Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Outer World’s Parvati Holcomb started as an idea about a Magic the Gathering character

Parvati Holcomb is a character from Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds. She’s voiced by Ashly Burch, and is a favourite among players for her sweet, but determined outlook on life. She was originally written by Chris L’Etoile before duties were taken over by Kate Dollarhyde.

She’s also asexual – a part of her character that has sparked a series of conversations about the character, from ourselves here at Gayming Magazine, as well as Vice and Polygon. It’s become quite clear that she’s a character that will be remembered by players, particularly those of the LGBT community, for many years to come.

Kate Dollarhyde has done nothing short of a fantastic job in helping to create Parvati. But before Dollarhyde there was L’Etoile, who we had the pleasure to talk to about the origins of Parvati, as well as the reception of her from both within and outside of The Outer Worlds.

Our own Elizabeth Henges wrote an article about Parvati and how much her asexual storyline meant to her. It was handled in a way that was deeply personal, and respectful, and means a lot not just to Henges, but to others within the community too. All you need to do is type in Parvati’s name to find out that she’s well-loved.

For L’Etoile, it’s amazing her character has been so well received, especially by those who can relate strongly to her, being asexual themselves.

“There’s someone you know who’s never received a birthday present.” L’Etoile said to us. “They’ve contributed their own quiet and thoughtful gifts [to others]. But you realize that no one’s ever celebrated them – their presence, their contribution. So you spend weeks planning, hoping that you can make up for what they haven’t had – even if just for a moment, even if just a little bit. You make the gift with your own two hands, carefully wrap it in bright paper and beautiful bows, and leave it in a place they’re sure to find it. When they unwrap it, they smile like they’ve only just learned how.”

L’Etoile finished with an answer that is as simple as it is beautiful. “The responses have made me cry.”

The way L’Etoile describes it is fascinating, especially when he talked about how Parvati’s asexuality was written, and the origins behind it. Funnily enough, a lot of it comes from L’Etoile’s time at working with Wizards of the Coast. One of the lessons he learned during that time was writing “aspirationally”.

Parvati Holcomb

This doesn’t mean ripping away obstacles or challenges from a character, but having those obstacles not directly relate to a character’s identity. It’s a decision that I can get behind depending on the game’s theme and narrative. Going up against obstacles is part of the hero’s journey after all, but it not being necessarily tied to who the character is? Sometimes that’s a major plus.

Asexuality does play a key part in Parvati’s identity all the same and can be acknowledged by players throughout The Outer Worlds. There was an opt-out decision that could bypass Parvati’s quest – and thus her relationship with Junlei Tennyson – but L’Etoile states that this was due to wanting to give players “a different story experience” or for those who just didn’t care about romance.

“When I worked on Mass Effect, there were people who rolled their eyes at the romances and ship-talks, who just want to adventure across the galaxy and shoot robots.” He said. “For those who don’t enjoy romance content, there’s an option to ask Parvati to focus on keeping the Unreliable flying. That cuts the entire plot off.”

As for the origins of Parvati… That’s a story that will need some explaining. After all, Parvati is a character that’s taken inspiration from Kaylee from Firefly, which is easy to see with how kind and genuine she is compared to a lot of the other people in The Outer Worlds. But the concept of her asexuality actually took root during L’Etoile’s time at Wizards of the Coast.

“In the summer of 2016, the former writing team discussed what directions we wanted the main “Gatewatch” characters to grow.” He said. Gatewatch refers to a group of the most powerful individuals within the Magic the Gathering universe. “One suggestion from Kelly Digges was that Nissa Revane should identify as ace.”

Here at Gayming Magazine, we talked about the controversy surrounding Nissa’s relationship with another female planeswalker. So, it was a pleasant surprise to hear that Nissa Revane, one of the most popular characters for queer women, had the chance to officially be considered asexual.

L’Etoile explained that, ultimately, they “decided not to pursue that angle”, in part because they didn’t feel sufficiently knowledgeable to do so.

Nissa Revane

“Asexuality was something I’d heard of, but didn’t understand. I studied and read Seanan McGuire’s “Every Heart a Doorway. […] I felt the ace identity would have made sense for Nissa.”

However, after L’Etoile left Wizards of the Coast, he couldn’t shake off the concept of an ace character. While representation in the game industry had been improving, according to L’Etoile there was “not a single unambiguously ace one. Asexuality seemed like a forgotten identity.”

Perhaps in major AAA games, but as we know from indie games, asexual characters are there. Indie games are becoming more seen, but a celebration of smaller queer creators is still difficult to see in mainstream media. Regardless, it is more likely that triple-A games are playing catching up to indies, rather than vice versa.

Still, L’Etoile was determined to include asexuality in Parvati’s backstory and arc. He sought out blogs, social media, and websites run by ace gamers.

“I read their own words on the subject – where they’d looked for representation, what the flaws in those adopted figures were, and what they most wanted to see.” He told us and, while we cannot speak for everyone, we know that more than a fair share of fans were pleased with the representation Parvati provided.

But there is always room for more asexual characters and narratives included in video games. There can never really be ‘enough’ after all, especially with how video games have been dominated by protagonists that are either dads, have beards, or are white. Mostly a combination of the three. To have a character like Parvati is something that should be the norm.

To end this article, I want to include something which L’Etoile said that rings true and what every developer should pay attention to.

“I hope in the future we see ace characters with the same breadth of personality as any other. I’d be disappointed if what people take away from Parvati is that all aces should be portrayed as sweet and nervous.” He continued, “in the future, let’s see aces who are confident and daring, or sarcastic and cynical, or curious and organized, or artistic, or strong, or, or, or…”

Aimee Hart

[She/They] Aimee Hart specializes in queer fandom, video games and tabletop, having started her career writing for numerous websites like The Verge, Polygon, Input Magazine and more. Her goal now is to boost LGBTQ+ voices in the video games industry.