Dark Matters

[The following article discusses rape and other forms of sexual assault as they are depicted in video games. Please avoid reading further if this subject upsets you.]

Video games seldom take a responsible tone when addressing rape. It’s rare to see a title acknowledge sexual assault as anything more than an exploitative dash, a cheap, nasty surprise for a vulnerable and usually female character. It’s a brilliant package deal for the careless writer beleaguered with demands for maturity. What better way to paint a villain as instantly loathsome, stoke the player’s righteous fury, and elevate your game above the childish superficialities of past eras! After all, trashy films, sleazy anime, and execrable comics with titles like Stormfang Saga do it, so why shouldn't video games?

The latest such attempt is in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It drops the elder of the saga’s two Snake operatives into a secret American military compound, from which he must rescue operatives Paz and Chico. Along the way, the player can uncover recordings of the game’s villain, Skullface, torturing the prisoners. Both Paz and Chico are raped. Chico is forced to rape Paz. The audio log concludes with Skullface and his surgeon planting two explosive devices in Paz—the second one apparently hidden in her vagina. Should you doubt this, the scene provides the squelching, visceral sounds of a bomb going somewhere it probably shouldn’t.

This may be the most horrifying of Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima’s uses of rape, but it sure isn’t the first. The original Metal Gear Solid strongly implies that Meryl is sexually assaulted during Revolver Ocelot’s torture sequence, the second game finds once-laughable nerd Otacon confessing that his stepmother raped him, the third has some disturbing notes about undercover agent Eva, and Metal Gear Solid 4 luridly mixes sexuality and trauma into The Beauty and the Beast Corps. The entire Metal Gear Solid web weaves together grim realities and goofy fourth-wall assaults, and Kojima’s infusion of radio-drama rape and vagina disploda is both, entwining the absurd and the horrific.

Kojima is no lone provocateur. Numerous other games trot out rape scenes with all the care of a backhandedly misogynistic romance novel, a torture-porn flick, or the Raveonettes’ “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed).” You can find it callously applied in Heavy Rain’s TV-movie interludes, F.E.A.R. 2’s finale, and just about any game where a female character’s backstory boils down to “she was raped” and little else.
Is that all video games can do? Do any of them treat the subject with a modicum of respect?

It’s hard to tell.

I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is a strange creation among the point-and-click adventure games of the 1990s. It’s based on the notorious Harlan Ellison’s equally notorious short story, in which five unfortunate humans are the playthings of a psychotic supercomputer called AM. Ellison worked with the developers (and voiced AM itself) to grant each character a backstory and a personal journey through a surreal, AM-concocted episode. Gorrister is tormented by thoughts of a suicide he cannot commit, Nimdok relives his days as a Nazi surgeon, and Ellen, a brilliant engineer, has to remember why she’s afraid of the color yellow.

Ellen’s vignette leads her through a simulacrum of an Egyptian temple and into an elevator. There she’s forced to confront something long buried: during one late night at the office, a man in janitorial garb cornered her in an elevator and violated her. AM summons up the rapist as a faceless shadow in a yellow jumpsuit, and he recounts “the blood, the screams,” and just how deeply the incident wrecked Ellen. It’s perhaps the most disturbing scene in a game that explores the Holocaust, mental illness, and an eternity in a fleshy, mute prison, and it’s hardly leavened when Ellen fights off the phantom and continues on her quest.

The scene is vintage Ellison: a vicious little dose of nightmare that holds nothing back. Yet for all of its nastiness, it’s not just a distasteful memory. As in the rest of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, there’s a psychological tension beneath the surface tremors. The game dwells less on the details of Ellen’s attack and more on the lingering effects she suffered. It’s abbreviated and perhaps sexist, but it’s concerned with something beyond provoking the player to loathing the villain just in time for some climactic boss battle. That’s Ellison’s modus operandi. Even when he pounds the reader’s sensibilities into paste or shapes misogyny into stories like a child manhandles Play-Doh (see “Broken Glass” in his Angry Candy anthology for an example), he at least does it for a reason.

The third chapter of Yasumi Matsuno's Final Fantasy Tactics introduces Rapha Galthena and her brother Marach, the adopted children of Grand Duke Barrington. When the game’s conflicted hero Ramza Beoulve meets them, Rapha’s trying to convince Marach that Barrington is using them, that he destroyed their village and killed their parents just to claim their arcane talents for his death squad. Rapha then mentions “the thing he did to me” and accuses Marach of knowing about it and still taking Barrington’s side. In one of the rare moments where the blunt, oft-incomprehensible original translation of Final Fantasy Tactics works better than its ornate PSP revision, Rapha simply shouts “I KNOW you know!” 

Rapha later confronts Barrington amid a chaotic slaughter at his castle, and the duke gloats at her hesitation in striking. In the PSP version, he remarks that “the flesh remembers, Rapha. It remembers fear, cold, and trembling.” The retranslation even reveals his additional lines about how her “fear will blossom into another flower—and I shall have that one as well.” Marach overhears this, and rushes in to catch a bullet from Barrington’s flintlock. Yet Rapha’s denied any revenge as some higher-up villains arrive and toss Barrington off the rooftop. This creates one of the tougher battles in the entire game, as the player scrambles to help Rapha while she furiously rushes to attack overpowered foes. After all of this, it’d be unrealistic if she didn’t.

The word “rape” never arises, and it hardly needs to—even in the murky exchanges of the original translation, the meaning is clear. There are no nauseating flashbacks or detailed testimonials. It disturbs by implication, both in its direct allusions and peripheral questions (if Barrington hadn’t abused Rapha, would she and Marach have stayed Ramza’s doomed, dutiful enemies?). Matsuno hides all sorts of brutality in the large-headed character sprites and pointy-hatted mages of Final Fantasy Tactics, and he often does it by knowing what not to say.

Yet the underlying idea is rooted in pulp substratum. Barrington is a vile goblin through and through—he manages to look greasy and bloated even in the cute, noseless art of Final Fantasy Tactics. Nor does the game really develop Rapha beyond her introductory trauma. Aside from a brief, admiring talk with Ramza, she serves primarily to progress the story, show the profligacy of nobles, and discover a new side to the Zodiac stones that Ramza seeks. That malady strikes every supporting character in the game. Once they join Ramza, they don’t stand out much.

The Fallout series explores all sorts of depravities amid civilization’s ruin. The issue of rape seldom arises in the player’s view, but Fallout: New Vegas approaches it in a side-quest. When talking with the New California Republic 1st Recon, the player learns about Betsy, a sniper who was ambushed and raped by a marauder named Cook-Cook. Betsy has since grown less stable, to the point where her commanding officer asks the player to talk her into seeing the camp’s resident therapist.

The player can enlist Betsy and other Recon members in killing Cook-Cook and the Fiends, but the solution to Betsy’s unraveling psyche lies in a separate task. It’s carried off in almost laughably terse fashion: talk with a few of Betsy’s comrades, and she’ll decide that she may as well get therapy. Yet the sentiment beneath is something rarely broached in video games or general pulp lit: the idea that a rape victim needs more than vengeance.

Then there’s the inescapable specter of Silent Hill 2. Driven to investigate a fog-shrouded town at the behest of his now-deceased wife, main character James Sunderland encounters many horrors—and among the most striking is a figure named Pyramid Head. The bizarrely helmeted creature is first encountered at an eerie standstill, but not long after he appears in a nearby room, sexually assaulting two malformed female mannequins until they flop lifelessly to the floor.

Pyramid Head serves many ends in Silent Hill 2’s psychological hellscape. He’s the embodiment of James’ sexual frustration, his regrets, his unspoken desire for punishment. And there’s more than one such abstraction in the game, just as James isn’t the only doomed visitor to the town. His fellow guests include a sexually abused runaway named Angela Orosco, whose affliction manifests in a creature called Abstract Daddy. Like Pyramid Head and the rest of the Silent Hill 2 foes, it’s an aberrant golem and a harbinger of self-destruction, as grotesque as its subliminal inspirations.

This makes it all the more unnerving when those grotesques turn cute. Pyramid Head is a favorite among fans, who invoke him in rape jokes, cosplay. and precious fanart. Konami even indulged this with New International Track and Field, where Pyramid Head appears in squat chibi form alongside similar big-headed versions of Solid Snake, Sparkster, and Simon Belmont. Maybe Skullface will make it into the next Konami Krazy Racers, tossing vaginal grenades as he putters around the track.

Despite the queasy mollifications of fans and publishers, Silent Hill 2 may be the most subtle of the above examples. The others are too heavy-handed, too abbreviated, or too melodramatic. Yet even they manage something beyond the usual careless appropriation.

Not that games are alone in this problem. It’s perpetually fashionable for game nerds to fuss and fume and hatch self-loathing catechisms over how backward our hobby is for falling short of J.M. Coetzee or Virginia Woolf, but it’s myopic to confine the issue to games. Comics, TV series, animation, and alleged classic science fiction and fantasy novels fall into the same ugly habits when they concoct power fantasies and use rape as some wretched accessory, as routine a plot gear as an alien invasion or the blood-streaked walls of a space station. Both Game of Thrones and True Detective recently drew fire for making such mistakes.

This brings us to the obvious: it’s difficult to tell a story that involves rape. Many prefer to leave it out of plots entirely, even those set it circumstances that would involve the threat of sexual assault in the real world. Perhaps that’s why many games decide to avoid it in grim and harrowing realms where no other debauchery is ignored. Our video games are still built for entertainment most of the time. And if they’re not going to handle a subject with the gravity it merits, it’s best they don’t touch it at all.


  1. This was very well written and researched, even if the topic is uncomfortable territory for many. Kudos.

  2. Anonymous6:34 PM

    No offense, but I never understood this rather Victorian mentality that it's okay to depict killings and murders, but rape is somehow taboo.

    Snake can kill all the Marines he wants in Ground Zeroes, but the moment Skull-Face rapes Paz, somehow it's wrong. It's not like the game is glorifying the act of rape or anything.

  3. Anonymous8:09 AM

    Minor thing: Otacon was an adult when he had sex with his step-mother, and all he says about it is "She seduced me." Anyway, good post.

  4. Th-this isn't Rygarfield...

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Thank you. You know, I have to say, it really disgusting how rape is so tastelessly thrown around in our society today. I think Bennett the Sage put it best in his speech "Doomed Megalopolis". If you don't have a really, really good reason for putting it in a work, it probably shouldn't be there.(this is partially aimed at you, Anonymous, to explain why.) Rape is disgusting, vile and cruel. It is a personal intimate brand of horrific torture that only the truly evil would commit. Killing a combatant in defense of one's life is not remotely the same, nor is it wrong. Rape is so much more taboo because it's so much more evil by it's very nature. Murder, and even torture can be sympathized with depending on the motives and individual it was done to. If some guy ground little kids into hamburger meat and someone else hunted him down, and iced him, almost everyone, whether praising or condemning, would, at the very least, understand WHY he killed the guy, and sympathize with that "why." Rape is an act of pure, unforgivable evil that hurts someone in the most intimate of ways. It's simply below torture in it's inherent depravity and inhumanity much like torture is a step below murder in those ways. Of all these examples(possibly not counting Otacon as his case may not be rape) FFTactics upsets me the most. 13 years at the oldest when she was raped by the one who killed her family, tells her own brother, who refuses to believe her, and in the end, gets her revenge stolen. What in God's name was the point of putting that gruesome bit of horrifyingly realistic ugliness in a game that's(and otherwise would be itself) series basically as dark as Romeo & Juliet? It's not just how horrible it is, it's how out-of-place it is in both game and series. Seriously, would anyone accept it if Kain raped Rosa while under Golbez's evil-enhancing curse? What about Sephiroth forcibly impregnating Aerith to make his heir? Granted, there were two bits I'm not fond of, but both being failed plans helped.
    A successful rape, especially of one so young is just too much and it had no purpose other than ugliness for the sake of it, and, as I said, just plain out-of-place...