Studio boss Trent Oster discusses Dragonspear controversies and dealing with harassment
You don’t have you have to spend too long on the internet nowadays before you see people on social media complaining about ‘agendas’ being ‘pushed’. Just take a look at the comments thread below the Star Wars: Rogue One trailer and you’ll find scores of anti-feminists riled up by the focus on a female protagonist.
It is, of course, impossible for creators to produce anything without their own worldviews having an influence. That’s the very nature of human beings: our opinions, likes, dislikes, priorities and prejudices are all formed by a myriad of factors, ranging from our surroundings, our upbringings and the other outlooks that are broadcasted loudly – or even subliminally – around us every day.
But there is a balance to expressing your worldview without courting such online controversy.
“If there’s an aggressive agenda that’s being pushed into someone’s face, I disagree with that,” Beamdog CEO Trent Oster tells Develop. “It needs to be representative. You need to tackle any social milieu appropriately, and aggressive agenda pushing is incorrect. It’s not the right way to do it. All you do is strengthen the resistance.”
It’s a subject Oster has been considering a lot over the past week. His studio, responsible for Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition as well as other BioWare follow-ups, has been accused of this ‘agenda pushing’ thanks to the inclusion of a transgender character in its latest release.
THE TALE OF MIZHENA
Mizhena is an NPC in Siege of Dragonspear, the first new Baldur’s Gate expansion since 1999. As a cleric, she sells healing and curse removal to the players and – as with so many supporting characters – you can explore her backstory through dialogue trees.
Comment on her unusual name, and she’ll respond that her birth name wasn’t appropriate. Ask her for more details, and she’ll say: “When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raise 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 spiritual meaning to me; it is the truest reflection of who I am.”
The conversation is then redirected to the business at hand.
“[The revelation that she is transgender] is what we consider three dialogue nodes deep,” Oster explains. “We put an arbitrary limit on our writers for our support characters of just three nodes deep, just to control wordcount. Siege of Dragonspear is over 500,000 words of dialogue, so we had to put limits on writers so they didn’t create more.
“There’s two sides of the argument [against Mizhena’s inclusion]. One is ‘I don’t want a transgender character in my game’, and while I don’t agree with it, I guess I can understand that perspective.
The transgender people I know are not going to blurt that out as quickly as that – it’s going to take a while, you’re going to have to get to know them.
“The other is that the character goes from ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ to ‘I’m transgender’ in three conversation lines. That’s a really shallow way of telling me a life-shattering event. The transgender people I know are not going to blurt that out as quickly as that – it’s going to take a while, you’re going to have to get to know them.
“Obviously we wanted to explore her story in a broader, deeper way, but the three-line limitation cut it off. If anyone was going to get to the fact that this character is transgender, they had to do it pretty fast. Upon my review of the character, I think that within three lines it’s actually quite well done.”
As such, despite calls to have Mizhena or her backstory removed from the game completely, Beamdog is dropping its three-line limit in this case in order to better present this revelation. Oster promises that the writers will be revisiting this character and finding a way for players to “develop a relationship” with her before she discloses this highly personal information.
“We have this character, we have a series of reasons why she is the way she is, it’s obviously captured the attention of a lot of people, so we should expand her story,” he says.
WHEN OPINIONS COLLIDE
Crucially, Oster stresses that Mizhena was not created specifically to provoke such a reaction. Instead the outrage came as a surprise to the team.
“To us, having a transgender character wasn’t that big a deal,” he says. “In a world where there’s half-orcs – so a human and an orc had an offspring together – and dragons can transform into humans and gods can walk the earth as male or female, whatever choice they make – it just didn’t seem like a big detail to us.
“Personally, I think it shows a progressive world view that we didn’t think a transgender character was a big deal. It was just a character to us, part of the world, helping to drive the story along.”
It’s a point that was underlined by Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms universe in which the Baldur’s Gate games are set. Chipping in on the debate surrounding the game, he said he was “saddened” by the reaction given that “the Realms have always had characters who crossdressed, changed gender, were actively bisexual, and openly gay”.
Even so, there were plenty of people who disagreed with Mizhena’s inclusion. Strongly. Scores of games sites, both consumer- and industry-facing, reported on the fan outrage. And yet on the same outlets, stories could be found about players complaining that Blizzard was removing an arguably sexualised character pose from Overwatch.
Given the apparent inconsistency between what does and doesn’t offend the internet masses, it’s understable why Oster and his team didn’t believe Mizhena was “a big deal”. But in the face of that inconsistency, how can any developer know which aspects of their game are going to set ‘them’ [the fans] off?
“I firmly believe that there is no ‘they’, there’s no group with a specific agenda,” says Oster. “There’s just a bunch of individuals – each with their own sensitivities, likes and dislikes – and the internet seems to package people together. You see a tempest in a teapot.
“When a topic blows up on the internet, it’s hard to tell how ‘big’ it is. I think social media has created this echo chamber world, where everyone lives in their own little social group and are essentially self-reinforcing.
“All of my news feeds are centred on video games, so when something happens in that space, it seems huge. If I talk to someone else, they don’t know about it, they’ve been talking about the Panama Papers – and I’m like, ‘what are the Panama Papers?’. Because I’ve been in my little universe and it’s different to theirs.”
The internet seems to package people together. You see a tempest in a teapot.
And Oster is keen to point out that those who voice their complaints aggressively via Twitter, Facebook et al are not the people influencing his decisions.
“When we look at feedback, we listen to our community of Baldur’s Gate fans first and foremost,” he says. “If the internet freaks out about something – well, it’s the internet and pretty much hates everything. If our fans bring it up, though, we’ll take it very seriously.
“If someone challenges me on something in our games, if someone expresses a concern about something, I’m going to take another look and think about whether we made the right decision and should stay by it?”
Unfortunately, select people outside the community have gone that extra length to make their voices heard, reportedly resorting to issuing threats and harassment to Beamdog staff – and it’s something Oster has taken personally.
“It hits everybody in the studio differently,” he says. “For the person directly receiving attacks, its obviously overwhelming – and it makes me really mad. There are few things in the world that truly get me angry. Watching someone close to me get attacked drives me up the wall.
“It took me a long time to draft a statement to respond. I wanted to take the time to calm down, go over it, get back to the core issues that had been raised and address them. I maintain that for a three-line dialogue limits, this was well executed. If we remove that limit, we can execute it even better.
“If other developers ever face this level of harassment, I suggest they calm down, take a step back, wait and then prepare a statement. Tell your staff on where you stand on the issue. If someone hijacked your game and inserted their own agenda, something not approved by the company, you’ve got to figure out what to do from an internal management perspective. But if it’s representative of the company’s views, and you agree with it, you need to stand up and support that person. Personally, I think throwing someone under a bus is a bad thing to do.”
The internet pretty much hates everything. If our fans bring it up, though, we’ll take it very seriously.
RANGERS AND REFUGEES
While Mizhena has undoubtedly become the poster child for Beamdog’s problems of late, her presence wasn’t the only aspect of the game that seemed to offend certain individuals.
Minsc, a long-running character in the Baldur’s Gate series (pictured), was also criticised for a line of dialogue that parodies Gamergate’s infamous slogan. Reports emerged that the Ranger uttered the words “Actually, it’s about ethics in heroic adventuring”, an unmistakable dig at the internet movement’s insistence that it was focused on ethics in games journalism.
As Oster has already mentioned, he and his team are always ready to admit mistakes and the line has since been removed.
“I had played the game quite a bit and never seen that line, because it’s a rare select line,” he says. “You have a click a lot of times before he fires it off. After the reaction, I sat and clicked on him until the line appeared, and I agreed that, y’know what, this doesn’t actually make sense.”
Another point of contention was a section towards the beginning of the game that centres around refugees. Given current tragic events around the world, refugees has become a topical issue and players argued that their inclusion in Siege of Dragonspear is insensitive.
However, Oster told Develop that their role in the story dates back to the beginning of development two years ago – before the real-world refugee crisis had heightened – and that they are a necessity for the RPG.
In order to make interesting dialogue, you take your personal experiences, your beliefs, what interests you and what drives you, and that’s going to feed into whatever character you create.
“The fact is, there are refugees in the world,” he says. “Anywhere where there is a horrible conflict, there will be refugees. It fits with the story we’re telling: there’s an army forming in the north, forcing people into the ranks and displacing others – that generates refugees.
“We needed an instigating event to get you our of Baldur’s Gate – otherwise your character just sits there, getting fat. That instigating event is the pressure caused by people fleeing the army in the north.
“Even given the reality of today with Syrian refugees, I don’t think we’d go back and change it because it’s part of our story. To use the usual disclaimer: any resemblance to actual events, persons living or dead… and so on.”
While Oster is sensitive to fans’ concerns, he emphasises that much of the team has a firm grasp on what is and isn’t appropriate to the series – and hopes players will trust them to handle the franchise responsibly.
“We know Baldur’s Gate through and through,” he says. “There’s a number of us here who have been through the development of the original Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights and other BioWare content – we live this stuff.
“Ultimately, the writers write the dialogue. In order to make interesting dialogue, you take your personal experiences, your beliefs, what interests you and what drives you, and that’s going to feed into whatever character you create.
“Individual writers are going to bring different things to your game. That’s why you have editors, who edit content down to make it fit within the overall game.”
Apparently, a transgender character is still a big deal in the modern world. If you’re going to do it, do it well, do it in-depth and do it respectfully.
Amber Scott, singled out by reports as the writer behind Mizhena, has openly said she will continue to explore unusual characters in her work. When asked if other devs should follow her example, Oster underscored that it is all dependent on the narrative.
“Ultimately, there’s a story we’re trying to tell,” he says. “Along the way of telling that story, there’s a core cast and there’s supporting characters. And it’s all about telling the best story we possibly can, and making characters that are interesting, believable and engaging. If following those priorities leads you to a transgendered character, or a female or male lead, or a gay or straight character, it’s what’s right for the story.
“My advise to developers would be to be sensitive about these issues – apparently, a transgender character is still a big deal in the modern world. If you’re going to do it, do it well, do it in-depth and do it respectfully.”