Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon all struggle with introducing their trans characters

BioWare

The past month of AAA video game releases might be the most interesting I have ever experienced as a trans woman, meaning someone who was designated male at birth but is now living as female. While far from perfect in execution, I can point out three trans characters in three separate AAA video games released in the past four weeks. That’s pretty unbelievable.

Pop culture in general has gotten better about attempting to present trans characters without always resorting to using us as punchlines. We’ve seen trans actors and actresses find success, we’ve seen the overall positive representation of Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition and developers of huge franchises have begun to tackle trans issues in their games.

We’ve seen three separate AAA games released with transgender characters, plotlines or themes present in them in this month alone. The differing ways in which they each try to tackle the subject shows that AAA developers want to start putting trans characters in their games, but don’t seem to know how to do it well.

(Note: There may be slight spoilers for each game discussed in this story.)

Horizon Zero Dawn

Janeva is a warden at a Carja military prison in Horizon Zero Dawn, a role only men are permitted to partake in that society.

Janeva has a voice that sounds coded to be feminine, and is played by a non-trans actress, which can lead the main character Aloy to inquire about Janeva’s status in the royal guard. Janeva may have short hair and be enlisted in a male profession, but Aloy still feels the need to assume that Janeva is a woman.

Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon all struggle with introducing their trans characters Sony via Polygon

“I’m not one of your sisters,” he says. “No woman can wear Carja armor. When I was young, I chose to become a soldier.”

The character discusses having to prove themselves through violence. “There was talk about what I was,” Janeva explains. “So I’d say ‘Test me, and I’ll break your arm.’ After enough arms had been broken, there was less talk.”

The term transgender is never used, but it’s implied that Janeva was designated female at birth before choosing to live as a man and pursue a male profession.

He objects when referenced as a woman, fought for his right to be accepted and positioned himself as male while having to prove his ability to do his job through violence.

It’s not perfect as a scene, as the lack of explicit trans language usage means many will deny this interpretation of the character. It’s also unfortunate that the character was only accepted as male after conforming to a strict set of societal norms for assumed male traits. Still, this is above average for trans representation in modern gaming.

Janeva brings up his trans status when misgendered to correct the protagonist, makes his stance on his own gender clear and moves back onto the topic at hand. The fact that he’s an ally in the final battle of the game also makes him a pretty damn significant trans video game character.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild contains four quest lines that are required to get the game’s best ending. One of these quest markers leads to Gerudo Town.

Gerudo Town is an all-female city. The Gerudo as a race typically only see one birth designated as male every 100 years. The most well-known of these is Ganondorf from Ocarina of Time, who attempted to destroy Hyrule.

The Gerudo have a lot of emotional baggage surrounding men.

You will be repeatedly refused entry by two guards outside the city after being told that Voe (men) are forbidden from this all-Vai (women) city before learning that a man has been using deception to sneak in and out of the city.

2017 has already been a busy year for trans representation in gaming, but that doesn’t necessary mean it’s been a good one

Your attempts to figure out what’s going on lead to a Hylian woman who often spends her time on the roof of the building. There are options to misgender her during the conversation. The conversation is shut down and progress is blocked if you call her a man. You have to use female pronouns to refer to her, compliment her appearance and ask her to sell you women’s clothing if you want to progress in the game.

The ensuing scene is where we get the blushing, shy, “good-looking gal” Link who won over the hearts of many before the game’s release.

Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon all struggle with introducing their trans characters
Link is adorable
Nintendo via Polygon

Let’s get a few things out the way. Yes, this woman has a beard under her veil. Link finding this out when a stray gust of wind reveals is played as a punchline. Link reacts in shock. It reeks of ‘90s trans-reveal comedy punchlines.

Still, let’s talk about some positives. The fact she has a beard hasn’t been a barrier to her comfortably existing within the walls of the all-female city. The Gerudo in the store below don’t tell you where to find “the man who snuck into Gerudo Town” but instead point you towards the “Hylian Vai (woman)” who may fit the description. This shows a level of acknowledgement, but respect, for her female identity regardless of the character having a beard.

Also of note, numerous people within the city walls acknowledge that Link is designated male at birth, but none of them report Link or get them kicked out for this discovery.

The spa in town recognizes your body as traditionally masculine, or non-typically feminine. Their responses to this information are to compliment your muscular frame as advantageous and rare within your race, or to assume it’s a product of battle-worn circumstance. They comment on your battle scars, confirmed elsewhere in the game to only be visible when Link is undressed, but not on your lack of breasts. They do not use this information to invalidate your presented gender.

While the comment (“Hey… you seem a little tense. Relax, we’re all vai here…”) could merely be a simple attempt to calm tense customers with an assertion they’re safe from the male gaze within the city walls, I like to read it as an affirmation that the spa attendee is aware that Link’s nerves and tension are due to exposing the body they’re meant to hide within the city, and the employee is attempting to reassure Link that they will be acknowledged and treated as a woman while within the spa and the city.

Something I have not seen discussed elsewhere on the topic of potential gender nonconforming representation within the city walls is the presence of a hidden secret shop within Gerudo Town selling masculine Gerudo garb.

It says a lot about Gerudo culture that the sale of male clothing is prohibited by law. With the baggage their society has regarding men as rulers, it is in some ways understandable that the Gerudo as a people would be wary of a member of their race presenting as male. Still, a market for male clothing not only exists within town walls, but the demand is seemingly high enough to be notable.

Zelda, Mass Effect and Horizon all struggle with introducing their trans characters Nintendo via Polygon

Breath of the Wild’s Gerudo Town quest line plays like a “men deceiving women to sneak into their gendered spaces” narrative at times — something damaging and depressingly common — but there’s enough content away from the core progression path to suggest there’s more to the picture of Gerudo Town than meets the eye.

Link can buy more women’s clothing beyond what they needed to complete the quest in the city, and I totally get behind a trans girl Link who discovers her identity as a result of having to dress as a woman on this quest before buying additional clothing and running off to save the world.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

There is an NPC by the name of Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect: Andromeda. She informs you that she's transgender during your first conversation, and she explains that the future galaxy of the original Mass Effect trilogy didn't solve the problem of transgender discrimination. She explains that she was routinely referred to by her pre-transition name (dead name), and that she came on the Andromeda mission to escape the baggage of that life.

This introduction is terrible for a number of reasons, all of which would have been easier to fix if the development team included more trans individuals before trying to address what we go through.

There's one aspect of my life I am often asked about, but do not talk about. The name my parents gave me at birth wasn't Laura. A lot of people like to ask me what my dead name is out of polite curiosity. When I respond that I would rather not say, the usual follow up question is "Why not? Why is it a problem for us to know?”

Related

Mass Effect: Andromeda review

Having their dead name brought up isn't a problem for some trans people. For many, myself included, it is. Hearing my pre-transition name is an emotional gut punch that reminds me of how bad I felt during that part of my life. It's often used as a way for people to try and hurt me, to make me feel like I am a liar or deceiver by transitioning. Whatever the reason, it usually hurts to hear.

For that reason I, and a great deal of other trans people, don't tell anyone my dead name. If people don't know it, they can't accidentally use it to refer to me. If they don't use it, I don't have to be hurt by it.

So why does Abrams tell you her pre-transition name out of the blue, the same name that she hated being called so much she willingly left behind the entirety of the world she knew to fly unfathomable distances away on a one way trip?

The fact that Hainly expresses discomfort at her previous name, yet willingly and unprompted reveals it to Ryder upon their first conversation, makes little sense. It shows a surface level knowledge that birth names can be harmful to hear, but fails to make the link that as a result the character would likely keep that information private. If you travel that far to make a new life, you often don’t bring up your old, painful existence as a way to introduce yourself.

What’s frustrating is that Bioware discussed this exact issue in a blog post discussing Krem as a character:

…Any conversation about the subject had to come up naturally in-game. A minor character like a shopkeeper would have no reason to explain that she is trans, so either the conversation would never come up or it would come up because her voice was clearly masculine, at which point it would look like a joke to most players, no matter how we tried to write it.

Bioware is a large company and the Dragon Age and Mass Effect teams may have little overlap, but it’s still annoying to see someone so clearly understand how to introduce a character in a positive manner only to see those lessons get lost in a future game.

What do these three games teach us?

Gaming is trying to address its audience more thoroughly, and that includes trans representation. But it seems like few teams know how to do this well, even though the solution isn’t complicated.

Krem’s more authentic characterization in Dragon Age: Inquisition didn’t just happen by accident, writer Patrick Weekes reached out to trans consultants and asked questions about dialog and how to handle certain aspects of the character.

The feedback he received made the character significantly better, but even this process wouldn’t have been necessary if BioWare had trans individuals working on the game itself. The problems with Abrams aren’t particularly subtle or hard to spot, as evidenced by so many people complaining about her dialog when they reached that section of the game.

This past month has been incredibly odd as a trans woman playing through mainstream games. I don’t think I can name another month in the history of the medium where three AAA games had examples of trans representation within them, but you don’t get a free pass for trying. Writers or designers can stumble badly when they treat these subjects carelessly, or without learning more before they write characters or scenes in the game.

Horizon could have more explicitly used trans language rather than playing things safe and keeping things implicit. Breath of the Wild could have cut out the “that woman has a beard” punchline that is used as a cheap, unnecessary laugh at the expense of one of its characters. Andromeda could have had its trans character discuss their life in a way that made sense, instead of using their dead name as an introduction.

I don’t want to discourage developers from including trans characters in their narrative. Trans characters aren’t harder to write than any other character in a game, you just have to know what you’re talking about or be willing to speak to those who do. Games also join movies and TV in struggling with casting trans actors to play trans characters, despite the existence of so much trans talent in the industry.

Development teams can bring life to their characters simply by asking trans individuals about the dialog or scenes they’re writing into their game or, even better, employ trans individuals to help create the game from the ground up to help see these easily avoided mistakes before they make it into the final game.

2017 has already been a busy year for trans representation in gaming, but that doesn’t necessary mean it’s been a good one. With the right care in the design of these games, people won’t have to choose one or the other.

A full time games critic for the past three years, Laura spends her time writing equal parts serious critique of social issues in games, and reviewing the butts of those same characters to try and discover what personality traits their posteriors inform us of.

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