Monday, May 14, 2018

The Deadfire Herchipelago

"You're not some baby [girl]
Why you acting so surprised
You're sick of all the rules
Well I'm sick of all your lies"

Garbage - Why Do You Love Me

Slight PoE2: Deadfire spoilers follow.
Like any reasonable person, I've abandoned all other concerns this past week to dive into Pillars of Eternity 2: Deadfire. Not that I thought it would be an outright masterpiece (and it isn't) but for better or worse it's become painfully obvious that the cRPG revival largely hinges on its success. PoE 2 is meant to reverse-engineer the lasting influence of Baldur's Gate 2: not a proof of concept nor a risque pioneer but a trendsetter. While an ambitious project in many ways, it clings to the lowest common denominator to widen its appeal. Shelving a full game design discussion for some later date, I have to note the somewhat glaring thematic issue of gender relations.

For one thing, the NPC "romance" options conspicuously (and thankfully) absent from PoE, Tides of Numenera and Tyranny have made an unwelcome comeback. Apparently my choices are between a redneck bimbo religious fanatic and a murderous nationalist fanatic. Hm. Pass. Maybe if that intellectually integral, metaphysically dissonant nerdette Ydwin had made it to full scripted companion status...

But I don't doubt they would've found some way to ruin her, to turn her into some feminist icon instead of an individual. Deadfire makes such a show of toeing the current snowflake party line as to constantly sour its limited storytelling potential. For one thing, every party member seems enthusiastically homo- or bi-sexual, in defiance of all statistical expectations for a heterosexually reproducing population... even Aloth, all of a sudden.

Speaking of Aloth, as the least desirable to female eyes (the nerd, and not a rich one either) I wasn't surprised to find him relegated to the status of comic relief to an even greater extent than in the original. Whinier, prissier, everyone's punching bag, it seems like his every dialogue has him ridiculed, humiliated, pushed around, abused, shit on... and meekly swallowing it all. All this, despite being able to one-shot an entire squad of fire giants? Had Aloth been female, such treatment would've swamped Obsidian with hate mail.

Not that he's out of place. As usual, respectability is a prize not to be earned but won with femininity as the perennial trump card.

That screenshot is about where I realized even the last male leader in the game was about to get thrown out, with no particular foreshadowing and with a kangaroo court to lend the proceedings an air of legitimacy. Of Deadfire's four major factions two are headed by females, two by males, an ostensibly even split. The males, of course, can be ousted and replaced with their female seconds and you're heavily prodded by ample moral reasons (slavery, native rights) to undermine them. You're given no such incentives or even options to replace the endless parade of chieftesses with their male subalterns.

It's a very stable pattern. Narration of the main storyline was heavily increased and the male narrator replaced with a female (and incompetent) one. In the council of the gods, the males (Skaen, Galawain, Rymrgand) are grudgingly allowed one irrelevant token appearance each. The discussion is entirely carried out among genderless Wael and the four staunchly female goddesses, plus Berath always in his/her female half. Female villains are always of the tragic flaw variety (usually "for my people" to the point of "a single tear rolls down her cheek") while the few irredeemable villains are always male (the Splintered Reef, Crookspur, etc.) All traitors are male. All thieves are male. All designated losers are male. In quests with predetermined outcomes, if the NPC you're helping is female, she'll somehow miraculously escape any disasters and / or assassination attempts.
If there's a last survivor of a failed expedition tenaciously clinging to life, standing up to the villain, it'll be female.
If there's a last survivor of a failed expedition shamefully groveling before the villain or ready to be sacrificed, it'll be male.

The saddest part, as usual, is that we accept and expect such abuse.

Perhaps worse than the outright male-bashing permeating Deadfire is its revisionist agenda filling the game world with warrior women. PoE's universe makes a habit of parodying real-world cultures in a misguided, shallow pastiche of multiculturalism. Everyone talks in funny accents and tosses foreign-sounding buzz-words around because We Respect Their Diversity! They make a pretty good show of it, to the point where most references are easily recognizable... yet it rapidly breaks down when every heroic soldier you meet is female.
Remind me, did Renaissance-era Italian city-states fill their militaries with women? Were most famous pirate captains female? Were most Polynesian warriors female? I've already gone over the idiocy of such propaganda. Women have always used men as stepladders and ablative armor for their own purposes, for easily distinguishable biological reasons. Women play the power behind the throne not because they're oppressed into doing so, but because they can, because figureheads frequently roll and it's just safer to latch on to every new replacement king while still being bowed at. Let them eat cake and have it too.

Obsidian showed a hefty streak of female chauvinism in PoE 1 and Tyranny but it was tempered, if I had to guess, to a large extent by a certain writer of Torment fame who has since left for greener pastures. Deadfire shows none of those attempts at instilling sanity into modern propaganda, and is a much weaker product for it.

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