Where to begin.
Although the information has been floating around gaming’s social media spheres and message boards for a few weeks now, yesterday Polygon ran an op-ed by Laura K. Dale about Oryx, the titular king of Destiny‘s recent The Taken King expansion, being transgender.
As a cis-though-not-as-cis-as-they-thought-they-were-for-30-years person, I struggled a lot with whether it was even appropriate for me to write the blog post you’re reading at this very moment. I feel like as a thing that has the greatest impact on and for trans folks, their voices should be the ones you hear and consider first. In the end I’ve tried to address what feels like the broader issues related to representing marginalized characters in games that this is an example of.
My issue with this situation has very little to do with Dale’s piece, which I was relatively neutral on (meaning I agreed with parts of it and disagreed with others… i.e. a perfectly normal reaction to anything). Instead I have been ruminating on a question Laura Dale asked at the very opening of her piece: “Why wasn’t this discussed in the gaming press?” Or perhaps more accurately: is this being discussed in the gaming press as universal a good as we might imagine it to be?
What the Oryx situation speaks to is a phenomenon I’ve already talked about: the tension between visibility and the freedom to escape our marginalization. I am definitely not the only person who’s talked about it, either; Mattie Brice’s well-known essay “I Am More Than My Pain” addresses this, and while I sadly can’t find the links, Aevee Bee talked extensively and eloquently on Twitter recently about how the expectation that marginalized creators only talk about and reflect their marginalized experience can be incredibly harmful.
To sum up, being “different” in some way is a constant push-pull between wanting the right to express yourself about it and to make it part of your work, and an understandable desire for it to not be A Thing for five seconds of your day.
Both the post of mine I linked above and my Paste piece on Mortal Kombat X‘s Kung Jin circle around the character design implications of this tension: do we foreground a character’s marginalization and make it a compelling part of their narrative, or do we take a more subtle approach, including it as a non-focused background element.
I think generally speaking we’re familiar with the benefits of the first approach. The idea is that by increasing visible representation we give people figures they can point to, that they can say “yeah, folks like me are real, they’re visible, they’re out there.” That said, I’d stress that the work of Adrienne Shaw emphasizes how “like me” is more complicated than first blush suggests. She goes into more detail in her book Gaming at the Edge, which I heartily recommend, by the way. In any event, I think we “get” the benefits of visible representation, by and large.
My argument — in the case of Transistor‘s queer antagonists or Kung Jin’s homosexuality — is that the background approach has a number of benefits as well, primary of which is that the diverse angle of the character’s story doesn’t suddenly dominate the discussion. It satisfies that need many of us have to feel like we’re “there,” but without putting us in an often uncomfortable and offputting spotlight.
Is one of these approaches better than the other? No. They are two distinct ways to do things and they both have affordances and limitations. The direct approach provides unambiguous visibility but is, for lack of a better word, very “loud.” The background approach is more subtle, but the tradeoff is that the people whom it would benefit most to see it may miss it entirely. You need to pick and choose which is right, in context, for your goals as a creator.
This brings me to Oryx, and the problem of people taking something made in the “subtle” style and trying to transfigure it into the “loud” approach. I don’t necessarily think that works terribly well, and the Oryx situation — as well as how Dale’s Polygon op-ed was received — is a good example of why that’s true.
Game designer Caelyn Sandel made a couple tweets about this yesterday that I think are relevant:
like, ring me when we get another ACTUALLY TRANS CHARACTER. Maybe a trans woman this time? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯— Killin' Sandhell (@inurashii) October 5, 2015
I am ALSO totally uninterested in trying to tell people that they should not be happy with treating this as trans representation. It's ok!— Killin' Sandhell (@inurashii) October 5, 2015
I was kind of in the same place. When I finished reading the op-ed I scrolled to the bottom to skim some of the ongoing comment discussion and what I mostly saw was a comment thread full of people arguing endlessly over whether or not Oryx was “really” a trans character. Which prompted me to tweet this:
But the notion of watching non-queer people masticate endlessly over whether or not Oryx is "legitimately" trans turns my stomach.— Lady Boss Presents™ (@laevantine) October 5, 2015
And I feel like any press or writing that hyperfocuses on that narrative hook, or which lauds it as So Progressive, feeds into that.— Lady Boss Presents™ (@laevantine) October 5, 2015
Maybe “turns my stomach” was unnecessarily heavy language, but honestly: what does an argument over Oryx’s “legitimacy” as a trans character get us, other than a way for lots of non-trans folks to voice their opinions about what a “real” trans person is? Caelyn was uninterested in policing people’s determination of “is Oryx really trans?” or not, and I equally don’t care because a focus on determining if Oryx is “legitimately” trans is utterly missing the point.
In her op-ed, Laura Dale says point blank, “We can’t praise this as a victory of transgender representation.” I agree! I said something similar about Kung Jin when I wrote his story up for Paste:
It says something that our confirmation on whether or not Jin is gay (as opposed to bi or pan, or some more fluid sexuality, which are all options given his scene with Raiden) comes from cinematic director Cianciolo himself, in a tweet where someone finally just asked him point-blank about it. I’m legitimately happy that they made Jin gay, and I’m even happier that it didn’t go massively wrong in the thousand and one ways it could have. That’s big. But when I see Jin’s inclusion being hailed as Great! Inclusion! I get uncomfortable.
Part of my resistance to this sort of “it’s a victory for diversity!” moment about the background approach is that they are often used to try and shut down arguments for inclusion, full stop. Background inclusion is great, but it’s also a minimum standard, and its existence alone is not enough — we need both background and foreground marginalized characters, together, to present the proper tapestry. Identity is complicated; our representation of it needs to be equally complex and varied.
I think the important thing to remember, though, is that if you have a character that is to be presented in this “foreground” mode, then they have to own being in that mode. That’s why Caelyn’s first tweet in that pair I showed above is so critical: if Oryx is to be this Big Transgender Character Moment, then Destiny’s narrative approach — where everything is sub-rosa, locked in the grimoire, understated, and not heavily reflected in the direct storyline as the game presents it — doesn’t do that goal justice.
This is why I got nervous at Dale’s repeated use of “titular character” when referring to Oryx himself; having played Taken King‘s story missions (though not the King’s Fall raid), I can say with some certainty that Oryx is not as prominent a figure in Destiny‘s world as it would seem. He is a presence, for sure, but that presence is a largely limited one, with little dialogue or deep story to back it up. Oryx is primarily a plot engine, a way to get events moving for your Guardian to gunfeel their way through… and in the end, you kill him. Twice.
Which is to say, I feel a little weird about hailing a 12′ space alien that looks like HR Giger’s take on Shin Getter Robo and whose significant personal details are utterly absent from the game “a big deal” with regards to representation. And claiming how Important™ Oryx is in this regard only serves to emphasize the lack of details involved. I don’t think being “in the title” does Oryx any favors.
That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be excited for it — I was skeptical about the media reaction this would get when it got wide distro, but when I was told about this my reaction was “cool story detail.” And it is! And if you’re happy about Oryx being a trans character, awesome! I’m not writing this because I want to take that away from anyone. It is a neat story detail, and like most of Destiny‘s more interesting story details, it exists primarily outside the game, left there for interested parties to find because it is, at best, flavor.
Consider, if you will, that the Taken — Oryx’s army — are all existing enemies that have been adapted (“taken”) in some way. Their new forms reflect a fundamental shift over the old; an adapting to old weaknesses, an intensifying of strengths. You can read the mostly spoiler-free grimoire cards for each type of Taken here. I find them incredibly fascinating. And the part of me that considers these things goes: if a fundamental aspect of the Taken is that they are beings who are “freed” from what binds them, through transformation into a more real or pure form, then the idea that Oryx is a trans character makes a bit of sense. Not all trans folks involve physical transition in their lives, but I imagine the idea of becoming one’s best, truest self through a process of change has some resonance.
So in that regard: yeah, Oryx being trans feels reasonable and interesting. But all of this — all of this — is stuff you have to do work to find, to interpret, to consider. It is not foregrounded, and attempting to argue that it is feels like it’s heading down a very bad path indeed.
Perhaps what we really need to do is convince ourselves that these background representations are good, and right, and okay. I think that’s maybe hard to do when the other kind — the foreground kind — are so sparse, so hard to find, and when they appear, often so ineptly handled. When there are so few trans characters at all in games, it’s a natural impulse to want to elevate a character like Oryx as a symbol or an emblem, to say “LOOK! THIS HAPPENED!”
But I am unconvinced that this is the best idea. Consider the impact this has on actual queer game creators, rather than on a fictional being. I’ve seen, too many times recently, evidence that one a queer creator has made something, they “owe” the world of queer players something: their energy, their time, even “their queerness” if that makes any sense. It is an act that reduces those creators to a fraction of their identity and one that, perhaps, they would like to put in the background for a little while. It turns them into objects and symbols rather than people. It is a bad trend that is causing people real and obvious harm.
Now, Oryx is not a living person; he’s a video game character. He’s already a symbolic entity. But I think attributing too much power and weight to that symbolic entity when there isn’t enough “there” to support it all, ends up creating the situation we’re in now: endless arguments by people with comparatively little stakes about “legitimacy” and what is “real” that, in my view, distract from the actual potential benefit of this background-mode character.
I would never in a million years tell anyone to stop fighting for more visibility. I can absolutely say that it would have been great if Oryx being trans was foregrounded more in Destiny‘s story, considering the dearth of trans representation in games to begin with. But at the same time, I think we need to let ourselves be okay with the background representations, too. We need both, and I think trying to force one or the other to suddenly inhabit a space it wasn’t designed for ends up causing more harm than good.
[My thanks to Mike Sacco for the assistance with brushing up on my Destiny lore while writing this post]