Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
Today I want to write about something I've been wrestling with for a few weeks, a new MMO for mature audiences that makes me feel very... conflicted. I'm not quite sure where I stand when it comes to Aeria Games' Scarlet Blade. So far most of the coverage of this game has either focussed on how appalling the avatars are or how awesome they are, but few people have tried to engage with it beyond that. The avatars certainly are... something else... but they're barely the tip of the iceberg.
I played Scarlet Blade for the first time a few weeks ago, and since then I've been struggling to form a solid opinion about it. I feel almost guilty about my continued ambivalence. There are a lot of reasons to hate Scarlet Blade... So why don't I? (NSFW)
Scarlet Blade is the localized version of Queen's Blade, an asian MMO which I believe is in-turn based on a softcore hentai/adult franchise of the same name... So right off the bat, you should have some idea of what to expect. I didn't start playing Scarlet Blade looking for an amazing experience, a well-written story, or even a good game. The only reason I decided to try Scarlet Blade was for the setting.
And for the mechs.
There are far fewer sci-fi MMOs than fantasy ones on the market right now, and when you're looking for slightly more lighearted and colorful sci-fi the list gets even smaller. Scarlet Blade is full of all the clichéd lasery tech effects and slightly gross (but still pretty cool looking) sci-fi bodysuits and goggles you could ask for. And yes, giant mechs. You get access to your own personal battle mech before level 20, but you're hardly robot-free until then, with a little robot pet and a pretty rad looking mini motorcycle mount coming to you a few levels sooner.
But the mechs. You guys. The mechs.
... Granted, there is a heaving and jiggling more-or-less nude female torso mounted to the front of that super-cool mech, but come on, look at how cool it is.
Oh, also, you can't see this in the video but that particular mech has dainty little high heel feet. Seriously.
But these are all things I'm willing to overlook for an entertaining sci-fi world. I can get past them, if only for those awesome robot fights and laser whips.
If only that was all I would need to get past.
I've got a laundry list of issues with Scarlet Blade, so I'm just going to roll up my sleeves and get right to it...
1. The Avatars Are Ridiculous
I mention this only because this is why Scarlet Blade gets most of the attention it does, but it shouldn't be a surprise that a game based on Queen's Blade would feature massive breasts, tiny waists, and the shiniest thighs imaginable. Jenn Frank recently wrote an article about large breasts and game characters which has changed my own opinion on the issue, but even if it hadn't I don't know that I'd be interested in criticizing Scarlet Blade on this alone. It is what it is.
But the armor is just...
You start off in a bathing suit before working your way up to "better" outfits, some of which cover the side of the body with nothing more than a strip of tape to cover the rest; some ensembles cover the nipples, while others don't even try. Yeah, it's stupid and tacky, but it's still par for the course, and far from the most offensive thing about the game. Scarlet Blade even censored the outfits of the youngest looking race, much like TERA did for its western release, so I suppose it could always be worse.
2. The Classes Are Gender-Locked and Race-Locked
I hate gender-locked classes, but this game takes it to a new level altogether. All playable characters are female, period. On top of that, if you check the info about each class on the game's site, you'll find out that each class (like "Whipper" and "Punisher", har har BDSM allusions) is constructed from the DNA of people from a specific region of Earth... Very specific regions of Earth, actually. There are two European classes and three classes from the Americas. There's no one from Africa or even Asia represented. Why even include this detail at all? It makes nearly no difference in the story from what I've seen so far, it's just pointlessly exclusionary.
Now if all that's giving you a bit of an identity crisis in regards to your future Scarlet Blade avatar, don't worry, because...
4. You Aren't Your Character
I mean that literally, not just in a real versus unreal sense of things. In the fiction of this game, you're a human controlling her. She talks to you directly, and NPCs talk to you and her separately. They always assume the player is male, and on top of that there is a constant hostile attitude between the two of you. At one point early on, your own character implies you would probably rape her if given the chance.
Scarlet Blade seems to nod to the voyeuristic nature of playing a game almost solely for titillation, but it doesn't end there. Maybe they always assume you're a male because you're human, and as far as I can tell there are no human women in Scarlet Blade.
There are human NPCs, but they're all male, while all the female NPCs are robots, holograms, clones, arkana... Everything but human. I'd like to believe this is some sort of self-aware meta-commentary, but I just don't have that much faith.
5. The Game Has Two Factions in Theory, But Not in Practice
I made two characters in Scarlet Blade. The first was on the "good" side of things, worshipping Mother and standing for law and order. One of her first quests involved getting duped by and then capturing a member of the opposing faction named Cherry. Cherry even wears the same costume as the baddy on the faction-select screen during character creation. Fast forward to my second character who is herself a baddy. She started in the same area, talked to all the same NPCs, and when Cherry appeared again it was the same mission, same costume, same everything, except with the faction names swapped. The sides could have been shirts and skins, if anyone ever wore shirts in this game. It's just lazy, and it tells me that the developers either really didn't give a shit or didn't think that I would.
6. The Audience
The highlight of my time in Scarlet Blade was a discussion in chat about the avatars and the game's aesthetic. One of its most adamant defenders was someone who had named their character FemaleTrash. You can't make this shit up.
During the closed beta, Aeria Games was selling a bundle that unlocked the ability to see your avatar completely naked for a mere $20, and I'm sure plenty of people took advantage of the offer if only to make their visits to the community pool/dance club areas more enticing.
Oh, did I forget to mention the pool/dance club?
I guess what I'm supposed to gather from all this is that Scarlet Blade just isn't for me. Even if I was a straight guy I'm sure I would still be bothered on some level. The implication is that if you like these sexy sci-fi ladies you would obviously want to control them, and that if you like robots, you will like them even more with pendulous breasts attached. And of course there are those remarks about assault and rape, which imply that kind of behaviour is natural for men. That should be offensive to anyone, male or female.
But either way, I'm a straight (human) lady; there is literally no place for me in this game's world, and no expectation that I'd even be interested in partaking.
... Even if I do still kind of want to play it.
Even if some of the jokes make me laugh.
Even if I really like the idea of big robots with laser whips.
Even if I think some of the characters are cute or cool looking.
I look at all the bullshit in this game that I've listed off, and I still can't bring myself to hate it. When I first tried it out, I told my friend that it didn't offend me as much as it likely should have precisely because it's so overt. It's one big joke, and to me that seems far less insidious than a game trying to present all these things with a straight face towards a mainstream audience. However, he was quick to point out that I might be laughing at Scarlet Blade, but others are still laughing with it. Sometimes it feels like this MMO desperately wants to be campy and self-aware, but at its core it's still trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator without letting them in on the "real" joke.
And you know, maybe I'm still giving it too much credit. Maybe I'm looking for a wink and a nod when there's nothing more there than a pinch and a catcall.
But damn, those mechs...
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.