To Switch a Witch
With the re-release of her first two games on the Nintendo Switch, a third on the way and her creator already musing ideas for a fourth, Bayonetta is in the news again. And, as is typically the case with Bayonetta, she’s drawn quite a crowd and her fair share of controversy and anger. But of course, you can’t be a powerful, confident and self-assured woman and not.
Bayonetta is the modern day evolution of the archetype pioneered by Lara Croft and Rayne, and is the most honed, polished and refined version of that concept. She is an overwhelming, overclocked, unstoppable, inescapable feminine force of nature, and that confuses and frightens lesser people. The protagonist of an eponymous series of action games created by Hideki Kamiya and his studio Platinum Games (formerly Capcom Clover Studios), known for Resident Evil, Viewtiful Joe, Devil May Cry and Okami, Bayonetta is a witch who carves out her own niche in the war between Heaven and Hell by laying waste to legions of angels and demons as a one-woman mercenary army. She is pure magick, and, like all witches, she is liminal figure who stands outside of social norms and conventions. She makes the existing order profoundly uncomfortable because her very existence is an affront to their worldview and long-held assumptions.
From a video game history perspective, the best point in Platinum’s oeuvre with which to compare Bayonetta is the Devil May Cry series. A hallmark of the sixth generation, those games featured platforming and puzzle solving elements as a loose framework to show off their combat: An action system involving a complex mixture of light and heavy attacks triggering breathtaking combo moves. There was exploration, but the game generally progressed through a linear series of arenas where protagonist Dante would have to square off against wave after wave of enemies. The Bayonetta games are a spiritual successor to Devil May Cry and play the same way, but that’s not the only way they’re comparable: Devil May Cry’s story, and especially Dante, were known for being deliberately excessive camp parodies of melodramatic narrative.
Calling Bayonetta “over the top” is a horrible cliché that does not in any way convey the extent to which she absolutely revels in exaggerated camp. She is a magickally-infused exotic dance battler dominatrix who wears pistols for stiletto high-heels and summons Eldritch Abominations and medieval torture devices made out of her own hair. Hair that she also wears as a backless jumpsuit, and without which she is entirely naked. Bayonetta is the woman who codifies the phrase “orgasmic combat” par exemplar, she knows it, and she loves it: She spends every battle moaning and grunting in very specifically suggestive ways, her finishing moves all involve punishing her enemies in exactly the way you’re thinking and one of her in-game taunts involves her lying on her back, spreading her legs wide and shouting “Come On!”. And that’s not even just the beginning.
Obviously sexuality is a primary theme in the Bayonetta series. The primary one, arguably. But unlike digital seductresses of days gone by, Bayonetta is not sexualized or sexually objectified: She is a sexual being who is sexually dominant and intimidating, and there’s a fine, but critical, line between those two concepts. Her design is the first clue, not in spite of but because it trips up critics so frequently. A common criticism is that Bayonetta has a “noodle-like” design and that she looks oddly stretched, but while she’s certainly tall and leggy (though actually not even the tallest character in her cast), the truth is she’s actually more realistically proportioned than most video game heroines. The only reason she looks odd to us is that we’re so used to seeing animetic doll-like proportions for women, with outsized heads and underdeveloped limbs. To be blunt, Bayonetta looks like an adult woman, and we’re not used to seeing that in a medium owned almost exclusively by adolescent boys and adolescent attitudes.
This may seem like an anticlimactic revelation in 2018 when laser-scanning and motion capture of name-brand actors has become the norm (another attempt to make video games as close as possible to Hollywood movies), but in 2009 when the first Bayonetta came out, it was genuinely challenging. I submit it may still be. But while her design is telling, her behaviour is the clincher: Bayonetta owns and flaunts her sexuality and she very visibly enjoys it. She is willfully sexy and sexual for her own benefit and happiness first and foremost, and that gives her agency not afforded to other characters for whom sex is a guiding aesthetic. And that, sadly, remains timelessly revolutionary.
It also helps that everything about Bayonetta is performative. She exhibits parodic excessiveness in a way those who choose to read her games need to acknowledge and comment on, but she also displays a medium awareness that’s intrinsic to how the game works. Whenever the in-game camera slips into the Male Gaze, Bayonetta is immediately aware and plays to it, deliberately teasing the viewer on the other end. This is not a one-off joke, but is an aspect of a major theme the series is designed around: As action games the Bayonetta series is far less accessible than the musō genre, featuring over 30 contextual button combos that require precision timing and even delays, plus between nine and thirteen unique weapons that add even more complexity to the mix. It is incredibly challenging even on normal and easy settings, but that’s only because Bayonetta makes you work for it. If you want to dance with her and play at her level, you’ve got to keep up. Once again, we have an example of an action series wherein the core gameplay is a manifestation of the themes the game is working at more broadly, and seems to come from its mascot character’s own positionality.
In video games, story is either a superfluous afterthought or a titanic behemoth that devours all else, but it is almost always kept very firmly separate from the gameplay mechanics. Not so with Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2: Critics and reviewers will say the stories are pointless clichéd and confusing nonsense that can be safely ignored, but when they do they miss how in truth the narrative comes out of the same motifs the games are always working with. They are first of all send-ups of self-indulgent supernatural Western Gothic horror, but they are also very clearly performative manifestations of the series’ pet themes. The first game plays its cutscenes framed by old-fashioned film reels (they even have a sepia tone), a performative conceit that, just as the curtain calls and bolted-on scenery in Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 do, flags the way the story is meant to be read and interpreted.
Then there’s the fact the overarching plot of both games is made up of a complex set of nested stable time loops. In the first game, Bayonetta is looking to uncover the secret of her parentage and ends up protecting a little girl named Cereza and interacting with a wannabe ladykiller historian named Luka. The implied heteronormativity is subverted when it’s revealed that Cereza is actually Bayonetta herself from when she was a child, pushed forward in time by the forces of Heaven and Hell who are trying to erase her from existence. Any sympathy Bayonetta develops towards Cereza is therefore self-love and self-care, and thus Bayonetta has implicitly given birth to herself. Furthermore, any affection she has for Luka is only because of the way she (as Cereza) saw him supporting her (as Bayonetta) when she was young. This plot is complicated further in the second game when Bayonetta must travel to Hell to rescue her childhood friend (who is, incidentally, Joan of Arc) and she interacts with the past selves of her parents, who explain why they behaved the way the did in the leadup to and during the first game. And naturally, Bayonetta’s mother is an almost exact duplicate of Bayonetta herself.
This is especially interesting as Bayonetta is a series wherein the Super Hard mode (and the Japanese collector’s edition of the Nintendo Switch version of the first two games) is actually referred to as Infinite Climax. An old chestnut of feminist media criticism is that Aristotelian narrative is fundamentally patriarchal because it is based around a singular bell curve of rising and falling tension, peaking with a “climax” in the middle that mirrors the stereotypical male orgasm. Women, meanwhile, are supposed to be able to orgasm in perpetuity as long as stimulation and energy permit. And the time travel plot of Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 is a diegetic microcosm of the way video game narratives have always worked and will always work: Nothing can ever be truly “resolved”, because the player can always replay the game, thus experiencing the story all over again. In other words, the Bayonetta games reappropriate the fundamental structure of video game narrative itself as feminist detournement, and they do so while overwhelming players with unashamedly hypercharged feminine sexuality.
When the original Bayonetta first released in 2009 on the XBOX 360 there was a torrid debate in video game discourse as to whether or not it was sexist and objectifying or not. At the time I was still in academia working in social studies of knowledge and it got to the point it was even a topic of conversation in our department lounge. The consensus we all reached was a simplified variation of the argument I’ve been spending this essay building: That Bayonetta represents a female parody of the cartoonishly overmasculinized nature of the rest of the video game industry. She is as ludicrous a caricature of femininity as other video game leads are of masculinity, except for the crucial difference she’s aware of it and does not at all play it straight while other games tragically do.
Curiously I never saw any complaints about Bayonetta’s sexuality from players, female or otherwise: The debate and controversy was entirely limited to the video game industry press, which back then was even more sexist and exclusionary than it is now. It seems to me the Bayonetta “controversy” was in truth another example of a phenomenon that happens every so often in video games where it slowly dawns on the medium, with the faintest and haziest glimmers of self-awareness, that it is in fact violently misogynistic and exclusionary and thus begins to panic and self-police in a desperate attempt to prove to people (and itself) that it’s Not That Bad After All. And inevitably in such cases, the medium always chooses the wrong targets. And it is a moment that continues to this day, because you can see the same sense of anxious uncertainty over how to read Bayonetta in the reviews for this most recent Nintendo Switch compilation: Fans embraced her without qualification long ago, but she still makes the industry nervous. And she should, because she is an existential threat to the video game industry’s built-in prejudices and power structures.
Just like a witch, eh?
Nowadays though, you are more likely to see people upset about the Bayonetta games in the context of the second and third entries being exclusive to Nintendo platforms, and the series in general becoming more closely associated with Nintendo’s stable (Bayonetta herself even showed up as a guest fighter in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS and WiiU). People who played the original game on the XBOX 360 (and maybe the PlayStation 3) are livid about the new games’ Nintendo exclusivity, and this is in spite of the fact they wouldn’t even exist without Nintendo: Platinum Games had been trying to shop around a new Bayonetta game for years and no publisher was interested, even license holder SEGA (it might be fun to speculate as to why). Nintendo themselves approached Platinum to publish Bayonetta 2, and even stepped in to help pay for development costs with their own money. It seems ironically fitting to me that Bayonetta would become so close to Nintendo, and that gamers would be violently angry about this: Because if there’s anything that has the remotest chance of proving that video games can be saved from themselves, it’s the Nintendo Switch.
The console has spent the past year selling itself on the idea that video games are modular and adaptable and can open themselves wide enough to appeal to a diversity of people and tastes. And it seems to be working, just judging by a quick glance at sales figures. In the process of doing so, Nintendo has been systematically shutting out the reactionary and possessive Hardcore Gamer (and Nintendo) subculture by offering experiences that seem specifically tailored to let them know then need to get on with their lives and stop trying to control the discourse and the industry. And I can’t think of a better home for Bayonetta: In spite (or perhaps very much because) of what gamers think, she absolutely deserves a place at Nintendo’s table. Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2 may be re-releases, but there’s an entire generation of players who have not experienced the first game (which will turn a decade old next year) and given the sales of the WiiU (which Bayonetta 2 was previously exclusive too) that game needs another chance at finding an audience on a console that actually *has* an audience.
As the industry at large continues its inexorable march towards becoming a gated community, it seems the witching hour is one again upon us. I wish Bayonetta and her new lovers the best of success.
March 2, 2018 @ 5:18 pm
A few days ago, Kotaku published this podcast with Gita Jackson and Maddy Myers talking about this. They cover some of the same points as in this essay – including being disappointed in the level of discourse that goes on around games with characters like Bayonetta, when people aim at the wrong targets:
A few years ago, Maddy Myers wrote the article
Femme Doms of Videogames: Bayonetta Doesn’t Care If She’s Not Your Kink for Paste Magazine, which for me is the most persuasive argument so far that Bayonetta is a positive depiction of female sexuality.
But I take issue with this sentence in your post:
That’s not how I remember it! From what I recall, forum discussions I encountered at the time tended to revolve around three subjects:
3.. “This is a fantastic game but it’s so cringeworthy – I’m too embarrassed to dare play it with anyone else in the room, in case they happen to see something like the Joy Torture Attack and wonder what the hell I’m up to.”
That third one may not have been the most nuanced feminist reading of the game, but it was definitely a case of players criticising the sexuality, not just the press.
March 2, 2018 @ 8:16 pm
Feminist Frequency has also looked at the Bayonetta games in the past. There are some reasonable points to be made about Bayonetta as an object of the male gaze (including a marketing ploy where people were encouraged to peel postcards from a giant subway poster of her, eventually showing her to be naked. Classy, or what?) It’ll be interesting to see if any of the criticism is taken onboard.