Thursday, October 6, 2011

Games: El Shaddai Utterly Fails to Challenge Gender Norms

But it is very pretty.
A recent videogame release, El Shaddai:Ascension of the Metatron has a couple of handicaps going in.  First, it’s an import, so the dialogue is dubbed over from the original Japanese, and it’s dubbed pretty poorly, I’ll be honest.  Second, it’s a Japanese game.  I don’t think I’m stepping much outside of the bounds when I say that Japanese games have gained a reputation in the past few years of being a little…odd.  Just remember Katamari Damacy.  If you can.  And third, it’s based on obscure passages from all three of the major monotheistic religions, all bundled together, shaken, and then taken wholly out of context.  Like I said, just a couple of handicaps.

For all of it’s faults, however, El Shaddai is a very interesting, arrestingly pretty game.  You play as Enoch, the lone human in a heaven full of angels, called down to fight against the seven fallen angels and their nephilim.  The story takes a lot of liberties with the original texts, glossing over who exactly Enoch is, who the archangels are, and what precisely a nephilim is*, even including a cell-phone toting guide named “Lucifel” who dispenses handy advice every once in a while.

This is supposed to be a nephilim.  Riiiiiight.
All of this is fine.  It’s a Japanese game based on obscure Western theology.  I’ve seen worse.  What I wasn’t fond of, however, was the genders.

Angels don’t have gender, at least not in Christianity, Judaism or Islam.  As such, most people throughout the ages have chosen to depict them as male, men having served for most of human history as the gender neutral option.  This does not bother me overly much, insofar as we all bear in mind that these are still gender neutral beings, and they need a form of some kind for us to comprehend them.  Whatever. 

What rankles in El Shaddai though, is that they are not all male.  In fact, some angels are female.  Again, this does not bother me overly much.  In the absence of true gender neutrality, then gender parity will serve.  But they are not equal.  To the eleven named male angels, there are just two named female angels.  Two.  And both of these adhere precisely to overarching gender stereotypes.

What the hell, game?

Again, though, super-duper pretty.
The two female angels in El Shaddai are the archangel Gabriel and the fallen angel Ezekiel**.  Gabriel serves as a member of Enoch’s party, and is listed as the angel of "healing".  Given that the archangel Gabriel is perhaps the best known of the angels, this seems a little strange.  Gabriel is the messenger angel whose trumpet shall sound the coming of Judgment Day.  It seems that in the view of gender-normativity, the game made Gabriel into a nurse, all to preserve a gender ratio that was never actually out of whack.  Ezekiel gets a bit more screen-time, by virtue of being a villain, but even she is harshly bound to gender constraints.  Each of the fallen angels is condemned for having appreciated too much a pleasure of Earth.  Ezekiel’s was the natural world.  She’s condemned because she liked pretty things.

Videogames have never been a particularly strong voice for gender equality, to be frank, but this was a very poor showing.  While I appreciated not being forced to accept the designer’s idea of proper combat attire as something akin to a bikini top with leather pants, an issue commonly found in most female videogame characters, I still did not appreciate the way the characters were subjugated to their gender.  Despite being angels, and thus logically outside of the gender paradigm, they still managed to adhere a little too well.

It was a really pretty game, though.

I mean, come on, even the fights are pretty.

*All of which are things I could go into in more detail if prompted, but I figured we have bigger fish to fry.  Let me know if you’re interested.

**Point of note that Ezekiel was actually a prophet, but, again, whatever.


  1. Sorry Debbi - *Gabriel* is the female angel that helps you, not Raphael. And she doesn't actually heal you in the game (at least, not as far as I've gotten). She's listed in the manual as in charge of "information and healing." Which is redundant with Raphael, who is listed in the manual as in charge of "lore," but since Uriel is the only one who seems to actually participate in the game in any way, it's probably a moot point.

    Her exact quote/description in the manual:

    "The Archangel of information and healing, commissioned by God to aid Enoch. She gently watches over Enoch as his guardian, and provides him with information, warnings and advice."

    The 'gently' there certainly supports your case, though. ::eyeroll::

  2. Fixed, thanks! Dunno, for some reason I refused to remember that Gabriel was the girl from that game. And I have notes. Weird.

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