How Trans Consultants Saved Dragon Age: InquisitionInquisition almost screwed up on trans representation.
With the recent release of Mass Effect: Andromeda, many gamers have been complaining about the unrealistically written transgender character found within the game. On first meeting the player, Hainly Abrams, a trans woman who fled the galaxy in order to avoid being called her pre-transition name, tells you both about her trans status, and what the pre-transition name she came to Andromeda to avoid was. She does this as part of your first ever conversation with her.
It’s really not a good example of writing a trans character who is three-dimensional, believable, and written in a way that’s narratively consistent. While it was last night announced that the dialogue would be altered in a future patch, the fact it’s still in the game over two weeks post release is a problem. This should have been caught ahead of launch.
While poor trans depictions in video games are far from rare – pretty much every example out there is flawed in one way or another – it was a little shocking to see this kind of misstep from Bioware of all developers, considering that Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi in Dragon Age: Inquisition is one of the most universally-praised trans characters found in any game.
Interestingly, a large part of the reason Krem ended up being such a praised trans character is down to Bioware seeking advice from transgender and non-binary consultants outside of the development team. While the version of the character in the retail game received wide-reaching praise, early drafts nearly made some fatal missteps which would likely have made Krem yet another example of “good try, but a bit problematic”.
The following insights into the development of Krem as a character come from emails between a consultant on Dragon Age: Inquisition and writer Patrick Weekes. These emails were provided by the consultant, and verified separately as containing legitimate in-development materials. We also cite an unused interview with Weekes in which he confirms many of the early draft issues discussed in the emails we received.
Early drafts nearly made some fatal missteps which would likely have made Krem yet another example of “good try, but a bit problematic”.
A major focus of the consultant’s revisions was to take Krem from a character who was not out about their transition and got outed against his will, to a character who was willing to talk about his trans status, but only with people he trusted.
Early internal drafts had Krem being outed as trans by Iron Bull, and defensively responding to a situation he was forced into. Consultants pointed out that outing Krem and him having to defend himself played heavily into victimisation narratives surrounding trans portrayals, and the point was made that Krem needed to be open enough to talk about the topic himself for it to be approached in a positive light.
It was important to take the scene from Krem being the victim, being outed against his will and having to defend himself as the weak and vulnerable victim in the scene, to being the character calmly in control of that information spreading. So much of transition in real life is dictated by trying to avoid becoming a victim at the hands of others, and so it seemed important to not replicate that unnecessarily in a media depiction.
“That was something that had just never occurred to me”, Weekes said in an interview at GaymerX 2016. “The idea that trans people exist on a spectrum of how comfortable they are talking about their stories. Some people will happily say ‘yep I’m trans, I’m happy to talk about it, let’s go’ and other people are legitimately triggered into an anxiety attack if they are misgendered or have someone bring up there their dead name, the name they used before they transitioned. The idea that our trans character shouldn’t be outed by anyone but that trans person was something that I was completely blind to”.
So much of transition in real life is dictated by trying to avoid becoming a victim at the hands of others, and so it seemed important to not replicate that unnecessarily in a media depiction.
The joke Krem makes about helping Iron Bull bind his “pillowy man bosoms” in the final game was based on a joke initially made by Iron Bull towards Krem. By flipping the narrative and having Krem be the one to make the joke about a non trans character’s chest, it kept what was a very humanising piece of humour intact, but put the power of the joke in the hands of the trans character, completely flipping the tone of the scene.
“That’s why we we steered it back, asking ‘would it be okay if Krem brought it up himself?’ Because Krem bringing up himself in the conversation makes it clear to the player whether the player is a, uh, whether the player is the cis person who has never met a trans person in their life, or whether the player’s a trans person going, ‘Oh Krem’s ok talking about it’, the player isn’t being intrusive now by hitting the investigate hub, that’s Krem bringing up and going ‘yep, binding, that’s a thing I do’”.
A lot of aspects of Krem’s backstory were initially more cliched and tropey in their execution before consultancy passes. One consultant described early drafts of Krem’s backstory as “pretty rapey.” Weekes was, originally, fairly adamant that he wanted Krem and a military physician to have a history that was “ugly”, with heavy implications of sexual assault as a contextless implied character motivation. It was pointed out that, while there is a higher than average rate of sexual assault victimhood in the trans community, having sexual assault without context as a character motivation fell into a lot of stereotypical traps regarding the writing of trans men.
While this was eventually removed, it apparently took a lot of work to convince Weekes that “yo, I’mma blackmail you for ‘pretending’ to be a man”, as was the case in the retail release, was sufficient excuse for Krem to desert the army, in place of sexual assault from a physician being the driving force behind his decision.
“I eventually realised it was about trying to find the stories that, even if they’re not happy, upbeat stories, aren’t about that sadness, aren’t about the assault, it’s important to get past that. [The consultants] called that out and we got Krem to a point where that sexual assault was not the defining point of Krem’s existence again.”
“It was about trying to figure out the balance between presenting respectfully, inclusively and showing ‘hey this is the truth of your lives’, but also you paid money for the game and you want something that’s going to be uplifting and not something that just goes, ‘hey just a reminder that your life is really hard’”.
Part of Krem’s original backstory also centred around Krem’s mother throwing him out of home because he wouldn’t marry to help save the family from slavery. It was pointed out that the unsupportive family motivation was fairly cliche and not something most trans players would find interesting to experience.
After some back and forth, this was replaced by a story about his dad teaching him how to shave. This flipped the expected narrative of the trans character having a negative home life to showing one that is more supportive and positive than is commonly portrayed, and avoided what is so often an expected part of a trans character’s origin story – abandonment and disownment.
Lastly, initial drafts of the character centred on his genitalia as the focal point of how others viewed his transition.
Would you change with magic? :: If you had the chance to use magic, would you change yourself all the way?
What kind of question is that? I don’t want magic like that within ten yards of my pants!
While Weekes deliberately wrote Krem as a trans character for cis people, where the core idea was that a player could ask shitty questions and then get an explanation about how and why they were being shitty, it didn’t make sense to the consultants for Krem to have that same focal position on his own transition. While a naive cis person may make the focus of transition the state of a trans person’s genitals, the trans person themselves is far less likely to publically discuss their genitalia as a focal point of validating their identity.
While the deliberately shitty question remained in the final game, the word ‘pants’ was replaced with ‘body’ to shift the focus away from Krem’s genitals, and to avoid having Krem make an implication either way about the state of his genitalia.
One of the key criticisms of Krem was the player only being able to approach his story as an ignorant cis person or not at all, ignoring the player’s own (or their character’s) potential understanding of transgender experiences. But great lengths were taken in order to ensure accuracy in Krem’s answers to those invasive questions that would be informative and beneficial to non-trans players.
One thing that really stands out when Weekes talks about the process of consulting trans and non-binary people is how much he seemed to value the opportunity to improve the way the character was written.
“I really appreciate [consultants] giving me feedback, and also bringing it to me with within a context of affection and trust going ‘look Patrick I know you’re not trying to be an asshole, I know you are trying to present something positive, so within that context here are the accidental landmines you stepped on in that process’”.
Outside of the things that did change as a result of consultancy, there are a few interesting things that did still slip through the net.
Internal emails from Weekes show that from the character’s inception Bioware’s intention was for Krem to “have a female voice actress who has been instructed to act as though passing for a man”, with the idea of hiring a trans man to voice the character never being a matter of internal discussion. While the character was voiced in the final game by Jennifer Hale, the original casting choice for the character was reportedly actress Gwendoline Christie, who had to be replaced when negotiations fell through.
The character’s writing was significantly improved by consultation with non-cisgender individuals, but it’s unfortunate this casting choice still slipped through the cracks, as it helps perpetuate negative attitudes that trans men are simply women putting on deep voices.
Krem wasn’t a perfect example of a trans character depiction, but he easily ended up the best example of a trans character in a AAA game we have available to us, and a lot of that is thanks to trans consultants helping Bioware avoid pitfalls which would have put him right with the rest of the mixed trans presentation out there.
Considering Weekes worked on all three of the original Mass Effect games, it’s a shame Bioware didn’t put him on Mass Effect: Andromeda (which used a different internal development team), or seek any trans consultants (as far as our investigation could turn up). As we can see, a little consultancy can go an awfully long way to fixing a problematic first draft of a trans character.