Monday, July 7, 2014

Machoism and Tonal Inconsistency in DmC: Devil May Cry

There’s edgy industrial electronica music playing over images of women pole-dancing, sporting angel wings and underwear, fading in and out. The blue strobe lights are intermittently filtered by an other-worldly red hue that seems to reveal some people in the club are crying tears of blood or something. A pervy smirk appears on screen, and the rebooted Dante brings two women back to his trailer parked in the middle of an amusement park on the boardwalk. Swaying overhead lamp, squeaky bed spring noises, shaking camera. More images of women in underwear fading in and out. Late title card.

Until now, I’ve never played one of those games in which you beat up hordes of grotesque creatures in order to have words like “VICIOUS,” “SAVAGE,” or “SADISTIC” appear on screen next to a number. I chose to play DmC: Devil May Cry after hearing praise from outlets and friends and learning of the low barrier to entry. I also like weird, over-the-top silly games, so I was drawn to the edgy premise of a banker-demon-illuminati conspiracy and the laughable “fuck the police” attitude. For whatever reason, I like the idea of stylish combat behind teen angst-ridden political commentary meant to push buttons instead of being thoughtful or nuanced. Though I love many serious games, it’s been too long since I’ve gleefully yelled at my TV, “this is outrageous!” (a thing I did playing DmC) for visual and narrative bombast. Also, this game’s title spells out its own acronym, and that acronym flips the bird (intentionally?) to Grammar People by refusing to capitalize “m.” How audacious! I thought to myself how much of a dumb, fun ride this game would be.

And I was right for the most part. I especially enjoyed the parts where the game let me interact with it. The combat is snappy and elegant, and fighting demons large and small becomes a creative process of establishing stylish techniques, using different ranged and melee weapons, and choosing which abilities and combos to unlock. Traversing through the varied, surprisingly colorful environments of Limbo, the game’s demon-infested alternate reality, is also fun despite slightly unwieldy jumping controls. Flinging through levels with a grappling hook while the environment distorts and crumbles creates a sense of momentum in between combat encounters. DmC is a power trip with flair and a great game product thing with interesting difficulty modes, collectibles, and secret challenges rooms.

I get a little disappointed when the game strips control from me though--not because the game shouldn’t. I’m not one of those “cutscenes are bad” people who think games should only do interactive storytelling. It’s that the game isn’t always so tongue-in-cheek when it tells its story.

There is some really great silly stuff (did I mention SPOILERS yet?), like in the beginning when Dante walks out of his trailer naked to hear an unintroduced (and totally unphased) hooded woman warn him of this “Hunter Demon.” Then the sky gets dark and red, the demon appears, and the bright morning on the boardwalk turns into a hellish fever dream. The intense techno-metal blares up as Dante dives into his trailer slo-mo and clothes himself mid-jump, with an airborne baseball bat and pizza slice conveniently covering genitalia. This sequence is so rushed and goofy you’re left wondering what the hell is happening before you can even ask why. And that’s exactly the kind of lunacy I want in games every so often. But DmC doesn’t always commit to this over-the-top vision. At times, it tries to sell genuine emotion by using boring tropes and foreseeable twists (more on that later). DmC doesn’t quite know if it wants to be off the walls or grounded in a serious conflict.

But it does know that it wants to be masculine. The sweaty formula of a pure male power fantasy is made with the ripping through of demons by a combination of brute force and artful finesse, all while men characters are elevated at the expense of women in the narrative. We’re talking about a game in which one of the first things a woman says is, “The world is at last your bitch, as am I.”

There are some unique aspects of the power fantasy like the explosive Combichrist soundtrack that thunders with “dark” machoism. And never has a game let me murder a Bill O’Reilly parody in cyber space before. But the game also retreats to traditions of this type of game that are clichéd and somewhat problematic. In a game in which a giant demon bug lady screams “FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU!!!” while puking acid, you might be able to forgive its missteps. But DmC does one unpardonable thing: it asks players to care.

Early on I thought that Dante would have a hard time caring about the situation with the evil, brainwashing demon 1% throughout the entire game. He even says, “What makes you think I give a shit?” to his focused, idealist brother Vergil regarding mankind. But, after the second level, which is a retreading of Dante’s childhood home in which he experiences flashbacks, he learns that Mundus, the head honcho demon who you instantly know will be the second-to-last boss, killed his mother and separated his family. So now Dante is totally on board with fighting the demons to fulfill a revenge quest. Clearly, DmC does not really care about its leftist themes and iconography because the main incentive for the protagonist is just a woman in a refrigerator. This trope can work in other stories (e.g. The Last of Us) but doesn’t here because Eva, Dante’s mother, is a concept rather than a character, so learning of her murder has no emotional impact. And from then on, the game alternates between the aforementioned fun ridiculousness and self-serious, ineffective emotional manipulation that asks you to relate to the characters.

DmC uses a woman to make Dante care about fighting the demons, and it also uses a woman to make him care about the future of humanity. Leigh Alexander wrote about our women heroes problem in which she discusses that while men are portrayed as independently hard and “badass,” women must be “traumatized” to become heroic. She brings up women in refrigerators as excuses for men’s adventures, while women must have been broken or vulnerable themselves before their own quests. Alexander says, “It seems that when you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt… also a woman first.”

Usually, you only see one or the other of these devices in a game, but in DmC there’s both! Kat, the aforementioned hooded woman, is Vergil’s human assistant who often guides Dante through levels from her perspective in the real world and uses spray paint to allow Dante to interact with environments in Limbo. Kat is hesitant to talk about her past with Dante. You see, Kat’s foster father was a demon, who trapped her in nightmares. Vergil found her in Limbo and rescued her. He taught her how to kill the demon haunting her, and now she wants to “deal with them all.” Of course while she had to be traumatized by a man and rescued by a man before she could become useful to the Order, Dante and Vergil found their own ways out of their nightmares. Late in the game, Vergil tells Dante he learned hacking as a way to build a “sense of control,” something the twins never felt, while Dante’s release was “killing demons and getting laid.” Classy.

Men in this story also establish control using women. Kat becomes a half-baked love interest for Dante, and naturally, she becomes damseled in the latter half of the game. More shocking is how the game presents the kidnapping. The screen goes black and white, and a sad, tinkly piano tune plays over the muffled sounds of Kat being shot by the demon police and dragged away. The scene is terribly out of place and is the most insulting thing DmC does, asking me to care about simplistic characters in a silly game about evil demon bankers controlling the world through debt.

What follows is Dante--yes, the one who said “What makes you think I give a shit?”--flips out about Kat’s abduction, wanting to save her along with the rest of mankind. Surprisingly, I relate to the early-game Dante more, or at least I buy that character. Mundus sends a clip to Vergil and Dante offering to trade Kat’s life for Dante’s. Of course the men, realizing that they’re men and not objects to be traded, decide to hunt down Mundus’ mistress Lilith to offer instead.

Vergil: “Why would Mundus care about one of his whores?”
Dante: “Because she carries his child.”

So, really, the game and its characters, without comment, treat Lilith as a talking vessel that holds Mundus, Jr. and not as a person (demon) with value. After Vergil kills Lilith during the uncomfortable “trade” cutscene, characters only refer to the death of Mundus’ child. Even the boss is called “Mundus Spawn” and not Lilith. At least she has the agency to run her own demonic club? Phew, aren’t sex workers so well represented in games?

At least at the end, Dante insists that Kat was an essential part of the triumph over Mundus when it turns out Vergil is actually evil and thinks humans are below him (after looking up stuff on other games in the series, fans must have seen this twist a mile away and even newcomers like me could see it coming, I mean do you see what he’s wearing?). But this comes long after the game has stopped being “self-aware.” Of course when we say a game or a piece of media is self-aware, we mean that it doesn’t ask you to take stupid shit seriously. I could probably reconcile troubling narrative decisions if the game was consistently a giant disingenuous middle finger.

All of the cringe-worthy self-serious instances of DmC make me rethink the entire experience. I wonder if the developers aren’t cackling with me at the game’s stupidly cheesy ending--if they’re not in on their own joke and think it’s genuinely good writing.The lazy tropes and poor attempts at emotion draw me out of the surreal Limbo and back to reality: somewhere, some kid is watching the intro I described in the first paragraph of this post and unironically thinking, “Wow. This is so cool. Dante is so badass.” There’s an uncomfortable cloud that hangs over DmC: Devil May Cry, reminding you that its vulgar, juvenile disposition might be sincere. That cloud too often prevents me from fully loving a game that is more often so fun, so imaginative, and so dumb in the best possible way.  

I admit, though, I do like it quite a bit.

No comments:

Post a Comment