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There’s a distinct lack of nuance in a lot of modern video game analysis when it comes to anything even the slightest bit erotic, and, as we’ve previously discussed, this is something we could all stand to be a bit better at.
With this in mind, Bullet Girls Phantasia seems like an ideal candidate to look at closely from this angle: without tittering childishly, without knowing nudge-nudge-wink-winks, and, of course, without censure or shame for either what it is doing or the people who might enjoy it.
The reason for this is that Bullet Girls Phantasia represents a solid example of erotica done right: it stops short of being outright explicit pornography — partly for stylistic reasons and partly out of necessity due to its host platforms — but anyone playing it will be left in little doubt that a particular, specific side of the game is very much intended to provoke an intense sexual reaction in anyone engaging with it fully. And there’s nothing to be ashamed of there. So let’s explore it further!
A good thing to do first would be to establish and explore the difference between “erotica” and “pornography”, because there is a distinction there, and certain sequences in Bullet Girls Phantasia very much skirt that line quite skilfully.
The distinction between the two is a little blurry thanks to differences of opinion from various commentators over the years, but the main distinguishing factor between the two is mostly agreed to be how exclusively the work in question deals with material that is stimulating or arousing. If the erotic material is simply part of a wider work — typically one that tells a story — then it’s considered erotica; if the sexual content is the exclusive or at least primary purpose of the work in question, it’s considered pornography.
In 1997, the then-present Lecture Series Committee chairman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) penned an article in The Tech, the oldest and largest newspaper serving the prestigious university, and defined the difference thus following a certain amount of uproar over the group’s intention to start showing erotic — not pornographic — movies:
“Pornographic film has as its primary purpose the graphic depiction of sexually explicit scenes. It generally depicts these scenes in a way that is degrading to women or, less frequently, to men. It tends to perpetuate the myth that rape and sexual assault are appropriate forms of behaviour.
“Erotica, on the other hand, seeks to tell a story that involves sexual themes. Sexually explicit scenes in these films serve a secondary role to the plot. Erotic film displays sexually explicit scenes in a more realistic and equal fashion that is not degrading to either gender.”
A few years later in 2004, prominent Indian journalist Jug Suraiya offered his own rather more colloquial thoughts on the topic in a column for The Times of India:
“Erotica represents the complex cartography of desire, full of hazard and mystery, inviting endless exploration. Pornography is a dumbed-down diagram leading to a cul-de-sac whose only destination is libidinal claustrophobia.
“The erotic is life-affirming, pornography is life-negating. But what finally divides erotica and pornography is the test of time. We all remember the Kamasutra, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and James Joyce’s Ulysses. But can you honestly say you remember the last pondy you read or blue film you watched, or the name of the cover girl on the latest issue of your favourite hag-mag?”
(Side note: the meaning is pretty clear by context, but I looked up “pondy” regardless as it was a piece of slang I’d never come across before. Apparently its origins are not entirely clear, but it is assumed to be a Hindi corruption of the word “pornography” that was popularised in the Indian Institutes of Technology. We all learned something today! Unless you’re from India, apparently.)
With these definitions in mind, we can look at Bullet Girls Phantasia and draw some conclusions.
The game’s erotic component, known as “Intensive Drilling”, crops up a few times throughout the game’s main narrative, and throughout the series as a whole has been used to depict the main characters either learning to resist interrogation techniques or, depending on the narrative context, actually being interrogated.
Given the “military” theme of the game, “interrogation” here implies torture, but this is also a candy-coloured game about cute girls, so no-one actually gets hurt. Rather, the Intensive Drilling sequences are silly and fun rather than abusive; some characters are even depicted as particularly enjoying performing or receiving Intensive Drilling — or perhaps both in a few scenarios.
Intensive Drilling is only a mandatory sequence on a few separate occasions throughout the main narrative, but it is always available from the game’s main menu. In the narrative-led instances, it is always a fixed setup; when accessed from the main menu, however, the situation can be fully customised to the player’s liking, ranging from the main participant(s), up to three observers, the setting in which it is taking place and — more on this in a moment — what type of Drilling it will be.
When considering whether Bullet Girls Phantasia is erotica or pornography, then, we have to take all this into account. Going by the definitions we’ve seen, it would absolutely seem to fall into the former category, because despite the player having the opportunity to engage with its erotic component freely at will, it has narrative context on a macro level. There’s a reason these girls are shown engaging in this activity, and in order to unlock all the possibilities for such scenarios, you need to have played enough of the game to get to know all the characters very well as people — and as sets of mechanics, for that matter — rather than just virtual sex dolls.
The importance of this aspect shouldn’t be understated. Fans of character-centric media often end up having a favourite cast member — a “waifu” or “husbando” in the vernacular of Japanese popular media fandom — and that favourite tends not to be exclusively defined by physical attraction. Rather, it tends to be a combination of factors: how relatable the character’s background and personal narrative is to the individual in question, how much their personality appeals to the viewer, whether they exhibit tropes or stereotypes that the viewer finds pleasant to engage with and, yes, physical attraction is part of it, too — just not the whole picture.
So in terms of the argument that erotica involves stories that just happen to incorporate sexual themes rather than where the sexual aspect is the whole point of the experience, we’d seem to be good. There’s one aspect of the above definitions that some people might still get a bit hung up on, though: whether or not the Intensive Drilling sequences are “degrading”.
Here’s where we need to delve a little further into matters of sexuality in general — specifically, the matters of bondage, discipline, dominance, submission, sadism and masochism, collectively known as BDSM.
“BDSM” as a term was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, coined by a Usenet user in 1991, though its individual components (sadism and masochism or S&M; bondage and discipline (B&D); and dominance and submission or D&S) had been discussed prior to this. Because the term covers such a broad range of fetishes, activities and interpersonal relationships, it tends to be used as a self-identifier based on shared experiences rather than a definition you can force upon people; that said, in casual discussion, the term “BDSM” is broadly understood by most people, even those not directly involved in the scene.
The aspect of BDSM as a whole that we’re primarily concerned with in Bullet Girls Phantasia is the concept of erotic humiliation. This is a consensual activity where sexual arousal is derived from psychological humiliation. This can take a wide variety of forms in reality; in the game, there are three particular ways to engage with it, which we’ll explore in detail in a moment.
The crucial thing to note about erotic humiliation is that it is consensual. Everyone involved wants to be there and is engaging in the activity by choice; some even describe the submissive partner in erotic humiliation as the one who wields the real power, because they are the one who sets the limits and the one who has the opportunity to bring the experience to a premature close if they so desire.
This is very much the case in Bullet Girls Phantasia; although there are several scenarios in the narrative-critical Drilling sequences in which the question of “consent” is a little murky, we can understand and recognise from the characters of the main cast that they would never do anything that actually hurt the submissive partner. The items and techniques they use are all designed to provoke pleasurable sensations, not pain, and it’s abundantly clear that anyone participating would gladly stop if the partner was ever in any real distress.
As such, although the submissive participants in Intensive Drilling situations are absolutely being humiliated in various ways, it’s not designed to be degrading and they maintain their agency as characters; no-one is “broken” by the activity and, in fact, several characters — particularly the newcomers in Bullet Girls Phantasia — find themselves rather taken with acting in both the “bottom” and “top” roles.
So what does Intensive Drilling actually involve, aside from the mechanical aspect we’ve already talked about? Well, as previously noted, there are three main types: Single, Double and Reverse Drilling. The first two can be grouped together as putting the player in the “top” or dominant position, while the latter puts them in the “bottom” or submissive position.
In the two “dominant” modes, the player can bring four different items with them into the activity. Each girl has particular preferences as to which items they like or dislike, represented by a “mood” meter that appears before the Drilling proper stars. Max this out and you enter a special mode where it’s easier to score points.
In Single Drilling, the girl is presented in some sort of humiliating situation, the options for which expand gradually as the narrative progresses. Interestingly, with the exception of the “tentacle” pose, the submissive girl is not represented as actually being bound in any way; they’re just sitting on the floor leaning up against a fence, bending over holding onto a sword stuck in the ground or sitting in the middle of a slime.
Once the drilling starts, it’s your job to induce as many “good” and “bad” feelings as possible by using your items to manipulate parts of the girl accordingly. The game doesn’t really explain what it actually means by “good” and “bad”, which might lead some to assume that “bad” is undesirable, but given that you score points and induce lively reactions for both, we can fairly safely assume the difference is between “please do that more, that feels unquestionably good and I don’t mind moaning erotically about it without shame” and “stop, don’t do that, that’s embarrassing (except I actually do want you to do that because feelings are complicated, particularly when it comes to sexual stimulation)”. Or, you know, something more succinct.
Double Drilling unfolds in mostly the same way, except there are two submissive girls, typically positioned in a sexually suggestive manner with one pinning down the other. In this mode, the girls will comment on if you’re favouring one or the other to an unreasonable degree, and as such you’re encouraged to divide your attentions between the pair of them. Mechanically speaking, you don’t have to do this, since you score points regardless, but once the Drilling session concludes, you’re given a breakdown as to how many of your points came from which girl; it is essentially up to you as to how much of a considerate “top” you are.
Reverse Drilling, meanwhile, inverts the situation. Instead of taking on the “top” role, now you are the “bottom”; the girl you selected for the Drilling session is now the one giving rather than the one receiving.
Reverse Drilling unfolds from a first-person perspective and has two main components. Firstly, the girl will make use of the Drilling items on you, during which you must mash a button on the controller when the word “Barrage” appears, and stop when it disappears. Successfully doing this gradually fills up a heart meter; putting just one button out of place, meanwhile, causes the meter to empty completely.
Once the girl has tired of a particular item, she then either chooses another herself or, if you maxed out the heart meter, allows you to choose by nodding or shaking your “head” using the analogue stick to move your viewpoint. You’re also given the opportunity to choose whether or not you would prefer “Soft” or “Hard” treatment with the item in question; much like individual items favour Good, Bad or Excellent attributes in Single or Double Drilling, so too do they favour Soft or Hard treatment in Reverse Drilling.
In this instance, their attribute and your choice of attitude determines how quickly you score points while button-mashing in the Barrage sequences. And, much as in Single and Double Drilling you’re aiming to increase the Good and Bad meters as much as possible by scoring points, here you need to find a balance between Soft and Hard for the highest scores.
All of these sequences are unquestionably highly erotic, but they achieve this without crossing a line into being outright explicit. They’re highly suggestive and extremely unsubtle, yes, but they never actually fully cross that line despite constantly skating perilously close to it!
The fact of the matter is that the game simply can’t do that; although highly sexualised games on PlayStation platforms used to be able to get away with a lot (in Asian territories in particular; Bullet Girls Phantasia only ever got an Asia-English release rather than an official Western localisation), they were still prevented from crossing the line into sexually explicit content. That means no bare breasts with visible nipples, no bare genitals and absolutely no visible penetration whatsoever.
(There are notable exceptions and double standards to these rules, it has to be said; numerous Western-developed titles have been able to get away with bare nipples in particular for a while, with some even showing explicit sexual activity — albeit typically without visible penetration. But this is a subject to explore in more detail another time… as is the matter of Sony’s rather opaque new rules for such content on PlayStation platforms!)
Here’s what’s interesting, though; for my money, I feel Bullet Girls Phantasia would actually lose a certain amount of its eroticism if it crossed that line and became fully explicit. Part of the appeal of the Intensive Drilling scenes is that they provide just enough provocative audio-visual stimulation to get your imagination working and allow you to self-insert into the situation without making things too… “obvious”.
It’s also worthy of note that this style of presentation makes them inherently more inclusive; while during the narrative-critical Drilling sequences it is canonically one of the girls performing the Drilling on another, when simply engaged with for its own sake from the game’s main menu, there are deliberately no identifiable gender signifiers on display, allowing both male and female players to put themselves into the situation and engage with these characters on a very intimate level. This is especially relevant when it comes to Reverse Drilling, which is designed to look and feel like you are having “things” done to you. What a pity there’s no PlayStation VR support!
It also puts some interesting narrative elements back into the mix of the game as a whole. Firstly, it presents a juxtaposition between the main cast having everyday interactions throughout the majority of the main story and their highly sexual interactions with one another during the Drilling sequences. This reflects the fact that everyone has two faces — the one that they present to the world on a daily basis, and the one that they present only to the people they are intimate with, whether that means emotionally or physically intimate.
It can also be seen as another angle on the concepts of honne and tatemae that are frequently explored in Japanese popular media; this describes the difference between the behaviours and opinions one is expected to display in public (tatemae) and one’s real feelings (honne). The two might (and probably do) differ significantly, but in the interest of maintaining societal conventions and norms, they are kept distinct from one another under most circumstances. When in public, you show your tatemae; when among those you trust, out comes your true honne face.
And this brings us neatly to the other narrative aspect: the concept of trust. Trust is absolutely key to BDSM activities; as previously noted, the submissive partners in such scenarios trust that they are the ones with the power to bring the situation to a close if they ever get genuinely uncomfortable with what is unfolding, and the dominant partners, in turn, trust the submissives to enter into the spirit of things fully.
Over the course of Bullet Girls Phantasia, we spend time with a group of lively young women who trust each other implicitly as a result of their shared experiences — and, as the narrative progresses, that core group expands with some ancillary members who come to share in that communal trust. That trust is expressed not only on the battlefield when they’re supporting one another in combat, but also in more intimate scenarios.
Moreover, it’s expressed in the way everyone, despite having their own priorities and attitudes towards things, is accepted by the others. Some are more comfortable with Intensive Drilling than the others; some prefer giving, some prefer receiving. No-one, at any point, is shamed for their own personal proclivities, whether that’s in normal everyday life or in more intimate situations. Indeed, come the main story’s epilogue, some of the characters who had previously been set up as the most “dauntless” in the cast gladly submit to a Double Drilling at the hands of the rather shy wizard Sarria, who finally freely admits that she’s absolutely, totally into being a “top”.
To sum up then, while Bullet Girls Phantasia is highly charged with eroticism, that eroticism is not the sole point of the experience. The narrative component supports the erotic content and fuels the imagination, while the erotic content supports the narrative by allowing the player to engage with the core cast in an unusually intense, intimate and consensual manner. And it does all this without degrading anyone.
Bullet Girls Phantasia is good erotica. It’s thrilling. It’s exciting. It’s extremely stimulating. It’s life-affirming. And I’m certainly going to remember it a lot longer than the last “pondy” I read.
When even was that…?
More about Bullet Girls Phantasia
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