Tracer might be gay but everyone wants to f*** Mercy (Part Three)

The ongoing success of a game, franchise or IP is reliant on its fan base, this much should be obvious. But is a fan base reliant on the fanart and fanfiction it produces and shares? That is a more difficult question to answer. In my (as always, admittedly uneducated and inexperienced) opinion the short answer is “no”. The longer answer is still “no,” only with a “but it’s still important to a great many fan communities, and clever developers and publishers recognise that fact” attached. But we’ll come back to this in a minute.

In Part One of this series I explained how the decision by Blizzard to put Tracer in a canonical same-sex relationship – thereby making her the first canon LGBTQI character in Overwatch – was the safe choice when considering the less-than-LGBTQI-friendly portion of the Overwatch community, since it didn’t affect their power-fantasies. Part Two I explained the “everyone wants to fuck Mercy” thing, how she is both the most conventionally physically attractive character on the roster (by current societal standards and stereotypes of beauty) and also fulfils the broadest range of character archetypes, making her the most appealing (fuckable) character on the roster. In this final post we’re gonna tie those two things together, and we’re gonna do that by talking about fanfiction. Buckle up kids, it’s gonna be a wild ride!

No. It isn’t. It’s actually pretty tame. I’m sorry for lying to you like that.

The easiest way to claim that Mercy is more popular than Tracer in the fanfiction/fanart community is to punch their names into a search engine and look at the numbers that come up. When I typed “Tracer Overwatch fanfic” into Google.com.au it came up with 112,000 results. Typing “Mercy Overwatch fanfic” on the other hand achieved about 225,000 results. Problem is that if you swap “fanfic” for “fanart” then Tracer is the winner, with about 725,000 results compared to Mercy’s 672,000 results. Not exactly a two-to-one difference like the former, but evidence against my argument nonetheless. Change things a little though, specify, add “Tumblr” on the end and the numbers change back: Tracer gets 794,000 results against Mercy’s 846,000. Trade “Tumblr” for “Twitter” and Mercy wins again with 774,000 results while Tracer languishes with a mere 536,000 results. But these numbers are malleable and inconsistent with each other, not to mention ever-changing (what is correct as I type this will be incorrect tomorrow). Punching certain words into Google (AUS) is simply not scientific, not to mention I can’t be arsed dragging up the numbers for every single character on the roster.

But I don’t really feel that scientific evidence is necessary to the point I’m trying to make. To quote The Castle, “it’s the vibe of the thing” that I’m trying to get at, and that vibe is that Mercy is the most appealing and, therefore, the most shippable.

For you folk who’re new to internet fandom – which I imagine is actually fuck-all of those reading this, but whatever – to “ship” characters (or sometimes real people) is to imagine them in a (usually) romantic or platonic relationship. It’s one of the most common themes in fan communities and the art they create, and Overwatch is no different. At least one website I’ve visited marks the original ship as being between Widow and Tracer, mostly because they were amongst the first characters revealed, and because of the Alive short that saw the two trying to actively kill each other (nothing says “I love you” like attempted murder). Another popular ship is between Soldier 76 and Reaper, two former friends and comrades ripped apart by jealousy and betrayal (again, attempted murder). But the most frequently shipped character that I have seen, personally, is Mercy.

Before everyone’s favourite sniper granny, Ana, was introduced I saw her frequently shipped with older heroes like Reinhardt or Soldier 76, the perceived maturity I mentioned last week placing her in a maternal role (while whoever she was paired up with filled in as dad). I’ve seen her laugh at Tracer’s enthusiastically delivered jokes, get drunk with Mei at a college party while talking microbiology, blush at the sight of Zarya at the gym, gently chide Junkrat for not caring more about his own safety as she patched him up, and be protected by an opposing Widowmaker. Most commonly though it’s Pharah that seems to have won her heart. The Pharmercy ship might be the most famous and popular ship in the community, it’s hard to say. It’s the vibe I get, but maybe I just follow a lot more artists that ship them than anybody else. Going back to Google again, however, and comparing Pharmercy against Widowtracer (as I said, arguably the original Overwatch ship), the former got 482,000 hits against the latter’s 232,000 hits. Even people who don’t agree with the ship acknowledge its popularity and prevalence in the community.

So what does this have to do with Blizzard’s decision to make Tracer its first canonically queer character? Well, let’s go back to that question I asked in the first paragraph and extrapolate (love that word) a little more on the answer.

Simple fact is that, in order to thrive, fan communities rely on new and canonical content from the owners and creators of that property. They need it to exist in the first place so of course they need it to continue. Yes, a fandom can putter on long after a property has effectively died. They can even grow, as new people discover these games, shows and books that have long since ended. I still saw fanwork for Psychonauts well before the prequel/sequel things were crowdfunded, and I still see fanwork of shows from the eighties and nineties that I haven’t even been looked at – as far as we know – for a reboot (Swat Kats fan for life motherfcuker). Shit, there’s a reason nostalgia-driven crowdfunding has been so successful and every other toy commercial is being remade. But for a fandom to really thrive it needs canonical updates from the creators (or the current owners, if the original creators aren’t available). Notice the sharp uptick in the Legend of Korra fandom’s artwork when the first preview for the new comic came out, or the art the appears whenever J.K Rowling mentions anything to do with the Harry Potter universe (I imagine mine wasn’t the only Tumblr dash swamped with images of Professor McGonagall announcing her retirement after Rowling announced that it was one of Harry Potter’s sons’ first day of school).

This doesn’t mean that fan communities can’t self-perpetuate (fucking hell, a fair few modern reboots and at least one recent movie I can think of could very easily be called fanart or fanfiction), but even the eternal fandoms (Star TrekStar WarsDoctor Who, Studio Ghibli etc) keep on fighting the good fight waiting for new, official, canon material to be released.

But that doesn’t mean that fan art is unimportant. You dismiss it to your peril, and the peril of your bottom line. There’s a reason why most developer and publisher social media accounts will have days and competitions that highlight fanart (though rarely fanfiction). It’s creators connecting with creators. A very simple way to acknowledge and appreciate the people who love what you have made enough to make something of their own (and, let’s be honest, are providing a bit of free advertising as well), especially since these artists and writers – in my opinion – by their very nature tend to make up the loudest part of a fandom. So fucking be nice to them.

And that’s why Mercy couldn’t have gone down as the first canonical queer character. Because she’s the star of too much fanart and fanfiction.

Y’see, Blizzard had already announced plans to reveal characters as non-heteronormative well before the release of their Christmas-themed comic book (fuckin’ hell, this has taken me a long time to write) but there were only so many choices available to them in how the reveal would happen. A character simply announcing that they’re into the same gender would be considered half-arsed at best, awkward and shoehorned in the middle, and ignorable at worst. A bit of side-eye or flirting would amount to the same. So would, quite frankly, a character waking up from a one night stand. Yeah, I know, but a surprising number of people seem to think that sex doesn’t prove sexuality. You’d have more than a few blokes going, “yeah, Zarya woke up next to a strange woman she picked up at a bar in Vladivostok, but the rest of the time she’s all about the penises.” Well, maybe not in those exact words but you know what I mean. It comes from that same ridiculous and homophobic train of thought that produces lines like “how do they know they’re gay if they’ve never even fucked a [person of the opposite gender]” and “all that lesbian needs is for a man to give her a good fucking.” Additionally this would go against the character archetypes of quite a few Overwatch characters.

Now, that might all sound anecdotal (it is) and based on my own completely baseless opinions on the thought processes over at Blizzard (totally baseless), but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong (it probably does) and following this path (because it’s my blog and we’re gonna assume I’m right anyway) the best remaining choice for Blizzard was to put whichever character they chose into an actual long-term relationship (again though, totally baseless). Long term relationships – when they’re not being actively used to propel the conflict in a narrative – generally show a character happy, comfortable and content within their sexuality, whatever that may be, and make arguments by observers that “it’s just a phase” much more difficult (but fuckwits’ll do what fuckwits must anyway).

This raises a fresh question though: who do you put your character in a relationship with? Do you pair them up with another character from the roster, an already introduced character from the background lore or someone completely new?

Most likely it would be the former or the latter. Glancing through Blizzard’s released material there aren’t a whole lot of plausible candidates amongst its non-hero characters, but people love it when folk in the background are brought to the foreground. Again though, there’s not a tonne of options there so it would either be another hero or someone completely new.

The problem with putting two heroes together is that you’re revealing two characters are LGBTQI at the same time, and that is a risk I expect most developers (that don’t rhyme with “Mioware”) aren’t willing to take. People still got upset when they found out that Tracer was gay, and while Zarya might fit the cliche of the butch lesbian fuckwits would still have been annoyed to have it confirmed. Double the game characters coming out of the closet doubles the outrage from a single comic. Unless creators have a reputation for queer relationships (which Blizzard don’t) they just aren’t that brave. (How fucking sad is it that revealing characters as LGBTQI is still considered brave?) Creating a new character is the safest option, bringing outrage down to a minimum and giving the fans someone knew to draw or fit into their fanfictions. Thus we have ranga named Emily sharing an apartment with Tracer, officially and canonically pashing on the couch.

And everything ultimately comes back to that single word, with all its suffixes and synonyms. Canon. In order for them to reveal without any doubts that Tracer was gay (or Bi or Pan or whatever, labels suck) they had to put her into an official and canonical relationship with someone on the same end of the gender spectrum. And the simple fact was that Mercy was too popular to be put in a canon relationship.

Fandoms need canon material to thrive. Few things excite a fandom more than when a theory has been called correct or a favourite ship is made official (as the reactions to Bubbline and Korrasami’s official status amongst the Adventure Time and Legend of Korra fan communities, respectively, shows). But it de-legitimise fanart and fanfiction more often than it does the other way. How many fan theories have been brought down by a quick “nay” from an author, how many ships declared null and void when a favourite character hooks up with the wrong fucking person?

But thinking about fan reactions is important to a lot of creators, and Blizzard has a solid reputation for listening to and communicating with the fans of its game. And that’s why I don’t think we’ll ever see Mercy put in a canonical relationship. She’s just too bloody popular, and to put her in an official relationship would be to de-legitimise every single bit of fanart and fanfiction, every ship and theory, floating around the internet. Tracer was the safer option because her and Emily was less of a tragedy than what Mercy would have been.

Everyone wants to fuck Mercy, so no one can. At least that’s how I see things as having happened.

Sort of reminds me of how the Medieval church fetishised Mary (Jesus’ mum), but I wanna wrap this up so we might talk about the Virgin Mercy another time. Thanks for sticking with me. And seriously Blizzard, well done for putting your poster-girl in a same gender relationship. That took guts.

Tracer might be gay but everyone wants to f*** Mercy (Part one)

Let me put it right out there, I don’t play Overwatch. Two main reasons for that. One, I didn’t have access to a computer or console capable of playing the game when it came out, and I’ve never had a great experience joining a dedicated multiplayer community months after a game’s release. Two, I don’t play multiplayer games anymore. Haven’t for years, they’re just not for me. But in this day and age with a property as big and pervasive as Overwatch that doesn’t really mean a bloody thing. Sort of like how you don’t have to have ever seen an episode of Doctor Who to know what a Dalek’s favourite word is. More importantly for this particular conversation, the community and fandom that’s grown around the game since its release is a vocal one, as is to be expected from a Blizzard property. Being such a major property means that news is covered by the mainstream gaming press, since what happens with the game, surrounding media and community can have long-reaching repercussions for the medium. So if you care about gaming culture at all you care about what’s happening around Overwatch, and keeping an eye on the what’s what is as simple as visiting a few sites regularly, following a few mates’ social media and signing up for a Tumblr account. What I’m saying is that while I don’t play the game and am not a member of the fandom and community, I feel like I know enough to have an opinion on the matter. If you disagree let me know and I’ll happily tell you why your opinion doesn’t matter. Well, this has been a very long and possibly unnecessary paragraph. Fuck it, I felt the need for a disclaimer.

tracer-mercy

Alright, so, the other day Blizzard came out (heh) and released a Reflections comic centred around the character Tracer as she searched for the perfect gift for her romantic partner, a woman named Emily. Now once you get over the shock that a badass, time-hopping, cockney test-pilot is attracted to gingers, you might also note that Emily is in fact a lady, making Tracer the first canonically LGBTQI character in Overwatch‘s roster of playable heroes. As best I can tell she’s the first canonically LGBTQI major character in any of Blizzard’s properties (Blizzard fanboys feel free to correct me if this is wrong), and she’s not a small character either, having been included to some extent in several different videos (alongside Reaper and Widow), and is the face on the bloody packaging. She’s quite literally the poster girl for the game, so writing her as LGBTQI is no small thing. Blizzard deserves some respect for that, even if they also wrote her as being keen on rangas. Good for them. And yet I can’t also help but feel like Tracer was the safe choice to give a girlfriend.

Why is that? Well, let’s start with the lack of backlash. Now, I’m not denying that there was backlash from the less-than-stellar members of the Overwatch fandom, there definitely was. Demands for refunds on the Overwatch community boards and the like (with at least one great reply that it was too late, their money was gay now) popped up almost instantly. Upset lads declared that Tracer was no longer their “waifu.” There was anger that once again a game company was shoving their SJW/PC agenda down the white male consumer’s throat.

Usual homophobic shit that I imagine by this point most companies and developers just ignore, that being the easiest option and their opinion meaning about as much to Blizzard as my opinion does to the French (the champagne-guzzling poncy socialist bastards). But these are the kind of folk who’d throw a hissy if the comic had merely revealed that Tracer’s unseen third cousin Terry had brought his ‘special friend’ to the family dinner a couple nights back (and gran was not impressed). Any sexual inclusiveness at all was gonna receive some hate. Because some people are just arseholes.

Thing is though, Tracer being gay (or bi or however she identifies) doesn’t  effect the fantasy for a lot of other arseholes. Bloody hell, I suspect a few would reckon adding Emily into the mix an improvement on their fantasies. Which is gross, but arseholes generally are. But could you imagine the kind of backlash that might occur if Blizzard released a comic revealing Reaper or Soldier 76 – the characters meant to appeal most to teenage boys afraid of bright colours and the CoD crowd respectively – in a same-sex relationship? Mate, mate, mate, now that would ruin a few angsty adolescent empowerment fantasies right there. If you don’t think that would spark the kind of massed nerd-boy outrage that even monoliths like Blizzard and Activision would not be able to ignore, then you’re either part of the problem or are completely oblivious to it (in which case, welcome to the internet!)

I’d say this can be applied to any of the male characters, from Mcree to Genji to Reinhardt (with the possible exception of Junkrat and Roadhog, who are obviously a couple), but Reaper and Soldier 76 are the most obvious examples of the male empowerment fantasy that come to mind, with their gravelly voices, jaded anger and cynical worldviews. Tracer on the other hand, the cheerful laughing manic-pixie speedster, already falls well outside this fantasy of stoic masculine power. So making her gay is not as big a deal. She’s a safe option in that respect, one of the least likely to crack those fragile male egos and cause the shedding of bitter male tears.

Y’know what? I honestly doubt that Blizzard would have even dared thinking about announcing a canon LGBTQI male-identifying character first. A lesbian is far more acceptable (’cause lesbians are hawt) and a good way to measure the response to differing sexual orientations in your audience, even if in most mediums they have a pretty low survival rate. Especially recently.

Here’s the funny thing though, she was also the safest bet when considering the pro-LGBTQI Overwatch fandom as well. The artists, the identifiers and the shippers. Because, as I mentioned in the title, everyone wants to fuck Mercy.

Come back next week to find out what I’m talking about.

On DA:I, Varric Tethras and Cassandra Pentaghast.

It’s been about a month since I got back to Australia and I’ve been busy. Ish. Busy-ish. Usual stuff, meeting people I haven’t seen in nearly two years, drinking, looking for work (’cause as I’ve established before, cocaine and hookers are expensive), and replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of my favourite games from one of my favourite developers (as I’ve established before, I am a raging Bioware fanboy), I figured that before I settled into a long slog with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Rise of the Tomb Raider I’d start a new playthrough and play through the DLC I’ve missed.

So I’ve immersed myself in the world of Thedas once again, and I gotta say it is great. It’s great to once again explore the expansive universe – the lore, the gossip, the politics – and dive into the intricacies of the main plot and smaller side quests. And of course, it’s great to be back amongst old companions. It’s funny how attached you grow to fictional characters, how invested you get into their interpersonal relationships, and I’ve been loving listening to my party members’ banter with each other as we stab our way across Thedas. But as my elf rogue murdered yet another group of heavily armed strangers (who may or may not have been bandits) and the game decided it had been long enough since the last time any party members had spoken to each other, I came to a startling conclusion. Namely that Varric Tethras is a massive dick towards Cassandra Pentaghast. No, really.

Cassandra was apologising, y’see, about nearly decking Varric earlier that morning after discovering that he had in fact known the whereabouts of Hawke all along. That might count as a spoiler for DA:I (and probably DA2) but honestly you’re probably not reading this if you don’t know the exact moment I’m talking about already, and it’s otherwise not a big enough spoiler to worry about (even the characters point out how telegraphed it is). Anyway, Cassandra tries to apologise (quite sincerely, I might add) for letting her temper get the better of her and almost punching him, and Varric sarcastically remarks that “I’ll mark this on my calendar! Cassandra had a feeling!” I mean, c’mon man, she knows she did wrong and she’s trying to say sorry. Maybe you can cut her a little slack?

This was just the point that I noticed how one-sided much of the animosity was. Earlier in their conversation cycle Varric makes a point of insinuating that Cassandra doesn’t have any friends, and that the only way she was capable of recruiting people for the Inquisition was through kidnapping and threats. While Cassandra is somewhat deserving of these remarks – she certainly comes off as guarded and prickly through most conversations, obviously doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, and did actually ‘arrest’ and threaten both Varric and the player’s Inquisitor – it still feels uncalled for, partly because of all the attempts that Cassandra makes to reach out to Varric; partly because she’s a professional; and partly because she’s a massive fan of his.

On the first point, as I’ve already mentioned, Cassandra makes the point of apologising when she does wrong. She also makes the point of trying to start a conversation about the rebuilding efforts in Kirkwall, a conversation that Varric shuts down pretty harshly. And while admittedly Cassandra doesn’t show a great deal of gratitude to Varric for sticking around to help the Inquisition out shanking demons, it’s not all that surprising that she might be a touch suspicious of Varric’s motivations (he is a somewhat notorious liar and opportunist, even if he is a sentimental one).

The third point, that Cassandra is a massive fan of Varric’s work, I find his behaviour to be most unusual. Varric is protective of much of his work (when the Inquisitor asks questions about his Tale of the Champion, saying the wrong thing can lead to disapproval) even if he feigns nonchalance (I’ve really gotta use that word in more of my writing, sounds so sexy). An entire set of War Table operations is devoted to tracking down some arsehole who wrote an unnofficial and terrible sequel to Varric’s most successful work, Hard in Hightown. And Cassandra is a massive fan of his, reading Tale of the Champion twice, making a comment on the difference in writing style between Hard in Hightown and its atrocious sequel, and reading and rereading her copies of his Swords and Shields romance serial, going giddy with relief and excitement when he presents her with the next issue after a cliffhanger. She even asks him for advice writing, to make her reports more interesting. Quite frankly, while it seems that everyone has read Varric’s work, Cassandra is his only open fan in the Inquisition. Yet it just becomes another point of mockery in his arsenal against her. Writing the next issue to Swords and Shields is just another joke to him and her request for advice is met with a half dozen synonyms calling her boring. I mean, it just feels like a really shitty way to treat someone who respects your abilities and loves the work you produce.

But it’s on the second point, that Cassandra is a professional, that I really want to focus on. Because Varric generally respects professionals, but he tends to hold grudges and perhaps doesn’t fully understand Cassandra or her motivations. Cassandra is a fairly typical strong woman archetype, but not nearly so two-dimensional as to fit any single stereotype. She’s a character defined by a determination forged through faith. She has a job and wants to see it done as best she is able, is an idealist and an optimist, but never strays across that line from professionalism towards fanaticism. Because fuck fanaticism. Seriously that is probably the moral of the whole game, comparing the “at-all-costs” and “any-means-to-an-end” attitudes of the (spoiler alert) Venatori, Templars, Mages and Grey Wardens who at various points oppose the player, with the cool professionalism of the Inquisitor’s advisers and companions. The good guys fight for a cause without sacrificing the world, and are able to distance themselves (with varying levels of success) from the bloody work that needs to be done saving it. Fanatics are the evil bastards who’ll sacrifice everything to get what they think they want, and they need to be stopped.

That’s not to say that there aren’t members of the Inquisition who aren’t fanatics, and that your companions aren’t sociopaths. They absolutely are. There’s a good chance your Inquisitor is as well. But all of them, the ones you see at least, from The Iron Bull to Sera to Cassandra to Cullen, are professionals about it. Maybe not Solas. But fuck Solas. Guy’s a racist arsehole.

So Cassandra is a professional. Just doing her job. Her job is either stabbing people or threatening to stab people. She’s pretty good at it. So why doesn’t Varric respect that? He respects other people for it, as we see time and again. When the Inquisitor asks why Varric isn’t the spymaster instead of Leliana he flat out tells you that it’s because she’s better at the job, because of her ability to distance herself from her agents and informants. She’s more professional about it. Varric’s language about Cullen and Josephine follows a similar bend, with him remarking about how effective at their jobs they are. He talks about his editor – who once murdered someone over incorrect punctuation – quite highly, and while he disparages the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild, Carta and Coterie regularly he still shows genuine respect to their members who know what they’re doing and do it well. I can’t even be bothered to go into the examples from DA2 beyond just pointing at Aveline and Isabela, on opposite ends of the legal spectrum, who Varric simply accepts and befriends, completely understanding and forgiving threats of arrest or the occasional betrayal.

What I’m getting at is that Varric is supposed to be the sort of guy who would accept an excuse of “nothing personal, it’s just business.” So why doesn’t he accept that about Cassandra? She needed information about Hawke, and he was not forthcoming about that information until threats (and actual violence) were used. Well, the easy answer to that is to say that Varric holds grudges. We saw it with his brother, we see it with anyone else that directly harms him or those closest to him. But then why doesn’t he hold the same level of grudge against Leliana (who if not a direct participant, tacitly approved of Cassandra’s interrogation) or against other earlier members of the Inquisition, like Cullen?

My guess is that it’s because he thinks he understands the others’ motivations better than he understands Cassandra’s. By the time we get to DA:I Leliana has gotten dark and violent, ordering executions, assassinations and sacrifices without hesitation in the name of duty (thank god that duty includes saving the world) beyond making sure she’s shanking the right bloke, bird or miscellaneous. But she’s also an incredibly loyal person, and Varric can see that there was something more to her relationship with Divine Justinia, something unquantifiably deep, that was lost when Justinia was assassinated. Varric understands the desire for revenge and the mixed feelings it produces. Cullen is driven by his failures, as a commander and as a person, haunted by failing to prevent the spectacular destruction of the Fereldan and Kirkwall Circles of Magi and blaming perfectly innocent mages in between. Again, Varric understands feeling of failure, personal and professional (yes I know I’ve been using that word way too much in this essay, piss off, you’re not that perceptive… sorry, don’t piss off, I need you).

But Cassandra is driven in her duty not by vengeance and failure, but by her faith in the Maker, his plan and his institutions (even if she believes they needed to be changed). Varric doesn’t understand faith, quite understandably. He has issues with trust, let alone something even more indefinable and intangible like faith. It freaks him out. Cassandra isn’t the only one who suffers from Varric’s incomprehension. In DA2 Prince Sebastien, squeaky clean and fresh back from the priesthood to avenge his murdered family, is a similar subject of mockery for his virtue and righteousness despite never once stabbing a book in Varric’s lap. So because Varric is unable to understand her motivations, he is unable to brush off her actions as just “doing her job.” That makes it a personal attack, even when it shouldn’t, and Varric holds grudges. For most of the game, at least.

Towards the later game the banter between the two shifts, becoming less confrontational and even friendly. They develop a certain intimacy thanks, in no small part, to Cassandra’s own sense of fairness and genuine honesty. They appreciate each other, and become companions even they don’t necessarily become friends, joking about the book stabbing with each other instead of at each other. Attachment and sentimentality and all that. There’s even suggestion that they continue travelling together even after the Inquisition has completed its mission, something which both find crazy but not impossible.

So what’s the point to all this? Just wanted to point out some great writing, basically. I’d call this one of the most interesting and layered relationships in the game, and they do it with a couple pages of dialogue and some great voice acting. Not much more to it than that.

Let’s make a movie. Maybe.

Krieg and Maya drawings Edited

Did you hear they’re making a Borderlands movie? Yeah, they’re making a Borderlands movie. Well, at least they’re starting to workshop or pre-produce or whatever it is they do with the intention of eventually getting around to making a Borderlands movie. Great. Fantastic. I should be excited about this, right? I mean, I’m a fan of the franchise. Love the heroes, the not-quite-heroes, the anti-heroes, the villains and the general supporting cast. Love the crude, violent humour. Love the world and lore. It’s all good fun. Why wouldn’t I be excited to see all of this get the big screen experience? Is it ’cause of the long history of video game movies being shit? Probably a little. A lot. But not entirely. But a lot.

I mean, you look back through that history of movie adaptations and it is not particularly heartening. At best, you’ve got movies that are fun swashbucklers if not exactly memorable like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. At worst you’ve got Super Mario Bros (’nuff said). That’s not even getting into all the movies based on fighting games like Street Fighter, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Mortal Kombat- you know what, let’s just stop there before this gets out of hand. Point is fans of games that have been turned into movies are as likely to turn up to the theatre with a sense of apathy or dread (a feeling of “so how are they gonna fuck this up?” if you will) as they are excitement.

This isn’t all that surprising given the games chosen. Many video games have the barest of stories and are better remembered for their mechanics and gameplay. The plot of the Super Mario Bros games is not taken particularly seriously. It’s simply an excuse for the player to guide Mario through each of the levels, getting high and murdering turtles on the way. The video game Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is remembered less for its story then for its excellent platforming and time reversal mechanic (shit I can’t even remember the story, is it the same as the movie?) Max Payne similarly earned its place in living memory as the game that introduced us to bullet-time mechanics, rather than its plot that was “pretty good for a video game” back when that phrase had more (loaded) meaning. Let’s not even get started on the flimsy plots most fighting games use to justify their one on one brawls.

Something important about many video games that those trying to adapt them don’t seem to understand is that it is not always the plots that are important, but the lore of the game world. Game plots are often simple things, simple spins on the old hero’s journey or some such. But the worlds in which these stories take place are rich and full and often relayed over dozens of hours of gameplay, through codexes, indexes, documents, audio logs, snatches of conversation and offhand remarks. It’s a depth that cannot be easily related in a ninety to hundred-twenty minute feature film. Attempts to do so simply come off as (at best) shallow and (at worst) the boring parts of otherwise exciting action films. But it is completely unnecessary.

I’ve mentioned previously that one of the best video game movies, Crank (and its sequel Crank: High Voltage), was one not actually based on a video game but rather embraced the logic of video game mechanics, structure and pace. Another great example would be Edge of Tomorrow (or Live. Die. Repeat. or whatever the fuck they ended up calling it), whose main narrative conceit (every time Tom Cruise’s character died the day reset) bears a striking similarity to the respawn experience of most gamers. Part of what makes these films great fun is that they don’t spend too much time explaining those mechanics. There’s a bit of world building. News reports at the beginning of Edge of Tomorrow that explain the alien invasion and the exoskeletons worn by the human soldiers fighting them, an initial mention of the Angel of Verdun, high hopes for the human counter-attack. A movie within a movie at the start of Crank explaining who he is, who his enemy is and what they’ve done to him, with some clarification not long afterwards. Then they just run with it, allowing the actions of the protagonists and their responses to the changing plots to explain all the implications. Same as a game does after the opening cinematics. Well, most games.

I’ll admit this might be easier said than done. Not being a movie maker myself this is all entirely uneducated opinion. Certain games would find it a smaller task then others. The Assassin’s Creed games for example, who’ve had a movie in the works for some time now that is due for release December next year, is set more or less in the real world. You don’t have to provide an audience unfamiliar with the games much more than a date and place name for them to be able to have a rough idea of social structure, norms, local architecture, system of government and climate. The Assassin’s Order (do they call it a brotherhood? Seems a bit sexist if they call it a brotherhood), the Templars (or the somehow more ridiculously named Abstergo Industries) and the Animus technology don’t need much more than a brief explanation, an exposition heavy conversation or two, before the audience can jump to the appropriate conclusions (Assassins mostly good, Templars mostly bad, blah blah blah shades of grey, blah blah stab that guy).

The world of, say, the Mass Effect games (apparently with a movie in development… maybe? Not sure? Perhaps?) where someone is adapting a hundred odd hours across three games (books, an anime) into a film or two would be a different matter.  Seriously, there is a fuck-ton (a metric fuck-ton, in fact) of back story, history and explanation in the universe of the Mass Effect franchise. Don’t believe me? Regular conversations with your crew members includes information on the Council, Citadel, Citadel Space, Human Alliance, the Human-Batarian conflicts, the Batarians, the Asari, Asari biology, the Asari Matriarchy, the Turians, the Turian military, the Turian-Human First Contact War, the Salarians, Salarian spies, the Krogans, the Krogan Rebellions, the Rachni Wars, the Geth, the Geth-Quarian conflicts, the Quarians, the Quarian fleet, the Quarian immune system, and this all before getting into the really important stuff like Element Zero, the titular Mass Effect, Biotics, the Reapers (overall villains of the piece), Protheans, Cerberus and the supporting cast’s varied back stories. Yeah, metric. This doesn’t mean that all this information is strictly necessary for a good Mass Effect film but, well, for anyone in the audience who hasn’t played the games a lot of it is.

I’d claim Borderlands occupies a space closer to the middle of the spectrum. The stories of the main games (ignoring the more complex Tales from the Borderlands by Telltale just now) are pretty simple. Four Vault Hunters, mercenaries and treasure hunters, arrive on a dangerous planet called Pandora to find a Vault, kill whatever’s inside and loot the riches believed to be held within. The second game throws in the downfall of the Hyperion corporation and defeating the fantastically psychotic villain Handsome Jack, the Pre-Sequel throws in saving Pandora’s inhabited moon from destruction, but otherwise that is the ultimate goal of the games. Open a Vault and steal the shit inside. But there’s still a ton of backstory to the world and people that we barely even hear about. The corporations and their ongoing conflicts. Dahl’s failed mining operations on Pandora and its moon, responsible for so much of the dangerous flora, fauna, bandits, cannibals and mutants. The Eridians, the alien races that built the Vaults. How did Doctor Zed lose his medical licence? Did Doctor Zed ever have a licence? Who died when Janey Springs got her (“real sexy Athena”) scar? The Sirens, no more than a half-dozen women at a time with glowing blue tattoos and near magical powers somehow linked to the Vaults and Eridians. There’s a lot of information barely skimmed over, but that’s fine because that information is never revealed unless it’s necessary or entertaining. Much of the world we explore in these games is wrapped in mystery, teased in “Echos” (audilogs) and revealed at plot or comically appropriate times. Sometimes there’s no context provided at all. Sometimes you just gotta go and shoot someone in the face.

This is helped by its ‘Space Western’ setting. We’re used to westerns filled with men and women with barely alluded to secret pasts, silent protagonists, corrupt officials who bought their way into power, bandit gangs, warring factions and more or less neutral mercenaries on one side or another looking to make their fortunes through bounties and contracts. The world(s) seen in Borderlands could make for a great movie as long as they don’t spend to much time trying to explain it, because you don’t have to. It would simply join a long list of past movies, ranging from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (and the other films in the ‘Man with no name’ trilogy) to The Magnificent Seven. That’s if the guys making the film follow the style and standard the games set.

And that segues badly into my next concern. I guess we’ll call it style. Borderlands is cartoonishly violent and cartoonishly animated. The characters and enemies are unrealistically and exaggeratingly designed and proportions, as is the wildlife, towns, vehicles and landscape. Legend goes that at the start of development Borderlands was supposed to be a far more realistic, gritty and dramatic (as can be seen in the original trailer). But they didn’t have enough money, so instead went with what is now the series’ signature cel shaded look. This allowed it to be a lot lighter in tone, and a lot more violent. Seriously, even for a video game Borderlands is bloody. By the time you get to the end of the campaign in one of the three main games you’ve probably got a kill count in the thousands (many of whom have been incinerated, disintegrated, melted or otherwise exploded), and have witnessed scenes of torture and defilement (and have probably participated once or twice). But because you’re dismembering wave after wave of highly stylised, colourful and (important here) inhuman enemies it becomes fun and funny instead of, y’know, psychopathic.

The violence would already need to be toned down to get an MA-15 rating over in Oz (an R rating in the US, I’d guess to be the nearest equivalent) and be turned down even further to get the M or PG-13 rating that studios are known for demanding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you. There’s more to these games than simple violence, and video games kill, maim and explode more nameless and named goons than all but the bloodiest films. But the excessive violence is a strong part of the aesthetic, since a large part of the humour is its satire of the traditional notions of the Wild West where the law was on the side of whomever brought the most firepower to the table, and settlers had to deal with the threat of bandits, mercenaries, road agents, soldiers and the Native population they inevitably crossed. Again, however, we don’t need a triple-digit body-count to achieve that aesthetic. What it does need is a great deal of absurdity.

So the problem I’m getting at is not reducing the violent nature of a game for a movie adaptation then, but in trying to ground the film too much in reality. Video games are, in their need to be fun or deliver gameplay, completely unrealistic. Real people, for example, cannot survive multiple gunshots, duck behind a chest-high wall and pop up again a couple moments later good as new. Real people get at least a little winded when they parkour their way to the top of a castle. Real people aren’t usually assaulted by gorillas hurling barrels. Fun shit, but not very believable. The danger than comes when you try to ground something that is by its nature ridiculous and unreal closer to reality and believability. Turns a perfectly good game about jumping on angry brown fungi with legs and anthropomorphic turtles in order to rescue a princess from (hopefully) the next castle into whatever the fuck the Super Mario Bros. movie was about. It’s still pretty bonkers, but it’s not the kind of bonkers you really want. It points out its own ridiculousness instead of rolling with it and insults the fans of the original property by changing the things it doesn’t think an audience will buy into something it thinks the audience will. Which is stupid. But hey, y’know, that was the nineties. We made a lot of weird stuff in the nineties.

Far more likely these days is that it will in the best case turn into yet another generic action movie with some vaguely supernatural (see Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) or science fiction (Doom) elements. A formulaic and familiar show with a familiar name. Nice to look at, but none to memorable. That’s probably the thing that worries me the most, is seeing such a vibrant and colourful franchise watered down til it loses what made it so remarkable in the first place. This doesn’t just happen to video game movies, and there are far more examples from other mediums (I reckon my fellow nerds would make the claim that until recently comic book adaptations were the worst offenders). The hyper-ridiculous Tank Girl was supposed to be even more hyper-ridiculous were it not for a meddling studio. One of the great complaints about X-Men Origins: Wolverine was the film’s treatment of character Wade Wilson, better known as Deadpool (but don’t worry, the new movie ought to fix that). It is known for great movies to have surpassed the works they’re based on (I heard that even the author of the original book Fight Club preferred the movie’s ending to his own), but this is more exception than rule.

Would someone making a Borderlands film be comfortable with a character like Tiny Tina? She arguably uses the second most sexualised language (the first being Mad Moxxi), is extremely talented at violence and casual about torturing those who’ve done her wrong. She’s also, like, twelve or thirteen, and brings with her all the immaturity you’d expect from someone who was forced to adapt after being broken at a young age on a planet filled with cannibals and monsters. She’s also the centre of some of the game’s most touching and heartbreaking moments (like when we find out what happened to her parents or the her dealing with the trauma of losing another important father figure in the Assault on Dragon Keep DLC). Doctor Zed, Scooter, Doctor Patricia Tanis. They’re all insane, broken, violent people, the last of whom is attracted to furniture. And these are your friends. Let’s not even get into the characters you aren’t supposed to like. Like Claptrap. Let’s not talk about Claptrap. Can you imagine a film that includes the odd yet beautiful relationship between the Psycho Krieg and the canon asexual (but not confirmed aromantic) Maya. Hell, can you even imagine a film where one of the main female characters ends up getting together with one of the main female supporting cast-members like Athena and Janey Springs at the end of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel? If that’s too much for a big-budget blockbuster, it’s unlikely they’d get away with all the actual crazy shit.

There is also the habit of producers to assume that people won’t be able to relate to characters unless they’re all conventionally attractive white folk. Because we as a varied group of peoples and cultures can’t possibly relate to people who, y’know, actually look like us (hey, I’m only a conventionally attractive-ish white guy, I’m allowed to make the point). Point being that the titular Prince of Persia in the movie, and the princess he was after, were played by white actors. Point being that it happens all the fucking time. Shit, they even do it in reboots these days (I’d go gay for Benedict Cumberpatch, but did they really have to make him fucking Khan?) or to the goddamn Bible (that’s an odd bit a blasphemy right there). Admittedly while all six of the female playable characters are pretty white women (something that I’m hoping will change in future games), but there is still a diverse cast of different colours, genders, sexualities and body shapes. I can’t imagine too much of that whitewashing happening in these circumstances, can’t see Roland, Brick, Mordecai or Salvador being turned into a bunch of generic white dudes. I can, however, see a character like Ellie (the digital embodiment of body confidence) being ignored or downsized in favour of someone or something more, well, conventionally attractive.

Not that video games themselves aren’t guilty of some pretty heinous crimes turning colourful characters into bland cut-outs (compare what Overstrike was to what it became) or hypersexualising female characters (if I need to provide examples of this than you probably don’t care too much about this article anyway). ‘Tis why we need to guard our most interesting characters so carefully.

Alright, last thing I wanna do is ask a simple yet oft underestimated question. Who the bloody fuck is going to care? I mean I do, obviously, or I wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing this. But it’d be more accurate to say that I care about this now.

Way, way back in 2012 I was in the car with my father and younger siblings. Think we were on our way to grandma’s house or something. Anyway, we saw a billboard advertising the imminent release of Max Payne 3. My dad, casually, turned to me and said, “I didn’t even know they made a Max Payne 2.” I was a bit taken aback by this, and replied with something along the lines of “Yeah, years ago.” He thought about it for a moment then asked if they still had Mark Wahlberg playing Max. No, Max Payne was a video game series and this was the third instalment. Oh, okay. My dad looked into the rearview mirror and asked if any of siblings knew that. None of them, including my younger gamer brother, did.

I care about a Borderlands film right now. I might not care in the however many years it takes for any Borderlands film to be made. Three or four years is a long time for video game franchise. Anything over five is a lifetime. The Max Payne film was released a whole seven years after the game. Same with the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time film. Few games have the kind of broad cultural longevity that an MMO like World of Warcraft have, which still has a large, solid fanbase after eleven years of life and is still relevant enough in the broader pop-culture as ‘The one MMO to rule them all’ (even earning an episode dedicated to it on South Park) that the movie due out middle next year will likely be a rousing success. Maybe. Probably. Will the Borderlands franchise still be relevant in the years it takes to write, make and release a film? Maybe. We’ll see. Point is that in four or five years you’ll have a bunch of young’uns entering the target demographic for this kind of film who’ll never have played a Borderlands game (maybe they’re aware that Borderlands 3 was released a little bit ago, but didn’t pick it up cause they didn’t have the time or interest to go through the first three games and assumed you’d have to). And studios won’t be able to rely on those of us who are and were fans of the series going to see it for nostalgias sake alone. We’ve had our heart broken way to many times before. It’s gonna have to look good, it’s gonna have to follow in the spirit and character of the games to get us in to see it.

Ultimately, what I’m getting at is that it is possible to make a good movie adaptation of a video game. And we want good adaptations of the things we love. We really, really do. So please, if you’re going to make those adaptations, please don’t fuck it up. Please.