Slaying Your Way to Radical Empathy: Bayonetta

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on August 24th, 2012

Every so often I get a twitching in the long finger of my right hand. It’s happened enough that I know the reason and the cure: Bayonetta, released in 2010 by the wild-and-wacky Platinum Games. Fast-paced Japanese action games have always been a personal favorite dating back to Devil May Cry on the PlayStation 2, and Platinum, helmed by DMC creator Hideki Kamiya, has built a reputation for action titles with personality. Bayonetta was successful on release — reviews praised its kinetic combat system, its visual design, and mind-blowing boss battles. At the same time, they scratched their heads at the confusing plot and uneven dialogue. Many frowned at the hyper-sexualized protagonist: Bayonetta has two pistols strapped to her stiletto heels and carries another pair, contorting into sexually gymnastic poses or finding conveniently phallic objects to pole-dance around while she deals hot death to her foes.

Lead designer Kamiya didn’t help matters, admiring Bayonetta’s sex appeal and declaring “women are scary” with a mix of misogyny and adolescent confusion that’s not uncommon in Japanese gaming culture. Bloggers pounced, taking strident issue with the poses, the orgasm sounds released by certain female enemies, and the lollipops that grant temporary power-ups. They really hated the lollipops. What’s the difference, the critics asked, between this and a thousand other sexpot gaming characters? Mocking condescension of the hapless male lead and relentless violence does not a feminist make. Lara Croft was always more than the guns (I refer to her pistols, but take “guns” in that sentence however you like). Given the flimsy story and dialogue, isn’t Bayonetta just a brunette Barbie with leaner proportions? Opinions differed, but from my perusal of the debate a solid consensus emerged: Bayonetta is a really excellent video game, but it’s too exploitative for the feminist label.

I knew all this going into my most recent binge. But it didn’t ring true to me. Maybe it’s my good fortune to grow up surrounded by amazing women, but I just couldn’t see Bayonetta as a victim. The critics, I felt, were wrapped up in a confining vision of the liberated female: one where sex needn’t define any part of a woman, and flaunted sexuality is inherently a concession to the male gaze. Which, it seems to me, still appropriates sex as something controlled by men. As somebody whose fiercely independent sister takes the stage in rock bands dressed like (I mean this in the best way) a tart, I felt this was wrong. But I needed to play the game again to figure out why it was wrong.

Writers suffer from a very particular arrogance: we believe we control the world. Not the world of reality and cold sores, but the worlds we build ourselves. Wielding the power of creation, we can make something amazing or something terrible and own it completely. It’s tempting to apply this to fictional forms like games; Tom Bissell has written extensively about his frustrations in the industry. Writers hear the cringe-inducing dialogue in video games and question the missing links in their plots. We could do better, they always think. But video games crush this special writerly arrogance more than any other fictional form. Games succeed when they cede control back to the player. Tiny details of design, hammered out through relentless testing, have powerful impacts on the audience without words and within moments — achieving subtle narrative feats in spaces so small even Kafka would have thrown down his pen.

Which is to say that for the purposes of my critique, the plot isn’t terribly important. Sun-themed male Lumen Sages oppose the Moon-themed female Umbra Witches, a child is conceived in forbidden love, and Bayonetta is the product. She plows through the patriarchy like a wrecking ball, teaming up at the end with a fellow witch to summon a demon that punches God into the Sun. These things are feminist in the same way that pole-dancing animations are misogynist: superficially.

I posit that Bayonetta is an unsurpassed experiment in radical empathy, the ultimate act of putting yourself in another’s shoes — absorbing their feelings, experiences and desires. You become another person, if only for understanding’s sake. It seems to be what most feminists really want from men: to think for a moment about the female experience as lived by women. Bayonetta achieves this kind of radical empathy in a way nobody could expect and I’ve never seen articulated. Through colorful moments and flawless mechanics, it locates the player inside Bayonetta’s physical person and unlocks her weird, wonderful personality. There are no moral lessons here, just good fun — .

It starts with the controls, as any action game must. The game uses a typical “three-button” combo style: Punch, Kick, and Jump. Combos can be strung together from these moves. Kill the bad guys, use the Dodge button where appropriate to avoid damage — it’s streamlined and appealing to novices. The combo system requires no real memorization, because nearly any combination of Punches and Kicks (with intuitive pauses thrown in) results in some kind of face-wrecking craziness. Punch-Kick-Punch? Combo. Punch Punch Pause Kick? Combo. Five Punches in a row, or three Kicks? Both combos. If a second enemy jumps in, you can simply change your attack chain on the fly. This is the first hook Bayonetta gets in you, its first step towards putting yourself wholly in the protagonist’s thigh-high boots: it simply refuses to get in your way. Like your own body playing some new sport, maybe you don’t understand the whole game and maybe you don’t look graceful. But you’re certainly not falling on your face. From the very first battle, Bayonetta strives to remove the barriers between player and protagonist.

From there, the combat expands geometrically. About a dozen unlockable weapons are scattered throughout the game, ranging from shotguns to laser pistols to bullwhips. Some are hand-specific or foot-specific, but not all, and every single one imbues Bayonetta’s various combos with different properties. I personally prefer a lightsaber (named “Pillow Talk” and adorned with a Hello Kitty dongle) in my hands with a pair of bazookas strapped to my legs. Sword slashes are fast and agile, while rocket-kicks have all the leaden slowness and sledgehammer power you’d expect. I can feel them weighing me down. My alternate set uses a pair of “gunchucks” in my hands (they’re exactly what they sound like) and a pair of magic ice skates on my feet. Punches are relentless rapid-fire pummelings, kicks are wide slashing attacks. With the skates equipped, Bayonetta doesn’t run across the landscape — she skates on a sheet of magic ice, hands tucked classically behind her back. Simple locomotion becomes effortlessly smooth, swooping and kinetic. It really feels like wearing ice skates. Every single weapon essentially re-writes the combat experience just by making simple, well-executed tweaks to an already-open combat system.

Finally, there’s the game’s ultimate tweak: Witch Time. The Dodge button avoids damage, but a dodge pulled off at the perfect moment — just before the strike connects — throws the world into slow motion. Everything in the world, that is, except our heroine who reacts at full speed with boosted damage. “Not a chance!” she cries as a burst of gorgeous purple tints the screen. It triggers a powerful Pavlovian response in the player. For a brief moment he experiences every bit of Bayonetta’s adrenaline-fueled glee. Y’all goin’ down! What follows is utter devastation, wrecking a whole squadron of angels before they can respond. Once each battle is won, the action momentarily freezes. The screen flashes fashion-shoot pictures of Bayonetta mid-killing-blow, allowing both character and player to revel in the moment. The male gaze suddenly becomes a shared perspective: let’s both appreciate how good I look! Witch Time is the last piece of the combat puzzle, the element that makes an open-ended system genuinely improvisational. Even at low health, a single well-timed dodge turns the tables on your foes. Bayonetta’s unshakeable confidence in herself and her abilities becomes your confidence in your own. And then you fail, when the big hit draws rose petals from Bayonetta’s flesh in place of blood, you cringe with sympathetic pain. It was your fault; you missed the dodge. The controls are too good to blame, the avatar too closely linked to your will.

Once I was in her head, meshing my goals and emotions with hers through nothing more than brutal combat, I finally saw Bayonetta as more than the vehicle for “sexy fighting” she first appears to be. Her ritual trash-talking of enormous bosses tapped into my own competitive nature. I never cared about costumes in games, but I’ve unlocked every outfit in this one — and I actually use them, putting genuine thought into my ensembles. “I can’t help it if I like the little outfits,” Bayonetta explains in the prologue, and with a single self-assured line she blows up the eye-candy interpretation. She dresses for her own sake. I think the cheerleader outfit goes over the top. But the all-white nun’s habit? It’s the perfect accoutrement when you’re summoning a magma spider to devour a winged angel-robot on the high seas, or fighting a frantic kung-fu battle on the side of an airborne ICBM. Both those things happen, and Bayonetta tackles them with unwavering confidence and sass. As she explains to her own child-self from the past (that happens too), “You’re a strong little girl. There’s nothing you cannot overcome.”

Even when forced by circumstance into a mothering role, Bayonetta shows kindness but no sentimentality. This isn’t a badass softened and changed by motherhood. She’s a badass who sees it as a temporary obstacle on her long violent road. Two rules handed are down early: “No cockroaches or crying babies.” At every emotional moment, Bayonetta reacts in a way that’s true to herself yet totally accessible to the legions of dumb boys who were the game’s intended market. God of War’s Kratos would never double-jump with butterfly wings, nor suck on lollipops, nor engage in spontaneous dance-fighting. But Kratos never gets to have any fun. Bayonetta tears her way through all of Heaven, punches God directly in the face, and takes time to enjoy her lollipops and perky J-Pop soundtrack. The game’s theme song? An earwormy cover of Fly Me to the Moon: a song popularized by Frank Sinatra but first performed and recorded by female singers (Felicia Sanders and Kaye Ballard respectively). To my thinking it’s a clear flag planted for feminism — one much subtler than the sequence where Bayonetta sets off a gas explosion by shooting a peeing-cherub statue in the dick. Other digs include criticism of the male protagonist’s driving, and the priceless line: “Tentacles…why did it have to be tentacles?” If you can point out another pop-culture item that references both Indiana Jones and the hideously misogynistic Japanese trope of tentacle rape, I’d love to hear about it.

The writers got in some licks after all! After only a few hours of re-immersion, I inhabited this wild woman’s skin. My in-depth knowledge of each chapter allowed me to not only optimize my weapon loadouts, but also to choose theme-appropriate outfits. Even the button-mashing sections of the game become mighty emotional exertions that send obscene taunts ricocheting off my TV. When at last God’s face was punchicized, I tore off my shirt and stomped around the living room like a T-Rex. It mattered that much in the moment. On the screen my girl was stylin’ in her collared velvet dress with the red flowing skirts. As Jubileus the Creator sailed shrieking to her (yup, God is a lady) fiery rest, I sat back on the couch and reveled in the adrenaline buzz. The credits rolled. As Fly Me to the Moon rolled into the jukebox chamber one last time, the lanky witch with the black beehive spun her pistols and dropped into a challenging pose.

“Let’s dance, boys!”