When the embargo for Blue Estate lifted last week, I had two options: write about the game and include that I felt excluded while playing it, or don't write about it at all. The second choice is hardly an option when it's my job to provide feedback on games the world hasn't seen yet, and I take my job seriously. Unfortunately, my personal response to Blue Estate is so overwhelming, even one month later, that I can't write about it without including these reactions, even though I find it embarrassing and extremely stressful to share my emotions – gah, gag me with a spoon – in a public forum.
So, here we go.
Blue Estate is a boiling bevy of extremes – it's based on the Blue Estate comic series published by Image, which tells the sordid tales of drug lords, mafia men, scantily clad women, has-beens and sarcastic jerks of every flavor dumped into the back alleys of LA. Blue Estate the game focuses on one of these caricatures, Tony Luciano, who is – you guessed it – a mobster and son of the Godfather of West Coast Cosa Nostra.
I played a demo of Blue Estate at Gamescom. In the demo, it's clear Tony is a sarcastic, fumbling racist with a gun and a lot of luck. He's greedy, inconsiderate and narcissistic, and I can practically feel the grease building up in my hair as I point his gun at enemy after enemy. Tony is every bit the stereotypical, jaded mobster, with that cliché's most obvious traits pushed to the extreme.
Another character featured prominently in the demo, but not playable, is Cherry Popz. She's a stripper, and in the same way Tony's macho stupidity is enhanced, Cherry has enhancements – when she's introduced, the narration focuses on her jaw-dropping beauty while the images focus on her body. She has a problem and she's seeking professional help from an overweight, unshowered, male private eye (who is privately eyeing her through a pair of thick glasses). During playable moments, Cherry wears a tiny black two-piece and heels, and at one point she gives me a full-on pole dance.
Now – I've been to strip clubs and I don't find the notion of a woman in lingerie offensive or disgusting, but Blue Estate has the natural ability to turn sexiness into exploitation, humor into humiliation and my own enjoyment into exasperation, with a neon sign flashing the philosophy that I don't need to feel comfortable here.
Cherry Popz is an object of desire in Blue Estate, and her dual role as a stripper and damsel in distress is clearly emphasized when Tony, having just plowed through rooms of gun-toting foes, finds her in a private room, giving a pole dance to an overweight Asian man lying on a bed. After Tony frees her, she consistently expresses a desire to help him fight, but is pushed to the sidelines or otherwise incapacitated, set up to be saved again and again.
This is a role that lady characters regularly play – the support, the one to save and the foundation of emotion for the male protagonist. Despite the fact that this perpetuates stereotypes of both genders – men should be emotionless while women are overrun with feelings – emotional support is important. I get that and I get Cherry's role.
But that doesn't explain the mermaid.
At the beginning of one stage, Tony enters a fancy club, and on a platform in the center of the room sits a giant fish bowl filled with water. Sitting on the lip of the bowl is a large woman in a mermaid costume, complete with a miniscule seashell bra and a constrictive, scaly tail. She's described as someone's wife and as a non-swimmer. I hear one of the NPCs make a fat joke at her expense.
When the shooting starts, she falls into the bowl.
After Tony is done filling everyone in the room with lead, he shoots the fishbowl to let the woman out. She falls from the platform in a shower of glass and flops around on the floor in front of Tony. Her tail prevents her from running and she's scared, so she does a flailing version of The Worm to get away from him as quickly as possible. Tony taunts her and laughs.
This is where I become uncomfortable. I can handle defenseless, near-naked women, but add utter humiliation to that and it all begins to feel dirty. We're supposed to laugh at this scenario, at the floundering, scared woman trying to escape with her life, but with my day's objectification meter already nearing full, I struggle to find it funny.
Blue Estate is a dark comedy and some of its humor is spot-on. The game is supposed to present wild exaggerations of characters, as in the comic, and it does, but not in equal measure. Tony is a bumbling racist and an accidental hero – but he's still the hero. We can be disgusted by him even as we want to continue being him, because he has the gun, the power, and he's winning. We're not supposed to be disgusted by Cherry or the mermaid – we're supposed to be turned on and amused – but there's no need to respect them, either. Their power lies solely in sex appeal and helplessness, and it's fleeting.
I've never felt a lingering punch to the sternum like this from a game before. I've obsessed over the reasons for this response, this time – maybe I'm too sensitive, maybe I can't take a joke, maybe I read Preacher instead of Blue Estate as a kid – but in the end, the reason hardly matters. During the demo of Blue Estate, I was intensely uncomfortable. That's a fact.
In sharing my sincere response to Blue Estate, some people will express the gut reaction that I'm an extremist in the Great Gender War and I may be called names. My opinion may be discounted, demeaned and degraded, and someone will probably say something about sandwiches – but I'm not a person sitting on the sidelines and judging the industry from a feminist throne constructed of burning bras and shredded Cosmo articles.
I'm a player. I play the same games you do, and while I may not like the same ones you do, every day I am embedded in the world of video games because I grew up with this industry and I worked hard to make this my job. I am one of you and this is the legitimate reaction that I had to one video game still in development.
Some players will have the same response to Blue Estate and some won't, guaranteed. Good. I am not telling anyone how to feel, not only because that's a futile, inhumane goal – it's because I respect the people in our little corner of the entertainment universe, and I respect their sincere feelings, no matter how harsh or sappy they may be. I don't respect threats and I don't respect bullies, and the majority of this industry doesn't either. This isn't for the tormenters.
Blue Estate shows promise as a PC, motion-controlled pioneer, but it contains elements that may otherwise (unpleasantly) surprise players. It contains scenes that may make half of its intended audience cringe in discomfort. Yes, even one month later.