The Mystery of Bayonetta
So, I've mentioned She With the Improbable Shoes before, but let's talk about her in depth. This, for all you non-gamer people, is Bayonetta.
Yes, she shoots people with the guns built into the heels of her shoes. Yes, she's doing a boobs and butt pose there, and subsequently twisting her body into a shape that contortionists would not attempt without outside assistance. And yes, she's frequently seen as nothing but tits and ass, as the marketing for her game is shameless, off-putting to me, and aimed squarely at straight men. She should lie in the same heap of rejects to which I relegated Scarlet Blade, and other indifferent games that use women as sex objects to sell themselves.
Somehow, I find myself feeling charitable towards her.
Being Sexual vs. Being a Sex Object
Much as I try, I can't write Bayonetta off completely. For a character that's presented as nothing more than tits and ass in the marketing, Bayonetta herself seems to have a very different idea of her role and her sense of self. She's both a sexual character and a sex object at the same time, which is... well, sort of rare, in video games at least. (Women as sex objects is nothing new, of course.)
From the start, she gets some really astonishingly awesome, character defining lines. It's the way she moves, the way she talks. Tone is so important for characters. That's the interesting thing about Bayonetta - she's established very quickly as both playful and dangerous, flirty and terrifying. She's powerful, while she performs some truly ridiculous maneuvers in combat that are reminiscent of bad porn movies.
She was fully realized for me during one of the early cutscenes, when she's in the car with Enzo (another character and ally) and he comments on her most recent battle at the start of the game, where she was dressed as a nun. She says, "I can't help it if I like the little outfits." And there she solidifies. Now I get it.
Some very tight writing went into the making of Bayonetta. It's not what you expect.
Bayonetta shows all the tropes of being a dominatrix. She calls her guns toys. She makes very, ahem, interesting references in combat. Her entire archetype, in fact, revolves around sexual power, to the point where the method of her display of power (combat) is intrinsically tied up with her display of sexuality. She makes it her own in a way that you'd simply never see in other tits and ass games.
I'm playing through the whole game right now, and it seems like I'm seeing something new and interesting every few minutes. Her dark past, and the mysterious figures who lurk there. The way she plays with Luka when he turns up first, and the look of sorrow on her face when he accuses her of killing his father. How Rodin pushes her, and she pushes back just as hard. And the other characters don't treat her as a sex object, which is... sort of awesome, all on its own.
The more I think about it, the more I see Bayonetta as something rather unusual. The definitive answer, I think, is when you try to imagine her as a male character.
The Lady Killer
Let's call him Bayonetto. The name has, heh, phallic connotations, to start with. Bayonetto dresses provocatively, flirts, and displays his sexuality and power at very turn. He is, in fact, the classical lady killer, the Casanova who breaks hearts indiscriminately. But the people who know him don't react to his behaviour - that's just him being himself, after all, and they are presumably used to him. But he has secrets, a dark past, and motives that come out during the game; all tiny indications that he is more than just a stereotype.
This is the character that we could have been playing - another Ezio, perhaps, from Assassin's Creed, but in the style of Devil May Cry. Incredible, isn't it? Hideki Kamiya, the development director, asked for a female lead, and it was certainly a ploy to appeal to male gamers, but Platinum Games ultimately created something that appeals to female gamers.
What is the Lady Killer trope, in essence? It's a power fantasy.
Bayonetta as Female Empowerment
Perhaps this is the answer to the question of whether Bayonetta deserves my charitable feelings towards her. Everyone asks the question of whether she, as a character, is empowering or objectifying. Well, the truth is that she is both, at the same time, and that's frankly astonishing. Remember what they say about, for example, James Bond, a prototypical male power fantasy character? 'Women want him, men want to be him.' Reverse that and you find that it's completely true of Bayonetta - men want her, women want to be her, because she is a female power fantasy character.
So my judgment of her is this: the mystery is not whether Bayonetta is a worthwhile character. I believe she is. The mystery is how such a character was even created in the first place; how did Platinum Games get so much of her right, when it must have been entirely by accident? I don't believe for a second that they intended her to be appealing to female gamers, especially considering how she was marketed. I think it's due to the nature of games themselves, as I've said before. Games being so long and immersive forces developers to do some kind of characterization, especially for the player controlled character.
It's not perfect, and they don't always get it right, but if they can produce something like Bayonetta, well, I have a good feeling about the direction that video games are taking right now. Here's to Bayonetta 2 - and I may just cry if it's a WiiU exclusive.