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Yes, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 Did Make Me Feel Uncomfortable

How one scene may end up unintentionally defining a game by trivializing sexual assault for the sake of easy shock value.

By Kat Bailey. Published 3 months ago

"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.

The best community comments so far 177 comments

  • 3 months ago

    "Yes, Lords of Shadow 2 Made Me Feel Uncomfortable: The Case For Censorship"

    I think it's really sad to specifically hear Cox talking about how they feel more confident as a team, and how that confidence is letting them go for their creative vision for the game without compromise. And then right after that, someone asks them to cut it.

    "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."

    Why is it clear? I'm at a disadvantage here, not having played through that scene yet. But it sounds like murder to me, not rape. And as you said, all vampire movies since Interview with the Vampire basically blur the lines between eroticism and violence, and that's a series from a female author. If you want to categorize every single vampire attack in Interview with the Vampire as rape, you probably could if you wanted to twist it into that. Hell, in that movie they turn a child into a vampire, and then eventually Louis has a romantic relationship with her.

    I don't remember any professional film critics writing to the director, pleading with them to delete content from the movie; and that movie came out 20 years ago, in 1994. I know that as an internet blogger, it's very easy to dismiss any critical commenters. But seriously, think about it. How sad would it be if professional film critics wrote articles appealing for censorship?

    "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."

    It sounds like the same theme as the first game, where Gabriel murdered his wife and Claudia (I think that's her name) and then his guilt tormented him and twisted him. The game is about him, this isn't a secret. And that scene shows that he's gone down the same road as the first game, but is infinitely worse. I don't think we're meant to know who she is in Lords of Shadow 2, because he feeds on so many people over the years that you could never really detail all the victims. They are his food. Humans don't get into the backstory of all the animals they eat, and name them (yes, I'm a vegetarian).

    You have every right to be bothered by a scene, and to have your opinion about it. You have every right to tell others about it, because if people find they agree with you about most games, maybe they'll feel the same way. But I think its sad for a professional game blogger with a voice and early access to advocate for censorship before your audience even gets to see the game. I want to see Mercury Steam's vision for Dracula, not yours. No offense, but it is the truth.

  • 3 months ago

    The most offensive thing to me is that the Castlevania series was turned into a subpar God of War clone.

  • 3 months ago

    As has been mentioned a few times, sexual imagery has been implicit in vampire lore since at least Bram Stoker's Dracula. But there, as in most media, it's usually depicted as seduction rather than assault, and even when it's presented as the latter it's pretty unusual for the point of view to change to place the viewer/player as the perpetrator of the act. Can people REALLY not understand why someone would find that to be excessive and in poor taste? Has the discourse about gender and sexuality in games really degenerated to the point that a woman simply expressing her discomfort with being thrust into that situation merits pages of angry blowback by people either resentful or terrified of any perspective alien to their own? How frustrating.

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