The Rainbow Planet
With The Old Republic, Bioware fails to meet the standards it set for itself. Andrew Huntly reporting from Makeb.
You would be hard pressed to find a more LGBT friendly developer than BioWare. Since Jade Empire and the presence of the bisexual characters Silk Fox and Sky, the Canadian studio has frequently attempted to reach homosexual audiences by providing suitable romantic conquests. There are other games that have included homosexual characters in their cast, but few can claim to have tackled the subject as directly and thoughtfully as BioWare.
Which makes it hard for me to question them. Personally, I have no doubt that the scribes at BioWare have their hearts in the right place. The decision to include such (needlessly) controversial characters and romantic choices is one the studio has, for the most part, managed to downplay. The inclusion of Liara in the first Mass Effect was never handled with anything more than a handwave. While the game’s lore attempted to cover her sexuality with talk of the singular and thus neutral gender of her species, her defined feminine appearance makes it impossible to ignore that she, and any female Commander Shepard that romances her, is not a character of the exclusively heterosexual persuasion.
The problem I have with BioWare is not the inclusion of homosexuality in their games, far from it, but rather how the topic is included. In their 2009 throwback to RPG classics, Dragon Age: Origins, the team included two bisexual character, one female and one male, out of a possible romanceable four. A very decent and fair split. Sprint over to the 2011 sequel and we again find four romanceable characters, except now they all appear to be bisexual. Or, to be more accurate, are open to courting by either a male or female protagonist. On the surface it seems like even greater forward thinking, a far more diverse and open pool in which players of all orientations can feel free to pick the virtual partner they wish. It even fits in with the medieval fantasy nature of the series.
There was, however, a sacrifice to be made in character consistency. One romance option was the mage Anders and depending on whether your character is male or female, his sexuality changes completely. Play a female and he’s as straight as an arrow, with no desire for anyone with a Y chromosome. But play through the game as a male and he becomes the complete opposite, even having a male character implied to be his lover. This facet is never once suggested if your playthrough is spearheaded by a female protagonist.
It’s an awkward thing. BioWare wanted inclusivity, but to do so in such a brash, brazen and almost tactless fashion sours the intent. It was no longer about characterization and what it meant for that character to be gay. Instead, the portrayal of homosexuality was completely removed from the characters themselves. It’s so very unfortunate to use such a word, but the way the subject was handled was pandering, catering only to the audience and never to the story or the characters. Homosexuality was reduced to an appeasement policy.
But then, BioWare got it right. Mass Effect 3 had some of the finest examples of gay characters in gaming. Liara remained, but accompanying her were two new characters, Cortez and Traynor. Cortez was an exclusively homosexual option for male Shepard, while Traynor was an exclusive option for female Shepards. Their sexuality was wonderfully underplayed. The only times they spoke explicitly of their sexuality was when Cortez mentioned his late husband and Traynor spoke of her affection for EDI’s feminine voice.
It was a subtlety the broad sweep of Dragon Age 2 failed to match, and turned Cortez and Traynor into actual romantic options. They weren’t just ‘the gay option’, but fully developed characters in their own right, who just happened to be homosexual. They were people, with lives and dreams and thoughts, not thrown onto Shepard’s ship to play to his or her inquisitive sexual side. To have characters that were exclusively gay and yet so unburdened by it was refreshing and far more progressive than the sweet-hearted but wrong-headed desire to cater to everyone.
More recently, details on the long awaited inclusion of homosexual characters in BioWare’s MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic were finally announced. Both gay fans and avid roleplayers have been asking for this since the inception of the game, and it’s only now that the plans have come to fruition. Unfortunately for all involved, they’re something of a dud. Homosexual interactions will be limited to one new planet, Makeb, itself part of the Rise of the Hutt Cartel expansion and thus locked behind a paywall.
Makeb is not exclusively dedicated to LGBT content (it is, in fact, the only planet in the new expansion) and it would be inaccurate to call it ‘the gay planet’, as others have. But for a part of the game that players have long asked for and BioWare long vowed to include to be added this late and with a price tag attached is bound to sting. BioWare cites as the reason for this unsatisfactory solution the complexity of retrofitting the entire game with altered dialogue and voice acting. The decision is presumably connected to the game’s recent transition to the free-to-play business model: It has not proven as profitable as they hoped and tinkering with old content is unlikely to make returns. But to entangle equality in cold business decisions paints the company as mercenary.
Such a lazy compromise pleases no one. The righteous indignation of bigoted homophobes does not depend on the amount of homosexuality you include, as the previous outrage over optional gay relationships shows. BioWare has weathered this kind of hate before and I respect their willingness to expose themselves to such ‘controversy’. But by restricting same-sex interaction to one planet, they have upset those campaigning for virtual equality as well.
I don’t believe BioWare acted out of malice or even disinterest, but whatever good intentions they might have had were undone by a lack of ambition. The Old Republic fails by assuming that providing homosexual interactions was enough, regardless of context. Dragon Age 2 failed to represent homosexuality because it was too broad and malleable. Mass Effect 3 still stands above both, proudly open-minded in an intelligent and meaningful way. It acknowledged that sexuality is just a part of a person. A tiny part, really. There are so many facets and sides mixed into human beings, desires that are more complex than a lust for one sex or the other. A person is so much more than their sexual orientation. Such a things stands true for both characters, and for players.
Andrew Huntly’s cinematic rants have been complimented on British radio shows and their associated podcasts.