Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Repressed Homoeroticism in R-Type

While the homoerotic subtext in films such as Top Gun and Frank Miller's 300 have been explored rather vigorously by the mainstream media, less attention is typically given to video games. In this article I explore some facets of subtly repressed homoeroticism its roots in cultural discomforts with the portrayal of the sexual human body.

Most side-scrolling "shooters" are known for their fast-paced action, copious enemies, and "end bosses" that herald the near-completion of a level. One of the most ubiquitous shoot'em'up side-scrollers was released in the 1980s: R-Type. Like most of the arcade shooters that followed, R-Type featured a singular space ship controlled by the player via joystick embattled by screenfuls of oncoming enemies. The ship, is conspicuously named "Arrowhead" - which is obvious phallic imagery hardly worth mentioning; it emits bursts of concentrated energy that explode enemies on contact; often the same enemies fire bursts of energy back at the ship threatening to destroy it. By the end of the level, the player encounters the end boss, thus signaling the beginning of a long and bitter fight to the death.


Editorial note: Throughout this analysis I will refer to specific timecodes of the following video - please cue it to the positions indicated in the text.


R-Type is most recognizably repressed in its homoerotic aspects through its visual symbolism. At an experiential level, the player engages with his ship through a short knobbed joystick, metaphorically controlling the rate and direction of his ship's bursts of hot, electric spermatozoa. Not only is the player encouraged to destroy its similarly-equipped onscreen enemies - he can only achieve it through the delicate firing of his own seeds. It is therefore clear that the player will "die" if his ship comes into contact with either the seed of his enemy, or the enemy itself. A long tradition of erotic repression since the Victorian era has highlighted taboo of male-male intimacy, suggesting that the player's own revulsion at touching other phallic symbols with his own is an inherent part of the game mechanic. The lust-hate relationship between the player's ship and his enemies becomes most obvious when the larger "snake-like" creature comes on-screen and resists the player's attempt to love/destroy it [3:35 in video].

R-Type again demonstrates its discomfort with the male body in its level design. Throughout the game, the player is required to penetrate through the defenses of vagina-shaped walls. While this would normally not be of consequence, and might in fact simply represent desires for heterosexual domination, it is of importance that the player is forced to proceed through the level. At no point can the player choose to not penetrate the vaginal canals; furthermore if the ship becomes trapped on the wrong side of the wall it is crushed by an invisible force represented by the edge of the screen. Like a young man forced by his father to bed a prostitute in order to prove his 'manliness', the player is forced to penetrate female genital symbols or be destroyed. By denying any possibility for sexual choice, the player is unable to satisfy his homoerotic urges and is thus left to unconsciously repress them.

This sexual violence comes to a head when the player encounters the end-boss. In the first level, the player encounters the end-boss "Dobkeratops". Featuring two wombs, a partially-exposed fetus, and a phallic tail, the creature both horrifically draws and repels the male player.
Without the destruction of this half-man-half-woman creature, the player cannot make passage to the next level. If the player has collected enough "power-ups", the ship will develop a bulbous protusion at its tip that can fire more powerful bursts of energy at the creature, thus destroying it. Similarly, the end-boss for level 2 features an organic creature consisting of rectal protusions [4:08 in video]. A large snake enters and exits these protrusions at its whim, and the player must destroy it to continue; if the player commands the ship into one of these protrusions it simply explodes. Thus, another opportunity to express the player's homoerotic desires is frustrated by the repressive game mechanics.

It is unfortunately clear that if you accept the inevitable consequences of the preceding analysis, arcade games such as R-Type have contributed to the repression of male homoerotic desire since 1987. In future articles I hope to explore this issue more deeply, and highlight some of the ways in which modern video games have allowed men to express their desires for other men, and women for other women.

Author's note: While this analysis has focused upon the male homoerotic aspects of the game, it is important that these aspects could easily be explored in their misogynic symbolism.

23 comments:

fatherkrishna said...

JESUS! And I thought R-Type was just a generic 2D side scrolling SHMUP!

Mind you, if I think about it, SHMUP stands for Sticks His Manhood Up Poo-Na-Na-s... Jeez! You guys are like the overlords of videogames!

I'm strictly heterosexual... But obviously I've got homo-erotic overtones...

I liked SHMUPS, but obviously that makes me gay! I'm confused! Help me Game Cabaret! Surely you know the answers... LOL!

FUNNYMAN said...

I love sex, but this is not the kind of sex that I was hoping for.

gnome said...

To be perfectly honest, I hadn't thought of this kind of subtext in video games, as all I usually tend to try and figure out are political connotations (not that hard really) or just point out the odd impressively sexist game. So, Chris, thanks for actually pointing towards this direction, though I do feel you're stretching it too much.

After all, I'm pretty sure that there was no intentional sexual subtext inserted in the design and judging by HR Gigers deranged sureal erotic art (the one irem ripped off) I'd hardly call them bosses sexists. Then again, I might just be wrong. Guess I'll have to expand me reading a bit...

Chris said...

Thanks for the replies. Of course, I did take a lot of poetic license in writing this one up.

The one thing I should have mentioned is that the designers did not "intentionally" design the game with these repressive features. The point of repression is that it is "unintentional" - that they themselves did not recognize the game as being erotic in any way.

gnome said...

Right. That definitely changes things. Here's a question though: wouldn't any standart maze-shmup appear to be repressive/repressed in such a way?

Chris said...

I think you're definitely right about that. In fact *all* human acts, Freud would probably claim, have a basis in sexual expression.

What makes R-Type special is the degree to which I can draw out sexual symbolism. I didn't pick the game randomly - it really does have a strong eroticism to the boss enemies. As for sh'mups, I think they truly appeal most to male desires for umm.. bigger phalluses. :) Like driving a Corvette.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Great read. I like that you combined gameplay with the art, that's always been the thing lacking in critical analysis of games. Game design is the thing people need to learn how to talk about.

You could also argue that a lot of the creatures resembling children (the phallic one you screen captured, for example) seem to indicate a fear of fatherhood and growing up.

My personal favorite game for sexual repression has always been Metroid. Samus is always fighting against another woman. Although most of the sub-bosses have something phallic about them (Ridley's tail, Kraid's projectile spikes) it is always the woman, the repressive mother figure, that the sexy Samus has come to rescue us from.

Tough topic though, most of the pieces I've read talking about how games tend to address sexual insecurity get a fair amount of hazing. Case in point:

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/features/article/48962/rethinking-halo/

L.B. Jeffries said...

Ack...my HTML skills are non-existent. Just google "Popmatters Rethinking Halo" and you'll find it.

Chris said...

Thanks for the thoughtful reply LB. The fatherhood insecurity symbolism is a good observation - I had not thought of that (probably because I focused so much on the eroticism).

Re: Samus. Wow! I hadn't thought of that. I've been playing through Super Metroid on my SNES - I'm going to start watching with more open eyes. I did notice that in Super Metroid the goal is to rescue the metroid hatchling.. wow. Surprised I missed that one. That whole game could really use some teasing apart.

Going to read that Popmatters article now..

Kevin said...

Oh god please be joking...

Please tell me you're all having fun and don't actually take that stuff to heart...

gnome said...

We're only joking when we pretend to play for high-scores... Ha!

Andrew said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew said...

Would you believe you're not the first person to notice this? A friend of mine actually wrote a short article on a similar topic last year:

http://blog.dessgeega.com/?p=99

Also funny since I was recently talking to another friend about the homosexual undertones of the Alien created by Giger.

Of course, R-Type has nothing on Cho Aniki... except maybe subtlety.

http://www.hg101.classicgaming.gamespy.com/
choaniki/choaniki.htm

Kevin said...

Cho Aniki I can understand as it's BLATANTLY about homoeroticism. R-Type is disgusting, but is it a representation of repressed homoeroticism? Half of the reasons given in the article aren't intristic to just R-Type (airplanes and spaceships are phallic, and guns/lasers/bullets have also been described that way.) That's not proof that the creators are reprsessing some kind of homosexuality.

Furthermore, the other reasons (sexually shaped environments and enemies) is more believable, but I think it's not so much the creators repressing homosexuality as the creators wanting disgusting creepy looking monsters in their game, designed the way they are to induce a mental gag reflex.

Lastly I think Chris is reaching for straws in his analysis, stretching things to make what is simply a shooter with weird monsters into a more philosophically heavy experience. And, really the same conclusions could be reached for any game, and if you have to bring your own personal opinion about a piece is it valid? Maybe for art, but it's a game, created and intended for people to purchase and be entertained by. It can't be saying anything because it's not in a style or an environment that causes people to seek meaning within itself. Have we learned nothing from Duchamp?

That said, I think Super Mario Bros. has not only repressed sexual tones, but incest, bestiality, drug abuse, self-castration, communistic overtones and infantalism.

Chris said...

Kevin - normally I would agree with everything you've said and make the same criticisms myself (and I especially would not have written it for my own blog. That being said, this place is all about making wild armchair generalizations and taking them to new, disturbing, and intellectually vacuous heights.

(Okay - and to really respond to your comment Kevin - there is no 'proof' to anything in art, so taking an interpretive approach to a piece and treating it as art is in itself worthwhile I think. The rather carnal imagery that this game has does in fact draw upon a lot of bodily imagery - the fact that we find it 'disgusting' is very representative of a Western Judeo-Christian concern with the body as a place of guilt. Now, obviously my little analysis goes off the deep end for poetic effect, but you haven't provided me with an alternative analysis with any better footing. In fact, your comment amounts to "it's just a yucky game" in the end. I don't think the game is a philosophically heavy experience - but I think the experience of playing it is very carnal. Whether it is/is not given the status of 'art' is beside the question, I think - but you're right, nobody is going to pursue their personal development through an encounter with R-Type. Unless you're repressed.)

gnome said...

Besides, Cho Aniki has obvious anti-left connotations...

guttertalk said...

Actually, I think chris's post is in the spirit of Duchamp's urinal, which he used to say "Art is what I say it is."

Games can be interpreted and analyzed just as well as movies, even though both are entertainment.

Symbolism and metaphors can easily be abused, but they can be found anywhere. As countless analyses have shown, even advertising has metaphors and symbols. And where you have metaphors, you have inherent implications about what is good and bad, as this PSP ad shows (which hard to believe it wasn't intentional).

Modern art has one recurring theme: art can be whatever we want it to be, whether it's soup cans, urinals, elephant dung, or games.

Devin Monnens said...

Any discussion about sexuality and R-Type should not fail to reference Alien, of which the majority of the series' Gigeresque artwork is inspired. Alien was designed to disturb on all levels, including the sexual level. All male characters in the film are emasculated - they cannot do anything against the Alien and one is in fact victim to symbolic fellatio when Kane is attacked by the Facehugger (and perhaps literal - it is, after all, an Alien). (Remember, too, that Alien has lots of vaginal openings, particularly on the wrecked ship). One of the underlying themes of Alien is also the monstrous-feminine, another recurring theme in R-Type.

However, there is a risk at going too far with this type of analysis. For one thing, we don't know if R-Type was just taking a strong Gigeresque art style and applying it to an original universe. On a much simpler note, one can possibly read Pong as a set of arguments (and the game has been remade as such a few times), but Pong is simply a simulation of Table Tennis. However, Tennis itself has at its core the concept of 'debate' and was invented by monks as a more peaceful game or exercise, so it's unsurprising that Pong, based off Tennis, can easily incorporate debate as metaphor for volleys. Likewise, a work that uses a Gigeresque style may not be thinking directly of applying its sexual undertones (even though they are present), but is instead using the style because it is popular and 'creepy'. There are many other shmups that use this style (Katakis, Biometal, and PhilSoma to name a few) and the same analysis would likely apply to these as well. I'm not sure what you'd do about the giant space fish of Darius.

A far stronger analysis of sexuality in R-Type is the final stage of R-Type Delta ("Life") with the giant sperm and the embryo that the R-9 must 'fertilize' with its force pod. Also the final stage of R-Type Final (F-A) has a silhouetted couple procreating in the background while a bunch of eyeball ships surround and attack the R-9. And whatever this does to your reading, remember that the R-9 penetrates the vaginal Gomander in Stage 6 after blowing up the phallic 'worm' (stage F-A is inside). (this isn't even counting Final's Bydo-based fighters, in which the pilot must be completely immersed in a gelatinous environment in order to operate).

Certainly sperm-like laser blasts (particularly those fired by the force bits) and giant space sperm appear in several of the games, but R-Type's sexual undertones are not specifically homoerotic but rather sexually and biologically disturbing in general. For a more blatantly homoerotic game, go with Cho Aniki's biomechanical and exposed bodies. Another study might be done on the over-masculinized box art of the 70s and 80s.

Devin Monnens said...

Any discussion about sexuality and R-Type should not fail to reference Alien, of which the majority of the series' Gigeresque artwork is inspired. Alien was designed to disturb on all levels, including the sexual level. All male characters in the film are emasculated - they cannot do anything against the Alien and one is in fact victim to symbolic fellatio when Kane is attacked by the Facehugger (and perhaps literal - it is, after all, an Alien). (Remember, too, that Alien has lots of vaginal openings, particularly on the wrecked ship). One of the underlying themes of Alien is also the monstrous-feminine, another recurring theme in R-Type.

However, there is a risk at going too far with this type of analysis. For one thing, we don't know if R-Type was just taking a strong Gigeresque art style and applying it to an original universe. On a much simpler note, one can possibly read Pong as a set of arguments (and the game has been remade as such a few times), but Pong is simply a simulation of Table Tennis. However, Tennis itself has at its core the concept of 'debate' and was invented by monks as a more peaceful game or exercise, so it's unsurprising that Pong, based off Tennis, can easily incorporate debate as metaphor for volleys. Likewise, a work that uses a Gigeresque style may not be thinking directly of applying its sexual undertones (even though they are present), but is instead using the style because it is popular and 'creepy'. There are many other shmups that use this style (Katakis, Biometal, and PhilSoma to name a few) and the same analysis would likely apply to these as well. I'm not sure what you'd do about the giant space fish of Darius.

A far stronger analysis of sexuality in R-Type is the final stage of R-Type Delta ("Life") with the giant sperm and the embryo that the R-9 must 'fertilize' with its force pod. Also the final stage of R-Type Final (F-A) has a silhouetted couple procreating in the background while a bunch of eyeball ships surround and attack the R-9. And whatever this does to your reading, remember that the R-9 penetrates the vaginal Gomander in Stage 6 after blowing up the phallic 'worm' (stage F-A is inside). (this isn't even counting Final's Bydo-based fighters, in which the pilot must be completely immersed in a gelatinous environment in order to operate).

Certainly sperm-like laser blasts (particularly those fired by the force bits) and giant space sperm appear in several of the games, but R-Type's sexual undertones are not specifically homoerotic but rather sexually and biologically disturbing in general. For a more blatantly homoerotic game, go with Cho Aniki's biomechanical and exposed bodies. Another study might be done on the over-masculinized box art of the 70s and 80s.

Fernando Shiruba said...

I think R-type is a game against people that are left-handed, the games pushes you to the right always.

its deeper meaning is: use your right hand.

And I really really hope, that all of you are very good at sarcasm. or else, the entire gaming world is gay. Ryu shoots sperm with his hands, samus has a HOLE in her right arm (maybe it is about anal sex?), Mario has adventures in the mushroom kingdom (its all about drugs, right?) and PAC-MAN INVENTED THE VERY CONCEPT OF RAVING: EAT PILLS TO AVOID THE GHOSTS OF THE DARK MAZES WITH REPETITIVE MUSIC!

rancie11 said...

In some cases interpretations say more about the interpreter than that which is being interpreted.
Great read, though--it was a blast.

Edward said...

Sorry, but this is just.... stupid.
Does the OP actually play shmups?
By this text it would seem that every horizontal shmup is sexually offensive.

Earth Angel said...

I agree with this article as R-Type was the game that actually helped me discover my own repressed homosexual desires.

It all started one night when I was a freshman and my mom dropped me off at the mall with a roll of quarters. I kept them in one of those purple velvet Crown Royal bags the brand is famous for. I remember now that I used to want to rub my genitals with it. "Is that a roll of quarters in your pocket?" the ladies would have asked and I'd reply, "No. That's a massive boner I got from playing R-Type and thinking about men". lol, okay I made that up but the rest is true.

Anyway, I had gotten pretty good at the game through all those nights of playing at the Blazing Flippers (that was the name of our mall arcade) and was planning on beating it that night. I had reached the Gomander, boss of the second stage. Sometimes people refer to it as the 'Cyst' but I myself like to picture it as a giant throbbing cow heart. I realize that the stage design is supposed to make a person feel something like revulsion but I guess I had gotten used to the 'gore', if you would call it that. It just made me think of people's insides. I couldn't help but wonder how nice the little crab guys on your way up to the boss would feel crawling their way out of my urethra.

Somewhere along the lines of me reaching the boss and engaging it in combat I had unconsciously recognized the phallic imagery being offered to me in the form of the spiraling worm creature. This had excited me and I began to wave to and fro so as to stroke my proboscis with the velvet quarter bag through the hole in the pocket of my jeans. I would purposefully go commando to arcades because I liked the way my sweat felt against the material, the way it's temperature would rapidly fluctuate with my movements.

Upon the worm creature's first insertion into the upper leftmost ventricle and resulting quiver animation I felt a chill down the girth of my meat. The movements of my R9 paralleled the dodging of the feelings I had inside, almost like a beautiful but horrific dance. I tried to fight them as I blasted away at the Cyst but could contain myself no longer. As my R9 exploded, so did I. Then there was a moment of bliss and beautiful silence as the arcade machines' noise droned out in my muffled eardrums. When I awoke from the hysteria I realized that my penis was inserted into the 2 player slot, having pounded the red tab face into the depths of the machine.

The manager of the establishment was furious, the patrons were hiding their elation. I jovially shrugged off the embarrassment and proceeded to blow everybody with newfound comfort in my sexuality.