Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The token trans sexual predator in Azure Striker Gunvolt

at 6:00 PM
Inti Creates' Azure Striker Gunvolt contains a negative stereotype of a transgender person that serves no purpose other than a cheap giggle and the degradation of an already marginalized social minority. That's all that really needs to be said.

But maybe you played the game and you didn't see that. And that's fine. I miss this kind of thing all the time, probably because I don't have a personal stake in it. I'm a regular old male dude and I like being a regular old male dude. I want other people to like being regular old female dudes and regular old trans dudes and regular old agender dudes and whatever else they choose to be. I don't care what they want to be. And I even more don't care what anyone wants me to think of them. That's where portrayals like Azure Striker Gunvolt's Zonda overstep their bounds.

This is a pretty basic race/gender theory 101 subject, but let's remember what "tokenism" is. Tokenism is the use of a single contrasting character in an otherwise homogeneous group who, through isolation, becomes representative of their group of origin. Tokens are typically portrayed as bland and insignificant (simply present to fulfill a diversity obligation) or aggressively stereotypical (either as a subconscious perpetuation of stereotypes or to draw attention to the element of diversity). To grossly simplify things, tokenism is a problem because it subverts the perception of minority individuals as individuals. The one black or gay or female character is shown as representative of group, rather than personal, identity.

As with everything in theory, I'm sure there's probably some specific name for the portrayal of a trans person as lusty, sexually predatory, perverse, and ultimately evil. A "Dr. Frankenfurter" maybe, except that Frankenfurter was ultimately sympathetic. Whatever it is, that's strictly where Zonda falls. The only trans character in Azure Striker Gunvolt, Zonda is a sexually threatening, dehumanized embodiment of indulgence, constructed from lurid imagery, rape-tinged dialogue, and sadomasochistic delight in death.

As is typical of Inti Creates and Mega Man in general, each of Gunvolt's villains has a distinctive palette and visual design, from Viper's flaming red mane to Elise's serpentine curves. Zonda, described as "bigender", is distinguished by a giant pink phallus erupting from their crotch. While other characters are identified by animal traits, Zonda flaunts the classical symbol of male sexuality awash in the textbook color of femininity. The portrait is reduced to an in-your-face caricature of intrusive sexuality, aligned with the damaging stereotype that a transgender person is defined solely by their choice of genitalia.

Zonda's dialogue (approved for ages 10 and up by the ESRB) is carefully crafted to disturb, laced with the flagrant prurience and innuendo used to dehumanize trans characters. Upon encountering the player character, they open lasciviously, "Mmm, look at you. You're all boy, aren't you?". The dialogue immediately objectifies the avatar ("look at you") and goes even further to hint a pedophilic angle with the use of "boy". From there we launch into biological sexual fixation - "A plug for every socket, and a socket for every plug" and onto the conflation of physical and sexual aggression, "I should warn you - I'm carnal. I'm a carnivore.". Zonda finishes - and I'm not exaggerating that all I've quoted here is all the character says - with what, in context, is a threat of rape: "right now, you're a dangly little piece of meat. Taking you for a tug is going to be fun.". The relentless association of transgenderism with sexual assault feeds into the underlying societal perception that trans people are a threat to straight males and tolerance is equivalent to a sacrifice of male liberty.

The subsequent death scene makes a mockery of the character and suggests Zonda is ultimately unworthy of life. The character is the only villain not to be directly confronted by the player - they are defeated off-screen and the player arrives just in time to witness them on their knees salaciously begging for the pain of death. Zonda's final words transcend innuendo into prolonged grotesquerie; "So hot... inside me... aaah!" "This pain... exquisite... nngh!!!" "Kill me... just like that... aaahhh...". In case you weren't sure what the game was getting at, the player character adds "that was no cry for help!" and the killer calls Zonda "abomination". In a world where violence against trans people is epidemic to the point of being a daily reality, sexualizing, mocking, and glorifying the demise of a trans character carries disturbing implications with regard to both the victims and perpetrators of this violence.

A subtler subversion of trans acceptance comes in the terminology used to reference the character: "bigender" and the pronouns "xe" and "xem". By invoking what have become standards of the gender discourse - that is, variable gender identities and gender-neutral pronouns - the game juxtaposes genuine political correctness with its relentlessly negative portrayal of Zonda. The overt sexualization and dehumanization of the character through their conduct concurrently devalues these otherwise positive trends, dragging the entire gender conversation into mocking dismissal. For the record, I chose not to use "bigender" and the x-pronouns to refer to Zonda in this piece because the general ignorance inherent in the portrayal makes me skeptical that any terminology from the game is appropriately applied.

Invariably it must be remarked that the developers and localizers of Azure Striker Gunvolt probably didn't "mean anything" by their characterization of their sole transgender character. The concept probably evolved naturally in conceiving an embodiment of Lust (the game has a seven deadly sins motif). They probably didn't approach it any differently from their Pride character who spouts "thee"s and "thou"s and makes for the honorable fool. It must also be remarked that intention does not matter at all. The game propagates negative stereotypes to its audience, whether through ignorance or choice. Transgender people are very real and in choosing to present a transgender character, Inti Creates now owns the stereotype that a trans person is nothing more than a thrusting phallus of deviant sexual predation begging to be beaten to death.

Addendum on the subject of localization: As with most Japanese-developed games, Azure Striker Gunvolt was translated into English by an entity external (8-4 Ltd.) to the original development team. The exact parallel between the English and Japanese scripts remains nebulous; however, the blame almost certainly falls on both parties. The visual design of the character and their use in cut-scenes - half of the problem - would've been defined by Inti Creates. As for 8-4 - even if the dialogue was translated exactly as written in Japanese, they have the responsibility of appropriating that to fit the target culture - leaving in socially irresponsible content is an active choice to create a socially irresponsible game.


  1. I'm afraid there are a few mistakes in this article.

    1. The translation in the English version does not do the Japanese version justice. Many characters names are needlessly changed (Iota becomes Jota, Daytona becomes Viper, and Panthera becomes Zonda) and there are multiple strange censors (horsejitt?Jockblocked?). Zonda being transgender is just another example of the poor translation. In the Japanese version and the steam version (which was translated FAR better), Zonda's gender is officially unknown. The character is never stated to be male, female, transgender, or bigender, and the game avoids using pronouns like "he", "she" or "Xe". Zonda's septimal form is just another way of keeping Zonda's gender a mystery by having both a male and female form.

    2. Zonda IS based off an animal, like the other bosses. Zonda's concept art reveals that the characters septimal form is based off a scorpion, hence all the spikes.

    3. This article overlooks the "Seven Deadly Sins" theme of the bosses. The seven adept bosses are all based off the seven deadly sins and an animal based of that sin. The sin can be reflected in their titles.

    Merak "The Slothful Conjurer" represents sloth and is based off the grizzly bear.

    Jota "The Prideful Silhouette" represents pride and is based off the peacock.

    Viper "The Burning Wrath" represents Wrath and is based off the unicorn.

    Carrera "The Magnetic Avarice" represents greed and is based off the hedgehog.

    Elise "The Eternal Envy" represents envy and is based off the cobra.

    Stratos "The Gluttonous Fly" represents gluttony and is based of flies.

    And finally, Zonda "The Lustful Mirage", who represents lust and is based of the scorpion.

    Given that the character represents the sin lust, I think it makes sense for Zonda to be portrayed the way the character was. As for the translation, I will admit that it certainly did not represent the Japanese version accurately, thus, such a response like yours may be inevitable. Thankfully, they must have gotten a much better translator for the Steam version, which represents the original script much better.

  2. Forgive me. Looking closer at your article, you did mention the 7DS theme. That was a fault of mine for not reading your article close enough.

    1. No worries, always glad to have thoughtful comments! It's great to get the perspective of someone who is familiar with the Japanese translation. I maintain the issues are actual regardless of where they were inserted into the game (whether it be the original script or the localization), but it's interesting that there's a new translation on Steam. I might have to check that out sometime.