Developer Beamdog made waves over the weekend by shoehorning social commentary into the classic Baldur’s Gate franchise. The exchange between Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear‘s creators and their fans has been heated, but there’s more to the story than outrage.
“Reeeeaaally, it’s all about ethics in heroic adventuring.”
This out-of-character jab at the GamerGate consumer movement has provoked a rather passionate response from members of the Baldur’s Gate community. In many ways, it’s been obscured by its coupling with complaints about a transgender character also featured in Beamdog’s new expansion to the Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate.
Many people seek to equate the problems, classifying both as symptoms of a trend toward injecting personal politics into a game’s narrative. This argument is, quite frankly, a poor one. When arguing for the rights of a creator to express themselves in their work, you cannot then immediately turn upon expressions with which you do not agree. Sorry, but that’s just not how freedom of expression works.
So what’s the difference?
The problem with Minsc’s dig at #GamerGate isn’t that it breaks the fabled “Fourth Wall.” After all, Minsc is already making a jump through the fourth wall with his delightful pet Spelljammer reference. Heck, Baldur’s Gate is just as happy to reference The Bob Newhart Show and Monty Python as it is murder and betrayal.
Rather, the problem lies in Beamdog’s level of respect — or lack thereof — for a character that is deeply meaningful to an entire generation of gamers. Minsc is the lovable hamster-toting warrior of both Baldur’s Gate titles. His legacy extends into novelization and comic books, and he’s been praised by just about every conceivable gaming publication at one time or another. He’s an intellectual innocent, a gentle giant.
With one quip, they’ve turned that great big teddy bear of a hero into a passive-aggressive tool to insult a portion of their potential customers. It’s a cynical decision, and a needless one. It’s intentionally sarcastic and insulting, stooping to the tactics that people consistently ladle onto anyone who has ever participated in the #GamerGate conversation, without offering any useful rebuttal.
Not only is it grossly out of character for Minsc, it’s a little bit of the Internet’s ugliness that quite simply didn’t need to be there. Where the transgender character is an expression of the developer’s intentions toward inclusion, Minsc’s dig is designed to exclude people with whom Beamdog disagrees. It’s trite, it’s catty, and it makes Beamdog’s other in-game statements come off as posturing rather than sincere.
Beamdog’s response to the controversy hasn’t been extremely constructive and suggests a very loose grasp on the heart of the problem. While the internet is quick to cry censorship for every locked forum topic, it’s well within Beamdog’s right to lock down arguments that devolve into personal attacks, even if it’s their product that has set the precedent.
Unfortunately, that’s not where it ends. Amber Scott’s interview with Kotaku on the creation of Dragonspear depicts a very shallow understanding of the property itself.
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]. 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.
Let’s take a closer look at this argument.
First off, Safan is less of a “sex object” than a classic femme fatale, with the martial skills to easily back up her swagger. She spins ludicrous tales of her past exploits as a matter of bravado, and her lack of trustworthiness is a theme that runs through both games. She’s confident, “sex-positive,” and capable, but she’s also flawed and inherently self-interested. Dismissing her character as a “sex object” is not only disingenuous, it’s thoughtless. Whether you dislike a character, or simply do not understand them, why not write another? Why dredge your way through someone else’s creative vision rather than make a statement of your own?
Jaheira is an even more glaring example. In the original games, Jaheira is a war refugee characterized by her jaded cynicism toward the fates of others. She isn’t willing to accept the protagonist as a sort of de facto savior. Instead she watches, critiques, then makes her own judgment. She is intelligent but cynical, hardened by traumatic experience, but utterly devoted to those for whom she cares. Labeling Jaheira as a stereotypical “nagging wife” suggests little respect or understanding of both the character and the world she inhabits.
Hacking apart characters created by your forebears is a disservice to the people who love them. Using the story’s most gentle character to make an exclusionary insult out of a casual conversation is a disservice to your other messages, and makes the whole thing feel petty. It’s just a bit of ugliness, added for sport.
Doing both of these things without any sort of understanding as to why it would antagonize devoted fans of the series, or worse intentionally antagonizing them, isn’t just tone-deaf, it’s the sort of jaded cynicism that Amber Scott decided should require a “way better personality upgrade.”
TechRaptor received a statement from Beamdog CEO Trent Oster that lambasts the pot-shots taken at Dragonspear without identifying or resolving the root of the complaint:
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.
Oster reduces the backlash to being solely about identity politics, but the reality is that gamers have been waiting fifteen years (not counting the hack-and-slash spinoff Dark Alliance titles) for a new adventure in the Baldur’s Gate series. Expectations were high, and even some of the most ardent fans have been quite understandably dismayed to find character rewrites and needless insults of the audience in their long awaited homecoming. Being told that if they didn’t like it, “too bad,” hasn’t helped the situation.
Perhaps members of Beamdog have more in common with their projected perception of Jaheira than even they realize. Ironically, they might have avoided these pitfalls by better understanding the characters they’ve purchased.
Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.