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.