So the 31st of October is coming up very soon, a day that coincides in the states with flamboyant costumes, somber rituals, apple cider, the end of the harvest season, classic horror movies showing up in theaters for a limited time, copious amounts of candy, the most times a person’s doorbell will ring an entire year, PBS specials, the thinning of the incorporeal veil, and excessive parties. To commemorate the holiday a little early, I thought I’d just profile the game I’ve been playing this October, one with a pop Norse theme and a high potential to inspire some cool outfits—that is, until I realized that the costumes are where the game definitely starts to go downhill. I’m beginning this post with the game, moving into my criticism of the costumes for and general infantile depictions of the female characters, and linking it all to childhood memories of Samhain/Halloween to point out long overdue changes needed in products for/about/presenting girls.
Separate (Odin) Spheres
The aesthetic and mechanics of Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir combine to make a gorgeous game. From the title screen, players encounter the game’s enchanting soundtrack, both adorable and haunting, cuteness more stressed during gameplay and especially by diegetic noises like the clanging of a bell or the uprooting of herbs. The charm comes through in the hand-drawn art animated in a light and bouncy way (apparent at least on the PS4 version) but also in mechanics like the growing of crops such as fruit, herbs, and um, sheep as well as the eating of well-prepared meals; in the early game, growing and eating your own fruits is the best way to level up and continues to reward the player with experience points the entire game. Planting requires paying “Phozons” which are also part of an intricate skills system that I would totally develop and showcase some spells around if the game had maintained this level of ingenuity and pleasant surprise.
This cute fairytale world is also populated with some fearsome and familiar faces. A character who shows up in many of the storylines is Demon King Odin, voiced in a sorrowful cadence, visually portrayed as unfathomably strong, wise, and huge (the proportions of Odin Sphere are absolutely ridiculous), and personified as strategic to the point of being cold or even impersonal. Straight up, he’s probably the most appealing character in the game. Another Norse deity makes Her way into a couple of boss fights: Hela. Unlike Odin, however, the representation of Hela in this game is more contestable. Her large and foreboding appearance, a black, ivory, and blue color palette adorning a bones-emerging-from-flesh look, is marred with needlessly huge breasts actually spilling out of a miniscule bodice that had their own animated bounce for every miniscule movement and attacks that involved lifting the skirt rather high. And, no, my distaste does not even begin with the sexualizing of a skeleton.
The troubles have both aesthetic and narrative elements. It took a combination of me being able to decode runes, my limited German, and playing through two of the seven storylines to realize that the game was a romance game (leife, of subtitle Leifthrasir, means “love”). There is nothing wrong with a romance game in principle, even though the products of the romance genre have led to some really problematic (read, dangerous) perceptions of sexuality and sexual assault. What I have a problem with is romance games centered around children. While age is never explicitly stated, all women except for Hela and the mother of character Mercedes (mentioned further in) are drawn as pre-pubescent girls and played with babyish and high-pitched voices.
Take for example the first playable character, Gwendolyn. She is a Valkyrie but also the daughter of Odin, their father-daughter relationship painted in a creepy way, like at one point where she expresses her love for her father as similar to her romance interest’s love for her. And yes, she has a romance interest, drawn as a barely-pubescent boy but acted with a rather grown-up voice. Their romance is less distressing than the use of her as a pawn to all of these kingdoms for potential merges . . . and marriages. The lewd comments directed towards her by potential husbands, all portrayed through visuals and audio as grown men, makes my skin crawl thinking back to it. Added to her childish body type dressed in a rather high skirt and very low bodice, the first storyline became a struggle to finish.
It took me until the beginning of the third storyline to turn off the system and return the game to the library indefinitely. That storyline followed ten-year-old (unstated) -looking and -sounding Mercedes, the new queen of the fairies (the Norse theme all but dropped at some point in the middle of the second story), dressed in a skin-color skin-tight basically swimsuit and a mini mini leaf skirt. And then came along a frog (with an adult man voice) who continuously asked for her, kisses and cuddling and other physical intimacy. As she deliberated her obligation to this creepy ass character, I was done with this narrative. Forcing children into sexuality? For my supposed entertainment, fueling the myth of destiny over sexual agency? Not on my PS4.
Unfortunately, this isn’t exclusive to Odin Sphere or even Atlus.
Samhain the Seeds of Dis-Content
Beneath my horrible puns (and terrible pronunciation of “Samhain,” as “sowing” over “sah-ween”) lodged into the title of this section, there exists some memories about a society that doesn’t clearly disapprove of this portrayal of girls, all recollections involving the upcoming holiday.
The first memory is very stark: an encounter with a Tumblr post about “tween” girl Halloween costumes, made earlier this month. While it’s worth checking out the link to get the full story/discourse, what many recognized in the comparison of same-themed costumes for girls 5-8 to those for girls 9-12 was the unrepentant sexualizing of these costumes in a way already contested for costumes for adult women—except this is also happening at the pre-pubescent to barely-pubescent stage. It’s so gross.
This isn’t even new; I’ve seen the sexualizing of girls’ costumes in my own life.
When I think back to Samhain, I experience stronger feelings remembering the costumes and parties than memories of asking my dad to let me stay up until “midnight” (ten at night) so I (little dream mage I was) would have a better chance of contacting spirits and thanking them before I fell asleep. To be fair, I didn’t stop trick-or-treating myself until 2014; I just take people on rounds around the neighborhood now. But it’s always the costumes that stick with me, mostly because during elementary and middle school, people chose to wear them all day. In my history of dressing up as a gentleman in white gloves, as an activist for women’s voting rights in the 1920s, like a Western European knight, in my brief non-Halloween drag queen ensemble, as Rafael from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and as stock car racer Jeff Gordon, two costumes haunt me to this day: a racist “Japanese geisha” costume and a “medieval wench” get-up (which doubled as my Renaissance outfit) that I wore at ages 9 and 10. I remember the deep cleavage and the downright lecherous comments I got as a fat boy who filled out these costumes. Especially with the racist costume where I went to a party with a bunch of white girls also dressed in costumes fetishizing East Asian cultures and women, we incurred lots of comments as we went around that Halloween, and I’m pretty sure that I recall very few of them. As for the other, I saw an adult woman wearing the same “wench” costume this year at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, as well as a girl around ten years old.
This, this is so distressing. It’s continuing to happen in games, in holidays, in fashion, in hobbies, and even in Pagan and Witch communities. When I visited my local magic-user shop late September, I grimaced as I looked at the picture on the front of a greeting card. The portrait was of a fairy clad in tight, mostly ripped up/sheer clothing displaying a large-chested thick-thighed pale-skinned blonde-haired woman with the distinct face of a young girl.
I can only make exasperated noises. There are ethics about presenting girls as sexually provocative and ready for it, a condemning sexual violence against children, right? How can we (in the states specifically) have a society ready to crack down sexual criminals (interpreting them all as pedophiles, which has its own issues) but not cultural artifacts putting children, especially girls, especially girls of color and the fetishizing of their race(s) and racial cultures that will continue into adulthood, in danger?! I’m done with this damage to girls and women, but unlike Odin Sphere, I can’t turn this machine of social norms off and step back. For their sake and my own, I better not.
This Samhain and Halloween, even if you don’t trick-or-treat or party, if you just do rituals or watch TV, be responsible, okay?
(1) Don’t heckle/put in danger the girls and women in vexing sexualized costumes. Reach out to the girl or woman beneath. It’s the expectation that they’ll live out their objectivizing outfit that’s supported when it comes to calling them out. Especially for a raciosexual (in this case, racist and sexist) costume, don’t attack!, describe how it’s harmful at the personal level, damaging to a people. Don’t play along with a narrative setting up girls and women as irresponsible (“worthy of punishment”) physiological seductors.
(2) Do spirit work with care. I know it’s less related to the rest of this article, but I hope some others on this site are making posts about safety in a spirit-saturated space. Have a spotter or corporeal way to bring you back, like an alarm clock, and follow your own guidelines strictly! Whether sensitive around Samhain or not so much, do what you can on this side to stay safe.