I enjoy the Twisted Marionette fight, and I'm looking forward to smacking some wurms if I can ever make it off the overflow servers, but what I really love about Guild Wars 2's latest content release, The Origins of Madness, is its emphasis on characterization. Some of you probably think my cheese has slipped off its cracker for finding a mini-instance in which NPCs chatter at each other the most charming part of an update, but I am what I am.
I feel a little less alone in this since I'm not the only one turning cartwheels over it. A recent ArenaNet developer livestream contained a reference to the relationship between Marjory Delaqua and her partner, Kasmeer Meade, as a "love story." For those of us who had already picked up on their affection for each other and were hoping to see them become a couple officially, this was very exciting, and their interaction in the current release has shown them growing closer. But why are Kas and Jory such a big deal? They're just a pair of NPCs, right?
Normalcy is nice
A common argument against the inclusion of non-heterosexual characters in video games is some form of "Video games aren't the place for that!" usually coupled with the assumption that inclusion is a calculated political statement and non-inclusion is an appropriately objective, neutral stance. I don't have a whole lot of patience for that point of view; previous examples of gay, lesbian, and gender variant characters in video games have demonstrated that including them doesn't make nearly as many waves as people who consider them earth-shatteringly controversial would like to believe. Deliberate exclusion of those characters is also a calculated move in favor of upholding a status quo where the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) characters is erased. Even if the exclusion is done without truly malicious intent, it still counts as taking a position. An angel may not get his wings every time a company includes a vibrant, complex, visible gay character in its game's story, but it sure goes a long way toward eroding the myth of economic self-preservation as a valid reason for non-inclusion. While GW2's inclusiveness does prompt the occasional racist, sexist, or homophobic tirade, other players are encouraging their friends to take a look at the game because ArenaNet has positioned itself as an ally -- and more importantly, because the company has followed through with action.
GW2 has made strides in this area by firmly taking the stance that lesbian and gay characters are a part of Tyria and by portraying them as neither exceptional nor very unusual. While the most common examples are among Sylvari (who are canonically pansexual as a race), there are also minor NPCs of every other race who mention same-gender love interests in passing. This is treated no differently than casual references to heterosexual romantic relationships; we may meet a human fisherman's wife or a Norn woman's husband or hear about a female Charr soldier's mate who was killed by the Flame Legion. The gender of the characters involved matters only insofar as you can't assume that every NPC you run across is attracted to the opposite sex.
Simply portraying Tyria as a world in which not being straight is unremarkable shows how easy it is to be inclusive. Better yet, the writers have stepped outside the boundaries of stories in which gay characters are defined almost entirely by their sexuality. It may seem as though it would be progressive to write a story in which real-life experiences with homophobia and coming to terms with one's sexuality are reflected, but in actuality all of those Very Special Episode oppression stories get wearisome after a while and help reinforce the perception of gay people as unavoidably miserable. Fantasy, even at its darkest, is an escapist genre full of improbably amazing characters doing improbably amazing things, and fans of all kinds want to see people like themselves reflected in that.
Marjory and Kasmeer are important on several fronts: They are main characters who are vital to the current plot of GW2's story, which means that they're given agency and important skills and portrayed as individuals outside their relationship. Both of them are highly competent. Marjory is a woman of color. Their relationship is positive and a source of strength for them; this is especially notable in contrast to Caithe's tragic relationship with Faolain. It's hard to root for Caithe and Faolain (no tree pun intended) because Faolain is evil and corrupted by Nightmare and has a bad habit of trying to destroy Caithe's life. Kas and Jory support each other, have great conversations, and grow together as characters. These two are aggressively normal when it comes to their relationship -- there even exists unreleased dialogue in which they bicker about curtains.
Heart to heart
Romance between characters has always been a hit-and-miss part of the Guild Wars universe. In the original Guild Wars, Mhenlo's relationship with Cynn was mostly characterized by Cynn's explosive jealousy; a strange blink-and-you'll-miss-it romantic conflict between Melonni and Tahlkora over Koss's affections was brought up and resolved almost in the same breath. Gwen and Keiran Thackeray's tumultuous courtship got a multi-part story arc and was wrapped up in the Hearts of the North content release, but I found it hard to be invested in their relationship when they didn't actually seem to like each other very much, and most of their time was spent apart (running around collecting gifts for Gwen and presenting them to her in Keiran's name when he didn't feel comfortable doing it himself didn't help).
GW2 does better just by providing more opportunities for characters to interact with each other, where in GW1 they spent most of their time interacting with the player. Still, it's taken a little time for the narrative to hit its stride where personal relationships between the main characters are concerned. Kasmeer, Marjory, Braham, and Rox (and as of the most recent release, Taimi) represent the first time I've felt truly invested in GW2's characters outside of the Order mentors. I'm not a difficult person to please when it comes to fictional people; characters really have to tick me off to make me truly dislike them, but it's more challenging to get them to take up space in my head even when they aren't onscreen. This is the state in which fanworks are made and sought out, lengthy discussions over characterization are had, and people connect through their love of particular characters and relationships. In many ways dedicated fandom is the lifeblood of a creative work, keeping fictional people and their stories in motion even when new canonical material isn't being released.
Marjory and Kasmeer have reached this level. Fans are drawing them, planning to cosplay as them, and writing fanfiction about them. Blog posts and independent discussions are happening around them. This is hardly unusual for a fictional romantic pairing -- but it is more unusual for a pair of MMO characters.
Some of this emotional investment is definitely attributable to the dearth of positively presented LGBTQ characters in popular media (let alone in video games, where it's still like pulling teeth to get companies to acknowledge the diversity of people buying their products). Marjory and Kasmeer's relationship is written as a straightforward romance between two likable characters who have independent personalities and reasons to connect emotionally with each other outside of their attraction to each other. How can something so simple mean so much? While some people might roll their eyes at love stories, it's much easier to get tired of something when you can take it for granted. Vanilla ice cream probably seems a lot less boring if you hardly ever get a chance to eat sweets.
ArenaNet does not do representation perfectly when it comes to characters of color, LGBTQ characters, or female characters. It does rise above the industry standard in representation for lesbian and gay characters, and in doing so, it has elevated that standard. It's not simply a matter of inclusion; it's inclusion that's enjoyable and compelling on its own merits. I don't feel obligated as a queer person to support every company that waves a rainbow flag, but even five years ago it would have been a big deal to see an MMO character's orientation confirmed as other than straight in passing. Now we're heroes in our own right, and breaking that ground makes it a lot harder for token, nearly invisible representation to be passed off as progressive.
All of this combines to make the Marjory/Kasmeer relationship incredibly precious and one that I hope ArenaNet takes steps to protect. Fans of the pairing are already biting our nails, half-expecting tragedy to strike; characters who are not white or straight are still more likely to be treated as expendable (often nobly sacrificing themselves so that characters who are white or straight can survive the story or learn a lesson). Extrapolating from trends, I think there is a greater chance that Jennah and Logan will be allowed to overcome every one of the barriers to their romance, get married, and live well into old age together than there is for Kasmeer and Marjory to even survive the current storyline. This understandably makes their fans nervous. "No more sad lesbians!" an acquaintance of mine snarled when the subject was brought up.
When I recently spoke to Colin Johanson and Meelad Sadat, I passed along the positive feedback I'd heard from Marjory and Kasmeer's fans and LGBTQ fans in particular. Johanson said that he was very pleased to hear how well Jory and Kas are loved by players and that the characters are beloved within ArenaNet as well. I may have only half-jokingly suggested a callback to Hearts of the North -- after all, if Kasmeer managed to get Jory to let her decorate The Dead End for Wintersday, wedding bells can't be too far off.
Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at firstname.lastname@example.org. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.