Controversy in a new Baldur’s Gate Expansion …

So, it turns out that a group that has enhanced the old Baldur’s Gate games has also made a DLC expansion for it called Siege of Dragonspear and there’s a little … controversy over it. Supposedly it’s very buggy and has broken multiplayer, but the big issue is over the insertion of “Social Justice” memes into it. Those attacking it claim that it shoehorns them in, while defenders claim that those who are upset are simply upset that anything beyond the standard white male cis tropes were included. I’m going to focus on two main discussion threads: the post where the head of Beamdog asks people to go and give positive reviews of the game — if they enjoyed it — to balance out these purportedly invalid and politically motivated reviews and a summary of it at craveonline.

So, what are the main issues? Despite what the craveonline post claims, it isn’t just that there’s a transsexual character. Minsc also takes a potshot at Gamergate, which isn’t likely to appeal to anyone who isn’t on the strict Gamergate side (it’s kinda like Republican or Democrat jokes; you’re going to offend somebody if you do that, and if you appear to be too harsh or too biased even the moderates will get annoyed). But it is true that the transsexual character is the most talked about issue when people talk about a political agenda being forced on the player. So, there’s a video of the interaction in the craveonline article, which also highlights that people can, in fact, after hearing her story, decide to kill her … but it works as a good summary of the scene. So, what happens?

When you meet this shopkeeper/healer NPC, you can ask about her name, as it seems to be unusual. She comments that she invented it herself and that her birth name proved unsuitable. You can then ask what was wrong with it, and she comments that when she was born, her parents thought she was a boy, but it turned out she wasn’t, and so she chose the name herself with each syllable having personal meaning. You can never judge this in any way, mock her for it, challenge her on it or anything like that; all the player can do is say thank her for sharing her story in seeming approval.

Now, before analyzing this, let me point out that we don’t need to speculate from this scene about whether there’s an agenda here in the writing, as in this interview from Kotaku the writer, Amber Scott, is in fact absolutely clear that there is:

“If there was something for the original Baldur’s Gate that just doesn’t mesh for modern day gamers like the sexism, [we tried to address that],” said writer Amber Scott. “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.”

“I got to write a little tender, romance-y side quest for Khalid and Jaheira where you could learn a little bit about how their marriage works and how they really feel about each other.”

In fact, it turns out that perhaps the biggest impediment to resolving this are the things that Scott herself says about it. Note that in the above quote, she comments that there are a lot of jokes at women’s expense, and then that maybe there were a couple, and then finally that the character development of two characters was lacking. If Scott had simply said that Safana was underdeveloped as a character and the relationship between Khalid and Jaheira was expanded, most people would have at least given it a shot, and probably simply agreed. But casting it as being a reaction to sexism and about jokes at women’s expense is far more debatable; even if Jaheira was the nagging wife, that doesn’t mean that it’s a joke at her expense, rather than using a personality trope to build out the character. Also, her comment that if people don’t like it then that’s too bad is a very aggressive comment that’s bad for two reasons. First, a company really doesn’t want to challenge their customers with an implied “if you don’t like it, don’t buy the game” unless you don’t need customers, because they might just take you up on that. And they might take you up on that without even playing the game for the second reason, which is that Scott here sets us up to think that we won’t like it. I mean, as everyone knows I don’t like Baldur’s Gate in the first place, but Scott insisting that she needs to “fix” characters in it in a way that many people might not like is not in fact going to encourage me to give their version a shot.

And Scott’s reaction to this controversy doesn’t help either. From the craveonline article:

Amber Scott, a writer on the game, responded to these criticisms by saying: “As I’ve said before (and I won’t say much more on this subject other than to get my perspective out there): I’m the writer and creator. I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don’t like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It’s not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the “normal” baseline from which “other” characters must be added, and it’s boring.

“I consciously add as much diversity as I can to my writing and I don’t care if people think that’s “forced” or fake. I find choosing to write from a straight default just as artificial. I’m happy to be an SJW and I hope to write many Social Justice Games in the future that reach as many different types of people as possible. Everyone should get a chance to see themselves reflected in pop culture.”

So, yes, she writes with a specific Social Justice agenda. And she doesn’t care if people think that her writing there is forced or fake. Sure, that could be because she knows that it isn’t, but it could also be that she’s stuffing it all in and if it is forced and fake, well, who cares?

So, let’s look at the scene. Is it forced or fake?

Some — see the threads at Beamdog for examples — argue that because you have to select the right options that it isn’t forced; you can avoid hearing about it if you want to. I find that a specious argument, since in RPGs if you have an option to ask someone about something you do so, because it might lead to a quest or even just important exposition, so everyone, at least the first time through, is pretty much going to select it. The big problem I see with it is that we don’t have any idea how things work wrt transsexuality in Faerun, and this doesn’t in any way help with that. For example, is transsexuality like it is in this world: rare and disapproved of? Then she wouldn’t be that open with characters she just met, especially since you can be, in fact, anything from a religious fanatic to an absolutely evil character. Is it common and/or accepted? Then she wouldn’t bother to mention it; she’d stop at saying that she invented the name herself. After all, people don’t generally declare that they’re heterosexual; we tend to only mention it if people would find it strange or we want people to act differently based on that, which she absolutely doesn’t want. This is made worse by the fact that no matter what class you are or what your personality is, you can’t express any disapproval of it. You can’t be an evil character and mock her for it, or disapprove of it. You can’t be Lawful or religious or anything like that and find it unnatural. All you can do is thank her for sharing the story and move on.

What this suggests to me is an attempt to shoehorn in transsexuality but to not actually do anything with it. It’s not an important part of the interactions with the character. It doesn’t reveal anything interesting about the world. Heck, it doesn’t even reveal anything interesting about the character. There’s no follow-up and nothing changes. It’s really an attempt to say “Hey, transsexual here!” without examining any of the issues with it, without showing their struggles — or allowing for any kind of struggle at all — or making it at all relevant to your relationship to that character. That’s fake, forced … and pointless.

So, some in the Beamdog thread commented that if the problem was the writing and not the mere existence of transsexuals, then the critics ought to have some suggestions for how it could be done better, which they don’t do. That’s a pretty specious argument — along the lines of “If you don’t like it, write your own game!” — but, hey, I’m willing to oblige.

This NPC is, as far as I can tell, a shopkeeper, meaning that you’ll visit them a number of times. After you’ve had a certain number of interactions or spend a certain amount of money, you get a short cutscene when you return to her where a customer is leaving and uses a name that’s different than the one she gave you, which seems to annoy her, but the customer doesn’t care. You can then ask why the customer called her that other name. She can then comment — and it would be better if you have to ask about it a few times, and not that she merely infodumps it on you — that that was her birth name, but that she changed it because it was a boy’s name and she discovered that she was a girl. Then, you can have, in my opinion, at least the following reactions:

1) Thanks for being comfortable enough with me to tell me that.
2) That customer is such a jerk!
3) You’re an abomination (means that you can’t shop with her anymore).
4) Call her by her birth name (ie be a jerk yourself).
5) (For some humour) You realize that your original name was gender-neutral? (Which annoys her but doesn’t cause her to not want to sell to you anymore).

This is better because it comes after some time is spent with the character, and has a trigger so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It lets you react to it the way your character would, and doesn’t force you to accept it (a character could say 2) even if they don’t really accept the idea of transsexuality, on the basis that calling someone a name that they’ve abandoned just to mock them isn’t a nice thing to do). Much less fake, much less forced … and something that SJWs don’t dare do because they can’t stand the idea that someone might, you know, ever act contrary to Social Justice principles in a game, which would be terrible, so they remove those options because leaving them in would be wrong, you know.

At any rate, given her interviews and what I’ve seen of her work, I don’t have much confidence in Amber Scott’s writing ability or her ability to reasonably depict the Social Justice issues that she wants to depict in a way that both does them justice and preserves the freedom of choice that is so important to RPGs. Even if I liked Baldur’s Gate, this wouldn’t make me feel confident about these remakes, or about what will happen if Beamdog gets the changes to make Baldur’s Gate 3, which is what this DLC is an audition for. And the impact on BG3 is one of the main reasons so many gamers are so upset over this. And Beamdog’s reaction, from top to bottom, has not been good.

It does not bode well.

Note: There’s a longer description of the writing here.

UPDATE: Trent Oster, CEO of Beamdog, has made a formal reply here. The Minsc line is being removed, he says they should have developed Mizhena more, and he wants the harassment to stop.

5 Responses to “Controversy in a new Baldur’s Gate Expansion …”

  1. Elsinore and Power Gaming and Tragedy | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] Even someone who is interested in these differing stories might get annoyed if they have to hear the story of a character’s unique transgender name over and over and over […]

  2. r4nneko Says:

    I have to say that anything that describes something as forced when it occurs during an interaction that occurs 3 levels deep into a conversation with a shopkeeper NPC who has no real plot importance is definitely overstating the problem. This kind of interaction happens well after the point at which you will have evaluated how “useful” the NPC is.

    I especially disagree with:

    Is it common and/or accepted? Then she wouldn’t bother to mention it; she’d stop at saying that she invented the name herself. After all, people don’t generally declare that they’re heterosexual; we tend to only mention it if people would find it strange or we want people to act differently based on that, which she absolutely doesn’t want.

    Changing ones name is pretty uncommon, and generally people do give explanations for that, Leaving it as “I made up the name” would feel pretty incomplete, “I made up a new name because the old one was unsuitable” is still fairly incomplete, it still invites the next part, why the name was unsuitable. It in effect does say something about the word, that transgender people do exist, but that, at least in the area they live in, there isn’t anything too major regarding it, it is something that can be dropped as a detail about a character.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think I might have been unclear about my usage of “forced” here. I agree that the conversation is TECHNICALLY optional, so if people use “forced” to imply that you will always have to read this every time through then that’s wrong. However, I also find the implication that everyone could have easily just skipped it and so NEVER seen it wrong as well, because this is a Bioware-style RPG and in one of those you always read EVERY option, because it might lead to XP or a quest or something. So unless they are forewarned, EVERY player is going to read this at least once, and the designers HAD to know that.

      But my latter usage of “forced” is aimed more at it being artificial than it is at it being mandatory. And to me it still comes across as artificial. I’ll concede that if this is common then she MIGHT still have mentioned it … but the more natural response would be to say that she didn’t feel her original name fit her, and so she invented a meaningful one for herself, which is actually the part of the story that would most interest a player. Note that while she says that each syllable has particular meaning, you never get a chance to ASK what those meanings are, despite the fact that the chain starts from commenting on her name being unusual. So, again, it’s really looking, to me, like the commentary is shoehorned in.

      Also, the really big issue is that you can’t respond in any way other than “Thanks for telling me” or “I have to go”, which is why I tried to make it better the way I did. I’m interested in hearing what you think of my solution. Regardless, I still feel that this is a “checkbox” attempt: have a character be trans, mention it in a way that comes mostly out of nowhere, has no impact to the story, and that the character can’t react to in any way other than the approved fashion. That pretty much hits my notion of “Badly written political statement”.

  3. Melfina the Blue (@MelfinatheBlue) Says:

    Is she transgender or intersexed? Because intersexed children are actually not that uncommon (1 in 100 is the stat I know but that may be outdated) and I wouldn’t be surprised if the parents said “okay, kinda looks more like a boy, so boy,” and then she hit puberty and nope, girl, especially since modern medicine guesses wrong sometimes with intersexed kids too (but at least we’re moving past default=female because it’s easier to make a vagina).
    Just curious, really…

    • verbosestoic Says:

      My impression is that the writer was aiming at transgender. That’s what everyone was talking about, and the writer didn’t correct that despite responding to the controversy. Additionally, the writer flat-out says that she’s trying to insert Social Justice issues in her work, and right now trans issues are popular and intersex issues aren’t. So it seems reasonable to assume that she was aiming at trans, here.

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