We live in interesting times for CRPGs and the people who love them.
On the one hand, the teenage years of the new millennium have seen something of an exciting renaissance in ‘old school’ CRPGs. A generation came of age who had played through the classics of the 90s – chief among them being the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons-based Infinity Engine games: The Baldur's Gate series, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment.
The talent involved in making these games split up and moved on to their own ventures. Years later, when they were ready to tell new stories, they found an audience that had grown older but remained steadfast in their love of these classic games, with the most dedicated putting a lot of effort into fan work and mods.
Crucially, a lot of these fans were willing to put their money on the line for the kind of games they wanted. 2015-2016 saw Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin, Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear ride in triumphantly on a wave of Kickstarter money.
In 2012-2013, Beamdog released enhanced remakes of Baldur's Gate and its sequel Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn. Beamdog overhauled the classic games but their goal was more than just antiquarianism. They tested the waters with new content – characters, enemies and quests optional to the main story.
On 31 March 2016, Beamdog realised their creative ambitions by releasing Siege of Dragonspear, an interquel intended to bridge the narrative gap between previous installments. I was pleased to see some modern elements – more reactivity to player character choices, smarter tactics from enemies, and epic battles – incorporated into the 17 year old engine. They had managed to re-invigorate the body of a classic game and stay true to its heart.
Soon after release, discussion of gameplay was drowned out by a barrage of rage, focused on two things: popular character Minsc's rare selection line ‘Actually, it’s about ethics in heroic adventuring’, and Mizhena, a minor NPC who can mention to the protagonist that she was raised as a boy. The first mocks Gamergate, the infamous reactionary group known for its harassment of women, and supporters of the movement mobilized swiftly to denounce Mizhena as ‘political correctness’, ‘LGBT tokenism’ and ‘SJW agenda’ shoved down their throats.
The mob bombarded the game with negative reviews and the official forums were swamped with new users fixated on hating a transgender character. For existing. For mentioning this aspect of herself in a couple of throwaway sentences that many players probably clicked through in a second in their haste to buy a healing spell.
I won’t bore you with the fine details of the arguments that I witnessed over ‘Baldur’sGateGate’. Many boiled down to that a transgender person is a phenomenon of modern life and has no place in a ‘medieval’ game setting, showing fundamental ignorance of both history and Dungeons and Dragons. Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms setting used by the video games, even stepped in to defend Amber Scott, the writer responsible for Mizhena. And of course, Amber herself was personally harassed.
What I saw in the ‘anti-SJW’ rants was a profound sense of entitlement that laid claim to video games as the preserve of a certain subset of straight white males. For this minset, the exclusion of other types of people from the narrative isn’t a bug, it's a feature – a safe space where their prejudices go unchallenged by 'real life'.
Is Sexy a Sin?
A couple of recent RPGs also made some changes in response to criticism from fans from the other side of the culture wars. For example, Larian studios changed the armor of the female PC model in Divinity: Original Sin promo art, going from a cheesecake metal bikini to an armor set that actually looks like it might provide some protection.
This was a response by Larian to female followers in the games industry, and well as concerns from their own backers, but according to detractors, they succumbed to pressure from politically correct 'social justice warriors' out to spoil people's fun. Even with addition of actual armor in the outfit, it's hard to argue that the woman in the picture isn't still heavily sexualized.
Still, there's got to be a line somewhere between a sexy stylization and being gratuitously stripperiffic. Where a game's art style falls along that line is going to be a factor in how people perceive it. I think that sexy does have a place in gaming (and real life) and it's not a bad thing. But if it's shown from too narrow a perspective, you risk alienating a lot of potential players.
Larian's community forums had few individuals condemning the costumes outright, but there were suggestions the player have more options or control over whether to present themselves as sexy or not. Perhaps tellingly, developer Sven Vincke wondered aloud in his blog why his games could be struggling to capture more women in its audience.
Pillars of Controversy
Obsidian's Pillars of Eternity is a fantastic RPG that stands out in its attempt to depict a gritty, 'mature' world, as opposed to Divinity: Original Sin's more irreverent setting. Still, the game featured several humorous messages and in-jokes placed there by Kickstarter backers that helped fund the game.
One of them had a transphobic rhyme that upset a trans player when they discovered it (just for clarity, not Brianna Wu). A wave of outrage from sympathizers reached Obsidian, whom sensitive to the fact that they had promised the backer the right to place their content in the game, contacted their backer and worked with him to amend the poem in a way that removed the transphobic elements while cheekily poking fun at the controversy.
It's worth noting that Pillars of Eternity actually does play with some complexities of gender identity in its fantasy world. One character, Aloth, literally has a female soul inhabiting his body, the persona of which attracts the admiration of Eder, another male character.
But with this gender ambiguity firmly grounded in the fantastic, Aloth did not attract similar criticism to Mizhena, who more resembled a 'realistic' trans individual and thus (dare I say it) 'triggered' those who'd rather not accept trans people in this world or any others.
Three RPGs, three controversies. All to do with representation of people who are marginalized or disadvantaged in real life. Now, anyone who has spent some time online, specially in comment sections or public forums, will see people viciously tear each other apart at the slightest provocation, or simply for the sheer fun of provoking outrage.
In any heated controversy, is it safe to say that a reasonable position lies somewhere in the middle? One has to be careful about falling into the classic fallacy of the false middle. But on balance, it's hard to give the same legitimacy to everyone involved.
On one hand you had people who are so outraged at the mere inclusion of a trans character in a video game that they resort to review bombing and harassment, even though no one was harmed but their own prejudices.
On the other, there are real social problems, backed up with scientific data, that women and trans people have to deal with because of over-sexualization and violence. Video games don't cause these problems, but people who are aware of these issues play video games and don't necessarily want to sit by as harmful stereotypes are lazily perpetuated, just because it's according to tradition. They have a right to protest, and somehow managed to do it without resorting to mass threats and dishonest reviewing.
Extra Lives Matter
CRPGs are significant because of the level of the unusual depth found in its characters. You can be someone else, explore questions of identity and social issues while slaying monsters and figuring out which combination of armor gives you the best electricity resistance. For some individuals, RPGs were their first outlet to express themselves as a certain gender before they were confident enough to do it in the real world.
Real gamers can be of any race, gender or sexuality. I've met and gotten to know all kinds. We might have different political beliefs about a whole range of issues, but we all want to play games, we want them to be good, and fun. But gamers from some backgrounds are going to face more difficulty enjoying games than others.
It's easy to see how this can be the case by just applying your own situation to the controversies mentioned earlier. For example, I'm a cisgender heterosexual male. I wouldn't be too comfortable if there was only one cis het male in a story and there was a vicious campaign to remove the character or sink the game because people didn't think Mr. Cis Het Male should exist in games at all. I wouldn't like it if in the majority of games, when I wanted to play as a guy, all the outfits were designed to be revealing and appealing to women or gay guys, instead of looking cool, powerful, or having narrative purpose. Likewise, I wouldn't be too happy with a game which has its only reference to cis het males saying that having sex with one is so disgusting that women would need to be tricked into it, and would kill themselves out of shame if they found out.
That's a pretty bitter pill to swallow, even if you suck it up and do your best to enjoy the rest of the game anyway. Because I respect that people different from me should be able to enjoy the game without being shat on for their race, gender, or sexuality. I support discussion about these issues, and raising these concerns to the developers too. Community and fandom are important to gaming culture, and a good community has to be able to engage in criticism.
Fantasy and Reality
Criticism from reactionaries or progressives is nothing unusual or unique to the industry. The examples above are just taken from a selection of games that I personally played (and loved) recently. It's not limited to RPGs or even video games. Fans of sci-fi and fantasy literature might recall the recent controversies over the Hugo Awards, when reactionary writers and readers formed the 'Sad Puppies' and 'Rabid Puppies' pressure groups with the agenda of promoting right wing authors and protesting science fiction that addressed race and gender issues. Or in film, the uproar over the diverse cast of Star Wars, or the existence of an all-female Ghostbusters movie.
And of course, there's more at stake here than just our favorite media and fiction. The fantasy battlegrounds are proxies for very real conflict in our society. There's significant overlap, particularly when it comes to their 'intellectual' leaders, in the Venn diagram between Gamergaters, Sad/Rabid Puppies, online misogynists and political bogeyman of the summer, the 'Alt-Right'. Art imitates life, and vice versa. Once, such as thing as a gay romance in a video game would have been unthinkable. Now, it's merely controversial. The line between what's acceptable and what isn't has moved, in fiction just like in society. Video games won't save the world, but for passionate gamers, they're a big part of our lives, and worth fighting for.
Criticism is all well and good, whatever the ideological background. What worries me is that when criticism becomes violence, harassment, review bombing and so on, it can unfairly hurt and intimidate fans and creators who have value to gaming as an art form and a community.
Fantastic worlds are created to explore possibilities, and young writers with stories to tell are up against a toxic element in fandom that wants to police the imagination. Creators should not be discouraged by the fact that not everybody will like what they make, but the prospect of intimidation for political reasons can make vulnerable individuals think twice about speaking their minds.
What we've got there isn't a creator incorporating constructive criticism, it's censorship by angry mob, even if it's the knock-on effect of self-censorship through fear of harm.
If there is a culture of fear, creativity will suffer
Many old school CRPGs are also reliant on crowdfunding and keep close ties between the developers and the fandom. In the case of Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, Beamdog responded to the backlash by removing their Gamergate reference but otherwise to their credit stuck by their writers. Obsidian amended the offending message in Pillars of Eternity with the help and permission of the backer who wrote it, but what if he had refused? These difficulties have not gone unnoticed by other studios which are going to be wary of losing revenue by tackling any remotely controversial subject matter.
This year and the next and bringing a new wave of old school CRPGs for me to look forward to. Wasteland 2, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Tyranny, and Torment: Tides of Numenera are all on my shopping list. I'm also hopeful for them being well received and enjoyed by gamers of all backgrounds, and also great pieces of work that the writers and developers involved can be proud of.
I do also wonder what everyone's taken away from the controversies of the last batch of releases. Here's what I have:
We all need to do our part to make gaming culture less hostile, or the quality of games themselves will suffer.
- Respect people different from you - gamers come from different walks of life, and you all want a good game. If someone's got a problem, try and put yourself in their shoes and listen to their perspective. If you disagree, then disagree, but they're opinion isn't worth less than yours because they're in a minority.
- Respect the creators - This doesn't mean not criticizing. Tell them what you think, don't automatically assume they have bad intentions, explain why you're complaining. If they take your criticism on board, great. If they don't, it's still out there and part of the debate. Hold your head high.
- Condemn people that engage in doxxing, dishonest review spamming, and personal harassment and threats - even if they're on your side of the debate. If you have to cheat to win, you might get what you want, but you lose the argument (and you don't get the achievement trophy).
When writers of future games are crafting their techno-sorcerers and lizard shamans, they’re also going to have to consider their fantasy world’s stance on such radical ideas as trans individuals not automatically being objects of disgust, and be aware that there’s a dragon out there in the real world ready to burn them for daring to express it.
It’s a peril that can be faced down if writers, fans, consumers, developers and industry reps stand together against it. The alternative is worthy of fantasy ‘bad ending’ itself – thousands of potential imaginary worlds held in eternal stasis, oppressed into conformity to an ancient, decaying hierarchy.