Debunking the Absurdity of the Transphobic Baldur’s Gate Controversy
Yesterday I posted a piece on how gamers had flooded the user reviews section of Steam, GOG and Metacritic with negative scores for Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. The new game, which is an expansion to the original Baldur’s Gate from 1998, only has two reviews from publications at the time of this writing, with both GamesBeat and PCWorld rating it favorably. However, looking at the user reviews tells a completely different story, but one that says more about its amateur critics than it does the game itself.
Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear currently has a 2.5 user rating on GOG Galaxy, a 3.7 rating on Metacritic and Mixed reviews on Steam, which has jumped down from its previous Mostly Positive average rating within the past 24 hours. Unlike GOG and Metacritic, Steam actually requires reviewers to own the game before posting their opinions, which is arguably the reasoning behind its slower decline. The vast majority of these reviews cite the game’s writing as being the reasoning behind users slapping it with a 0/10, but performing only the slightest scratch beneath the surface reveals that the inclusion of a transgender character is where the real issue for these people arises.
Siege of Dragonspear introduces players to Mizhena, a cleric NPC who, if the player follows one specific dialogue tree, will explain the origins behind her “unusual” name. The four sentences in which she briefly references her transition are the basis behind this uproar, though one of the assertions among detractors of the game are that this isn’t really about them being transphobic, but rather it concerns writers forcing their political agendas into video games. So without further ado, let’s set about debunking the various excuses behind this absurd controversy:
“The writer has shoehorned her political agenda into the game!”
Amber Scott, the writer for Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, responded to the criticisms that have been lobbed in her direction with the following comment on the game’s forums: “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.”
She continued: “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.”
This statement has been used as evidence that Scott is forcing her political views into the game, with the insinuation being that a writer should abstain from actually inserting any of themselves or their own opinions into their work, instead merely replicating the opinions of the hivemind. I guess you could say that her detractors wanted to her to create an objective script. Ho ho.
Her line that she doesn’t care “if people think that’s “forced” or fake” has also been used to insinuate that she admitted her writing is forced and fake, which suggests that those criticizing her believe a writer would actually say “yeah, I don’t believe any of the shit I write, I just force it all in there for brownie points” of her own work. The more reasonable conclusion, of course, is that this was a post on a forum thread from August 2015 discussing the inclusion of LGBT characters in games, in which another user had said they “hated political correctness” and that developers shouldn’t make a “Social Justice Game” just for the sake of it. Scott was directly responding to this comment, and not admitting that she “forced” diverse characters into her games with a complete disregard for how they were implemented, as has been suggested.
At the time of this writing no further evidence of Scott “shoehorning” her political agenda into the game has been given outside of the appearance of Mizhena, with this therefore suggesting that her critics believe that the mere inclusion of a trans character is a political statement. I imagine these same people believe that Gears of Wars‘ inclusion of muscular dudes was a political statement championing being super straight and working on your lats, too.
“There’s already a girdle that can change the character’s gender!”
Here’s an excuse that keeps popping up, which directly invokes the Baldur’s Gate lore in order to divert attention away from this being a controversy rooted in transphobia. The Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity can be used in the original game in order to change a character from a male to a female, or a female to a male. Many have argued that Scott’s inclusion of a trans character who has not opted to go this route is evidence of her lack of knowledge of the game’s lore, so here’s the in-game description for the item to directly disprove that theory:
‘The cursed Girdle of Femininity and Masculinity, a rare yet oft-discussed magical item, is wrought with a most powerful magic. Anyone unfortunate enough to secure it around their waist instantly finds their gender to be transformed. It is said that not fifty years past, a nameless court jester was beheaded for presenting the girdle as a gift to Duke Lobelahn’s lover.’
Yep, surprisingly Baldur’s Gate characters cannot simply nip down to their local Best Buy and pick up one of these Girdles of Masculinity/Femininity, with it only being found on the body of the Girdle Ogre. Others are also pointing out how a Mage character can alter the gender of a character, though this gender change is only available temporarily, thus rendering this argument moot. There’s also my counter-argument that maybe Mizhena didn’t want to change her gender by way of a fucking belt.
“But it shouldn’t have been a cisgender woman writing dialogue for a trans character!”
You’re right, the games industry (and the tech industry at large) should be more diverse with the people that it hires. Unfortunately, your opinion that a trans character being included in a video game is nothing more than a political statement, will likely not stand to inspire many trans folk to include themselves in the video game industry.
“This isn’t transphobic!”
The most woefully misguided argument is the suggestion that those angered by Mizhena don’t feel that way because she’s a trans character, but rather because it’s evidence of politics being forced into the game. As previously mentioned, these “politics” are limited to a trans character existing within the game’s world and discussing her being trans with the player. So, in other words, the only “political agenda” that has raised the ire of those vehemently opposing the game’s writing is that it acknowledges trans people exist and includes one in the game.
But move beyond this thinly-veiled transphobia and you’ll discover a whole heap of very obvious transphobia behind it, peppered throughout the multitude of negative user reviews that have been employed to deter people from picking up the game. I posted a handful of examples of this in my article yesterday, but here are some more for good measure:
A special nod to the term “butt-pirate dwarf” here, which is the damnedest homophobic slur I’ve ever seen:
Here’s a guy who not only doesn’t understand the different between gay and trans, but who also makes up an entire exchange that doesn’t even take place in the game, before being angry that he couldn’t respond to this imagined conversation by being hostile towards the imaginary gay character:
At the time of this writing, 450 people found this attack on the writer of Siege of Dragonspear “helpful”:
850 people found this “review” helpful:
And all these are only taken from the first two pages of reviews on Steam. Here’s some from GOG, which doesn’t require users to own the game they’re reviewing:
But yeah, no transphobia here. People are just disappointed in the quality of the writing. I mean, it’s not like there’s a video titled ‘Tranny Abuse’ in which the player kills Mizhena after using a “Detecting Traps” spell or anything:
“Beamdog told people to post positive reviews!”
A recurring response to these accusations of transphobia among Baldur’s Gate‘s critics is that the game’s publisher, Beamdog, requested positive user reviews to be posted on the likes of Steam, GOG and Metacritic by those who are enjoying the game. This is true, with the company’s founder Trent Oster writing: “I’d like to ask a favour. It appears that having a transgendered cleric and a joke line by Minsc has greatly offended the sensibilities of some people.
“This has spurred these people into action, causing them to decide this is the worst game of all time and give it a zero review score on Steam, GoG and meta critic. Now, I’d like to ask for that favour. If you are playing the game and having a good time, please consider posting a positive review to balance out the loud minority which is currently painting a dark picture for new players.”
While this kind of request is arguably not befitting of the owner of a video game publisher, Oster has not bribed players into dishing out positive reviews, but has rather simply asked for them to vocally show their support for the game in the wake of a smear campaign launched against it. Oster only asked people who had played the game and who had enjoyed it to express their approval of it, in order to help lessen the impact of the clear attempt to damage the reputation of the game and his company. A misguided move, but understandable considering the circumstances.
Also, though this should be abundantly obvious, it doesn’t justify the blatant transphobia littered throughout these reviews, nor the influx of negative reviews bashing the inclusion of a trans character prior to Oster making these comments.
“It doesn’t make sense that she’d tell you she was trans immediately!”
While the quality of the game’s writing is subjective because that’s how fictional storytelling works, some gamers have decided that Amber Scott’s writing is definitely, objectively shitty as a result of them disagreeing with her previous comment to Kotaku that the original Baldur’s Gate was a bit sexist. Even though Baldur’s Gate was released in 1998 and this is a brand new expansion, with a new team of writers including Amber Scott and Dragon Age‘s David Gaider, apparently the writing isn’t supposed to have developed whatsoever in this time period because no game series should try to improve ever.
Of course, whether or not you believe the quality of the writing is great, awful or somewhere in between is entirely down to your own personal preference, though many are convinced that Mizhena informing the player that she is trans “immediately” is proof that this is definitely an awful game, case closed, 0/10. This is despite the fact that Mizhena actually tells the player that she’s trans following the selection of two dialogue options, wherein the player must opt to ask her the origins of her “unusual” name. That’s without even mentioning that this conversation is completely optional, and even if players do choose to converse with the character, they can still completely bypass this entire option if they feel that talking to a trans character in a video game is simply far too much for them to handle.
Paul Tamburro is the Gaming, Tech and UK Editor of Crave. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTamburro.