I realized today that I can’t expect to be taken seriously as a writer on video games and stay silent on the #number1reason hashtag that took over twitter this week (Rose, Mike. “Twitter hashtag ‘#1reasonwhy’ exposes sexism in game industry.” Gamasutra. Nov 27 2012.). In short, I support it. I call myself a feminist and so far nobody has had a problem with that who doesn’t already have a problem with feminism at large. Anytime somebody is subjected to unfair treatment they should speak up. Their supporters should speak up. That was why I was proud of myself for writing about unfair portrayals of women in Tekken Tag Tournament 2 on PopMatters (“One Dimension: Women’s Bodies in Tekken.” Sep 25 2012) and my followup comments on this very blog (“Sexism and Tekken.” Sep 27 2012). Recalling Tekken games past, I don’t remember the portrayal of women to be so, well, gross. Men have always outnumbered women in the series, but in the polygonal days of the series’ youth, the women were fully clothed, not all of their victory poses were burlesque and they were not built from the ground up with fan service in mind.
So when the series starts to portray its women in such an exploitative fashion, I thought it was something to bring up. I wanted to call sexism where I saw it. I got plenty of the knee-jerk counterarguments of “all video games are misogynistic†” and, “Listen man, sex sells, it’s just the way the people work†” and of course, “Who cares? Women don’t even play video games†, especially not fighting games†” and the mentioned-at-least-once-every-time-this-conversation-arises, “sexism is just a part of nerd culture†.” But, like I said, I think it’s important to call things things out when people see them. I got a lot of great support from a lot of writers I really respect, so I felt like I had done the right thing.
In my mind, it was worth talking about because, at the very least, if somebody wants to take the position that Tekken is not sexist, than they have to actively think about the cultural gender binaries to place Tekken on acceptable ground. They have to come to an understanding—however skewed—of what unfair portrayal and treatment is. They have to draw a line of what is a respectful and dignified portrayal of a woman and what is an exploitative and unfair portrayal of a woman and they have to form some ground for their argument that Tekken‘s portrayal of women is acceptable. I don’t think I changed anybody’s mind, but if this sort of thing is called out enough times from enough different sources then—well—who knows.
This brings me to Chaos on Deponia. I had the pleasure of reviewing Chaos on Deponia recently for PopMatters (Review: Chaos on Deponia. Nov 30 2012.). There were a few things in the review I left out that really deserve mentioning. The game enforces a patriarchal view of women and queer people. Firstly, Chaos on Deponia is a comedy. Which means that if it isn’t funny than there’s no point in playing it. As a game, Deponia is actually pretty frustrating. The only thing that’s made it worth going through is that it’s a decent comedy; in fact, by the time the game ends, the mechanics start to be frustrating in service of the game’s comedy in a brilliant instance of ludonarrative resonance. It’s also a pretty immature game. There’s a really well timed fart joke in Chaos on Deponia. It’s funny. I laughed at it. There’s nothing wrong with a comedy being immature. But its immaturity came with a lot of baggage and I want to look at how the humour in the series works.
The first creative writing I’ve ever had released in a public forum was comedy. I wrote short sketches for a comedy group and, while by no means would I ever suggest I have any level of expertise in the form, for whatever it’s worth, people told me I was good at it and I believe them. I decided early on that I didn’t want to offend people without a good reason. If you’re going to attack somebody’s way of thinking or behaving, I thought, than it better not just be for kicks. That’s just being a turd. The way I avoiding hurting anybody’s feeling was changing the object of a joke. In other words, what the audience was supposed to laugh at. Deponia doesn’t care what you laugh at so long as you’re laughing, and that’s where it’s often in really poor taste.
For example, there’s a part late in Chaos on Deponia where Rufus meets a homeless man named Goon (a “bum,” as he call him). Goon, who calls himself an academic and speaks with a British accent (class signifiers that indicate that the man doesn’t deserve to be homeless), begs Rufus for food. Rufus retorts that Goon is not a very good bum and that bums don’t eat food, they eat old shoes. The player actually gets bananas and canned tuna in that chapter but if they try to give them to Goon, Rufus goes on a tirade about how Goon could be a better bum if he learned to eat old shoes. To progress, the player first destroys Goon’s only possession (an umbrella) and then takes the remains to exchange for a shoe for Goon to eat. It’s a pretty ruthless view of poverty and homelessness, but the joke is not on Goon, it’s on Rufus. Rufus is an idiot with a preconceived and irreversible opinion about homelessness and, in his effort to help Goon, he ensures he will stay in the same rotten situation. The joke is about homelessness, it’s about a suffering homeless man, but the joke isn’t on homelessness, it’s on indifference to homelessness.
But the humour doesn’t consistently make Rufus the butt of every joke. In the first game, Deponia, there is a character named Lotti. Lotti is very obviously a trans-woman and she’s very obviously meant to be laughed at. She is tall, with a sturdy frame, a large square jaw and a shadow of facial hair. She wears a pink dress, pearls and red lipstick. When she talks she coughs between a high-pitched squeal and a gruff shout. The joke is that this person with very masculine features is wearing feminine clothing and goes by a feminine name. Interestingly, in Chaos on Deponia, the female character Goal’s brain implant is placed in the body of a man. Rufus decides not to treat her any different because Goal is still Goal no matter what her exterior and he elects to kiss her to prove he doesn’t think any differently of her. The camera zooms in and Rufus’s “kiss” is more of a slobbery lick, which is funny because that isn’t how you’re supposed to kiss somebody. But what’s important is that, in Rufus’s mind, he not only acknowledges that it’s possible for a woman to be trapped in a man’s body, but he accepts Goal in whatever body she occupies [EDIT: I’ve since learned that viewing transgender people as “trapped in the wrong body” is harmful and reductionist in its own right: gender is not so simple as this or that and many transpeople don’t feel “trapped” in their own body at all]. Of course, it’s then revealed that Goal was not in that body after all and Rufus actually kissed a man by accident. Hilarious.
These sorts of inconsistencies make Deponia a difficult game to like. Because while I can enjoy it for it’s boyish (and it is boyish) slapstick comedy and absurdity, or its occasional jab at (perhaps unintentional) social commentary, it keeps yanking hard on the choke chain to remind me of how unnerving it is fundamentally. Deponia is about a man who falls in love with a woman before she says a single word to him because she represents an ideal. Chaos on Deponia is about that same woman’s personalities being split apart and the hero’s quest to win their heart and, presumably, the deed to her vagina. Rufus is an asshole and we’re not supposed to like him. But he is the player-controlled character so we are supposed to see the world from his perspective. On some level we have to identify with him and want him to succeed: his only redeeming quality is his never-say-die gumption. Admirable, but when applied to sex-politics, way too creepy. There’s an early exchange between Goal and Rufus, where Rufus flirts with Goal and she tells him to bugger off, he replies with, “you keep saying no but your eyes say yes.” Maybe the “No means No” campaign may not hold as much weight in Germany where the game was developed, but in a culture where persistence is widely viewed as a better route to sex with a woman than her consent, that kind of dialogue is chilling.
Eventually, by the time the player gets to know Goal a little bit better, she turns out to actually be a pretty good match for Rufus. They’re quite similar and the chemistry they share makes their romance seem plausible. But that’s in the last quarter of the second game in the series. Which means for seven-eights of the story so far, the primary love story has been about a bad man badgering a mostly silent woman into loving him and/or becoming somebody that would suit him. And no matter how funny it was when Rufus started a housefire by looking for a hammer in a toolbox, the game still spends a significant amount of time making fun of marginalized people for being marginalized, and its plot is still basically “man gets what he wants just because.”
Deponia is sexist. But it’s tricky because it isn’t the same type of exploitation as in Tekken. In Tekken, there’s a woman with pink squid wrapping its phallic tentacles over her breasts and vulva. It’s fairly easy to call that out for being inappropriate. But Deponia is harder to argue with because, “c’mon man, it’s just a joke.” Worse is that many of the jokes are pretty entertaining. I don’t want it to be an intense and heavy deconstruction of gender politics, I just want it to stop being so smug about targeting certain classes of people. Imagine that Yosemite Sam is chasing Bugs Bunny to the ledge of a cliff. Now imagine Sam diving to tackle Bugs, only for Bugs to duck into his rabbit hole at the last second, sending Sam over the ledge, standing in air for a moment before gazing into the camera with a look of sadness and apprehension and then falling with a long whistle. Now imagine Bugs turning to the camera and saying “what a retard!” because, to the abled, disability is funny. Right? Right? This scene more-or-less plays out in Chaos in Deponia. There’s this gaping cognitive dissonance that I can’t settle with the game.
I only devoted about a sentence to this issue in the positive review I gave Chaos on Deponia. But after seeing the image below on Daedalic’s home page promoting the game, I had to acknowledge that I was endorsing a sexist game [EDIT: While I appreciate the increase in traffic, I’ve removed the suggestive picture of Goal from this article because too many people were using it to jerk off]. The image (which I believe is an in-game bonus unlocked by finding the puzzle pieces that make up the image) appears at the front of a video of the dev team smashing up a car in a junkyard. Why did they need to introduce their video with a spread of a naked cartoon? Cause all games are sexist, sex sells, chicks don’t play games—especially not adventure games—and sexism is just a part of nerd culture so get over it.
So that’s what I have to say about Deponia. I don’t want to write it off entirely because there are games that are more misogynistic. But, God damn, there’s no reason for Deponia to take so many cheap shots at people who don’t deserve it. The humour operates entirely on a surface level (and there’s nothing wrong with that), and for too many of the jokes, the surface is, “hey, look at the weirdo, they’re unlike us!” Honestly, now that I’ve reached the end of this article, I’m not even sure if I really have any claim to what I’m arguing. After all, I still liked the game, even though it’s unforgivable at times, and at the time of writing three of the top five search engine phrases suggest that more people stumble onto my writing while looking for porn based on Tekken, not looking for a critical look of gender roles in games. So…there’s that.
†Not all video games are misogynistic and certainly not all are misogynistic in the same ways or to the same extents
†Sex doesn’t sell, it just catches someone’s attention with no promise of keeping it (Bushman, B., 2005. “Violence and sex in television programs do not sell products in advertisements.” Psychological Science, 16(9), 702-708)
†Yes, women do play games. About 47% of gamers are women and women over 18 are the fastest growing audience according to the Entertainment Software Association
†Read Maddy Myers’ experience in trying to improve her fighting game skill for an example of how toxic the fighting game community can be on The Phoenix
This article was possible with the support of community patronage. If you would like to support my future writing please consider becoming a patron.
Further reading: Pina, Kristina. “Story Mode Complete: Chaos on Deponia.” GeekeryDo. Dec 3 2012.
“Deponia.” Fucknovideogames. Nov 24 2012.
“Deponia and Casual Sexism.”The Mighty If!. Oct 22 2012.
9 thoughts on “#1reasonwhy I Have a Problem with Deponia (and other stuff)”
The whole time I was playing I knew there would be people who had problems with this. Daedalic did not shh away from making a protagonist a complete unapologetic utter jerk.
He’s not just insensitive in terms of sexism… he’s insensitive in… EVERYTHING.
You remember the Hearts game, you know that default game in Windows right alongside the likes of Minesweep and Solitaire? You get points for hearts and the person with the least point wins.
But! If you get ALL the hearts AND the spade of queens, you don’t gain points -instead you gain 0 points while making others gain points, helping you get in the lead to say the least.
…… maybe not the best metaphor in the world. But that’s exactly how I feel about Deponia. Rufus does EVERYTHING wrong not only in terms of politcial correctness but also social decorum. On purpose. But it also managed to give him a tiny speck of core redeeming quality in the process.
And… I think it’s one of those cases where it’s okay because it’s so not okay. Like extremely not okay. Like “falling from the sky 2000 ft from the ground into a pile of syringes and surviving” not okay.
Well I can’t say much more since I’m still looking to play Goodbye Deponia. But the point is, it’s just way too exaggerated that I feel like any real life moral discussion feels like a joke in an of itself. Yes it does fulfill the “male fantasy.” In fact I feel like this is the definition of male fantasy so much so that the “fantasy” part can’t stay hidden for very long in any mind.
And that’s why I’m okay with this.
The real problem I have with this game is that all the women don’t have noses.
Definitely think there are some good points raised in this article, although I think it just demonstrates misunderstanding on your behalf to say that able-bodied or able-minded people find disability ‘funny’. Hilariously, Bugs Bunny is well known for saying “What a moron!”, and ‘moron’ is a word that was previously used as a formal term for a form of intellectual disability. In other words, the exact example you described as unthinkable and vulgar literally exists, just with language you personally find less offensive. When people laugh at these lines and the comedy that accompanies them, they’re laughing at stupidity, and whatever word is used to describe that is arbitrary. To me, seeing that as offensive would be like taking offence to someone saying “Are you blind?” to their socially oblivious friend, or “Are you deaf?” to someone not paying attention. If you were saying that being blind or deaf made you a burden, a worse person, or some other barbaric thing, certainly this is something to object to. But this isn’t what these sayings do. I think it’s very harmful to imply stuff like this is ‘ableism’ (if you will), because it shifts the focus away from the mother telling her child not to play with the autistic kid in the schoolyard to something with debatable consequences (that said, there are definitely still instances where using words like ‘retard’ are grossly inappropriate and derogatory, just this isn’t one of them).
On a separate point, I always thought that the whole point of the ‘sexism’ and ‘transphobia’ and whatnot in Deponia was meant to be satire, as with the homeless man. I mean, the female lead is literally called ‘Goal’ for Christ sake, like she’s literally the goal of the game. Given how much Rufus judges things using surface-deep labels which have no ultimate grounding in reality, I thought having the love interest’s name being ‘Goal’ was worth a chuckle, once I realised the joke. I thought the main power from the game, in this area, came from how nothing in the game works like the bizarre fairy-tale version of it which Rufus has in his head. It specifically says “This is what an adventure game protagonist in a sexist, judgemental game would think, and look how at odds that puts him with the real world.”. Mind you, you already made a similar point, so it looks like we just draw the line at what it or isn’t satire at different points.
I definitely agree that there are forms of sexism in games that aren’t acceptable, but I think the whole point of Deponia is subverting that. Having a protagonist who views Goal as a literal ‘goal’ before developing a genuine, rich connection with chemistry is not only satire, but says something meaningful about gender roles in videogames, I think.
Definitely late to the party in responding to this article, but still thought this was a worthwhile response to make. Hope I get a chance to hear your thoughts on it, Mark! You wrote an article worth the read!
Just happened to find this today and thought I’d post it here, it looks like Daedalic takes a similar view to me:
I dunno, the dev’s response doesn’t really do it for me because some of the most problematic elements don’t seem to involve Rufus’s perspective at all. For example, the worst instance IMO is the transphobic depiction of Lotti, not through the lens of Rufus’ perception of her but rather in how the game directly presents her to the player.
So exactly as you said with disability,which is funny to the able people(not my case though) it’s funny for you because you are a man and you don’t suffer it. I’m a woman and I can’t find it funny I find it depressing. Another depressing thing is a man who calls himself a feminist and says the atrocities you wrote in this article justifying the unforgivable. Gross.
I finished playing all three games, and was pleasantly surprised. Without spoiling too much of the third game, the developers clearly became a little bit more self-aware of their writing, and Lotti returns in the third game as a pretty badass character (albeit still in a minor role), and while the stupid voice quips are there, Rufus makes no transphobic remarks about her this time around and treats her as normal; her voice became less of a joke but rather more of keeping with the continuity (which shouldn’t have happened in the first place). Also Rufus gets what’s coming to him by the end, so that’s cool. I really liked the trilogy overall, and while it is kind of problematic it didn’t deter my enjoyment of it.
Great article! It’s a shame, I love adventure games. Unluckily, I bought both of them. :/
I don’t know if it’s unlucky of you to have bought them or even if you enjoy them. There’s content there to be enjoyed, it’s just that there are problems to think abut while you enjoy them. :)