We’ve all had it, that moment where all we want to do is gently place our finger against someone’s mouth and tell them “shhhh”. While shooshpapping will never work its way into the discourse, shaking one’s head in disappointment is going stronger than ever.
There are several corners of the gaming sphere I don’t slink into, and the FPS (first person shooter) genre is one of them. While I enjoyed games like Destiny and Left 4 Dead, both of those games had other enticing elements to them that made me stay. This intro is to say that while I’m speaking of Halo, I honestly don’t know anything of its canon, and as much as I look things up, there will be things I’m missing simply because I didn’t experience the game as its huge fanbase did. The much anticipated release of Halo 5: Guardians has come and gone, and the hype is real. So I guess franchise chief Frank O’Connor decided it was a great time to drop some lore explanations down for Halo’s followers. Keeping my disclaimer in mind, I have yet to run into a Halo fan who truly believes O’Connor’s addition was beneficial to the series, or that it even made any sense.
Spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 5 under the cut.
It appears that people have been wondering for a while why the series’s AI companion, Cortana, is depicted as being mostly nude. Or at least enough people have been wondering that O’Connor decided to comment on it. During a livestream with GamesRadar, O’Connor starts the explanation with “Firstly, she’s not actually nude, because she has neither clothes nor private parts,” so you know the rest of the explanation is going to be good. He elaborates by saying:
One of the reasons she does it is to attract and demand attention. And she does it to put people off so they’re on their guard when they’re talking to her and that she has the upper hand in those conversations.
It’s kind of almost like the opposite of that nightmare you have where you go to school in the nude, and you’re terrified and embarrassed. She’s kind of projecting that back out to her audience and winning intellectual points as a result.
So, let’s unpack this a little bit. A humanoid hologram appearing as a nearly naked woman to attract and demand attention is a reason that makes sense. I may squint at this, but the explanation is, at least, logical. O’Connor mentioned earlier in the interview that the AI of the Halo universe tend to take on personalities and various visual traits because they feel like it’s part of who they are; it’s the image they want to project to the world. So, if this is Cortana’s deal, then okay. Fine. It’s when O’Connor keeps talking that things get a little more suspect. I honestly do not believe for one minute that naked people put others on their guard. Sure, nudity can be used to make powerful statements, but “on their guard” sounds like Cortana is trying to threaten people with her nudity, which I doubt is the case. Additionally, it seems like a large chunk of her time is spent dealing with Master Chief and other space marines, who probably aren’t going to be swayed too much by pixelated boobs. O’Connor’s final paragraph, though, is something I’m still trying to make sense of. It seems as though he’s trying to say that Cortana is so confident in her nude form that other people are going to feel embarrassed for her, and through this she’s somehow getting the upper hand on the person she’s interacting with (instead of, you know, because she’s an AI).
This mess of an explanation seems to come from the fact that the Halo franchise has switched hands, moving from its original developer, Bungie, to 343 Industries. 343, perhaps, felt obligated to have some lore-specific reason why Master Chief’s companion is always naked, since, from what I can tell, no other AI decides to take this on as part of their image. However, this reason ends up falling flat on its face as O’Connor finishes this topic by saying, “That’s not why she was designed like that. That’s how we’ve backed into our fiction. But that’s the conceit and that’s why she does it.” So what’s he’s saying here is that whatever 343 decides to put into the canon–basically everything he’s just said to GamesRadar–is not actually true. And the audience knows it’s not true. Cortana was made naked because its target audience and her original (out-of-game) creators wanted something sexy to look at, so why not shove a naked woman in there.
While I really don’t like the idea of women being sexualized for the sake of being sexualized under the male gaze, I almost find it more insulting that 343 is trying to backpedal and say “oh no no, you guys, there’s a canonical reason for this!” Despite Cortana’s appearance being developed by a woman (Lorraine McLees), even she admits:
It seems that videogames studios are mainly made up of a bunch of guys, and the women in their games are perhaps portrayed in the way they themselves see women. Here, the same 3-D artist who wanted to not portray women as sex objects to be ogled and drooled over, coincidentally, modeled Konoko and Cortana. Never mind that Cortana was basically a naked hologram!
As such, I find there’s something really uncomfortable about some guy presenting a naked woman and saying it’s okay because she’s “empowered”, even as the artist goes on to say that it’s nothing like that at all.
A similar situation has been brought up with a fellow AAA game title that came out this year, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain—although at least Hideo Kojima isn’t trying to explain it away as the character being “empowered”. One of the characters you meet in the game is Quiet, a female assassin turned to the side of Snake and his cohorts. Quiet’s outfit is, well, this:
We all know that it’s ridiculous and doesn’t make any sense in terms of subterfuge or protection from the various elements. Kojima teased players on his Twitter by saying “I created [Quiet] as an antithesis to the women characters appeared in the past fighting game who are excessively exposed.” From a quote on The Mary Sue, the reason for Quiet’s bizarre outfit is she’s “…infected with a sci-fi parasite, so she can only breathe through her skin…” which… okay. That sure is a reason. But the internet has already provided us with tons of other outfit redesigns (like this one) that provide Quiet with just as much open skin, in addition to The Mary Sue pointing out that a male character who suffered from the same parasite as Quiet wore much less revealing clothing.
While these two situations aren’t technically the same, they suffer from the same problem of developers telling their audience that their women characters have to be nude or almost nude for whatever reason. And these reasons are ridiculous, emphasizing that in the end both the devs and players just want to see a sexualized, perhaps even objectified woman rather than figuring out something else. Developers know this, their audience knows this: what’s the point of the deceit? While we should honestly be moving away from the point where a game relies on sex appeal to attract players (or at least not equally dole out the sex appeal), it’s more insulting to be told by male developers that a female character is dressing this way out of necessity or because she feels empowered because of it. These pixelated women are not real people, they are characters that have each piece of their portrayal gone over meticulously before release: they didn’t need their breasts emphasized, they didn’t choose this. Developers need to own up to their design and narrative choices and put that creativity into the other parts of their game, rather than focusing it on increasingly ridiculous excuses for sexualization.