There’s lots to like in the early hours of The Outer Worlds, the new sci-fi RPG from Obsidian. The colorful alien world. A disdain for capitalism. Dropping endless points into a dialogue stat. But more than anything, what stands out is Parvati Holcomb, a shy but infectiously curious resident of Edgewater who’s retained a sense of optimism under the crushing weight of a company town engineered to break spirits. But it’s not just charm that’s granted Parvati an online fan club. People see themselves in Parvati, a character who identifies as ace—a sexual orientation in which people commonly experience no or little sexual attraction—and bi, an uncommon combination, even for a genre known for a wider range of characters.
“I have never seen myself represented in media the way I have with Parvati,” said one player on Twitter, when I asked why they responded to the character. After encountering a dialogue option where the player can also self identify as ace, they set the controller down and cried.
In most games, especially at the scale of The Outer Worlds, it’s difficult to find anything made by a single person; it’s a collaborative effort. This is even true for Parvati, a character conceived by writer Chris L’Etoile before they left the project, and then passed to narrative designer Kate Dollarhyde. She didn’t create the character model, rig the animation, or provide the voice that helps bring the character to life, but Dollarhyde was largely responsible for one of the biggest reasons Parvati continues to stand out: the writing.
Watching the fandom unexpectedly champion Parvati has been a lot for Dollarhyde.
“It's been quite overwhelming, honestly,” she told me during an interview recently. “It's been unexpected the degree to which people are connecting with the character and reaching out to me personally—not just through like the support tickets on our website, but through my personal website, on Twitter. It’s been it's been a lot, but most of it's been very, very good and very sweet. So I feel weirdly blessed in that way.”
When Dollarhyde was handed control of writing Parvati, a few essential parts of the character were already in place from L’Etoile, including the fact that Parvati identified as ace. When L’Etoile left, Dollarhyde was handed a “very long concept doc” for Parvati, and a bunch of dialogue that spanned the game’s first area, the player’s ship, and various quests. Dollarhyde said it’s actually pretty unusual to be handed that much material for a character.
“Companions are a little unique in that they tend to stay with the writer who was assigned to them,” she said, “unless there are significant extenuating circumstances, as happened in Parvati’s case. But other content gets shuffled around all the time, and it's really not abnormal.”
What made pairing Dollarhyde with Parvati unique was something they shared in common: Dollarhyde also identifies as ace. Now, Parvati had a very personal voice behind her writing. This wasn’t the reason Dollarhyde was assigned Parvati; during the development of The Outer Worlds, she wasn’t publicly out. But all that changed after the game was released, when Parvati, and by extension Dollarhyde, has suddenly become a face for the game.
“In doing these interviews I've had to basically out myself to the internet and all my coworkers, which is a very weird feeling,” she said. “So now everyone who reads an article knows that I'm ace and knows that I'm bi, and so does everyone on the internet. And some of them knew that before, but not all of them did!”
Dollarhyde said there have been some trolls, but largely it’s been “overwhelmingly positive.”
During development, before any of this became public, Dollarhyde was given a chance to imbue Parvati with her own real-life experiences. This is most present when Parvati joins the player’s crew and travels to Groundbreaker, an independent trading post in a galaxy mostly controlled by corporations. There, Parvati meets Junlei Tennyson, an engineer trying to keep the place from falling apart—and who quickly takes a liking to Parvati. Surprising herself, Parvati is interested in Junlei, too. This is where the player, if they ask the right questions, can learn why Parvati is understandably nervous about engaging in a romantic relationship.
Dollarhyde pointed to one line in particular, when Parvati describes how people have, in the past, called her cold, almost as if she’s a robot.
“That's a line directly taken from my own life,” she said.
The apprehension over how to talk to Junlei, about the fear of rejection, was hers, too.
“This person that she loves might start a relationship with her and be gung ho, maybe over time, they'll realize ‘I can't actually do this. I'm not. I'm not capable being in a relationship with an asexual person and dealing with those challenges’ and they gotta bounce,” said Dollarhyde. “That is a fear that has persisted through all of my adult life, so I wanted to put that directly in the text to speak to those people who I assume probably feel the same way.”
“In doing these interviews I've had to basically out myself to the internet and all my coworkers, which is a very weird feeling. So now everyone who reads an article knows that I'm ace and knows that I'm bi, and so does everyone on the internet. And some of them knew that before, but not all of them did!”
Part of what makes this moment remarkable is that it’s not remarkable. Parvati being ace is not treated as a plot twist, but simply one of many characteristics that make up who she is. Dollarhyde mentioned comments she’s seen from queer players of The Outer Worlds who see Parvati not as pandering, but a fully developed person. That reaction was intentional.
There’s another interesting wrinkle to the conversation with Parvati, when she opens up. In most RPGs like The Outer Worlds, players are granted a wide range of responses to every situation. You can be nice, you can be an asshole, you can be indifferent. In this moment, when Parvati chooses to be vulnerable, the game explicitly limits your range of responses.
“I want that conversation to feel like a safe space for the players who are playing it and identify with it,” she said. “I don't want to pull the rug out from under them and say, ‘Haha, actually you're a joke,’ or ‘other people think you are a joke.’ [...] I don't want to write a homophobia simulator. [laughs] That's not what I got in the game writing for.”
You can be a lot of things in The Outer Worlds, but you can’t be a bigot to Parvati.
Part of what makes Parvati feel so real goes beyond the writing—it’s her voice. Specifically, the way actress Ashly Burch, the voice of Aloy in Horizon Zero Dawn and Chloe in Life Is Strange, infuses Parvati with a nervous and bouncy energy. What’s amazing is how long Parvati existed in The Outer Worlds without Burch’s voice attached. In fact, this was the case the vast majority of the several years The Outer Worlds was in development. At Obsidian, adding voice actors to their characters comes late in the production process.
For years, basically, Dollarhyde had to imagine how Parvati would sound to players.
“For so much of development,” she said, “the characters are either non-voiced or they are voiced by robot, and it's really hard to tell how the content actually feels. Is this joke bad or does the robot make it sound bad? [laughs] It was really not clear.”
Parvati didn’t even get a unique robot. The same damn robot read all the content. Obsidian’s development tools, until recently, didn’t allow for what’s called “scratch” or “temp” voice acting, a placeholder before an actor is hired, often with a developer doing the character.
Dollarhyde had listened to a lot of auditions for Parvati, but none of them fully clicked. While attending a talk at the Game Developers Conference, Dollarhyde received an excited Slack message from Obsidian audio director Justin Bell, demanding she immediately listen to something. That “something” was a few excerpts from a Parvati audition from Ashly Burch.
“I left a presentation I was in,” she said, “went to go out in the hall, and put my headphones on and just listened to the audio file he sent me. It was Ashly reading Parvati and I'm like ‘Yeah, this is her. This is absolutely her.’ As soon as I heard it, I was like, ‘This is the way she's always sounded to me. Will Ashly really do this? Oh my god.’”
She really would end up doing it, of course.
“There’s something so moving and endearing about someone who still finds beauty and wonder in a bleak world,” Burch told me. “Those aspects of [Paravti] really struck me.”
The end result is one of the most memorable video game characters of 2019. Parvati is not only fascinating and fun, but she’s become an unexpected a rallying cry for a group of marginalized people who rarely see themselves depicted with such care and nuance.
“I put a lot of my personal experience into this character,” said Dollarhyde . “Growing up, you do feel alone. You do feel sort of weird and maybe a little broken. And thank God for the internet; I found other people who were like me. But it feels an honor to give people that same experience, a chance to find a community like that. And so it's been healing for me, in a way.”
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