Baldur's Gate expansion developer Beamdog today faced a barrage of heated online criticism about Siege of Dragonspear's inclusion of a variety of characters in a fantasy world, including a powerful woman and a trans woman.
Since the expansion came out last week, it has become the latest focus for reactionary outrage about video game narratives that take on contemporary social issues or attempt to break down the exclusionary nature of many game stories.
Siege of Dragonspear also includes a line poking fun at right-wing culture movement, GamerGate. Its writer, Amber Scott, is the latest woman working in gaming to face online harassment and insults. Her Twitter feed today features multiple insults and threats, as well as some messages of support.
The game's Steam and GOG pages have been bombarded with negative reviews lambasting Dragonspear's editorial choices, such as toning down woman character Safina's flirtatious sexuality by giving her a more complex personality. The inclusion of a minor character called Mizhena who was raised as a boy but "came to understand I was truly a woman" also drew angry responses about "political correctness," "LGBT tokenism" and "SJW pandering."
But some people are also unhappy that the game makes fun of GamerGate. An in-game character states, "it's all about ethics in heroic adventuring," a reference to a mocking meme about that movement's professed interest in game journalism, compared with its active misogyny and harassment of women.
One chilling Twitter message responded, "We took down Alison Rapp, [Amber Scott] is next." Alison Rapp is a former Nintendo employee who faced down weeks of abuse over minor alterations to games over which she had no control, only to be fired, Nintendo insists, for moonlighting.
Beamdog told Polygon it is preparing a statement. We are also in the process of interviewing Beamdog president Trent Oster.
First released in 1998, Baldur's Gate is widely regarded as one of the best role-playing games ever made. Set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, it features party-based combat within a rich world of fantasy characters and themes. An Enhanced Edition was released in 2012 by Beamdog. Siege of Dragonspear is a 30-hour expansion on that game.
Beamdog is a small developer, based in Edmonton. Alberta, founded by former creatives from famed RPG house BioWare.
In a recent Kotaku story on the making of Siege of Dragonspear, Scott said that she took modern cultural changes into account when working on the expansion. "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."
Steam user criticism of the game is split between complaints over some of the characters, and concerns about bugs and other technical problems, which appear to be affecting some players. We're waiting for word on those issues from Beamdog.
Supporters of the expansion point out that the original Baldur's Gate was known for its contemporary humor. For comedic effect, the original game included quotes from movies such as Silence of the Lambs and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Critics of Dragonspear say that including a trans character in this game breaks its lore. But Baldur's Gate 2 featured a character changing gender after an accident with a potion. In that situation, which has never caused a stir of controversy, the man briefly became a woman and was mocked by other men.
Ed Greenwood, creator of Forgotten Realms novels and many D&D games, posted a note on Facebook today. "D&D has half-orcs, and half-dragons, and half-elves, and has magic items that specifically change gender, right there in the rules. Surely, if you can handle the basic notion of cross-species sex, having a full variety of gender roles should be something that doesn't blow your mind.
"If it's not for you, that's fine. I hate wearing certain shades of yellow. But I don't scream and yell at someone I see wearing those shades of yellow, and call them names, and threaten things. My right to dislike yellow applies to me; it doesn't extend to others."
Others say that complaining about political content in fantasy stories is a misunderstanding of fantasy. Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett today tweeted, "Fantasy is not divorced from our world. It's a lens through which we explore it."
Writing in Gamasutra today, the journalist and critic Katherine Cross said, "Much of this outrage is really just about the same old same old: a particularly complaintive and possessive sect of gaming being confronted with something that makes them uncomfortable."
We'll update this story as soon as we hear from Beamdog.