As I grow accustomed to teaching games and doing outreach work to those who mostly see entertainment games as the main creative potential of the medium, I’m wanting a way to access and appreciate these works on my own terms. There are a few of my peers who are able to navigate talking about what they enjoy about blockbuster games while also holding that they are typically situated in a pernicious context, in contrast to many games critics and developers who excuse troubling aspects of the genre in some sort of move of loyalty. Possibly because I’ve had a rough relationship with the industry these past couple of years, video games just feel unappealing to me on their face. Even with a growing diversity in characters, I don’t really see that reflected in the quality of the work so often. Which leads me to believe I need to take another perspective on how I find interesting characters or characteristics in games than I have before.
Struggling with the value of representation in games, I wrote about how I came across moments of identification, or at least seeing parts of me reflected within a mess of other characteristics, last year talking about Black History Month for games. In it, I gave an example of how I unexpectedly related to the qunari in Dragon Age Inquisition in relation to my blackness in the way the denizens of that fiction treat them as monsters. Having played through the game once as qunari and an elf, I saw the differences in the game in the way people treated my character based on their fantasy race, particularly with attractiveness. It recalled a time in my life when I decided to stop straightening my hair, marking me more distinctly as black, and how people’s attitudes noticeably changed in my dating life. I’m sure the developers didn’t intentionally make these qualities for me to identify with, probably the opposite, they erased most blackness from the game outside of Vivienne, who could easily be read as a good black character if all it took was for there to be good writing behind someone with dark skin. Instead, I think true representations of how dominant culture thinks of marginalized people come out by accident, they manifest themselves in the monstrous. I don’t think I necessarily have fun realizing that I exist as a monster in these fictions, but there is some sense of catharsis seeing pieces of me bubble up from the subconscious of those making games.
So I went to thinking, where are some other monsters I could find lurking around, coming out from closets the game didn’t know it had? I found my answer in an old drafts folder on the Mass Effect 2 character Morinth, possibly the most overlooked character in that game, by that game. The context around Morinth is particularly strange; you encounter her as a part of her mother’s, Samara’s, story mission, who is hunting her down since she’s on a murdering spree. You find out that Morinth was born with a genetic disease that kills her mate during bonding as result of her mother bonding with someone within the species, and her society forces people like her into complete seclusion. At the end of the mission, instead of just teaming up with Samara to put an end to Morinth like what happens in every other story mission with a team member, the game gives you the choice to betray Samara and have Morinth replace her on your squad. What is strange about this is how little impetus there is to betray Samara and go with Morinth; in battle they are mostly the same, with Morinth’s unique ability being way more niche; Morinth will regularly entice you to bond with her, which will always result in your death; and in Mass Effect 3, she makes a minimal appearance as an enemy mob whereas Samara has a whole story quest for you to participate in. It’s very easy to see Morinth as overall a net negative, so much as to be swept under the rug at the end of the trilogy despite every other character getting their full cameo. Morinth feels like a joke, or a glitch of sorts, a choice you’re obviously not supposed to make.
The monster imagery isn’t subtle with her, portrayed as a psychic vampire or succubus that uses her sexuality and intense allure to seduce people to their death. While this had most critics writing her off, I’ve always wondered about the deployment of this dangerous sexuality, an underworld creature born in tragic circumstances. Demons and 20th century anxieties surrounding sexuality go hand-in-hand in our fiction, and could also be read so in contemporary space operas. We can see Morinth as a sublimation of fears or tensions with queerness kept out of the public eye believed to be slowly converting and destroying society, particularly if we contrast her to her more ‘out’ counterpart, Liara. Liara is both an alien and part of an underworld, one that by the middle of the series she basically runs, but she herself kept modest, moving from a blushing schoolgirl act in the first game to almost matronly in the end. She’s in sync with the other gay characters that crop up in ME3, wanting to settle down or reintegrate into typical society after the struggle. But there is only ungracious death for Morinth, either at the hands of her mother or morphed into a banshee enemy for you to slay without so much of a thought. Her affinity for the shadows, art, clubs, painted as ruining family and the product of an improper household reeks of 20th century imaginings of queerness, and that the game would move to erase what seems to be a mistake is all too telling of how dominant society sees its duty. It’s another parable for assimilation or complete obfuscation on the margins.
Just why would anyone choose Morinth? I think it’s so you can choose how she’s remembered, or really, how she’s forgotten.
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