The expansion to the beloved 17-year-old video game Baldur's Gate has been getting shelled with angry user reviews all week. The complaints? Many are coming from people who say they are angry that the game is buggy and also filled with "social justice" issues and "LGBT tokenism."
Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear has been out for a few days now, and its reviews on sites like Steam and GOG have taken a beating. As of writing, its Steam review average is "mixed," with 67 per cent positive reviews. If you go through the top reviews, you won't see a thumbs-up unless you scroll past more than 50. GOG is looking similar at the moment. The game's forums on both Steam and its own site are full of messy arguing. Beamdog's taken to moderating the worst of it, which has some people crying afoul of what they consider to be "censorship."
Detractors' complaints center around two primary talking points: 1) bugs and 2) the alleged "shoehorning" of social justice issues into the game. Here are just a few Steam reviews:
Let's get the non-complicated part out of the way first: yes, there are bugs. I played Siege of Dragonspear for a couple hours yesterday, and while my single-player experience was mostly smooth, I had trouble getting a quest item to trigger. I also couldn't get a multiplayer game up and running at all. There have also been reports of imported saves from Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition not working properly, and apparently the Steam version of Dragonspear breaks Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition mod compatibility, even though the non-Steam version does not. So yeah, the game needs a few patches.
Much of the discussion, however, has also centered around the game's progressive "SJW" (Social Justice Warrior) elements. Primarily, these are a transgender character named Mizhena, an "Actually it's about ethics in heroic adventuring" joke by fan favourite follower Minsc, and some storylines given to women characters from the original Baldur's Gate with the intent of making them less one-dimensional. Here's a drop from that bucket (warning: trans-insensitive language ahead):
The gist? Some people feel like Mizhena's dialogue, the aforementioned ethics dig, and writer Amber Scott's unabashed stance on all of it constitute the bold outline of a blatant political agenda. They feel like it's bad writing that doesn't fit in the Baldur's Gate universe. Many of them claim it's been "shoehorned" in or some variation on that. They also strongly opposed Scott's general attitude and outspokenness. She once wrote in a now-infamous forum post:
"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."
First, let's break down the Mizhena scene, which is the focal point of an overwhelming amount of controversy. Mizhena is an NPC who cannot join your party. It's possible to miss her entirely while playing the game. She's a devout of Tempus, the chaotic deity of war and warriors. While some claim she immediately bombards you with information about the fact that she's transgender, you actually have to go through a couple dialogue selections to get to it.
First, you have to ask her about her "unusual" name, at which point she'll explain that she created it herself, noting that her birth name "proved unsuitable." You can then ask what was wrong with her old name, and she'll tell you that she was raised a boy, but "In time, we all came to understand that I was truly a woman." She adds that her name is assembled from syllables of different languages. "It is the truest reflection of who I am," she says.
It's a brief segment, but one that's earned ire heaped atop debate heaped atop a mountain of nasty slurs. There is, however, some interesting discussion nestled among all the yelling. Case in point: this YouTube exchange between someone named Madness and someone named Nathan (not me!), in which Nathan tries to explain to Madness why including somebody of a certain identity or background is not necessarily a political gesture — even (and perhaps especially) in a world full of elves and dragons:
Other people have tried to claim that there's simply no room for transgender characters in the Dungeons & Dragons universe, that this sort of "modern" issue is unprecedented and untrue to the spirit of this particular fantasy game world. However, longtime fans have pointed out that, for example, the current D&D rule book says: "The elf god Corellon Larethian is often seen as androgynous or hermaphroditic, for example, and some elves in the multiverse are made in Corellon's image. You could also play a female character who presents herself as a man, a man who feels trapped in a female body, or a bearded female dwarf who hates being mistaken for a male. Likewise, your character's sexual orientation is for you to decide."
Even as far back as 1st Edition, Corellon Larethian existed with those characteristics. Moreover, Baldur's Gate didn't shy away from real world issues in the past. Baldur's Gate II tackled racism and discrimination on multiple occasions.
Some have been adamant that the mere existence of a trans character in Siege of Dragonspear is not the issue. It's that she's poorly written. One person who identified as trans took to Beamdog's forums to explain her stance:
"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 disrespectful to be rude or insult a transgender character for being trans, but to me all that does is highlight that being trans is different."
Writing for Gamasutra, critic Katherine Cross praised the way Beamdog handled Mizhena: "Considering the limitations Scott was working with, she did a fine job with Mizhena. The discussion about her gender history emerges two queries deep into what begins with a discussion about her name, and explaining it in full requires some elaboration of her transition. Considering how weighty a name choice has been for me and just about every other trans person I know, that seemed entirely reasonable."
These conflicting viewpoints echo another semi-common discussion thread: Perhaps Beamdog would have been better off creating a more fully realised trans character, rather than one who had to sum up her whole story in a few sentences. Maybe a follower — somebody you'd get to know over time, with more room for subtlety — could've made for a more nuanced portrayal.
People have taken issue with other socially slanted plot beats in Siege of Dragonspear, albeit a bit more quietly. The controversy over "changes" to followers Safana and Jaheira comes from a portion of an interview I did with Beamdog, in which writer Amber Scott explained that she felt like those characters were one-note in the original Baldur's Gate to a degree she felt was sexist. Safana didn't get much story beyond "she's sexy; that's how she gets what she wants," and Jaheira was a stereotypical nagging wife. "In Siege of Dragonspear, Safana gets her own little storyline, she got a way better personality upgrade," Scott added. "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."
A handful of negative reviews have quoted that interview, and one scathing criticism claims that Safana's been reduced to a typical "sarcastic dissenter" archetype, a character less unique than the way she was originally envisioned. Elsewhere, though, reaction to the expansion quests actually seems fairly positive.
But that's only part of people's problem. In my interview with Beamdog, Scott added, "If people don't like that, then too bad." I've found a few reviews that are just people quoting that line and then posting an image of their Steam refund request. Scott has been unequivocal about her goal of writing diverse characters, and that upsets some people. "I'm the writer and creator," she once wrote on Beamdog's forums. I get to make decisions about who I write about and why," she wrote in a recent forum post. "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 has, as a result of her outspokenness, become the target of a torrent of anger and profanity. Her Twitter mentions right now are, predictably, overrun by nastiness. A few developers from companies like original Baldur's Gate creator BioWare have come out in support of Beamdog:
It's disappointing seeing such hateful responses about Art that is representing the real world. Disgusting. #beamdog
— Blair Brown (@TheFiddzz) April 4, 2016
I am a game developer. I care about diversity & representation in the games I make. For my sake, for that of others. #INeedDiverseGames
— Imperator FuriosAnn (@annlemay) April 4, 2016
In reaction to all of the backlash, Beamdog co-founder Trent Oster took to Siege of Dragonspear's official forums and made a controversial request of players. "If you are playing the game and having a good time," he wrote, "please consider posting a positive review to balance out the loud minority which is currently painting a dark picture for new players."
While he didn't "beg" for positive reviews like some people have been accusing, his plea might not have been the smartest move. In today's user review-driven Steam climate, even sorta asking for positive reviews looks sketchy.
Oster also issued a statement (via Techraptor):
"I find the controversy ridiculous. Yes, we have a transgendered character. I know a number of transgendered people and they are genuine, wonderful humans. Yes, we also have a character who cracks a joke about ethics. The original Baldur's Gate had a whole sequence about the Bob Newhart show. If this generates controversy it makes a sad statement about the world we live in."
Of course, 67 per cent positive is still more than half positive. Many people seem to really like Siege of Dragonspear. I've seen threads declaring that it surpasses the original Baldur's Gate, comments of begrudging positivity from people who claim to dislike "politics," and scores of reviews from people who are digging the expansion despite the bugs.
We've been to this party enough times to know what's really going on. This is only partially about Baldur's Gate. Video games and the people who make them are evolving and changing. And it's become part of our regularly scheduled programming to see people reacting swiftly and often angrily to that change. Last week it was Overwatch's butt pose controversy. Not long before that, it was Fire Emblem Fates' localisation. In another week or two, it will probably be something else.
Baldur's Gate itself exemplifies a lot of the tension running through the video game scene. It's a beloved classic; it and its sequel are often held up as an ideal to which modern games should strive. But now it's being born again. Its world and characters have been picked up by a new group of creators. There's new life rattling around in its old flesh. Mostly, it looks and feels the same, but it's still being made by different people in a different time. Seige of Dragonspear is old meets new, tradition meets progress. It's this seemingly never-ending conflict, embodied.