Dragon Age has always been on the frontlines when it comes to diverse protagonists, though it is far from the only game to offer this. And giving gamers a chance to play as various genders, races and sexual identities is an awesome thing. But it also makes storytelling more complicated, because if the story doesn’t reflect this diversity, it only makes sense in a world where there is no discrimination based on these things.
Some fantasy universes actually go in that direction. Not always wholly successfully or consistently – frequently the implication is that the universe is all equal, but it just so happens that most people in power are straight white males. This is probably partly a result of lingering prejudices and partly thanks to pseudo-medieval tropes tied to the fantasy genre. It can break the suspension of disbelief just a little, but overly, it’s not such a big deal.
Many other universes, on the other hand, decide to keep some form of systemic injustice, usually in the form of fantastic racism. Dragon Age is just one of them. And this is where the complications come into play. Because ultimately, complete freedom in character creation makes sense only in a world without structural injustice. That means an utopia, and nice as it might be to live in one, they are rather boring as far as narratives go, proving little in the way of tension for the story to use. The most interesting tales usually employ conflict with society in some ways, and that almost always means systemic oppression.
But once you do incorporate structural injustice, can you really afford to give players complete freedom in what character they come up with?
Let me use the three Dragon Age games as an example here, to illustrate the problems inherent in this approach.
As I said, its world is not one where the universe pretends at no prejudices and your character has, in fact, no background, their race and gender influencing nothing at all. No, Dragon Age limits your choice to a few available backstories, and with these backstories go specific dialogue options and even quests in the game. Where games like Elder Scrolls do the equivalent of colourblind casting, with all the problems it entails, Dragon Age theoretically does the equivalent of writing roles for minorities, telling their particular stories.
But. (There is always a but.)
The different games are a very good example of the different ways in which one can deal with such an approach, and different measures of success.
In some ways, the best example of how to do it is Dragon Age: Origins.
There are specific origin quests for different character backgrounds picked, and most of them are even quite well-done. They also have tie-ins later in the game, where you get a chance to meet characters already familiar to you. Mostly, whenever something arises where your origin would likely make you react in a specific way, you actually get the option to do so. There are a few slip-ups, but nothing major. Great job, right?
But the only reason why Origins can be this good at story customization is because, at its core, it is a fairly generic hero story.
A novice comes into a mysterious order, their mentor dies, and the task of saving the world falls to them. Individual subquests then have you circling through all the places your past can tie in to, so that every fantastic race has a chance at their customized experiences. The mysterious order in question gives the hero legitimacy beyond any background they might have. It is a decent formula to make it work, but unfortunately unless you want to make all of your games effectively identical, it can only be used once.
Dragon Age II decided to go a different way and limit the number of background choices. There is, effectively, only one backstory, just slightly tweaked depending on your character’s class. In most ways, they decided to abandon the path of different origins in this installment. I still mention it in this article, though, because in spite of this, they rather ironically managed to mess it up. Because they still let you to pick your character’s class, and it just so happens that the central conflict of the game is all about mages and their discrimination.
The oppression of free mages is supposed to be everywhere. So when you play for one such free mage, publicly casting your free magic everywhere the entire game and the most you get for it is slight lip service…well, that is just a little strange.
The lesson should be pretty obvious here: if you make oppression of a particular group one of the central themes of your story, and yet your hero, belonging to that group, never really experiences it, then you are doing something wrong. It weakens the story by making the odds less, it breaks the suspension of disbelief, and it adds to the feeling that your protagonist is really just a generic stand-in. I really shouldn’t need to spell this out.
Apparently someone should have spelled it out to the game creators, though, because the very same problem appears again in Inquisition. That game returned to more diverse origin stories, but didn’t actually keep the different origin quests, only giving you your character background in a very brief summary. Later, too, the specific quests tied to your origins were just tabletop missions that took two clicks to solve, and some of them with deeply problematic implications to boot. All of that is a pity, but doesn’t touch the main problem, the one carrying over from Dragon Age II. Just as people would not treat a mage and a non-mage the same in a world that hates mages, so, too, the treatment of other oppressed groups would be much different from the privileged ones.
On my first playthrough of Inquisition, I was a free elven mage, an intersection of two despised groups (she was a woman, too, but let’s pretend we buy the fiction that there is hardly any sexism in the world of Dragon Age for now). On the second, I was a human noble, so two privileged groups. The character starts the game in a very vulnerable position, and they were both treated the same.
To put it quite plainly, that is not how it would go.
In fact, given the circumstances of the beginning of the game and if I see the way the noble character is treated as base comparison, I am quite certain the free elven mage would actually be dead. Beaten to death by an angry mob. Because these are things that actually happen in the world, and they would certainly happen in the world Dragon Age is set to take place in.
It is not that you never encounter any racism when playing as an elf in Inquistion – there are a few cases of casual remarks. But nothing near to what would be realistic in the setting we’re meant to believe in. Nothing that would actually influence the story in a meaningful way.
There is one nice case, though, that well-illustrates what this game actually does. When the protagonist encounters her scout in what is essentially an elven mass grave of a genocide, the scout comments that it just seems sad there are so many dead elves. If you play for an elf, you can stare at her incredulously and then quote an ancient oath at her to make her realize that yeah, you have in fact thought about this before and it seems quite sad to you, since it was the genocide of your bloody ancestors she’s talking about. She blushes and apologises to you for not realising it was this personal for you. This kind of casual erasure is brilliantly captured, and it is also what the game does all the time.
It is nice to have this one shout-out, but when you go through the plains where the genocide happened and collect quest points for landmaks commemorating the killings of individual elven heroes, the elven protagonist is allowed no reaction. When you have to listen to one of the companions expound on how your heroic knights were probably just thieves and murderers, you are allowed no reaction. When you come to an elven temple, two of your companions (one of them actually not even an elf) translate the elven writing for you. And, best of all, at one point when you find a crucial piece of elvish history, your own elvish character suggests that you could give it to the Chantry – as in, the religious institution responsible for the genocide. Oh, and also one your character has been kind-of affiliated with from the start of the game, because why not?
You see the problem?
There is a lot of elvish material in the game; it’s one of the cornerstones of the story. But it’s treated in exactly the way all non-Western cultures are treated in the real world. Namely, simply exploited without any regard for the actual people it might tie in to. Much like with romance, though much less amusingly, the creators of the game brilliantly captured the same aspects of racism and orientalism in the structure of their story itself. The elves have always been a stand-in for racial minorities from our world, and here they are, always an object and never truly a subject, even when one of them is the supposed protagonist. The very same thing, to a lesser degree, goes for the mages.
Now the question: is this a problem when the cultures and races in question are not actually real races, but instead Thedas elves or, you know, wizards?
My answer is, yes, absolutely. Less of a problem, but still. Because it still perpetuates the patterns of oppression. It still teaches you, as you play the game, that you can stand in a temple of one culture and speak over a member of the actual culture in question as you explain its meaning. That you can ignore someone’s religious sensibilities completely. It teaches you an outsider can somehow have access to the “true” meaning of a cultural tradition, better than the insiders do. And so on.
Of course, it begs the question of how much of this is actually a product of some kind of racism (given that the groups in question, elves and mages, are not ones actual real world prejudices can be connected to) and how much of it is simply a byproduct of having multiple origins for the story protagonists. The harmful effects I’ve outlined remain whichever the case, but it rather changes the conversation.
It is entirely possible that it is simply a byproduct. But it is curious, is it not, that it just so happens to be the group that is underprivileged in-universe which gets the short end of the stick in the story. When playing for a human, you can waltz through countless elven ruins without giving the religion they tie in to any respect. When you play for an elf, you have to at least pretend to be the herald of a human prophet. Is it something about crafting a narrative of oppression that makes the story itself warp into this sort of shape? Do the writers become so immersed in their own world that they become subject to its prejudices?
But these are fanciful musings. To get back on point, as long as you have diversity both in character backgrounds and in the cultures they encounter, there are going to be differences between the reactions of different characters. Profound ones. Perhaps bigger ones than can ever be covered by a few dialogue changes. As I said, the elven free mage would likely have been dead at the beginning. That rather changes the story, does it not?
Simply said, most stories cannot be crafted without paying mind the the protagonist’s background, because their background shapes who they are and how the world reacts to them, and that is what any good story grows from.
Most games avoid this by having a clearly defined protagonist. Others do so by ignoring any differences in background. Each approach has its own upsides when it comes to diversity. The second frees you from the necessity to constantly play for cis straight white men, which we all know would happen if the protagonist was a fixed choice. It is, of course, merely a visual thing, since the way these games are written normally means the protagonist is treated as a white man would be, no matter what they look like, but that is refreshing and transgressive in its own way too.
The first, on the other hand, can do much good when the creators actually do not make the hero at least one of these categories. Because then, all who play the game go through the experience of being, for a time, someone other than the most common idea of a hero. When the background is well done, it can be very rewarding. But still, the thing is, we do not need games for that. Films and books work in this way, with a clearly defined protagonist who, hopefully, doesn’t always have to be the entitled male. Games have the potential to do something more interesting.
This is why, in spite of all the issues it brings, I much prefer the way Dragon Age decided to go. I much prefer actual diversity in my options regarding the hero. Still, all of the problems mentioned above should not be ignored, and generic stories in the mold of Origins are hardly a general solution.
In fact, I believe the essential direction Dragon Age II went in was a good one. I believe that limiting the diversity somewhat is the only way to have the stories actually be diverse, not just white man tales with different visuals and a bit of lip-service. However, it is telling that when they had to choose one race to concentrate the origin story on, they chose the most privileged one.
The multiple-origins approach is viable if different, but in some essentials similar characters are found. Speaking of the Dragon Age world, an elf from an alienage, from a wandering clan and an ex-slave from Tevinter will have many disparate experiences, but also many shared ones, and the way people will react to their presence will also be similar enough not to tax the storytelling overmuch. A casteless dwarf and an alienage elf have different cultural backgrounds, but the experience of being the poorest and most downtrodden in a city can be enough to build a similar story on. A mage and a rebel Qunari would have dealt with a lot of similar prejudices in their lives, though again their views would be quite opposite to each other. I suppose a human and dwarven merchant, too, would have a lot in common, though telling that story seems much less interesting.
There can be enough diversity left when the choices are curtailed somewhat, and the story this results in would be more faithful to a character’s chosen background. It would look less like people’s stories and cultures were interchangeable and unimportant for who they were. I, for one, hope that this is the way the eventual Dragon Age IV will go.
All images courtesy of BioWare
The Unattainable Beauties of BioWare
Happy week after Valentine’s Day! For those of you in a relationship, I hope you were able to spend time with your loved ones and maybe have a little romance. For those of you who are single, I hope that it wasn’t a terribly bitter or frustrating day. In honor of both these states, I’m going to be writing about Bioware characters. But not romanceable characters, oh no. Enough ink has been spilled about them. No, today, we are going to be talking about the ones who for whatever reason are non-romanceable. In fact, it’s going to be a list of who I consider to be the best non-romanceable characters in Bioware games.
A few ground rules first though. First, this list is completely and totally subjective. If you feel like I’ve missed a character, let me know in the comments. Most of these characters are either from the Mass Effect Series or the Dragon Age series. Those are the games I know the best have have played the most. Finally, I’m only going to list five male and five female characters. I could go on all day if allowed.
So, with that out of the way, let’s start with the guys. And first on that list is…
Right off the bat we get a character who seems to contraindicate my first two points. He’s from Jade Empire and isn’t normally the type of character I’d enjoy. But let me justify his place on my list. First off, he’s just a fun character. Pretty much his entire character is dedicated to fighting things with his axes, drinking, and drinking while fighting with his axes. Second of all, given what we do see of his backstory, he’s fairly sympathetic. He was abused by his father until he was finally to defend himself and killed his father, and then was tossed out by his mother. He fought in the arena until he thought he killed his brother. And finally, his voice. Victor Brandt voices him in the game, and that man could read from the stock exchange and make it sound like he was trying to seduce you.
I can understand why they chose not to have any love interests in Awakening. A lot of the companions are missable and even if they aren’t, there’s better than 50-50 odds that they would die at the end of the expansion. That doesn’t excuse them from making Nathaniel Howe though. He has a compelling and sympathetic backstory, an interesting perspective on the location and events, and a sardonic sense of humor that lets him either play the straight man or the funny man in conversations. And! He got an easter egg quest in Dragon Age 2. I just wish they had followed through and included him in Dragon Age Inquisition (and gave us the chance to smooch him.)
Bann Teagan gets a bit of a bad rap now, particularly after Trespasser. Time (and the switch to a new engine) were not kind to him, but I remember a different Teagan. A Teagan that stood up to Loghain. A Teagan that risked his life to defend Redcliffe, and then walked straight into a demon’s clutches to buy your party sometime. From a story perspective, having a female human warden marry (or at least be involved with) an up and coming Bann would make just as much sense politically as marrying her to the new king. And from a purely personal standpoint, I would have loved for him to respond to the “Who is dis women Tegan?” quote by saying “My future wife.”
Jeff ‘Joker’ Moreau
Ever since Mass Effect 1, Joker’s presence at the front of the Normandy has been very welcome. Snarky, quick with a quip and a comment about any of your companions, the only fault I have with him was that he was far too quick to abandon the Alliance and hook up with a bunch of racist, human supremacist terrorists in Mass Effect 2. But the fact that he’s loyal specifically to Shepard always melts my heart. I was hoping that in Mass Effect 3 he finally would be a romance option, but alas he was infatuated with EDI. It took a great deal of self control not to sabotage that relationship.
And here we come to my favorite non-romanceable male character: Ser Derin Barris of the Templar Order. Dude has it all. Good voice and one of the few male PoCs in the series. In addition, he’s everything that a Templar is supposed to be: brave, intelligent, loyal, and willing to defend the weak and the innocent. And yet, after the quest to recruit the Templars, you only see ever see him one more time. The cutscene where he is promoted to Knight-Commander. (A promotion he deserves.) I can only hope that he reappears in Dragon Age 4 as a full romanceable companion.
That covers my five favorite non-romanceable male characters. But what about the ladies? Let’s start with…
Gianna Parasini was one of those characters I didn’t expect to find myself liking as much as I did. When you first meet her in Mass Effect 1, she’s working (undercover) for Novaria’s Internal Affairs. She quickly shows herself not to be completely amoral. Just overworked, overstressed, and tired of being a Yes-Woman to a corrupt executive. When you see her again in Mass Effect 2, she’s much less stressed, and much more willing to joke with Shepard. She leaves far too soon, leaving a male Shepard with a kiss and a promise to see him around. A promise, unfortunately, left unfulfilled.
Dr. Karin Chakwas
Dr. Chakwas is an interesting addition to this list. She is much older then Shepard. She seems at first to be a poor match. But much like Joker, she offers Shepard a sense of continuity aboard the Normandy. She even mentions that as one of the reasons why she stays aboard the Normandy in all its various incarnations. And, unlike some returning squadmates or even Joker himself at times, her presence aboard the ship never seems forced. Of course Dr. Chakwas will be in the medical bay. Of course she’ll be happy to see you. And of course she’ll be waiting to share a drink with you.
Dr. Lexi T’Perro
Unlike Dr. Chakwas, Dr. Lexi doesn’t really provide much in the way of continuity between different versions of the ship. Instead, she almost provides a mirror for Ryder to see himself and his actions. When she’s first brought aboard as your team’s doctor, she’s nervous. And she channels this nervous energy into annoying practically everyone else on the ship. But as she gets more comfortable with the ship and how things work, she starts to relax a little. Not much, but a little. Add to that her backstory in addition to the fact that she seems to care for the team’s mental health as much as their physical health and you get a character who would be perfect to romance. Shame she’s not an option.
Emily Wong is one of the most frustrating examples on this list. In Mass Effect 1, she filled the ‘plucky reporter’ archetype so well that I missed being able to speak with her or give her an interview in Mass Effect 2. As the release date for Mass Effect 3 drew closer and rumors of a romanceable reporter on board the Normandy began to swirl, I had hope that it would be Emily. I was bitterly disappointed. The reporter character on the Normandy was quite weak compared to the strong impression Emily gave in Mass Effect 1. And Emily Wong herself? Unceremoniously killed off in a marketing ploy before the game was released. She deserved better.
Vivienne is a ‘love her or hate her’ type of character. As you can tell by her inclusion on this list, I am in the former camp. Aside from being one of the few women of color companions in the game, Vivienne brings to the table a unique perspective: A mage who fully supports a return to the Circles. Not only that, but she has clear, eloquent arguments to back her up. In addition to that, she has a very striking character design and a wonderful voice actress. Most important of all though is that if her approval of the Inquisitor is high, she seems to genuinely care about them and their well being. I just wish that she didn’t politely shoot you down every time you flirted with her.
So there you have it. My five favorite male and female non-romanceable NPCs from Bioware games. However, there is one person that I have thus far neglected to mention. Or rather, one group of people. That’s right, I’m talking about…
EVERY SINGLE DWARF FROM DRAGON AGE
In Dragon Age: Origins, it was just a bit of trivia. “Hey, did you know that you can’t romance Qunari and dwarf characters?” When Dragon Age 2 came out and we were introduced to Varric, it became a joke. But at least the dwarf fans could still console themselves by remembering that there hadn’t been any Qunari romanceable companions either. By the time of Dragon Age Inquisition and the introduction of Iron Bull and Lead Scout Lace Harding, it’s become one of my main problems with the series.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out why. Why wouldn’t Bioware let us romance Scout Harding, or any other dwarf for that matter? Is it because the animation would look awkward? Too much work? In the end, I can only repeat the refrain so many others have, pining after characters who they couldn’t romance: “Maybe next game.”
Images courtesy of Bioware
Kingdom Come, Representation, And Layers Of Privilege
Kingdom Come: Deliverance is a brand new Czech video game that just came out last week. And ever since its development started, there has been one big controversy connected to it: its almost complete lack of characters of colour.
It isn’t exactly helped by the fact that the chief mind behind the game, Dan Vávra, is right-leaning, and also a bit of an asshole when it comes to responding to these complaints. He doesn’t go far for an insult and refuses to listen to any kind of criticism. Not exactly the kind of person that makes one want to defend him.
So…this is where this article should end, right? A jerk makes a racist game, news at seven.
Well. It’s a bit more complicated than that.
Vávra isn’t the only person working in the development. And the most important thing to know about the game in this context is that it’s not a generalized medieval setting. Instead, it takes place in a particular set of villages and towns and the surrounding forests, villages, and towns that exist until today and that aren’t and never have been big or cosmopolitan in any way. A number of events in the game are based on historical events. It isn’t just a story, it the story of Česká Skalice just before the Hussite wars.
In this context, the usual arguments of “there were plenty of people of colour in Europe in the Middle Ages” fall kind of flat. The usual argument of historicity that is pulled for this is frequently false because Western history is whitewashed and contained markedly more people of colour that we like to pretend. But it’s not always false. There actually were parts of the world where only white people lived. And not only are there no particular historical marks of black, brown or Asian people being present in the particular time and place where Kingdom Come takes place, it would also be very unlikely.
Honestly, the most likely place to find a person of colour in the time period would be Sigismund’s armies, and since those play more the role of the antagonist in the game, that’s not exactly ideal. So this is not, in fact, a case of ignoring the real historical presence of black and Middle-Eastern people.
Instead, the first question to ask here is: is it ever legitimate to create all-white media? If we’re depicting a situation where there realistically wouldn’t be any people of colour – not just history, there are still plenty of towns in the world a non-white person has never set foot in – is it all right to make it whiter than new house paint?
On the face of it, the answer should be yes. As long as we’re depicting an actual situation, we’re depicting. And yet. It may be “accurate,” but it might at the same time be unwise in the current climate, where every all-white piece of media contributes to a narrative that is far from inclusive to people of colour.
So the second question: does it even matter? That is, is historical realism such an important goal to achieve?
Most media that supposedly take place in the past play hard and fast with history to make things more convenient for the narrative, so why should the amount of diversity, of all things, be what is kept realistic? It shouldn’t, that is the answer. As long as other things are changed freely, the argument of historicity is irrelevant one way or another.
Kingdom Come, however, is a game that takes great care to be as realistic as possible. The most frequent complaint from players at the moment is the insane difficulty of lockpicking because that isn’t easy in real life either. So does this change anything? Is the argument of historicity valid in such a case? In other words, even in those media that do their best to stay historically faithful, is such an ambition a worthy goal? Is it more important to have something fit history perfectly than to provide representation?
Accusations of rewriting history would naturally follow a negative answer. First, it’s important to point out that it’s no more rewriting than the constant whitewashing, and with a much better intention. But it is true that with a game that boasts of its realism, it presents a problem. It would discredit their claims of historicity if they simply ignored these kinds of facts. You cannot painstakingly reconstruct medieval Skalice and then add random representation from all over the world without becoming a laughing stock. Not the least because this sort of rewriting of history would play down the racism of the past, and that is not an excuse we should be making for ourselves.
Unless we say that media has to abandon goals of high historical realism, then, we have to admit that in certain setting an all-white cast is appropriate. So that brings forth another question: is it legitimate to choose such settings?
And this brings us to the more complicated power dynamics at play when it comes to Kingdom Come.
As I’ve said, Kingdom Come is a Czech game, dealing with events from Czech history. My history. We, as a country, have always played the lovely game of being both oppressors (towards Slovaks, the Jewish and the Romani people, and even Germans after WWII) and oppressed (by the Austrian empire, Nazi Germany, USSR). In the global world of today, we’re far from being the ones in the most desperate situation, but we’re also hardly the top dogs. On the global scale, we’re a minority.
And both our history and our present are mostly white.
Just to be perfectly clear, this is not a good thing. I’m not saying it as a good thing. It massively contributes to the widespread xenophobia in the Czech Republic. But it is what it is. The fact remains that our by far biggest minority are the Romani people, who form about 3% of the population. So every time you tell a Czech story, it is going to be overwhelmingly white.
So should we be allowed to tell our own stories?
Kingdom Come, of course, is not made for the Czech market. It’s distributed globally, and it means it has a global effect, on people who know nothing of our particular context. As an all-white medieval game – which is all most people will take out of it – it perpetuates exactly the image of whitewashed history that we need to rid ourselves of. It becomes part of the problem.
So does this mean, then, that when we want global money, we have to change the image of our own history to avoid exacerbating the global problem of racism? That is problematic as well, especially as making the game for Czech audience only is not a real option. Our ten million people total don’t make for a big enough audience to pay for a game with this kind of budget. It’s another kind of disadvantage global minorities have. It shouldn’t be necessary to pay for it by adjusting our stories.
And even disregarding that, what if we want to show our stories and our world to the rest of the planet? What if we want to share ourselves? We should be able to do that.
Yet…what if what we want to share turns into a white fantasy in others’ hands?
It seems it shouldn’t be such a big deal. Who cares if we change the skin colour of some characters in the story? It’s still going to be a Czech story. But the problem is, it doesn’t quite work that way. After all, that is the “I don’t see colour” argument, only in reverse.
What I’m about to say will sound insanely racist to anyone from a more cosmopolitan country, but when I was little, I didn’t like watching Sesame Street because the multi-ethnic children there were making it so very foreign to me. I saw them and instantly knew it wasn’t my world. Outside of my travel abroad, I spoke to one non-white person total before adulthood. And I live in the capital, the most multicultural part of the country. Whatever it says about us, the truth is that if we populate historical Czech stories with black people, most Czechs will not regard it as their story.
But there is a reason I was specific in this last sentence. There are truly very few black people living in this country even now. You know who is living here, though? The aforementioned Romani. The presence of Romani people in the game would not make any Czech person feel like it was not our story. It would make them angry — because the racism the Romani face in the Czech Republic is something incredibly ugly — but it would not make the game feel foreign. The Romani minority has been here since the Middle Ages, and there are definitely historical records of them being here in large numbers shortly after Kingdom Come takes place. In fact, there are even complaints of there being “more and more” Romani people in our records because of course our racism would be traditional.
We don’t know, of course, if there were any Romani around Skalice, but it was a way to include people of colour that wouldn’t break with general Czech history. It wouldn’t have gone against our own understanding of who has lived here for a long time. And yet they were never mentioned in any of the diversity complaints I have seen. There are also Cumans included in the game, and no one seems to care much either. And that brings me to my last point.
Demanding diversity in Kingdom Come with a particular idea of diversity in mind, the idea that is based on the ethnic composition of the US, is not only American-centric but also offensive to the oppressed minorities of the Czech Republic. And complaining about such lack of diversity truly does not come across in a way that would endear the author of the complaint to anyone Czech. Especially if the person complaining is white. If a person of colour is offended by so much mayo in their game and would like to feel represented, I can understand that.
But when a white privileged American talks about what sorts of representation a Czech game should contain – particularly with arguments like that Czechia is “just north of Italy” and Italy is by the sea so obviously there’d be plenty of people of colour in here, which is an actual argument someone presented – it suddenly gains whole another tone. Because whiteness is not the only privilege in the world, and while we certainly benefit from it, we do not benefit from the privilege of being American, and anyone from the US telling us how to tell our own stories without knowing anything about us is always, always going to ring a very uncomfortable bell with us.
So yes, making all-white games should be avoided when possible, because it reinforces an uncomfortable narrative. And representation is a good thing, especially representation of those who hardly ever find themselves on screen. Whenever at least a little possible, diversity should be supported. Warhorse Studios really should have included Romani people in their game, just as Czech filmmakers should try casting some in their films. But not all representation fits one muster and demanding medieval Skalice should look like medieval London only makes stories more identical to each other and less interesting. There is more than one kind of diversity.
Images courtesy of Warhorse Studios
Rebels Swansong Goes from Strength to Strength
In October 2017 Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels (Rebels) returned for its fourth and final season. A run of nine episodes saw the series through to the end of 2017, and February 19th will see the airing of the final seven. For a show that is decidedly aimed at a younger demographic (Ezra’s first weapon was a wrist-mounted electric slingshot…think Bart Simpson in space), Rebels took a much darker and more serious tone for its final season.
Not to say there wasn’t still plenty of humour to be had—much of it slapstick—but the themes of leadership, grappling with loss and the age-old question of whether the ends justify the means set the tone for a more serious swansong. Only fitting, as the series hurtles toward Rogue One in the Star Wars canon timeline.
This piece will be a series of abridged review/recaps of the first nine episodes of the season, a catch-up, if you like, before weekly reviews commencing after the mid-season premiere next week. A quick note, most episodes were released as two-parters this season and the series has overall maintained a more serialised format during its final run.
Spoilers for the first half of Rebels season four to follow.
Heroes of Mandalore Parts I & II
Season four opens with sequels of sorts to season 3’s episodes “Trials of the Darksaber” and “Legacy of Mandalore”. The Rebellion on Mandalore is in full swing and Sabine’s (Tiya Sircar) family, Clan Wren, is leading the charge. Part I begins with Sabine, Ezra (Taylor Gray), Kanan (Freddie Prinze Jr) and Fenn Rau (Kevin McKidd) attacking an Imperial installation with the intent of rescuing Sabine’s father, held captive by the Empire.
Sabine leads the attack wielding the darksaber, but it’s a trap set by Imperial Governor of Mandalore Tiber Saxon (Tobias Menzies). Fortunately, Clan Wren’s beleaguered troops are rescued by
Kara Thrace Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff), sister to the former Duchess Satine and former regent of Mandalore of The Clone Wars fame.
They learn that Sabine’s father is actually on a prison transport nearby and rescue him successfully. Ursa and Tristan Wren make contact, reporting a victory over Imperial troops nearby, when Sabine hears the sound of a weapon powering up over the communication. She screams at her mother and brother to flee. They investigate the battlefield and find only charred Mandalorian armour.
Episode II opens with the reveal that Ursa and Tristan aren’t dead; they managed to escape the worst of the weapon’s range thanks to Sabine’s warning. They escape on one of Bo-Katan’s ships.
After regrouping at Bo-Katan’s hideout and realising that the weapon targets Mandalorian amour specifically and that Sabine herself designed it, Bo-Katan understandably loses her shit. Heated discussion follows but everyone eventually gets on board with a plan to destroy the weapon prototype and erase all data pertaining to its construction.
After attacking the facility and falling into yet another one of Saxon’s traps, Sabine manages to modify the weapon to be used against stormtrooper armour, as opposed to Mandalorian. The weapon is destroyed, Saxon killed and Bo-Katan claims the Darksaber, all Mandalorian clans pledging her their loyalty.
There is a lot of good in these episodes, the foremost of which is the conclusion of Sabine’s arc in relation to her Mandalorian identity. Sabine, like most of the Ghost crew, has always been an outsider. In last season’s “Trials of the Darksaber” we saw her come to terms with her internal relationship to her Manadalorian heritage and her shame from her past. In Legacy of Mandalore we saw her grapple with the impact her actions had on her relationship with her family. This two-parter allows her to face her relationship with Mandalore and her people as a whole, represented by Bo-Katan.
It’s especially great that she doesn’t have to be perfect in order to win the respect of Bo-Katan and her Mandalorian peers. She still makes mistakes, falls into traps, and wanders close to a dark path at the end by using the weapon on Tiber Saxon. Bo-Katan’s guidance helps her makes the right choice and she’s no longer an outcast among her people, but a hope and inspiration for Mandalore’s future. Sabine might be young and talented but it is the experienced, seasoned Bo-Katan who claims the mantle of leader at the end, with Sabine correctly recognising that Bo-Katan’s wisdom is what Mandalore needs.
There’s plenty of other great stuff here, like Bo-Katan’s arc that begins with refusing the mantle of leadership and ends with having it thrust upon her. Wonderful worldbuilding regarding the cultural value of Mandolorian armour and the method of its forging. Then there’s the existence of Sabine’s sensitive, artist Father Alrich (in contrast to her battle loving mother, Ursa), who is in no way viewed as less masculine by the more martial oriented Mandalorians. It’s a really great start to the season.
In the Name of the Rebellion Parts I and II
Part I finally brings us to the famous Rebel base on Yavin IV, where we get a reunion with Zeb (Steven Blum), Hera (Vanessa Marshall), Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) and a very suave looking former ISB agent Kallus (David Oyelowo).
Hera’s squadron recently got chewed up, and Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) thinks the Jalindi sensor relay is to blame, information given to them by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker, reprising his role from Rogue One), obtained through torturing Imperial prisoners. Saw even goes so far as appear as a giant hologram and berate Mon Mothma for clinging to her principles, even as they make victory hard and harder to attain for the Alliance.
The Ghost crew are assigned to sabotage the Jalindi relay so that the Empire thinks it is still functional, but Ezra and Hera privately admit to wanting to just blow it up real good. The mission quickly goes south with a light cruiser arriving while Ezra and Sabine are still stuck on the relay. Thanks to some epic piloting by Hera and Kanan and the timely arrival of Saw, they succeed in blowing up the relay (instead of the planned sabotage). The episode ends with Saw and Two Tubes (the alien from Rogue One who captures Bodhi) jumping to hyperspace with Ezra, Sabine and Chopper still in their U-Wing.
Part II sees Saw explaining to Ezra and company that he’s tracking down some super secret Imperial stuff and has tracked it to a civilian freighter. Saw, Ezra, Sabine and Chopper board the transport and find it under Imperial control with stormtroopers and deathtroopers roaming the corridors. This is very much Death Star related, as we see when our Rebels find a giant kyber crystal and a bunch of energy engineers imprisoned in the hold.
Conflict emerges between Saw and the others, with Saw prioritising discovery of where the crystal is going over the safety of the prisoners. Saw escapes in his U-Wing after the transport arrives at rendezvous point, while the kyber crystal detonates leaving Ezra, Sabine and the engineers to be picked up by Hera in a stolen Imperial shuttle.
The first half of this two-parter is definitely the stronger one since the conflict for the heart of the Rebellion heats up. Saw’s berating of Mon Mothma is harsh, but Mon gives it back just as hard, calling Saw a criminal and labeling him ‘just as bad’ as those he kills. Later on when we learn the fate of Saw’s homeworld Onderon, you wonder if Mon might have a different perspective if the same thing happened to her home planet, Chandrila. It’s a good debate and although I’m pretty sure the narrative wants us to side with Mon, you can see Saw’s perspective during this episode in a way that’s somewhat lacking in something like Rogue One.
Saw and Mon might be fighting over the grand strategy, but the ideological struggle finds a way into the ground level missions undertaken by the Ghost crew. Hera, Sabine, and Ezra all question whether the long game of building the Rebellion is worth the cost of the short term goal of causing the Empire as much harm as possible. Only Kanan (who is becoming more a classic Jedi with every episode) seems sure about the path they’re taking.
The second episode does drag a little. Saw’s Ahab-like obsession with tracking down where this one random transport is going gets a little tiresome. We do get the payoff of seeing Ezra and Sabine’s decision to save the engineers have the positive effect of swelling the Rebellion’s ranks, while Saw flies off in his lonely little ship. All in all, it’s a solid follow-up to the season opener.
The Occupation & Flight of the Defender
“The Occupation” finally takes us back to Lothal, where it all began. Former Governor and dedicated Rebel Ryder Azadi lets Rebel Command know a new TIE Defender is being built, complete with a hyperdrive, missiles and shields. The Rebels use their old friend Vizago to smuggle them past Thrawn’s gigantic blockade and get down to the planet surface.
Lothal has changed since we were here last and not for the better. The crew’s old ally Jho is dead, his bar is now run by an Imperial TIE fighter bro. The whole planet looks red and burned, in contrast the greeny-white of the first season. As Ezra puts it
“Lothal looks like it’s dying.”
After a run in with Imperial authorities, the crew is lead to safety and Ryder’s camp by season one callback Jai Kell (rescued from the academy by Ezra and co way back in the day).
While “Occupation” mainly dealt with the consequences full Imperial occupation has had for Lothal, “Flight” focuses on the core mission of investigating the new TIE Defender Elite. Ryder, Ezra, Zeb and Sabine scope out the base and watch the new fighter fly.
The main plot covers Ezra and Sabine’s attempts to steal the Defender Elite’s data recorder (and later the fighter itself) while Thrawn and Governor Pryce try to thwart them. There’s also a couple of little Kanan/Hera scenes that help contextualise the nature of their relationship and where they’re at as a couple, but more on that later.
Ezra and Sabine end up crashing the fighter but salvage its data recorder and hide its hyperdrive in Lothal’s hills. They’re then given a friendly ride back to camp by
Ghost the Direwolf a White Loth Wolf that can apparently also speak. Yeah, it’s as weird as it sounds.
Character work mostly takes a backseat to plot in these two episodes as Rebels races to set up its Lothal endgame. The main character work centres around Ezra and his guilt over not being able to help his world avoid the fate of Saw’s planet. His desperation to save his world seems like it may eventually put him at odds with Kanan’s more measured approach.
Speaking of Kanan, he and Hera seem to be moving toward some kind of concrete definition of their relationship. These are two people who very obviously love each other but don’t have the time for a real life together outside of constant combat situations. Despite this and seemingly despite Hera’s better judgment these two characters seem to both be deciding in the face of the dire Imperial threat that present love is worth more than a potential future that may not come.
Over to our villains, Thrawn makes his first actually notable appearance for the season and gets a nice visual callout to the film “Patton” as he stands defiantly shooting his pistol at the ship Ezra and Sabine steal. There isn’t much else to say about these two episodes, but they serve adequately as set up for the endgame. As Kanan says:
“All paths are coming together now.”
Kindred & Crawler Commanders
The plot of “Kindred” revolves around the Rebel efforts to locate the stolen hyperdrive Ezra and Sabine hid last episode, allowing them to transport the stolen flight data recorder from the Defender Elite to Rebel Command, hopefully finding a weakness.
We’re also given a new Imperial character, one that fans of Timothy Zahn’s original Thrawn trilogy will be familiar with, the Noghri assassin Rukh. Rukh is basically assigned to the search for the Rebels by Thrawn as a direct repudiation of Governor Pryce’s effectiveness (sidenote: Governor Pryce is super hands on leading search parties, I guess she doesn’t want to ride a desk). There’s immediate friction between the two as Rukh quickly locates the Rebels due to Zeb’s distinct Lasat odour.
The Rebels split up and manage to lose their pursuers but not before Rukh places a tracker on Ezra’s speeder. They get the hyperdrive back to base and load it into Ryder’s beat up U-Wing ready for Hera to fly it away in the nick of time, while the others remain behind. Did I mention Hera and Kanan finally kiss on screen? It’s magical and I wish I could write a page about all the underlying feels.
The Imperials attack and things look grim, but once again the White Loth Wolf arrives and the gang decides to follow it, their justification for doing so and Ryder’s bemused response being amusingly meta,
Zeb: “When it gets strange like this it’s a good thing”
Ryder: “ How have you people stayed alive so long?”
How indeed. After being lead on a cave path that is part vision quest and part Mario Kart bonus track by the wolves, the Rebels wake up on the opposite hemisphere of Lothal and safe. The White Loth Wolf also seems to take a special interest in Kanan, it knows his name.
“Crawler Commanders“ is a by the numbers piece where the Rebels still on Lothal attempt to jack a Mining Guild crawler devastating Lothal’s countryside for it’s long range communications. Meanwhile, back at Yavin IV, Hera convinces command of the need for an attack on Lothal. Needless to say they’re both successful.
These two episodes continue the pattern of setting up the endgame, especially Crawler Commanders, which, although funny and engaging, is pretty light fare. There is good character work in “Kindred”, however, as we finally see Hera and Kanan make the choice to commit to each other romantically despite the war raging around them and their uncertain futures. The two of them have taken control of their present, committed both to each other and the Rebellion. For now, for them, it seems to be enough.
Then there are the trippy, mystical wolves and the hints that something darker and deeper is being done to Lothal by the Empire. Long-term plot implications detected, keep an eye on this space. Four episodes of basically setup in a row is a little disappointing, despite the good character work, but it’s all worth it when we get to the mid-season finale.
Absolutely no time is wasted getting going in this episode. Before the title card we have Hera being referred to as “General Syndulla”, the animated debut of the X-wing, the return of the once annoying Mart Mattin as a pilot in Hera’s squadron and S-foils being locked in attack position.
This space battle is sublime, especially the dogfight between the newly appointed General and Imperial ace Commander Vult Skerris in his TIE Defender. Thrawn’s attempt to end the fight at the expense of his own pilot after Skerris disobeys orders and follows Hera into a Star Destroyer’s line of fire is appropriately cold.
Thrawn: “Skerris, break off your pursuit”
Skerris: “Negative, I almost have her”
Thrawn: “How unfortunate. Open fire.”
The Rebels break through the blockade but are met by Thrawn’s reserve, a second wave of TIE fighters. The X-wings and Y-Wings are shredded to the last, the lucky ones crash landing in the capital city streets as Kanan and the others look on from the outskirts in horror.
The rest of the episode is a cat and mouse chase as Rukh attempts to capture Hera and Mart and they try to escape the city. Hera is captured, but that ensures Chopper and Mart’s escape. Kanan races to rescue her and is stopped by the White Loth Wolf. He extracts Mart and Chopper, heading back to base with plans to rescue Hera later.
As big action set-pieces go, this episode is on par with the later seasons of TCW, which is the highest compliment I can pay an animated series of this style. I can really only describe Hera unleashing her full abilities as a combat pilot as awesome. Even though the attack fails, you’re left with no doubts about her abilities or her merits as a General. Her dedication to getting her pilot out of the city safely, even at her own expense, confirms this.
Thrawn, meanwhile, is in full blown Magnificent Bastard mode, capably dealing with everything the Rebellion throws at him while effectively sidelining Governor Pryce from the defense of her own planet. It will be interesting to see how these two clash in the episodes to come.
The first half of Rebels final season was a strong string of episodes. Even the weaker installments “Crawler Commanders” and “In the Name of the Rebellion Pt II” had good humour beats and deft character work respectively. The stronger entries, namely the Mandalorian two-parter and the season finale are simply phenomenal. Closure to Sabine’s identity arc and Hera finally assuming her natural place as not just a warrior but a key leader of the Rebellion were necessary, natural steps, which I am so glad this series committed to taking. It’s also been really nice to see recurring characters like General Dodonna, Brom Titus, Vult Skerris, Jai Kell, Mart Mattin and Ryder Azadi on a regular basis.
Kanan’s character over the last three and a half seasons has gotten square with his roots in the Jedi Order, his role as Ezra’s teacher, and his blindness at the hands of Maul. Now we finally see him and Hera commit to each other romantically, even as he seems to embody the more traditional Jedi frame of mind. Seeing how he’s come full circle makes me wonder if closure of a different sort is coming for the gunslinger Jedi Knight. Time will tell.
It seems apparent that Ezra’s arc will dominate the later half of the season and whether he can save his planet will go a long way to determining the path he takes. Ezra is wracked with enough guilt at letting Lothal get this bad, if the planet is unable to be saved this could lead him down a darker path, especially is Kanan is no longer around to help him. There’s no record of Ezra in canon after Rebels, so anything is really possible.
That’s not to say it’s been perfect. Sadly, no-one really seemed to know what to do with Zeb’s character; he just lumbered from scene to scene with one liners, occasionally knocking people out. Our dashing ISB defector Kallus and our aged warrior Captain Rex were both similarly underused, despite being among the more interesting secondary characters in the ensemble.
Rebels has given us an exciting, weighty start to it’s final season, deftly handling both character and plot in a way that both satisfies yet stokes the curiosity for more. In other words, exactly what you want from the beginning of a swansong. Expect big things from the final seven episodes.