One of the reasons I started looking at problematic enemies specifically in BioWare games is because I know these games so well. I’ve played them over and over countless times. I’m not even kidding. I’ve actually lost count.
The thing that has struck me in all of this is that there’s a strong streak of fear of the other in these games. It’s a bit hidden at first, but dig hard enough at it and it starts to appear.
To be honest though, as I write this, I’ve started to turn my eyes to other games that do exactly the same thing, both TTRPGs and digital games. StarCraft by Blizzard is definitely a candidate that I’ll look closer at, as is Diablo III. Warhammer 40K has a rich mythology as well, as does Dungeons & Dragons. Dungeons & Dragons also has to deal with a distressing manifestation of racism, that becomes super transparent through the use of stats for theirs monsters. But this specific text is a clarification on the subject of BioWare games.
I should preface this whole text with the fact that I do love BioWare games and I do love my colleagues at BioWare. I’m honestly not looking to find fault. There’s a lot to love in these games. Many moments that make these games special. There are characters like Hawke and Commander Shepard, companions like Aveline, Varric, Cole, Iron Bull and Legion. There are moments that elate and moments that break my heart through hope, in despair, and in beauty.
There are some of the most intense and terrifying enemy introductions in game I’ve ever seen (admittedly, my choice of games is limited so I’ve not seen that much, but still). The build up is pure horror. The two truly terrifying ones, that of the Broodmother and the Banshee, are both based on enemies that are originally women and that have been reinforced to become (more) Other.
There’s some effort made to break this streak when introducing the Adjutant in the Omega DLC for Mass Effect 3, and a case can perhaps be made for the Yagh in the Lair of the Shadow Broker, but none of those enemies carry quite the same weight as the Banshee or the Broodmother. None of them carry over to the game proper, either, meaning that you won’t see an Adjutant or a Yagh1 in the main content.
Perhaps the Adjutant fails because there aren’t any transformative moments for NPCs becoming adjutants. The body horror doesn’t land because there isn’t a Hespith or the interplay between Rila, Falere and Samara to anchor the Adjutant in “reality”. Instead it’s just a dehumanized (literally!) monster without the transformation to back it up.
In the movie District 9, the utter revulsion of having your body transformed into something you hate is chronicled in Wikus van De Merve’s slow transformation into an alien. Some of that body horror is reproduced both in Hespith’s and Rila’s struggle against their becoming. Perhaps if Nyreen in the Omega DLC had faced the same struggle, the Adjutant would have been more terrifying.
And yet again, maybe, subconsciously, creating and going into detail about monsters that code as women is easier than creating and going into detail about monsters that code as men. Looking at District 9, even Wikus was after all both seen as feminised (look at the introduction to Wikus, people), racist and quite a despicable human being so it was easy to think that he “deserved” what he got.
Women’s bodies are after all already monstrous. Having that transformation complete by letting the Broodmother expand and the Banshee become closer to a chaotic nature is probably not as “traumatic” for the psyche as turning a man into a monster. A man, after all, is not Other by nature. He is that which everything is Othered to, in comparison. Breaking the sanctity of that situation might be even unholier and harder to handle than a woman being reduced to a monster. Look at Wikus. How uncomfortable did that transformation make you when you saw it the first time?
There’s a pattern here and it repeats throughout the BioWare games, and as I’ve started to discover (or perhaps rediscover) throughout games in general. I’m intent on unraveling it.