A response to Philip Kollar’s Dungeon Traveler 2 opinion piece

When I look at the state of mainstream games journalism, there are opinion and news articles out there which leave me scratching my head. And then I remember that tabloid news sites (especially game news sites) don’t have particularly high standards for content, peddling whatever headline happens to catch the most attention and clicks from its potential viewers.

“Atlus can do better than this creepy, porn lite dungeon crawler” certainly is an eye catcher of a headline, complete with picture of a cutesy anime girl, half naked with some underboob going on. A picture is worth a thousand words, they say, but does that really tell the whole story?

At first, Mr. Kollar praises Atlus as a niche games publisher, because they brought us the Shin Megami Tensei/Persona series that has become so beloved over the years as we got more and more entries from it. But then he goes on to say that he finds games like Conception II disturbing, because the idea of “classmating”, or performing a magical ritual with your female classmates to make star children, bothers him. In practice, Conception II’s concept of procreation is by far the most innocent method of doing so I’ve ever seen in a video game, aside from when you drop off your Pokemon to mate with Dittos in the daycare center to create clones.

Dragon’s Crown also gets criticism from Mr. Kollar. He loves the hand drawn art style, but doesn’t seem to care for the exaggerated proportions of the female characters, which he feels drags the game down. I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, as I always do. This comment reminds me very much of Jason Scherier’s condemnation of Dragon’s Crown back in 2013, but his article was far more insulting to Vanillaware’s artists. Having played Dragon’s Crown myself, there was no point at which I felt the stylistic choices of the artists hampered the game in any way. Hypothetically, if Mr. Kollar were to review Dragon’s Crown today, would he have docked points for the sorceress’s sex appeal, just as Polygon’s Arthur Gies infamously did for Bayonetta 2? There are times when Polygon and Kotaku are so similar in their narratives that they are indistinguishable, other than their names. This is one of those times.

So what is Philip Kollar’s problem with Dungeon Travelers 2?

Let’s start with the cast: Dungeon Travelers 2 is that rare RPG that mostly stars women. 16 of them to be precise. Cool! However, like Conception 2, the main character is a dude, and the women are primarily presented as things for him to interact with; they’re in the game to be rescued, fought or used in combat rather than acting on their own.
And above all else, they’re in the game to be ogled. As you can see in the trailer below,Dungeon Travelers 2 presents its hand-drawn female leads in various states of undress and, beyond that, in full-on sexual situations.

Let’s make no mistake, Dungeon Travelers 2, like Conception II, is a niche moe Japanese RPG. This sort of game isn’t going to appeal to someone like Mr. Kollar, who I’m going to guess possesses some strong progressive and feminist views, being that he writes for Polygon. What he sees as a problem is actually par for the course for games like this, and as I’ve said before, the PlayStation Vita is the de facto home for some of the most niche games out there. I’m still waiting for my copy of Moe Chronicle, but I digress.

This trailer he uses as evidence doesn’t provide sufficient evidence to me for his claim. Sure, there are a few suggestive outfits among the girls, but the most ‘sexual’ thing I saw there was two girls relaxing in a hot sping, which could have very well been a scene of skinship, a concept foreign to Westerners but is normal practice among Japanese people.

Philip’s next point goes over Atlus’s censorship of the game for the ESRB. According to them, they had to make minor edits to a few images in order to avoid crossing that AO rating which would make the game unsalable. The public still doesn’t know which images were censored or to what degree they were edited, but Atlus wants us to take their word for it:

“We are very aware of what impact censorship can have on import titles; we are confident that the changes we made to the images in Dungeon Travelers 2 were the least invasive possible to still be eligible for a release in the west.”

An attempt was made to discuss this on NeoGAF, but they swiftly banned the topic (which I vehemently disagree with, by the way).

Mr. Kollar then tries to assure his readers that he isn’t against sex in games, and he thinks there should be more of it. All well and good, except that isn’t one of your articles you linked to, Philip, it’s Nina Freeman’s. I’m not sure why he feels the need to backpedal, this is his opinion piece that he wanted published, so I feel he should back it up all the way, lest he look like a hypocrite.

I’m going to pause for a minute, because I think there’s an important distinction to be made here. What Mr. Kollar is against is what he sees as straight up pornography in games, even if he’s wrong and he’s misinterpreting the whole thing (which I think he is). Nina Freeman’s article discusses how video games can be used to talk about sexuality, possibly using mature and in-depth storytelling. This would be right at home for someone who harbors strong progressive/feminist viewpoints, and that sentiment echoes various other articles I’ve seen from writers on the left who want to see video games “grow up”. Perhaps they’ve forgotten that Atlus has tackled this topic before in Catherine, which focuses on sex and adultery, and the fears of being tied down in marriage. Those aren’t subjects video games normally take on, and I think they did a fantastic job of it.

Anyway, let’s continue. This is Mr. Kollar’s conclusion about Dungeon Travelers 2:

The goal is not to get one of the game’s many women to fight alongside you or to forge a deep relationship with them; it’s to eventually see them naked and probably doing something demeaning. Game design shouldn’t be a matter of putting Pokémon into the bodies of playmates in order to appeal to gaming’s worst instincts. That’s lazy and insulting.

I have a hard time understanding this paragraph. What does the stated goal of the game have to do with its design? You may not like the goal, but the objective of the game is not in of itself a design flaw, it’s just not in line with your politics.

It is, for all intents and purposes, a porn game, or the closest you can get to a porn game on the PlayStation Vita.

This is a fairly damning statement, and probably the biggest issue I take with this piece. Imagine being John Hardin, Atlus’s PR manager, and having to read that. (Funnily enough, John is quoted later in the article…) Remember that it was stated earlier that Atlus did make efforts to avoid the dreaded AO rating through their edits. Atlus is doing its best to get this game to market in a salable fashion. What if a major retailer such a Gamestop happened to read those words and refused to carry Dungeon Travelers 2 out of fear of what Philip Kollar is saying? Atlus’s work would be all for naught. They don’t want to be seen as a publisher of pornographic games, but this article creates an image problem for them that they don’t need.

This is the last part I’ll respond to:

Before anyone starts in about how people only complain about this stuff when Japanese developers do it: Nah, it’s just as bad with Western devs. In fact, one of them still owes fans a replacement calendar of guy butts.
Of course there’s one important way that Dungeon Travelers 2 sets itself apart from a game like The Witcher or even something like Dragon’s Crown: the age of its subjects. While we can’t say for sure what Dungeon Travelers 2's protagonists are aged, many of them sure look disturbingly young.

The truth is that tabloid video game writers like Philip do tend to complain more when the subject revolves around niche Japanese games and the way they handle sexuality. Hyperdimension Neptunia has been a victim of such mockery. It is the subject of clickbait stories, relegated to being non-content for quick and dirty ad revenue and little else. Rarely do we see any positive coverage from “K + P”, and that’s why alternatives like Gematsu exist and are sorely needed. I’ve yet to see an article from a mainstream gaming outlet that laments the way The Witcher tackles sex, and I’ll bet hell freezes over before I do.

There are two more points I’d like to make: First of all, the age of consent in Japan is lower than it is in the US, so if the female characters in Dungeon Traveler 2 appear younger, that’s probably the reason for it. Secondly, this game is drawn in the moe art style, so as with Dragon’s Crown, we can’t fall into the trap of being too judgemental based on appearances. Articles like this one are damaging and set back the cause of trying to understand our cultural differences.

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