Gaming Grows Up- BloodRayne and Bad Taste
So, I’ve been playing BloodRayne recently. I don’t really have a good reason for doing so, save for that post Elden Ring I’ve craved shorter, less triple-A experiences (well, and less video games in general). I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this apparently very mediocre, repetitive action game. It’s No Masterpiece™, sure, but for a stab in the dark at a game I remembered solely from magazine ads and Uwe Boll movies, I was pleasantly surprised. The Terminal Cut remaster on PC (called ReVamped on console, a much dumber/better name) smooths out some of the rough edges, but barely. That probably accounts for the average to poor reviews. If you like horror even casually, you’re probably used to enjoying something that critics loathe, it comes with the territory. But it was some people loathed that caught me off guard. Computer Gaming World, a now dead but by then ancient magazine, included this review of the PC port in its July 2003 issue:
“If you can get past the unresponsive controls and don’t mind the overall tasteless but campless tone, BloodRayne still offers only a few hours of moderately entertaining carnage”
Now sure, I can sympathise on the control issue. Even in the Terminal Cut remaster the keyboard controls are pretty shocking, especially since I’d just finished playing Max Payne, a similarly extremely 00s game that holds up pretty well, controls included. It’s a console game at heart, so the remaster’s added controller support is extremely welcome. “Tasteless and campless”, though? We’ll get into the taste stuff (it’s in the title!), but campless is such an odd accusation. Camp is notoriously hard to pin down, divorced from any kind of queer history when convenient, so often used a synonym for “goofy and ironic”. Considering this was an early 00s gaming magazine, “goofy and ironic” is what I assume they meant. In which case- huh? BloodRayne is not only that, it’s one of the (non-derogatory) dumbest games I’ve ever played. Not only is it a game where this exchange happens…
…but it’s also a game of such workmanlike writing that a surprise character reveal and death occurs within thirty seconds of each other, a game that spells out its (very cool) horror concepts with a big breasted Ilsa rip-off descended from Elizabeth Bathory, a game with a Thulean high priest proselytising from a machine gun pulpit, a game of goth pierced turbo vampires with mouths for hands and so on and so on. Some of it is intentional, some not. If we go by Susan Sontag’s definition that “the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”, then BloodRayne isn’t just camp, it’s campier than ever. A technically impressive game on release (with some still spectacular gore effects), time has rendered its environments into adorable industrial dollhouses. A phrase that’s lived in my head since I watched Hazel’s video on the “The Anime Countryside” is “cute little copy paste scum world”, a description that works as well for BloodRayne as it does for the yuri post-apocalypse. It isn’t artless, but it’s a pretty early PS2/GameCube title. There’s limitations there in hardware and design- games released at the beginning of a console generation don’t have the benefit of years of shared experience, and almost always resemble a shinier version of what came before. So yeah, the levels can be a bit visually barren despite their cool theming, and the loading zones between missions never make it a seamless experience. I can see how that would be a turn off, but I love the weird artifice of earlier 3D games, whether it’s the charm of a Build engine game trying to emulate a real world location or the deliberately stark and surreal worlds of early Kill the Past games. BloodRayne finds itself between those two- it makes a valiant attempt to capture the vibe of its three main locales (it’s particularly impressive how few assets they appear to share, perhaps a design philosophy replicated from their previous episodic horror joint, Nocturne), but there is no life except that which wants you dead. Intentional or not, this exaggerated artifice oscillates the tone from unsettling and uncanny to cartoonish and, well, camp.
For our writer, the presence of the tasteless appears to have annulled the blatant silliness. The Bathory descendents full name is Bathory Mengele. A boss of separated conjoined twins references Basketcase, yes, but also the real life Nazi experimentation on twins in concentration camps. Head shaven, striped uniform wearing captives are credited as “natives” in the subtitles, before being kicked into a demon pit. I absolutely understand if that puts you off. I might just be slightly dull to it- I find Nazisploitation fascinating. I even wrote most of a novel around arch schlock master Bruno Mattei’s SS Girls, a brazen rip off of the only slightly more respectable Salon Kitty. Whether its pure fetishisation of fascist aesthetics or a cathartic revenge on the banal evil spirits of recent past, these Id driven reactions to the Third Reich a scant couple decades after are as revealing for the creators as the droves who flocked to see them. BloodRayne is not that. I don’t think any video game is. Partly this is just an issue of time- it’s a young medium, one born under intense scrutiny from moral majorities and publishing houses born in the crucible of Reagan’s America. By the time video games were allowed to do anything in this space, it was a nostalgic throwback.
BloodRayne is instead in the tradition of dishonest videogame nazisploitation, depicting Nazis like GI Joe’s Cobra, free to muck around with the occult but baulking at so much as referencing the real life nightmares they unleashed. This isn’t a problem exclusive to BloodRayne, nor the early 00s- 2014’s Wolfenstein: The New Order has you pilot a mech to free a concentration camp, a dumb but liberating moment somewhat undercut by how reticent they are about mentioning who those victims are. This, to me, is the difference between tasteless and bad taste. TNO is a hyper-violent power fantasy that revels in its shock value, heavily inspired by Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Despite the (not without merit) criticism that Basterds is less a movie about war than it is about war movies, it at least doesn’t flinch from saying the word “Jew”. I’m definitely not qualified to decide what is and isn’t OK when depicting Nazism, but I find this dancing around far more offensive. Who are you seeking to not offend? The sequel “The New Colossus”, for all its flaws in gameplay and narrative pacing, did make some improvements here. The Jewish character we rescued from the camp in the first game is allowed to refer to himself as such, and it does a much better job exploring how a Nazi world order would operate. Clumsy but well-intentioned is an improvement over cowardice. It unfortunately answered the question of who they were avoiding offending- right wingers of all stripes lost their collective shit over everything from the idea that conservatives would probably collaborate with an invading Nazi force to the mere depiction of black people. Would BloodRayne attract the same ire if it hadn’t walked on eggshells? Eh, maybe? The Wolfenstein outrage was, in part, a reaction to Bethesda’s marketing- “Make America Nazi-Free Again”. The implication that there might be anything in common with modern right wing populism and Nazism is enough to make Very Normal People extremely defensive. The culture wars of the 00s were more focused on “gay people- should they exist?” and The Troops, so it probably could have gotten away with it. It was, as they say, A Different Time.
Speaking of, it’s about time I revealed where the title for this article came from. It’s October, 2004, two years after the launch of BloodRayne. It was pretty successful, in no small part thanks to Rayne. Like Lara Croft before her, she ended up on more people’s desktop than the game did. This was, of course, intentional. Liz Buckley, then product manager of the ill-fated Majesco, described Rayne’s look as “lethal erotica”, designed for and focus tested by boys and young men.. She even starred in several of MTV2’s ”Video Mods”, a series of frankly bizarre music videos performed by video game characters. Though most are apparently lost media due to weird copyright shenanigans, you sure can still watch Rayne perform the Evanescence song “Nobody’s Fool”, providing your brain can survive such extreme levels of millennium edge.
So of course, a sequel was on the way. But how to up the ante? Well, aside from apparently readjusting the polygon budget from her hair to her body, Rayne would also be the first videogame character to appear topless in Playboy, in a segment titled GAMING GROWS UP. The premise of the piece is simple- 3D games are sufficiently advanced to depict hot women in real time, therefore games are now for grown ups. “Video games and the women who star in them are better than ever” it tells us, before promising “An in-depth look at their twisted and curvaceous future”. It’s mostly just advertising for the latest and greatest virtual entertainment, including for the “beloved” Tekken spin-off Death by Degrees, though it does include some uh, interesting writing. The section “Electric Lady Land”, informs us that “Video games have always been about sex- let’s just say Mario didn’t save Princess Toadstool cardio workout” and that your success in Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude “depends on how good you are with your joystick”. I read it for the articles, indeed.
But yes, Rayne. Um. Well. It’s a technically nice render, especially for the time. But it’s also incredibly unerotic. That’s in the eye of the beholder, sure, and I don’t want to become some kind of softcore video game porn reviewer. You can be the judge, but it looks more like the result of some sleazy cheat code your friend would tell you about on the playground- side flip sixty nine times in the Argentina bathroom to unlock. It also doesn’t really match Rayne in my head. Granted, I’ve yet to play BloodRayne 2- it probably is hornier. BloodRayne was already pretty horny, blowing out my speakers with moaning noises every time Rayne would suck blood, the Nazi’s gun firing two impotent shots before he falls to the floor. But Rayne herself reminds me more of Dante in the first Devil May Cry- a lovable dork constantly dropping bad one liners that was never as edgy as the marketing made her out to be. She’s no-nonsense and kickass and dominant and all the other Whedon era cliches of men disguising horny energy for feminism, but the genuine sweetness of her (usually ineffectual) efforts to save people mixed in with the goofy writing make her more endearing than she has any right to be.
This was actually my first time reading an issue of Playboy, and amongst the many bizarre tobacco/beer/Red Heat on DVD ads, I was surprised at just how tame it was, and the same goes for the game. Yes, there is a cheat to increase character bust size, but it has surprisingly few leering camera angles for this era of dudebro gaming. That’s admittedly a low bar to clear, but considering the likes of Dead or Alive or BMXXX, I was expecting this supposed tentpole of adolescent excess to be more, well, bad taste. But that’s less about BloodRayne, and more about Rayne’s legacy, rendered still in CGI pin-ups and bargain bin movie covers. Her character has outstripped the impact of her games, and on the positive end of that we can see a very passionate cult fanbase keeping her alive through cosplay and art. Bloodrayne.net, a fansite from 2002 (the type that plays music in the background), is still online, updated from an old Flash incarnation to celebrate the release of the remasters. It’s a surreal sight in 2022- a franchise with more movies (that everyone hates) than games, one seldom talked about in mainstream publications save for innumerable TOP TEN HOTTEST BABES IN VIDEO GAMES lists. A true cult property, ignored by most but loved by few. I’m not sure I’m quite in that camp yet, but this first game is something I needed in 2022. Tasteless and campless? I don’t think so. Bad taste? That’s a more interesting question. It does end with three separate middle fingers, the final of which being dual wielded. It’s certainly not evidence that gaming had grown up. But maybe that’s ok. Despite the best efforts of the industry, games are not (all) disposable products to be endlessly replaced by new iterations. Perhaps BloodRayne was a somewhat average game when it came out. But now, there’s very little like it. It’s a nostalgic time capsule, yes, but it’s also a splatterpunk relic of attempted “bad taste” that, twenty years removed, has rendered it into a weirdly charming cartoon of a game. This isn’t a review or recommendation, since I think it needs to hit a very specific kind of brain in order not to bounce off, but if you’ve got a stomach for jank and have any affection for 00s leather goth KMFDM fuelled schlock, maybe you’ll enjoy it too.
I saw a clip recently of Sam Raimi defending Evil Dead 2 on British debate show Central Weekend. Debate is generous, the show allows audience members to chime in any time they like, causing more of a moralistic pile-on than any serious discussion. Sam somehow keeps his cool throughout, pointing out that what he’s doing isn’t so far removed from the violence of Shakespeare (this prompts a voice to say WELL YOU CERTAINLY AREN’T IMITATING HIM in the smuggest voice imaginable), and that this outrage against “video nasties” isn’t much different than the outrage the old Hammer horror movies got, nor the Universal Monsters before them. The host denies this, which is either wilful ignorance to keep the rabble roused, or evidence of a remarkably short memory. I said “old” Hammer horror movies. But this interview was in 1987, less than decade after the studio folded. So much of what was said in that episode felt eerily similar to the anti-gaming rhetoric tabloids espoused when I was growing up. The moralistic outrage machine runs on Timewave Zero, repeating and mutating its same shrill anti-art, anti-human rhetoric at faster and faster rates. So honestly? Fuck “bad taste”. It’s an extremely lame way to frame conservatism as some kind of non-political, universally agreed upon barometer of art morality. The fact that something as tame as BloodRayne or classic as Evil Dead 2 was labelled that way should be enough to kill it, but it won’t die. That isn’t to say we should excuse everything, or that it’s wrong to be offended by something. I personally think Sleepaway Camp, despite its cult following and valiant attempts to reclaim it, is irredeemable hateful dogshit. But that’s a real, human reaction, not some tabloid meme. If you think BloodRayne is like that, I’m not trying to tell you you shouldn’t. But I’m tired of being concerned about whether I should be guilty for liking something, for worrying if something is “in good taste”, especially when that same memetic knee jerk response is so often used to justify hateful bullshit.
Camp forever, nightelectricity.com