This is an editorial piece. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of, and should not be attributed to, Niche Gamer as an organization.
In the months leading up to Dragonspear’s release, I was easily caught up by the hype. After all, how could I not? As a devoted D&D fan and someone who – at the expense of my backlog – still plays the nearly two decade old Baldur’s Gate, it seemed like an easy sell.
Creating more content for a game that is in desperate need of a revival at a time when CRPGs are finally coming back into vogue was a great idea, and had I been a game developer, I would have jumped at the chance to do it myself.
Of course I was warned, both by friends and by readers of this site posting in comments on Dragonspear news articles I posted, that the game wasn’t going to be worth the money.
“They hired Gaider, you know what that means”
“Did you see how bad that stream was”
“You know they’ll screw it up.”
Naturally, I didn’t believe them. Call it putting the nostalgia goggles on, but I couldn’t possibly believe Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate expansion would be anything but a continuation of the same events and personalities that made the original so timeless and memorable. Not even a curmudgeonly CRPG elitist like myself could believe that. While most of my friends on Steam decided they’d adopt a “wait-and-see” approach to the expansion, I went all in and pre-ordered it.
Now, to be fair, my initial experience with the game was a positive one. Though I’d later find several gameplay imbalances and poor design decisions (which will be touched upon in my coming review of the title), my first impression of Dragonspear was quite favorable. I enjoyed the smoothed out sprites, the GUI enhancements, the improved AI scripting, and the new Shaman class. Though I disliked the new method at which they spread information over the character sheet, I soon found out that was the least of my problems.
After five hours with the game, I encountered numerous situations where a combination of very poor writing and social justice pandering began to weigh the game down. Technical and gameplay missteps were one thing, but the sheer amount of modern 2016 Tumblr-level politics turned what was once a grand medieval swords & sorcery epic into the equivalent of a emotional teenage girl’s self-insert fanfic. So, after documenting these odd inclusions to the game, I went to check to see if /v/ was upset about it as well.
You’ll notice that the linked 8chan /v/ thread in my article had a user with the ID 334484, and it was this user that posted several screenshots that revealed some of the social justice themed events in the game. That user was me, and the video posted in the thread was uploaded by me to my youtube channel. The 8chan /v/ thread was relevant to the story – and therefore cited in the article – since it was the first place online where these added features were revealed to the gaming public. Say what you will about the maturity of /v/, or even 8chan as a whole, but you are unlikely to find another place as unfiltered and timely with their information as they are. Especially since a good many of the gaming press lurk the threads looking for news there.
Getting to the crux of this editorial, a fair amount of people seem to be content with pushing the false narrative that Dragonspear’s problems begin and end with the NPC “Mizhena” and her speech about her male-to-female transitioning. While it certainly is the most obvious and outrageous example of Beamdog’s tumblr-ization of the game, it is not the only one. Sadly, because many accept what they read online to be true, or simply despise doing any research beyond reading PR blurbs, you have a great many folks who are parroting the “It’s just one trans-gendered NPC” lie.
First of all, there’s the issue of Corwin. She is an NPC that you meet early on that essentially acts as your guide through the early part of the game. She is, initially, the person that informs you of your new status as a legendary hero and keeps a watch on the player’s actions, being sure to reprimand them if they act inappropriately. Though an archer, she acts like a Paladin. That, however, is not the issue with Corwin.
Her first flirtation with annoyance comes by way of her daughter, Rohma. In a conversation shortly before leaving to face Argent and her rampaging army, you are given a series of responses to Rohma in hopes of reassuring her of her mother’s safety while in your party. Playing the noble warrior, you may opt to tell Rohma that you will make sure her mother returns unharmed. A simple and sincere gesture, especially considering you’re talking to a pre-teen child. The response you get, however, isn’t one you’d expect.
“My mother can take care of herself.”
Fair enough. A little precociousness from the tyke is nothing to be upset by, nor is it bothersome when Safana chimes in and mentions how much she admires the girl’s attitude. I do have to admit though, it struck me as odd.
It wasn’t until later when, completely out of the blue, Corwin hit on my female mage main character and propositioned her. There was no discussion with her, no reputation building, no romantic conversations, no interest shown at all…but Corwin immediately hit on my main character all the same. Besides being extremely odd given the fact that my character and Corwin barely exchanged more than 4 sentences up until this point (all of which rather curt dialog that hinted she was a figid shrew), it seemed incredibly hackneyed and forced. Why would she, completely out of the blue and so soon, ask my female mage to sleep with her? Thankfully, it let me end the burgeoning relationship right then and there, but it was the first sign that something was terribly wrong with this game’s writing.
After that, I encountered Mizhena, which those working at Beamdog insist is the only reason anyone is upset at Dragonspear. For brevity’s sake, I won’t retread any ground concerning her character here.
Secondly, and perhaps even worse than Corwin’s broken mess of a character, is the modification done to Safana. While I understand Beamdog’s writers were angry at Safana for being a man-teasing “slut”, I never saw her character in such a way. To me, she was a manipulative woman who learned she could coerce men to do her bidding by complimenting them. Any woman who has had a successful first date after the age of 13 is well aware of the truth in that strategy. Though considering your average bitter female 30-something social keyboard warrior dines with cats and spends every night dampening their iPhone with tears shed while swiping through Tinder profiles, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you that they despise having to admit that fact.
So what did they do? They completely altered Safana’s personality. No longer is she anything close to resembling the sultry seductress that defined her character both in vanilla Baldur’s Gate and various user based mods over the last 18 years. Now, she is a sarcastic, sometimes ungrateful, always spiteful thief who begrudgingly follows your orders. The difference, especially if you’ve ever ran an evil party with Safana, are extraordinarily profound.
Thirdly, as if altering a beloved NPC’s personality and crafting a textbook example of the JeannaDArchetype trope wasn’t enough for Beamdog, they decided to cast an unrepentant Mary Sue as the main villain.
Caelar Argent isn’t too bad, as antagonists go, but for as brutal and violent and unforgiving as she is, she is still cast in a very favorable, if not downright flattering light. Citizens crowd refugee camps, blood and fire drip down the mountains, chaos and death linger in Argent’s path…yet she is still worshiped and adored as a leader. Even Irenicus skirts out of her way, seemingly to idolize her at one point when he approaches her camp and sizes her up in a small intermission between chapters. She is portrayed as a divine, ass-kicking, power-girl that can do no wrong and is more fearsome than the gods themselves.
The big problem with this is that it’s just sloppy writing. Irenicus was a great villain because he had obvious and hampering flaws. Mellisan, the main antagonist of Throne of Bhaal, also exhibited flaws, though hers were mainly tied to her arrogance and megalomania rather than Irenicus and his cleverly-written jealousy. In Argent’s case, her only flaw is that she ultimately has to fall and make way for your character.
If you’ve ever played tabletop with a first-timer, you probably know the type of character I’m talking about. The first-timer makes a self-insert, super-powerful, fearsome character with little to no flaws who has flames shooting out of their eyes, a flaming longsword, and a mysterious past. That’s exactly what Argent is. A poorly written, one-dimensional Mary Sue with flaming eyes and a flaming sword. It makes her a very poor villain and does not in any way make the player feel anything besides pity for the person who wrote her. Unlike Bodhi, Sarevok, and Irenicus, Argent is perceived from the start as a valiant warrior who is adored and feared in equal measure. This, in my opinion, is an incredibly lazy way to write an antagonist.
Coming in fourth, behind all the self-insert, fanfic-level writing that pollutes Dragonspear, are two instances of smartly hidden in-jokes.
You probably know these as well, since both the goblin crying “Racism” and Minsc making a Gamer Gate joke were covered in our own article about the game. While these utterances are one of the “rare select” sounds that only play once every blue moon when selecting a party member, the fact that they are uncommonly encountered doesn’t take away from the cringe factor they create.
Some of the game’s defenders (of which there are very few), say that this is no big deal either. They compare it to the Bob Newhart Easter egg in vanilla Baldur’s Gate and see nothing wrong with putting tumblr memes into a game. While I’ll agree, Easter eggs and in-jokes are nothing new to Baldur’s Gate, Oster & company don’t understand there are two gigantic differences between their joke and the Newhart joke: Timing and delivery.
Beamdog CEO Trent Oster gave an official response, via Techraptor:
I find the controversy ridiculous. Yes, we have a transgendered character. I know a number of transgendered people and they are genuine, wonderful humans. Yes, we also have a character who cracks a joke about ethics. The original Baldur’s Gate had a whole sequence about the Bob Newhart show. If this generates controversy it makes a sad statement about the world we live in.As for my post on the forums, I merely asked people who were enjoying the game to share their positive feedback. I know our fans can become engrossed in their enjoyment and I really don’t want potential fans to miss out on the series because of protest reviews by small minded individuals.As for Amber’s interview, I also believe in strong female characters and I feel she did an excellent job bringing dimension and interest to Safana with her writing in Siege of Dragonspear. Her “Too bad” comment, I chalk up to a long day of interviews, having personally done such interviews.
The Bob Newhart show had been off of the air for 8 years prior to it being parodied by the three wandering kobolds in Baldur’s Gate. Most teens playing the game were still soiling their diapers when Larry, Daryl and his “other brother” Daryl were America’s funniest “wacky neighbors”. The joke went over most younger folks’ heads and, like all good Easter eggs in a game, was something that was done within the lore of the game. For all non-Newhart fans cared, it was just three comically insane kobolds bumbling through the forest. As strange as the joke was, it actually fit within the world lore.
Having to explain this in an editorial feels ridiculous, since you’d think anyone old enough to access the internet by themselves would understand the difference between a “lore friendly” joke and a mindless meme. Though when you consider the fact that people like Borderland’s Anthony Burch have made entire games based around nothing but stale, left over 4chan memes, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
With all of these instances of poor writing, lazy characterization, blandly written gay characters, and irresponsible meme’ing, I can’t understand how anyone wanting to defend the game can use the “It’s just one trans-gendered character” lie with a straight face. Anyone clinging to that lie is either out to manipulate buyers into ignoring the community’s warnings and purchasing Dragonspear, or they are simply ignorant of its obvious faults due to having never actually played it.
Looking at any forum where discussion of this game is taking place, you’ll find scant few people defending it. Other than Beamdog employees or non-players attempting to virtue signal, the vast majority of the forums are full of folks who are fed up with the sloppy writing and token-ization of gay characters that are so prevalent in the game.
I could, if I had the time and felt I could keep your attention here long enough, explain how escapism matters and that social justice folks are offended by anyone wanting to escape the real world. I could tell you that their guilt over being so white, so “basic”, so rich, so privileged, and so elitist is what drives them to lick the altar of “white guilt”. I could tell you that they secretly feel so guilty being privileged themselves that they spend their entire adulthood pushing their insecurities on others, all in the hope of somehow silencing that little voice in their head that tells them they’re worthless.
And this is why you have people defending a poorly written mess of a game and trying, yet again, to use it to paint any rational gamer as a misogynistic miscreant.
Here’s a novel idea: how about you call a poorly written game a poorly written game?