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Opinion: The Cultural Clash Of  Bayonetta
Opinion: The Cultural Clash Of Bayonetta
January 15, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

January 15, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
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[Gamasutra features director Christian Nutt jumps into the debate over the aesthetics of Platinum Games' Bayonetta, exploring context for "taste" in the history of popular culture.]

Late last year I read a fascinating book (thanks, Randy) called Let's Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste. Written by music critic Carl Wilson, it's a part of the 33 1/3 series -- book-length examinations of albums.

In the series, there are books -- unsurprisingly -- on albums such as Radiohead's OK Computer, The Beatles' Let it Be, My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, and Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, among many others. This is stuff that rock critics and serious music fans think are classics.

Wilson's book, in contrast, stands alone: it's about Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love, her 1997 album -- the one with the Titanic theme, My Heart Will Go On. There are two important facts that make the book as fascinating as it is. For one, Let's Talk About Love is one of the most popular albums of all time, having sold over 31 million copies worldwide; conversely, nobody who professes to be a fan of music would be caught dead listening to Celine Dion.

Wilson's book, then, is not a book-length celebration of the album; instead, as the title implies, Wilson spends it trying to understand who likes and, as importantly, who does not like Celine Dion, and why.

As Wilson puts it, "This book is an experiment in taste, in stepping deliberately outside one's own aesthetics. It has to do with social affinities and rancors and what art and its appreciation can do to mediate or exacerbate them... Primarily... the question is whether anyone's tastes stand on solid ground, starting with mine."

Why I Didn't Get There Sooner

Wilson was interested in investigating whether the critics are wrong -- not so much whether Celine Dion's music is actually excellent, but whether the premise of criticism is wrong. Wilson doesn't just listen to the CD and write his thoughts; he delves into Dion's biography, the makeup of her audience, the very nature of taste as a social construct. It's an astonishing read.

I first tried to write an editorial about the book, and how its concepts relate to our appreciation of games, in early December. The problem is that I didn't, in the end, have something to hang the article around. I found that thing last week, on Wired's Game|Life blog, in the form of an editorial by Gus Mastrapa, called Bayonetta's Gaudy Style Smothers The Substance.

In the editorial, Mastrapa describes the game as "an aesthetic mess".

He's not alone in that assessment. The game has also taken charges of being deeply sexist -- an issue explored by Gamasutra news director Leigh Alexander elsewhere.

I've been playing and have come to love Bayonetta, though, and Mastrapa's piece rankled. It's also a good example of the sort of general criticism the game is taking, so it's his piece on which I will concentrate.

What He Thinks

Says Mastrapa, "Take each element on its own: Bayonetta's skimpy black outfit, the ornate gold and feather construction of enemy angels, the baroque architecture of Vigrid. They're all handsomely crafted. But pile them together as they're presented in Bayonetta and they clash, creating an unappealing visual cacophony, like a yard sale at Neverland. Slather that gaudiness with stilted dialogue, corny music and silly plot and you've got a game that's nothing less than an affront to good taste."

His premise established, Mastrapa proceeds to demolish Bayonetta on every aesthetic front.
Its director is capable of more, says Mastrapa. "[Hideki] Kamiya did, after all, nail the look and feel of ancient Japanese art in Okami and the two-dimensional energy of anime in Viewtiful Joe. His earlier games have a visual and tonal purposefulness that seems lost in Bayonetta."

Even if you can stomach the idea Bayonetta represents an intentional stylistic choice, the execution is terrible, he says. He describes an early cutscene as "clumsily staged, terribly acted and dull as dirt."

Even so, Bayonetta is a fine exemplar of craft, Mastrapa is forced to admit, but it's artless. "There's no elegance to Bayonetta's visuals. The imagery is all clutter. When you're embroiled in a fight, the screen fills up with glistening latex, fluttering wings and whipping hair. It reminds me of the crowded screens of the Star Wars prequel trilogy."

Even worse, says Mastrapa, though Kamiya has been original in the past, that originality is missing from Bayonetta, which takes its cues from pop culture that was once hip but is now passe. "...the song 'Fly Me To The Moon' played during the first battle scene... most geeks now know the 1954 standard as 'the song from Evangelion'... it just reminded me of the '90s when The Matrix was the end-all-be-all of geekiness and Gainax was the thinking nerd's anime [studio]. There's a lot of water under that bridge, thank God."

Some have suggested, predictably, that the gameplay's so good that you are forced to forgive how awful everything else is -- it's a typical argument for a medium bursting with thin stories and strong mechanics. Mastrapa dismisses this with a cliche of his own: "I don't care how brilliant Bayonetta's button mashing is," he says. Bayonetta? It's good at something that's not even worth being good at.

And now, the finishing move -- or, in Bayonetta's sexualized parlance, the climax -- "The tired biblical allusions, the feigned trench coat cool and the towering, but ultimately hollow architectural wonder didn't just bore me to tears -- they offended me," says Mastrapa.

What I Think

Well, what I think about Bayonetta is a bit different. Writing on my personal blog in response to Mastrapa's piece, I said, "Bayonetta is fucking rocking my socks on every level." My personal opinion of Bayonetta is that it's one of the best games I've played in longer than I can remember.

In the comments section discussion that followed the article, I professed my love for the game -- which Mastrapa interprets through the lens of his disdain. "You're not wrong for liking Bayonetta or forgiving its faults for its obvious strengths," he says. "I'd like to think that we can use opinion in this way to have interesting disagreements that help us learn more about what we like (story vs gameplay or style vs substance) and why we like it."

It's not that I don't get where Mastrapa is coming from. Bayonetta is easily seen as a tacky disaster. The title character is an amoral, belligerent cipher who kills angels -- Christian angels, more or less, though the game's mythology is an ambiguous hodgepodge.

And given her impossible physique, skin-tight catsuit, and plot-necessitated nakedness, the character of Bayonetta has been derided as a sexist caricature since she first appeared. I call her an "aesthetic construct" -- which is really the other side of the same coin. In appearance, motion, intent, and deed, she's not a person -- she's a personification of concepts, or even ideals.

All games are artificial, but many strive for realism, to greater or lesser effect. Bayonetta does not care. It draws from European architecture, Christian cosmology, the human body, Hollywood, and the creator's previous work -- to name a few sources -- but offers up nothing but obvious artifice.

I find it to be a pleasurable artifice. I adore the go-for-brokeness of the whole endeavor. I find the aesthetics not a cacophony but an appealing jumble. And the gameplay is exquisitely tuned, of course. But that's the linchpin, not the whole.

Welcome to Camp

Of course, there's another interpretation. We don't have to take Bayonetta at face value. We can appreciate Bayonetta as camp.

In her 1964 essay Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag defined camp in a variety of ways -- many of which apply very obviously to Bayonetta. "Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," wrote Sontag.

As pointed out on my blog by commenter 33mhz, Sontag's essay seems particularly apt when discussing Bayonetta: "Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style -- but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the 'off,' of things-being-what-they-are-not."

Almost everywhere you see a quote in the essay, it fits -- "As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated," or "Camp is the attempt to do something extraordinary. But extraordinary in the sense, often, of being special, glamorous," or "Camp is the glorification of 'character.' The statement is of no importance, except, of course, to the person... who makes it," or "Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of 'style' over 'content,' 'aesthetics' over 'morality,' of irony over tragedy."

I can pinpoint a sensibility or a moment in Bayonetta for every statement I just quoted. As a character, Bayonetta is completely self-absorbed, and her dialogue is comprised only of thoughtless irrelevancies; she out-glamorizes runway models with her impossibly leggy figure while outfighting everybody, including angels as big as buildings. Bayonetta is as stylish and amoral and ironic as a game character has ever been.

Says Sontag, "Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn't reverse things. It doesn't argue that the good is bad, or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different -- a supplementary -- set of standards." And I think that's precisely where I deviate from Mastrapa in my appreciation of Bayonetta.

I like it because it just goes for it -- something I don't see much outside of Japan. There's no hesitation, no stopping to think about whether something makes literal sense or if it is even remotely possible. In one cutscene, Bayonetta surfs on lava on the back of an angel.

Camp is both how we like things that are tacky or bad -- though all bad, tacky things aren't camp -- and also how creators get away with making creative choices they know are bad or tacky. Even so, I don't think that liking (or creating) campy things (like Bayonetta) is dishonest.

Of course, Sontag also writes, "When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition," which I think is the obvious counterargument to Bayonetta being a camp masterpiece, if one is to be made. Certainly, without saying anything about camp explicitly or implicitly, it's the argument Mastrapa makes against the game.

The Japan Question

Part of the problem with parsing Bayonetta's intent comes from its origin -- it's a Japanese game. Even in this era of international collaboration, it's hard to parse Japanese stuff and figure out what's straight-faced and what's not.

I've been consuming Japanese culture for years and one reason I like it so much is its earnestness in the face of ridiculous situations and stylistic extremes. This is easily exemplified by Final Fantasy. The series has more of a sense of humor than it gets credit for, but it's also a handy example of work that is self-serious yet stylistically extreme.

On the other hand, mainstream Japanese humor is extremely campy. There's the incredibly obvious example of Hard Gay, of course, but think about Tingle, from The Legend of Zelda series. His inclusion in such lighthearted all-ages games is indicative of how much camp has infiltrated mainstream Japanese humor.

Japan is popularly conceived of being oblivious to the effect its peculiarities have on its media -- either the Japanese don't get it or don't care, is the assumption most make. At the extreme end of both Japanese camp and obliviousness there's the blackface Obama segment from Japanese TV, so it's not an invalid criticism.

But I think Bayonetta is largely a self-aware and intentional work. That's not to say that every element is equally self-aware, or up to my personal standard. The game frequently references The Matrix for its action sequences.

This is both tired, because movies and games have been doing so for the 10-plus years since the first Matrix film was released -- and lame, because The Matrix is at the nadir of its cultural relevance and has yet to be reclaimed as something anybody who purports to have taste would admit to liking. Sure, your friend liking The Matrix is okay. However, we like to think that directors, like Kamiya, are too culturally literate to avoid this sort of faux pas.

On Taste

In Wilson's book, he quotes sociologist and critic Simon Frith as saying that Celine Dion is "probably the most loathed superstar I can remember, at least by everyone I know, not just critics but even my mother-in-law. I doubt if she will ever be redeemed, ABBA-style, and what seems to concern everyone is that she is just naff." ("Naff" is British slang for bad or tacky.)

Wilson goes into great depths to examine the cultural structures and psychological origins of taste -- which I won't. Coolness, however, is central to Wilson's concept of taste. What you find cool implies a lot about who you are; but Wilson also recognizes that (for the most part) people also mostly legitimately enjoy what they enjoy. When it comes to how you shape your own tastes, writes Wilson, "At worst I am conning myself, but to what I feel is my advantage."

I think these distinctions get a little flipped when we take a look at the game industry and its fans, rather than pop music, however. I think that we're obviously going through growing pains, as both Bayonetta itself, and the discussion of Bayonetta, so clearly imply.

Here's a sample from a very smart blog post about Bayonetta. Please note it's one that recommends the game. "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."

Bayonetta has become the symbol of the anti-cool -- gaming's Celine Dion.

The Fine Line

At the same time we're gasping for maturity -- to produce games that are more meaningful and have more social merit -- we have two problems. The game industry has been built on a rocky bed of the geekiest of geek culture, and as a commercial enterprise it routinely panders to the basest of male adolescent fantasy.

The game industry, in its current form, encompasses the hip and the nerdy, the mature and immature, in equal measure -- often in the same people.

"Bayonetta is the game better hidden from view, much as a college dorm dweller would urge his roommate to hide the Eva wall scrolls in the closet when female suitors come calling," says Mastrapa, in his editorial. A lot of gamers may be geeks, but they're also increasingly socially literate geeks, in other words.

When you're struggling to establish your legitimacy, though, anything that threatens it -- anything as crass as Bayonetta -- is more dangerous. In that quote, Mastrapa is very concrete with his example, but it's really a metaphor; extrapolate the thinking behind it and you're dealing with the conundrum of contemporary gamer culture. We revel in otaku garbage, but we're aware that this is a problem. We're adults, and it's our job to fix it -- or if we're not in a position to fix it, to at least publicly devalue it.

Writes Wilson, about critics and their relationship with pop culture, "in the present tense, submerged social antagonisms and the risk of being taken for one of the 'tacky' dullards makes it less attractive to be so all-embracing..." of embarrassing pop culture like Celine Dion.

But Wilson argues that distinctions in culture have fallen apart. "By the early twenty-first century," he writes, "almost no one believes in them." According to a study, Wilson reports, "by the 1990s, the upper class taste model had changed from a 'snob' to an 'omnivore' ideal, in which the coolest thing for a well-off and well-educated person to do is to consume some high culture along with heaps of popular culture."

The only things people in this survey of musical taste didn't want to admit to liking was that favored by the uneducated -- separating themselves from "white trash" through their taste choices. (The study in question was entitled "Anything But Heavy Metal.")

We're not so worried about being "white trash" when we like Bayonetta. We're worried about being perceived as gamers and only gamers -- arrested adolescents. We're worried about seeing our medium's cultural currency frittered away, rewarding the mindset that produced a game so base and sexist and game-like, with no higher ideal.

If You Liked It...

Here, I think about Wilson's cherished medium -- pop music.

As Wilson writes, at the turn of the decade into the 2000s, critics increasingly gained an appreciation for the pop music of the times. ABBA, as Frith said, had to be "reclaimed"; it was loathed by critics. It is now revered.

Not so today. Pop music is seen as a valid space to work in and its fruits, like Beyonce's massive hit Single Ladies, are enjoyed by all. Sure, critics and serious fans are expected to like bands like Animal Collective or Grizzly Bear, but they're simultaneously expected to appreciate Single Ladies and Lady Gaga. Despite its patently commercial aims and mainstream appeal, Single Ladies is widely (and rightly, I'd say) regarded, and was a pop cultural touchstone from the moment it was released.

This applied to everyone, including indie musicians. A band called Pomplamoose even made its name by releasing a brilliant cover of the song on YouTube. Singer Nataly Dawn briefly abandons Beyonce's lyrics, however, singing, "Don't make sing this part of the song / the lyrics are so bad / so we're going to skip ahead to the Single Ladies part instead."

This is an assertion built on confidence. Dawn's saying, "You and I both know that Single Ladies is an incredible song, so we'll forgive the lyrics and get back to that amazing chorus without delay." But when I say something like "I love Gears of War 2... yeah, they screwed up the whole 'Dom's wife' thing, but..." I'm doing pretty much the opposite. I am admitting I don't have the same confidence about the medium. I'm trying to deflect criticism.

Let's rewind two decades from Single Ladies and look at the music industry for a clue about what might be going on with games.

It Is Now My Duty to Completely Drain You

In the late '80s, mainstream rock was a stale and ridiculous thing: incredibly trite, with bloated budgets, ludicrous visuals, idiotic characters -- and I'm just talking about Poison. Hair metal held sway, and it was increasingly a cultural embarrassment. In 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind, and quite suddenly, rawness, emotionality, and authenticity became mainstream rock virtues.

Games are still in their pre-Nevermind.

Just as Nevermind wasn't Nirvana's first album -- that was 1989's Bleach, which stayed underground -- Bayonetta isn't Kamiya's first game. With Okami, Kamiya made his Bleach -- a critical darling that promised a breakthrough. But instead of following it up with a Nevermind, he released his Dr. Feelgood.

We might forgive him if we had the confidence that comes from having our own Nirvana, but we're not there yet. Even Half-Life 2, as genius as it might be, is gaming's Guns 'n Roses -- there's immense talent and craft, but... it's still hair metal.

We're worried we won't get our landscape-refiguring Nevermind unless someone like Kamiya delivers it.

Years before Nevermind, there were plenty of literate modern rock acts, as they were known in the '80s, who didn't break through -- or, like R.E.M., couldn't quite make it until Kurt Cobain broke down the door. Sure, we have Flower and Braid. But if we get our Nevermind, might thatgamecompany become the next R.E.M.?

Mastrapa essentially lays this challenge right at Kamiya's feet: "Where Okami and Viewtiful Joe may be fine evidence for the games-as-art argument, Bayonetta is the game better hidden from view..." You're letting us down, Kamiya, he says. Get your head together and get back to making art.

I disagree with the sentiment at a fundamental philosophical level -- people should create what they want to create. Perhaps Mastrapa thinks Kamiya didn't want to make something like Bayonetta, but was pressured by Sega or market realities. After all, Okami wasn't a hit. Okami was Bleach. We now know that Nirvana made Nevermind hoping for a hit, but they didn't compromise themselves. Did Kamiya just overcompensate?

I Can't Argue

As much as I like Bayonetta, I often find myself expressing sentiments much like Mastrapa's. Given the shameless way in which Bayonetta cribs some of its action sequences from The Matrix, there's a particular irony in my own recent comment, written at the same time I was playing Bayonetta, that is winkingly "brought to you in part by The Society To Stop Game Developers Remaking The Matrix, Aliens, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars."

I think all of us who have a vested cultural interest in games are struggling with this right now. Chris Hecker recently said it better than I can, after all, particularly since he's a developer himself.

To my mind, no game better encapsulates this painful sort of contrast than EA's upcoming Dante's Inferno. It takes a 700-year old poem that's a foundational classic of Western Literature and, as far as I can tell, urinates on it.

All the while, the creators -- who are obviously mature and talented enough to push themselves through the grueling production process required to produce a triple-A console game -- continuously make, to my ears, culturally tone deaf assertions that the game is true to the poem whenever someone puts a microphone in front of them.

This cover image of the tie-in edition Del Rey is publishing of the original poem is the ultimate example of the line-straddling of Dante's Inferno. For one, the cover's got the aesthetically boring but painstakingly crafted aesthetic so common in mainstream games; contrast another edition. It's translated by a poet who died in 1882 but features an intro by the game's executive producer.

Most hilariously, it assumes that the target audience of an adrenaline-soaked hack 'n' slash game will want to read an incredibly difficult classical poem. This belief is belied by the sweeping and deliberate changes the developers have made to its content to turn it into a video game.

This is where our industry is right now: not sure what the hell we're doing, or why, or for whom -- but we're doing it with all of our technical skill and artistic talent and conviction. This is what pushes people like Gus Mastrapa, and me, to write editorials.

Having said that, despite my love of Bayonetta, I must admit that you can read his critique as completely valid. In games, we have a strange tendency to eschew the concept of taste. Not "good taste" versus "bad taste" -- that's where Bayonetta's being judged -- but personal taste. We don't really seem to believe in the possibility that different people might like different things for equally valid reasons that we hate them.

Says Mastrapa, in the comments section of his article -- clearly aware from its high Metacritic that, as a gamer, he's supposed to like Bayonetta -- "I just find it interesting to explore what we're willing to forgive in gaming, because sometimes story must be traded for play or style for substance. We rarely get the complete package -- so to me finding out what people are willing to forgive (or wind up genuinely liking -- maybe they're the same thing?) is worth exploring."

But I love Bayonetta and reject compromise. It's a terrible, tacky, campy, irresistible feast for all of my senses. I enjoy every aspect of the game -- while recognizing that some are questionable, of course. The fact that I enjoy questioning what I like and why it's entertaining to me in and of itself, after all, is probably why I'm a critic.

But I think the idea that we can't like bad things because they're bad, not despite the fact, is a limiting perspective that is one more barrier we're going to have to break through if we understand why we like -- and make! -- the games we do, and move forward.

The Taste Of Shame

In confronting Celine Dion's album, Wilson was forced to listen to it, repeatedly, at full volume -- but was embarrassed that his neighbors would overhear him listening to Celine Dion. Of the experience, he writes, "Shame has a way of throwing you back upon your own existence, on the unbearable truth that you are identical with you, that you are your limits... It's the reverse of the self extension that having likes and dislikes usually provides. It is humbling."

This is the same emotional response felt by those rejecting Bayonetta. It's not just a bad game -- it's an embarrassment. And it's an embarrassment for our entire industry, by extension, because we're still fighting for respect in a way that music is not. Celine Dion can't erase Nirvana, but Bayonetta might erase Okami.

My alternative suggestion is to embrace Bayonetta. Learn why Bayonetta is lovable. Enjoy the pure and unmatched virtuosity of its action gameplay, but also laugh along with the corny Grindhouse aesthetics, the Evangelion-inspired blasphemies, the Matrix moves, and the excessively complicated Resident Evil-style text back story. It's all there for you to enjoy -- or, when you get bored, to ignore.

After all, as Wilson argues, in the 21st century, we're cultural omnivores. Any other way of looking at pop culture is dated. Forget the Nirvana moment. It may not even be possible. Bayonetta has more in common with Lady Gaga -- a confusing and electrifying clash of art, kitsch, and camp with a great beat. You can hate her, but you can't stop her.


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