Invasion of the Boobie Snatchers: Why Riots new design direction is no laughing matter

"...a radical change in a characters presentation is not merely a design foible, it is the erasing of an identity – an identity many people had grown to love."

The recent visual update to Fiora has set off a whirlwind of mad meme’ing and wide-eyed-wonder. Questions abound: “Who sold her the meth?” “Isn’t Michael Jackson dead?” “Je Suis, Jenner?” While through the core of each query runs a single, unavoidable thought: “What have they done?” To which the edgiest members respond: “Why do you care?”

So, why do we care? Leaving aside stereotypes of teenage boys and their uncontrollable urge to stare at buxom babes, I care because I am a designer and this is bad design. Many others seem to care because characters they thought were cute and unique have started to morph into one amorphous mass of frilly clothes and frightening faces. We care because we are visual creatures, and one need not be “fap induced” by art to appreciate its beauty, humor, or creativity.

Art is important to many even in choosing what characters they play and what characters they avoid playing. Art is the reason many players choose to main a champion, and the reason recent update threads are full of those players looking for a new main now that they no longer recognize the face or style which made them feel connected to the old. Art informs us of attitude and inspires us to shell out money for a champion we like, or a skin we like more. Put plainly, art matters, and if it didn’t, companies like Riot would save themselves a lot of money by doing away with it entirely.

Therefore, a radical change in a characters presentation is not merely a design foible, it is the erasing of an identity – an identity many people had grown to love.

To take the most recent case of Fiora: she was never a hyper sexualized character in the style of Miss Fortune. Her clothes were on the conservative side, with all but one of her skins covering her from shoulder to foot. Her breasts were not bombshells and her hind parts were not equal in size and shape to the Hindenburg. She was, by all accounts, exactly what she was meant to be: A Young, arrogant French (“Demacian”) aristocrat with a nose for fighting and a desire to be the best. She was a fun concept, delightfully self-assured, loved by many and without any major flaws, was that so wrong?

Yes, apparently. Very wrong. At least in the eyes of Riot. Her youthful features (which one might expect to find on a young woman) were succinctly replaced by some mad mixture of Cruella de Vil and that guy from Wayne’s World. In Riots new art department it seems “cute” is synonymous with “objectification”, and we certainly can’t have that. So like Katarina before her, Fiora aged fifty years over night… and picked up a bit of a drug habit. But they weren’t done.

Having smashed the splash art to pieces, these creative barrels of TnT moved on to the skins, as they so often do. “Sex it down!” seemed to be the high command. Yet on an already conservatively styled character, what great offense was there to cover up? Ahhh, yes, of course… her collarbone.

It was quickly discovered that the fan favorite “Musketeer” skin showed a little too much lower neck – dear god! And so up went the shirt and on went the blouse. And lest you realize that women are actually shaped like something other than a box, frills and amulets and all manner of nonsense were added to cover up that deepest, darkest secret: Curves – the horror!

In a single sweep of the hand, what had been a loved skin, best described as “Attractive Musketeer with an adorable hat,” became better summarized as “The ghost of Joan Rivers cosplaying Louis the XVI”. It was ugly, and that was all. And that on its own might have been excusable, one massive design mistake which might soon be forgiven. But it was no mistake, it was part of a trend. A dangerous equation of ideology over design which threatens to destroy everything unique and beautiful, in the way collectivist thinking always does. And that is what’s really worth discussing.

All female flesh must go, that is the Iron price

“I’d like to drop a bomb if it hasn’t been overly apparent: I’m a feminist. Do your worst.”-Iron Stylus, Sr. Concept Artist, Riot Games

It seemed a sort of one off quote all the way back in 2012. Unimportant, move on. Yet while so many ignored what had now been made so plain, the context was even more meaningful than the quote itself.

This was not your mother’s feminism, nor your own. This was not a quote found in response to some thread about women’s rights, equal pay, the middle east, or anything of the sort. This was a quote in response to a thread asking why modern western feminists seemed to be so offended by attractive females in any form of media. This is that strange, horrifying creature often called “third wave” or “tumbler feminism”. The idea that to admit women have collarbones is to somehow objectify them. To show any woman as beautiful is to make all other women feel ugly. A ridiculous notion that purports to love and admire women on the one hand, yet hides every inch and curve on the other, as though there is something inherently wrong with the female form. A “feminism” which seems to be much closer to the Ayatollah Khomeini than to Mary Wollstonecraft in its view of women. But who am I to judge.

“Big things have small beginnings,” went the story of the art teams transformation. Leona and Diana, inspired by the Lord Greyjoy himself, were a shot across the bow. A first sign of things to come. And yet they were loved all the same as a welcome change to the often buxom lineup of female champions which had littered league’s walls. This positive reaction to fully armored female champions would have devastating results, as it was interpreted by Lord Greyjoy not as the communities love of diversity, both a mixture of sexy and stern champions, but rather as a stamp of total approval to his ideology. The message, in his mind, was clear: You were right all along. Female flesh offends, and offends deeply!

Obviously The Iron Prince is not alone in the department, nor is his word the only word. But those who have influence draw like-minded individuals into their circles. And so the slow march of the art team towards one mind on certain issues is inevitable. Woe is he who presents a “fleshy” female character concept and risks being mocked by his counterparts for such a cliché. They know better now. They know that “real” women have faces like bricks, dresses like tents, and are too busy kicking patriarchal ass to powder their noses.

The answer is always pants

In 2013, the first season since Greyjoy’s loud and proud outing, three female champions were released: Jinx, the flat chested, bug-eyed psychopath. Not the sexiest of champions (unless that’s your thing), but beloved for her wild personality all the same. Then came Lissandra, a fully functioning fudgepop with what appears to be a Dyson vacuum on her head. And finally Quinn, so unsexy that she is to this day often mistaken for an ugly man.

No one complained, no one seemed terribly worried. The myth about gamers being a collection of “horny teens” was nonsense. People embraced these new, more mundane designs, imagining that Riot was just catching up on their “diversity goals” and we’d see more femme fatales once the scales had been balanced.

2014, let the balancing begin… or maybe not. With the new year, we saw only the release of two female champions: Kalista, an undead banshee who could easily be mistaken for a young Wes Studi in blue war paint. And of course, Riots final ode to “diversity”, a female bug-shark-thing which required many an LCS announcer to be reminded that it was in fact a female bug-shark-thing when they defaulted to the male pronoun, which is often used in the case of unknown or asexual creatures.

Rek’sai is a girl! crowed the Riot design team, as though you were supposed to divine that from the wordless shrieking and shapeless face. Yet I suppose they viewed Rek’Sai as a great milestone in their movement away from “unrealistic” women. The most ugly, inhuman creature in league canon is now a female. Well done…?

But these were just champion releases, what of the redesigns? The pattern remained intact. Katarina lost her soft face in favor of something resembling a clean shaven Joe Dirt, because remember: attractive women are offensive, and just downright ugly. Miss Fortune got a breast reduction and extra fabric. Fiora went from cute French girl to Vince Vaughn dressing up as cute French girl, etc.

A quick tussle was had when Sejuani lost her cold-beach-bikini in favor of more sensible attire. Many stated that the bore rider’s outfit was a testament to the toughness which was captured in her stern face and harsh voice overs — she just didn’t give a damn about the cold and she was going to let you know it (sounds empowered to me). Yet in swooped Lord Greyjoy, waving a fatherly (motherly?) finger at these naysayers while calmly agreeing with those who said to live in such a cold climate, one would have to have clothes to match. And that was an end to the matter — almost. 

I have standards! Double standards.

May 12th, 2014. A new champion is introduced to League of Legends. He’s a broad shouldered chap, with great abs, who hails from the same frozen wasteland of the now armor clad Sejuani. This mustachioed wonder is Braum. And Braum, forgot his shirt.

Yes the same design team that covered up Sejuani’s bare belly due to “cold weather conditions” seemed to have no hesitation in releasing an entirely shirtless male champion from exactly the same region. Either the design team is so unbelievably sexist that they think a male champion can survive the cold without proper clothing while those flimsy females cannot, or the “cold weather” excuse used to cover up Sejuani was merely a thin veil meant to hide the real reason for the change: ideology. I’ll let you decide.

While you’re deciding, it might be of interest to note that while Fiora and Miss Fortune are being “sexed down” and “covered up”, a male champion also received a rework. Yes, meet the new Gangplank:

The especially observant among you may have noticed that Gangplank is showing more of those sexy pecks than ever. Yar-harr! I wonder if Lord Greyjoy would call this “exposing skin for skin’s sake” as is often his criticism of older female designs. Whatever the case, the double standard is astounding. While Musketeer Fiora must have a white blanket draped over what was little more than a smidgen of sternum, it appears as though male champions are judged by a slightly different criteria (where is Tryndamere’s wool knit onesie?). Yet if you were looking for intellectual consistency from the sorts of people who scream about the overrepresentation of men in STEM while ignoring the overrepresentation of women in social fields, the joke may be on you.

Diversity to destroy Diversity

Behind every bad idea there is a buzzword. Something which rolls off the tongue and acts as a stopper to intellectual inquiry or critical thought. “Equality” is a favorite of those who are usually acting for exactly the opposite end. And so communist governments, enriching themselves while the people slowly starve, will often appeal to eqaulity, while stating that anyone challenging them must therefore be against the very notion. You don’t want to be against equality… do you?

The buzzword of our generation seems to be “diversity.” Yes, diversity is the ultimate goal of anything and everything. And much like the “equality” of the 20th century it is often used to generate the exact opposite outcome of its stated goal. In the west “diversity” is called upon to favor certain identity groups over others. But if you push out one group in favor of another, have you actually increased the diversity? If an all white neighborhood becomes “more diverse” by becoming an all black neighborhood, is that real diversity? When did one minus one ever equal anything but zero? I’m not sure, but Riot seems to be.

Yes “diversity” is the buzzword of choice each time a female champion is smoothed out, uglied up, and covered in what seems to be an endless supply of anti-bawdy blankets. Unsurprisingly, it’s a lie.

The female champions in league are not becoming “more diverse” with your sexy on one end and your plain on the other. The spectrum through new releases and redesigns is very clearly only ever moving in one direction. Will it be “diverse” when every female champion in the league looks like she came from a Quaker colony or wandered off the set of The Descent? Do any of these people even know what that word means?

I am not calling for boobs bouncing about everywhere like some nightmarish trampoline, and I don’t think anyone is. I find certain designs, such as Eve, to be as absurd and in need of an update as anyone else. What most people want, and why they react the way they do to these redesigns, is real diversity. The diversity male champions have from the heavily armored Garen to the shirtless Tryndamere. From the steel jawed Jayce to the rotund rear end of Gragas. Release your homely champs, your inhuman champs and no one bats an eye. They’re simply asking to keep the few “sexy” female champions that already exist and ought to exist according to their own lore. Dare I say: a diversity in design.

Yet ideology, especially of this sort, doesn’t have much of a track record for compromise. The Pao fiasco at Reddit as well as the highly publicized gamergate are useful examples of what happens when certain people hijack communities in order to push a very strident moral or political ideology. Will any real diversity be left when the dust of these anti–female-flesh-fanatics settles, or will every female champion look identical save for the color of their burqa? To answer that, I think I’ll leave you with a quote from Riot’s leading feminist in regards to his work on a Caitlyn visual update. Having already exchanged her skirt for pants, her heels for boots, her shirt for a long coat, and her collarbone for total coverage, the very tops of her shoulders could still be seen through holes in the jacket (look out youporn), and something just wasn’t sitting right:

“Only problem was the exposed skin. The more I tried to update her fashion, add functionality, and tell the story of her being a sheriff, the more the exposed skin just didn’t make sense. Honestly it just looked awkward, like I was exposing skin for exposing skin’s sake.”

Another one bites the dust.