Criminal Girls, one of the more controversial Japanese titles to make it over to the West in recent years thanks to its semi-explicit depiction of BDSM-style “punishment” scenes, actually proved to be one of the more interesting games I’ve played for a while owing to its exploration of a concept we tend to take for granted: trust.
In most games, there’s an unspoken trust between the players and the on-screen characters. You trust them to do what they tell you and they, in turn, trust you to make the right decisions that won’t get them killed. The latter part in particular isn’t always made explicit because the player’s presence isn’t usually acknowledged, but in games where you’re not playing a self-insert protagonist, there’s a strong argument that it’s implied.
Criminal Girls is a little different, however. Not only do you, the player, have a participant role in the game — albeit not as a combatant in the game’s battle sequences — but you also have to spend a hefty amount of time convincing your party members to trust both you and each other. And it’s here that things get pretty interesting.
The premise of Criminal Girls runs thus: seven girls have been locked up in the depths of Hell not because they committed unforgivable sins in life before they died, but because they were on the path to their own ruin. Hell, contrary to popular depictions, is not an unreasonable sort of place and offers “delinquents” such as these the opportunity to redeem themselves, be reincarnated and “try again” at life, but not before they’ve passed a series of gruelling trials. You, the player, have been recruited to lead them through these trials.
The girls’ refusal to acknowledge your authority is made explicit through the game mechanics.
As you might imagine, the girls are somewhat angry and embittered at the situation in which they find themselves at the start of the game. They’re sullen, uncooperative and initially unwilling to even come with you, so right from the very outset you’re presented with a challenging situation. And this only gets worse when it becomes clear that even when faced with a life-threatening situation — the appearance of a “Convict”, a permanent denizen of Hell — they simply aren’t going to do what you tell them.
And this refusal to acknowledge your authority is made explicit through the game mechanics, too. Criminal Girls has a somewhat unusual battle system in which you don’t control the girls directly and instead pick one of four suggested courses of action from your party members; in other words, you’re expected to trust them to make the right choices. But in the initial battle scenes, the girls will simply refuse to suggest anything, preferring instead to get slapped around by a Convict than to acknowledge either your status or the situation they’re in.
And here’s where the controversial “punishment” aspect comes in. The localisation reframes this part of the game as “motivation”, but the Japanese voice acting uses the word お仕置き (おしおき, oshioki: “punishment”) and it’s pretty clear from the activities involved what the intention was. Over the course of the game, you’ll be tasked with spanking, electrocuting, dripping mysterious liquid on, tickling and massaging the seven girls in an attempt to rid their bodies of “temptations”, the physical manifestations of their potential to sin. As you successfully perform these tasks, the girls will become more “motivated” and unlock new abilities, some of which work as part of a team and some of which are powerful individual abilities.
What’s interesting about these sequences is that as uncomfortable as they undoubtedly will be for some and as gratuitously sexualised as they are — each of the different punishments sees the girls dressing up in one of several commonly fetishised outfits including school swimsuits, animal costumes, gym clothes and pantyhose, and success in each activity sees its respective outfit become more disheveled and revealing — they’re used as a means of reflecting the girls’ growing trust for the player character.
While you, the player, are in the clearly “dominant” position in the punishment squences, you don’t have absolute power.
This can be clearly seen in several ways: firstly, the aforementioned way in which the girls “adjust” their outfits as you progress through the various levels of each punishment. By the time you reach the maximum level four of a punishment, the girls are at the very least revealing their panties, and in some cases are even showing their breasts (albeit with tactically-covered nipples in all cases). While there’s an obvious argument that this is nothing but sexualised fanservice — and that most certainly is an aspect of it, let’s be honest — it can also be interpreted as the girls being more comfortable with the situation in which they find themselves. While you, the player, are in the clearly “dominant” position thanks to your wielding of the various punishment implements, you don’t have absolute power: not only does it cost the game’s currency “CM” to begin one of these sessions, meaning that you can’t simply do them whenever you like, the girls aren’t bound or restrained in these scenes, and you only have a limited amount of time to deal with each “temptation” before it disappears and the session draws closer to its conclusion.
The more compelling argument as to the punishment scenes reflecting the girls’ trust for you comes in the incidental dialogue before and after the scenes themselves. At the outset of the game, the girls are resistant to you — in some cases even sounding understandably scared when you approach them — and are embarrassed, flustered and angry when you finish a session. But the further the game progresses, the softer their reactions become, until by the end of it all they’re actively welcoming your advances, willingly submitting to things they previously claimed to hate “because it’s you”. They have realised that the punishments you have meted out are not from a desire to abuse or hurt, but instead to help them better themselves — and perhaps simply to spend some “alone time” with them.
As the girls complete their trials, they come to understand one another at the same time as they come to trust the player-protagonist.
It’s easy to get hung up on the punishment scenes in Criminal Girls because they’re the most controversial aspect of the game, but it’s worth discussing the rest of the narrative, too, since the theme of trust is central to the whole experience. As the girls climb the spire and complete their trials, they come to understand one another a little better at the same time as they come to trust the player-protagonist, and this in turn helps them to form some close friendship bonds as well as become less reliant on a single individual as in the case of the two sisters Sako and Yuko, who depend on one another to a fault.
An episode in the “Frost Block” of the spire sees the party repeatedly split up and weakened, and this threatens to completely destroy what is, at this point, a rather uneasy alliance. But after it’s revealed that it was all an illusionary manipulation, the whole experience serves to counter its original intention: rather than sowing mistrust and breaking the party apart, it forges a bond between all the girls that goes on to become a genuine friendship and relationship of mutual trust by the end of the game.
The girls’ trust for one another and for you is ultimately tested in the “Education Block” near the end of the game: an area that resembles a creepy, abandoned school, and the location in which each of the girls must confront the “sins” that made them a delinquent. One by one, aspects of the girls’ pasts are revealed, eventually culminating in the girl in question becoming crippled by self-doubt and the manipulations of her “shadow” form. It’s then up to the remainder of the party — temporarily excluding that girl — to discover a token that represents her sin, accept her despite her flaws and ultimately inspire her to want to overcome her past and become a better person.
As you might expect, discovering one another’s most intimate secrets in this manner only serves to strengthen what is, by this point, already a firm friendship between the group — and to convince them that you, as their “leader”, have their best interests at heart. You’re also encouraged to empathise with the girls, as in most cases, their “sins” are eminently relatable; some of us may not have gone to the relative extremes that the girls have done, but there’s bound to be at least one of the girls you can understand on a personal level; this is, undoubtedly, a very deliberate choice on the part of the writers.
The girls’ sins are eminently relatable; there’s bound to be at least one of the girls you can understand on a personal level.
Beyond this, things become even more interesting towards the end of the original PSP game and into the new content added for the Vita version. The existence of a programme called “Knighthood” is revealed, and we discover that this was an attempt to get a “Blameless” individual to lead the delinquents through Hell. The programme was ultimately scrapped, however, after leading Knight candidate Himekami rejected it — partly out of her own fear, and partly, as is revealed in the new Vita dungeons, because she knew she wasn’t truly “Blameless” after all, having her own sins to come to terms with. Himekami didn’t trust herself, and this led her to become trapped in the spire, initially appearing to the other girls as a friend but ultimately revealing herself as the “villain” of the piece — and I use the term loosely, since despite Himekami’s position as the final boss of the main game, she isn’t evil as such; simply consumed by her own anger, grief, self-doubt and denial.
Upon defeating Himekami, she sees the close bond you and the girls have forged with one another, and resolves, along with your “superior” Miu, who becomes consumed with guilt at having failed Himekami in the past, to climb the spire herself, come to terms with her own sins and be reborn as a better person. The original PSP version ended here, but the Vita version reveals that all did not quite go according to plan; Himekami’s interference in the way the programme was supposed to work caused all kinds of chaos, so it’s up to you first to rescue Himekami and Miu from the unwanted attentions of the mysterious “Committee” and subsequently to help rehabilitate them in the same way you helped all the previous girls. Over the course of a “bonus” section almost as long as the original game, both Himekami and Miu go through their own personal journeys of learning to trust one another, the rest of the group and you, ultimately reaching a stage where they can overcome their own sins and join the other girls in successfully completing the “Knighthood” programme.
Criminal Girls ends up as a positive, uplifting story of redemption and self-acceptance, then. Its powerful message of trust runs through the whole experience’s core, both from a mechanical perspective through the battle and punishment systems, and throughout the entire narrative, too. While there are a few unsatisfying plot holes here and there — we never find out how the girls actually died in the first place, for example — the big picture proves to be a surprising and oddly heartwarming tale that many of us will be able take a positive message from.
Criminal Girls is out now for PlayStation Vita.