'Apex Legends' Doesn't Hide the Rough Edges on Its Queer Asian Hero

Asian characters are often made for the consumption of others. Valkyrie is different.
June 2, 2021, 1:00pm
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'Apex Legends' screens and stills courtesy of EA

On April 19th, Erika Ishii, the voice actor for Apex Legends' newest character, Valkyrie, tweeted: “My whole life, I’ve waited for a character like her. For a story like this...” 

At first I didn’t understand from the preview. It showed an image of Valkyrie, the newest character in the battle royale game, Apex Legends. Recent western video games never contained any shortage of East Asian characters. From Overwatch’s Mei and D.Va to League of Legends’ Ahri and Shen, we could expect representation in ways that other marginalized groups often could not.

I watched Valkyrie’s trailer. I watched her exert control over a meeting with the legendary Kuben Blisk with the press of a remote button. She wasn’t even an evil Dragon Lady about it, she was simply trying to get the upper hand in unfavorable circumstances. At the end of the eight-minute video, I felt uneasy about my own excitement. Watching Valkyrie’s story made me acutely conscious of what other Asian women lacked in other major game franchises, like eating cold marinara for half of my life and finding out that it tastes better if I heated the sauce. I was watching an Asian woman who wasn’t treated like the set dressing of the ‘real’ story. While I flipped through The Legacy Antigen, Valkyrie was casually flirting with women. According to all the precedent in existing media, she wasn’t supposed to make the first move. Yet here she was, as real as any of the dozen Asian queers whom I knew in my life. It’s one thing to privately know that I exist. It’s something entirely to realize that someone like me is being observed by millions of people around the world. 

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I checked in with Ishii to discuss Valkyrie's unique creative direction. She confirmed that the character is canonically a lesbian, and added: 

On a broad scale, I wake up every day astounded [that] I get to be a part of such an incredible game, and a special character tied to what I honestly feel is one of the best story campaigns ever made. But also: Valk is mixed Japanese, a lesbian, and the daughter of a legendary pilot. While she embraces her intersectional identities, none of those define her. She isn't forced to fit into any of the boxes the world tries to put her in; she's forging her own destiny. She's more than those traits, she's fearless, sarcastic, talented, and messy. I wish I had gotten to play a game with that kind of character growing up, or even seen any Asian American women in [the] media [who were] allowed to be messy.

I’m glad that I interviewed Erika, because messiness was always the missing element in feminine Asian video game characters. She’s rude. She’s brash. She hits on women while she’s on duty. Kairi Imahara got to be an unruly, mech-stealing child in the trailer, rather than a controlling Dragon Lady or a seductress. Sometimes games go too far in the other respectability direction, and we get de-sexualized characters like the cast in Ghost of Tsushima. It wasn’t an accident that Valkyrie turned out so narratively dynamic, despite the fact that Apex is a battle royale game. Erika Ishii identifies as queer, and she was able to give significant creative input during the character’s development:  

The writers and other devs deserve most of the credit for so lovingly crafting this character that I was essentially able to just step into, but they were thrilled to hear any suggestions I had and open to my in-character improvisations for lines. There were even aspects of her that they changed to fit my strengths and performance, which is an incredibly rare gift for actors.

All video game characters are the result of collaboration from multiple creatives. I was surprised to hear that Erika had so much individual influence on Valkyrie’s characterization, but she was more coherent for it. I didn’t need Valkyrie to be me, I just needed her to be a unique, believable person. Because when studios try to create a sanitized Asian woman without Asian creatives’ input, the result usually becomes a character skin instead of an avatar for real Asian people. 

In Minor Feelings, the writer Cathy Park Hong wrote into existence what I felt acutely for most of my life: “You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and abandoned you.” I felt that abandonment in how games from the past had sculpted smoothly ambiguous features that did not capture Asian uniqueness. When I played the Chinatown chapter in Vampire the Masquerade, I felt that I was staring at vapid dolls. Not one of the Asian women in Troika’s Chinatown had dark brown eyes, but an irregular hazel or yellow. When I played Mass Effect 2, Kasumi Goto spent most of the game with half her face covered by a hood. When I tried to customize a player character in most character creators, I pasted together white facial features that didn’t feel like they belonged together. Noses that were too sharp. Faces that looked like they were shaped by Michaelangelo’s chisel-knife. Bones that jutted out at foreign angles. Every time, I would start a new game with my very own Frankenstein’s monster. An amalgamated body stolen from incongruent parts. 

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Some progress has been made. Mass Effect Andromeda was the first western roleplaying game with Asian presets that didn’t make me want to crawl out of my skin. But I continued to see design avoidance in other western video game properties. I’ve always felt ambivalent about Mei and D.Va’s racially ambiguous Pixar stylization. Neither have I looked at Ahri’s art and felt an immediate identification with her appearance. Many female characters in games were allowed to be Asian, but only ambiguously or deniably so. Because the instant that she was too Asian, then she could not be a fluid sexual fantasy. And that would be a cardinal sin to a specific segment of the gaming audience. Asian women are wanted, but only a specific version that erases most of their uniqueness. And Valkyrie’s design defies convention, both for Asian characters and female characters.

The first thing I noticed about Valkyrie was the shape of her silhouette. It was triangular, and in a stocky kind of way. It was striking without resorting to the skin-hugging suits that usually plagued female video game characters. The second thing I noticed was the gorgeous lighting in the trailer. Bright pinks and golds highlighted every physical feature that I hated for most of my life. Valkyrie’s face was soft and curved in ways that would have gotten her socially crucified in the nineties, or even the last decade. I usually found Asian characters in western games to be painfully cookie-cutter, but Valkyrie was intentional and alive. Heroic, yes, but not idealized to someone's else's specifications. Valkyrie’s lines are punchy. She constantly demands attention instead of settling for not getting it. 

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America's eyes were on Asian Americans during the #StopAAPIHate campaign, but the focus was mostly on the elderly. The kind of folks who never offended anyone, the innocent. I couldn't help but wonder if the same kind of support would have galvanized around queer Asians who had to endure COVID-era hostility and general queerphobia. What happens when they fall outside of public expectations? What happens when popular media fails to normalize queer Asians? For me, the consequences have been painfully omnipresent. I used to attend high school with a guy named Jeff (not his real name). He used to pull the corners of his eyelids at me and make ching-chong noises during science class. That wasn’t even the worst part of being in his general vicinity. What truly made my torment particularly memorable was the fact that his best friend was Taiwanese, and that we all sat together at the same table. Jeff saw no hypocrisy in hating my slanty-eyed self while loving this other Asian student as the brother he never had. 

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The difference was visible queerness and a refusal to downplay ourselves as non-men. I latched onto Valkyrie because I favored boyish haircuts and outfits that reinforced a masculine shape.There’s a different standard for queer, masc-of-center Asians like Valk and I. The gaming audience is much the same. They can love Asian characters who don’t force players to accommodate racial differences or queer expression. And for the longest time, video games have only portrayed Asian identities that fit the acceptable, non-threatening, and gender conforming mold.

Western audiences like their characters Asian flavored, but not too Asian. And not too queer. Kind of like how Americans love orange chicken, but most would recoil at a plate of mundane chicken feet. And the proliferation of western tastes is a globalized phenomenon. Eyelid surgery is a common aesthetic practice in East Asia, often with dangerous results. In Apex’s Kairi Imahara, I saw a woman who didn’t care to be anyone’s idea of desirability other than her own. In a media landscape where ‘Asian’ is a porn category and Asian women are considered malleable fantasies, Valkyrie feels specific and immutable, her own person instead of one of the inscrutable Asian masses. 

Valkyrie is a queer Asian woman whom Jeff would have absolutely hated. Good for her. She’s the newest Legend, there’s nothing that anyone like him can do about it.