Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Let's make no mistake: Bayonetta is an embarrassment waiting to happen. To play this game in front of any human being over the age of 12-- indeed, just to play it in front of yourself-- is to develop a sense that something has gone horribly wrong with your recreation. This choice of leisure bespeaks some profound defect in your makeup. That niggling thought that shadows much of our play-- that in the time it takes you to complete this video entertainment and complete it again on hard, you could have taken a serious chunk out of William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair, an act of actual aesthetic and moral worth-- is amplified to the point of palpable shame by Bayonetta's relentless barrage of steaming tawdry nonsense.

Some commentators have seen fit to praise this game's aesthetics, and it is worthwhile to note what one would be praising here. Bayonetta does not present a world so much as a rich slurry of eroto-religious iconography: butterflies demons motorbikes poledancing archangels cans etc. It has a strictly agglomerative notion of cool. I had the pleasure of reading Hiroki Azuma's Otaku: Japan's Database Animals last semester, and its thesis that Otaku consumers view their entertainments as loose aggregations of chara-moe elements goes a long way towards explaining (if not excusing) Bayonetta's style.

This is especially palpable when we turn to the titular heroine: the game's creators have been refreshingly frank about the creative process, and if I understand them right they concede that she is a loving concatenation of fetishes. (My favorite revelation: when designing the stone-horse torture device, “I didn’t know how she would really get tied up, so I had to check some of “those” sites during work hours to get the production down just right.”) If this game had been made in 1999, she probably would have had cat ears.

As a fourth-wave feminist, I have to admit that I find all the leather and crotch-zooming deeply inoffensive. Leigh Alexander has called Bayonetta “empowering”, and though I don't know if I would go that far, I have no moral qualms about implausibly sexy broads wrecking shop. Which is to say: I don't see any necessary contradiction between humid eroticism and power. Bayonetta is nothing if not capable.

A further point: the real perniciousness of sexualized images of women, to me, resides in the way that they warp our images of womanhood. The evil begins when a girl sees that image and says, that is what I am supposed to look like. I cannot imagine how anyone, even someone in the grasp of the body selfhatred industrial complex, could take these representations seriously. The faux verisimilitude of your standard issue of Cosmopolitan is far more harmful per capita than this ludicrous game.

With these important ethical matters dispatched, I am warranted to advise you, loyal reader, that Bayonetta is an awesome video game. Bayonetta, though it is deeply uncool as an aesthetic object, has some great moments. American developers lack courage when it comes to camp, and Bayonetta is refreshing in its insane commitment to its chosen array of signifiers. (Susan Sontag nails it as usual: “the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.”) Finally, here is a game that cries out for an all-male stage adaptation. Amirite?

Furthermore, Bayonetta is the best game of its kind to come out in many years. (that is to say, the best since the Xbox Ninja Gaiden) The kicking and the punching, they are uncommonly fluid and satisfying. The “witch time” mechanic, which is the lynchpin of its combat, is brilliant in that it forces the player to focus on understanding and anticipating enemy behavior instead of mashing away; the loadtime combo training is fantastic addition as well. While the design is hampered at points by a collection of flaws that seem to cramp almost every Japanese-designed character action game (lengthy cutscenes, dodgy checkpointing, repetition of bosses and environments, unpresaged modifications to the ground-rules of combat), the underlying bed hacking and slashing is so indescribably luscious that it redeems these annoyances.

So, Gus Mastrapa's opinion with regard to Bayonetta is wrong: you cannot pass up this game for its visual and thematic inanity. The libretto for your average operatic masterpiece is some genuinely nonsense, and this does nothing to obscure the beauty of the music that is its rationale. Immortal Jazz music has been performed to songs on the theme of horniness. As Frank Lantz astutely noted, games are more music than cinema. Let the music take your mind.