Trans Women in Video Games, Part One: Dark Sun Gwyndolin

I wanted to write a series about the depictions of trans women in video games, and to start this off, I wanted to start with my all-time favorite game: Dark Souls. I immersed myself in this game for months, and to be completely honest, a lot of the story and lore went right over my head the first few times playing it. The Souls series (Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls 1 & 2) have never been known to hand anything to you. The narratives present within the games are surprisingly deep, and you have to speculate and piece together evidence from different weapon, armor, and item descriptions, think about where you found the item/who gave it to you, boss/level designs, gameplay mechanics (something as simple as traversing through a fog wall, you reaching out to the unknown) understanding NPC motivations, and following the side-quests of NPC’s you meet along the way. I personally had some difficulty piecing the story and lore together, but thanks to the help of Quelaag‘s and Epic Name Bro‘s videos, I was able to get a lot further than I could have alone.

On the note of lore and story, I feel I should clear up some terminology I will likely use before proceeding.

  • Lore: The history of a fantastical, mythical, and/or sci-fi world.
  • Plot: What literally happens within the game to move the story further along its arc, i.e. Melissa went up the stairs and tripped.
  • Story: What the plot says about themes, how action interplays with thematic elements within the game. I will sometimes refer to this as narrative.
  • Game mechanic: Can refer to a number of things given context, and it includes, but is not limited to, combat, quick time events, puzzles, platforming, stealth, hitting a ball, etc. They are all things the player does and interacts with.
  • Gameplay: The overall experience, how game mechanics, story, level design, and more all interact with each other to create a cohesive whole. In other words, it is what the player does. This includes all player experiences during this interaction with game systems, all the frustrations, moments of joy and catharsis, and all the moments of tedium and boredom. Plot is to story as game mechanics are to gameplay.

If you are unfamiliar with Dark Souls 1, then I suggest you watch this plot overview before reading further. (I apologize for its title.) This piece is mainly targeted at people who have already invested time into the game, though I also want others who have not played it to understand why Gwyndolin is a transmisogynistic caricature. I will explain what I believe to be necessary points in the plot in order to demonstrate this.

Gwyndolin is in an area of Dark Souls called Anor Londo, which is basically a giant city that exists on top mountains for the Gods (referred to as Lords). It is bright, sunny, and full of difficult enemies with giant halberds, shields, spears, and bows. This is one of the more difficult areas in the game, especially the boss duo you have to beat: Ornstein and Smough. After defeating these two, you meet Gwynevere, Princess of Sunlight. She is the daughter of Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight. She gives you an item called the Lordvessel, which you use to both warp to previously visited locations (making traveling easier) and also to use the souls of Nito, Seath, Chaos Witch Izalith, and the Four Kings as kindling to open the path to the First Flame. Gwyn kindled the First Flame in order to continue the reign of the Gods (referred to as the Age of Fire), putting off the Age of Dark (the coming of humanity). This is where I was at in the game, just having gotten the Lordvessel from Gwynevere and moving along to retrieve these souls for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

I first encountered Gwyndolin after picking up an item called the Darkmoon Seance Ring on my way to get Nito’s soul. I needed the additional attunement slot (attunement slots are for spells and pyromancies–fire based magic), and after reading its item description, I remembered all the player messages left around a particular statue of Gwyn in Anor Londo that read something like “Try ring!” and “Illusory wall ahead.” I headed back to that statue, and assuming “Try ring!” meant simply putting it on, I did. The statue of Gwyn disappeared, revealing a staircase to a fog wall. This is where I learned about the Darkmoon Blade covenant, a group you can join in order to invade other player’s worlds and kill them. I opted not to and proceeded toward the fog wall, where (before I knew it was Gwyndolin) a voice told me not to trespass upon the tomb of the Lord of Sunlight (Gwyn). I went through the fog wall anyways.

A cutscene played in which my character looked around at a long hallway before her, and then the same voice said something along the lines of how my crimes will not go unpunished. The hallway then appears even longer than before, and you fight Gwyndolin. All of her abilities are ranged, and when you get close, she teleports further down the hall. You can repeat this endlessly. When killed, the endless hallway then recedes back to its former length, meaning it was an illusion.

That was my first experience with Gwyndolin, her character portrayed as secretive, deceptive, and hard to find.

The other way to find Gwyndolin, I found out, is that if you kill Gwynevere, you find out that she was actually just an illusion. Afterwards, all of Anor Londo goes dark, and you hear Gwyndolin say, “Thou that tarnisheth the Godmother’s image. I am Gwyndolin. And thy transgression shall not go unpunished. Thou shalt perish in the twilight of Anor Londo.” The giant sentinels in Anor Londo disappear, and so do all the silver knights. All the previous enemies are gone. Some are replaced with NPC’s who are assumed to be part of the Darkmoon Blade covenant (whose purpose is to execute “sinners.”) You get a feel for exactly how empty Anor Londo really is. Gwyndolin is the last remaining deity in Anor Londo. She kept up this grand illusion to continue the Age of Fire, like her father before her. She does so even though she’s not acknowledged at all by anyone else in the game, and her residence is buried in the lowest level of Anor Londo. The fact of her existence isn’t present anywhere. There are statues of her father, of Gwynevere (her sister), and of Ornstein, but none of her, yet Gwyndolin is Gwyn’s daughter. What is so shameful about Gwyndolin?

We get some info from her armor set description:

Garb of the Dark Sun Gwyndolin, protector of the forsaken city of Anor Londo. The crown of the gods demands faith immeasurable of its wearer, but it is imbued with Darkmoon power that enhances all magic. The image of the sun manifests Gwyndolin’s deep adoration of the sun. The power of the moon was strong in Gwyndolin, and thus he was raised as a daughter. His magic garb is silk-thin, and hardly provides any physical defense.”

Her armor description means she was assigned male at birth (AMAB henceforth) by her father, and then had the gender roles of women applied to her. That’s something you can easily read as trans, because for trans to be a thing, it requires a gender order in which normalizes and values cisness. So then, this armor description hits me as a bit odd. Why specify that she’s AMAB? What is its relevance to the plot or story, other than to say “Oh yeah, she’s really a boy! Isn’t that just WEIRD?” Why not just say she’s a daughter unless you wanted to point out transness, or make it significant in some way? I will answer these questions later. For now, let’s talk a bit about her character design. To start with, here’s her concept art:

I’m going to start with her clothing. Her clothing also covers up much of her body, which detours from the usual hypersexual images of trans women. Her garments appear light and made of silk. Everything on her body is covered up with the exception of her mouth. One might say that this, then, is a more “respectable” image of a trans woman, that she’s at least not being objectified. Aside from the slut-shaming implicit in the idea of more clothing as “respectable” and “modest,” anyone who says that is just flat-out incorrect. She is most definitely being objectified in this.

Those are snakes coming out the bottom of her dress. Some of these snakes are as tall, or taller, than her. There’s clearly something the developers want us, the player, to notice. In the West, there are some important associations to point out with regards to snakes. Snakes been associated with deception and trickery in Western mythos (the snake from the Bible’s creation story is a prime example, and there are many others), but ‘snake’ is also a euphemism for ‘penis.’ Hmm, deception… trickery… snakes… penis… trans women. That sounds like a familiar story to me. It reminds me of Sleepaway Camp, where the person murdering the people who are assaulting and harming her is explained away through the reveal of her penis in the end of the movie. Given that these snakes are quite literally taller than her, the fact of her transness, and snakes as a euphemism, then it is fair to say that she is being objectified given the amplification of her penis, even if that is through metaphorical means. The question becomes, then, what is this design, along with her armor description, boss battle, and her context trying to say about Gwyndolin’s overall character?

Gwyndolin does nothing but try to trick the player. Her boss battle, an endless hallway you must chase her through as she hurls magic and arrows at you. Her design draws attention to the phallic snakes. The player doesn’t even know she exists unless they destroy the image of her sister Gwynevere (which then removes the statue leading to Gwyndolin), or, like me, find her through discovering an obscure ring that dispels an illusory statue leading to Gwyndolin. All the guardian sentinels in Anor Londo and the sun that shone so brightly upon Anor Londo are revealed to be illusions, even though the guardian sentinels can still kill the player. Anor Londo goes completely dark once the illusion of Gwynevere is gone. The illusion of Anor Londo, the city of the Gods, all one big facade to make your character kindle the first flame, as Lord Gwyn had before, and put off the coming Age of Dark. The developers, through Gwyndolin’s design and the context by which she exists, clearly suggest that her transness is a major force in why she seems so invested in deceiving the player.

This is what transmisogyny looks like. Games don’t need this. Trans women don’t need this. We can do better than this.

 

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