When a triple-A game manages to represent the existence of LGBT people in some fashion there are, broadly speaking, two discourses that emerge. The first is a kind of ecstasy that explodes across social media, the kind that makes incredible fanart appear out of nowhere within minutes of an announcement. Celebrations, optimism, memes, and good humor swirl around the game.
The second discourse is what lurks in the queer undertow to it all: the bitterness of many LGBT creators about the fact that our work is held to a much higher standard by our own community than the offerings of a Ubisoft or a BioWare. We labor to represent queer life as something more than a binary choice in code, more than a mere “romance option,” and for our troubles often find ourselves picked apart by our own community for “problematic” issues, all the while enjoying either microscopic profit margins or debt.
The discourse around Ladykiller in a Bind was a case in point, albeit too complex to rehash here (this editorial is a fine primer).
While criticism is vital to ensure accountability, it’s safe to say many queer creators are quietly bemused at how the low effort of major studios is rewarded with adulation and infinite second chances.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's (GLAAD) statement about the disappointing news concerning Assassin's Creed Odyssey’s Shadow Heritage DLC seems to be a case in point. A game which had been praised to the hilt for allowing players to choose Kassandra/Alexios’ sexuality suddenly forced that character into a storyline where they had to be straight and bear a child. Not only does this evoke all sorts of unpleasant myths about queer people (e.g. “homosexuality is a choice!”), but it also undermines the significance of the choices players made throughout the game.
Ubisoft has since tweaked the DLC. GLAAD responded:
“Ubisoft has publicly apologized for the acknowledged mistake, and since last week, GLAAD has been in direct contact with Ubisoft in an effort to work together to improve aspects of this DLC and future content releases. The forthcoming updates to Shadow Heritage announced by Ubisoft just yesterday are a positive step, and we applaud them for working to mitigate the damage. The changes do not entirely solve the challenge, but we believe those changes are a good faith effort and a solid first step. GLAAD thanks Ubisoft for their apology and their commitment to do better.”
Having worked in the nonprofit world in the past, I understand the need to be conciliatory and constructive. You have to give stakeholders a way out, and you have to give them clear, achievable deliverables when you’re trying to get them to effect change. I’m not especially peeved at them for any of this. Ubisoft is, at least, taking steps in the right direction. Especially in the current climate, where the human rights of LGBT people are under constant threat of being rolled back, there has to be some care given to how one portrays such things. We cannot pretend that our pop culture is totally walled off and separate from everything else happening in the world.
But beyond all that is the question of why this sort of thing happened in the first place. It was, after all, the easiest thing in the world to avoid.
The narrative demand behind the original iteration of the Legacy of the First Blade: Shadow Heritage DLC was that the bloodline of Alexios/Kassandra had to be preserved--that thread of lineage that wends through the many centuries and guises of Assassin’s Creed. In ancient Greece, the only way to produce offspring would be the most old fashioned way there is, thus the babymaking must occur. It seems simple enough.
Yet it’s equally simple to imagine alternatives here. Queer surrogacy is a thing, after all. Countless gay and lesbian parents have used surrogates to bear biologically related offspring. That, too, uses no technology more advanced than a bed. A political marriage of convenience, meanwhile, for the sole purpose of producing heirs would also hardly have been out of line as a story worth telling.
It’s the sort of thing that queer indie writers and devs would’ve thought of straight away, after all.
The forced romance with Natakas is laden with noxious implications for a Kassandra; the notion that an adventurous woman can only find true fulfillment by settling down with a family (and a straight husband, at that), and that queerness can be willed away. The shoehorning of this storyline with Natakas/Neema is also, as these sorts of things often are, a matter of weak storytelling. In a game defined by choice, by the customization of the player character’s personality, it railroads them into a very specific tale where all the choices have been made for them.
That, of course, points to one of the oldest struggles with these types of RPGs, which itself traces back to the dilemma countless dungeon masters have faced at their game tables for years: how do you balance the agency of your players with the need to tell a coherent story?
Dragon Age: Inquisition suffered from this as well. For all the panoply of recorded choices from its two predecessors and all the hype about the Keep, there could only be so many permutations of Dragon Age: Inquisition’s story. It would’ve been both a literary mess and an impossible mountain of code otherwise.
But there is always a way to compromise, and players have to feel like their choices are meaningful. If they played their Kassandra as an adventurous lesbian who scorns domestic life, that should be reflected in DLC like Shadow Heritage. Even with the narrative constraint imposed by the lore (itself one that strikes me as unnecessary, considering the wibbly sci-fi weirdness of how other entries in the franchise dealt with this same lineage question), there were ways to do this that didn’t undermine her character. If Kassandra has to make a sacrifice, so be it. That in itself could be compelling in its pathos. But magically transforming her into a cheerfully domestic straight woman was narratively lazy.
There are some caveats to be made here. For one, your character can be bi, and that reality is too often effaced both by video games and by queer fans who see monosexuality as the gold standard. For a player with a specific vision of their Kassandra or Alexios as a bisexual person who yearns to settle down, Shadow Heritage might not be the worst thing in the world. Beyond that, Greek sexuality bore little resemblance to our own.
The sense of hard categories of sexuality is a fairly modern, Western notion that emerged out of 19th-century medical discourses. In Greece and Rome, for instance, intimacy between men was defined primarily by who was “active” and who was “passive” in a given sexual encounter, with roles and identities shaped by age or caste as much as gender. The Gallae of Rome, or figures like the Chevalier d’Eon also point to a long history of sex/gender transitions, variously described.
Queerness obviously existed, but the labels and identities we now take for granted weren’t in use; how people understood themselves was simply different.
Nevertheless these complexities can’t excuse what happened in Shadow Heritage. Instead, they point to more missed opportunities for depth. How fascinating it would’ve been to see some meaningful exploration of the ways Greek queerness in antiquity differed from that of the modern West! That, too, provides a fruitful avenue for potentially great video game writing.
But I also wonder if that too might have been scorned by the very people who praised Odyssey to begin with. Those crowds who always clamor for the smallest dollop of queer representation (e.g. Soldier 76 being revealed as our beloved gay dad) often recoil at queer complexity, at narratives of our lives that are less straightforward than simple declarations and white picket fences. Still, we have to try.
The reward, as always, is knowing you’ve written true.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.