Curse of Strahd continued, problems with gender and mental illness [CW]

In my last post, I took a look at the troublingly racist depictions of the Vistani (who are crypto-Romani) and “mongrelfolk” in the iconic Ravenloft D&D adventure Curse of Strahd that was republished for D&D 5th Edition. Today, I’ll be looking at the other half of my analysis – which focuses on troubling things around gender, “edginess”, and depictions of mental illness.

(Before I get started, it is important to note that there is a content warning for discussion of violence against women and children, as well as ableist portrayals of mental illness.)

The one thing they got right: the core scenario and strahd’s entitlement issues

The heart of the Curse of Strahd scenario revolves around Strahd’s origins and the role that his “tragic love” for a woman named Tatyana played in his bargain with the Dark Powers that doomed Barovia and turned him into a vampire. Before Strahd’s transformation, he fell in love with Tatyana, but she loved his much younger brother Sergei. So Strahd did what any insanely jealous man would do, he murdered Sergei on their wedding day, drank Sergei’s blood, then chased after the grieving Tatyana until she threw herself to her death from the castle walls. (Like, literally chased her, not just “tried to romantically pursue her interest”.)

It was subsequent to this that Strahd was killed and rose again as a vampire, as a fulfilment of his bargain with the Dark Powers. This is also when Barovia became its own isolated demiplane of existence – in which all souls were trapped and could not move on to any sort of afterlife – which means that Tatyana’s soul was eventually reborn into a woman named Marina (who looked just like Tatyana). Strahd pursued Marina, but she was killed by another man. And now, in the “present day”, Tatyana’s soul has been reborn again into a woman named Ireena (who also looks just like Tatyana). Strahd, being the monster that he is, reasons that because Tatyana should have been his, Ireena actually belongs to him because he is entitled to her soul in any incarnation.

…which is fucked up, for obvious reasons.

And here’s the thing. It would have been easy for that to be incredibly problematic in presentation. But the scenario presents this motivation as one of the key features of Strahd’s monstrous inhumanity. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena and inability to let go of his “love” for Tatyana – who never wanted to be with him – are only ever presented as things that make him monstrous. In the scenario, Ireena is an NPC who can end up traveling with the party, and it is obvious from the beginning that if she is traveling with you, you are to help keep her free of Strahd’s influence. Which is great! It was great to see Strahd called out in the introduction as an abuser, and to see that consistently depicted in the scenario itself. Ireena represents a trope common to gothic literature that is cleverly subverted – she gets to be Mina Harker without being reduced to a human McGuffin.

Which is why the disastrous execution on the stuff that follows was so disappointing. And it also highlights why I’m being so hard on other things in the book, like the depictions of the Vistani and the mongrelfolk. There is a difference between critical examination or subversion of a harmful trope and mindless replication thereof. Strahd’s obsession with Ireena is the former, while everything else I talk about in this post (and the previous post) is the latter.

Problem #1: Strahd as vampire and his “brides” as spawn

The original Curse of Strahd module has been pretty influential on subsequent editions of D&D. For instance, in the 5E Monster Manual, the entries for “vampire” and “vampire spawn” are obviously inspired by Strahd and his “brides”. So rather than re-explain things I’ve written about previously, I’ll start by quoting myself:

This art is taken from the 5E Monster Manual, NOT Curse of Strahd
  • The man is depicted as an aspirational monster – a monster a PC might want to become, while the woman is crazy and clearly can’t be reasoned with – the sort of monster you don’t want to become
  • The man is depicted as reasoned and intelligent while the woman is shown as bestial and insane (bitches be crazy, amirite?)
  • “He’s talking to you, she’s stalking towards you. Also note the exaggerated hip/shoulder twist, is she doing a runway strut?”
  • The man is a person. The woman is not.
  • They reinforce social power dynamics; the man is a human-looking noble, the woman is a ragged, filthy-looking peasant
  • The woman is “spawn”, and is depicted as clearly inferior to the “original”
  • Given that the “spawn” is unreasoning and feral, the woman is clearly subject to the control of the master
  • Which makes it pretty fucking gross how sexualized the woman is; if she is feral and unreasoning and subject to the whims of her “master”, the degree of sexualization also implies some pretty rapey stuff about how her “master” could use her for sex
  • Especially because when you think about the process for becoming a vampire spawn in the first place, obvious rape metaphor is obvious
  • And there’s definitely a subtext that this is what happens to women who have sex, because she couldn’t resist his sexual advances and now she is damaged goods

(Many thanks to Laura Hamilton, Paul Czege, Joanna Piancastelli, Andrew Medeiros, Mikael Andersson, Arlene Medder, Sean Nittner, Brianna Sheldon, Brand Robins, Steve Dempsey, John Stavropoulos, Josh T Jordan, and Chris Chinn for helping me [make this list].)

Now it’s important to note that the depiction of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd is sliiightly better, but not much. The spawn in CoS aren’t depicted as being bestial as the example from the 5E Monster Manual. Instead, the female vampire spawn are all depicted as being very elegantly dressed and regal in bearing – if still monstrous in nature and completely subservient to Strahd. However, this is because they are all Strahd’s “brides”, whom he marries, turns into vampire spawn, and them locks them into crypts beneath his castle. So. That’s not great.

It’s also important to note that not all of the vampire spawn in Curse of Strahd are women – although the ultimate fates of those Strahd turns into vampire spawn seem to depend entirely on gender. Escher is a male vampire spawn created by Strahd who is free to roam about Strahd’s castle. The other male spawn named in the book is Doru; Doru ends up locked in a church basement, but it’s his father (a priest) who imprisons him, not Strahd – which, again, implies a degree of freedom to Doru’s movement that Strahd’s “brides” certainly did not enjoy.

Unfortunately, while Curse of Strahd portrays Strahd’s belief that Tatyana’s very soul belongs to him as being monstrous, the “brides” of Strahd are not depicted as centerpieces in Strahd’s depravity. They are relegated to one or two paragraphs provided for tragic color, and their transformation and confinement isn’t examined critically, which is unfortunate.

Problem #2: using murdered children to make the scenario grimdark and “edgy”

While it’s not ever said that Curse of Strahd is attempting to be “edgy”, the sheer number of murdered children in the book argues for at least a semi-conscious attempt to go for shock value – and that sucks. It sucks because fridging women and kids for the sake of cheap shock value is gross, and because things that are “edgy” or done for “shock value” are almost always done in ways that happen to reinforce the patriarchal status quo, as I recently had occasion to gripe on Twitter:

The other reason it sucks is because it’s just plain lazy writing. And it’s especially lazy writing when that same “shocker” is returned to over, and over, and over again – as it is in Curse of Strahd.

There are a number of children whose murders you can prevent:

  • Arabelle (7) – the kidnapped Vistani daughter of Luvash, is murdered by Bluto – a drunk villager who believes that killing a Vistani will make him lucky – unless the party stops it. However, this is pretty hard to prevent as Arabelle is tossed into a lake while in a burlap sack – the text says that she can’t be seen while in the boat, and there is a DC Strength check of 15 to rescue her in time once she’s been thrown in – which will be pretty hard for most adventurers to pass if they’re wearing armor. If you fail, she’s dead.
  • Morgantha, a night hag disguised as a witch, takes Lucian Jarov as payment for her dream pastries (more on that in a second) unless the party intervenes. The party can stop her, but unless the party kills her it says that she’ll just come back for him later.
  • Morgantha and her two daughters, also night hags, have two captive children in cages that they are fattening up to eat – Freek (7) and Myrtle (5). You can free them, but once you do they’re effectively orphans, since it was their parents who sold them to the night hags in the first place.
  • The Barovian werewolves have a number of children that they keep penned up, waiting for gruesome battles to the death – after which the “winner” is bitten. You can set them free or not.

There are also a number of children whose murders just happen as part of the background color of the setting:

  • Kiril, the leader of the Barovian werewolves, has been making children fight these duels for a long time, and the “winners” are traumatized as a result (obviously). There is a child transformed this way named Kellen that is specifically mentioned.
  • Rudolph Van Richten – the famous vampire hunter – has his son Erasmus stolen by Vistani and delivered to Strahd, who transforms Erasmus into a vampire spawn. Van Richten “saves” his son by murdering him. It’s not explicitly stated that Erasmus is a child when this happens, but it’s strongly implied.
  • Morgantha and the night hags require “bones of the innocent” in order to make their dream pastries, and they require the bones of children who have souls. (Because of the whole “souls can’t go to the afterlife” thing, a lot of people in Barovia are born without souls because… reasons?) They test children by poking them with needles to see if they cry (children without souls don’t cry), then get their parents hooked on dream pastries to the point that they’re willing to sell their kids for more dream pastries. Morgantha and her daughters also eat the children before using their bones.
  • The optional level 1-3 module at the end of the book – Death House – has two child NPCs named Rose and Thorn, who plead with the party to destroy the monster that lives in their basement. Only it turns out that Rose and Thorn are actually ghosts! Their parents were evil cultists who locked them in the attic and “forgot about them”, so they starved to death. The adventurers find their skeletons still in the attic of the house – despite the fact that Rose and Thorn also have crypts in the family cemetery. (Which is sort of baffling, but whatever.)

And. You know. I’m not saying that no one should ever write content about the death of children. It happens, and it’s hard and traumatic and awful. But trivializing it to the point of “murdered children in indeterminate numbers as setting wallpaper” in multiple instances is just really gross.

Problem #3: so. many. murdered. women.

I’m not going to go into why fridging female characters sucks. That’s pretty 101-level territory, not to mention that I couldn’t ever do a better job of explaining it than Anita Sarkeesian already has. So we’re going to take that as a given and proceed from there.

There are seriously so many women who meet violent ends at the hands of men that it’s a little bit sickening:

  • Tatyana, the object of Strahd’s desire and the reason he murdered his brother. Technically she kills herself, but only because Strahd won’t stop pursuing her – and one has to question what he was going to do with her once he caught her. The implications of that smell pretty rapey to me.
  • Varushka, a maid in Castle Ravenloft, took her own life after Strahd began feeding on her because she didn’t want to be made into a vampire spawn. Again, I’m pinning responsibility on Strahd, since he forced himself on her. And again, the situation is pretty rapey.
  • Marya is a woman who is murdered by a noble named Endorovich by accident; bitter that she had chosen another man over him, he tried to poison her lover and poisoned her instead. Endorovich gets a crypt in Castle Ravenloft, but it’s not said what became of Marya’s remains.
  • Petrina Velinkova was a dusk elf wizard who wanted to marry Strahd so that she could increase her own power. Her people got wind of her plans and her brother and the rest of the dusk elves murdered her to keep her from being corrupted by Strahd.
  • In response to Petrina’s murder, Strahd subsequently murders all of the female dusk elves in Barovia so that they can’t reproduce and will eventually die out. Because, you know, genocide is totes okay, as is reducing women to their reproductive capacity. (uggghhh)
  • Marina – the second incarnation of Tatyana – is seduced by Strahd, then murdered by her family to keep her from being turned into a vampire spawn.
  • The nursemaid in Death House (who is never named) was having an affair with the murderous, child-neglecting master of the house when she got pregnant with his child. Despite that he cared so little for his own children that he let them starve to death in the attic and never retrieved the bodies, he was so incensed when she miscarried his child that he and the rest of the cult all stabbed her to death.
  • Lastly, the Abbot at the Monastery of Saint Markovia is a corrupted deva who has embarked on making a flesh golem bride for Strahd, whom he names Vasilka and is giving comportment lessons when the adventurers encounter her. Elsewhere in the abbey, you can find a collection of dismembered female body parts – discards from the process of making Vasilka. It’s not explicitly stated that women were murdered for the pieces, but it’s strongly implied.

Jesus. That is a lot of murdered women, and all of them murdered by men because of male entitlement. Especially distressing are the women murdered by loved ones because of being “contaminated” by Strahd – Petrina, Varushka, and Marina. Because the obvious rape metaphor of Strahd feeding on lovely young women is obvious, the implication is that once a woman has been raped, sorry, “corrupted” by Strahd, she is damaged goods and is of no further use to anyone. And that is some seriously damaging victim-blamey shit.

Problem #4: depictions of “madness” and what happens to people labeled as crazy

Lastly, we have the issue of how madness is depicted and what happens to people labeled as crazy. Largely, people who are “mad” are locked up for the protection of others, and are never let loose again. The Monastery of Saint Markovia is now home to hundreds of mongrelfolk, all of whom are said to be mad. They have been imprisoned in the Monastery in order to “contain their madness”, and the conditions that they are kept in are horrifying.

The descriptions of the rooms read straight out of the worst stereotypes of the Bedlam mental hospital. Worse, in the courtyard there are nine sheds, and in each there is a “howling or mewling” mongrelfolk who is chained in filthy conditions. And the mongrelfolk are not fed on a regular schedule, which leads to a perpetual state of panic over food and starvation.

The worst part of all of this is that there is never any serious discussion given to what would happen if you were to free the mongrelfolk from their tormenters. The text says in multiple places that the mongrelfolk are irredeemably mad, and just sort of takes it as given that of course you’d just leave them there. I mean, they describe it as “a madhouse overrun by wickedness”, so even though the only wickedness described is the Abbot’s, I mean, just lock them up and throw away the key, right? Even outside of the Monastery, there is a theme of “person goes mad so they are locked up” running through the book, which – as someone who has been told that I should be involuntarily committed for daring to have opinions while mentally ill on the internet is just seriously offensive.

Additionally, nowhere does it ever detail what happens if you let them go free, but it does detail what will happen if you attempt to take toys or other obvious objects of comfort from certain NPCs. Which. Come on. Jesus.

There’s also a serious issue with who the label of “mad” gets applied to, at least for human NPCs, and what happens to them – because it is very gendered and not okay:

  • The Abbot – a deva who has been twisted by Strahd and the Dark Powers into twisted and depraved actions – isn’t “mad”. He’s been “corrupted”. You know, despite thinking it would be a totes great idea to make a flesh golem bride for an evil vampire wizard and then give it comportment lessons, because what’s most important in that situation is proper feminine behavior.
  • Stella Wachter, the daughter of Lady Wachter, goes “mad” after Victor Vallakovich – whom Lady Wachter wanted Stella to marry – was mean to her: ” In fact, he spoke such unkind words to Stella that she went mad, and Fiona had to lock her daughter away” (page 110). Which. …really? She’s so fragile that a boy being mean to her is enough to make her go “mad”? So of course, because she’s a woman and FEMALE MADNESS IS A THREAT TO EVERYONE, she gets locked up, obvs. Never mind the fact that her “madness” is that she thinks she’s a “kitty” – BETTER LOCK THAT BITCH UP SO SHE DOESN’T SHED ON SOMEONE.
  • Victor Vallakovich, on the other hand… When he’s not being so mean to young heiresses that he breaks their hold on reality and makes them think they’re felines, has been teaching himself magic from an old spellbook. Currently, he’s trying to build a teleportation circle that will allow him to leave Barovia, but so far he’s just screwed it up – as he discovered when he tested it on some servants. He’s disintegrated two servants already, but, you know, DISINTEGRATING PEOPLE and not showing any remorse isn’t at all crazy so let’s just not say anything and let him roam around free. What could possibly go wrong?
  • You know who else isn’t crazy? Baron Vallakovich, who has decided that being happy is the key to getting rid of Strahd and has been throwing mandatory festivals every week for the past several years. He’s started locking up malcontents, or even people who just aren’t happy enough, but that’s totes normal behavior right? Not at all insane, nope.

So when men are crazy, no one calls them crazy – they’re just allowed to roam free and do whatever. Chop up women for flesh golem parts, disintegrate servants, imprison people for not being happy. Whatever! It’s all good. But women who go crazy? Even inoffensively crazy in ways that don’t harm themselves or others? Well shit, LOCK THAT BITCH UP.

…and, look. Calling women crazy has been the number one way of dismissing women for millennia. It’s literally where the word hysteria comes from, because the ancient Greeks believed that the sheer act of having a uterus is enough to make you crazy, and that crazy belief has pretty much stuck with us for a couple thousand years. (And yes, not all woman have uteruses – I’m simply referencing the origin of the stereotype here.) So all of this is a nice little gender cherry on an ableist shit sundae.

Am I saying no one should play Curse of Strahd? No.

One of the things that got me to look into this again was the fact that a friend asked me about how feasible it would be to adapt CoS so that it didn’t have all the horrifying anti-Roma bits. And for all that I think there’s a lot of replication of terrible stereotypes, a modicum of preparation by a reasonably skilled GM would be sufficient to overcome this book’s shortcomings.

For example:

What would happen if the PCs decided to free the mongrelfolk from captivity? How could you encourage the party to act humanely in that situation?

What would happen if you switched the gender of certain characters to subvert particularly awful tropes? What if Strahd’s spawn were equally men and women, and you made it more about him needing to derive nourishment from ensouled people than just an obvious rape metaphor with Strahd dominating a large number of pretty young women?

How could you change the Vistani to make them not offensive crypto-Romani caricatures? Could you remove them altogether?

A savvy GM could map out the bits of the module they want to use, then modify appropriately to preserve the flavor of the setting – which is very evocative! – while still delivering a story not rife with unsettlingly problematic stereotypes.

Curse of Strahd: correctly labels Strahd an abuser, yet troublingly racist

Several months ago, I got an email from a reader – Daniel – who asked me if I would be willing to take a look at the republished Curse of Strahd for D&D 5th Edition, because he was concerned about how Curse of Strahd depicted the Vistani – who are a thinly veiled analog of the Romani people.

Daniel’s concerns were namely that:

  1. The Vistani were depicted according to current and historical negative stereotypes about the Roma people. They are shown as drunks and thieves, charlatans and cheats, and child stealers.
  2. The Vistani are depicted as having fortune-telling ability and can cast curses and the evil eye.
  3. With one exception, all of the Vistani characters in the book are either neutral or evil, while many (though certainly not all) of the non-Vistani villagers in the book are either good or lawful good. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have the keyword “bandit” as their creature type.
  4. As the Roma are one of the most abused and persecuted minorities in Europe, a perpetuation of such stereotypes might still be harmful.

Those all sounded like really compelling reasons to want to look at Curse of Strahd – especially since something that I have always felt very strongly about is the fact that mindless replication of harmful stereotypes is in itself harmful. Unfortunately, between one thing and another, I ended up flagging Daniel’s email as something to look into, and then didn’t get around to actually getting my hands on a copy until a few weeks ago.

Originally, I was just going to scan through for mentions of the Vistani. But things kept catching my eye and making me go, “really?” – to the point that I ended up reading through the book twice and taking notes. And. Man. It turns out that I had so much material it will have to be split into two posts. Because despite the fact that the foreword was actually quite encouraging in that it called out Strahd, and the historical person of Lord Byron – whom characters like Dracula and Strahd are heavily modeled on, are nothing more than serial abusers, Curse of Strahd is incredibly problematic when it comes to gender and mental illness. Additionally, its problems with racism go deeper than just the Vistani.

So! Since the Vistani and concern over racist tropes is what got me started looking into Curse of Strahd in the first place, I’ll handle that today and come back to gender and mental illness next time.

Before I go any further: an important note

It’s important to note that the Romani, or Roma, are often commonly referred to as “gypsies”. However, the term “gypsy” is an ethnic slur, and as such I have taken pains to use Romani or Roma when referring to real actual people – past or present, or Vistani – when referring to fictional characters in Curse of Strahd.

That said, there are a few places where I will reference supporting material that uses the term “gypsy”. This is for two reasons:

“gypsies” are a common literary trope in Gothic fiction (and British literature as a whole) and

It’s impossible to talk about the visual stereotyping of fictionalized Romani/Vistani characters without linking to material that uses the word “gypsy”, because the stereotypical “gypsy” costume is a fictional construct that doesn’t actually exist. Linking to resources that depict traditional dress of Roma people would be misleading, because traditional Roma dress does not look like the stereotypical “gypsy” costume. So I want to make very clear that I don’t in any way endorse the use of the word “gypsy”, or its commonly used derivative “gypped”. (Yes, saying you got “gypped” is racist.)

End note.

Problem the first: the Vistani

The first dodge that will inevitably be used to claim that the Vistani are not problematic is the fact that they’ve been renamed. However, this argument is cheap sophistry, because any person who reads through the material will recognize the Vistani as being Romani.

First, the descriptions of their clothing and the artwork in the book depict the Vistani in stereotypical “gypsy costume”:

vistani

And no, this piece isn’t an isolated example. Compare the Google Image search results for “gypsy” and for Vistani, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Everything about how the Vistani are depicted in artwork heavily references stereotypical depictions of “gypsies”. Further, if the authors of the book didn’t want the Vistani to be read as being Romani, they shouldn’t have used an actual Romani word to refer to the Vistani wagons. Vistani wagons are called vardos, which is the real life Roma word for traditional Romani wagons. Additionally, descriptions of the Vistani vardos adhere closely to the real-life Romani vardos.

In other words, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. Any reasonable person would recognize the people being referenced by the fictional Vistani as Romani. WHICH IS A PROBLEM, given that the Vistani in Curse of Strahd adhere closely to just about every negative stereotype ever used to persecute actual Romani people. Such as:

The Vistani are criminals who menace good honest society:

  • Adventure hook – Mysterious Visitors, p19-20: “[the duchess] voices her concern about a band of wayward travelers camped outside the town’s walls. They seemed harmless at first, but Morwen has received reports that they have begun harassing townsfolk and other visitors as they come and go, demanding money and wine, and threatening to put hexes on anyone who doesn’t pay up
  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness … they are searching for graves to plunder or hunting small game.”
  • Vallaki Lore – p96: “There’s a Vistani camp in the woods soutwest of the town. The Vistani there aren’t very friendly. Vistani aren’t welcome in Vallaki.”
  • Lady Wachter’s Wish, p124: Lady Wachter has a letter delivered to the Vistani camp “that asks the Vistani to dispose of the characters once they have left town. The Vistani burn the letter after reading it, as per Lady Wachter’s request”.
  • The keywords used for Vistani NPCs are almost universally villainous keywords. There is one mage, one group of commoners, the chaotic neutral fortune teller Madam Eva, and Ezmerelda D’Avenir – who is a chaotic good vampire hunter. Aside from those exceptions, all Vistani are either assassins, bandits, bandit captains, or thugs.

The Vistani are all drunks:

  • Random wilderness encounter – Vistani bandits, p32: “These evil Vistani march through the Barovian wilderness without much concern for their well-being, smoking pipes, drinking from wine skins, and telling ghost stories.”
  • Tser Pool Encampment, p36: “Twelve Vistani … are standing and sitting around the fire, telling stories and guzzling wine. They are intoxicated and have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “Even at this distance, you can smell the odors of wine and horses that emanate from this central area.”
  • Vistani Camp, p119: “the Vistani have exhausted their supply of wine and are eager to obtain more”
  • Vistani Tent, p121: “Luvash is so drunk that he has disadvantage on his attack rolls and ability checks … in addition to Luvash … there are six intoxicated Vistani … lying unconscious in the tent.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “Luvash is unhappy because his seven-year-old daughter, Arabelle, has vanished. She’s been gone for a little more than a day. Because everyone in the camp was drunk and Arrigal was away, no one remembers hearing or seeing anything strange.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “he agrees to do business with them if they accomplish one of two tasks: either find his missing daughter, or procure six barrels of wine and bring them to the camp”
  • Luvash’s Wagon, p122: “Luvash’s wagon is a mess inside. Empty wineskins, dirty clothes, and mangy furs are strewn about.”
  • Wagon of Sleeping Vistani, p122: “Each of these wagons contains 1d4 intoxicated and unconscious Vistani”

What’s notable here is that the Vistani are such drunken degenerates, that a little girl went missing from their camp for AN ENTIRE DAY and nobody noticed because they were too drunk. And when you treat with her father, Luvash, you can gain his trust either by bringing back his daughter, or by bringing him SIX MORE BARRELS OF WINE. You know, because one is as good as the other to a no good drunken Vistani, right?

The Vistani are untrustworthy liars:

  • Adventure hook – Plea for Help, p19: “The letter, which seems to have been written by the buromaster, was actually penned by Strahd. … The letter is bait to lure the adventurers to Barovia.”
  • The Vistani lie about their allegiance to Strahd: page 19, page 27
  • The Vistani lie about having potions that will allow characters to travel safely through the mists: page 19, page 27, page 122

The Vistani steal children

  • Rudolph Van Richten’s son, Erasmus, was stolen from him by Vistani, who sold him to Strahd: page 230, page 238

(There’s only one instance of this in the text, but given that this is one of the most serious and pernicious stereotypes against modern Roma it’s worth calling out as a distinct stereotype.)

The Vistani are cheats, gamblers, and thieves:

  • Strahd’s Vistani Servants, p27: “They readily tell adventurers that they have a potion that protects them from the deadly fog that surrounds Barovia. Although this is a lie, they attempt to sell their fake potion for as much money as they can get.”
  • Vistani Tent, p122: “For a hefty price, he offers to sell the characters potions that allow safe passage through the deadly fog … The potions don’t work, of course.”
  • Wagon of Gambling Vistani, p123: “the Vistani are playing a dice game for wine and favors, since they have no money”
  • Tower, Fourth Floor, p171: “…a human Vistana named Yan. … Yan reveals that he was banished from his clan for stealing.”

The Vistani have mystical powers to lay curses, tell fortunes, and use the evil eye

  • There are literal actual mechanics for cursing and the evil eye on page 28
  • Madam Eva, the Vistani fortune teller, whose fortunes come true: page 21, page 37, page 44, page 233-234

And. You know. So what? Who cares? This is just a roleplaying game, right?

EXCEPT. 250,000 Roma people were executed during the Holocaust because of racist views about the Roma. Today, Neo-Nazis harass Roma people here in Canada, partly because Canada has been accepting larger numbers of Hungarian Roma refugees and asylum-seekers as anti-Roma persecution in Hungary continues to escalate. Also, French authorities removed a five-year old blonde girl from the care of her Romani caregivers – who were raising the girl with the permission of her Bulgarian birth mother – because she “didn’t look Roma”; despite proof that the girl hadn’t been abducted, she will NOT go back to her adoptive Romani parents.

When the stereotypes of Roma people as murderous criminals, child-stealers, no-good gamblers and drunks, and a general menace to good and honest society are the reason why European Romani face tremendous persecution and violence, mindlessly replicating those stereotypes is just gross and irresponsible.

Problem the second: Miscegenation!

(Miscegenation is an ugly term referring to “the mixing of the races” through breeding.)

In Chapter 8, which details the village of Krezk, one of the key locations is the Abbey of Saint Markovia – which has become an insane asylum for mongrelfolk – humanoid creatures with random animal features who are all incurably insane.

dca9mongrelfolk

Which. Okay, we’ll skip over the grossness of “lock up the mentally ill and throw away the key” until next time and just focus on the mongrelfolk for now, starting with the name. Because “mongrel”? Is a racial slur meaning someone with a mixed-race background, with a pretty disgusting history:

“…in the ugly history of racism, “mongrel” has been used to demean couples of different ethnicities and children of mixed race.

This last sense of mongrel invokes another nasty word, miscegenation, which is a derogatory term for couples of mixed race who marry and have kids. In many states anti-miscegenation laws made it a crime for two people of different races to have a relationship or engage in intimate activities. The Supreme Court found these laws to be unconstitutional in 1967.” —source: blog.dictionary.com

You have a literal mixed race with random animal traits, which are referred to as deformities. Most mongrelfolk can’t speak Common, or they speak fragmented Common “mixed with various animal cries and nonsense”, and “aren’t sophisticated enough” to use the animal sounds they produce as communication. And where it gets extra gross, almost all children of a mixed mongrelfolk/human union will be mongrelfolk: “about one child in every hundred is born looking like its non-mongrelfolk parent”.

So why is all of that so terrible? Let’s break it down.

First: the mongrelfolk are inherently inferior subspecies of humanoid. Their nature as a mixed race adheres to the historical panic over miscegenation, which stems from the idea that the superior humans are those who are racially pure. (And, you know, white.) The fact that they are called “mongrels” is what ties the backstory of the mongrelfolk to deeply ugly historical anti-Black racism in the United States.

Second: The fact that mongrelfolk can’t speak Common intelligibly and lack sense enough to use the sounds they can make as communication with one another is mirrored by deeply racist anti-Black stereotypes about the intellectual inferiority of Black people. These stereotypes were used to justify the existence of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere) prior to the Civil War. More important, these stereotypes still persist today. No less a personage than James Watson (of Watson and Crick fame, who stole Rosalind Franklin’s data and with it the Nobel prize she should have won for discovering the structure of DNA) said in 2007 that Africans are less intelligent than Westerners.

Third: the fact that 99% of babies born to mongrelfolk/human couples are mongrelfolk has a historical analog in the One Drop Rule, which held that only one Black ancestor, no matter how far back in your family tree, was required to make someone Black. This rule was made into law across the American South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, and was part of the DNA of Jim Crow Segregation laws. This by itself might not be so bad, but together with the previously mentioned mirrors to anti-Black racist stereotypes might just make the mongrelfolk the most racist thing I have ever seen in a roleplaying game. (It’s hard to say – I’ve been doing this for several years and there are a lot of examples to choose from.)

So. You know. Slow clap?

And that’s about enough for today.

Next time I’ll tackle CoS’s problems with gender, mental illness, and use of “edgy” tropes.

When games are written by straight men for straight men: the problem with Emily is Away [CW][TW][spoilers]

[Note before I start, that I get pretty shouty about gaslighting, manipulation, and rape in this post. So please proceed with caution and care.]

One of the (many) problems of the male as default protagonist in any form of entertainment is that it’s left me cold for vast swathes of media, even media that is critically acclaimed. We’re told that male protagonists are more “relate-able”, and that men can’t be expected to identify with female protagonists. And leaving aside the blatant unfairness of that statement, it is true that women will identify with male protagonists – to a certain point. However, after a while, it just gets hard to care about media obviously aimed at men. For most of my life, I consumed stories mostly about men, but past a certain point you start to ask – why am I never reflected? Why should I care about this story about Yet Another Chapter In the Continuing Adventures of Manly Mans Doing Manly Things when the purveyors couldn’t give two shits what I think?

So. Hold that thought a moment.

I’ve been meaning to write about Emily is Away for a while now. I’d heard great things about it from various sources about the game and how the unique interface delivers compelling gameplay through moments like watching your typing errors be corrected or watching yourself delete or revise your comments. My vague impression of Emily is Away was that it was supposed to be a charming love story about two people whose relationship is witnessed through AIM, and that it was supposed to be well executed.

That was something that I was really interested in! I’ve written previously about how I wish that AAA gaming would make more games that aren’t just violence simulators with awesome graphics. And given that I met my husband online in a newsgroup, then migrated to having conversations via ICQ and IRC… the whole “relationship by AIM” thing was nostalgia that I was interested in revisiting. I felt like I was in the audience that this story was targeting – people who chatted on archaic chat platforms of the 90’s who have had an internet romance.

Unfortunately, when I actually played Emily is Away, I had the rug pulled out from under me, because once again I discovered that I’d been suckered into playing a game that was emphatically Not Written For Me. That frustration only got worse the more times I played it, trying to explore the different branches, because the more I played, the more it hit home that this was a game written by a man for an audience of straight men. Moreover, this post took days to write because I discovered that I have a lot to say about that. So.

Let’s dig into what I mean when I say that this game was written by a man for an audience of straight men. Starting with:

Problem #1: The men in this game are people, the women are props

At no point in this game do we ever get a feel for what Emily as a person is like. She never says anything personal about herself that isn’t about her connection to another dude. She’s going to Travis’ party. She’s getting messages from Brad. She’s dating Brad! But she sure asks lots of questions about YOU – the dude protagonist. (And yes you can put in a female name at character creation. It won’t change the fact that you’re still a dude, but we’ll return to that.)

Emily asks what you chose as your major, but you never ask about hers – nor does she ever talk about what she ends up studying. In the game, you talk about classes, about group projects, about what school is like for you – but YOU NEVER ASK EMILY and SHE NEVER TALKS ABOUT IT. Even when she opens up and says personal things, the only things she talks about relate to her connection with YOU, the protagonist, or her off-again-on-again boyfriend, Brad. Emily isn’t a person. She doesn’t feel “real”. She’s a shallow cardboard cutout. An obvious stand-in for the ultimate Nice Guy fantasy – what if my female friend actually did have feelings for me all along?

Worse, the only other female character in the game, Emma. And she gets ONE out of THREE possible character traits: kind, funny, or hot. Emily at least gets to have a second dimension through some trivial personal details, like the fact that she likes Coldplay and Snow Patrol – which is more than Emma gets. Emma exists in one dimension, because that’s the only dimension she’s ever given. NEITHER of them gets to be a real, three-dimensional person. Even more frustrating, it is VERY HARD not to have a romantic relationship with her.

Emma is depersonalized to the extent that at the end of the game, it’s revealed that you don’t spend time with Emma anymore; if Emma was someone you were pursuing romantically and you chose to go down the path that leads to a romantic encounter with Emily (which we’ll get back to in a sec), Emma rightly kicks you to the curb for ditching your plans with her to make a booty call with your friend from high school. (Seriously, major dick move.) But even if you don’t! Even if you don’t ditch Emma, or you and Emma are nothing more than friends, the ending is always the same. At the end, Emma starts dating someone else and doesn’t have time for you anymore.

Which, really, is the ultimate Nice Guy fear. That a woman they like will find someone else, someone who contributes more than just not being a shitty human being who sees her only as a sexual goal to be attained, and stop spending time with them.

In Chapter 5, when Emily asks how Emma is doing, and you reveal that you don’t see her anymore, you literally don’t have an option that indicates that you’re sad about not seeing her anymore. Even if you and Emma are really good friends who talk all the time earlier in the story, the only possible responses show a breathtaking lack of regard for Emma as a human being:
Emily7-couldcareless

And that? Makes me pretty furious. Because I have BEEN the woman surrounded by men who are unable to see me as a person. I’ve been the woman that men call an ignorant judgemental cunt, or a fat jealous lesbian, or who say that I’m raising my daughter to be a dysfunctional lesbian – just because I have opinions they don’t agree with about games. I’ve been the female friend who realizes that her male friend, the friend that she felt close to, never actually cared about her – he just liked having someone around who admired his work and stroked his ego. And I’ve been the woman who had use her relationship status (“taken”) to fend off men she’d rather not speak to. Because I’m not enough of a person to have my wishes respected, but my husband is.

I have a lifetime of experience of being the fake woman, the cardboard cutout, the prop in a man’s self-centered reordering of the universe to be all about him. And maybe it’s completely unfair, but my knee-jerk reaction is that of course only a man could look at how Emily and Emma are presented and see the situation as “charming” or “romantic”, because so many men aren’t used to thinking of women as real people anyhow.

Problem #2: the game is NOT gender neutral

Technically, you can put in any name you want. There’s never any pronouns used, so the protagonist can be any gender the player wants… TECHNICALLY. In practice, however, the game and all the dialogue read as YOU ARE A HETERO DUDE.

doge

I like playing immersively, so I used my name. I also decided that for my first playthrough, I wanted to just be Emily’s friend. And, you know, mostly that worked until about halfway through Chapter 3. Emily is sad about a bad breakup, which has cost her all of her friends – who sided with her ex, and reveals that she used to have feelings for the protagonist.

Which. You know. Nice Guy fantasy. But also, it is the most boringly cliched hetero romance moment ever, that I simply could not take seriously the idea that the protagonist was anything other than a straight dude. Seriously:

Emily3-stars

And look. I get it. The stars are romantic. I, too, have gone for a walk with my beloved and marveled at the stars. They’re large and unfathomable and we are but tiny ephemeral things whose connections will never matter on a cosmic scale. I get it.

But. That doesn’t change the fact that this is a literal retelling of a thing that happens in every other movie about a hetero romance movie ever[1]. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Scott Pilgrim, The Fault in Our Stars, Gregory’s Girl, A Beautiful Mind, My Girl… the list goes on and on.

Anyway, the moment where things go from mildly frustrating to totally fucking gross what the actual fuck just happened here occurs in Chapter 4, in response to events from Chapter 3. Which brings you to:

Problem #3: This game makes you a rapist, then tells you asserting healthy boundaries is JUST AS BAD AS THAT

See, during that conversation in Chapter 3, after Emily reveals that she had feelings for you, she asks if she can come visit you THIS WEEKEND OR NOT AT ALL, and you have several shitty options: 1) say no, you don’t think it would be a good idea, because Emily just told you about her past feelings and she’s coming off a bad breakup, so she can’t visit you AT ALL NEVER EVER. 2) Say “yes you can come visit” with no qualifications 3) Say yes you can come visit, but only as friends.

Because I was trying to play someone who didn’t have a relationship with Emily, I made the most neutral responses that I could when she was revealing her feelings to me, “I didn’t know you felt that way” and “you should have said something”. But when she asked if she could come visit, I said sure! Because she needed support, and in at the beginning it’s established that the two of you are best friends, even if the protagonist is too chickenshit to say it outright. (“You’re my best friend” is one of the things he deletes and corrects.) And sure it meant canceling on plans to do stuff with Emma, but I reasoned we’re all adults and Emma should understand “best friend is in trouble, needs support” – because it’s the compassionate thing to do.

After agreeing to the visit, I even said (the first time around) ‘sure, bring your booze’ when she asks about alcohol, reasoning we’d hang around campus and do shit and just get drunk enough to have fun and feel better about a shitty situation. There have been lots of times where I’ve hung out with friends in shitty situations and got drunk with them to help them feel better.

Which, you know, yay! Until Chapter 4, which opens a year after that visit, with Emily apologizing for not messaging in a while. She says she’s felt weird about things between you, and when pressed responds with the following:
Emily4-didyou

I felt sick. Actually sick. “Of course I didn’t plan that” was the least skeevy response it would let me make, and it was still defensive and not okay. But then it went even further. Emily tells you about how in retrospect, it all seemed so planned. That you introduced her to all your friends, then took her back to your dorm room and got her drunk and you “hooked up”. And she’s felt weird and not okay about it ever since. And no matter what response you make, the protagonist types “you wanted to hook up”, then erases it and replaces it with “I don’t know”.

And THAT? That was like a bucket of cold water. Because “you wanted it” is what rapists tell their victims.

Literally nothing about how Emily describes the situation reads as consensual to me. The defensive responses, the fact that you can even claim to ‘not have noticed’ that things were weird, the fact that your initial impulse is to tell her that she wanted it. This doesn’t read like a misunderstanding between star-crossed lovers. This reads like a woman who is hurt and traumatized by something that she knows wasn’t okay, something that violated her trust in someone that she loved, and she’s trying to confront that without being ready to call what happened to her “rape”. Not yet.

While this whole thing played out, I couldn’t help but remember stories that I’ve heard from other women about having their trust violated by a friend who told them that they wanted it. I’ve heard and read so many stories, so many stories where a woman talks about being raped by a man that she loved and trusted, who told her that she wanted it, and who refused to accept that what he did was not okay when confronted later. And they read uncomfortably close to how this scene plays out. This scene that is supposed to be “romantic”. This scene where you find out that you are a rapist, and it happened offscreen, and you couldn’t do anything about it.

So I went back and replayed it. Made the same choices up to that point, but then told Emily not to bring booze. But that still doesn’t make much difference. You still hook up, things are still weird and wrong, and in dubious consent territory. And this time when Emily calls you on it:

Emily5-vulnerable

YOU SEEMED FINE?

BEFORE SHE VISITED SHE WAS CRYING TO YOU, LITERALLY CRYING ABOUT HER BREAKUP AND HOW SHE HATED EVERYTHING AND HER SCHOOL AND ALL HER FRIENDS HAD DUMPED HER. SO. NO. THAT IS WRONG. “I don’t know” is such a fucking disingenuous response, because the entire situation that led to this visit? The fact that you and Emily talk all the time, and have this long past together? You know. You fucking well KNOW she’s not okay. How could you not?

The only saving grace is that at least this time around it’s not rape, because Emily was sober and capable of consent. But this is some skeevy emotional manipulation bullshit, and then the fact that the protagonist claims ignorance of her emotional state after the fact? No. NO.

I’ve had my body used for the gratification of a man in a situation that I didn’t consent to. I shut down. I froze, I didn’t move or speak. But when I confronted my attacker later, he at least had the grace to be ashamed and own that what he did wasn’t okay and apologize. Because he knew. HE KNEW and he did it anyway, because in that moment what he wanted was more important than my safety.

And I’ve had men gaslight me. Men who I thought were friends and confidants, who turned my world upside down, tried to convince me that I was a monster because I insisted on trying to get them to see themselves in a critical light because I cared about them and wanted them to be better. Men who decided it was better to betray my trust and destroy my confidence in how I saw myself because it wasn’t compatible with them seeing themselves as the HERO OF THEIR OWN STORY.

So yeah. No.

[ahem] So that’s shitty option number 2. What about shitty options #1 (no you can’t visit ever) and #3 (yes you can visit, but only as a friend). Well, if you opt for #1, at the beginning of Chapter 4 Emily mentions that she had a breakdown after you wouldn’t let her visit and blames you for abandoning her in her time of need. Which. I mean. Fine. You know, having Emily be so emotionally fragile that she falls to pieces and goes crazy the instant a man isn’t there to validate her self-worth is shitty, but at least “you said you’d support me and didn’t” is a legitimate grievance, even if the situation that is presented is so stereotypical and gendered that I can’t even.

And if you opt for #3, Chapter 4 opens with Emily berating you about how things will never be okay because you “missed your chance” and “that was the moment” you could have gotten together and YOU BLEW IT. And the anger and recrimination is just as strong in that situation, the situation in which you asserted a healthy boundary and didn’t take advantage of a woman you cared about who was deeply vulnerable, as it is in situation #2 – in which you can become an actual rapist[2].

Because the problem, THE REAL PROBLEM, is that Emily has feelings toward the protagonist that aren’t positive. It doesn’t matter if they arise from a legitimate grievance, or you “not making your move”, or you taking advantage of her and possibly raping her. The outcome is always the same, because the protagonist’s actions don’t matter. What matters is that Emily is rejecting you, and that is the REAL tragedy.

Problem #4: No matter what choices you make, in the end you are always The Sad Nice Guy Abandoned By That Girl Who Should Have Chosen Him Instead

Chapter 5 opens by being the only chapter in which you have to message Emily first to talk to her. And during that conversation, Emily is obviously doing a slow fade. She’s not pulling her weight in the conversation, making terse responses, and not trying to keep it going.

Though of course the one exception to this is when she asks, unprompted, about Emma and the protagonist has the aforementioned hissy fit about how she had to get a new boyfriend and doesn’t spend time with him anymore. And it’s ironic that this, THIS, is perhaps the only thing that the author gets right. That dismissal of Emma as a person who has worth independent of her willingness to satisfy your boner is the moment when Emily shuts down and stops trying. You pepper her with questions about stupid shit. Concerts, summer plans, whatnot, and she gives you the soft rejection. Because that’s what women learn to do with men they have reason to be afraid of, to let them down easy so they don’t get stabbed.

Emily8-goodbye

But even then, he comes at it all wrong – because the tragedy isn’t what a what a sad, miserable human being you are. The tragedy isn’t that you’re an entitled dickmonster incapable of seeing women as real human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations. The tragedy is supposed to be that you are SAD and CONFUSED and ALONE, and you don’t understand how you could be graduating college WITHOUT A WOMAN. Because our culture PROMISED YOU A WOMAN.

It’s infuriating to play through a game that misses the point so completely that it ends up in an entirely different universe of NOT THE GODDAMN POINT. And it’s disappointing, because honestly – I’ve had friendships fizzle out where one person stopped caring, friendships that have played out over messaging. And it sucks. It hurts, and it’s painful, and it leaves you bewildered and wondering what you did wrong. So that game? That game I would have played and enjoyed. But not this. Never this.

Emily is Away isn’t “touching” or “romantic”. It’s a disturbing highlight of how entitled men feel to women’s time and attention, and how willing men are to dehumanize someone in the pursuit of achieving their own romantic desires.

[1] And before you ask what makes that seem so hetero, looking at the stars is just romantic, right? That might be the case if Hollywood didn’t make the few gay love stories they produce tragic like EVERY GODDAMN TIME. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Brokeback Mountain, Rent, Love is Strange, Carol, Cracks, Aimée & Jaguar, Blue is the Warmest Colour (not death)… you get the idea

It’s pretty fucking impossible to think of a movie about a gay romance that ends happily. …like, to be honest, I’m a movie buff and I literally can’t remember one.

[2] And yeah, I know about Kyle Seeley’s response to Emily Short’s review, in which she raises the issue of ‘um, you are describing rape’. And in that response, he starts by telling Emily ‘she’s wrong’, ‘it’s not rape’. And then he handwaves and says well you know, he’s not saying Emily’s feelings are wrong or whatever. And then he fails to stick the landing with an ‘I’m sorry if you were offended’ nonpology. (“I’m sorry to anyone who interprets the story that way”). So no, if anything he just dug the hole deeper.

Overwatch delivers diversity alongside racist stereotypes, still does better than rest of AAA gaming [LONG]

Overwatch, the hit new shooter/MOBA released by Blizzard has been taking the internet by storm lately. (That is, until the internet collectively lost its damn mind over Pokemon Go this past week[1].) As of mid-June, they had already accumulated more than 10 million active players, no mean feat considering that it was released less than two months ago.

Since the beginning of its development, one of the major talking points that has been emphasized in press pieces is that Blizzard was trying to design with an eye to diversity. Like the piece on Kotaku proclaiming that Blizzard wanted to “do women better”, which showed Widowmaker displaying a whole lot of ass cleavage:

Meanwhile over on Polygon, there was a piece with the headline: “Blizzard wants its diverse fans to feel ‘equally represented’ by Overwatch’s heroes“. Which, by the way, only featured quotes from a press conference given by Blizzard, and which completely failed to mention any of Blizzard’s previous problems with representation in their games to date. (*cough* Hearthstone *cough* Worldofwarcraft *cough*)

I’ve written about Overwatch before. (In fact, people talking trash about my Overwatch posts are still a reliable source of occasional traffic spikes from Reddit, which is a bit surprising two years later.) And the game’s recent release, along with the fact that it seems diversity is still being used as a talking point to promote the game – as evidenced by this piece published just 3 days in advance of the release, made me think that it would probably be worthwhile taking a second look at Overwatch to see how it’s shaped up.

Overwatch Characters and Gender

The last time I wrote about Overwatch, 6 out of the (then) 14 characters that had been announced were female, however, 1 character – Bastion – was genderless. If you don’t count Bastion, that made for a roster that was 46% female – not too shabby. At the game’s release, it featured 8 female characters out of 21 characters that have a gender – which was only 40%. However, as of yesterday, a new female character was announced – Ana – which brings the ratio up to 9 out of 21 gendered characters, or 42%.

icons-gender

So, you know. It’s not fifty-fifty, which is disappointing from a game that says it wanted to “do women better”. How hard would it have been to make one of the weirdo characters, like Winston or Zenyatta, female? And sure, 42% is still a damn site better than almost every game I’ve ever bothered to review numbers for on this blog. But I tend to think that to “do women better”, you should at the very least reflect their levels of representation in the actual world. And we won’t even talk about how there are ugly or weird looking male characters, but all of the female characters except for one are in their mid-20s and have flawless skin – except for Ana. And even then, the only concession to her age is white hair and maaayyybbbbe a hint of an eye wrinkle.

It’s worth noting that all of that completely ignores the issue of queer and nonbinary gender identities. Since the canon doesn’t say otherwise, it has to be assumed that all 21 of the gendered heroes are cisgender, which is – again – disappointing from a game that seems to be trying to sell itself, at least in part, on the diversity of its character’s designs and backgrounds.

But overall, those turned out to be minor irritants compared to the embarrassing levels of racism (with a sprinkling of ableism) in the hero backstories and alternate character designs. Hooray!

Character Backstories

Lucio

So out of a lineup of 22 characters, you have exactly 1 black person – Lucio. And YES I get that there are other characters who are visible minorities – Symmetra, Pharah, Hanzo, etc. But what about McCree and Soldier 76, who are both from the United States? Or Tracer, who is from the UK? Or Widowmaker, who is from France? Or Mercy, who is from Switzerland? All of these are countries with diverse populations! Black people live in all of these countries! Coding all of the Western first world nations as white is problematic as hell. (And no, Widowmaker does not count as a PoC because she’s blue.)

So with all of that in mind, it is doubly problematic that Lucio – the only black guy – is a black guy from the slums. And sure, he’s from the favelas in Rio de Janeiro. And sure he was “fighting the man”. But the core concept was “black DJ from the slums who stole things”. And when your go-to backstory for the only black guy is “poor thief”, that is super fucking problematic. The stereotype of black people as thieves and criminals is the reason why real actual black people get profiled by police and followed in shops and stores. And the fact that the video games industry is more than 87% white makes all of this even more problematic.

So. You know. What the actual fuck, Blizzard?

Reaper

Similarly, Gabriel Reyes AKA Reaper is the only Latino in the game (you know, despite the fact that it actually would have made more sense to make McCree Latino instead of making him white). And what’s his backstory? Well, according to the Overwatch wiki:

Reaper admits to being a high-functioning psychopath, having a passion for murder and vengeance and is willing to kill even without a solid motivation. —Overwatch Wiki

And this is shitty for pretty much exactly the same reasons that making Lucio a black thief from the slums is shitty. When news coverage of Latin@s is 1% of total coverage, despite the fact that they make up 13% of the US population? And 66% of that coverage is about Latinos as criminals? Making THE ONLY LATINO in your game an actual fucking psychopathic murderer is shitty and racist.

Symmetra

Symmetra’s backstory and concept doesn’t read as racist to me, although I’ll admit to not being conversant enough with those particular stereotypes to be able to spot something that’s not completely obvious. However, where her backstory does fall down is a WHOLE LOT OF FUCKING ABLEISM. And sure, it’s obvious that it’s at least well-meaning ableism? But there is a lot of hinky mental health and neurotypical stereotyping going on. Again, according to the Overwatch Wiki:

Symmetra may be on the autism spectrum as implied in A Better World[1]. In it, she says it used to “bother her” when people would ask where she fit on the spectrum; further, she appears to have what could be described as obsessive-compulsive disorder, namely her preoccupation with “perfection”, such as when she can’t resist fixing a crooked picture or how she notices the perfection of a child’s face. Traits common to OCD are also associated with autism.[2] —Overwatch Wiki

For fuck’s sake.

First, if you want to have a character who is on the autism spectrum, EITHER DO IT OR DON’T. Don’t say well she miiiiiiight be, but then maaaaaybe not. Because what the fuck is wrong with having a heroic character who is autistic? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Second, fixing crooked frames or noticing a perfect face isn’t OCD – unless you spend your entire day checking and re-checking and re-checking every picture frame to make sure it’s straight, or obsessively scanning people’s faces looking for flaws, to the detriment of actually getting anything done. OCD is an anxiety spectrum disorder, emphasis on the disorder. If it doesn’t interfere with your daily life and ability to function, then it’s not OCD. Being particular about how things are placed or wanting things to be just so? That’s not fucking OCD, and it’s really shitty trivializing OCD that way.

Character Designs: Racist Tropes and Culture as Costume

Mercy

So I’ve written before about how it’s really problematic making the character who is coded as “angel” blonde. But you know what’s even shittier? Making your angel character blonde, then having an alternate skin named “Devil” and giving that skin black hair.

Not following why that’s problematic? Well, allow me to quote myself:

Here’s another one I wish I didn’t see as often as I did. If you’re writing a race that has inborn magic powers, immortality, supernatural sexiness, preternatural senses, or is otherwise superior to normal boring humans, DON’T have the defining trait of that race be a real world racial trait.

Wait. No. I’m going to be more explicit.

DON’T MAKE THEM BLONDE. Because that is some creepy white supremacy shit right there – ESPECIALLY when combined with the Evil Darkies [aka: the trope of making evil races have dark skin] mentioned above.

That’s not to say you can’t have superhumans! … you can keep 100% of your magical superhumans and still have them not suck. Case in point, World of Warcraft. The good elves are purple and the bad elves are blonde. (Granted, there’s still an awwwwwful lot of fail of just about all types in WoW. But this is, at least, one small thing that they did manage to get right.)

When you tie the idea of “good” to traits that are White and “evil” to traits that are Not-White, THAT IS RACIST.

Mercy-angel-devil

The irony is that Mercy’s other alternate skins depict her as a Valkyrie, which honestly I like about a million times better than either her default skin or her “Devil” skin. Boobplate aside, they did a great job of translating the character concept into a design appropriate to the character’s cultural background.

Zenyatta, Roadhog, and Pharah

Zenyatta is a bit of a tricky case in that he is a robot (who is gendered as male) monk who is never explicitly called out as being a Buddhist monk. But his backstory says he wanders the Himalayas, and the Saffron robes as well as descriptions of Zenyatta’s approach to philosophy make it pretty clear that he is supposed to be a Tibetan Buddhist (robot) monk. And, you know what, cool. There could be some cool elements about robots deciding to investigate humanity and ending up identifying as a particular gender and culture.

What is definitely uncool is tying Zenyatta strongly (if implicitly) to one culture, and then using other cultural costumes as alternate looks:

Zenyatta

Look. This is a theme that I’m going to come back to for the next few designs, but I would think that after the stink that gets raised on the internet and social media every October, people would start getting the hint that using cultural attire or cultural dress for the sake of looking “cool” is not okay. Culture is not costume.

This gets even more problematic when Native and Aboriginal cultures are the ones being used as costume, because there is a global history of white people oppressing Native and Aboriginal peoples and then appropriating their culture.

Take Roadhog, whose has two alternate skins that show him in Maori dress:

Roadhog-Maori

And. Man. Here’s where I admit that things get real fuzzy and hard to tease out. Because while it’s not commented on officially, it’s possible that Mako is of Maori descent:

“It is highly likely that Roadhog is of New Zealand Maori heritage due to his real name (Mako) and alternate skin titled “Toa” which is the Maori word for “Warrior”.” – Overwatch Wiki

And honestly, I keep going back and forth on whether this is problematic or not. Roadhog’s pale skin reads more “white” than “Maori” to me. But then, the long struggle of Metis and non-status Native Canadians to be recognized as “legitimately Native”, makes me feel like that might not be a valid criticism. Except, Roadhog is said to come from the Outback of Australia – and the Aborigine people of Australia and the Maori of New Zealand are two different peoples – or at least as far as I’m aware.

So. I think for me the tipping point, the deciding factor of “is this okay?” is the fact that there are so many other examples of stereotyped depictions and appropriative costumes. This isn’t a singular misstep in a game that otherwise did its homework and tried to be respectful. Because if it was, you wouldn’t have something like Pharah and her alternate skins:

Farah

Pharah is explicitly, canonically Egyptian. And yet two of her alternate skins are explicitly North American Native – titled “Raindancer” and “Thunderbird”. And that is just such an obvious, straight-forward case of “what do we do for a cool alternate look for Pharah?” “I dunno, make her Native?” that I just can’t even.

Symmetra

And here’s the last example, the reason why I’m really not inclined to give the Blizzard development team a lot of slack on the question of “did they mean to be offensive” or not. Symmetra, who comes from India, has two alternate skins – which cost a lot of credits to unlock – that depict her as the Hindu goddess Kali:

Symmetra-goddess

It’s hard to overstate how gallingly tasteless and appalling this is. Hinduism isn’t like the worship of the ancient Egyptian gods. While using Ra as a skin for an implicitly Tibetan character is tasteless, it’s nowhere near on the same level of awful, because you’re talking about a dead religion. There are somewhere around 1 billion Hindu people on the planet, which makes this roughly equivalent to having a male character who can “level up” into Jesus. And obviously, game developers would never consider making Actual Fucking Jesus an unlockable skin, because that would be disrespectful. But because Hindus are mostly brown people, that makes having Actual Fucking Kali – who is a god that real actual people actually worship right now – somehow okay? No. Just. NO.

Conclusion: Overwatch has problems, but it’s still better than the rest of AAA gaming

As horrible as all this stuff is, Blizzard at least gets the absolute minimum of points for trying. Which is something that the rest of the AAA game industry is emphatically not doing, as evidenced by yet another year of Scowly McWhiteGuy being mostly the only thing on offer at E3.

SO. MANY. WHITE GUYS.

So. You know. Reluctant kudos for trying? But “slightly less racist than the rest of the AAA game industry” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement that Blizzard should be proud of.

[1] I am unspeakably bitter that Pokemon Go has yet to be released in Canada

Pathfinder Adventures app: Okay gameplay and terrible art

[Before I start: I know there’s been a large gap between posts. This started as a 1-off post and spiraled into something that will be a series of 2 or 3 posts, since I got a bit carried away doing research and gathering material for this. I’m going to do my best to get another post up before the end of the week, if not two more. Thanks for your patience.]

I follow a lot of folks who enjoy Pathfinder, so when the new digital/app version of their Pathfinder card game – Pathfinder Adventure – launched, my feed saw several re-posts of announcements of the launch. I usually don’t tend to hop on the bandwagon of new games quite so quickly (remember how it took me six months after the last chapter of Life is Strange was released to actually finish it?), but it just so happens that I was bored with my latest mobile game of choice and was looking for something new to play.

So I decided that I would check it out to see what it was like; I had vague thoughts that maybe when I’d played enough of it to get a feel for the basics I could write a post comparing it to Hearthstone, since that’s a digital card game whose art I have written about hating WITH A PASSION.

[Sidebar: concerning the buggy UI]

Despite the fact that this is not a review, but rather an examination of artwork used, I would be remiss if I did not mention the many issues that I had trying to play this game. The gameplay itself was solidly designed, which shouldn’t be surprising as it was based on the pre-existing Pathfinder Adventure card game. However, the app would have been a lot more fun if it weren’t for the absolutely terrible UI.

Seriously, in addition to being completely opaque (I frequently found myself with absolutely no fucking clue of what I needed to do to advance to the next screen, with no tool-tip having been given), it was also horrifically buggy. The Pathfinder Adventure app was designed for tablets, but I often had to touch something multiple times to get it to respond, and dragging things anywhere on the screen was even worse.

So if what I say about the terrible art doesn’t turn you off playing, and you’d be interested in playing a card-based adventuring game that is reasonably entertaining and can be played for free, definitely check it out. But wait another month or two until it’s been adequately patched, because only the fact that I wanted to write about it for my blog kept me motivated to keep suffering through all of the terrible UI issues.

[/Sidebar]

I went into this wanting to know how the Pathfinder Adventures app would compare to Hearthstone, and I have to say that the loading screen didn’t exactly fill me with a lot of hope:

Main screen

God dammit, Wayne Reynolds.

Amusingly, I was pretty sure that this piece of art was one that I had seen before; I remembered it as being on a banner, which I hate, that I’ve seen at the Reaper Miniatures booth at GenCon every year. But it turns out that that piece of art is completely different trainwreck by Wayne Reynolds (scroll down, it’s about halfway through the post) which shows the same two characters fighting a dragon, not goblins. But just like this piece of art, it still features huge amounts of sideboob and a basically naked ass on Seoni.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

Except, no. Wait. This loading screen is why we can’t have nice things:

Loading Screen

That’s right,  everything but a goblin and Seoni’s completely unrealistic sideboob has been cropped out, because really what could convey the essence of the Pathfinder Adventures app better than a goblin and a half-naked sorceress? And this is the same loading screen you have to look at every time something is loading. So if you’re going to play the game, I hope you like looking at the side of badly rendered tits, because you’re going to be looking at this a lot. (Especially with the game’s unpredictable and sometimes long loading times.)

And apparently, the developers felt the need to re-use the same piece of art a THIRD time as one of the locations during one of the scenarios – by which point I was getting heartily sick of this bullshit Wayne Reynolds pile of hot garbage:

Awful Seoni Wallpaper2

And the worst part is, this isn’t even the only piece of Seoni fanservice garbage that gets used as a location background in the course of the first two story adventures! Later in the second adventure, I encountered this piece of location art and promptly facepalmed:

Seoni awful wallpaper

What the actual fuck? Why does EVERY GODDAMN PICTURE of Seoni need to contain sideboob? And what the hell is she doing with her staff? Is she fighting the monster or pole-dancing at it? How am I supposed to take this game at all seriously?

And unfortunately, it’s not just the location artwork that features frustratingly awful cheesecake fanservice. One of the early scenarios in story mode featured a main villain that looked like this:

Erylium

WHY. WHY DO FANTASY ARTISTS INSIST ON PUTTING BREASTS ON REPTILES?? If you have a character that is a bipedal reptile, to the point that they have scales and non-mammalian features like wings, horns, and crests, DON’T FUCKING GIVE THEM BREASTS. JUST. DON’T. Hell, there is an entire world of animals to choose from where I would accept more than two breasts as anatomically valid. Cats, for example. Cat-women could have anywhere between four and eight breasts, and while I would question your taste for feeling like you needed to illustrate something with eight breasts, at least you wouldn’t be abusing the limits of good sense.

And of course, it should go without saying that the contrast between the female villains and henchfolk is… well… stark:

Scenario henchmen

I don’t think I saw a single piece of card or location art in the first two story adventures that showed a man that was anything less than completely covered, and yet the women all came in varying flavors of cleavage, sideboob, underboob, and combinations of all three. What the fuck am I supposed to make of Lyrie’s outfit? Is double-sided garment tape just a standard part of every female adventurer’s kit in the Pathfinder universe? Does double-sided garment tape come imbued with significant bonuses to armor class? Or maybe with auto charges of cure spells or resurrection? Because I can’t think of a single reason why anyone would wear that outfit to do anything other than be in porn, and even then the setup required for that outfit looks like it would be way more trouble than it’s worth.

And because the artists want to make sure there are enough awful outfits and badly-rendered breasts to go around, there are lots of spell cards with cringe-tastic artwork too! Like these examples here:

Spell Cards

Unless the mage on the Guidance card is using dangerously sticky double-sided tape, there’s no way that that top wouldn’t just pop right off both of her breasts, and I don’t know about you but I don’t exactly relish the thought of charging into battle in the middle of a snowy plain with my tits just flapping in the wind. By a similar token, the outfit depicted on Inflict isn’t quite as bad, but that gigantic furry cloak is definitely at odds with the completely bared midriff. Wouldn’t it just be easier to put on a shirt that covered your whole torso instead of vastly overcompensating for not being adequately clothed? Lastly, while Force Missile deserves an honorable mention for being irritatingly deprotagonizing. If Pathfinder Adventures is about badass adventurers fighting monsters and being awesome, why does the art on this card look like she should be hopping up on a chair and yelling for someone to please squish the awful monster for her?

And sometimes, the villain card, the location card, and the story portrait come together to form one incredible hot mess of WTF-ness, as with Nualia – the supposed big-bad of an entire adventure:

Nualia

I’m sorry, but, what? I mean, boobplate is one thing, but what the hell is this? Her armor has individual boob-pods while leaving all of her stomach uncovered? And what the hell is with the skeletal hands as shoulder armor? And the bafflingly square gorget that protects her neck from all angles while, again, LEAVING ALL OF HER VITAL ORGANS EXPOSED? What the crapping crap??

So is Pathfinder Adventures as awful in its artwork as Hearthstone? It’s hard for me to compare, given that I played only six or so hours of Pathfinder Adventures, as opposed to a few hundred of Hearthstone. My impression is that overall it seems to do better, but given the baseline level of awful that Blizzard habitually occupies, saying Pathfinder Adventures isn’t “as bad” as something made by Blizzard is damning it with faint praise.

[Next time: How does the Pathfinder app compare to art in Pathfinder books?]

Fuckable female robots in video games – a timeline [LARGE][maybe-NSFW]

Recently, my brother sent me a screenshot from a MOBA in development – Paragon – of a female android character named Muriel. When I saw it, I promptly headdesked:

Paragon_Muriel.0.0

I was furious. Furious! ROBOT CAMEL TOE?? THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS! Which is what I yelled at Twitter, only to be promptly reminded that Mass Effect had gotten there previously, with EDI – a fact that I had forgotten because the very first thing I made EDI do was PUT ON SOME GODDAMN CLOTHES.

That got me thinking about female androids, and video gaming’s problem with wanting them to always be fuckable. So I started doing some digging, and Wikipedia handily provided me with a list of fictional female robots in video games! Huzzah! A lot of them I had heard of, but there were a lot that I hadn’t, and… jeez. Some of them are really bad. I struggled for a bit on how to actually present what I came up with, until I just decided to arrange them all in chronological order. So I plunked my screenshots into Illustrator and promptly… uh… got a bit carried away:

Timeline
CLICK THROUGH FOR MORE READABLE VERSION

(Note that some results from the Wikipedia list have been omitted. I chose not to include characters from visual novels, since those feel like their own distinct thing. I also, FOR THE LIFE OF ME, could not find any screenshots of the character from Doreamon worth using.)

Now because this is me, while I was staring at all of these screenshots of (mostly) incredibly sexualized character designs, I started wondering exactly how I could quantify “bad” for the purposes of determining the overall level of badness. After all, when going through the Female Armor BINGO, a lot of the points like “how does it attach” or “almost naked for an adventure in a cold climate” don’t really apply to characters that are robots. So instead, I compiled a “hierarchy of sins” (to steal a term from Dogs in the Vineyard) of sexualization, starting with things that represent not being sexualized at all (“Nonhumanoid”, “Humanoid, fully covered”) and going all the way to totally objectified (“actually naked”, “camel toe”).

Then I went through for each character I plotted on the timeline and counted the highest criteria that they met on the “hierarchy”, at which point I made some loose categorizations to see what would happen, and I got this:

androids

I realize statistics don’t mean as much when you invent the criteria and kind of half-ass the definitions, but two thirds of the designs counted are at least moderately sexualized, and only 18% of the designs weren’t sexualized at all. So, you know. SURPRISE! Most female android characters in video games are sexualized! What a shock!

Next time, I’ll write about something equally surprising. Like, character creation in RPGs is important, or video games require an input device in order to play them.

What it’s like for me, as a woman, to play Magic: the Gathering [BIG IMAGES]

I’ve written previously about why I don’t attend official Magic: The Gathering events (tl;dr – stereotype threat is zero fun). Still, I really enjoy sealed booster events! They tend to level the playing field for people with less experience in deck-building (unless someone gets crazy lucky with their packs). It’s also a fun challenge, having a completely random subset of cards and a time limit within which to build a competitive deck – especially since it often forces you to build something that’s outside of your usual comfort zone in terms play style.

So what we’ve started doing is buying a box of boosters and splitting it with friends so we can have our own sealed booster night in the comfort of our own home that is free of randos and dudebros. It’s expensive – even when you split the cost between friends – so we only do it 2-3 times a year. But it’s something my husband and I both enjoy immensely, so we’re happy to splurge occasionally to make it happen.

This past weekend was one of those occasions, as a matter of fact. And as always, I had a tremendous time. But even so, I couldn’t help but be aware of the fact that even while playing with friends, away from the weird males-only atmosphere of a game store or other official tournament venue, the game itself was punching me in the feels, in a very particular “This Game Is Not For You” sort of way. And while I was opening packs and sorting through cards, I found myself repressing a lot of comments and complaints that I wanted to make, because while the friends we were playing with are receptive to feminism and the things that I do, they’re not terribly interested in it – and being That Boring Person Who Only Talks About Feminism has become a big fear of mine these last few years.

And it sucked. I hate that this game I like (and spend money on!) makes me feel crappy, and I doubly hate feeling like I have to censor myself. (And to be clear, I would feel the compulsion to censor myself to a certain degree no matter who I was with. It was just that in that situation, I felt I had to censor a bit more is all.) So I was going to write a description of my internal monologue as the night progressed, but then I thought – hell. A comic would be a lot more illustrative of what I’m talking about. (See what I did there?) It wasn’t my intention to do two comics posts in a row. It just sort of happened that way.

This isn’t a comprehensive post, in that it doesn’t look at art from an entire set as most of my other M:TG posts do. This is just focusing on my reactions to art from the packs my husband and I opened during our sealed booster night. Also, I know the preview shrinks these down pretty small, so if you want more detail, be sure to click through so you can see the art I’m talking about in more detail.

Feels: the Punching (deck-building edition)

Magic1

Blue

Tightening-Coils-Battle-for-Zendikar-MtG-Art

Tajuru-Stalwart-Battle-for-Zendikar-MtG-Art

Swell of Growth

Bonus: Epilogue

While preparing for this post, I went through our cards one more time to get proper card titles so that I could look up larger versions of the card art online. While doing so, I found one card that I had missed altogether, although I’m really not sure how:

Lifespring_Druid_MTG_BFZ_Willmurai_910
…yeah.

Despite all that, I still had fun, and it’s still something that I plan to do again. But is Magic a hobby that I would encourage other women to try, or plan on introducing my daughter to? Unless they start sucking a whole lot less at women, the answer is a resounding hell no. I’m not ashamed to admit that I got into Magic because my husband played, and I wanted to be able to play with him. But games like Magic live and die by word-of-mouth recruitment, and they certainly won’t get any of that from me.