I had the opportunity this past weekend to play Haydee. It began with an invitation from a friend of mine to embark admittedly juvenile joyride into a game that has placed much of its weight on the generous hips of its cyborg protagonist (apparently in the hopes that it can cash in on the cottage industry of juvenile joyrides). But the bawdy entertainment of the “so bad it’s good” revelry we expected quickly gave way to something else, something I hadn’t anticipated. Within the first hour, Haydee simply made me sad.
At this point, most people are probably familiar with Haydee, described on its Steam store page as “a hardcore old-style metroidvania mixed with modern-day third person shooter and platformer mechanics. As well as a sexy character.” And that “sexy character,” essentially a faceless body with cartoonish curves (featuring fully implemented physics) has her extreme profile plastered across the surprisingly sparse marketing material for the game. There is little talk of the game’s story (there is a story here, I think, though it’s subtle enough to be an afterthought), or anything outside of the “thicc robot” meme that’s dominated the public perception. Stylistically, the visuals are superficially derived from Portal, but this is largely irrelevant, since spending one minute watching a gameplay demo makes it obvious that the game spends a lot of the time shoving Haydee’s thong-clad ass in the player’s face, and spends the rest of the time showcasing the side-boob physics. Each of these visual choices usurp a solid a solid 50-65% of the screen.
But hey, what’s new? Sexualization of the female form is pervasive in our society, and video-games frequently find themselves at the center of an onslaught of criticism. What’s so sad about a sci-fi action-platformer with Jessica Robot as the protagonist?
I’m so glad you asked.
The tragedy of Haydee is that, beneath its flagrant sexualization, there’s actually a reasonably well-designed game. I’m not the first to note that, if one can look past the cyberpunk blow-up doll that the developers dangle in front of players for their ogling pleasure, what one finds is basically what was promised: a tightly designed full-3D Metroidvania that is challenging and unique (effectively sidestepping the “Dark Souls Clone” pitfall). The level design is slick, the combat is smooth, the puzzles vary, and the controls are effective (aside from the fact that Haydee’s anatomy can make it difficult to aim from certain angles). It has all the trappings of a good hardcore game.
But the trappings is where it ends. Beyond the basic building blocks, little effort has been put into developing the world and the character has literally nothing to offer aside from her prominent posterior and boob-physics. One could easily imagine the game with Haydee herself replaced with just about any stock protagonist, though the world is certainly not rich enough for the likes of Samus Aran, Chell, or Lara Croft. It’s as if the developers knew that their game had solid mechanics, but lacked the depth to truly cultivate a fanbase, and so decided to foreground overt sexualization in order to capitalize on free marketing from the inevitable outcry.
I’m certainly not the first to put forth this accusation, and many have hailed it as a clever and savvy marketing choice for a debut title from an unknown indie company. But it’s neither clever nor savvy. It’s not smart, and it’s not challenging. It’s purely cynical, and it represents the most distilled variety of exploitative advertising. I mean this not merely in the sense that it exploits the female body toward an end, but that that end is the exploitation and manipulation of its audience. It appeals to the most base qualities of the culture of consumerism. It takes the easy way out, and does a disservice to its own design strengths in the process. But in doing so, Haydee teaches us a valuable lesson.
You see, the tragedy of Haydee is the tragedy of indie development. The world of publication and distribution still strongly favors the multi-million dollar infrastructures of the triple-A behemoths, even while the indie marketplace overflows with artisans and boutiques, self-financed garage operations and crowd-funded passion projects. These contradictory circumstances have created a disconnect, rendering the indie marketplace into an overcrowded wasteland that rewards cynical strategy and even outright fraud. In the wake of Steam’s adjustments to their review system, serious discussion started among developers about how the structure of the contemporary distribution landscape compels struggling developers to choose between ethics and visibility. Kotaku, in their excellent extrapolation of the Digital Homicide fiasco, outlines Steam’s underground trading-card trafficking economy just as one facet of semi-profitable shovelware scammery. Meanwhile, games like Ant Simulator explode in the crowdfunding hangar, embroiled in confusing narratives of embezzlement.
So, what of Haydee Interactive? Certainly they’re not frauds, and being crass doesn’t necessarily make one unethical. As I indicated above, I have some admiration for the team’s design capabilities and the latent ambition that is evident in their debut title. It’s likely that Haydee will be successful, as it has already cultivated a positive reception at launch, and perhaps the developers will go on to realize their potential more thoroughly, without the need to hang their hopes on a tawdry gimmick. This is all certainly conceivable.
But Haydee is the symptom, and the disease is an increasingly hostile and toxic indie game marketplace. It proceeds at the expense of developers and players alike, and without significant structural overhaul, it can only get worse from here. The solution is not simply about merit and hard work. It’s about strategy. It’s about the community. And it’s about not giving in to the pervasive miasma of cynicism.