Aug 242010

The strength of Nier is the friendship between its decidedly odd cast of characters. The western release features a burly and frankly ugly man, a rare choice of protagonist for a JRPG. His principal companion is a pompous talking book that grants him magic powers. Also magical is their young comrade Emil, the sunniest character in the game and the one most constantly dumped on by its world. Then there is the possessed warrior Kainé, whose picture I have tucked beneath the fold because her appearance is arguably NSFW. That design is one of my main reservations about the game.

So here you have it: a character who basically compiles every single sexist trope in JRPG character design into a single body. There’s just no getting around the fact that Kainé goes into battle wearing almost nothing but lingerie. This angle doesn’t even fully show off how bad this outfit is: the nightie is cut out under the breasts to expose skin, and the back side of the underwear is laced together to show off the crack. Notably, I did not spend any extra time researching these angles — the most ludicrous aspects of this outfit are shoved right in your face during cutscenes. The worst thing about it is that I’m not completely sure this getup is the most revealing outfit for a woman in a JRPG ever. However, it’s embarrassingly frank in its literality. Fran (from Final Fantasy XII) might have been wearing something slightly better disguised as armor, but it was just as exposing as this getup, perhaps more so. Throw in the high heels Kainé is wearing here and you have what can only be called the most sexist getup ever thrown on a female character. I can’t really criticize anyone who takes one look at this and throws Nier onto the DO NOT PLAY list.

Despite the atrocious costume, however, Kainé doesn’t really fit the JRPG female stereotype. Women in JRPGs disproportionately inhabit the outer edges of the battlefield, cast as mages, healers, and archers. As the oversized blades she’s holding suggest, however, Kainé’s a close-combat fighter despite the lingerie look, and in several boss battles (especially those involving the critter shown below) she’s depicted as the character who’s doing the real damage. Furthermore, Kainé is all hard edges. Hard-boiled women are much more of a rarity in JRPGs than they are in anime, but in both cases the character often falls into the archetype of a tough shell masking a soft and tender heart that just needs a man’s care to really blossom. In this way even a strong woman character can be transmuted into one who is “appropriately” demure and available. Not so much with Kainé, who is amazingly foul-mouthed and, with the exception of one or two highly ambiguous moments, never seems to indicate any romantic interest in another character.

Even when it comes to the outfit, there’s something else going on. At several points during the first playthrough, Kainé mentions that she loathes her body. It’s also clear that the people of her town, the Aerie, fear and despise her. The natural assumption is that all of this is the result of her possession by a shade, as I discussed in the previous post. However, the new game + playthrough, which is focused around her story, makes it clear that the townsfolk thought of her as a hated freak long before she encountered the shade that took over her arm and leg. Although it’s not explicitly said, the dialogue in her story makes it pretty clear that she’s an intersex character.

In this light the outrageous outfit could be interpreted as an effort to establish a gender identity. Given her harsh life and upbringing, Kainé doesn’t have the personality to fit the traditional view of women. So, to “prove” that she’s a woman she chooses to wear clothing that reveals her feminine physical attributes. That is, at least, an explanation.

An explanation isn’t the same thing as a justification, though. Even if I take the outfit to be the expression of a gender choice by Kainé, the chosen form of expression hinges on design tropes I find irritating or infuriating. If the outfit had been used as a vehicle to genuinely critique existing designs, that too might have rescued the situation. Unfortunately, Kainé’s clothing is just used as the foundation for an ongoing insult battle between her and another character. Surely the developers could have accomplished the same goals without such a ludicrous, objectifying getup.

In the end I feel like Kainé’s depiction has more negative to it than positive. Although she breaks out of the JRPG mold in terms of her personality and battle prowess, her character design goes too far in the other direction, taking design tropes almost to their logical extreme, and probably as far as they could go without getting an AO rating. It’s a shame because I think a less outrageous design could still have done right by the character without making her appearance too embarrassing to allow me to recommend an otherwise excellent game to everyone.

  5 Responses to “The curious case of Kainé”

  1. I'm curious, did you read any interviews with the developers?

    The only reason I ask is because some early previews of the game had the creators explicitly stating what you just suggested–that Kaine dresses the way she does to assert her femininity.

    I do agree that it goes pretty overboard, however.

  2. No, I didn't check any interviews. Thanks for mentioning that, though. I have also heard that there are some stories in a (canon) supplementary book that make the intersex thing more clear, but I couldn't verify it myself. Even if asserting femininity was the exact thing the developers were going for, though, the character design is excessive. Unfortunately, this is a case where I think the design might tell us more about the developers than about the character.

  3. Thought-provoking post!
    I still haven't played Neir, but after reading more here from you (very interesting by the way) and from Brad Gallaway, I'm definitely going to try it in the future.

    Wacky thought on the "Kaine's outfit is her way of asserting her femininity"–
    You say they could have done it less excessively, and yes, they could have made it less ridiculous in a "real world" sense, but in a video game outfit sense, maybe they had to take it that far to 'rise above the noise'?

    That is, nearly every girl in fantasy games are dressed so scantily or sexualized, that in order for her to show that she was asserting her womanly attributes they basically had to go overboard. Dunno.. not disagreeing it could have been less revealing, just thinking about what the devs could have been going for.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Nathan. I think you've touched on something that's a serious problem for JRPGs and games generally. The "mainstream" gaming depiction of women (I mean, just look at FFXII for an example) is so over-the-top already that there's almost no space between it and full-frontal nudity. In that sense I can understand that the devs might have felt this was the only direction to take the design. This feels like a sloppy rationalization, though, because the relevant yardstick for the character isn't other women in other RPGs, but rather other women in the world of the game. The women inhabiting the rest of Nier are generally dressed quite demurely, so there was no need to go to such an extreme.

  5. I haven't played the game, nor have I heard of it, but based only upon the points you made here, I think this is a decent analysis.

    On one hand, I kind of respect that the game creators put enough thought into this character and her background to be able to explain her reasons for dressing that way. On the other hand, I'd wager that most gamers don't read up much on intersex issues (and I'm definitely not well-educated in this area). I feel like the result is both positive–it's good to have diversity, and it is positive that there is an intersex character, but also questionable because there is that widespread ignorance of what it means to be intersex and all the surrounding issues. Because there are so few examples of intersex characters in media, I'm sure that non-stereotypical examples are difficult to name. So, it's possible that people who see this character may end the game having certain ideas of intersex identity in general, coming from the portrayal of Kainé in the game.

    In the end, I think it's probably better that Kainé exists than not, though from what you describe about the character in your post, I definitely share your reservations.

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