I have a well-documented tendency to watch movies while I play videogames, and so, while I was going through Take This Waltz the other day, I was also playing through Lollipop Chainsaw. (In case you're wondering, I'd sometimes pause one or the other when a particularly interesting scene was occurring. And at one point, I paused both when the urge to play Candy Crush Saga became too great.) It made for a very odd experience. In the case of Waltz, I was watching something with a fairly positive feminist message and a fairly unlikeable female lead; in the case of Lollipop Chainsaw, I was playing something with a fairly problematic and possibly outright sexist message and a fairly likeable female lead. It was troubling. More on game mechanics, voice acting, and liking things that are bad for you after the break.
My game studies training has drilled it in me that the first thing I should do in any discussion of a game is discuss its game-ness, long before I start detailing the plot or characters. It's a policy that I agree with, and honestly, it's a false notion that you can really discuss either plot or characters without game anyway. And yet... the sheer mechanics of Lollipop Chainsaw is probably the least interesting thing about it. But we'll do it anyway. If this had somehow been a game made in the 80s or early 90s, it would be a sidescrolling brawler ala Streets of Rage or Double Dragon. Now, it's more of an adventure action sort of thing, and the closest comparison I can think of for it is games like the 2003 Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds (God, is that game really a decade old?) or the more recent Dead Rising series. Our protagonist is Juliet Starling, 18 year old cheerleader / zombie slayer, depicted here:
itty bitty raisins.) Juliet slays vampires with the help of her family: her father, a dude on a motorcycle; her older sister, a woman trained with a high-powered sniper rifle; and her little sister, who mostly just gets into trouble / captured (is it still a damsel in distress trope if another damsel is rescuing her? I guess? But you're rescuing a number of people of both genders. All right, we'll get to it later.) And rounding out the support cast is Nick, her boyfriend. Very early in the game, Nick is bit by zombies, and Juliet manages to preserve his head through magic, and keeps it on her otherwise unnecessary belt. The game's primary set of "tools" (or verbs or what have you) for interacting with the game is a pom-pom attack to stun enemies, a chainsaw thrust, a chainsaw thrust going for the legs, and an evasive jump. There are also a few special moves that generally involve weaponizing Nick, and a cannon that gets unlocked about half way through the game. You get gold coins for defeating enemies and more plus platinum coins for beating three or more at a time. You can use the gold coins for general upgrades and unlocking combo moves. And the platinum unlocks soundtracks, concept art, and... new outfits for Juliet. (Later.) There are some variations in gameplay--in the arcade level, for example, you wander through a Pac-Man like maze and scramble up a low-rez sky scraper. And in the farm level, you plow fields/zombies and shoot at incoming boulders. But the brunt of the game is the four types of attacks I mention, which is nice, as it's moves related to that activity that you've invested in. Health is measured in Lollipops, Juliet's guilty pleasure.
The best part of the game is its style and charm, and it has a lot of both. Dead Rising is a good comparison, because it's about that level of parody, and at least that level of over the top nonsense. In fact, Lollipop Chainsaw is probably even more over the top, as its zombies are less a virus outbreak, and more a magical excuse to do whatever the designers felt was amusing, ala the Evil Dead series. Bosses include a zombie hippy, a zombie goth, and the game's final boss is a morbidly obese zombie Elvis. The real stars of the game, though, are the characters of Juliet and Nick. And their charm comes almost entirely from the charm of the voice actors. Juliet is voiced by Tara Strong, veteran voice actor. It's funny--the game tries to sell Juliet as this sex-kitten cheer leader, but all I could think was,
Of Twilight Sparkle.
Of Seth from Lost Odyssey. Okay,the Seth example is moving toward teh sexy. (Except for the neck. Has this artist seem a human neck?)
But you get the point. I'm ready to accept anything and anyone Tara Strong voices as someone I care about and someone who makes me laugh. But a sex object? Not really. And so, in a weird way, being familiar with the voice actor's history actually made me more willing to accept Juliet Starling, because in the back of my mind, I forgave the character's excess because there was some part of the actor in her. I'm willng to accept that that statement doesn't make a lot of sense. Our voice actor for Nick makes an important contribution too. He's voiced by another veteran of the field, Michael Rosenbaum. While probably best known for his portrayal of Lex in Smallville he's also done a lot of voice acting, though mostly for DC, as various characters, mainly the Flash. (I honestly think that Smallville might have ruined him for live action stuff--I find seeing him with hair very distracting.) And the two of them basically banter their way through the game, providing most of its laughs and pretty much all of its likeability. Nick plays the straight man to Juliet's sometimes naive sometimes outrageous comments. (Sample. Juliet: Do you think we'll ever have kids some day?" Nick: "I don't really that's relevant to my current situation.") Considering he's a head on her belt, they've got good chemistry. The closest comparison I can think of is The Last of Us--not because Juliet and Nick are anything like Joel and Elly, but because both games were more about going on an adventure with two characters you wanted to follow rather than going it alone to save the world. I dunno if I felt "immersed," whatever that may mean, but I do know I felt some affection for my juvenile, immature duo, and as long as the game didn't get in the way of that, it was okay with me. (And a small note: the soundtrack was also part of the game's charm. as you may expect when it was handled by Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence and Akira Yamaoka from the Silent Hill series. And it also used Pac Man Fever, Mickey, You Spin Me Right Round, Cherry Bomb, and Sleigh Bells to great effect.)
And that's when we reach... the problem. A few posts ago, I blathered on at length about satire in games. Lollipop Chainsaw is not a satire, though. If there are targets, they're all over the map and not particularly well implemented. It would be easy to turn a game with this plot into a satire--high school invaded by zombies---but it doesn't really go there. Rather, it's a parody of the zombie movie genre. That's a pretty well-trod area in film, and only slightly less so in videogames. But my point is, you can't excuse its problematic portrayals of Juliet in particular by saying that it's satirizing such portrayals, because it's not really saying anything worthwhile on that front. I will say that the game doesn't do anything particularly distasteful on that front--there aren't any rape jokes, and the closest it gets to anyone behaving grossly around Juliet is her lecherous Asian sensai. (More on him in a second.) And it's also worth noting that Juliet is the hero here, and her football star boyfriend is her sidekick. But again, those points don't really excuse the endless gratuitous panty shots or camera winks.
Where the game really deserves some criticism, though, is its racial portrayal. As I mentioned, Juliet has an Asian sensai who trains her in the art of.. zombie fighting, I guess, and he works overtime as both a martial arts and an old man who leches on young women, fulfilling two Asian sterotypes at once. And the game doubles down on the problems here by granting Nick the sensai's body at the end of the game--apparently, there's nothing weird about a white teenage dude's head taking the (admittedly vacant) body of an old Asian man. I'm vaguely offended by the whole thing and then I remember that the game was written and designed by a Japanese developer, and then I'm not sure how to take any of it, especially the implied representations of small town America. (Well, actually, it was designed by Suda 51, the man in charge of the Japanese game developer Grasshopper Manufacture, and filmmaker James Gunn, which probably goes a long way to explain some of its oddities.)
Look, I'm used to dealing with problematic mass media products. I'm a fan of superhero comics, I read a bit of manga, and I watched Gossip Girl. Each has their own oddities when it comes to race or gender, or what have you. I think it's okay to watch or play or read or whatever any of these things, as long as you keep what you're doing in mind, and keep a firm grasp on your opinion of what's okay and what isn't. I think Lollipop Chainsaw misses a step sometimes in its depiction of women and race. But I think it has some clever things to teach in terms of general tone and writing/performing decent characters. It was a fun little game, and, all in all, I'm glad I took a day or two to play it.