Velvet Assassin: Sick Filth or Slick Thrills?

By Alec Meer on May 11th, 2009 at 7:40 pm.

A couple of readers have recently asked us what we make of Velvet Assassin. Which is understandable: no-one should trust their own opinion, only ours. Only two of RPS have played it, and suffice to say neither of them are in any hurry to ever play it again. Which, essentially, means it’s silently suffered the Dread RPS Pointy-Finger Of Judgement, and thus will pretty much never be posted about here. Except for this post, obviously.

The game, fundamentally, is Splinter Cell in the 1940s, but its successes and failures in that regard are not what proved to be a talking point for us behind the scenes. What we did discuss (as you may have picked up on from the podcast before last) was the character the game’s protagonist was based around. Hesitant moral deliberation follows.

Velvet Assasin’s heroine Violette Summer is based upon real-life spy Violette Szabo. One can appreciate why – a female assassin seems a rare enough thing today, let alone in the 1940s. Conceptually, the mix of oddity, violence and titillation inherent in a fictional recreation/embellishment of such a character is a videogame marketing manager’s dream come true. As well as that, the game attempts a few nods towards both historical accuracy and sober commentary on how messed up World War II was, on both sides of the fight. Entertainment and education: a perfect blend, right?

Or perhaps not. Violette Szabo, you see, was captured by the Germans after just over a year of active duty as a Special Operations Executive. During her incarceration, she was repeatedly beaten, starved and sexually abused. Ultimately, she was executed, aged just 23.

While Velvet Assassin’s Violette Summer is only ‘inspired by’ Szabo, the game’s marketing consistently makes a point of mentioning this, and even employs a narrative theme of Violette reliving her past adventures whilst apparently dying of severe wounds suffered during capture by the enemy. Loading screens show a seemingly near-comatose Summer lying in bed in a revealing nightgown, with a fearsome German soldier looming above her. The tiny nightgown reappears in the confused, confusing ‘morphine mode’ – when past-Violette takes found drugs to make present-Violette collapse into chemical addlement, in turn realised back in the past as her wandering through Nazi bases as a temporarily indestructible waif in gossamer bedwear.

Are we okay with this? Should we be okay with is? In a medium that so often makes light of past tragedy – any number of other World War II games, the recent trend of Middle Eastern conflict-based titles, even something like Colonization glossing over slavery – is it fair and right to single Velvet Assassin out as being too irreverent? Certainly, Szabo’s daughter Tania, aged only 3 at the time of her mother’s death, refused to allow her mother’s real surname and biography to be used in the game. From this recent interview with developers Replay Studios: “We had phone contact with her as we need to ask for permission using her mother’s name but she did not have interest of being in public. We of course respected this and so we did our best to separate the two. However, we have to admit that we would have liked to get some of the material from Violette Szabo into the game or in our background story, like for example some of the poems from her. But the utmost respect for her family’s feelings and requests is definitely of higher importance to us.

Perhaps the mere concept of turning her mother’s sad story into entertainment was bad enough (or equally possibly, perhaps it was a matter of money: her refusal to be involved has only been mentioned in passing to date), but how must she feel about seeing a recreation of her raped and murdered mother intermittently depicted as a titillating figure – back turned to the camera on the box art, perfect buttocks proudly displayed in skin-tight trousers? (Additionally, catsuited models have been hired to roleplay Violette at press events). Or about the choice to have this homage to her mother regularly use morphine as a magic power-up? And would any of this be any less worrying if the game had been totally, 100% reverent, and not a murder-centric action title starring a sexily-dressed lady?

It’s worth observing that Tania Szabo is the author of Young, Brave and Beautiful, a biography of the mother she never really knew. Unlike Velvet Assassin, the book does not seem in any way lurid – but it is nonetheless also turning Violette Szabo into an industry. Should videogames have the same entitlement? Or does the bulk of this young industry being still so centred around gunplay and titillation mean it should steer clear of more serious matters? The question that looms largest to me is, oddly, why did the developers/publishers not simply make a game about an entirely fictitious 1940s secret agent instead, and thus avoid any possible upset altogether?

I only ask so many questions because I don’t have the answers. I do, however, know that I’m fairly amazed Velvet Assassin has been and gone without its choice and interpretation of subject matter being a big talking point.

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117 Comments »

  1. TeeJay says:

    Within 1 minute’s walk of Stockwell tube you can see a mural commemorating Violette Szabo (middle of roundabout, to the left) plus a public ‘shrine’ to Jean Charles de Menezes (just to the right of entrance).

    I’m not sure any other reasons someone would want to get out at Stockwell tube however, unless they really had to (you could stop for a few minutes on your way towards Brixton maybe).

  2. James T says:

    Because, as someone else pointed out, could you construct a 1940s female Allied spy without her name being raised?

    Um… yes, with spectacular ease? (Wait, you’re being sarcastic, right MK? It’s so hard to tell on gaming blogs…)

    Hang on, what were we saying… “female, brunette, WW2…” My god, why didn’t they ‘base’ the game on Vera Lynn?! She’s even alive to be interviewed!

    edit: I’m warming to the idea of a “Vera Lynn: Allied Superspy” game… It could directly parody this one! Also, SingStar… *rubs chin*

  3. Waste_Manager says:

    If someone did pull that name out it’s completely irrelevant. If I say the Hitman franchise is based on Alexander Litvinenko it doesn’t make it so.

  4. James T says:

    That’s true, unless you’re a writer for IO, in which case it’s not.

  5. Subject 706 says:

    Whether or not this game is disrespectful of Violette Szabo’s memory is one thing. I certainly agree that ‘sexing’ up the character in the game is unnecessary.

    Though I also think this is disrespectful to the gamers. It is as if they think their target group consists solely of basement dwelling teens whose attention will stray if they can’t focus on a pretty ass when there are no explosions happening on screen.

    That, my friends, is why gaming is still viewed as something immature by many.

  6. Matt Kemp says:

    Um… yes, with spectacular ease? (Wait, you’re being sarcastic, right MK? It’s so hard to tell on gaming blogs…)

    I get it!

    What confuses me is the invisible line that makes a person untouchable. What has to happen to you before people aren’t allowed to make crap games about you any more?

    There’s a lot of characterising of the developers and publishers as money-grubbing fat-cats who intentionally made an awful game as a cash-in on this poor woman’s memory, but I would put it down as the developers not really thinking things through.I doubt developers intentionally sat down and planned out a game knowing thinking it would be offensive. It’s proably much more likely they though ‘wouldn’t it be cool to do X’ and didn’t really think they’re talking about someone’s life. Is ignorance an excuse, though?

    Back to the original point of the article, is it more or less tasteless than anything else out there? In my opinion, no. Is it more tactless? Yes.

  7. DK says:

    “The argument might persist that “why is this any worse than any other game based on real events when someone died” – well this isn’t based on real events is it? It’s a complete perversion of the real events, and while CoD and the likes are no where near realistic, at least you get some idea of what the people actually went through; not plain lies. By bringing in the tiniest element of fact velvet assassin has destroyed itself.”
    CoD potrays all germans as faceless 100% evil monsters. It’s okay to wrongly portray people as long as you do it to enough of them at once and they lost their war?

  8. suibhne says:

    @Alaric: as negativedge wrote when he won the thread, the problem isn’t the sexualization of Szabo (er, Summer); it’s the sexualization of her for no artistic reason whatsoever. Actually, I’d extend that argument a bit by suggesting that Southpeak’s sexualization of Szabo had a pretty clear purpose: to make money off a sexually-objectified female body in a fairly libidinous marketplace.

    If there were a real artistic motive here, I’d find it much more defensible. The game would then be more respectful to its subject matter and to its audience.

  9. Waste_Manager says:

    “CoD potrays all germans as faceless 100% evil monsters. It’s okay to wrongly portray people as long as you do it to enough of them at once and they lost their war?”

    From an allied soldiers perspective on a battlefield they probably would be 100% evil monsters – so I don’t think that’s an issue. That’s not to say soldiers didn’t have a problem with killing each other but I’m sure they never sat down and had a discussion about each others lives or had the time to see what they actually looked like other than the uniform.

  10. James T says:

    You at least get the silver, suibhne!

    MK: Well yeah, we can reasonably assume there’s no active malice there, but stupidity is offensive too.

    I don’t think this is really about particular people being “untouchable”, it’s more a matter of abstraction. Really way-out stuff like Indiana Jones or Wolfenstein rely upon ‘refuge in audacity’ and going ‘beyond the impossible’; people may still be legitimately offended by this treatment of WW2, but there is at least no pretension of presenting things as reflecting reality — the abstraction from life is extreme.

    CoD/MoH/CoH/Commandos and the like take refuge in abstraction at a lesser level — the devs attempt to stay relatively within the bounds of plausibility, but remain abstract in presenting the conflict, its members merely units in an amorphous Axis or Allies mass; these games avoid offense by not depicting any particular person as ‘cannon fodder’, nor attributing any actions to them. This is a much thornier area — most games use this level of abstraction to ply you with ample cannon fodder, which is dehumanising, implicitly endorsing an infantile blanket view of Axis forces that whitewashes (blackwashes?) the painful human reality, and opposes an intelligent understanding of what happened. Ironically, it sounds like the VA team at least attempt to minimise this in their game — Keep in mind though, genre is a big factor. You wouldn’t be getting to know your enemy on the battlefield as much as you would if you were snooping through their barracks behind their backs, so we can see why this abstraction is rife in the action genre, whether we approve or not (as “Waste Manager” says above).

    You can argue the merits of these ‘barriers’ to offense, but you can’t argue that something else is also at work when you declare that your game, or its lead, is about Violet Szabo/Otto Skorzeny/George Patton/Albert Einstein/Vasily Zaytsev/whichever individual (the use of “based on” is a pathetic figleaf and can be disregarded; the term “based on” is meant to acknowledge the conjectures you have to make when you’re reconstructing a personal history, not for just making up any old shit). At this stage, you’re biting off a lot, and you’d better hope you can chew it. The abstraction of the protagonist and their actions that frees a game’s writers and designers is gone; you’re referring to a person now, you’re not making generalisations, you’re being specific. You’re either going to have to go charging headlong back into total audacity (Stalin vs Martians?), or you can go for a respectful route (whether that respect is for the person, or for their victims), ie, be as accurate as you possibly, possibly can — you’ve pledged yourself to making a kind of biography now. Or you can render a conspicuously insensitive tonal embarrassment like VA.

  11. Funky Badger says:

    What James said.

    Also, to answer a question right at the top, I do feel kind of quesy about any WW2 etc shooter (CoD et a.) and wouldn’t have played, for instance, 6 Days in Fallujah…

  12. mujadaddy says:

    I’m pretty upset that this has generated a reasoned, reasonable debate on the subject of the article instead of being derailed into a discussion of matters callipygian.

  13. CrashT says:

    Isn’t Velvet Assassin based on Violette Szabo to the same extent that Braveheart is based on William Wallace?

  14. Pzykozis says:

    The ‘sexyfication’ is unneccassary but, at the end of the day it’s just a game, seems like the same sort of debate that came with RE, though that was a ‘good’ game so it was just a bigger debate…

    Colour me insensitive I guess…

  15. Rotter Darned says:

    “Are we okay with this? Should we be okay with [sic] is?” Better yet, why give a damn about being OK with it? My daughter’s a 3D scriptwriter / developer for some of the gaming and film studios – she sends her poor ole Dad some advance copies of new things in progress etc.

    This beauty arrived nearly a year ago with a stick ‘em attached: “Dad, WTF do U make of this?? We’re 100% baffled.”

    “We” includes her husband who’s in the technology business as well, a former CTO of a networking and internet security firm – a smallish European firm actually well-loved by gamers and other types like SMB enterprises and home / home office users. The guy’s considered one of the world’s top 25 hardware hackers and one of the top 100 software hackers. He’s now employed as CIO of the consulting division of a firm in his area of expertise – you also their name very well lol.

    To her WTF question, I responded: “It’s a desperate ‘hail mary’ that’s as offensive as it is boring. It has nothing to do with history that isn’t told to promote its singular marketing agenda. As you two very well know, never trust entertainment industry marketing people. Their assignment in general is to turn polluted water into fine wine. Even those talentless chimps dropped the ball big-time with this garbage. Basically, this game 100% sucks.” I guess I’d make a crappy reviewer if paid by the word. lol

  16. kr8 says:

    “Should we be okay with it?” Well that depends, what do you think of smut in other forms? I think some people are overgeneralising this a bit. There’s no such thing as “the game developers”. There’s this particular studio, where some people seem to have obnoxiously bad taste, to the point they make me feel guilty by actually getting titillated by the pictures in their game. Now if that was the point this game would be great, but it isn’t, it’s just a stupid way to sell games.

    Also, the fact that they’re based in Germany doesn’t mean that all Germans think this game is done in good taste. Etc.