Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer, Sexuality And The Grotesque In Video Games

WARNING! This blog post will contain themes and imagery that some may find disturbing

Human beings love monsters. All throughout history humans have created monsters to fear, and to help us come to terms with some of the fundamental aspects of our reality. Whether as part of cultural mythology, art, literature or modern media, fictional and mythological monsters have always played a huge role in representing our darkest fears, baser desires and extreme fantasies. The most effective of these monsters are the ones that look like us, but only vaguely. Representations of the natural human form twisted, corrupted, distorted and/or exaggerated in such a way as to appear fantastical, ugly and grotesque. As well as the general adjective, the word grotesque in the context of art, media, performance and literature can also refer to something that simultaneously invokes feelings of disgust and discomfort as well as fascination and sympathetic pity within an audience.

…works of the grotesque can engage us in such a way that bafflement, mystery and possibility are all experienced. The fusion of organic and inorganic parts, the distortion of natural forms, and the exaggeration of fundamental aspects of life such as birth, sex, death, scatological processes, aging, size and gender, not only surprise and baffle us, they call forth a mixture of feelings, often contradictory, of fear, dread and repulsion, of fascination, amusement and derision, that provides us with an insight into the darker side of human nature.

Consuming The Grotesque Body

Christina Goulding, Michael Saren, and John Follett (2003)

 

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Examples of grotesque from art, literature, film and architecture 

Video games are primarily a visual medium. The interactive requirement also means that the majority of narrative based video games rely on the most basic storytelling tool there is, conflict. This usually (but not always) takes on the form of one or more video game protagonists, controlled by the player, venturing forth within the narrative and visual framework presented to resolve the conflicts assigned i.e do battle with the enemies the game throws at us. Monsters are a fundamental cornerstone of gaming, and the concept of the grotesque is a mainstay of video game character design. As video game storytelling and technology have progressed so has the complexity and ambition regarding aesthetic, meaning that video game monster designs have only gotten more imaginative, more disgusting, more visceral and more exaggerated. In other words, more grotesque.

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In mythology the grotesque often combines with themes of sexuality in order to exploit sexual terror and to serve as morality tales. These themes are also incorporated into fables and fairy tales, the purpose being to establish and maintain societal moral framework. Since mythology, morality tales and religious parables form the basis of a great many modern storytelling conventions it’s not surprising that imagery and themes of grotesque sexuality still play a part in media today, whether as straight up, gross out body horror or incorporated into exaggerated social satire. Examples of this include movies such as the Alien franchise, Hellraiser and The Thing, and TV shows such as Twin Peaks, The X Files, The League Of Gentlemen and even South Park.

With all this in mind it’s not really surprising that the idea of grotesque sexuality has also found its way into video games. 

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Haydee

Grotesque sexuality can be utilised as part of symbolic representation of lust, sexual appetite, and sexual perversion. One of the most common ways in which a human form may be designed to be sexually grotesque is by blending it with a non-human i.e an animal, insect, demon or machinery. Classical mythology is replete with both female and male examples, such as mermaids, harpies and gorgons (traditionally female) and minotaurs, centaurs and satyrs (traditionally male) Examples where both the male and female can be found include cyborgs, fairies, and nāgá/nāgī.

This aspect has multiple applications. In the context of video games the character may be a literal blending, such as the woman blended with spider designs of Cydaea in Diablo III, the Vagary of Doom 3, or the woman blended with robot design of Haydee.

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Piggsy from  Manhunt 2 and the Vagary from Doom 3

However, it may be the more subtle idea of a human being mentally disturbed in a way that means they exhibit non-human behaviour and embody non-human aesthetic, such as Piggsy in Manhunt 2. Piggsy is a fat, hunched cannibal, a mass murderer who wears a pig skin mask and barely speaks beyond pig-like squeals and grunts. The sexual aspect of his design comes from the fact that his genitals are clearly on display, overtly referencing his maleness and alluding to his barely-human animalistic mental state.

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Werewolf from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

One way in which blending human and animal can be used in grotesque sexuality character design is a creature that combines elements from both, rather than being strictly half and half. This can be seen in the tradition of the werewolf. In mythology werewolves have a long and rich history, with examples found in cultures all over the world such as Ancient Greek, Norse, South American, Eastern European, Roman and Native American. Werewolves are usually an allegory for the internal struggle with the more primitive animal excesses of human nature. They can also be associated with puberty i.e sudden body changes, growth of excess hair, menstruation and awakening of sexual desire. In most of the modern werewolf mythology lycanthropy is transmitted through saliva from a bite, forming a none too subtle connection with bodily fluid, unrestrained sexual appetite and sexually transmitted diseases. In film the grotesque sexuality of werewolves is usually embodied in the transformation sequence, such as the camp fire transformation sex scene in The Howling.

In video games examples of werewolves can be found in The Elder Scrolls Franchise, Altered Beast, Diablo 2, The Wolf Among Us and The Order: 1886. In the character model below you can see again that the male genitals are overtly displayed and fuse with the body during transformation, giving the subtle appearance of an erection. This alludes to connections between sex and violence, chiefly themes of male sexual prowess, bestiality and the threat of rape.

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The Order: 1886 Elder Lycan

Grotesque sexuality can also be employed in symbolic depictions of good and evil, sin, religious/societal restrictions regarding sex, and potential consequences of sexual excess. Religion and folklore is often associated with grotesque sexuality as part of teaching ideas about morality. As such the images used vary in different cultures and time periods but the overall themes usually share similar concepts. Fear of sex and sexuality is one such theme. Poet John Milton’s interpretation of the Christian creation myth, Paradise Lost, gave the knowledge of sex as being the primary cause for the destruction of paradise. The Gods of Ancient Greece were renowned for their sexual exploits, which were not always consensual. Sexually deviant and grotesque mythical creatures existed in every culture, such as the centaurs of Ancient Greece (who were renowned for rape) the Tokoloshe of South Africa (a hairy extremely well endowed male demon that gives victims sexually transmitted infections) the Incubus/Succubus (male and female demons who drain their victim’s energy through sex) and the Lidérc of Hungary (who appear as a past lover/relative to drain victim’s life force through repeated sexual encounters)

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Belief From Bayonetta 2

Grotesque religious imagery is also used in video games, examples can be found in games such as Bayonetta 1 & 2, El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron and the Devil May Cry series. Examples of religiously themed grotesque sexuality can be found in games such as the God Of War series, all three Diablo games, and Dante’s Inferno.

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The Temptress from Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno, based on the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy, contains a number of character designs that utilise grotesque sexuality imagery to exemplify repercussions of sexual sin, since one of the circles of hell (and seven deadly sins) is Lust it’s hardly surprising. Dante’s journey through hell is one of redemption for numerous sins and atrocities committed in life, including sexual misconduct with a female captive. One of the enemy creature designs is The Temptress, a scantily dressed humanoid female that moans seductively before attacking with metal hand claws or with a long, retractable, scorpion tail that protrudes from a bloody opening down the length of her torso. I would interpret this not as a representation of weaponised female sexuality but more as a mirror of Dante’s own weaknesses regarding lust. However this is merely a personal interpretation.

One of the boss fights in Dante’s Inferno is Cleopatra, Queen of Lust, a half naked female that can alter her size, summon Lust storms, and excrete unbaptised babies from her breasts. This is a gross parody of birth and symbolic of the ripple effect of sin i.e that unrestrained lust can have consequences such as unwanted pregnancy.

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 However the main antagonist of Dante’s Inferno is obviously the Prince of Hell himself Lucifer. The character design of Lucifer incorporates grotesque sexuality by giving him an unnaturally tall and muscular physique combined with goat legs, horns and a large and very obvious penis. As Cleopatra’s breasts utilise a grotesque distortion of the female biological function of birth, so Lucifer’s legs and genitals employ grotesque malformation and parody of the male form.  Lucifer’s penis is an overt reference to weaponised male sexuality, male sexual prowess distorted by the threat of sexual violence.

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Exaggerated displays of genitals, and distorted genital imagery, are pretty commonplace within grotesque sexuality, often relating to human fascination with genitals and their functions combined with sexual, personal and societal taboos. Human genitals have a staggering array of association, the simplest being sex, sexual pleasure, procreation, menstruation, birth, urinating, defecating and fear of sexual violence/violation.

Connecting with lust and uncontrolled sexual appetite are themes of sexual frustration and violent mental instability. Examples of this can be found in the Silent Hill game series, The Suffering 2 and Outlast. In the Silent Hill games the male characters deal with sexual frustration, insanity, and violence that manifests itself as monsters that use grotesque sexuality within the character design, such as Pyramid Head and the Bubble Nurses. In Silent Hill 2 the monster Pyramid Head appears to rape the Mannequin monsters, a reference to protagonist James Sunderland’s frustration with the lack of sexual activity between himself and his gravely ill wife. In Silent Hill: Origins protagonist Travis Grady manifests his sexual frustration in the form of The Butcher, a humanoid male that stabs it’s victims through the abdomen and slices down through the genitals.

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Monsters From The Silent Hill Series

As I mentioned before with Piggsy, grotesque sexuality can be employed to indicate mental disturbance. In The Suffering 2: Ties That Bind the protagonist encounters The Creeper, a monster composed of a misogynist pimp that murdered his own prostitutes and other various women. The Creeper takes the form of a middle aged man with bladed tentacles that hold the heads and torsos of murdered women. In the game Outlast, the protagonist explores a remote psychiatric hospital, filled with deranged and grotesque individuals such as these two naked cannibals known only as The Twins. Once again we have dicks on display as connection with insanity as well as the violation and devouring of the flesh.

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The Twins from Outlast and The Creeper From The Suffering 2: Ties That Bind

Noticing a theme with the males yet?

Video games are actually full of genitals, however in the grand tradition of artists like HR Giger designers often use grotesque sexuality to (often not too subtly) disguise genitals in the form of monsters, scenery and technology. Why this is may be explained by understanding human obsession, amusement, and insecurity, regarding what we consider to be the most private and intimate parts of our body. You may conclude that this is a cheap and easy way for video game designers to use sex to sell video games. However it is worth noting that in games in which the player controls elements of creature design and environment aesthetics, such as Minecraft and No Man’s Sky, you will still see your fair share of genital scenery and genital based monsters.

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A complaint from video game critics is that when grotesque sexuality is deployed in female character design it can be a negative representation of femaleness, and a weaponisation of female sexuality. This critique asserts that making female bodies into something gross and disgusting reinforces long held societal prejudices about women, such as the temptress that uses sexual wiles to manipulate and mislead men.

Personally I’m inclined to think this is an oversimplification, and that what we are really dealing with here are complex associations between core aspects of human existence. While yes, female sexuality has been unfairly maligned and negatively portrayed within the folklore and mythology that has influenced modern storytelling, realistically it’s fair to say that male sexuality hasn’t fared much better. The larger idea reinforced in these myths is that ALL sexuality, expressed outside the socially and religiously acceptable boundaries of heterosexual marriage, is unwise and likely to incur negative consequences. These are ideas that are still prevalent in modern storytelling, although this is beginning to change.

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Succubus from Diablo III

Combining male sexuality with the grotesque in character design may be rarer in video games but it does exist and is no less a spectacle than its female counterparts. Looking at the video game examples listed above, I could make the argument that if utilisation of weaponised female sexuality in video game character design reinforces the idea that women are untrustworthy seductresses then weaponised male sexuality used in the same way reinforces the idea that men are violent rapists. As it is while depictions of female nudity and sexuality, weaponised or otherwise can often scrape an ESRB T (Teen) rating in the US, or 15 rating in the UK, depictions of male nudity and sexuality will virtually guarantee an ESRB M (Mature) or even an AO (Adult Only) rating, or 18 rating in the UK. This imbalance in the rating system means that video game character designers have little choice but to skew utilisation of grotesque sexuality in favour of the female form.

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Creature from Penumbra: Black Plague

According to Consuming The Grotesque Body

…our fascination with the grotesque may be conceptualized as a means of arousing anxiety by giving expression to repressed infantile fantasies which in turn acts as a liberation from fear

I interpret this to mean that we use the grotesque in order to frighten and discomfort ourselves in a controlled manner so that we may acknowledge, understand, and ridicule our fears about our own existence. Grotesque sexuality is still used by modern artists, such as Dorothy Iannone and Lisa Yuskavage, to ask questions about human form, sexuality, gender, birth and death. I see no reason why video games are not able to ask these questions or explore ideas about the very fundamental aspects of our world, in the same way that other other art forms have done since prehistoric times. Both the positive and negative aspects of human sexuality invite examination and exploration. As video game narrative and design becomes more complex, and the technology more capable, so video game developers will be able to further push the boundaries of grotesque sexuality in character design. They will make truly hideous and disgusting monsters for players to have fun scaring themselves with, all the better to face the real terrors of our own everyday lives.

Thank you very much for reading and also an ocean of love to everyone that helped with this piece. If you read this and couldn’t believe I missed a particular point or example? Be sure to let me know in the comment section.

By Angela Night