Of the two larger MMOs that have had same-sex news to present of late, I have been rather enamored with what Guild Wars 2 is creating with the sylvari species. From basic design to cultural implications, it's all pretty interesting stuff. However, the gender and sexuality nerd in me was pretty excited when they started discussing their lore and it included mentions that they were pretty neutral in how they viewed both gender and same-sex pairings.
In fact, two of the primary sylvari to whom we've been introduced so far are a female same-sex couple, though they're a bit star-cross'd and all that.
I was rather fortunate that I was able to contact ArenaNet, specifically community manager Regina Buenaobra, and request an interview with Ree Soesbee, a writer and lore & continuity designer for the world of Tyria. What follows in this email interview are largely questions regarding the place of the sylvari in their world, and the instances surrounding sexuality, including some insight into how sexuality and gender presentation functions in some of the other species, as well as more exploration of the sylvari themselves.
GG: Given that the emphasis is on courtly love with the sylvari, is this borrowed from another culture in Tyria? From where did these ideals stem?
Ree: The sylvari have their own ideas, and their own culture. It is influenced both by human culture, and by the ideals of the peaceful centaur, Ventari, but over the years that the sylvari have been awake and aware, they have taken those ideals and made them into a culture. Courtly love --love that has no reliance on the idea of sexuality between the lovers--is one of these natural extrapolations. As the sylvari don't physically reproduce, they simply put less emphasis on gender.
GG: The sylvari being new, and their reproduction being handled without sex, how much confusion is there among the other species as regards them? It seems there are already hints that no one is quite certain on their origins, so is there further confusion/ignorance about their culture as it stands now?
Ree: Other races are absolutely uncertain about the sylvari - but not because of their sexuality or reproduction. This uncertainty comes from the entirety of sylvari existence: they are a new race, with little history; they are 'born' fully grown with a strange understanding of simple concepts of the world; and their physiology is not mammalian, but is instead plant-based (even though it bears similarities to human form). The other races are still trying to figure them out, both physically and in regards to their culture.
GG: Further expanding on the concept of the sylvari being new, how much are they still adapting and changing to fit into Tyria, or have they pretty much settled into a firm culture?
Ree: The sylvari have a group of tenets, or ideals, written on the Ventari Tablet. They adhere to these, and believe that they are a guideline toward living a 'good' or benevolent life. The sylvari naturally feel a desire to be productive within the world, to take care of Tyria, and to learn from and interact with other races. Certainly, their culture is still growing and evolving, but the basis of that culture and the core beliefs, are firm.
GG: With the previous questions establishing a basis, how does same-sex attraction fit into the world? The sylvari are not restricted to sexual attraction for mating reasons, but how does the rest of the world/factions see this, especially since Caithe seems to play a fairly large role in the world, and was previously a lover of Faolain?
Ree: Other races of the world see the sylvari as odd for many more reasons than simply their sexuality - the issue of same-gender love among the sylvari is no more strange to, say, a norn than the fact that sylvari bleed a type of sap and not blood. Other races have a history of same-sex relationships, but those relationships tend to be downplayed and not lauded within the culture. This is not to say that the races of Tyria are naturally homophobic; they're absolutely not. It's simply not particularly common.
Within the sylvari, all forms of benevolent love are encouraged. If love makes you and the recipient stronger, if it encourages you to positive action and heroism, then it should be respected and celebrated. The sylvari see this as only natural. The other races are curious about it, true, because many of them aren't used to seeing that kind of relationship. Still, the other races don't, in general, approach it with a sense of abhorrence or disdain.
However, it should be noted that there will always be individuals whose personal beliefs counter their general racial tendency. Among the norn, for example, we have the Sons of Svanir - who are wholly and unashamedly misogynistic. Individuals of the various races might have their own reasons to denigrate a same-sex pairing. Such individuals will tend to be seen as villains within the overall culture of Tyria.
GG: Given the fact that the sylvari do express sexually dimorphic traits on the surface, does this create awkward moments when they interact with other species who might have more comparatively rigid gender roles in some capacity? I imagine there is a lot of confusion about the sylvari in general, but where does that start/end in terms of what has been written?
Ree: Certainly! Because of their physical design (male-female gendered), the sylvari are typically ascribed to 'standard' gender roles by the other races. This does lead to awkwardness, a bit of confusion, and some eye-rolling on the part of the sylvari, who whisper among themselves that the other races of Tyria are a bit 'backwards' when it comes to gender roles. However, most of these misinterpretations are good-natured, caused out of ignorance rather than bigotry, and thus both sides use them as a means of learning more about one another.
GG: I love the designs for the sylvari I have seen thus far, and they have likely made me absolutely sure about playing the species (along with the fact of their gender-fluidity), and I was wondering how you have gone about modelling them from the basis of human characterstics? Among the reasons I ask is because Guild Wars has previously included various designs from a space that is not default white and Western, so wondered how much more of that we might see reflected in the sylvari.
Ree: I'm glad to hear that! Kristen Perry worked very hard to make our models for the sylvari, and I think they're absolutely gorgeous. ArenaNet is so pleased with the response we've had from the community on the redesign, and we can't wait to see what the players will do in an open world.
One thing we wanted to ensure among the sylvari models was a certain sense of the 'alien'. Yes, sylvari are based (by the Pale Tree's creation) on a 'human' model. But, they are still a representation of the human form by something that is not human. Faces will show these differences, more than they will show general human differences. Rather than go for a 'human' ethnicity, we've tried to establish a unique visual identity for the sylvari using branches and leaves or features that resemble seeds or other natural plant life.
GG: To expand on that, it does not seem as if there is as massive a size different between male and female sylvari character models (from what I have seen) as is often the case in MMOs and games in general. Was this a conscious decision, and how has it affected the movement animations?
Ree: I believe that was a conscious decision. When an individual makes a sylvari in the game, they will have a certain amount of control over the height of that character; in that way, they can create as big or small a disparity as they wish. Because we design our animations individually, it didn't cause any issue at all - they would be designed independantly, no matter how the height structure varied (or did not).
GG: One note that caught my eye was that of family. One could argue that the sylvari are all one big family, for instance. In such a case, community becomes important, which is something that is fairly large in the LGBT community itself. You've already hinted at the Nightmare Court and a sense of diversity in personalities, but as it's unlikely there would be an LGBT community among them in the sense that we know them (but even our community has further classifications and communities within itself), I was wondering if the sylvari have further distinctions and on what those are based (or if they are too young to have firmly established a set number of groups and differentiations)?
Ree: As a race, the sylvari consider the Pale Tree to be their 'mother,' and in that way, yes, they all consider one another to be family. During the early years of the race, when only the Firstborn (and the First and Secondborn) were walking the world, that sense was even closer. There was a tight bond between these individuals, because they were alike within a very strange world. As more and more sylvari awakened, this bond lessened - it's difficult to know every sylvari in the world now! - but it did not fade entirely, and most sylvari have a genuine sense of community and family with other sylvari in the world. This contributes strongly to the race's sense of empathy toward one another.
The sylvari have distinctions based on their time of birth, which they have noted does affect their personalities. These 'cycles' are organized into Dawn, Noon, Dusk and Night. However, the sylvari do not segregate by sexual preference. To them, the idea of distinctions for gender, or sexual preference, would seem as odd to them as a distinction based on creamy vs. chunky peanut butter to humans here on earth. Love simply is. If you love someone who is of the same gender, and that love ends, and you begin again with someone of a different gender, there is no distinction; the sylvari simply celebrate that you have found love within your life, and that you are seeking mutual happiness. A sylvari probably wouldn't even think to ask the gender of your lover if you mentioned that you had one. Sexuality is simply a natural part of life, and so long as it is entered into with good will and joy, the gender doesn't make a difference.
It was wonderful talking to you!
Many thanks to Ree, Regina, and ArenaNet for taking the time to answer my questions. It was a pleasure chatting with them.