(Before we get to the actual interview, let me do a quick bit of set-up and opinion-stating. If you’re impatient, then go ahead and scroll down to the interview proper—just promise me you’ll come back up here to read this part afterward!)
You may or may not be familiar with the character of Posion. Little more than one of many enemies crafted for Capcom’s beat-em-up Final Fight—and mirror image of her partner in crime Roxy—typically she would have come and gone with not much thought or consideration given to her by the average gamer. Well, other than, of course, the fact that she was the enemy who—if you attacked her and paused the game at just the right moment—would give you a scandalous look at the underside of her breasts as her much-too-short shirt flew up.
However—and while the exacts of the decision are still a little hazy—before Final Fight was released in the West, Capcom decided that players outside of their home territory wouldn’t take too kindly to beating up a girl. So, a decision was made: The character of Poison would now be considered transgender. Though the logic seems rather unfortunate, it’s said that the idea was that punching a woman wouldn’t be acceptable, but punch a woman who used to be a man would be.
Now 20 some odd years later, Poison has grown into this fascinating and divisive piece of the world of video gaming, and the character has grown in popularity and notoriety far beyond anything Capcom could have ever imagined. A battle over Poison’s classification still rages between two camps: Those that see the character as being transgender, and who want others to accept that fact, and those that argue that the change made to Poison was ridiculous and that she is, and always will be, 100% woman.
I’ve long had a deep interest in the question of equality when it comes to video games, and how it seems that so many titles still feel so awkward when it comes to knowing how to deal with characters who aren’t white, male, and heterosexual. Poison, more so than almost any other gaming-related character I can think of, stands as a perfect example of this issue. Almost as a mirror of real-world events, discussions and arguments over gay and lesbian characters in video games—and how they are presented—is a hot topic currently. And yet—also much like real life—those same discussions unfortunately occur less when it comes to the transgender issue, but when they do, they can be far more divisive and taboo.
My opinion on the topic is simple: with so many female video game characters out there for male fans to fawn over, the character of Poison should be allowed to exist in the role she’s now found herself in—that as a symbol for a segment of people who are given so little positive representation in video gaming. The argument of her origins, and staying “true” to the character, are a valid one—but an argument lessened by the fact that so much character ret-conning goes on in gaming, including Capcom’s own Street Fighter character of Birdie. (You know, the British punk who was white until the release of Street Fighter Alpha, when suddenly he was black.) What she was twenty years ago is no longer important; it’s what she can be now that is.
As interesting as this conversation is, there’s been so little actual discussion about it with Capcom out there by the media beyond questions such as, “So… is she a dude or a chick?” At Tokyo Game Show 2011, I had the chance to sit down with Street Fighter IV and Street Fighter X Tekken producer Yoshinori Ono, a man who has (probably unwillingly) found himself smack in the middle of the fan community’s opinions on all things Poison. With her first major game inclusion now set to happen with the announcement that she’ll be part of the SFxT cast, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to delve deeper into the topic of Poison with Ono-san.
So, I present to you that full conversation between myself and Yoshinori Ono. After reading the interview, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic, no matter which side you stand on. Should Poison be allowed to be a proud symbol of the transgender community? Is it more important to honor who the character actually was at the beginning, versus what she is now? Even beyond that, do you feel that topics like this should be touched upon in video games, or is there no place for this discussion in gaming? Please join the discussion by posting your opinions below. If you feel especially passionate one way or another on the topic, I’ll no doubt also be having this conversation over on Twitter.
Finally, of course, thanks go out to Yoshinori Ono for his time and willingness to converse about Poison.
So, instead of just coming in here and asking the same kinds of questions as everybody else in regards to Street Fighter X Tekken, there was another subject that I wanted to talk to you about if you don’t mind.
Yoshinori Ono: Sure, absolutely.
I’d like to talk to you about Poison.
This whole big conversation now exists about Poison, a character who, really, was little more than an insignificant enemy character in her original appearance. Then, over the years since Final Fight first appeared, she’s taken on this huge life of her own, especially among the online community. How do you feel about now being in the middle of the discussion on who she really is? Do you enjoy the topic, or have all of the questions come to annoy you?
Well, as you said, it’s a character that has been around for a while, and initially—as you probably know—the initial intent for Final Fight was that she was just a regular woman. Over the next 20 years, there’s been some changes, and Capcom’s official stance has and will continue to be that we don’t have a stance technically. It’s supposed to be mysterious; if people want to talk about it on forums or what not they’re welcome to, but we’re not going to give you a straight answer because, well, there isn’t one. We deliberately want to make it a mysterious thing—that question of what’s at the core of this character. At the end of the day, we don’t have an actual canonical answer to that.
It’s interesting, because it almost takes on a sort of Rorschach test. If you go into it with the pre-conceived notion that she’s a woman, the way she talks, the way she moves, you’ll see all of that as being very feminine. If you go in with the pre-conceived notion that she’s not, her actions and mannerisms will seem the other way to you. So, it’s very open-ended.
From my point of view, I’m very happy to have fans continue to discuss that, but once again we’re not going to give an official answer. We’re happy to leave that open and up to individual fans.
The problem with that situation is that, no matter what Capcom intended for Poison to be at the beginning, she has become this character that many see as transgender. For the transgender community, there are very few characters in videogames that they can look up to. If such characters do appear in games, often times they’re used only as comedy relief, or only exist to play jokes off of.
On the other hand, no matter if she’s the perfect character for the role or not, the trans community often sees Poison as a strong character and someone they can feel proud to call their own. As much as I can respect Capcom’s hesitation to get into the discussion of her being trans, the company has gotten into that discussion. Do you think there’s any responsibility on Capcom’s part to make a decision? If Capcom makes the statement that Poison is whatever each individual wants her to be, it’s very easy to ignore the important discussion that come up because of what she has become.
I absolutely get what you’re saying, and I understand that there’s not a lot of transgender or transsexual characters in games at all. Certainly, I can see the need for that community to have a character to look up to in a game like this. At the same time, there’s a lot of Poison fans that see her as a standard woman, and want her to be a woman, so by our stance of not giving a canonical answer, I think—at least, it’s my intent—that we’re trying to please both groups. We’re trying to have our cake, and eat it too basically.
We want both groups of fans to be satisfied in seeing the character the way they want to see her. I think we have a responsibility to support both sides; we can’t give you a 100% answer. I can give you, maybe, an 85% answer. [laughs] You’re more than welcome to look at it either way. As you say, it’s kind of a pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into on accident, so it’s a very complicated issue. You do raise a good point, however, and I’m very proud and happy that people can see this character as their representative in the game world, due to there not being a lot of characters like that.
In talking to members of the trans community who have an investment or general interest in the character of Poison, one major concern I’ve heard has come from some of the videos shown for Street Fighter X Tekken in regards to win quotes. For example, in one video that was shown, both Ryu and Chun-Li made statements toward Poison regarding her not being a “real” woman in one way or another.
Capcom rep: Can I jump in really quick on this one? Those win quotes came from an earlier point in the game’s development, and while we haven’t publicized it too much, we’re actually working very closely with GLAAD. We’re very sensitive as far as not wanting to alienate anybody as Ono-san said, so we’re trying to be careful in that regard. It’s been an education process for us, but we do want people to know that we’re now working with GLAAD to make sure that anything that might be offensive has been very tailored to not be.
Ah—I’m really glad to hear that.
At the end of the day, in the entertainment industry, you can’t go about willy-nilly and not be sensitive to these sort of things. Our goal here is to make sure we’re caring for all of our audience members, and make sure we’re not stepping on any toes. We want to make sure that the Poison fans out there—no matter which way they see her—are satisfied that the character is being portrayed in a way that suits their idea of the character, but also in a way that isn’t insensitive or demeaning in any way. So, we do take our responsibility in matters like this very seriously, and want to make sure we’re as inclusive as possible.
The thing about fighting games that’s kind of unique—compared to other genres—is that, more than any other kind of game, it’s all about the characters. We’re closing in on the 25th anniversary of Street Fighter, so we have characters like Guile—who have been around for almost 23 years thanks to Street Fighter II—who have been out there for so long, who have fans from all over the world who love him, and the same with characters like King from the Tekken series, who has been around for like 16 years. People have been following and enjoying these characters for so long, so we have to treat them with the utmost respect, and keep in mind what their fans are expecting from them.
Part of our job, of course, is to design a fighting game that’s fun and balanced, yet another equally important part is to make sure that these characters are being treated properly, because of how beloved they are throughout the world.
I think part of that with Poison is that—even though she’s been around for so long—technically she’s still such a new character due to not having had much actual in-game development.
That’s one of the reasons Poison’s fanbase is so interesting. Speaking of that, the online community—especially on Twitter—was very vocal in asking you for Poison. Did that outcry from the community have any influence on Capcom’s decision to include her as a character in Street Fighter X Tekken?
It’s a little bit of both. The online community helped to push us over the edge, but Poison had actually been in consideration for the line-up since the days of Street Fighter IV.
So, she was always under consideration and on our short list, and when we announced Street Fighter X Tekken and people started getting really vocal as far as wanting her in there, that was the encouragement we needed to go ahead and push ourselves into that direction. So, she’d been considered from an early stage, and when we saw the online community, Twitter followers, and fans in general asking for her, we decided it was time to include her. It was one of those situations where the planets aligned just right, and it was a good chance for us to do it. So, it wasn’t just the online community—as we’d already been thinking about it—but they certainly helped re-enforce that we were making the right decision.
On the Tekken side as well, almost the entire line-up is partially that. [laughs] We had the entire list of characters, and people were making their voices very clear, so it was easy for us to whittle that list down and decide who was going to make it in.
My last question—and this might be a strange one—comes as a demand from another of her fans. Poison, currently, has no bangs.
Could you give her bangs? [laughs] Why does she not have bangs?
I actually didn’t even notice the difference and that her bangs were missing until people started talking about it on Twitter. I took that information over to the person in charge of her character model, and was like, “Did you change this?” He said that he did, but he’s still not technically finished; every build, she looks slightly different because he really likes the character and wants her to look perfect.
So, until he’s satisfied with her character model, her look will probably continue to change—which, of course, has just lead to people on Twitter saying to hurry up and make a decision. [laughs] Their ire has kind of shifted gears a bit and is coming from a different angle, but I don’t think we’re going to have a final design still for a while yet. The designer is a very persnickety and fastidious designer, so until he’s perfectly satisfied, there’s still some room to change. She could end up with bangs, she might not.
With more iconic characters that have been around for a long time and that have been in a lot of games like Chun-Li or Nina, their design has already been firmed up and everybody knows exactly what they look like on any given platform or in any given engine. Poison—and you referenced this earlier—it’s almost kind of her first official time in a game, even thought she’s been in other games. It’s certainly her first time in HD. It’s almost like we’re starting from scratch. And, of course, fighting games have their own unique challenges—she needs to look good from the left, she needs to look good from the right. So, we’re definitely putting a lot of thought into what she should look like, but once again it’s an interesting challenge as she doesn’t have that same long history and pedigree of being in a lot of games up to this point like many of the other characters do.
[pointing at the Guile poster near us]
We went through the same thing with Guile when we first released early revs of Street Fighter IV. People thought his hair was too short, but if we go too long he’ll look just like Paul from Tekken, and we went through this whole thing. [laughs] All of the characters have to go through this to a degree, but she’s a special case as again she hasn’t been in as many games as the other characters, and we don’t have as much reference to go by.
Then, before I leave, since everybody is always telling you on Twitter or wherever else what they want from you and Capcom… I want Capcom vs. SNK 3.
Ahhhh. [laughs] I wasn’t necessarily sold on that idea until I played The King of Fighters XIII. I’m actually really impressed with it, and think they did a great job with it. So, you know, I’m open to the idea, at least more than I was before.