I checked my email yesterday morning first thing, like I do every day. The first message in my inbox: A promotional mailing from an online retailer encouraging me to preorder an upcoming import game called Omega Labyrinth.
Everything about Omega Labyrinth sounded great! It's a roguelike dungeon crawler (love those!) for PlayStation Vita (a personal favorite system!) from developer Matrix (who have been responsible for quite a few fantastic portable RPGs over the past decade!). And yet... there's this one nagging detail. The theme of Omega Labyrinth, as described in the promo email I received, is "a breast-expanding RPG." Maybe that doesn't mean what I think it means, I thought to myself as I read through the email. But no: It means exactly what it sounds like. Omega Labyrinth features a team of female warriors who go venturing into random dungeons in search of treasure, and as they grow in skill and power, their breasts increase in size, eventually straining against and even tearing through their costumes. In proper roguelike style, the heroines lose their gear when defeated; I can only assume they lose their enhanced cup sizes as well.
And in case the point wasn't clear, the game's logo features a sort of Final Fantasy-inspired duotone line art illustration of a young woman behind the logo typography. Unlike in Final Fantasy title images, however, the drawing interacts with the shape of the typography. You know how upper-case omega — ? — looks like a horseshoe? Lower-case omega resembles a sort of rounded W. Like thus: ?. Earlier this year, Nippon Ichi used omega's distinct shape to turn the game's logo into an emoticon (*?*); Omega Labyrinth, on the other hand, uses the Greek letter to define the rather generous form of the breasts belonging to the woman in the illustration.
The logo's actually kind of clever, I guess. I could see that same gag being used in some satirical sex-heavy '70s underground comix, or as a cartoon in Playboy, or something. But Omega Labyrinth isn't as honest about itself as that; it will push the limits of what will almost certainly be a CERO D rating — the equivalent of the ESRB's M — straining at the boundaries of acceptability like its poor protagonists' blouses, without ever actually plunging all the way into nudity or, god forbid, sex.
In addition its fetishistic inflation mechanic, Omega Labyrinth also includes an unspeakably demeaning item appraisal system. As in most roguelikes, the heroines will encounter all sorts of unknown equipment in the course of their adventures, which must be identified before you can safely use them. Other roguelikes offer various mechanisms for accomplishing this: Paying a shopkeeper, using a special scroll or spell, or the classic desperation move of use-identification. Omega Labyrinth, however, allows you to identify items by... rubbing them between your heroines' breasts. So we have Matrix, a talented studio, creating a legitimate roguelike for Vita: All good things. Then, they've drenched it with a thoroughly repellant coating. What a waste.
This is not, however, an excoriation of Omega Labyrinth. Its mechanics sound pretty gross, but I've seen worse. (Read up on Valis X sometime when you're not at work, or around other humans.) Nor is this a condemnation of developer Matrix, or of D3 Publisher (who presumably commissioned the game). I'm not a fan of what they've come up with here, but that's capitalism. They've found a demand in the free market and have chosen to answer it as best they can within the limitations they're given.
No, my complaint is with the limitations themselves: The ratings restrictions and console content approval rules that result in games that skirt the boundaries of pornography without being allowed to just be honest and show the nudity and sexuality their creators clearly want to. Weirdly, this ends up making the games far sleazier than they'd be if they would (or could) embrace a video game equivalent to the "hard R"; instead of full-frontal nudity or even more risqué content, you have games that treat their female casts like objects to be poked, prodded, and generally molested... but always with their clothes on, or with some sort of contrivance obscuring their genitals. And somehow, it makes it all seem so much worse.
It's a phenomenon that's even affected squeaky-clean Nintendo: 2013's Fire Emblem Awakening included an illustration of obsessive psycho-mage Tharja wearing a bikini, her backside on prominent display. Someone at Nintendo of America had the brilliant idea of obscuring her bikini-clad backside with a drape of cloth. This had the hilarious effect of making the illustration appear far more lewd than it had originally, giving the impression that she was parading about wearing nothing at all below the waist.
Similarly, just a few weeks ago, XSEED published schlocky grindhouse action game Onechanbara Z II: Chaos in the U.S. As ever, the latest Onechanbara features a team of warrior women barely clad in the most micro of micro-bikinis, an unpretentious, crass action game created in the tradition of the sleaziest of '70s exploitation flicks. Regardless of whether or not you're on board with the series' eagerness to exult in brazen sexism, it certainly doesn't pretend to be anything more than a cheap, low-class thrill — it matches its sleaze with dumb, button-mashing action, which is rendered with surprising competence, given developer Tamsoft's track record.
That being said, the latest entry in the series came with a download code for a costume called "Strawberry Banana Surprise," which turned out to be a perfectly fitting name: The "outfit," surprisingly enough, consists of two strawberries and banana for the women to "wear." Much like Nintendo's Tharja censorship, the net effect of this turned out to be far more obscene-looking than if the characters were just running around naked. Clearly Tamsoft wanted to go full-on Kekko Kamen with its characters, but couldn't take it that far under Sony's watchful eye on PlayStation 4... so they came up with a solution that ended up looking vastly more vulgar than if the girls had just been fighting zombies au naturale.
Also relevant: This week, Atlus published Dungeon Travelers 2 here in the U.S. on Vita. From what I've played of it so far, it's a pretty solid dungeon crawler — not as refined or engrossing as Etrian Odyssey, but a lot more accessible than, say, your average 5pb-published first-person RPG. Which is actually kind of surprising, given that developer Sting is known for impossibly dense and confusing RPGs like Knights in the Nightmare and Yggdra Union. That said, it's certainly not a casual RPG. The bosses are brutal, and even the introductory dungeon will chew you up and tear you out. I suspect Atlus picked it up for localization in order to have something Etrian-like on Vita.
This is all well and good, but the puritanism and restrictions that gave us Onechanbara's naked women clutching bananas in a decidedly pornographic fashion is also how we ended up with the ridiculous opening scenario of Dungeon Travelers 2. There, the player's character — evidently the last surviving man in his world, given that every other character I've come across has been a shapely girl, including the monsters — begins his quest with a corny meet-cute in which he collides with some former (female) classmates at the entrance to the first dungeon. The two girls fall down in a pile, with the one clad in a shorter skirt flashing her panties to the world while her friend peeks down at the exposed lingerie, a flush of naughty excitement on her cheeks. The exposed underpants resemble shrink-wrap more than they do than any natural fabric I've ever encountered, leaving no detail whatsoever about this teenage girl's nether regions to the imagination.
That isn't the worst Dungeon Travelers 2 has to offer by far; in fact, Atlus ended up removing four illustrations from the U.S. version, as their blatant sexual imagery — though, as ever, without revealing any actual genitalia! — would have pushed beyond the acceptable bounds of the ESRB's M rating... or maybe it would have just caused Atlus too many headaches. In any case, those images' excision was no loss, and the publisher was wise to cut them altogether. The inevitable handful of complaints that emerge about censorship over the removal of borderline child pornography are surely a pale shadow of the potential trouble involved in actually publishing a game filled with borderline child pornography.
But again, it's not the games themselves that are the problem here; it's the circumstances that have led to their existence. Omega Labyrinth's boob-logo and Dungeon Travelers 2's shrink-wrapped genitals and Onechanbara's obscene plaintains and countless other similar video game products that slam-dunk the classic Bechdel Test thought experiment (by featuring casts filled with women who don't seem to have the slightest interest in wasting time talking about men) en route to presenting their audiences with a harem of girls who exist almost entirely for the sake of titillation: They're all a symptom of a creative medium trapped in a state of stunted maturity. The fact that video gaming's most visible treatment of sexuality boils down to cartoon games revolving primarily around strategically torn clothing and overly enthusiastic jiggle physics speaks volumes about just how arrested gaming's development has become. If games would mature — if they were allowed to mature — games like Omega Labyrinth would undoubtedly still exist, but they'd be a single facet of how the medium treats sexuality rather than being very nearly the entirety of it.
The one thing all the games mentioned here have in common (besides copious pandering to teenage males) is that they're all from Japan, and that's not a coincidence. And no, the story here is not that Japan is a country full of sex perverts; if anything, the general public there sees the likes of Omega Labyrinth as even more shameful and deviant than Americans do. Japan's attitudes toward nudity tend to be far more lax than America's, yet there's considerably more genuine nudity and sex in mainstream American console games than in Japanese. That, I suspect, has everything to do with the fact that the idea of actual adults playing video games in their free time has found far more traction in the West than in Japan, where games remain very much a pastime for children and, to a lesser degree, women.
Which isn't to say Western games handle sex and nudity particularly well, either — outside of small indie creations specifically designed to tackle matters of gender and sexuality, games make 50 Shades of Grey look like high literature by comparison. Games generally fail to rise above awkward fetishism, and more serious attempts almost invariably fall flat on their faces.
Unfortunately, even in the West, Mass Effect's robotic makeout scenes (stilted sex as a reward for correct dialogue choices) and boobs-as-scenery in the obligatory bordello sequences of dark-and-angsty action games are about as far as mainstream games are willing to go. But that's probably to be expected in a medium that still struggles to tell a truly great story. In AAA games, the closest thing that passes for a great story is something Spec Ops (which gives you only one path forward — killing innocents — then tells you how terrible you are for working within the game's constraints) or BioShock Infinite (with its disingenuous message that maybe the people fighting against racist oppression are just as bad as the racist oppressors). Little wonder that the industry still struggles to handle the subtleties of deeper human emotions.
Sex is great! Human bodies are great! Love and romance are great! Video games' handling of these things... is not. Other forms of entertainment tackle such matters with at least occasional competence; by comparison, video games tend to give the impression of a 12-year-old obsessing over Victoria's Secret catalogs and scanning fuzzy stolen cable images for the merest hint of a nipple. It's pretty embarrassing, to be honest; but I suppose it's a necessary step in adolescence and maturation. I don't necessarily want games like Omega Labyrinth to go away... I just think it's time for them to grow up, you know?