetta is always like, “Oh, I am simply the best,” while I’m looking at a health gauge hovering around zero and a rank that nets me a statue of a fat guy falling down.
- Quick Times: Oh, and all quick time events should be thrown into a fire. All of them.
- Favorite Angel: It comes early, but Beloved gets my vote. Nothing like a giant baby-faced golem towing around an axe the size of a small house.
- Did you know? I’m still disappointed that the announcer for Super Smash Bros. 4 doesn’t faux-whisper, “Bayonetta” whenever the character is
- Would I play again? I keep meaning to play the WiiU version… but Bayonetta 2 is right there (even in the same case!), and I feel like that game is an improvement in every way. Well, it’s still overly cool…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… X-Kaliber 2097 for the SNES! This… this isn’t an X-Men game, is it? Just very 90’s? Alright. Well, please look forward to it!
Yeah, I love the game but I definitely felt a level of dissonance between Cutscene Bayonetta and Player Controlled Bayonetta. The former’s effortlessly killing dozens of Skeksis-ass looking angels to a pop arrangement of Fly Me To The Moon and shooting a two-headed dragon in its upside-down stone man face/torso; the latter’s getting smacked about ‘cuz she screwed up a dodge or gets blown up by said dragon ‘cuz a “react right this second or die” QTE popped out of the ether.
But anyway, one detail I really love about Bayonetta the game is how the angels are basically a twisted shout out to Viewtiful Joe, one of Kamiya’s old Capcom series. Both take battle damage, especially when time’s slowed down (hell, Witch Time’s basically the Slow power with a different trigger), but where Joe’s enemies would just reveal their wooden robot frames, Bayonetta’s foes are all bloody and sinewy and alien-looking under their ill-fitting human statue skins.
Also the After Burner Kick’s totally just the Red Hot Kick in full 3D.