Corporate Decision Silliness · Games Criticism · Gendered gaming · Rants · Sexuality in gaming

Say Anything

Remember a while back, a long while back, I wrote about a League of Legends champ named Taric and how I felt Riot should just make him gay already? A long time has passed since then (three years+, in fact). As I’ve written elsewhere, my feelings on Riot, on the situation itself, and on what I said back in 2012 have all grown or evolved or changed in those three years.

As you probably know if you’re a League player, Taric recently got the rework that he’s been promised for quite some time now, and as you can probably imagine, I eagerly awaited it and dove into a lot of the content that came out about it. It seems only fitting that, now that Riot has decided to address a lot of his issues, that I return to the topic and see how I feel about it.

Having done that, I guess I’d say: my feelings are mixed.

Mechanically, gameplay-wise, there’s very little for me to talk about. I think his new kit is interesting and fun, and I think his old kit was indeed sort of dull. I don’t have much more to say there, because other than a few notes on what his kit is intended to signify — more on that in a bit — its particulars were never a big deal for me.

However, the rework also has a strong aesthetic dimension. His character model, voice over, and backstory were all updated to fit the new overall concept of the character. Without going into too much nitty-gritty — feel free to read the new lore page and comic Riot made if you want deep specifics — Taric is now an avatar of protection, the “Shield of Valoran” (Valoran being the world on which League‘s diegesis takes place).

As I said in the Tumblr post earlier, what I liked about Taric is that he embodied, conceptually, these seemingly competing ideals of “gentleness” and “strength.” He is a tank character, and a support/defense character: his role is to heal and defend others. Yet he was never portrayed as being Hyper Masculine in a hegemonic way (compare: literal shirtless musclebeast strongman Braum); if anything, his sub-rosa queer coding pushed against a read of him as Hyper Tough Tanky Guy. Any time a character is portrayed as tough or resilient without giving in to gendered ideas of masculinity, I am more or less automatically for it. Please continue to decouple “traditional tough guy” and “protector/tank,” thank you.

To that extent I think his rework’s thematic approach is entirely apt. They kept the idea that Taric is more interested in truth, beauty, and other emotionally-oriented things than on being the Perfect Dude Knight, and I think that’s critical.

I also largely find his visual redesign to be alright, too. He’s not head to toe in gem-studded platemail anymore; he’s basically Crystal Fabio in a deep v-neck tunic with a hammer. He’s kind of what you wanted your WoW holy paladin to look like but couldn’t because WoW‘s platemail design is obsessed with spikes and skulls and shit.

Taric rework splash comic
Taric rework splash comic

It’s sort of “D&D paladin magical girl” and I’m into it. They also substantially reworked his voice acting (he’s now voiced by Yuri Lowenthal, doing what I would call “his best Cam Clarke impression,” because I’m a total jerk) and believe me, compared to his old voice acting, it is a million times better. For example, his pain grunts don’t sound like THIS anymore (jump to 00:21 if it doesn’t cue properly):

Yeah. Glad to see that shit gone.

However, there are some angles on his visual and audio redesign that gave me pause, and probably the biggest one is the focus on Taric as “beautiful.” For example, consider this paragraph from the “champion insights” article on him:

Emphasizing the best parts of Taric meant embracing and surgically enhancing his masculine, handsome beauty. We gave Taric’s base model a stronger jaw and gave his jacket a plunging V-neck. In early playtests, we had his V-neck going to the bottom of his pecs, but during internal testing a few Rioters gave the feedback that the V-neck needed to reveal more, to go deeper. They wanted all the Taric they could get. So deeper we went.

There’s also a lot of talk (a lot of talk, and not just from Riot, but also from fans) about his hair. The Fabio comparisons seem in many ways predicated on this combination of “long hair + exposed pecs + lantern jaw” and yet this is all described as “masculine, handsome beauty,” which feels weird. Taric also had a unique taunt, at one point, against an enemy Taric that went into direct “the lady doth protest too much” territory:

Taric, to an enemy Taric: "Beauty can be deadly. And manly. Very manly."
Taric, to an enemy Taric: “Beauty can be deadly. And manly. Very manly.”

Now, I want to emphasize that this taunt no longer appears to be in the game — I checked myself playing against a bot, and instead of this I got “I like the cut of your gem” which is, frankly, not just less weird, but also genuinely funnier. So, good change on Riot’s part. But when I first saw that “special interaction” in this video I made some serious Margenoise.

I find the association between Taric and “beauty” somewhat frustrating for similar reasons to what Dante Douglas laid out in Paste talking about male sexualization:

When the masculine is coded as being in opposition to femininity, male characters that are coded as “sexy” often do so by performing femininity (in some fashion). Traditionally-coded “sexy” male characters are “sexy” via their vanity, their attention to personal attire, etc. In this way, their status of being “sexy” is founded on their ability to perform as an object of sexual desire (this is also often queercoded and/or played as a joke).

On this axis the Taric rework walks a very careful line for me. As I said in that Tumblr post, I actually want Taric to be tied to masculinity, to some degree, because in being “masculine” but not “traditionally masculine” he’s able to de-center this seemingly inextricable connection between “masculinity” and “toughness.” This is why I love Steven Universe (the character and the show), too: Steven is gentle and caring, a protector, and it so often feels like there is nobody like that among male characters in similar programs in the genre/target demo.

On the other hand, when that “softness” becomes the target of a joke — and for pre-rework Taric, it really was the entire joke — it undermines this, and so anything that calls too much attention to Taric’s non-traditional approach to masculinity as being humorous tends to grate on my nerves like a file. I didn’t know about the removed taunt until tonight when I sat down to write this, but finding that out made me pretty happy, believe it or not.

However, there is one last thing we need to talk about, and it’s maybe the most distressing thing for me.

If you read the Champion Insights article I linked, or listen to the League Community Podcast episode with the Taric rework team, you’ll notice a recurring rhetorical motif is “We wanted to keep what players liked about Taric.” I actually like one of the devs (I don’t recall offhand which of the three it was) in the podcast saying “We wanted to be able to make him fun/funny without him being the target of the joke.” And I actually think that they for the most part managed to achieve that aim with this rework.

Before I go into this last bit, I feel like I need to say that: the rework really does feel like it’s more respectful, more interesting, and less troublesome than the previous version of Taric that endured for so many years. I think Riot took a lot of laudable steps. I refer to Taric as my boyfriend on Twitter with alarming consistency so I think that speaks for itself.

That said.

One of the more common things Riot does nowadays with both new champs and with reworks is do a forum Q&A with Riot devs and community managers on the subject. As you can expect, the Taric rework got one, and it was here that I started to get annoyed.

As you might expect, Taric’s sexuality is tricky. Taric’s supposed homosexuality (which seems, in retrospect, determined almost entirely based on his gender non-conforming aspects, pre-rework) is a very, very durable meme in the League fan sphere. It doesn’t hurt that Taric’s original version had a few jokes about Jem and the Holograms (basically variations on the phrase “truly outrageous”, a phrase that continues to follow him even through the rework), for example.

I had hoped, going into a shiny new era of Riot being — and I genuinely believe this! — a better and more sensitive company than it was even 4 years ago, that the issue of Taric’s sexuality might find some resolution come the rework. Sadly, this did not happen.

The problem is that it is really clear, from the Q&A itself, that people wanted to know. The question kept coming up, sometimes in sub-rosa ways (the first question is literally “Does Taric like Ezreal?”, another champ he’s often fan-shipped with) and sometimes in very, very overt ones:

An unanswered question about Taric's sexuality, from his Q&A forum thread
An unanswered question about Taric’s sexuality, from his Q&A forum thread

This question went unanswered in the entire Q&A and I am really annoyed by that fact because this is, to be honest, a freakin’ good question. I want to know the damn answer!

It doesn’t hurt that at other times, when this came up and was answered by the Riot team, the issue of Taric’s sexuality is either entirely sidestepped

A question about Taric's potential pansexuality in League canon
A question about Taric’s potential pansexuality in League canon

…or in another case, just shut down completely with a very common and extremely bad non-answer:

A question about the interpretation of Taric's sexuality in League canon
A question about the interpretation of Taric’s sexuality in League canon

Man, the “It’s up to you! We leave it up to the fans to decide!” thing is so incredibly irritating that I wanted to smash something with a hammer after I read this.

Here’s my deal. Riot is not exactly shy about their support of the queer community outside of the game. They were major sponsors of GaymerX2, for example. It is very clear that Riot has queer employees who let their voices be heard inside the company. It’s clear that the company’s attempts to make its playerbase less toxic are in part motivated by a genuine desire to protect their queer players from hate speech. After the SNAFU with the women’s tournament in the Philippines they very clearly made their voice heard on the subject. The company is on record as supporting queer players. Materially and directly!

This means, to me, that the decision to remain ambiguous about Taric’s sexuality is not motivated by a desire to “protect” Riot. It is, to be blunt, too late for that. They’re already distinctly, clearly, and directly in support of queer players.

So why the coyness? The sidesteps? The frankly utterly boring “It’s up to the fans to decide!” ambiguity? In light of all the things I just mentioned, the decision to not only not answer the question but to actively avoid answering the question seems utterly nonsensical.

The truth is, I’d have been fine if they said “Naw, Taric’s straight.” Disappointed, sure! I want my lane partner boyfriend to be queer! But if he’s not, that’s fine. At least now I’d know. In fairness, Riot is not particularly forthcoming on the sexuality of most of its characters; for all the lore relationships that exist, even the most “commonly accepted” ones — like Garen/Kat — are largely sub-rosa. But the deal with heteronormativity is that you don’t need to be explicit about heterosexual relationships because they are assumed to be the norm.

Comparatively speaking, if you have or want a queer character, you need to signal it, and frankly, being beautiful or “friendly” or even a tiny bit gender-non-conforming isn’t enough for me anymore.

The question I end up asking is: who is Riot protecting by not being definite about it? The choice not to answer these questions — and it is really clear looking at this Q&A that people really want to know, particularly queer players, QUEL SURPRISE — is intentional. This means it was made to further some goal or end point. But what is that goal or end point?

Is it to “enable” queering? This is perhaps the most charitable read but it’s also decidedly misguided. I don’t need a character to have an ambiguous sexuality to “queer” them. News flash: queer media consumers (and straight ones for that matter) have been doing this in defiance of canon for eons. We don’t need help.

Is it to protect the straight playerbase from having to deal with the issue? Allow me to sum up my view on that option: I don’t care about their heterosexual feelings. They can learn to live with it for a change.

Is it, as that unanswered poster suggested, to avoid trouble abroad because of League‘s global market? This is believable, if amazingly disappointing, but if that’s the reason? I actually want to be told that. It matters.

That’s the question I’m left with. The question of whether Taric is gay, pan, bi, ace (what a thought!), or het is to me less important than knowing why the question is being so thoroughly and obviously sidestepped! There is no artifice or guile to these evasions; they are painfully, incredibly obvious.

So that’s where I’m at: I came full circle. In 2012, I saw queer-coded Taric, the butt of the joke, and wished Riot would just bite the bullet and “make him gay.” In 2016, his rework finally happened, and I’m glad to say that Taric no longer seems like he is there to be laughed at. But in the end, I still want Riot to take that step. Make him gay. Or bi or pan. Or ace. Or even straight! But be definite about it. Actually respond to these questions. Your players — the ones your company’s actions say they support! — deserve that. More to the point, the evasiveness sends a tacit message: “this isn’t important enough to engage.” And, sorry: it is. It really, really is.

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