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"Neutral" Politics: Feminism, the Gothic, and Zombie Police States in Ion Fury

Ion Fury is a 2019 FPS developed in Build by Voidpoint and published by 3D Realms. This article critiques the "neutral" politics behind the game, mainly its dubious Read Me and how this relates to the gameplay itself. To hear my thoughts on the excellent gameplay and level design, read my comprehensive review

The critique is divided into three main portions:

  • Zombie Police States
  • Feminism
  • The Gothic

Zombie Police States

Despite having some of the best FPS fundamentals around, Ion Fury isn't perfect. Its story isn't just simple; it's problematic. Most of my criticisms for Ion Fury can be found in this section.

The Problem

Ion Fury's biggest problem is the in-game Read Me. The gameplay itself isn't racist or sexist; the Read Me is (re: femme fatale, baddest bitch, cracked-out cyborg punks). Luckily it isn't beaten over our heads throughout the game; it's tucked away inside the main menu. At first glance, I didn't give the Read Me much thought. In fact, I played through the entire game without reading it too closely. In hindsight, there's something ominous about its overarching message:

The story seems harmless enough, doesn't it? A simplistic "comic book" tale where violence is "neutral," default, expected. This is certainly true of early FPS narratives. We're all just Rambo killing demons, right? Well, I certainly have my problems with that concept: Rambo and Ripley serve the needs of the state more than one might think. 

In Its Defense

At its core, Ion Fury is a classic, Build-era FPS. So it should come as no surprise how its "plot" comes up short. The story is raw pulp—a videogame parody of numerous '80s films, many of which were parodies themselves. So if Contra can parody Predator while simultaneously killing expendable alien mercenaries, then so can Ion Fury offer up its own army of disposable husks for Shelly to eviscerate. That's literally the point. Left-leaning players like myself can still care about "fodder narratives" and '80s paraphernalia in a videogame, while also being critical of actual guns on the street (or swords and lightning bolts [read: mild sarcasm] if you play Dark Souls). 

To this, videogame/movie guns are fine, as is loving them, so long as they aren't used like Joe Camel's cigarette ads—to hook lower- to middle-class kids on a demonstrably harmful commodity. And by and large I don't think Ion Fury does. Yes, the Read Me is a huge red flag. However, the game overall is far too self-aware of its parent material to take seriously. The Loverboy revolver Shelly packs isn't a real world gun on par with Dirty Harry's iconic .44 magnum (which sold in record numbers during the movie's release); it's ridiculous, and the so-called bowling bombs are completely impossible, no more real than lightsabers or the Glaive from Krull.

Exploitation

The root of the problem is exploitation, a trend supplied by older works. A story that glorifies war should not be condoned, but so many palimpsests to Ion Fury do. In Aliens, for example, the narrative glorifies war by having it catalyze the heroine's dramatic growth. The issue with war is how the colony's native population, the xenomorphs, are expendable; so are the colonists, including where they live. Hadley's Hope can always be rebuilt, and Ripley destroying the queen and her army lets Weyland-Yutani retake LV-426. 

The paradox, of course, is they won't. Unlike the CIA, who exploited Vietnam's natural resources (re: its drug trade) through a proxy war, Weyland-Yutani subjugates the xenomorphs by literally exporting them as weapons. The colony is simply a front, the colonists themselves mules. The proxy war in Ion Fury is a turf war waged between the cops and their rivals gangs; the front is Neo D.C., ruled by the city's invisible elite. This powerful cabal controls D.C.'s resources by pitting these rival factions against one another. Shelly thinks D.C. is "her town," but really it belongs to those in power—all because people like Shelly throw away their lives in pointless struggles over wealth and land they don't even own. She's furious, and that fury is useful. 

To this, the story in Ion Fury serves the interests of the state more than Aliens. Ripley is Weyland-Yutani's reluctant janitor. When the situation goes south, she cleans up their mess. Shelly is assimilated, and never tries to end the cycle. She's less of a Ripley—let alone a Snake Plissken—and more of a James Murphy (a dead cop resurrected by the state to serve their needs—a role he upholds [re: the law] to the very end of the movie). Like Robocop, Shelly is a victim—forced into a dangerous position that exploits her power and guarantees her death. 

In Ion Fury you're either a cop or victim. But cops are victims, too. Think penal military units, a tradition that goes back thousands of years; the job sucks, but so do the options—so much so that Shelly drinks away her sorrows. But as meta as she is towards media, she never examines her life and why it sucks. She gladly rushes into the fray like it's her job. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!" When Shelly dies, she'll be venerated—a fallen hero escorted to Valhalla by a military parade. She died serving something greater than herself—the state, but also the cycle of violence it perpetuates through emotional manipulation: glorifying the victorious dead. 

Sound familiar? You see this kind of ceremony all the time—in real life, but also in movies like Starship Troopers. Two people, Dizzy and Rico's superior, fall in battle. Dizzy's funeral is solemn; like clockwork, those in power promote Rico to fill the void. Tactics like these aren't only ubiquitous; they're sacred—something you can't criticize for fear of slighting the fallen. When Mike dies in End of Watch, his send off is glorious; it's also a show of force. The rattled sabers are legion, the swordsmen's emotions exploited by the state through fascist propaganda—all to justify their continued military presence. 

In Ion Fury this presence is irrefutably martial law. To combat perceived domestic threats (real or not), the GDF (Global Defense Force) uses soldiers like Shelly to stay in power—poster girls who, at the drop of a hat, go in guns blazing. But guns kill people regardless of who's holding them, or who's standing in their sights. To this, I find it incredibly convenient that Ion Fury has no collateral damage like Duke Nukem or Carmageddon to illustrate my point. And yet, Heskel declares, "Go back to your homes or face death! We're taking over this town!" I won't pretend his motives are noble, or that his violent gesture is anything other than a military coup; it's still a red herring to make the audience forget one simple fact: that Neo D.C.'s citizens were facing death long before Heskel showed up.

Why This Matters

Ion Fury's exploitative representations of power matter because their symbols are tied to public sentiment; this includes all persons relative to power as something to exploit and express: the abusers or the abused. Historically the police abuse, because they have the power and state-expressed permission to do so; minorities, the perpetual underclass, are forever on the receiving end. It stands to reason that symbols detailing abuse or targets will remain ambiguous as long as power disparities remain, or threaten to return: As something to kill, the police state, like a zombie, rises from the dead; in turn, it transforms people into zombies—cops into heartless, mindless killing machines, and civilians into dead men walking (whose immediate termination requires no explanation).

Ion Fury openly glorifies lethal force to justify permanent martial law (the sort prophesized and critiqued by James Cameron's Terminator films). This feels highly questionable in a time where protests against police brutality in America are at an all-time high; equally dubious is Ion Fury's presentation of a halcyon police state—the peaceful point whose equilibrium is interrupted by a rebellious martial power, Heskel the mad scientist. Neo D.C. is a "shithole" headed further down the drain, this symptomatic regression encouraged by those already in power. The heads of state encourage their city's decay through smaller, rival gangs they can persecute; the mass incarceration and slaughter of these violent minorities becomes ritualized, celebrated (an unironic homage to the War on Drugs, hinted at through the racist statement "cracked out," which refers to the state-enforced assignment of crack as the black person's Drug of Choice).

There's no attempt to humanize these factions in Ion Fury. Through a monstrous lens, Ion Fury reminds me of Night of the Living Dead, and how George Romero demonized the civil division that followed the Civil Rights movement. Alas, the further you move away from a specific historical moment, the less its monsters represent actual people; the undead become "just zombies," floating signifiers to blast apart. I love zombie pastiche—a playful literacy of pop culture undead interpreted through games like Left 4 Dead. There's certainly fun to be had, even if the critical power of the zombie is gone. They're simply targets in a cinematic hall of mirrors. 

If anyone's to blame for this shooting gallery approach, it's Aliens. Cameron's movie formed the FPS blueprint (and premise) adopted by Doom, which so many "clones" afterward also copied. The xenomorphs were supposed to represent the Vietcong—the biggest casualties of the Vietnam War. Instead, they're simply targets for Ripley to lay waste to. Similarly the mutants and cultists in Ion Fury are monsters for Shelly to blow away. Not only are they trapped in a crumbling necropolis; they're relegated to the sewers, the city's dumping ground.

The cultists can at least speak, but fare no better than their voiceless counterparts. Faced with these pitiful wretches, I can't help but think of Giorgio Agamben's state of exception. To summarize, "constitutional rights can be diminished, superseded and rejected in the process of claiming an extension of power by the government during a state of emergency." That's literally what martial law is, and what Shelly's fighting for. She's the arm of the law, an extension of a military government whose chokehold on the city's denizens dehumanizes everyone involved—the zombies, but also Shelly (whose uniform, in practice, turns her into a faceless, expendable cop).

Under the city's power, the mutants do not die; they linger unhappily between life and death. They scream as Shelly sets them ablaze, evoking the voiceless wails heard in Death's "Suicide Machine":

Controlling their lives

Deciding when and how they will die

A victim of someone else's choice

The ones who suffer have no voice

Manipulating destiny

When it comes to living, no one seems to care

But when it comes to wanting out

Those with power, will be there.

"Those with power," in this case, are "there" through Shelly (someone with power—i.e., associated with or on the side of those in power). The cast of Ion Fury are either cops or criminals, and cops punish criminals. It's the totalitarian, concrete jungle realized by Judge Dredd, another Ion Fury palimpsest. Dredd's not a vigilante; he's a champion of the state, a paragon of force praised for his lack of empathy towards those he plugs. So is Shelly. An expendable captain of the GDF's Domestic Task Force, she literally heads homeland security. She serves the state, not the people—is literally the game's judge, jury and executioner. 

If all this sounds a bit doomsday, Ion Fury doesn't preach this stuff; it passively advertises it. This isn't wholly positive, though. Noam Chomsky refers to advertising in Manufactured Consent as "de facto licensing authority": "Media outlets are not commercially viable without the support of advertisers. News media must therefore cater to the political prejudices and economic desires of their advertisers." Those with money have the power to influence others in a capitalist system, including the media. Media isn't neutral. Videogames are media; videogames aren't neutral, either.

In this respect, Ion Fury tries to be "just a game" (no politics here, bro); except it's a form of advertising whose parodic images complement its central Read Me message. Like the preface to a novel, the Read Me message is the imprimatur that colors the action moving forward. As testified by my naïve playthrough, a person can easily enjoy the game separately from its inner politics—to enjoy nostalgic action for its own sake. Nevertheless, the shadow of the '80s weighed a little heavier on me the second time around. 

The flavor of an national pastime as popular zombie slaughter reflects the trends of a broader politic spectrum, oscillating like a giant pendulum. For example, this 2009 study shows how zombie films tend to increase in production when Republicans are in power. Why that is can be hypothesized. But the data reflects growth in public attitudes where zombies sit center stage. As targets to shoot, or targets to be shot, an increase in either type suggests wider unrest in the world at large; this fear can be quantified by undead bodies, but still requires interpretation; those vary depending on which side your bread is buttered on

Zombies, including what they represent, are ambiguous. The problem is, even if they're "just" Heskel's minions, Ion Fury's mutants are codified through a manifesto (the Read Me) that's anything but impartial. This might not seem like such a big deal if you're white, thus unused to being treated like a) demons by those in power (re: cops); or b) Jim, the black man shot by police in Night of the Living Dead. Was that "just a movie," and were the fears felt by black people back then unwarranted? Cops shout "Die, zombie!" before beating a man over the head in Spongebob Squarepants, then congratulate themselves over it. Is that show "just a cartoon," too?

If you're a racial minority with an eye for Gothic historical trends, then you might be more afraid of zombies whenever and wherever they appear. Not just them, but the violence committed against them, even in FPS games like Ion Fury. Your fears extend not to just the zombie, in that case, but whatever the violence historically perpetrated against their human counterparts actually represents. Not only that, but how said violence threatens to return and royally fuck you up. Guns tend to do that, and they're not going anywhere. Nor is the rhetoric used to perpetuate the selling of guns, which climb hand-in-hand when people feel scared (thanks, in part, due to horror movies and videogames). 

A Solution

Should we stop selling FPS games? No, but making them less authoritarian wouldn't hurt. Granted, Star Wars fervor among right-wingers demonstrates how conservatives colonize* media—citing it as "made for them" (all while missing the point that the colonizers are the bad guys). Even so, Ion Fury's sequels wouldn't be pointedly valorizing Imperialists in this case. It would, at the very least, give a postcolonialist like me room to perform; less Robocop and more Escape from New York, I can use Shelly to celebrate strength as taken away from the state. "The name's Plissken!"

*For more coverage of far-right fandoms of Star Wars (and other traditionally left-leaning media), watch the Kavernacle on YouTube. 

Although I think Ion Fury can be enjoyed by everyone, it tends to forget the '80s weren't a magical time for all involved (see: Satanic and Gay Panic, the Drug War, the Iran-Contra Affair, the Reagan Doctrine, etc). Worse, it deliberately sponsors this lopsided zeitgeist by intentionally supplying the narrative with a deliberately authoritarian, policewoman hero—a questionable premise, but one condoned by the game's development team and publishers (the latter whose mantra is "Reality Is Our Game"). Their electronic signatures make up the second page of the Read Me, stamping the declaration with their seal of approval. 

There's nothing neutral about that; it's written, legal consent (to the story's premise), sold through their product. Nor is it neutral to tell critics that Ion Fury is "just a game," or "don't think about it"; by suppressing criticism, such imperatives tacitly enforce the attitudes contained in the Read Me, much like burying one's head in the sand. Ion Fury doesn't need to be neutral "opiate for the masses" to be fun. Opium distracts from systemic problems in society at large, and I can be aware of those and have a good time; I can also reject the politics of the Read Me, criticizing its advertisement while embracing the gameplay mechanics for my own benefit. 

This ambiguous performance includes me putting on the uniform—not just the GDF's standard-issue armor, but the sexy female avatar who sports it. Adopting the mighty persona of a female militant to decry tyrannical abuse? That's just my game!

Feminism

Weighty hermeneutics aside, one thing's for sure: Ion Fury loves its one-woman-army approach. My partner isn't the biggest fan of "bowling ball" stories—the sort where terminally inaccurate ninjas attack the hero one at a time, only to get knocked over like pins. For me, the theatrical violence of such narratives becomes its own pastiche to swim through. Ion Fury does this extremely well. Not too campy and not too serious, Shelly's weapon is an explosive bowling ball; the nostalgic Easter Eggs are secreted away in the game's maze-like levels, and don't get in the way of the FPS action. 

Even more impressive is that the game helped me appreciate bowling—an incredible feat, achieved by the '80s rule of filmmaking: Everything's better with explosives!

Sexism / Racism

Another feather in Ion Fury's cap is how its levels avoid the sexist/racist components of its parent games. Duke Nukem 3D is sexist; its women are sex objects for Duke to rescue from aliens, a la Mars Needs Women (satirized by the SNES videogame Zombies Ate My Neighbors in "Mars Needs Cheerleaders"): either sex workers, or naked victims cocooned in alien eggs begging for you to kill them. There's no female agency. 

Likewise, as much as I enjoy the Western-meets-Orientalism schlock of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little ChinaShadow Warrior is not only sexist; it's pretty damn racist. Written by white men, Lo Wang's stereotypical diction apes Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany's, a character played in "Asian face" by white American actor Mickey Rooney. However, 3D Realms' martial variation is aesthetically closer to Fu Manchu. It remains vaudeville, a medium historically used to belittle minorities.

Similar to Duke Nukem, the women in Shadow Warrior are cartoonishly stock, Sailor Moon pin-up gals. Really. There's nothing wrong with Sailor Moon (although the lesbian arc was censored for American audiences, so much so that clips from the show are treated as inside jokes by fans). Nor is women choosing to be sexy themselves a problem. That's the nature of autonomy. However, female spectators include players; a player spectates themselves (re: the avatar, onscreen) and they don't choose* the clothes of their avatar(s), developers do. It's sexist for a male developer to chose a woman's clothes without her input or consent. Forcing a woman to be eye candy for men is sexist because there's no agency for the female audience regarding their own appearance (and no, telling them "Don't play the game!" is still sexist; specifically it's a form of segregation: "Girls, keep out!").

*For more on this topic, refer to my longread, "Borrowed Robes: The Role of 'Chosen' Clothing." 

Luckily apart from several scandals buried in the game's development and codeIon Fury isn't sexist or racist (apart from the Read Me). Sure, its narrative is '80s stock in terms of self-autonomy through police employment and redemption narratives. But the only woman in the game isn't a whiny therapist like in Lethal Weapon, or an anxious, annoying wife like in Patriot Games. Instead, she's the hero, and kicks more ass than Duke or Lo Wang combined. 

So-called "Neutrality"

The devs for Ion Fury have said that there's "no feminist" slant by making the protagonist of the game female. They can say whatever they want. However, feminism is less about direct intent, and more about what the choice signifies for other people. Call it "emergent sentiment." For example, I know the original script for Alien featured six human characters with gender-neutral surnames. Each one could have been male or female. Nevertheless, the heroine was a girl named Ripley and she went on to become a cultural icon: proof that women can be as badass and colonial as the boys.

If the devs for Ion Fury are being neutral, they need to remember, "neutral" is usually self-applied in an attempt to please everyone, or avoid conflict. But, my friends, everything is political; likewise, the selection—of the heroine to be female in Ion Fury—is feminist despite how the developers feel about it, because it has a wider social message for women and feminists who play the game too. This includes me. Playing the game makes me feel inspired by and attracted to the heroine's agency. Sure she's autonomous in that '80s sense of "I have a badge and a gun." Nevertheless, female heroines from the period were often assimilated into larger powerful groups largely populated by men. 

Because I'm a feminist, and a Satanic one at that, I'm sucker for strong women. Partly it's because they're isolated, and more prone to stand out amid male adversity. Especially endearing for me are the phallic, martial sort seen in Westerns, sword-and-sorcery movies, and Gothic yarns—your Amazons, female gunfighters, lady knights and bounty hunters. Like Samus Aran in Metroid, the more "phallic" (re: masculine) these girls are, the better. 

Also like Samus, this doesn't necessarily translate to musclewomen. It can, and there's nothing wrong with that. Even so, an averagely athletic girl (say nothing of a world-class female athlete) is absolutely going to wreck an unathletic guy of comparable size; and two athletes in the same weight class are going to be an even match regardless of sex (individual genetic advantages are not exclusive to men). Now consider Samus, who canonically is 6' 3" tall, weighing 198 lbs. A woman her size (re: this real-life "Amazon") wearing similar equipment and having similar combat training could ragdoll any man on Earth.

Conversely the topos of the power of women historically portrays women using their natural assets—their sexuality—as an essential leverage against stronger, more intelligent men (re: Phyllis and Aristotle). Shelly Harrison doesn't need to be six feet tall or overly sexual to best her male adversaries, though. She uses force multipliers (re: guns and bombs) to level the playing field (sometimes literally); meanwhile supplies, namely med-kits and armor vests, help keep her alive. That's feminism, as my partner points out, because the same tools and opportunities are being afforded to a woman, including getting her head blown off. It's quite egalitarian, actually.

Shelley's still cute, though—definitely a poster girl for the nostalgic police of a cyberpunk future. Not so different, appearance-wise, than the Major from Ghost in the Shell, Konoko from Oni, or Corporal Ferro from The Terminator. Those ladies are more reflective of their genuine outlier predicaments, though, whereas Shelly is perfectly assimilated. With no room to criticize her position, she valorizes it instead, feeling like every conservative nerd's wet dream: Sharon Stone-meets-Kelly LeBrock—with an encyclopedia's worth of movie quotes and action one-liners to spare. She has no personality beyond this assemblage, literally a nostaglic form of law-enforcement who, in her own way, polices nostalgia by uncovering what's Cool™ beneath the rubble.

It's not quite your standard gatekeeping affair. At least girls can play the game, but Voidpoint still picks the material. Nevertheless, they have some killer nods tucked away. "Like tears... in rain" leaps to mind, but there's literally a hundred-plus others. Forget Blade Runner, they even mention The Room! Now that's a classic!

The Gothic

Like Gothic stories, Build games are light on plot; the story is how the player navigates the hostile, nostalgic gameworld. Each game has its own flavor. My favorite of the original three is Blood, a game jam-packed with dark nostalgia and other Gothic elements. Literally faced with the past in monstrous form, Caleb is generally silent, or says little of note; he relates to the world through its iconography and themes while simultaneously destroying them, and potentially himself. 

Violent Nostalgia

Though nowhere as Gothic as BloodIon Fury pits Shelly against a world hijacked to kill her. Even so, feminist opportunities remain through the physical strength of Shelly herself, and the opportunities she represents: A girl in love with movies and guns and bombs, she's the star of the show. True, it's not her own videogame; the developers manufactured her to represent their own desires—their taste in films, but also what they find appealing in female heroes and fans (even James Cameron was guilty of this—marrying the woman he wrote, not the woman who played her). It's less Northanger Abbey (a feminist parodying of Gothic novels written by a woman) and more Terminator 2 (a dark, action film with a tough female heroine, written by a man). 

Nevertheless, Shelly appeals to me for the same reason Samus Aran does, or Ellen Ripley—a strong female character, with martial prowess, a quick wit, and the moxie to back it all up. These aren't wallflowers we're dealing with; they're knights, cops, and bounty hunters, each more than capable of rescuing herself. Though unironically pastiche, Shelly is desirable, and for similar reasons outlined in my PhD work: I want to fuck what I want to be—beautiful and strong. Being a Gothicist, I recognize the irony in my attraction to a killer monster (cop); matters of the heart are seldom cut and dry because the world is complex. This includes the historical perception of power through media.

Shelly's appeal includes her culture-savviness. What isn't sexy about someone who's well-read and likes the same over-the-top movies that you do? Think, Sandra Bullock from Demolition Man, except more in on the joke. Sure, Shelly's a ostensibly cop, and I don't like cops (re: they use guns to kill people). But her heroic status hardly defends the job. At best it seems thankless; and worst it seems pointlessly destructive. More to the point, Shelly's less of an actual cop, and more a nerd playing a cop. She cements her authority through theatrical bloodshed, spilled on a 2.5D stage.

Performative Ambiguity

Nerd or not, Shelly knows the score. "Hope nobody fries my ass!" she says when Heskel has her behind bars. This comments on execution as a typical fate for the incarcerated—a fact Shelly's comfortable with (despite the state inevitably conducting innocent executions). It's not all totally grim, however. Ion Fury is decades past the earliest Build games, and those were parodies themselves. Parody is a often response to older, serious stories, and Ion Fury—with its Earthworm Jim levels of weaponized absurdity—is hard to take 100% seriously. 

Still, we should take them seriously. We're only a couple bad design choices away from dealing with a videogame Kaitlyn Bennett—gun porn, essentially. Porn isn't the issue so much as what it endorses. Let's not forget the powers praised by Kaitlyn Bennett include Donald Trump, a man she wanted to be king. All this talk about decrying tyrants, and those in arms are simping for them. Power should be criticized, because it can be manipulated through the promise of sex.

And yet sex, and the power it holds, can be repurposed by the disenfranchised to undermine the regime's appeal. Though her accent varies depending on the quote, Shelly's regular dialogue is straight ahead, delivered with the gruff, joyous snarl of an enthusiastic tomboy. She's the cowgirl of the future, one I can control through the game's silly plot: Shelly is hellbent on defeating a devious transhumanist called Heskel; Heskel's "taking over this town," chewing the scenery with song lyrics disguised as conversation (re: "Bullet with Butterfly Wings"). That's how he rolls, the villainous counterpart to Shelly herself.

Does the story have much depth? No, but the layers of pastiche do, including how the intended, actual, or ideal audiences relate to them. It might sound chaotic, but that's the nature of media. Two centuries ago, so many Neo-Gothic castles were toy chests of random, campy "barbarism" and ephemera. Resurrected in the present, Ion Fury's mayhem results from one simple gaff: spilling Shelly's drink—the typical Western excuse, and not far removed from Jack Burton just wanting his truck back, or Porter wanting his share, seventy grand. 

"Your blood for my drink!" Shelly says, and gets to work. A lot of cyborgs are gonna die, but the violence exists on a stage where the bloodspill's meaning can be subverted. 

The Amazon

Take the idea of Shelly herself. Originally sexualized by men and formerly known as "Bombshell," the character was based off a 3D Realm's dev's fan fic (the go-to format for sexual fantasies, it must be said). Gradually her appearance became less and less sexual; the expectations for sexuality in general and Shelly's physical appearance remain. My performance of Shelly can support or undermine those expectations.

Those haven't gone anywhere. To this day there are many "traditionally-minded" men who favor the good ol' days by—gee, I don't know—saying Shelly was better as the sexualized Bombshell? The one without a pelvis, apparently (a drawing phenomena I've had to unlearn as well, I admit):


This is hardly hypothetical. I've seen plenty of sexist, wistful dialogues on Discord servers about "better times." That's hardly a shock, especially given that Bombshell's history stems from '90s worship, including female representation being reduced to sexualization for men to enjoy. 3D Realms are very open about this, and not entirely ashamed of the fact that Bombshell was originally based off Pam Anderson. Thankfully the game we got is largely devoid of the sexism on display in 1997 (omitting the Read Me and off-screen scandals, that is). "How far we've come!" indeed.

Playing a sexualized female character is like putting on a bikini or a thong. The sexy avatar is sexy clothes. I can do this for my own reasons; if a female player chooses to view that sexuality positively for herself, that's still agency for the woman. Gothic stories are historically feminist; they center on women locked in the male tyrant's castle, but also the Archaic Mother's hideous shadow* (a patriarchal boogeyman). There, these ladies strive for agency amid fearful oppression. 

*For more about Archaic Mothers, read my Metroid analysis, "War Vaginas: Phallic Women, Vaginal Spaces and Archaic Mothers in Metroid."

Though an Amazon, the fact remains that Shelly Harrison is largely desexualized, made all the more "neutral" by her position as a cop with a gun. Isn't that the nature of uniforms, where her own shreds of personality are lifted from movies that cops probably watch ad nauseam? Then again, "Guns, lots of guns" can appear in movies like The Matrix and John Wick, seemingly at cross purposes but enjoyed by both in so-called "neutral territory."

I suppose this is the best defense I can provide Ion Fury. It doesn't try to force the performance either way.

Horror

Though largely action-centric, Ion Fury still packs some choice horror nods. Even so, these are largely squirrelled away—secrets announced by Shelly just as other Build heroes do (especially Caleb): "Uncle Frank?!" (re: Hellraiser) she cries, seeing a bloody corpse sealed behind a concrete wall; "Not great, not terrible" she observes when finding the molten Chernobyl reactor (one of my favorite shows; read my review); "Wasted!" she roars, seeing the vehicle from Carmageddon

Best of all is the fabulous "Heskel's House of Horrors." Packed with spooky nods to horror movies and home invasion scenarios, it's easily my favorite level. Its violent sphere is playful for its own sake, an "Other place" simply to exist and delight in the displaced symbols. This might sound postmodern, but is actually a tradition that goes back centuries. Owe it to the Gothic castle to retroject you to the time that never was. Then stuff it with guns.

That's what Heskel's House sets out to do. A brief tone shift, it delivers the same hauntological bloodletting championed by Blood—a gameworld composed of Gothic fragments and outcomes, which I, the player, can recombine for my own delight. The performance needn't always be critical of the state; sometimes, I merely want to play with dead things. Images of the dead, and dead metaphors.

As previously mentioned, monstrous symbols lose their heritage when distanced from their historical sites. They retain a signature of the forbidden, the ghostly counterfeit* of something that, once upon a time, was terribly real, but always announced by fakeries. Ion Fury is largely centered on action, but few things are faker than Heskel's "horrifying" home. Passing for a haunted house, the fortress' spectral veneer belies a concrete basement stuffed with guards. Hell, even the moon is bogus.

I fucking love it.

*For more on the ghost of the counterfeit, refer to the works of Jerrold Hogle. His academic output is largely pay-walled, but here's an example that isn't.

Verdict

The politics in Ion Fury are hardly neutral. This being said, there's room to enjoy the heroine as a nerd playing a cop, versus a cop whose actions reinforce the game's underlying police state. The outcome is performative, but at least I have the option—to hold my nightstick like Sarah Connor instead of Judge Dredd. 


Politics aside, Ion Fury's entire campaign is excellent from start to finish; this is one of the best-designed games ever, in that regard, and a total blast to play. Gameplay needn't be separate from the threat of tyranny, and there's special delight I feel—in knowing I can enjoy the product but still refuse to endorse its peripheral political message. 

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My name is Nick van der Waard and I'm a Gothic ludologist. I have my MA in English Studies: The Gothic from Manchester Metropolitan University. My blog is about horror, but also sex, metal and videogames.

Check out my interview series: From Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q&A seriesHell-blazers: Speedrunning Doom Eternal, "Giving My Two Cents: A Metal Compendium," and the Alien: Ore" Interview Project.

My favorite posts: Dragon Ball Super: Broly - Is It Gothic?Mandy (2018): ReviewGothic Themes in Perfect Blue. Also check out my guest work on Video Hook-Ups.

Follow me on Twitter! Watch my Gothic podcast! Purchase a commission through my art website! Or support me on Patreon or Ko-Fi!

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