By looks alone, Mother Russia Bleeds could be a cousin of Hotline Miami, another series published by Devolver Digital. But while Hotline Miami pokes at deeper questions of violence and the enjoyment we get from it, Mother Russia Bleeds revels in it with seemingly little regard for the victims of that virtual violence.
The game, slated for launch on PC and PS4, takes place in an alternate version of the Soviet Union. It's a side-scrolling brawler in which you and up to three friends play as former research subjects, once kidnapped and experimented on with heavy drugs. You've broken free to seek revenge for the horrors you've experienced.
Mother Russia Bleeds is described by developer Le Cartel as an "unrelenting, ultra-violent" beat-'em-up, and it's a tag that the game fully delivers on. Blood splatters punctuated every attack during my hands-on time. Some enemies you fight suffer from drug addiction problems, much like yourself, and when you finish pummeling them, they're likely to convulse and vomit as they lie on the ground. When you inject yourself with your drug of choice, your character launches into a frenzy so intense that you can literally punch someone's face off.
Designer Frederic Coispeau said Le Cartel wants to evoke the memory of beat-'em-ups like Streets of Rage or Double Dragon. The idea was to create a game that was "something more powerful, more dark, [with] more violence. Intense, yes." Coispeau and the game's composer, Vincent Cassar, said that everything from the game's different levels to its drug use are designed to add to its overall atmosphere.
I can appreciate the sentiment, but nothing about the gore I saw in Mother Russia Bleeds felt like it served any purpose beyond violence for the sake of violence — it perpetuates the false assumption that making a game "gritty" inherently makes it more interesting. When I played with Coispeau and Cassar, we brawled our way through a sex club and a seemingly never-ending stream of identical goons. In the background, club patrons drank and observed. Sex workers gyrated in cages, on poles or on the floor — it all felt purposefully edgy.
"It's part of the scenario of the game," Cassar told me when I inquired about the setting. "All characters will have to travel different places because they're searching for the man responsible for their experience. We choose different places like homo dark club, prison, dark streets because it's about the ambience of the game."
As we approached the level's end, new characters began to appear: heavyset figures with large, exposed breasts, dressed in tiny undergarments and animal masks. When I asked if they were transgender characters, Cassar replied, "That's why they have tits."
The game's representation on its own feels grossly, unnecessarily exploitative, and this response is disturbingly careless. I asked if there was any concern in including violence against transgender characters, since the transgender community experiences a lot of violence in real life.
"Not at all, because it's not like our opinion," Coispeau said. "It's free of opinion. This is just imagination. I know it's kind of disturbed, but it's about the game. Strange feelings, strange ambience.
"In the game you will fight every kind of people ... No, you only saw that sliver, which contains transgender people, but this is only in this stage. It's not in the whole game."
"It's not against the people," Cassar added.
Devolver Digital, when contacted by Polygon, echoed this sentiment.
"We allow our developers the creative freedom every artist deserves, and always have," a spokesperson said. "Yes, we've seen the entire game and understand the developer's overall creative goals in gameplay and narrative. The game is about violently fighting your way out of a repressive regime. Enemies are of all different genders, including transgendered people, none of whom are targeted — or even called out specifically — because they are of any particular gender. The heroes fight against all oppressors with no recognition or discrimination of gender identity.
"We just want something very bizarre."
"The message simply is: The enemies are all baddies and to gain your freedom and to expose a corrupt government you must fight your way through it."
According to Cassar, the strategy behind Mother Russia Bleeds is not to make it a provocative game.
"We just want something very bizarre," he said. "The world is bizarre."
I asked about the choice to include transgender characters in a level they considered bizarre — did they also consider trans characters bizarre?
"I'm not sure, maybe you saw a message by yourself but it's really not our intention," he said. "It's about the scenario, the story. That's all."
The message I saw lined up with a well-known problem in video games: representation of marginalized groups. GLAAD, an organization that focuses on LGBT representation in media, doesn't categorically recognize video games in any of its awards. Instead, it occasionally gives out individual "special recognition" awards, as it did last year with BioWare's Dragon Age: Inquisition.
I reached out to the organization to get its thoughts on the portrayal of transgender characters in media and video games. Director of entertainment media Matt Kane said that good characters are not singularly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity, but display a wide range of personality traits and qualities.
For a game like Mother Russia Bleeds, where enemies appear as stock characters with repeated designs and typically no dialogue, it's tough.
"We would probably ask the question, 'Why does the trans character have to be one of the characters that you beat up?'" Kane said. "Why can't the trans character be one of the ones who you're actually playing as? Or it could have been a character who plays some other role in the story.
"any creator who's trying to go about it responsibly would think about the context..."
"Even just sort of sitting in the background sometimes is preferable. I think especially in the context of trans characters, there's a long and sometimes really nasty history with their depiction in video games. We haven't actually played [Mother Russia Bleeds] so we can't say for sure, but that type of treatment of a trans character is unfortunately part of a really gross legacy."
In a study referencing a decade's worth of trans characters, GLAAD found that these characters were cast in victim roles at least 40 percent of the time. Transgender characters were created as villains or killers 21 percent of the time, while 20 percent appeared as sex workers.
"Depiction of trans women specifically as sex workers was the most common way to depict a trans person even on television for a very long time," Kane said. "Usually if they weren't being depicted as murderers or murder victims, they were just a cheap way to depict 'urban grittiness.' It's a way that a director can feel edgy or a creator can feel edgy by depicting what they think is the real, stark underbelly of life in a big city."
Kane said that it's possible to talk about trans women and sex work in video games in a way that can be illuminating, if the characters are given the chance to be more than one-dimensional. Creators have a choice as to how they depict their characters.
"I think unless [a developer] put all of their various character archetypes through a complete personality randomizer to create these characters based on purely random sets of characteristics, they made a conscious choice to put those characters in there," Kane said. "I think that any creator who's trying to go about it responsibly would think about the context as being implied when you do that."
Nick Adams, director of programs for transgender media at GLAAD, pointed to the high rates of violence against transgender women in the U.S. alone.
"When you have an incredibly marginalized community that is already subjected to staggering amounts of violence, along with high rates of poverty and discrimination, to feed into the bigotry and bias that that community already faces by making them easy targets for violence within the context of a game is unacceptable," Adams said, speaking on the topic of transgender inclusion in games. "There's a big difference between making an infinite number of white non-transgender men characters that you can beat up and making transgender characters that you can beat up. It's not equivalent."