by Kristin Bezio
One of the great things about gaming in general, not just videogaming, is that it’s meant to be played with other people. It’s social. Social without all the ugly pressures of a work or society function, and – generally speaking – you generally have control over the people you play with.
Now I know that last bit is often different in the world of the gaming e-verse, since many multiplayer games throw you as the player into a sea of rabid beasts that sound like thirteen-year-olds or drunken lunatics or basement-dwelling cave trolls. Which is really too bad, since the vast majority of people playing on multiplayer servers just aren’t speaking and don’t fit into any of those categories. But there you go.
In the world of videogames, multiplayer experience has a lot to do with the people you play with – whether you like them or not, whether they act like responsible individuals or inebriated squirrels, and whether they (and you) are any good at the game you’re playing collectively. I tend to avoid multiplayer games because I wish to avoid being labeled as a “noob” (I’m not, I just happen to suck at most shooters, which is what a lot of multiplayer games are), asked for pictures of my boobs, or informed that I’m “just someone’s girlfriend” or – even better – “a thirteen-year-old boy pretending to be a girl.”
But I do like – very much like – multiplayer campaign games because I get all the story and puzzle-solving of a single-player campaign, and I get to play with people of my choosing. A group of us has been doing this for years now – Gears of War 3, Halo 3, Halo ODST, Halo Reach (and not because we like Halo, but because it offers four-person cooperative play), Gears of War hoard mode, Dead Island, and now… Monaco.
One of the things I like about Monacois that it very self-consciously is aware of itself as a multiplayer campaign. In fact, the characters in it are themselves on a multiplayer heist campaign. They’re archetypes rather than fully-fleshed out characters (appropriate, given their pixelated and almost unidentifiable appearance), but they have a surprising amount of nuance for all that.
The game begins with four classes – if you have a full party, that’s one character for each. There’s the Lookout (who can see enemies in the dark), the Locksmith (guess what he does?), the Pickpocket (who has a gold-stealing monkey…), and the Cleaner (who knocks people unconscious, apparently, the game’s website says, with chloroform).
Each character has a personality – the Lookout, who is colored red, is a “leader,” the website tells us, and also happens to be female. The Locksmith is blue, and appropriately “blue collar” rough. The Pickpocket, yellow, not only has a monkey (named Hector), but is also French and melodramatic. And, according to the website, is “a hobo,” although I never got that from the game. And the Cleaner, who is a very bright pink, is a largely silent psychopath. And male.
As the game progresses, new characters are added. The seafoam green Gentleman (who ought to be wearing a smoking jacket) who can blend in with a crowd; the orange Redhead, who can seduce an enemy (also female); the bright green Hacker, able to hack electrical outlets and security; and the purple Mole, who can tunnel through walls.
For most of the game, players can choose which characters they wish to play – although later levels start imposing limits… removing some options so that certain characters must be taken into certain levels (because their skill sets are necessary). **SPOILERS!** In the last major level of the first campaign, however, the four “new” characters betray the four old ones, and only the Gentleman, Redhead, Hacker, and Mole are available for play. And at the very end… in order to win, all of the players have to turn on each other, kill their opponents, steal all the loot, and escape.
Not that the game actually tells you that. Nope. It waits and lets the players (or one particularly enterprising or assholeish player) figure that part out for themselves. Which makes it even more fun. (My group went back and let everyone take a turn winning that level… and getting the achievement.)
Monaco is actually quite difficult – and requires actual teamwork, which is one of the reasons it makes a great cooperative game. Unlike a lot of multiplayer games where one player can carry the whole team, the differing skill sets in Monaco mean that everyone contributes something – and everyone can specialize and “own” their class. It also encourages team problem-solving, since not only does the team need multiple skillsets, but some of the levels are nigh impossible to clear without a concerted team effort.
But my favorite part about it is its representational art style. Described on GiantBomb as “Pac-Man meets Hit Man,” it’s visuals are very 1980s arcade, but in a charming way. The between-levels cut-scenes (which provide story, dialogue, and hints about the characters’ personalities) are very vintage, and it takes several minutes of purposeful staring to realize that the Pickpocket is carrying a sack, and I think the Hacker has an antenna on his backpack. The Gentleman definitely has a cane, but most of the other characters are differentiated by pose, not by physicality. If the cutscenes didn’t use gendered pronouns, it wouldn’t be clear that the Lookout was even female, which is actually rather neat, since she’s the one who seems to be in charge of the whole thing, and is completely non-sexualized.
The Redhead, however, was a bit of a disappointment, both in gameplay terms and to my feminist sensibilities. First, her “seduction” ability only works on one enemy at a time, and that enemy might still chase after another teammate while “seduced” and following the Redhead around. Second, it’s not triggered, so enemies will just follow her sometimes.
But – more importantly, given recent discussions online about the failure of both Sony and Microsoft to make any attempt to cater to their female clientele – the Redhead is stereotypically female. Her power is sexualized, and while it is supposed to make her “powerful” as a figure of sexy femininity, what it really does is create a reversal in which the besotted male guards and policemen can’t help their sudden desire to become stalkers. In short, it reverses victimhood from the object of lust to the luster – making it the woman’s fault that she is an object of desire.
Now while I don’t think the creators of Monaco had any intention of perpetuating rape culture in a small, pixelated way, I do think that characters like the Redhead demonstrate just how pervasive that culture really is. The fact that a female character is “naturally” given the talent of seduction, and that her “power” is to transform herself into an object of male desire and physical pursuit should make us uncomfortable (it certainly does me), but I don’t think it does for a lot of people. I think most players are annoyed by her power because it isn’t useful, and they dismiss it because of that without ever considering the larger social implications of that design decision.
In the grand scheme of things, though, Monaco is both fun and clever, and the fact that it doesn’t visually sexualize its female characters and has one of them who is not stereotypically pink (the pink character is a male, and a psychopath) and is described as the team’s “leader” shows progress and promise. The fact that a player might not realize it until they notice the pronoun makes it – in my opinion – even better. Gender is irrelevant to the Lookout’s character and skills, she just happens to be female… something I wish we’d consider far more often in games and in life.