I Was Wrong About Bayonetta

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I’ve dedicated plenty of internet ink to why Hideki Kamyia is a goddamn genius/madman. The creator of Dante the devil slayer has a legacy of being an auteur of a exploitative sort of vision of games in the same way Tarantino views his movies. In quadrupling down on a handful of key motifs – stylish action, Satan, swords, himbos – Kamyia wrote the Rosetta Stone of a language that would permeate video games from 2001 to today.

Kamiya has quite a legend-making set of games under his belt as a director. In the late 90’s to early 2000’s, he’d proven both the staying power of his unique dialect of game design and his versatility in vision. From Resident Evil 2’s scary brilliance to Okami’s divine innovation, Kamiya couldn’t lose. If we could put a flag in Kamiya’s greatest work then, we should plant it somewhere around 10 years ago, in the curiously coiffed beehive hairdo of one wicked witch, Bayonetta.

I didn’t always feel this way. Bayonetta was released to near universal critical acclaim, but I remember having pretty mixed feelings about it all. Some of it was based around the combat, which felt less deliberate and precise as other games like it. Some of it was Bayo herself, who seemed more of a cheesecake factory than avant garde organ grinder. Now the 10 year anniversary of Bayonetta comes and goes. With it, a remaster of this seminal classic hits PS4 and Xbox One, and I finally have the proper chance to sit with it and confirm really what I already knew. I was very wrong.

A lot of this was corrected over the decade of discourse between Bayonetta’s original release and now. The excellent Bayonetta 2 plopped approximately in the middle of that time to help keep those flames stoked. Much of my thinking was tossed and turned on Twitter and in the excellent writing coming from a few corners of the internet. But actually playing it again, in a form where all of the colors bewitch in sterling HD and load times are maddening, brings a gratifying level of closure to my personal arc.

Ironically, much of my initial issue with Bayonetta came from me making it too much about me. In considering her sexuality, I fell deep into the trap lots of straight dudes trying to be good allies did. My takes on what constitutes the “male gaze” and Bayo’s place in it were strictly based on what I thought seemed exploitative at the time. “If a camera lingers too long or too often on a set of boobs, this game is probably just made for perverts.” If only things could be so simple.

As Maddy Myers wrote years ago, reducing sexual presentation down to “male gaze” foolishly assumes that the product was made by a straight man, for other straight men who’d universally have one sexual preference (or at least share one similar one). It completely erases Mari Shimazaki, co-designer of the titular hero. It disregards the many non-men who may find her irresistible. It vanishes everyone who might love her and her misadventures, but maybe don’t want her to step on them.

It also villianizes the concept of being attracted to her. Silly in its own right, of course. A stately women strapped to the gills in guns, double cheeked up and thriving, walks on the scene and you’re not supposed to want to risk your whole life for her? Couldn’t be me. There’s nothing wrong with thinking hot people are hot. If Hideo Kojima just admitted from the get go that he designed elite sniper Quiet to have her boobs out in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain because he liked looking at them, he might have saved himself some embarrassment later on.

The real problem, one I think a lot of 2010 era internet commenters didn’t really understand, was the difference between being sexy and being objectified. To be objectified could mean a character whose design is to cater to the worse parts of heteronormative sexual casting. Women are designed to be dainty, in distress and completely helpless without the help of the (probably) big, strong, white, male protag. Sometimes they lie in suggestive bondage, panting in sexual distress for some inexplicable reason. Maybe their clothes suffer battle damage in ways that their male counterparts don’t. In fairness, video games, especially pre-Bayonetta, had a terrible track record of women who weren’t both sexy and also being used as a projecting of poor sexual tropes.

This, of course, isn’t to say that people can’t be into those sorts of things too. But belaboring the concept of who gets to decide what’s sexy for whom is a tiring, contrite thing. I can’t talk through the idea of whether Bayo has true “sexual agency” or not. I’m not properly equipped to even identify sexual agency. Ten years of growing up in this conversation empowered me to let this shit go. Im a cis, hetero dude that has the same thing for tall, bookish, badasses as Kamiya does. I like questionable Lizzo pics on Instagram. Shit is what it is. I’m going to shut up and let the people I trust, who are far more qualified to speak on it, do so.

Then there’s that other part – the gameplay. It felt almost too fast and loose at the time. I had a difficult time grasping how to be any good at it. This was based on a simpler “me” problem. I wanted this game to play like Devil May Cry and it didn’t.

It approaches the act of killing everything in front of you in a similar fashion: You hit a location, some corporeal or invisible walls close in on you, and now you have to get to the beating until they open again.

On the other hand, Dante’s abilities grew over time, as you spent Red Orbs on new moves for all these weapons you were getting from bosses periodically. Bayo didn’t have that structure. Every combo she could execute with the weapons she had could be done from the minute you step into the prologue. You’re given a blank canvas and a palette with every color you need to make the killing art you crave as you see fit. Breaking from that old school pace was empowering in a way I didn’t appreciate enough then.

It’s also accessible. Someone who knew nothing about character action games were given all the tools to succeed up front. Mashers would find that almost every combination of buttons they could think of would produce some sort of unique offense. If they didn’t want to guess, all of the combos are clearly identified in a training mode, so it’s easy to find and memorize the ones you like. It’s very clear when enemies are about to attack, and with a simple button press, not only can you evade them, but you’re largely rewarded with a generous helping of slow motion Bullet Witch Time.

Accessibility isn’t the antonym of depth, though. Speed runs and score chasing streamers have shown us that Bayonetta is a game just as much about skill as it is style. There is so much to discover and perfect, between its expansive weapon combos and linking chains of normal attacks with special attacks. To truly conquer this game takes talent and study.

The actual platforming and adventuring of Bayonetta stands out in that niche genre even today. Every area feels jampacked with trails to discover, with secrets to find at the end of them. These settings often change in ways you don’t expect as well. You could be running down a narrow street, and suddenly a lava flow is chasing you through it. This could get complicated by the street in front of you falling away into the earth leaving you only one option: run on the walls?

This is the kind of weirdly expressionist world building that leaks out of the wild cutscenes and into actual gameplay elements. Bayo is often stopping to dance and pose, while nearly dodging attacks and hoping between large chunks of building debris. Instead of just making you watch that stuff, it lets you actively partake in it yourself, bringing a sense of real player agency over the chaos of it all. That’s something I really didn’t appreciate until I played a decade worth of games after my first trip with the umbral witch.

A good, non-cynical reason for remakes and remasters to exist is to remind people of stand out games of the past by putting them on today’s consoles. Bayonetta’s 10th anniversary launch on PS4 and Xbox One seems like a much more like a specific call out – a sort of “in my mentions @’ing” for any and all slander I may have thrown its way in the past. I learned my lesson years ago, but now’s as good a time as any to admit my mistake publicly. The shadow remains cast. Bayonetta is very, very good, actually.

This game was reviewed on a Standard PlayStation 4 system with a review code provided by PR.