Every other week, Bonnie Ruberg contributes Playing Dirty, a column on sex and gender in video games:Last week
we looked at the changing art style -- and heros -- of the Castlevania series. From manly to effeminate, they've run the range. But there's more to consider here than a pretty face.
First off, let's take a look at their weapon choice -- or at least their weapons as they're depicted in the official game art. Old-fashioned Castlevania
heros, the ones with rippling muscle and leather attire, are almost always depicted with a whip in hand. Later heros, the ones with lacy frills and high cheek bones, seem to prefer other weapons, like swords.
Now, sometimes a weapon is just a weapon, but when it comes to the peculiar case of these super-masculine, super-feminine protagonists, the issue bears a little reading into. The obvious cry would be "Phallic symbol!" But really, what weapon isn't? Instead, the interesting question here is what are these phalluses are up to?
Think about a whip: long and powerful. It starts out coiled and small, but then it extends out and attacks. A formidable phallus, to be sure. But consider it in comparison to a sword: also long and powerful, but this time straight and hard. Funny that, compared to the impressively piercing phalluses of the supposed girly-boys, those of the manly-men look impotent, limp.
Oh, the irony. But remember the inverted queerness of Castlevania
we talked about last week. In the world of the gothic, all bets are off, and it's the vampires, and later the vampiricly gorgeous humans, who, despite their homoeroticism, end up most virile. What might a homosexually-charged vampire do with his superior phallus? That's for you to decide.
Vampire slash aside, there's a larger trend present in Castlevania
that's yet again a staple of the gothic genre: the failure of heterosexuality. In this case, it might be better described as homosexual tension in the wake of heterosexual loss.
A number of Castlevania
titles kick off with the death and/or kidnaping of the hero's beloved -- like Lament of Innocence
, where Leon Belmont's fiancee is vampirized and then sacrificed, or Curse of Darkness
, where Hector seeks revenge for the murder of his girlfriend, burned at the stake. It's only after these male/female relationships fail that the protagonists -- be they muscular or curvy -- enter the realm of man-on-man longing, the vampire's liar.
Which brings us back to the question, why switch back? In recent games, Castlevania's
art has come full circle, back to a simpler aesthetic and a butcher hero, drawn -- surprise, surprise -- with a whip in hand.
Sure, there are obvious reasons: a new art director, a decision on the part of the series' creators to make the game more "normal-looking" so it could appeal to a wider, possibly anime-loving audience. But whether they realize it or not, Castlevania's
designers have played once again into a gothic convention: queering the norm.
That's to say, if we take the evolution of the series art to date as one big story arch, it matches up perfectly with some of our favorite gothic novels, Bram Stoker's Dracula
included. After a long struggle against the evil threat of homosexuality, life -- and its gender roles -- return to normal, not because there's any substance behind this supposed happy ending, but because seeing normalcy at the end of so much strangeness queers normalcy itself.
So the next time you think you've slain a vampire, saved a girl, or won the day, remember: that's the thing about the un-dead, they just keep coming back.
Bonnie Ruberg is a writer, researcher, and all around fangirl with a big crush on games. Find more of her work at Terra Nova, Gamasutra, or her blog, Heroine Sheik. She can be reached at .