Nominees for the first ever gaming category in the annual GLAAD awards were announced today, honoring The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset, Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire, Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire, The Sims Mobile and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey for their representation of LGBTQ characters. The nomination of that last game included an additional explanatory note addressing a controversial required romance in the most recent downloadable expansion..
“Our decision to nominate Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is ultimately rooted in the understanding that progress can sometimes be messy,” Blair Durkee, a consultant for the LGBTQ advocacy group, wrote in a blog post. Durkee went on to note that the nomination was sure to “raise eyebrows.”
The raised eyebrows would be due to the turn Odyssey has taken in recent weeks. Since before launch, the ancient Greek adventure from Ubisoft drew attention for, among other things, letting players choose to play as a man named Alexios or a woman named Kassandra and then romance (and sleep with) any of a handful of male or female characters players might encounter in the game. Sex happened off-screen, but characters could choose who to court, including various dialogue options for flirting and developing these relationships. Players had been told by the game’s creators that they’d never be forced to have a relationship with any specific character and could roleplay with their protagonist as having any sexuality in the 100-hour game. This was all reinforced in the game itself, until a downloadable expansion released to paying customers last week, which introduced a required straight romance, seemingly for the plot purpose of having a biological child.
“At worst, this sends the harmful message that sexual orientation can be changed at will and that LGBTQ people can choose to conform to heteronormative expectations in spite of their identities,” Durkee wrote.
Many fans complained about the DLC’s mandatory straight relationship last week, with some expressing hurt that the game seemed to be presenting homosexuality as a choice that could be undone and others simply saying that this was not what they had been told the game would do.
In response, Ubisoft and the game’s creative director made several apologies: first for surprising players, and later, in a more nuanced message, for letting players down. Yesterday, the developers said they would alter some dialogue and a cutscene in the released DLC to better accommodate players who wanted to choose the “non-romantic” version of the relationship. The DLC won’t be changing the character’s decision to engage in heterosexual intercourse to have a child but will apparently more greatly enable the relationship to play out as a utilitarian one that is engaged in only to continue a bloodline. The final fate of the relationship will be depicted in an upcoming final chapter to the expansion.
Durkee described the announced changes as “a positive step,” though noted that these changes “do not entirely solve the challenge.” They also noted that GLAAD has been in contact with Ubisoft to offer feedback about the whole situation, which a Ubisoft rep also confirmed to Kotaku.
On forums and social media, fans’ feedback to the Assassin’s Creed team’s statements and plans have been mixed. Some say it’s been a good faith effort to honor the spirit in which the game was originally presented and that it addresses the bait-and-switch many players felt. Others argue it is ceding too much authorial control, though the authors of the game do seem quite motivated to do it and aren’t actually changing their major plot points. Some fans have gotten hung up on the idea that Assassin’s Creed’s historical protagonists used to be required to have biological descendants based on the logic of how the game’s modern-day lore has connected to its playable events in the past, but the biological descendant thing hasn’t actually been required of the game’s heroes in the franchise’s most recent games. There had been no indication prior to this past week that Alexios or Kassandra would need to have a descendant, which explains how many players were caught by surprise.
GLAAD’s nomination for Odyssey reads as follows:
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey follows protagonists Kassandra and Alexios across an epic role-playing adventure in ancient Greece. True to the norms of the historical period, sexuality is fluid and celebrated. Both Kassandra and Alexios can romance same-sex characters in the game and will often encounter non-player characters with same-sex partners. There are specific references to historical LGBTQ figures, including Alcibiades and Sappho. LGBTQ inclusion is both prominently featured and effectively woven throughout the game.
The other games were also lauded for their representation of LGBTQ characters: Guild Wars 2’s expansion for “making LGBTQ identities feel like a natural and vital part of the world”, Pillars of Eternity II for an “expansive cast of characters includes many with LGBTQ identities,” the Sims for bringing its long-running LGBTQ inclusiveness to mobile and the Elder Scrolls expansion for “ a questline in which the player helps a transgender woman reunite with her estranged twin sister.”
The winner of GLAAD’s gaming award will be announced in the coming weeks.