Fantasy settings often provide rich fruit for discussion of discrimination and intolerance. The presence of sentient non-humans can form the basis of a metaphor in which the Other of the fantasy stands in for Jews, blacks, women, or whatever minority the author has in mind. This lens enables creators either to express their disdain in a palatable form or illustrate an unsavoury facet of society. Divinity: Original Sin II follows this well-worn trend, introducing a group of characters who are outcast even among outcasts and using this doubly-discriminated-against status to explore how social structures and abuse of power can contribute to community bias.
Delineations of difference are fundamental elements of world-building in fantasy, usually creating a clear distinction between good and evil, while frequently leaning on discriminatory language and stereotypes. The weird fiction of H. P. Lovecraft offers a powerful example of racial othering, as the cultists and human agents of the Old Gods are often mentioned as being of African or Oriental descent. Given the author’s feelings on the growing rate of multiculturalism at the time of his writing, these portrayals reflect and reproduce ingrained racism, tacitly approving it in the process1. Literature scholar Gregory E. Rutledge suggests that Lovecraft is only one of many purveyors of discriminatory sentiment when he states that the fantasy industry has historically been subject to “systemic racism”2 that identifies “Blackness as the locus of the primitive and evil”3. Racist, sexist, and otherwise bigoted sentiments emerge in a host of fantasy stories, but not all of them associate physiognomic traits with inherent goodness or evil.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings frequently alludes to those fighting on behalf of Sauron (namely, the Orcs and Southrons) as swarthy or slant-eyed, connoting something akin to African or Asian heritage. However, Tolkien, at points, allows his character to sympathise with racialised Others. Anderson Rearick III argues that this trait enforces “the overall message of the work [that] there is the universal truth that all things were created good”4 before being turned to evil by Melkor and his minions. In creating this distinction between the forces of good and evil in Middle-Earth, Tolkien highlights how power can influence perception of an individual or group, and Larian Studios explores similar ideas in the recently-released Divinity: Original Sin II.
Although players are able to use a custom character, each of the pre-built protagonists bears a rich history as an outcast. Sebille, for example, is a former slave-turned-assassin, seeking retribution against her “Master.” Meanwhile, The Red Prince is an exile from his family and home, endeavouring to return and claim his rightful place upon the throne. These histories are teased out as the game progresses, which can leave the story feeling bewildering and overwhelming early on, but makes for powerful catharsis as details come to light. While the characters come from wildly disparate backgrounds, a shared burden brings them together: all of them are Sourcerers (users of a magic called Source, which is outlawed by the ruling powers), captured and bound for the island prison of Fort Joy. Exiled from wider society, the motley group comes together, only to discover that the individuals are not welcome even among fellow pariahs.
In some respects, Fort Joy is a stratified society, impacting the reception met by the player’s party. Understandably, the prison wardens—the Magisters—are at the top, aloof and often hostile as they oversee the fortress and ostensibly seek to help Sourcerers by purging them of their powers. Few among the Magisters seem interested in managing the population, giving rise to power plays and social divisions. A character named Griff is, perhaps, the closest thing to a leader within the camp, having ascended to that position by acquiring a faithful gang and something resembling a monopoly on foodstuffs. Although some outside his band recognise the injustice of Griff’s ways, they are unwilling or unable to stand up to him. Thus, Griff rules over the prison population of Fort Joy with a despotic demeanour, his exclusionary attitudes enforced through his cronies to create a three-tiered social structure that disenfranchises newcomers and non-humans.
Far from being the sole domain of Griff’s influence, social bias is engrained in Divinity: Original Sin II’s world, extending even to the playable characters. The relationship between Sebille and The Red Prince is rife with unease. The Red Prince’s background gives him a belief in his superiority, causing him to regard Sebille as a lesser being, perpetually reminding her of her slave heritage. Despite their differences, both of them face discrimination among the wider world, resulting from their Elf and Lizard race, neither of which is trusted by the humans. While these squabbles are interesting to watch, perhaps the most intriguing representation of discrimination in the game comes in the form of Fane, an Undead Eternal. As the representative of a precursor race, Fane seems to regard every other character in the game with a degree of disdain, even while studying their behaviours and habits. In this respect, the Undead scholar seems to represent something akin to the studies of Orientalism prior to Edward Said’s 1978 book of the same name5 criticising the field as being intrinsic to the entrenched perceptions of Western superiority. Fane, similar to those real-world academics, does not see his actions as damaging and damning, yet, by demarcating difference and regarding his extinct brethren as superior to the living races of Rivellon, he contributes to the endless cycles of discrimination rife within Divinity’s world.
The many examples of racism and classism present in the game ultimately serve to examine the origins and prevalence of prejudiced sentiment. Griff’s brutality, resulting in part from his intolerance towards non-humans, makes him a hated and feared figure among the denizens of Fort Joy. Similarly, the Magisters, although generally indifferent to racial distinctions, are violently opposed to Sourcerers, and the order performs unspeakable acts in the attempt to separate them from Source. In both of these examples, social power is used to justify unsavoury behaviour directed at those groups perceived as a threat to established norms. Patterns of belief trumpeted by the powers-that-be then trickle down through the remainder of the population, with bystanders frequently echoing and reflecting the negative sentiments attached to the excluded groups, illuminating how bias can be spread easily through structures and doctrine. More than simply bringing these issues to light, Divinity: Original Sin II actively rejects them through its core narrative and gameplay.
Players have the option to take on the role of either a pre-determined character or build a new one from a range of options, but the game almost demands the building of a party. Because each potential protagonist is in some degree unwelcome in polite society, their beliefs and actions frequently do not align. Despite these disagreements and the very real possibility of permanently killing any party member, the individuals set aside their prejudices and petty differences in service of a goal that is greater than any of them. The alliance may be uneasy, but it transcends distinctions of race, class, and gender to echo the sentiments of other fantasy texts and the progressive beliefs of the present day that difference of any kind is no basis for discrimination.
Divinity: Original Sin II is hardly alone in using fantasy elements as a vehicle to explore the ever-present issues of social and racial prejudice. The prison of Fort Joy is only the first environment within the game open to players, yet the place is a microcosm where indifference allows external biases to be replicated. The brutality and inequality within the camp are symptomatic of the discriminatory practices of Griff and the Magisters, and, while this depiction is an indictment of such behavioural patterns, the interactions of the playable characters with both each other and the wider world more clearly illustrate the negative effects of entrenched intolerance.
Divinity: Original Sin II is available on PC now. Watch out next week for OnlySP’s review.