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Exploring the Spaces Between Wildstar and Feminism


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Women in Cryo-Freezers: Sadie Brightland

A blue glowing hologram of a pregnant woman, flanked by a sad wolf.

Deadeye Brightland’s creepy hologram of Sadie.

The entire time I was playing beta weekends and then eventually open beta in Wildstar, occasionally I’d hear a guildie (who was almost always a woman) saying, “Gosh, I just hate this quest.” It was pretty remarkable as everyone seemed to generally like, if not tolerate the quests in Wildstar. Every single time, the quest in question would be the story from the Northern Wilds zone involving the ship taking survivors to Thayd. Namely, Sadie Brightland dying in a spaceship.

I am not the first person to discuss how problematic this quest line is, if only for Sadie’s involvement in it and Deadeye’s own strange, almost fleeting reaction to his pregnant wife dying.  See, for anyone who hasn’t really paid attention to the story or hasn’t yet been able to play Wildstar on the Exile side, here’s the rundown of your interactions with Deadeye and Sadie thus far:

  • Deadeye looking for his wife is literally the first thing you are aware of in the game when you roll a new character. The reason you are brought out of cryo-sleep is because Deadeye thinks it might be Sadie. Let’s not discuss why a pregnant woman is in cryosleep.
  • Sadie is eventually found after you are woken up and Deadeye tells you that she’s got “cryo-sickness.”
  • Part of your opening tutorial quests is to go and retrieve medicine for Sadie. You bring it back and it seems to work. Enough that I believe she actually thanks you for your contributions and Deadeye offers to buy you a drink. The day is saved! (Keep in mind that this is the sum total contributions Sadie herself actually has on the story.)
  • If you chose the “human/granok” starting experience of going to the Northern Wilds and Algoroc, you eventually get to see Sadie at another camp, which is comprised of survivors of the space wreck that you’re in trying to get from the space station to the Northern Wilds. Sadie’s model is literally in a rictus of pain or sickness with her legs splayed. It’s bizarre. (see image below this section)
  • In the questing, Deadeye figures they can get people who have been badly hurt to Thayd via a working jump ship that’s coming to rescue them. Thayd is not that far, so don’t ask me why this is necessary.
  • Ship comes and picks up survivors (you see generic models going into it) and before it’s 3 feet off the ground, it gets somehow utterly demolished by Dominion forces who just happen to be close enough to know that there’s a ship there and didn’t blow it up before then.
  • Turns out that Sadie was on that ship, despite not seeing a stretcher or her model being helped onto it.
  • You know this because Deadeye mentions it almost idly in quest text immediately after.
  • This is what fuels Deadeye’s thirst for revenge in the narrative for the rest of the time.

This is weird on almost every conceivable level, which makes Sadie’s death even more unforgivable. But let’s talk about what’s going on here, first.

A pregnant woman is splayed out, sick on a stretcher.

 

As most people have recognized by now, it looks like Sadie is more than just a victim of cryo-sickness, but rather the Women in Refrigerators trope. Sadie’s story is not central, not developed in any way, because it is actually Deadeye’s story. Sadie isn’t developed as a character, because she’s a prop and her death is meant to instill feelings and action to our actual protagonist. In a way, two people are dying for the price of one here and it’s pretty weak all around. Pregnant wives being shuttled off to non-existence or death seem to be popping up recently and I don’t like it one bit.

The part about this that makes me really annoyed is that other more lore-savvy Wildstar players found that there were earlier mentions of Sadie’s life in one of the Tales books. According to this, she was a Justice (Wildstar equivalent of a galactic policewoman, I believe.) I don’t know whether this is writers throwing players a bone or what, but it’s a key to creating an actual three dimensional character that they are never going to use now. And barely anyone will ever know it’s in the game at all.

Sadie as she stands now has been nothing more than a tool or a prop to create angst in Deadeye, a man who admittedly a) has a very weak reaction to seeing his wife and unborn child killed before his eyes b) needs literally no reason to hate or kill Dominion.  He seems only vaguely sad but still has weird hologram of her at a camp immediately after. It’s used to further his need for revenge, which is part of the trope but he would have shot Dominion anyways. Part of faction conflict is that it’s two groups of people fighting over resources. You don’t necessarily need revenge to drive that story forward, much less senseless death. In the eyes of the Exiles, the Dominion are a pretty awful group of people. You wouldn’t need overly justified reasons to hate them outside of the ones you hold already. This forces an already flimsy story further into being pointless. Sadie died for nothing, without much of her own life.

Pushing aside the sheer implausibility of the ship blowing up in the first place, what really made me confused is how well the parallel quest in the Aurin/Mordesh starting zones works in making you, as the player, feel hatred towards the Dominion. You go to all this trouble to help awaken a tree that’s been infused with Eldan technology and it might hold the secrets that the Aurin and the Mordesh both desire to hear, especially about the disappearance of the Eldan. Chua come along right as the tree is going to speak to you via a communicator panel and blow it up. I felt legitimately upset about this! I did not feel this way about Sadie. Nothing about Deadeye’s very discreet reaction or the story-line felt believable or emotionally purposeful. It was very flat and out of left field. There’s nothing there that makes you feel for the Brightlands. All it did was reinforce this idea that gaming in general has a problem with how they use women characters as emotional speedbumps for the male protagonists.

The reason I think a lot of people felt that this quest line in particular stuck out like a sore thumb is because you really don’t expect it in a game like Wildstar. Nothing about the game, despite having warring factions, suggests a particularly grim, tragic tone. Women are pretty present in a lot of ways, especially if you play through Aurin zones. Having an actual matriarchy in the game that works suggests the idea that the creative development team grasps the idea that women are a realistic and needed part of diversity in the lore. Seeing one be killed off for the benefit of one guy seems really immature and in contrast to that competency you see everywhere else.

Granted, people have been upset about this since December and nothing has really been done about so I doubt we’ll see any movement on this, but it just bears remarking upon. This isn’t just a problem that just Wildstar has, but more that it is a problem that writers within gaming and even larger popular nerd culture have. But it does make me sad to see it turn up so soon in a new video game that I have been enjoying otherwise and has been doing a decent job making me feel like my female character is part of the world.

Sadie could have been such a great character. A policewoman, living on the edges of space with her husband and pet wolf, with a new child and all the problems that come along with that kind of settler life (a life that many, many women have lived in real life before, even) combined with intergalactic war? How neat is that?

And now we’ll never know.

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Devs Unleashed: Inclusivity, Gender and Tone in Lore

Stephan Frost and Chad Moore host the livestream.

Look at these adorable goofballs.

On Friday, the Wildstar team spent a whole 6 hours livestreaming with their social media team to bring interviews and gameplay from the developers of various parts of the game. While I didn’t get to catch most of it due to, you know, being at work, I did catch the end of it when they talked to Pappy (Creative Director Chad Moore) and Frost (Game Design Producer Stephan Frost) Pappy handled a lot of lore questions, which was interesting from the perspective of someone who knows very little of the lore of the game at this point. There were a couple of things that I caught on Twitter or in the Twitch chat (which was surprisingly non-hostile and gross) that made me think, however.

LGBTQIA Representation in Wildstar, Where Is it?

This was a question from the Twitch chat that did not get answered:

Monstracious: There is such a lack of diverse representation in gaming, but Wildstar seems to be taking a transgressive approach. My question is will NPCs and Wildstar lore be inclusive and reflect/represent the LGBTQ+ community? (apologize for repeat question).

Now maybe someone who got to catch more of the livestream can tell me if this was indeed a repeat question that was answered, but it doesn’t seem likely. No cynicism here, but there were many questions from both Twitter and Twitch that were not being addressed. This in particular feels like something that would have been a really question to answer. It is honestly something I wish more developers put thought into when creating their games. There’s a profound lack of characters in video games, even MMORPGs, that are people are color, queer, disabled, trans and other marginalized populations. With the capacity for queer characters seemingly only being handled by maybe Bioware and Guild Wars 2 at this point, we’re still very far behind on all sorts of representation in our MMORPGs, despite them being a genre that is played by so many different people. You’re telling me a goofy sci-fi universe that has rabbit people can’t have bi/pansexual characters in lore? Again, as I’ve mentioned with regards to World of Warcraft, there’s no reason it has to be a big showy affair versus doing quests where you help or rescue someone’s romantic interest and both of them happen to be the same gender. So many things in these fantastical worlds where anything possible seem to solely focus on binary types of organization with how their characters work.

I’d love to see more queer characters in Wildstar but there needs to be a concerted effort to make that happen and I’m not sure that’s going to come about any time soon.

A chua leers from the character selection screen.

The Mysterious Gender of the Chua

I don’t remember exactly how it was phrased but there was a question regarding what, precisely, the gender of the Chua is. Pappy went into a long discussion about how they thought it would be neat to have a race of creatures where you’re you’re not sure what gender they are or what genders they have. In the lore of the game, the Chua gender is a closely guarded secret that maybe we will have revealed at a later point, along with the mystery of how they actually reproduce.

Pappy elucidated that when you pick a Chua in game as your character, that you can pick qualities or looks in whatever combination you want. The problem I found when rolling one is that the looks that are oriented in a distinctly more feminine direction (lack of facial hair, lighter colors, more “cute” faces) were very narrow if not limited to one choice solely. Another problem I ran into that Pappy noted is that the game NPCs and quest text default to male pronouns, therefore giving all Chua characters male pronouns regardless of gender. This means for whatever progressiveness was being attempted feels more like a novelty versus a true creation of a atypical gendered society in the Chua. My question, even regarding the quest text is why not using gender neutral pronouns? They/them is useful for this reason but Wildstar could have adopted things like xe/xem as well. My other thought is why stop at the Chua? MMORPG races seem very fixated on binary gender but in a game that has robots (Mechari) as well as rock-people (Granok), why gender things so completely? Wouldn’t their societies be less concerned with gender when they don’t have a strict physical need to reproduce (which is the reason most people give for binary gender, despite that being irrelevant)?

Goofy vs. Dark

Another question (“How do you balance Wildstar being fun and goofy?”) was posed that inspired less thoughts from me but definitely gave me insight into how Wildstar approaches the tone of their universe.

Pappy talked about how they’ve been given feedback that yes, Wildstar does have a lot of serious moments versus being cartoony all the time. In his words, “[…]fact of the matter is, Wildstar has a pretty serious and epic story. Just because our characters have a lot of personality, that doesn’t mean at all that the stories we don’t tell are serious. I think it’s the combination of having memorable characters with big personalities – sometimes funny, slotting those characters into the kind of space opera [we have], sweeping stories. The combination makes our game unique, [and we think] it’s going to have people playing for a long time. It’s new and fresh.”

Frost also chimed in to talk about how without the scary, dark stuff, humor by itself won’t be taken seriously and that you need a dichotomy.

This is something I find myself liking more and more as I play deeper into the story. There’s dark and scary elements to the game, despite the candy veneer but it never seems to go into very grimdark territory unlike many fantasy games. I don’t want to play a game that reminds me that the real world is horrible and brutal. I am okay with violence paired with cartoonishness and striking that balance is both necessary and keeps the tone from too childish or too serious. We will see if Wildstar can maintain this dichotomy but I have optimism.