"Did you feel uncomfortable playing that scene?" Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 producer Dave Cox asks me.
I'm sitting in a roundtable interview with a handful of journalists after having just spent more than an hour playing Lords of Shadow 2, the scene in question being one in which a withered Dracula stumbled toward a family with his arms outstretched, the camera abruptly switching to a first-person perspective. He kills the father outright, then grabs the mother and sinks his fangs into her neck, draining her life energy to restore his.
Sexualized imagery is nothing new in vampire fiction, but this scene is kind of stunning for how blatant it is with its allusions to rape. It's a scene that forcibly reminds me of the boxart from RapeLay, down to the woman protecting her child and the disembodied arms (your arms) reaching out from the camera. Regardless of the intentions in constructing the scene, the imagery is ghastly.
Yes, I told Cox. That scene did in fact make me uncomfortable. His reply is so swift that I can barely even get the word "yes" out of my mouth: "That's what we wanted. That's exactly what we wanted."
Cox then goes on to explain that while players should feel "really powerful" and "cool" fighting paladins and titans, they should also reflect on the fact that Dracula is "this bad guy": "Playing through the game, you notice some tender moments with Trevor in the castle; you can see this is a character that has emotion, that has feelings, but at the same time, this is a guy who's not afraid to do horrible things, and we do show that in the game."
Then Cox goes a bit further: "That scene caused a lot of... discussions, I should say... between us and the marketing guys, because they felt we went a bit too far. But we thought, 'This is not going to be a Twilight Vampire or a True Blood Vampire. This is going to be a vampire who is gritty, who does evil; you know, coming back to what vampires used to be -- scary, evil. That's how we want to present it, and that scene does it very well. I think it achieved what we wanted it to achieve, and it comes at a moment in the game when it's quite surprising."
With that, the moment is over, and suddenly Cox is talking about how Lords of Shadow 2 is not a Metroidvania-style game, but that it will be non-linear and encourage exploration and backtracking. That's the trouble with roundtable interviews -- things can move so quickly that it's hard to get in a follow-up question. Still, the "Family Scene" as its repeatedly called comes up more than once, and what Cox has to say about it is illuminating.
In talking about how the team now feels more liberated to do some "risky stuff" after the success of the first game, Cox says: "That family scene is one of those scenes where I guess if were a little bit more timid about things, we probably wouldn't have included that. Now we feel bit more justified. The popularity of the first game reinforced our strength... the freedom to do what we want and break some rules and do things in a different way."
A little later, he talks about the team's goals for the character of Dracula: "[Players] want heroes who are more sophisticated; they wanted heroes that have a backstory; they want heroes that are believable. If we had portrayed Dracula as this sort of rage monster that was angry at the world, it wouldn't work anymore. Our Dracula has a lot more to him as a character. And if players are going to play a 20 hour game, they need to be able to identify with that character."
With that, I'd like to take a moment to disagree with Cox's assertions. It may be that Dracula ends up being a sophisticated character, but the imagery in the "Family Scene" is problematic for other reasons. First, the way this scene is constructed isn't accidental. When Cox talks about wanting to take risks and arguments with the marketing team, it's clear that the scene was constructed with the intention of evoking sexual assault. It's ostensibly there to show that Dracula is evil; but really, the imagery was chosen for its ability to provoke a strong emotional reaction. That it's being used almost exclusively for shock value serves to trivialize a very real horror that women must deal with every day.
Second, you're not meant to sympathize with the victim -- a young woman who doesn't even rate a name or a personality. You are meant to sympathize with Dracula. In the moment that the camera shifts from third-person to first-person, you are Dracula. You might feel horror at what he's done, but that doesn't change the fact that it's from the point of view of the attacker. It's more than a little reminiscent of high-profile sexual assault cases in which the accused is endlessly profiled and discussed, while the victim is reduced to little more than a prop.
Finally, there's the simple fact that Dracula is a protagonist in an action video game, and therefore is meant to be cool. A large chunk of the Lords of Shadow 2 presentation was centered around Dracula's weapons, the improvements to the combat engine, and his battle with a mutated version of the Toymaker. At the end of the day, action video games are meant to be a power trip of sorts, which makes any meditation on their flaws almost meaningless. Yeah, sure, Dracula preys on women, but he also looks really cool with his whip and his Chaos Claws, and he looks pretty sweet fighting that Paladin. In that context, any ambivalence about the hero is bound to feel superficial, and in the case of the Family Scene, gratuitous.
So while I applaud Cox and his team for their desire to take on challenging material, I really hope they cut the Family Scene before Lords of Shadow 2 launches next month. In the end, it's a scene that serves to trivialize sexual assault while failing to accomplish its attended goal -- making us feel like Dracula is awful and evil. We may feel that way in the moment, but ultimately, this scene and others like it are just a few drops in a sea of video game action set pieces. When it comes to characterization, one most certainly outweighs the other.
Normally, I prefer to give creators the benefit of the doubt. But in the current climate, in which allusions to rape and sexual assault in video game culture have sparked extremely contentious debate, Lords of Shadow 2 manages to come off as both insensitive and more than a little tone deaf. With that, I'm comfortable saying that it makes me uncomfortable. But despite Cox's pride in my saying so, I don't see that as a positive in the least.