Dead Island or bust! The case for tasteless horror tchotchkes

, | Games

It looks as if Deep Silver is going to remove a gory bikini bust that was part of the Dead Island: Riptide collector’s edition. Which is hardly unexpected, but disappointing. Not because I want one. I don’t. It’s pretty gross. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I still don’t know what to do with my Connor statue, Bioshock 2 soundtrack LP, or pewter Half-Life 2 box. What am I going to do with some icky horror paraphernalia? I’m a horror fan — more on that in a moment — but not the type who wears it on his shelves. My Night of the Living Dead DVD sits inconspicuously between my Napoleon Dynamite DVD and O Brother Where Art Thou? DVD. Horror is just a genre. More on that in a moment, too.

But I find it disappointing that Deep Silver is caving on this issue for two important reasons. No, not those reasons. I’m going to be mostly serious.

After the jump, two important things. Not the ones you think I’m thinking of.

First, I’d like to address some of the complaints about the gory bust. Here’s a picture of it, if you’re wondering.

I didn’t really want to put that on the front page. As I said, it’s gross. But here are some of the objections to including it in the Dead Island: Riptide collector’s edition.

1) It objectifies women

The violence in horror is sometimes related to sexuality. This is not an aberration. Horror is concerned with various parts of the human experience. Religion, childhood, sickness, loneliness, death, sex, love. Horror explores — and sometimes exploits, but at its best explores — horrible parts of the human experience. And one of the most horrible things I can think of is the violation of a woman. One of the reasons the average slasher movie comes down to one woman against a faceless killer is that men react to that. As surely as procreating, a man’s psyche is wired to tell him that he should honor and protect women. Not because they’re helpless. But because they’re worth it. They are our mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. They are a fundamental part of our lives without which we wouldn’t even exist.

So one of the most effective ways to create horror is to portray violence against women. I can think of few horror films more effective than Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, which has the audacity to portray the violation of a woman with a cold dispassionate eye. But keep in mind that a horror movie doesn’t condone the things it represents on screen. In fact, the contrary is almost always true. For instance, have you seen Pirahna 3D? It’s got some pretty blatant Kelly Brook objectification. But I’d argue it’s a movie about pornography that happens to use killer fish to make its point. There is a long tradition of things coming out of the sea and consuming women, going as far back as Andromeda chained to a rock. Any psychoanalyst worth his salt would know that’s a stand-in for the male id! Pirahna 3D, set during a Spring Break bacchanalia, follows the taping of a Girls Gone Wild video interrupted by things coming up from subterranean depths and eating naked women, reducing them to nothing more than their flesh. It’s a metaphor for pornography, which consumes a woman’s flesh as surely as carnivorous fish.

If you have any doubt about my interpretation, consider that the Pirahna 3D director’s previous movie concerned a woman’s repressed sexuality manifesting itself as a burly faceless killer who murders families. Plus, the director is a Frenchman. I rest my case.

Zombie mythology is largely about the horror of humanity reduced to mere flesh, in two senses. As the mindless shuffling mass of pure appetite among the zombies, and as the prey among the humans. It’s the ultimate objectification of women and men. Dead Island is one of the better horror games for how it gets this literally visceral element of zombie mythology. It is a game primarily concerned with the meaty interaction of flesh and violence. Hacking, chopping, bludgeoning, burning. Dead Island understands flesh. And in zombie mythology, sometimes that flesh belongs to a woman. Contemporary zombie mythology began with a naked woman zombie in the mob. Hand me that DVD next to Napoleon Dynamite and I’ll prove it to you. No, not Mission Impossible III. On the other side.

Beyond its equal opportunity mortification of the flesh, Dead Island isn’t much of a horror story. The plot is silly and there aren’t any meaningful themes beyond leveling up and collecting loot. But because it understands flesh so well, and because it features plenty of scantily clad female zombies among its converted tropical paradise population, a grotesque bust that arguably objectifies women is a pretty good representation of what the game is doing. You may not like it, and you may not like the game, but a gory bust is entirely appropriate given what Dead Island is doing. You can only claim it objectifies women if you also concede that Pirahna 3D objectifies women. You might not be wrong.

2) It’s gross

Yes, it is. A lot of effective horror is. But did you realize it was also a joke? I suspect a lot of folks didn’t realize it’s supposed to be a riff on marble busts. Which also objectify women — and sometimes even men — by reducing them to the aesthetic appeal of specific isolated parts. That’s the point of a bust. I personally think it’s a clever joke. Certainly more clever than the giant purple dildoes in Saints Row 3, which didn’t in any way reference classic sculpture.

So while it is gross, it’s trying to be more funny than gross, kind of like the hands with fingers chewed off that Valve put on their Left 4 Dead boxes. Those were gross and funny, but since most people don’t think of fingers as sexual organs, they weren’t as offensive.

3) Videogames are already hostile to women

Sometimes. And that sucks. But it’s not as bad as it used to be. This bloody bust is only a setback if you divorce it from its context. Namely, that it’s an appropriate horror themed riff on classical sculpture. But if you consider Dead Island as a game, and not just an icky tchotchke in a collector’s edition, you’ll notice that half of the protagonists are women. Kick-ass women. There’s no shortage of female survivors in the game, including a pretty cool nun. I don’t get the sense that Dead Island is as bad as, say, Heavy Metal: F.A.K.K., Duke Nukem Forever, or Far Cry 3, all games that entirely relegate women to the role of sex object, sex object, and helpless annoyance or crazy topless priestess, respectively. Videogames can be hostile to women, but not all of them are equally hostile. There are far better games to criticize for alienating women. Get back to me after you’ve been on a few of those dates in Sleeping Dogs.

The above objectives to the bloody bust seem to have a lot of traction. They’ll play a big part in Deep Silver probably swapping in some dopey rubber zombie claw that I don’t want either. But there are two reasons I’m disappointed that Deep Silver will probably cave.

The first reason I’m disappointed is because this is an adult doo-dad in an M-rated game, clearly labeled for anyone who can’t figure it out from the blood-spattered zombies. It’s time to let M-rated games cut loose. For instance, an important element of zombie mythology that no one will touch is the child zombie. The closest we’ve come is the trailer for Dead Island, which has a child zombie. Maybe the scary demon babies in Dead Space 2 count. The Painkiller remake grandfathered in a few freaky kid monsters from the original. But videogames are notoriously shy about violence to children, even undead children. I want this to change not because I want to shoot virtual kids, but because I want the creators of videogames to have a full range of narrative tools, just like filmmakers. Again, hand me that Night of the Living Dead DVD and let me show you what happens in the basement with a garden spade. Or how about Cillian Murphy’s first kill in 28 Days Later? Or the first scene of the first episode of the first season of Walking Dead? If those were videogames, the ESRB would have robbed them of significant moments.

I approve of the ESRB’s job providing guidelines to help parents regulate what their children are exposed to, whether it’s sexuality, gunplay, violence, or even smoking. That’s an important issue, and overall, I’m proud of videogaming. But once you get to the point that a game is a fantasy for adults, pretty much everything should be on the table. Even tentacle rape. I think I’d draw the line at Holocaust denial. Other than that, we’re all adults here. We’re capable of separating fantasy from reality. We’re capable of making our own choices about what’s offensive, and if we feel something is offensive to us personally, we should not buy it rather than decry it as socially harmful. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go down that road. Not today.

The second reason I’m disappointed that the collector’s edition of Dead Island: Riptide probably won’t have a gory bikini-clad bust is because I wish publishers would stick to their guns when it comes to some controversial issues. This is one of those issues. As games grow up, I don’t want other publishers getting cold feet about the intersection of horror and sexuality. I don’t want some producer telling developers they can’t do something because of what happened with that Dead Island game. I don’t want gamers who aren’t horror aficionados and who don’t understand the genre dictating how horror games are made or marketed.

If we’re going to let that happen, if we’re going to indulge indignant people who don’t have the common sense to look away and not buy something they don’t like, we might as well just ask Congress to get in here and make a few laws about the whole thing. It’s the only way to be sure.