A little over a year ago, I wrote a review of Baldur’s Gate, in anticipation of its upcoming rerelease. It was a sloppy piece on looking at the relationship between the main character and their father, Bhaal, god of death, murder, horror, and all that is wrong and unholy in the world. For me, what I found still engaging about the Baldur’s Gate story line is how it played with the idea of the abjected subject position, i.e. subjects and identities that are integral to society, but nonetheless marginalized because of their “unseemly” aspects that make them uncomfortable to a normative world.
The abject is typically marked by bodily excess and waste, like vomit, shit or blood, because these wastes are necessary for our body’s proper functioning, but they are also kept at a distance and we do not fully integrate them into our embodied conception of ourselves. Yeah, I’m a lot of fun to have conversations with. So in Baldur’s Gate, your character becomes abject through their association with blood — not just the spilling of blood through battles, because the realm is replete with warriors doing illicit deeds — but with your own tainted blood, the blood of Bhaal.
So that article and my replay of Baldur’s Gate — especially the sequel, Shadows of Amn — stayed in the back of my mind when I first started playing Borderlands 2 and Jack, spoiler, was revealed to be Angel’s father. I kept thinking how sad and strained both father/offpsring relationships were, with the offspring character becoming ostracised and pushed to the boundaries in society because of what this relationship passed down to them: my character in Baldur’s Gate was deemed illicit and morally corrupt because of her lineage, and Angel is revealed to be a traitor, who is ostensibly both working for and against us as we play. Then enters Eleanor in BioShock 2, another abandoned daughter, held captive (physically and emotionally) by a controlling parent figure, whose identity is formed in a resistance to and an acceptance of the horrors committed by the father.
A quick head’s up. When I refer to Baldur’s Gate and BioShock 2, I’m referring to my specific experiences with the story and how I chose to play to play the game. In Baldur’s Gate, I was a chaotic neutral female and in BioShock 2, I played by harvesting enough Little Sisters to get me all the Adam I could use, then I went about adopting and rescuing them. (Monster status = horrifically confirmed.) In BioShock 2, I then chose to sacrifice myself at the end to allow Eleanor to be free: the horrors we committed together in Rapture were part of a war, and I wanted to show her that with Rapture being behind her, she could move on. I was trying to be a good role model, and I feel like the neutral ending I received was the perfect culmination of the story: Eleanor is going to have to live with the atrocities we did in order to survive, but I gave her the chance to be free from that when we escaped and to eventually, hopefully, move on. As BioShock games always teach me, I don’t think I’m the “maternal” type.
What I find interesting about Parent-Daughter relationships in these games are the way they position the female character in society. In Borderlands 2 and BioShock 2, Eleanor and Angel are twisted examples of the damsel trope: they are held captive by a parent who is using them to fulfill their own ideology, but through their resistance, they also become abjected emblems of intersectionality, of a society that binds and rejects the very subjectivities, female or not, they use to construct themselves. They are pushed to the fringes of society, but not outcast because they are pivotal to a functioning society. For example, Sofia Lamb keeps Eleanor quarantined and hidden, despite her necessity as the embodiment of her extreme collectivist mentality. With Angel, Jack also hides her, keeps her contained and hidden, despite her power being the key to him achieving the domination he wants. They are emblematic of Others through their parental enforced abjected positions. We are all defined by our relationships. For the societies that Eleanor, Angel and your character in Baldur’s Gate live in, the collective societal identity is formed through both an acceptance and a rejection of what these abjected subjects represent.
So what do I mean when I call these characters abject? They are visibly marked with signifers of the abject (the gross-out aspects of blood, gore and bodily viscera), and as non-normative identities, they are also necessary to a functioning society, but which society would rather not think of or associate with themselves. They represent the shunned, the cast off, everything and everyone who works against the “clean” norm. They are dirtied, they are hazardous, but they are strong and symbolically threatening to destabilize safe normative conceptions of identity and society. As powerful females, they destabilize tropes of femininity. As abject subjects, they threaten the exclusionary normative ideal of their societies.
In the case of Angel, she is not marked by the typical gross-out aspects of human waste, but she is marked by Eridium. Same with the Little Sisters and Eleanor: they do not bleed or vomit, but they do remove valuable chemical compounds from corpses (with corpses being another abject signifier). Eridum and Adam take on the narrative consequences of bodily excess and refuge: they are synthetic compounds that once ingested, become integrated into the body, enhancing it but also creating a powerful addiction that marks and changes the body. Moreover, anybody enmeshed with Eridium or Adam become marginalized in society. Splicers and Sirens are looked at as non-normative subject positions, people to be wary of because the effects of their power sources are unparalleled and lead to devastating effects (Splicers lose their minds and become homicidal, whereas Angel and Eleanor are being harnessed to bring about untold power and destruction for the bad guys).
The fact that they are also Guardian Angel characters, guiding your character’s movements from afar, suggests a form of copendency: normative identities are based off an exclusionary definition: we are what we are not. But to be defined thusly, we need to define the “are not.” It is this othering and abjection of marked bodies that draws me to characters like Angel and Eleanor. They are women and are marked in that way, but they are also other marked bodies, signifiers of difference from “healthy” (where healthy itself is an exclusionary semantic ideal), normative bodies. We are not Angel and Eleanor at the same time that we are Angel and Eleanor. And it is the way that we treat and represent these abjected subjects that ultimately define our society.
I think for me this is particularly telling with the Handsome Jack and Angel dynamic. Jack’s conception of his rule involves Angel’s very essence, but in a way that drains, harnesses and controls it. She cannot exist just as herself: her powers, what makes her her, are being manipulated and used for a goal that is exempt from her. Same with the character in Baldur’s Gate: you must use your strength, given by Bhaal and feared by your society, to stop Bhaal and save the world that excludes you. These abjected subjects cannot exist for themselves, because they are not granted that luxury of being self-contained subjects: they are excluded, but used. These characters are pivotal to overcoming the evil, but excluded because of it: not a part of society, but integral to its continued proper functioning.
It is the societal collective that is fucked here, not in an anti-socialist way, but in a way that demonstrates that there cannot be a cohesive societal identity because it is defined by exclusionary practices. With Sofia Lamb, it is not an acceptance of the individual within the collective, but an erasing of the entire idea of the individual to achieve a tyrannical power. What we learn from abjected subjectivities and intersectionality is that identity is comprised of different aspects, and most society-forming practices exclude based on these aspects. We struggle against what we are because what we are more than likely excludes us from this clean conception of self. And this is true for most of us, in one way or another.
Talking about the abject matters in games because we already are, just maybe not in the same words. So many fantastic critics are already looking at intersectionality as a way of understanding relationships within power structures (like Samanatha Allen’s piece on teaching intersectionality using Halo). Examining our representations of different subjectivities, particularly those that have been deemed as non-normative, is crucial for us to grow into a more inclusive community.
Further Reading: Gotcha! Pokemon and the Control of Abject Bodies (Medium Difficulty)