When Lollipop Chainsaw was released, it was met with a wave of criticism for being rooted in pure exploitation. It’s easy to see why. This is, after all, a game based around a barely legal cheerleader hacking up zombies with a chainsaw while sucking on lollipops (hence the title), and the opening cinematic of the game is a slow pan up main character Juliet Starling’s body intercut with shots of her doing yoga as she announces that it’s her 18th birthday. The exploitation is there, and on the surface, it’s the focus of the game.
But here’s the thing: Lollipop Chainsaw is a lot smarter than it looks.
The problem — or one of them, at least — is that if you’re not already familiar with game designer Suda51 and producer James Gunn, you don’t really have much of a reason to go past the surface. The marketing of the game has been based around Juliet and the various sexy costumes you can have her wear for zombie killing. You almost have to be looking for the brains behind the game — or, at the very least, you have to trust that Gunn and Suda51 know what they’re doing. That’s a tough thing, especially in an industry that’s been defined in the past few weeks by the publishers of Tomb Raider deciding that Lara Croft needs to be threatened with rape so that players will want to protect her, because apparently actually identifying with the most popular female lead in the history of video games is out of the question.
If you’re looking for them, though, the themes that Lollipop Chainsaw works with are sharp and provocative. I was pretty uncomfortable with the Arkham City dialogue that led to the player being called a bitch every few minutes when you were playing as Catwoman; and during the fight with Zed, the boss of the first stage of LPC, Juliet gets called a lot worse, a lot more often. But here, there’s more going on. When Zed calls Juliet a bitch, giant red letters form in the air and come crashing down, leaving you to either dodge or take damage. The actual words hurt you unless you get past them and make the one who’s saying them stop. It’s hard not to see symbolism in that.
In a lot of ways, LPC is a thematic sequel to Suda51’s last game, Shadows of the Damned. They have similar styles, they’re based around the same engine, they share similar themes, and there’s even a similar emphasis on a grindhouse exploitation film aesthetic. The lead character, Garcia Hotspur (his full name, according to the game, is “Garcia Fucking Hotspur”), is on the classic video game quest to save his girlfriend, Paula, from being kidnapped by a monster, which leads him through a version of hell that’s more than a little similar to LPC‘s San Romero.
The difference is that Shadows of the Damned is an overblown male power fantasy where everything is taken to the extreme, even by the standards of video games. Garcia doesn’t just battle through hell, there are levels where he’s actually running across a giant version of Paula’s naked body, and at one point, his gun calls a demonic phone sex line and transforms from the “Boner” (it shoots bones) to the “Big Boner.” That’s probably the game’s defining moment: Garcia, bare-chested, standing on a rooftop shouting “taste my Big Boner” over and over again while blowing away gigantic demons.
In the end, though, Garcia’s over-the-top machismo isn’t the straight take that it pretends to be. There are levels where Paula, the object of desire that you’re hunting for through the entire game, actually shows up in tattered lingerie and starts chasing Garcia. It’s an interesting inversion of the traditional video game setup that also reflects societal attitudes toward romance: When she chases him, it’s not a noble quest to rescue, it’s because she’s a gibbering crazy person who’s so clingy that it literally kills her boyfriend.
What it all builds to is that all of Garcia’s posturing is ultimately pointless. He gets the girl, but the final cut scene reveals that the demon attacks are going to persist for the duration of his relationship with Paula, and that she’s still going to lapse into occasional bouts of homicidal possessiveness. The message that the story Shadows of the Damned is telling is one that doesn’t really accomplish anything — and since it’s the same hero-rescues-maiden story that sits at the heart of so many video games, none of those have accomplished anything, either. They’re all rooted in the same tired ideas of masculinity and objectification that are taken to an extreme so that it’s impossible to ignore the fact that they always end up right back where they started without ever actually getting anywhere. As hard as it might be to believe after hearing about the scene with the “Big Boner,” it’s a pretty sharp bit of commentary.
Lollipop Chainsaw toys with the same idea, but on the other side of the coin. Juliet is everything about women in video games — and, to a larger extent, most of pop culture — cranked up as high as possible so that the flaws are impossible to miss. She’s objectified from the moment we see her, even by the characters that you’re directed to rescue, and there’s a recurring idea throughout the game that even in the midst of a zombie attack, she worries that she’s not thin enough. On top of that, the action of the game is given an overwhelmingly “feminine” style: Swinging the chainsaw produces a rail of rainbows, and when you chop off a zombie’s limbs, it’s not blood that shoots out, it’s a shower of hot-pink hearts.
She’s a commentary, almost to the level of pure parody, on women in video games — and if the scene where she’s literally dodging insults wasn’t a tip-off, the level where Juliet goes to a building shaped like a gigantic arcade machine and has to play through Suda51’s versions of classic titles would be.
The question, then, is whether the commentary is worth everything that comes with it, and I’d argue that it is. There’s no getting around the fact that Gunn and Suda51 are reaping the benefits of the same exploitation on which they’re commenting, and that it’s entirely possible to play this game without seeing anything more than a sexy cheerleader hacking up zombies and trading wisecracks with a severed head. The ads for the game are certainly playing up the short skirts and gouts of blood. But Gunn and Suda51 have created a great piece of commentary that also works as a game, hitting those themes with a level of interactivity and directed at an audience that, more often than not, needs the lesson.
Chris Sims is the senior writer for ComicsAlliance.com. He knows more about Batman than any man alive.