In trying to figure out how I was going to talk about Rance, I was reminded of Roger Ebert's 1980 review of I Spit on Your Grave. I've never seen the film, but I know enough from Ebert's review that I would never want to. It's a film about four men who rape a woman three times, and the woman gets revenge by killing all of them one by one. Ebert's review describes his disgust with both the film and the audience members who were hooting and commenting at the screening he attended.
The key line in Ebert's short review comes towards the end: "I have never condemned the use of violence in films if I felt the filmmakers had an artistic reason for employing it." His condemnation of the film is not so much that it contains rape and murder--after all, he gave Sudden Impact three stars three years later--so much as that "it is made artlessly...there is no reason to see this movie except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering."
Going into Rance, I knew that it was an eroge game and that there would be sex and nudity. I was prepared to not care about that if the gameplay was any good. But Rance is not a game about sex. It is a game about rape. Lots of it. And like I Spit on Your Grave, it's made artlessly. There's no reason to play this game except to be entertained by the sight of sadism and suffering.
To take a glaring example, Rance has a magic-using "assistant" named Sill Plain, who is actually a slave. He "purchased" her from an "amoral warlock" and "she has a spell on her that makes her obedient to [his] orders." To increase his own magical abilities, Rance is invited to engage in various sexual behaviors with Sill. All of them are clearly non-consensual. During one act, she says "Please stop" and his response is "Like I would stop doing something so fun! Take that...and that!" The player is of course treated to an image during this scene; I will not be showing any such images from the game during this review.
When Sill complains about these repeated rapes, and the pain they cause, Rance says, "if you do it lots of times, it will start to feel good." Still, Rance has a momentary pang of conscience in his inability to bring pleasure to his slave and wonders if he's doing something wrong, but fortunately he quickly concludes that "no, Sill must be frigid."
Literally every major plot point in the game involves a sexual assault of some sort, whether molesting a maid to get her to give up a key, extorting sex from a castle worker by threatening to turn her in for theft, sexually torturing the queen's handmaiden to find out where the queen has gone, or raping the game's putative villain as a manner of "justice." In between these events, the player has the option to "assault" literally every female NPC he meets (and essentially all NPCs in the game are female, almost always scantily clad even when it doesn't make sense), including battered and traumatized women that they're theoretically there to rescue. That this game was a major commercial release in any country, spawning a whole series of RPGs right up to 2011, is simply jaw-dropping.
|Rance rescues the ghost of an innocent girl. Note that he still has the option to "assault" her.|
It took me a while, and a conversation with Irene, before I could put into words exactly why this game is so vile. If you think the answer is obvious, I would ask you to consider that we just left a game in which the murder of families, children, and police officers is possible. We are about to talk about a game in which the player can choose to become a bloodthirsty space pirate. How many of you, repulsed at my description of Rance, have joyfully played the Dark Brotherhood quests in Skyrim or have reveled in the kills of Assassin's Creed?
From killing the jester in Ultima I to wiping out a village in Wasteland to running over pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto to burglarizing houses in Hero's Quest to committing serial assassinations in The Elder Scrolls games, all games invite us to revel in violence and crime. Let's not pretend otherwise. Almost every modern RPG offers an "evil" path; some of us don't often play it, but let's not pretend that we regard those who do with horror. Let's also not pretend that we're concerned that people who play games like Rance will go on to commit real-life sex offenses. We don't have to read formal research to quickly assess that violence against women has been decreasing in the western world at the same time that pornography--including violent and bizarre pornography--has exploded in quick and easy availability. We can easily note that the areas of the world with the most disgusting and barbaric attitudes towards women are the same areas of the world in which games like Rance, as well as most other forms of published pornography, are banned.
|I originally read this as "points from the goodness." That there is a goddess in this world that awards experience points is a heck of a revelation. Why is Rance not Level -130 by now?|
So why should I condemn the rapes of Rance but not killing Vittoria Vici at her own wedding in Skyrim? I think the answer is this: Skyrim offers us escape into fantasies that we don't actually have; Rance indulges fantasies that some people do actually have. Skyrim invites us to imagine what it's like to play an evil character; Rance invites us to open a door to evil in our own character.
Violence and crimes in most games are a matter of suspension of reality. Whether we're playing "good" or "bad," we are engaged in unmistakable fiction. We may join the Dark Brotherhood and kill innocent people, but we do it without hate. If, in contrast, the Dark Brotherhood quests all involved killing minorities, or elderly people, or women, or children, it might reach Rance's levels of disturbing content; it would play to hate, and prejudices, and disturbing urges among a minority of the population. But as it is, you can enjoy the quests without necessarily enjoying the idea of killing innocent people in real life.
I do not, in contrast, think that you could enjoy Rance without enjoying the idea of raping women. There is, after all, no internal reason for rape in a game. Enemies you kill in games are obstacles to overcome; items you steal are steps towards wealth and power. But there is nothing that you can accomplish, no puzzle that you can solve, no quest that you can achieve through rape that you could not also achieve through not raping.
And Rance makes no secret about expecting the player to enjoy the rapes. It graphically describes them. It provides anguished, pleading dialogue for the victims. What disturbs me more than the idea that someone made such a game is that there must be players who enjoy it--who molest and sodomize their way through the quest with smiles on their faces.
Rance's own reactions and statements are tailored to such players. He isn't some brooding anti-hero, some modern-day Tamburlaine who simultaneously fascinates and horrifies us with the way he employs his strength and will to satisfy his desires. The annals of classical mythology and modern literature are full of dark protagonists who take what they want, whose rapes are presented as half-crime, half-blessing upon their victims. Such stories are offensive in their own right, but Rance can't even aspire to this level of complexity. He's juvenile and crude, pompous, arrogant in his belief in his own sexual prowess. One of my commenters argued that "he was intentionally created as a counter to the standard Japanese RPG protagonist of being a really nice guy who's oblivious about the opposite gender," but Rance is just as oblivious, except in a far worse way.
|Rance's reaction to essentially everyone.|
A disturbed player could make a game like Skyrim as disturbing as Rance. He could reload and kill Vittoria Vici over and over again, shouting misogynistic comments at the screen after each kill, stopping to pose her body before making his getaway. He could download a mod that enables him to kill children and make an effort to wipe out every one of them in the game. He could kill every Redguard that he sees, shouting real-world racial epithets as he does so. Perhaps that the game allows for such gameplay should be a cause for concern. But Rance exists solely for such gameplay, which makes it a cause for even greater concern.
The plot is piffle. Rance is a private investigator commissioned by his guildmaster to find Hikari, a Paris College student who was kidnapped from her room. Through the course of exploring the city, Rance learns about a gang of thieves who have been kidnapping beautiful young women. He eventually comes to find that the kidnappings are being orchestrated by the queen, who periodically sends her handmaiden to the college to identify a beautiful, smart young girl to become the queen's sexual slave. After freeing a ghost of the queen's previous victim from perpetual torment, Rance confronts the queen and, with the help of Sill, rescues Hikari. He chases the queen down--raping her handmaiden to find out where she went--and then rapes the queen to exact justice for the victimized girls. At the end of the game, literally bathing in the reward money, Rance finds out that according to the laws of the land he must marry the queen. He gathers his money and flees with Sill into a series of sequels that you couldn't pay me to play.
The game tries to have it both ways, with Rance expressing horror at the actions of the queen. But since he does so much worse in the course of solving the quest, we're left with the impression that he's just horrified at the thought of lesbianism.
|Actually, the game is rather explicit about that.|
Aside from its breathtaking perversion, Rance isn't even a good as an RPG. It's far more an adventure game than an RPG, with progress determinant upon hitting particular plot points and finding certain items. All action is controlled from the menu on the right side of the screen, including navigating around the cities, talking to NPCs, buying equipment, and fighting combats.
|The main city area at the beginning of the game. This is literally the dumbest excuse I've ever seen for having to grind for money and equipment--though I suppose it may be a joke about common RPG tropes.|
The game is painfully linear. To take an example, in the thieves' lair, you find a closet in one of the rooms. If you search the closet, you find some healing medicines. If you take them and search again, you don't find anything else. But if you try to go up a set of stairs, get a message that your steps are too loud, then return to the room, and then search the closet again, you find some "thieves' shoes." This means a lot of backtracking as you try to figure out exactly the right sequence of events to move forward. There are some places that you have to execute the same command multiple times to get a result. Still, there are only a limited number of commands, and only a few "walking dead" scenarios, so if you have the patience, you can ultimately figure it out through--just like everything else in the game--brute force.
|Rance gets access to a room by breaking the wall down with a hammer. This is the same hammer that the game insisted he didn't need the first time he tried to pick it up; he had to keep clicking on the option.|
Combat is extremely basic and offers only a few options: attack, cast a spell, use a healing herb, or flee. Combat never occurs with any key enemies--all of them, Rance rapes--but rather with wandering foes in certain plot areas, primarily the thieves' lair and a haunted house. None of the areas are very large or difficult to explore; if not for backtracking, you could hit all of the game's areas in less than an hour.
|I'm not saying the graphics are great in the rest of the game, but they didn't even try with the combat portraits.|
From the moment you have about $600, which is very easy to obtain, you can buy the best weapons and armor, and combat isn't even remotely dangerous for the rest of the game. Outdoors, you can deliberately "look for monster" to grind for gold and experience, and with a series of fast clicks, rise 5 or 10 levels (far more than you need) in a matter of minutes.
|This GIF isn't speeded up; I'm actually clicking that fast to build gold and experience.|
If there's one redeeming thing about Rance, it's that it occasionally has a sharp sense of humor. "How tragic it is to be a guy," it muses as Rance allows himself to be seduced into an obvious trap. He makes a comment on the Rube Goldberg nature of adventure games where one item leads to another to another, often nonsensically. A female NPC taunts him as he dumps money into a gambling game with horrible odds just because she's offered to take off some clothing every time he wins. The end joke about bathing in gold is reasonably funny.
But on the whole, this is the most vile game I've ever experienced--a record that is unlikely to fall unless I decide to play Super Columbine Massacre RPG in 2006.
I'm not going to bother to explain my full GIMLET. As you've seen, the RPG elements are scant. The only things it has going for it are a theoretically good dialogue system (the mechanics are good; it's just that everything out of Rance's mouth is contemptible) and a reasonably quick pace. I gave the largest negative bonus I've ever given (-5) for the content, bringing the final score down to 17, one of my lowest ever for a post-Bronze Era game. But I suppose if the content doesn't offend you, you'll like the game about as much as a natural 22. In such a case, please feel free not to comment on my blog.
If you do comment, I don't want to hear any nonsense like "LOL it's Japanese, what do you expect?" Analyzing the cultural attitudes that created such a game is fine, but let's make sure it's analysis, and not simple repetition of stereotypes.
I also want to stave off the idea that I'm just a victim of a poor translation, and that in the original Japanese, the sex was portrayed as consensual and Rance's comments were less juvenile. While I allow that there might be some nuances to the original Japanese dialogue that didn't make it through in the translation, the images make it abundantly clear what's happening even without the dialogue. I've also read enough online about the Japanese version to believe that the English translation was more or less faithful.
Before I go, I should comment on the fact that I played the game to the end despite how I felt about it. Irene was a bit aghast at this when I described it to her. I was motivated by two things. First, having decided to play it at all, I didn't want this game to be responsible for my first "no" in the "Won?" column in a year. Second, I felt some perverse quasi-journalistic responsibility to document the entirety of the thing. I didn't want some apologist for the game to show up and claim that Rance redeems himself in the end or that the worst of the game is in the first half.
But I wish I'd listened to those of you who told me not to play it at all. I'm deleting the rest of the series from my game list, and I will not be playing any more games that feature sexual assault as a primary game element. The only time I ever want to see Rance again is in a game in which I--preferably playing a female PC--get to kill him.
|This would have been a nice happy ending.|