[“Bayo-Sutra” is a week-long series of short blog posts on Bayonetta that leave discussions of her body and sexuality behind, in the hope of finding more about this fascinating game series to discuss than one issue alone.]
Video games have forgotten how to make me smile.
This isn’t to say that they have forgotten how to be enjoyable. I’ve genuinely enjoyed most of the new games I’ve played over the past few years. But I’ve realized that in general, games don’t know how to make me smile. They don’t have the ability to reach into that part of me that has feelings — human emotions — and turn the right levers so that I acknowledge what I’m feeling is real and true.
It’s easy to read this as “games aren’t funny anymore” and certainly, that’s a feeling I’ve had. A lot of the games that have made me smile — the Saints Row and Borderlands titles, charming pieces like Animal Crossing, and of course the subject of this week of mini-posts, Bayonetta — do indeed do so through humor. But I’ve also smiled (through my tears) at, say, Kingdom Hearts, a game series which basically everyone in the universe seems to enjoy being Conspicuously Too Cool For because it’s so thoroughly about having feelings. I bring up that example because it is proof that my smiles come pretty much from feeling like the game acknowledging that I have Emotions™ and then me having those emotions.
So, let’s talk Bayo and joy. Spoilers for Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 to follow, so cut link ahoy.
One of the things I love about Bayonetta the games, and Bayonetta the character, is that it makes me smile. It is a series that knows what joy is, and which pursues it through both gameplay and flavor elements. This week in various posts, I’ll be talking about different elements of the game that make me feel that joy: its music, for example, or the beauty of Umbran sisterhood. But I think those individual elements are just part of a greater picture, one where the entire universe of Bayonetta is built on the idea that play should be joyful.
I’m probably not using the word “joy” properly — I imagine someone who cares about ethics in games journalism will be along any minute now with a dictionary definition — but to me, it certainly has a lot to do with “enjoyment” though again, that has little enough to do with “happiness.” Maybe I don’t have the words to articulate it well enough yet. I think on games that make me feel “joyful” and they are almost always games with intense self-awareness. As much as I adored Final Fantasy XIII, for example, I don’t think it made me feel “joyful” at any point. Comparatively speaking, Final Fantasy X-2 (perhaps my favorite game of all time) filled me with joy all the time. There is just something about it that made me smile. It could be a lot of things: the snappy, crisp dialogue; the refreshing difference of an all-lady cast, the quick-paced and kinetic combat, or the story. Maybe it’s a gestalt of all of that.
But to put this in perspective, think about the times you’ve picked up a weapon or piece of equipment in a game. There’s the notorious “over-the-head display” that’s a standard for the Zelda games, for example. In various manshooters, it seems like you just… heft a gun and point it, with no ceremony. I even looked into the God of War games, thinking: if there’s a series out there that might have totally gratuitous weapon equip stuff, it’ll be that. I was totally disappointed.
Now watch this: the scene from Bayonetta where she first equips her four magical guns, the Scarborough Fair —
I mean… that’s probably not necessary, right? She could have just strapped them on while Rodin made her drink. But where’s the fun in that? There is something about the pointlessness of this scene that makes it appeal to me. You know? The way that Rodin says “Don’t break these” and so in response she just chucks a couple into the air as if she were throwing them out. Then she breakdances on the bar while she slaps the guns on before accepting the tiniest, pinkest alcoholic drink I’ve ever seen. The music is this fantastic uptempo jazz nonsense. No offense if you’re a God of War fan, but Kratos wouldn’t that because he doesn’t know what joy is.
The list goes on and on. In Bayonetta, Rodin makes an offhand joke about not putting a chainsaw on Bayo’s arm (a reference to Madworld, by the same devs). In Bayonetta 2 not only does she finally get her chainsaws, you can put them on your feet and ride them around as chainsaw rollerskates. Do you need chainsaw rollerskates? Probably not. But there they are.
I don’t want to go on and on because this is just an introductory post, but really: think about the last time a game made you actually smile. Really dig deep and think. What did it do that caused that smile? What sensibility did it embrace? The things about Bayonetta that I love, that I’ll talk about this week, are the things about that are joyful, to me. I hope you’ll be interested in hearing more about them.