On roleplaying LGBT characters (and fanboying about Jade Empire)

4 March 2017 by , No Comments

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I recently found out that, once upon a time, Bioware was planning to make a sequel to Jade Empire but stopped after they were bought out by EA. From a business perspective, I can’t say that I blame them. The game never quite took off like Mass Effect and Dragon Age did, after all, but I’m still a bit disappointed by the news. You see, Jade Empire is one of my favourite games of all time and I’ve always hoped that it would get some sort of follow-up because it was a game that combined almost everything I love and threw it all into a unique, distinctly Chinese sort of fantasy setting. It’s got magic, it’s got steampunk technology, it’s got political intrigue and backstabbing by the bucket load, and it lets you play around with all sorts of supernatural martial arts like you’re the protagonist of your own private kung-fu movie.

Call me a weeaboo (actually, serious question, does that word apply to someone who likes anything Asian or just specifically Japanese things? I can’t keep up with these internet terms) or whatever but I’ve always liked Asian action movies. Not only are they usually quite strikingly beautiful, there’s just something exceptionally badass about watching someone take down a hundred dudes at once with nothing but their bare hands and pure style. Personally, I think it might well be more impressive than a lot of these big overly-muscled Hollywood action heroes mowing down people by the dozen with their giant guns because it involves actually having to fight all those people.

But none of that really explains why Jade Empire is my favourite Bioware game of all time. Now, the word “favourite” doesn’t necessarily imply that I think it’s the “best” game the company has ever made but it’s certainly the one that’s closest to my heart despite having been surpassed in the gameplay, story, and characterisation departments. The music is nice but, with a few exceptions, mostly just kinda there and even back in the day it wasn’t exactly the prettiest thing on the Xbox. So, then, why do I love it so much? Because it had a real impact on me as a player.

First of all, Jade Empire was a rarity as far as games about gods go because, unlike in other titles I’d played, the deities of the world weren’t out to destroy the world with a super-weapon powered by faith or the tears of orphans or something idiotic like that. They were actually very well-written entities who truly felt like immeasurably ancient beings of tremendous power and knowledge, whose duties and responsibilities were so important that mortal minds could not fully appreciate them. In fact, flaunting the authority of the gods proved to have more downsides than anything else – not because the game was trying to push a religious message but because that was just the way in which the world had been constructed. If you, say, murdered the spirit of the forest and ignored her divine decree to deal with the demons that were polluting it then guess what? You’re not promoting the cause of humanism, you’re just screwing over nature and now everyone is suffering because of it. Nice job breaking it, hero.

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However, while that’s great and all, the real reason why Jade Empire is so important to me is that it communicated to me that gay people were totally fine and that there was nothing wrong with them. You see, I grew up in a rather conservative little part of Blighty. I wasn’t raised with any homophobic views but, as far as I could understand, homosexuality itself was just something that happened to other people and didn’t have any presence in the media outside of Very Special Episodes of pretentious television dramas, so I didn’t need to pay any mind to it. Obviously, yes, that was very wrong and very stupid but I was fourteen and ignorant, so how was I supposed to know any better?

Fortunately, this game did what a lot of adults did not and started to educate me, partly because it was probably the first role-playing game that I did some actual role-playing for. These days, whether I’m playing Mass Effect or Fire Emblem, I tend to have more fun whenever I’m playing as someone who is very distinctly not me. I find that, if I try to recreate myself that I just end up doing everything that I would do and that makes for very cliche storytelling. There are a few exceptions, of course (mostly Pokemon), but when it comes to titles where the main character gets to express an actual character I find that I do is try to make friendship speeches all day long. Now, let me play as, say, a foul-tempered chaotic neutral lesbian whose selfish ways are gradually redeemed through the Power of Love and, hey, suddenly I’m a lot more invested in the world.

Well, that’s what happened in Jade Empire. When I started playing the game, I picked Wu the Lotus Blossom as my protagonist because I felt she had the best design out of everyone present and because she was pretty much the game’s poster girl. Kinda made sense for her to be the hero of this story, even if she was a girl. Not that there was anything wrong with girls, of course. I obviously wasn’t sexist because I had female friends, I just recognised that girls were love interests and men were heroes.

Yes, I know, I was a really damn stupid teenager without realising it. If you meet my past self, feel free to biff him over the head with a pencil case or something.

Anyway, almost immediately after I started playing as her, I found myself going for a lot of the more rebellious options in dialogue – flaunting authority whenever possible and generally encouraging others to stand on their own two feet rather than cling to any sort of saviour; which I was actively trying not to be like I was in every other game I’d played. I think role-playing is a bit like acting: Once you step into the life of a character, you have to be consistent and act how they would act or else the story isn’t satisfying.

When it came to my companions, I generally tended to be a little flirtier. Perhaps it was because, being a shy little teenage bookworm, it was a way of saying the things I’d never actually have the guts to say in real life but I think it also made sense for Wu to say these things. She’d grown up her whole life on a remote island, so she was probably suffering from small town boredom. She needed something, or someone, to spice up her life and being a bit of a rebel was probably the only way to inject some excitement into what was otherwise a rather dull existence. When The Plot came a’knocking, it only made sense that she would jump at the call without thinking things through. I doubt she ever gave a damn about her actual mission, she was just reveling in the sensation of being free and able to do whatever she wanted for once.

But Wu’s freedom wasn’t all good for her. While she had finally become the mistress of her own fate, she was also slipping down a dangerous path. Because I was picking all the flightiest and most selfish dialogue options, people got hurt because of her actions. She doomed an entire town just to prove a philosophical point, stood by and smirked as an innocent girl too weak to protect herself got sold into slavery, and made government officials lose their jobs pretty much for the lulz. That’s not to say that she completely lacked redeeming qualities, however. As horrible and selfish as she could be, she did have some standards. I always made it a point to genocide the living daylights out of every demon and cannibal that crossed Wu’s path, which I think reflected that she took umbrage with these dark forces intentionally perverting humanity’s destiny. Gods she never had much beef with, which I assume was down to the fact that even she knew that kicking out cosmic keystones was a pretty bad idea. However, it wasn’t until she met her love interest, Silk Fox, that she really started to mature as a person.

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I didn’t think these two women were going to fall in love when they first met. Honestly, Silk Fox struck me as being quite abrasive in her own right and the way Wu pulled a sword on her pretty much instantly did not make for a great start to their relationship. Nevertheless, as Wu slowly unraveled the mystery behind the mask I couldn’t help but get sucked in to stories of the empire’s political climate and what challenges this stranger was facing in her life. Yes, there was a lot of flirting but Wu flirted with everyone so I didn’t think picking those options was a sign of anything special.

But, somehow, I found it impossible to separate them. Silk Fox wasn’t even that useful a party member, so there was no practical gameplay reason for me not to leave her back at the base and bring along someone who could hold their own better, like Sky or Wild Flower. Yet here she was, fighting at Wu’s side time and time again. When Wu had to infiltrate the most hostile place in the world, Silk Fox was the only one she brought with her. Whenever a battle or a major plot event was over, I always tended to dash over to Silk Fox just to see if she was alright, or at least if there were any new conversation options – and, when there were, Wu always tended to pick the most encouraging ones and, by doing so, I couldn’t help but notice just how uncharacteristically civil Wu acted around this lady. So, when Silk Fox finally came out and told her, “I’ve never felt this way about any man – or woman – before,” I suddenly realised just how far they’d fallen in love with each other I couldn’t think of any reason not to have Wu say that the feelings were mutual. I myself would probably never fall for her but I wasn’t playing as a digital version of myself: I was playing as someone whose race, gender, philosophy, and – apparently – sexuality were all completely different to my own.

Also, as a bit of a side note, these were the days before Bioware stuck sex scenes in all their games and all these ladies got in the end was a fade-to-black just before the Big Damn Kiss. Which, in a way, I actually think I liked more than any lurve scene. Don’t get me wrong, the straight couples being the only ones who actually did get a proper kiss (as I found out on repeat playthroughs) was utter bullshit but the fact that a romance arc concluded not with gratuitous fanservice or awkwardly-animated models dry-humping but simply two people realising their love for each other and how much stronger it makes them strikes me as being a lot more powerful than any amount of nudity set to pretentious wailing choirs could ever be.

After that romantic moment, Wu became a far nicer human being in general. Not quite “heroic,” granted – she was still pretty forceful and demanding at times – but she took the chances to turn back from her destructive path when they were presented and I’d like to think that she was inspired to do so because of the lady at her side. All those long talks about power and responsibility probably made her realise that your own freedom really doesn’t mean anything if all you do with it is stifle that of others. She recognised that she’d been acting like a horrible person, made a conscious decision to start changing her ways, and defeated the arch-villain not for power or glory but because it was simply the right thing to do. She might never have been the messiah was supposed to be but she was still a very interesting character whose arc really did prove that love can redeem anyone.

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