Oh, my friends. It’s been some time since I had a moment or two to craft a blog post for you, but today I really, really just saw something that made me get on here and share my thoughts with you.
So Gamestop had a sale a few weeks back where a number of PS3 titles I’ve been thinking of picking up — Disgaea 3 and Valkyria Chronicles — were down to $20, so I went and grabbed them. Having basically plucked the ripe fruit of Final Fantasy XIII and devoured it in what I would call record time, I was in need of something for occasional diversion. One of my students in Digital Games and Representation played Valkyria Chronicles last quarter and after reading his paper (and, uh, getting massively spoiled on the game) I decided to pick it up. However, Disgaea 3 charmed its way into my PS3 first, so I didn’t really get a chance to play around in VC until today.
Oh boy. Where to start.
Now, I am not very far in the game, so this is relatively spoiler free. So far, the premise seems very prototypical Japanese game/anime about war: unlikely pacifist is thrown into role of military commander and his/her focus on non-military, peace-related things ends up being the key to winning the combat, so that peace can return and we can all realize that war is bad. If you’ve ever seen a Gundam series, for example, you realize I just described the plot of at least half of them to you right there.
The player’s in-game surrogate is Welkin Gunther, said not-quite-but-close-enough pacifist. After his hometown is basically destroyed by The Empire (not kidding) and he pulls a tank out of his ass to escape (also not kidding) he becomes the leader of Militia Squad 7, via said tank, the Edelweiss (still not kidding). One of the first things you do as commander is pick from a semi-random, pre-generated list of militia “recruits” to form your squad. These recruits have first and last names, distinct looks and personalities, and belong to a class of soldier. When I got around to the Lancers — rocket-wielding anti-tank infantry — I was presented with this (naughty language in video):
Yeah. I mean… yeah. Let’s just be fair: the guy playing sounds like a jerk, and yes that is John DiMaggio doing the Gay Bender voice. But yeah. That’s Jann Walker, Anti-tank rocket-wielding infantry. He’s got a crew cut, a lisp, and an RPG and he isn’t going to take your shit.
This random quirk seems to come from Valkyria Chronicles‘ core game mechanic of “Potentials,” where each solider has a list of personality traits that can affect their combat stats. Jann, for example, has the Fancies Men potential: he wants guys to notice him, so his stats improve (not kidding) when he’s around other male units. He also has the Largo Lover (or something similar) potential that increases his stats around storyline character Largo, another Lancer who looks like this:
Right. And lesbians, don’t think you’re left out. Dallas Wyatt is a female character who has the Fancies Women potential (see above, then invert the genders) and Alicia Lover (Alicia being a female storyline character). However, she also (for some reason) has the potential Man Hater, which lowers her stats when she’s around men. To really throw a capstone onto it, she’s an Engineer: a class that fixes tanks in the field. With power tools. Again, the guy playing the game in this video? Super winner (and more naughty language in video):
I just… yeah. His reactions to this stuff are priceless. I mean, not to make the blog post more about him than the characters, but really… just awesome stuff.
So to recap, Militia Squad 7 has two possible gay members. A gay man with a phallic rocket launcher, a drag queen’s worth of verbal sass, and a crush on a bear… and a power tool-wielding lesbian from an all-girl’s school who just hates guys. I haven’t encountered him, but apparently there’s a bisexual character named Ted who’s a comedian and showoff. And… a masochist who gets off on pain, and a sniper who just hates people, period. Right.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right. These are stereotypes. They are also stereotypes with a distinctly Japanese flavor toward homosexuality, where the butch takes a backseat to the femme raised in an all-girl environment whose lesbianism just comes from her lack of exposure to men, and gay men are not super-feminized, but rather are too masculine: they obsess over muscles, manliness, and brotherhood. If you’ve ever heard of the Cho Aniki games — one of which is available in the US via, of all things, Wiiware — then you’ve experienced that Japanese gay stereotype in an oblique way:
However, what I find less interesting than the stereotypes are two things: the game’s treatment of them mechanically, and the reactions I’ve read through some quick googling.
Now, I don’t see much mention of Dallas as an Engineer; I get the impression that because they’re so specialized and not focused on attacking, that Engineers don’t tier very well. Jann, on the other hand, is a Lancer and specializes in blowing things up.
In fact, Jann is apparently super good at blowing things up:
I can’t tell if that guy’s the same guy from the previous two videos, but if it is: heh. All I can say is “heh.”
From all accounts I’ve read, Jann is one of the best Lancers in the entire game, second only to Largo and, depending on who you ask, Audrey. Who is a good reminder of this: the stock of Lancers available to me on my playthrough included typical butch guys, Jann, and a somewhat elderly-looking woman named Yoko who promised she would do her best.
Her best blowing up tanks, guys.
Now, comparatively, look at two things. Check the comments on any of the Jann videos I linked above, via their actual YouTube pages. Then check out this thread on Gamestop’s forums for the game, as well as this thread from the Gamefaqs forums, and finally the discussion on this rpg.net thread.
What gets me about these audience responses is that they’re so diverse. You’ve got a smattering of the standard idiots who not only can’t use Jann because he’s gay, but blatantly say that even thought they know he’s mechanically excellent they can’t use Jann because he’s gay. But interestingly, you also have people who use him because of his stats despite his sexuality (or their distaste for it), people who thought he was funny/amusing and then were surprised by how good a Lancer he was, and people who embrace both halves, loving both his character and his stats.
This is why I’m so divided about Jann. The stereotype, of course, frustrates the [eff!] out of me. I really wish it didn’t need to be that way. But on the other hand, the game takes that personality thing and turns it into a benefit. It turns out that being gay and loving big bearish Largo helps Jann to be amazingly good at his job. The other members of Squad 7 don’t rag on them, don’t abuse them… they accept it, they embrace it. Largo might not reciprocate those feelings romantically, but his dialogue in combat with Jann proves that the two are at least friends (the same with Dallas and her crush Alicia). That’s an amazing thing.
I am sort of sad that Dallas’ in-game role of support makes this less tenable for her; she doesn’t have moments of awesome where she obliterates a tank in one shot, for example. I also feel like her Man Hater Potential is a serious smack in the face. Gay men are okay with women, but lesbians have to hate men? Evokes images of the man-hating lesbian that are outdated, silly, and pointless… which the game then mechanically enforces by penalizing you for not keeping her around women only.
However, is it possible that despite his lisp, his drag queen vocabulary, and his totally over the top muscle obsession (thank you Japan), that Jann Walker in some small way is helping straight gamers to adjust to being around gays?
I don’t really know one way or the other. I think it’s a very complex issue, but it is one worth exploring.