If you’re at all interested in games or involved in the gaming community in some way, you’ll probably know that the inclusion of an LGBT character is a very hot button topic.
There’s currently a bit of controversy going on right now, regarding the Siege of Dragonspear expansion for Baldurs Gate: Enhanced Edition. The controversy is mostly centred around a transgender character by the name of Mizhena, although there is also criticism of a gay character as well.
Here’s where things start to get complex. If you take a look at the Steam page for the expansion, you will see that there a large collection of negative reviews about the inclusion of these characters. Not all of the negative reviews are about this, mind; however a fair chunk of them are.
Naturally, this has led several websites to push a message of people lambasting the game, and harassing the writers and developers of this game, because of “pandering”, “LGBT tokenism” and an “SJW agenda”. Sadly, there are some who are doing this and the harassment of the writer Amber Scott is unfortunately very real.
However, there is more than meets the eye here. The writer in question spoke with Kotaku about the making of the expansion, where Amber discussed development and how she made changes from the original (which released in 1998).
“In the original there’s a lot of jokes at women’s expense. Or if not a lot, there’s a couple, like Safana was just a sex object in BG 1, and Jaheira was the nagging wife and that was played for comedy. We were able to say, ‘No, that’s not really the kind of story we want to make.’ In Siege of Dragonspear, Safana gets her own little storyline, she got a way better personality upgrade. If people don’t like that, then too bad.”
Naturally, this is nothing short of poking the bear, and has undoubtedly provoked some of the negative reviews. The reaction has not just been to the transgender character, some fans of the original game are also not best pleased about characters having their core personality changed.
However, underneath the complains about “tokenism” and “pandering” are legitimate complaints around how the character was written, and how she was very badly executed as a character.
One post on the Beamdog (the developers of the game) forums from a transgender woman reads: “I just wanted to give my feelings on the inclusion of this character from the perspective of someone who is trans. [….] Mizhena is a cheap, lazy, ‘safe’ character who is included for the sole purpose of having a transgender character in the game. Let me just say that as a transsexual I would never, EVER introduce myself to someone by telling them that I am a transsexual.”
“Being trans is not fun. People are mean and cruel to you. You are mean and cruel to yourself. I do not do the things I do because I want to be a transsexual, I do them because I want to be a woman. I want to blend in as a girl as a best I can, the last thing I would EVER do is draw attention to myself for being trans (except for this thread of course, har har).”
“[….]The way your character converses with Mizhena is almost totally different than it is for everyone else in the game. You can be rude, mean, funny, or just throw a witty retort or remark to almost everyone in the game over the smallest thing, but even an evil blackguard who murders everyone in sight can only say ‘What a lovely name, tell me more’, ‘How interesting’ or ‘Good day to you’.”
“I understand that it would be politically incorrect to be rude or insult a transgender character for being trans, but to me all that does is highlight that being trans is different. The trans character is not on the same level as every other character, who can ‘take’ abuse from you. The trans character has to be protected from this because they’re different. The way the trans character is implemented doesn’t make me feel like “I’m just like everyone else” as I imagine the writer intended, it just makes me feel more like a freak or novelty. It’s unrealistic.”
Another post on Reddit reads: “She [Amber Scott] shoehorned in a gay male couple, and also a transgender NPC and her lesbian wife. The thing that completely saves it was she is so mind meltingly bad at writing that she doesn’t actually remember to get these plot elements involved in any way. She wrote a shit ton of back story for the NPCs, then never gives you any clue how your supposed to introduce it or why it even matters. I was so goddamned angry, and not because of the forced diversity.”
“It’s because she introduced these characters exclusively because she want to force people to deal with them and get in their headspace, and then she gave /NO INFORMATION/ on how to play them. One of the most difficult aspects in DMing a game is understanding characters motivations and why they act the way they do. In the most charitable interpretation, she wrote these damned tokenist characters then expected me to know how they think because they’re something she throws into all her adventures. In the least, she just wanted to make sh**lords uncomfortable.”
There was also this lengthy post written on Steam.
So as you can see, the situation is absolutely a hot mess. There is undoubtedly harassment happening, not only of Amber Scott, but of Beamdog as a company, and a decent chunk of the negative reviews on Steam are undoubtedly from people upset about the inclusion of a transgender character. However, mixed in with all that you also have legitimate complaints about how Mizhena is written. The complaints are, sadly, not restricted to her dialogue. As mentioned in the first post I linked above, one of the issues is that you can’t be rude/mean to Mizhena, unlike the way you can with every other character in the game.
I have yet to play the game myself, but after a fair amount of research, I sadly have to agree that the writing of this character is very poor indeed. We have, of course, had gay characters, trans characters and all sorts in games before. There is not always a huge controversy about them (although there is sometimes), but here we have a huge controversy because we have the petty complaints of “Waaaa, I don’t like this trans character being included!” being mixed in with the complaints over the poor execution.
That is what makes this situation so complicated, and it is undoubtedly one of the reasons why people are overreacting to the situation. This whole thing has definitely been blown way out of proportion, which is partly the fault of the developers themselves. They certainly did not help things when they asked for positive reviews to counteract the negative ones.
Inclusion and diversity is definitely an issue in gaming, but it’s one that needs to be tackled with tact and care. What we don’t need is characters holding up neon signs saying “HEY, I’M GAY/TRANS/ETC”, with poorly written dialogue. The writer’s intentions were probably good, but her hamfisted approach, with the very much tacked on and forced inclusion of this trans character, has only backfired.
Personally, as I mentioned before, I think how large this controversy has gotten is a little ridiculous and it has definitely gotten way out of proportion. Here’s hoping the flames die down quickly, or this could have a real negative impact on any good attempts at transgender or general LGBT inclusion in games in the future.