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How an 18 Year Old Video Game and a Transgender Character Just Reignited Gamer Gate

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | April 5, 2016 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | April 5, 2016 |

In the late nineties, a wee company called BioWare existed on the margins, long before they were the nerd rock stars known for franchises like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. In 1998, they released a little video game called Baldur’s Gate, which revolutionized computer role-playing games, and set the stage for the modern RPGs that they are the ruling kings of. All the seeds were there in Baldur’s Gate: the vast and sprawling worlds, the intense and beautiful stories, the capacity to be good and evil and everywhere in between.

It was Dungeons and Dragons for the computer, which wasn’t a new concept, but it had never been done like this. A generation of tabletop gamers found the first video game that captured the essence and magic of what made tossing dice and making stories so intoxicating.

The gamers reading this know exactly what I mean. Those of you don’t, I know you’re thinking, right, video game, whatever. And I need to impress upon you that these are not the button mashing least common denominators of mental activity that you probably associate with games. These were novels delivered in a medium as different from the page as paper was from medieval oral sagas. One of the spin-off games called Planescape: Torment had over 800,000 words of text, as a point of comparison. I don’t mean computer code, I mean there were nearly a million words of text for you to read. That’s nearly twice as long as The Lord of the Rings.

The second game in the series, Baldur’s Gate II, introduced romances. That is, as part of the story, there were a number of other characters with whom your character could slowly develop relationships, have long philosophical conversations with, and yes, fall in love with in the game. It was controversial at the time, but it has become a fundamental part of Bioware’s games over the years. And it’s funny to look at in retrospect, to trace the slow progress. That first game with romance had three female characters (one good, one neutral, one evil) whom could be romanced by a male player character, but only one male character (and that one a particularly whiny jackass) who could be romanced by a female character. Fast forward to today, and Bioware routinely gets lambasted by Fox News with each game release since their games generally feature a half dozen love interests, some portion of which are bisexual so that there’s something for everyone’s inclination.

So after all these years, there’s still a ton of nostalgia for those original games. But computers being what they are, managing to keep an 18-year-old game actually running on new hardware can be challenging. Most games that old simply disappear into the ether, unmaintained and lost. It’s a tragedy that this newest art form is seeing its first generations vanish under the weight of abandoned copyrights and the obsolescence of old technologies. The Baldur’s Gate series has enough continued interest though that a company called Beamdog has gotten the rights to maintaining the game, releasing updates and new content over the last few years to guarantee that the games can still be run, and just last week released the first add-on chapter to the game in nearly two decades.

Yeah, I already bought it, downloaded, and installed it.

The expansion is currently sitting at a rating of only 3.6 out of 10 on Metacritic, and even lower on Steam (the video game service that a good portion of games are bought through at this point). Is it because the game is badly written, buggy, or otherwise bad?

Oh, of course not. It’s because the game features a transgender character. Beamdog banned about a jillion commenters from their forums after they practically melted down, and everywhere else games are talked about is on fire as well. There are hundreds of reviews giving the expansion a score of zero on whatever scale the particular rating service uses.

Sneers of the game being ruined by kowtowing to social justice warriors (a pejorative nonsensical in the same way as when the thugs in junior high thought calling someone “smart” was the height of insult), complaints that the company was forcing their politics on players, demands of how they were expected to explain this perversion to their children playing the game. And naturally all the variations on “I don’t have a problem with transgender people, but it’s not right to rub my face in it” and “my complaint isn’t with the transgender character but that she’s horribly written and only exists in order to check off a diversity checkbox for the SJWs”.

Sacre bleu! That sounds ever so terrible! Just how much of this 25-hour long expansion is taken up by this apparently dominating, pervasive, and ruinous character?

Four sentences of dialog.

If the player upon being introduced to this character asks why she changed her name, Mizhena replies: “When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me; it is the truest reflection of who I am.”


Eighteen fucking years waiting, and when we finally get something new to play with, a new chapter in this story that some of us have played a dozen times over, it gets excellent critical reviews but gets annihilated in the user reviews because god fucking forbid there should be a fifty pixel tall character who says all of fifty words about her gender.

Beamdog themselves had a wonderful response:


But really, the best response was by a character in the game itself. Minsc, a delightfully low intelligence sweet brute of a man (whose best friend is a hamster named Boo, naturally), at one point in the game cracks “really, it’s about ethics in adventuring”.

Hey gamergaters, there’s really no need for all this vitriol and anger, after all, you’d be prettier if you smiled.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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