Friday, August 10, 2018

Iconoclasts Is Sexist

I just got done reading through Jess Joho’s excellent rejoinder to Octopath Traveler’s perpetual bombardment of sexism. It had me nodding along in reminder of my recent experience playing through Konjak’s Iconoclasts, crystallizing some wayward thoughts I’ve been having about the game’s portrayal of its main character in Robin. For whatever reason I felt like writing this and didn’t feel like going through the process of writing a pitch email and waiting 37 weeks all to get a few no’s, so I’m basically just going to steal all her points and map them onto this game. Insert reference to recent plagiarism case here. Also, maybe I’ll rehabilitate this blog for more throwaway rants like this one. So anyway, here goes:

Iconoclasts is blatantly sexist. In it, you play as Robin, who is a silent protagonist. I don’t necessarily mind silent protagonists as a concept (hey, I put a lot of time into Hollow Knight and Breath of the Wild recently, so) but they have to be done well. But in a game like Iconoclasts, which frequently features loooooooooooooooooooong bouts of narrative exposition and dialogue, to have a character who’s just kind of….existing be the main character doesn’t make a ton of sense. She does frequently emote, and the character art work here is pretty strong for everyone. But it’s not enough. Iconoclasts includes a throwaway line about the fact that Robin, “doesn’t talk much.” Acknowledging that your silent protagonist is silent is a twee fourth-wall breaking trendy ploy at “indie gamer” brotherhood.  It’s intellectually lazy, a feeble attempt at allowing the player to “embody” her when everyone else in the game is allowed agency.

Because she can’t speak, inevitably other characters must speak on behalf of Robin. Robin is allowed no agency. The player controls her, and other characters, particularly the men in her life, must speak for her. Her brother constantly feigns to know what she’s thinking. Never is Robin offered a correction in rebuttal because she can’t talk. She is a mechanic, because her dead father was a mechanic (just like Primrose, Robin has a dead father who is the most important thing about her. Just like Primrose, Robin’s mother is mentioned like maybe once ever in all twelve hours of Iconoclasts’ runtime?). She constantly dreams about her dead father, who everybody loved. Her father wanted Robin to be a farmer, but of course she has to take after ol’ pops! Even her friend (though of course it’s impossible to know how Robin really feels) Mina frequently speaks on Robin’s behalf.

This kind of speaking over Robin is blatantly sexist on its own, but it’s disguised as being okay because, hey, she never talks bro!!!!! At one point toward the end, her brother Elro “frees” her up to do as she will. He says that he won’t try to stop her from doing the things she’ll do anymore, as if he ever had command over her actions and choices. But, of course, he did, because Iconoclasts never allows Robin to do anything of her own accord. In her Mashable piece, Joho frequently talks about the weird, leery ways in which other characters remark on how beautiful Octopath Traveler character Primrose is. By making Robin in Iconoclasts a typically capable adventurer sort of person who can’t speak, Iconoclasts tries to disguise the sexist “complements” other people say to her in a positive light. Calling her beautiful is just one great trait about her! But it’s made worse, like everything else in Iconoclasts, by Robin’s inability to reply, to clap back. She’s forced to go with the flow on everything; because she can’t speak and has no agency whatsoever, Robin never gets to choose the kinds of relationships she wants to have with others nor can she influence the nature of existing relationships. Everything is at another person’s whim. Even her dad tells her how beautiful she is (in her dreams, which sort of implies that she wants to fuck her dad, which, like, yeah).

There are characters early on who berate Robin as some kind off ill omen for seemingly very little reason. They think she brings trouble everywhere she goes, and of course, she can say nothing to rebuke these ridiculous claims. Later on, people start to praise Robin for “her” accomplishments (these are often favors she is forced to perform for other characters who are lazy). The player is given a choice in whether or not to allow a character named Royal to come along on her journey, but this is a player-driven choice. Again, Robin has no say in the matter.

Almost all of Iconoclasts’ women are hysterics, a common trope in fiction, the only exceptions being Robin and Mina. Samba frequently freaks out over Mina’s frankly level-headed decision-making, as does Mina’s mother. The Mother character whom is worshipped by all the people of the One Concern (a theocracy in Iconoclasts’ world) transforms into a monstrous witch lady when the player finally confronts her toward the end of the game; contrast this against the reveal of who lives inside the Starworm—the true God of Iconoclasts’ world—who’s revealed to be a silent, menacing but reserved bird man figure. The character Black loses her temper at the drop of a pin, perturbed at the death of her friend Grey from before the events of the game. A woman named Petra in the beginning of the game constantly berates Robin, who she perceives as being a corrupting influence upon the children of the small town Settlement 17. Robin and her friend Mina are frequently portrayed as burdensome to those around her. Iconoclasts is never aware of the ways in which it buys into these tropes so as to comment upon or subvert them, and as such it falls into the critical trap it itself has set for organized religion.

One of the main characters Mina is in an on-off relationship with another character Samba. It’s cool to see this kind of representation in games, even if it’s not that novel anymore. But Iconoclasts’ treatment of Robin as a woman makes this feel like performative tokenistic window dressing, as if the developer can handwave away criticisms of Robin as a woman because, hey, Mina kisses a lady! But it’s bleedingly easy to see through such deceptions. Silent protagonists can be done, and they can be done well, but Iconoclasts resorts to tropes and silencing (a notable difference) in trying to tell its story of theocracy and religious despotism. Worst of all, compare Iconoclasts’ women to its men and it’s plain to see: all the men are the tortured, or insightful, or enlightened, or all three type. Its women are silent, angry, or a weight upon the shoulders of men. Critics might fall over themselves in valorizing developer Konjak for taking seven years to develop Iconoclasts, yet its portrayal of women (not to mention its clumsy, laborious mechanical systems) feel backwards and undercooked. 

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