They say a change is as good as a holiday, but is that always the case?
I’ve been playing The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) on and off now since December 2015. Although I may take a break from it every once in a while, there’s something which always draws me back and the game has become a mental refuge over the past seven years.
It formed the basis of Friday gaming nights with Pete, the arse-kicking Ellen from Ace Asunder and friend-of-the-blog Phil for a long time. We’d get together in the evening to battle our way through a few dungeons, clear out a dolmen or two and moan about the working week. It would usually end up descending into chaos when somebody invariably tried to pickpocket a guard in one of the towns.
But around a month ago, we decided it was time for a change. Although we were still enjoying ourselves hanging out online, ESO had become a little monotonous when scheduled events weren’t taking place and the dungeons were now too familiar. We wanted a new challenge to entertain us, new lands to explore and new monsters to take down, and so begun the search for a new game to play.
Someone in the group threw out a suggestion of Lost Ark. The recent reviews on Steam may not have been entirely glowing and many people appeared to be complaining about a bot problem or slagging off Amazon Games, so we deliberated over it for a while. But nobody was interested in playing something competitive and here was a release which was cooperative with a nice isometric art-style. On top of that it was free, so what did we have to lose?
The Warrior is a class which is currently gender-locked. Choose it and you’re forced to male, while Mages and Assassins have no choice but to be female.
I happened to mention ditching ESO in favour of something new during a meeting with my new boss the following Friday. He openly admits to being a gamer (which is kind of refreshing at my workplace) so I wasn’t surprised when he told me he’d already given Lost Ark a go. His overall opinion of the game was that it was ‘OK’: the story was adequate and the earlier parts were fun, but it eventually turned into too much of a grind and he uninstalled it. I wondered what we were letting ourselves in for.
The gang gathered at our usual time that evening and started up the MMORPG to create our characters. Pete may believe it’s enough to click the ‘randomise’ button and add a handlebar moustache for good measure but for the rest of us, this is an important part of the gaming process. It’s one we spend a good hour on and carefully consider our choices. The first step was to pick a class which would then give access to advanced sub-types: Warrior, Mage, Martial Artist, Gunner or Assassin?
As a gamer who prefers close combat in video games (mainly because there’s greater opportunity to press all the buttons and hope for the best), the Warrior seemed like the best fit for me. I was a bit confused though when I was presented with a male protagonist after the selection and couldn’t find a way to switch. I’ve always preferred to play as a character of the same sex whenever I can and there were options for female Martial Artists and Gunners, so I assumed I’d just missed something.
But no: a quick internet search revealed that the Warrior is one of several classes which is currently gender-locked. Choose it and you’re forced to male, while Mages and Assassins have no choice but to be female. An article from March 2022 revealed that those in charge of Lost Ark had finally acknowledged these limitations and were working on changing things – but here we were three months later with apparently no progress. I rolled my eyes and selected a female Martial Artist instead.
After spending way too long picking out an outfit which was the best of a bad bunch, my fellow players finished their characters too and we headed through to the launch screen. Que another moment of confusion: when had she transformed from the protagonist I’d created into a walking pair of boobs and hips? She seemed to be standing rather unnaturally, her right hip jutting out at an awkward angle as far as she could push it, as if she were all dolled up ready for her first social media shot.
I checked in with Ellen and something similar had happened to her Assassin. We also felt our characters were walking with a pronounced hip-sway once we’d made it through the tutorial and trying to cover it up with the full-body cat and dinosaur costumes we’d received as rewards had little effect. Maybe we were being too sensitive, but it was difficult to unsee this over-sexualisation once we’d noticed it. It’s hard to continue playing a game once you hate your character and so after two hours, we gave up.
I understand that sometimes it’s necessary to step into the shoes of a protagonist who’s completely unlike yourself. Sometimes you have no other option: take video games who have a single hero defined by the developer such as Deathloop or Control for example. But you expect to have more freedom in MMOs and Lost Ark gave the illusion of choice before abruptly snatching it away. I couldn’t be a female warrior, couldn’t walk without exaggerated hips, couldn’t cover it all up in a cat costume.
After trying both Lost Ark and Runescape, a return to ESO is on the cards for tonight’s gaming session. The Zeal of Zenithar event starts next week and so a few hours’ play is just what we need to get us ready. I’m looking forward to getting back to my Wood Elf who’s designed exactly the way I want her to be: shorter than most other characters, with short brown hair and grey eyes, without big breasts and swaying hips – kind of like me. A change can be as a good as a holiday, but it can also make you realise what you missed.
Maybe we were being too sensitive, but it was difficult to unsee this over-sexualisation once we’d noticed it.
There’s a chance we’ll give something else a go again in the future though. We’ve been talking about maybe doing something completely different to an MMO – the online clone of Cards Against Humanity perhaps or even one of the Jackbox party games for a bit of fun. We’ve also been toying with the idea of trying a board game via Discord stream since our first trip to the UK Games Expo earlier this month. My copy of Alice is Missing arrived yesterday and it could be an option too, seeing as it’s played via text message.
We’ll stick with ESO for at least a few weeks for now. Although if we get chucked back into the Darkshade Caverns II dungeon and have to face that damn engine guardian yet again tonight, we might have to re-evaluate.