Most times, playing videogames and looking for your reflection as a gay woman is tough. You find a game you love, it’s fantasy, and a return to Baldur’s Gate style narrative and gameplay! You sink hours into it, about uhh, 90+ hours at this point. You finish the game once and then make four new characters to eventually go through the game with, because that’s a responsible and reasonable use of your limited time on this Earth.
And even as you cherish the game, you think, wow I wish someone in this game world could be gay and okay.
Anyways, the plot of Pillars of Eternity, loosely, is that souls continue after death in a kind of wheel, inhabiting new bodies and lives over and over. In the game world, children are currently being born without souls, causing panic and strife in the populace. In the context of this tragedy, the player character is awakened as a Watcher, someone who can attune to their own past lives, and see the past lives of others. The player realizes they have some past soul history with a figure who may be behind the children being born without souls. So they set out.
A fun bit of world-building present in the game is the Watcher’s ability to read certain Non-player Character’s souls and pasts. These NPCS are marked in yellow on the map, and are backer rewards from the original Kickstarter for the game. At a certain tier you could submit a character and story, and then the writing team went over the story to make it fit in the game. Unfortunately, in the base game, these backer NPCs are the only times we see lesbians present.
Here’s one such story, where the Watcher can read an attack on a gay woman in her soul’s essence.
This story starts with two women walking down a market holding hands. A man throws a bottle at one of them and yells about their reproductive “responsibilities.” But oho, the reversal is that a man didn’t attack them because they were gay, but because they were WIZARDS. Isn’t that just a fun riff on real-world trauma? Isn’t it funny how you would expect the man to call them dykes, but he calls them wizards instead? Wasn’t that a good laugh, the way your stomach just dropped as you thought you were about to read about a real world violence that happened to you, but then it was actually just wizards?
Of course, of course its dark fantasy. Everyone gets shafted. But women who love women get shafted in very particular, very real world ways. No violence by dragon or troll, but violence at the hands of homophobic men.
On some level, I don’t want to criticize backer-created narratives, purely because they were created by fans who can’t see the whole scope of the game. I don’t know anything about the people who submitted these characters. The above story may very well have been a lesbian or bisexual woman writing about her own characters and her own feelings. Maybe to her this reversal of the attack being not because they were gay but because they were magic users, is in fact a fun way to cope with real world homophobia. Fiction is a way to deal with hurt and trauma, and to try and articulate harm that has been done. So I don’t fault people for that.
However, there is an issue of ethical storytelling, balancing dealing with your own hurt through narrative, and how much that narrative will hurt people who view it. Pillars of Eternity reached a wide audience, including bisexual and lesbian women like myself, who were harmed by these narratives of trauma and death. It’s a balancing act that I’m trying to figure out for myself still, and can’t dictate for others, other than point out that once you put a story out in the world it’s no longer in a vacuum, and despite help it might have been to you, it may also now cause harm to others.
A similar videogame instance of the interplay between author intent and the impact of their storytelling is Dorian Pavus in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and the use of blood magic as gay conversion. He was written by a gay man, who may have been using the character to explore his own hurt and trauma caused by a violently homophobic real-world society. However this narrative was harmful to a lot of people, who couldn’t understand why, or didn’t need, a fantasy setting suddenly delving into real world trauma, especially when this had never been mentioned in the two games prior, coming across as a sudden and unseen attack by the writers.
Previously blood magic had only appeared as a why to manipulate blood to harm enemies in battle, summons demons, or use one’s own blood (health in-game) as an offensive or defensive battle ability. The first game had presented homosexuality as being viewed as a weird quirk, but not particularly discriminated against. To suddenly rewrite the lore came off as a gimmick to quickly inject cheap pathos and angst into a character backstory, and was pushed back against by many players who were into the series in the first place because it allowed the player character to be gay and featured gay characters.
The second appearance by a gay woman in Pillars of Eternity is here, and doesn’t particularly widen the scope for narratives available to gay women:
In this narrative, a woman seduces another woman in order to rob her. Normally, this would irk me, as I think it falls into the predatory lesbian trope, but I wouldn’t pay it too much mind. It’s dark fantasy after-all, most people are getting robbed. But in conjunction with the prior narrative it becomes only the second appearance by a gay woman in the game. So we get persecution, and we get villainy. No heroic lesbians, no thriving bisexual women.
Going back to authorial intent and identity, this appearance becomes even more fraught in regards to intent and impact- was a gay woman including her gay thief character( go for it!)? Or was it created by a straight dude for his hot, bisexual-solely-for-the-sake-of-the-male-gaze seductress character (go straight to hell)?
The backer NPCS run the gamut of backstories – we get some out and out villains, a lot of tragedy, and some lawful-good heroes. But not for gay women, who get two narratives.
Putting aside the individual lives and locations of the fans who submitted these narratives, the studio and writing team as a whole had a responsibility that they failed. Lesbians and bisexual women only show up in this fan content. Regardless of what was submitted by fans, the studio itself did not originally include any gay women in its core game, and then when fans submitted a specific type of gay narrative, the studio did not then balance this out by having any lesbian or bisexual characters or NPCs who just live their life. And sure, I get it, it’s a dark fantasy game. Everyone’s suffering. Children are born soulless, the landscape is still reeling from war, etc, etc. But.
The way lesbian and bisexual NPCs suffer in this game is at the hands of homophobia. They don’t suffer in the generalized fantasy ways the way straight or presumed-straight NPCS do – at the hands of undead lords, reoccurring past lives, Bîaŵacs, or whatever monster. It’s suffering specifically because they are gay.
Until the downloadable content, The White March, that is. The WHite March DLC adds in new areas, quests, and player Companions. The core game suffers from an invisibility of lesbian and bisexual charters. In my heart of hearts, I’d like to believe that the DLC was in part an attempt to rectify this harm, that the team behind Pillars of Eternity saw their narrative’s shortcomings, and worked to fix it with the DLC – they did so after-all, in removing a transphobic “joke” from the game. Ultimately I don’t know the intent behind the DLC, but it did at least give us Maneha.
Maneha is a beautiful, hilarious, delightful light in the darkness. Maneha has explicit dialogue with your player character that makes clear she is interested only in women. She turns down advances from one of the men in your party, and rebuffs him when he tries to make her “the lesbian friend” who gives him advice on women. She flirts with another woman in your party, Pallegina. It’s explicit, not cached.
As a lesbian, her personal quest has nothing to do with suffering related to her sexuality, like all the gay NPCs before her. She suffers because in her past life she was a warrior who enacted horrible atrocities, and she remembers them. The Watcher helps her on her journey by pointing her towards leaving behind these memories, or accepting what she did in her past life, and living a better life in this one. Nothing about how hard it is to be a lesbian, to live a life of suffering. She makes jokes, she’s full of joi-de-vivre.
Maneha comes in Part 2 of the White March DLC. Playing the game the first time through, I was already in the final act by the time the DLC was released, so I missed bringing her along for most of the game. I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how well integrated she is in the parts of the core game that I did get to play with her. She even gets fully-voiced lines if you bring her on the final mission and the big bad Thaos ix Arkannon addresses her just like the main-game characters. So at launch, it took a while to get her, and anyone forgoing the DLC will not have any gay party members.
Including Maneha in the DLC feels like she was a bit of an afterthought, and provides people with a way to dodge having to encounter an explicitly gay character. She is well integrated in the main game once you get to her, but does feel like I’m picking at scraps here though, constantly making concessions.
Pillars of Eternity Two is currently in development, having successfully crowd-funded itself. Three characters from the core game are returning. None of them are Maneha.
I am excited for the return of Pallegina, that the one black woman returns and gets elevated to such a prominent status in the overarching story. I’m psyched that Durance doesn’t come back again, so I don’t have to sit through him calling women whores constantly for another game if I want to get the full story. But I’m pretty bummed Maneha doesn’t come back.
The Pillars of Eternity team has said they’re bringing back the characters whose stories make the most sense in the sequel’s setting, but they’re in charge of the setting and characters. There’s a weight behind bringing back Edér rather than say, Sagani. I think Sagani is the first time I’ve ever seen Inuit culture translated to a fantasy videogame setting the way various European cultures constantly are. Nothing was stopping them from writing a continuation to Sagani’s story and integrating it into the new setting. Similarly, what actually stopped them from bringing back Maneha? I think there was still room for her story to grow in an organic-feeling way, the same way there was room for almost everyone else’s story to continue (except Durance, both because it felt like there was a finality to his various possible endings, and because I hate him). The writer’s had a choice in who returned and who didn’t, and had a choice in not continuing the singular lesbian’s narrative. At this point I’m just hoping Maneha and Pallegina kept up a correspondence and we’ll get an off-hand reference by Pallegina to Maneha’s whereabouts. Crumbs, I know.
My hopes for this next game are small. The added ship combat, the new locations, the ability to multi-class are all nice additions, but I wouldn’t be devastated without them. I would be devastated to play through another game where lesbians and bisexual women are either only there to have homophobic violence visited upon them, or an afterthought (even if it is a nice, fleshed-out afterthought). What I want are LGBT characters in a wide range of stories. Not just gay women undergoing violence, trans people as a joke, and gay men totally invisible.