May 7, 2013 by Daniel
I should preface this by saying that I absolutely adore Rayman: Origins. I love its bold and energetic style – the pastel colours that practically pop off the screen, the soundtrack that mixes classic Disney-esque orchestration with musical traditions from around the world, and the fact that even your collectible “coin/ring” surrogate, “Lums”, are teeming with life. I love the tight platforming that hits that perfect sweet spot of being challenging but never frustrating, by way of ditching the idea of “lives” altogether and strong level design that always makes it your fault when you die. And I love the enthusiasm, personality, and confidence that the game exudes at every turn, with side missions that reward their completion merely by giving you the pleasure of more gameplay and a lead character who is always smiling.
But goddammit if you aren’t allowed to criticize the things that you love – such an attitude leads to blind fanboyism, and that’s one of the worst things an appreciator of art can be. The unfortunate truth in this case is that the one nagging issue of Rayman: Origins – I mean literally the only thing I dislike about it – is its treatment of female characters. By which I mean the damsel-in-distress, inexplicably oversexualized nymphs, whom you spend the first half or so of the game rescuing.
The lack of any female characters other than the nymphs is the first big problem here. Rayman Origins is a game that can be played with up to four players, and to that end it has a wide selection of character skins that the player can choose from. There are 16 characters that can be unlocked in this game, but only a pink variant of the Teensy race of characters, called Teensette, is female. Granted, there is nothing about the Teensies that is specifically gendered – however, the Teensies that have crowns are only ever referred to as kings, and in past Rayman games peasant Teensies have been shown constantly fighting over the title of “king”, insinuating that they are all male. Considering there are really only 3 characters in the game – Rayman, Globox, and a Teensy – I don’t see why other palette-swaps to reflect greater gender diversity couldn’t be made. They don’t even have to be particularly obvious, as Globox and the Teensies are already pretty gender-neutral in design – just making a couple characters who are referred to as “she” on the character select screen would be enough.
But of course the bigger issue here is the over-sexualization of the nymphs, which is unfortunate not only because it’s just one more example of extreme gender-inequality in an industry where the issue is particularly rampant, but because of the way it runs counter to both the portrayal of the characters in previous games in the series and the stylistic choices of the game itself.
Let’s take a look at how Betilla the Fairy was portrayed in the original Rayman:
As we can see, she’s quite modest. Like Rayman, she has no limbs, and she wears a garish clown uniform that both covers up any semblance of actual body shape and gives her a childlike appearance that really works with the mystical, cartoonish atmosphere of the original Rayman game.
Here’s what her Rayman Origins redesign looks like:
That’s, um, a little bit different, right? The clown outfit is gone, replaced with a tubetop, miniskirt, and thigh high boots. Her hair has changed from a rather innocent “long but without much shape” look to a cascade of luscious red locks. The big gloves have been replaced with little hands that have been strategically placed into a dainty pose. She has an exaggeratedly curvy body type, with huge legs, a tiny midriff, and a pair of big ol’ titties. And all of the nymphs have the exact same body shape, barring a couple of small changes.
Listen, I’ve got nothing against boobs. I love boobs! On my hierarchy of Things That Are Good, they’d be pretty far up there along with food, music, and yes, video games. On a typical day, if someone comes up to me and asks if I would like to touch some breasts, I will say “yes, please” and hold out my hands in front of me, lightly cupped, in anxious anticipation.
But when I’m playing Rayman Origins, enjoying myself as I jump, swing, punch, and float my way through these beautifully realized worlds, and the game breaks my immersion to practically yell “Hey, check out these sweet TITS!”, I’m much more apt to dart my eyeballs from side-to-side and just say “No, thank you.”
Because Rayman Origins is, by all the counts, a kids’ game. Not in the traditional sense, in that it’s not made specifically for children and in fact much of the game is probably too difficult for the average child, but in the same way that Nintendo games are kids’ games. It’s rated “E for Everyone”, for one, but besides that, the aesthetic of the game communicates child-like innocence – the bright colour scheme, exaggerated movements and facial expressions of the characters, and quirky music score all suggest a cartoonish vibrancy that is particularly kid-friendly. In this way, the over-sexualized nature of the nymphs just doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the game’s visual design, an uncomfortable blotch in a game that is otherwise the very pinnacle of squeaky-clean family fun. When I’m exploring this wide-eyed, innocuous little world, I’d rather be completely unencumbered by any influence of the grown-up “real world” – and that includes the mere concept of sexualisation.
It’s just a disappointment that the game does so much right, is such an antithesis to the drudgery of modern mainstream games in nearly every conceivable way, but still falls into the same awkward social pitfalls that inform every facet of the industry. It’s not, by any means, the most egregious example of the misogyny problem in games, nor is it such a big deal that it affected my absolute adoration and subsequent ecstatic recommendation of the game itself. But it’s an annoying nag in a near-flawless game, and the fact that the messed-up gender politics of the industry has infected a game that is otherwise pure and innocent is a sharp reminder of just how severe this particular problem remains.