Gender and Sex in the Lands Beyond Death

When I first arrived in Bastion after braving the horrors of the Maw, the detail that most surprised me about the beautiful, golden new zone in front of me didn’t have anything to do with the landscape or the quests or even the music. Instead, I was delighted to find that the NPCs I interacted with looked remarkably similar regardless of their sex. At first glance, I could not easily tell if Blizzard had intended a certain model to be male or female. Everyone just looked Kyrian.

As someone who has spent years wishing my female paladin looked a bit more bulky, this design change was absolutely fantastic to see. I really got the sense that the Kyrian were warrior philosophers first and foremost, which was totally in line with the task-oriented afterlife they’d constructed. Xandria, the Paragon of Courage, truly looked built enough to charge into battle at a moment’s notice and hold the front line, unhampered by the somewhat scrawny female character models most other women in WoW have. It was great!

Sexual dimorphism, a term which describes when male and female individuals of a species have drastically different features, is rampant in Warcraft. Compare the models for the male draenei with that for the female draenei and you can pretty clearly see just how differently the two appear. Male draenei are taller, wider, immensely muscled, and tend to have dramatic head crests. Female draenei, by comparison, are shorter, skinnier, far less muscled, and have elongated horns. Sexual dimorphism isn’t necessarily bad, but it can lead to stereotyped depictions of sex. I won’t dig into that discussion much as it is extensive and multifaceted, but you can read some pretty fascinating work here. The short version of this is that World of Warcraft tends to make character models with pretty stark differences between male and female individuals. In general, the men are beefier and bigger whereas the women are skinnier and smaller.

Not so in Shadowlands. Zone after zone, NPC after NPC, I was struck by the ambiguity and design equality between male and female characters. The silhouettes of NPCs of the same type were incredibly close, if not indistinguishable. What was more, the typical breakdown of muscles equaling men and slenderness equaling women also faded away. In Maldraxxus, there were big hulking warrior men and women, as well as narrow bony skeletons with no discernible sexes. Ardenweald even took the female draenei base model and built up a male and female race from it to represent the Sylvari. Revendreth’s NPCs might have been more distinguishable but this was based purely on the clothing worn (which matched the vampiric source material) rather than any huge difference in silhouette.

Thematically, this design decision makes a lot of sense. As the saying goes, death is the great equalizer so it makes sense for sex and gender to be included as one of those facets of the living that ceases to be as important once one passes beyond the veil. The connection between sex and gender is far less intractable. There’s also explicit discussion of this concept through Pelagos’s existence as Warcraft’s first canon trans character. Gender is far less codified, regimented, and important in the Shadowlands, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

As someone who grew up looking for the scant few major female characters in movies, TV shows, and video games, Shadowlands is a huge blessing. Not only are there a wealth of prominent female characters but they also come in huge diversity. For so long, I have felt that Blizzard has pigeon-holed major female lore characters into one of two design molds. Either they’re the slender spell-caster (think Jaina Proudmoore) or they’re the slender rogue-type (think Sylvanas Windrunner). I have absolutely nothing against either of these characters or these design tropes but I’ve always wanted to play games where there were more depicted. Show me my barbarian women crashing through the front lines like tanks! Show me the wise old sage women attuning to the spirits. Heck, show me the cowardly traitor women who betray the cause purely out of fear!

World of Warcraft might be a work of fantasy, but it’s a work of fantasy grounded in the stories that we want to experience. And in that sense, I would love to see a wider, more realistic depiction of the types of women (and for that matter, expressions of gender) that actually exist. This comes both from story characterization for the major lore characters, but it also comes from something as simple as model design for your basic NPC. Shadowlands has achieved that better than any expansion in my mind. Sure, all the Kyrian may look the same, but Kyrian women look far different then Venthyr women, who look far different than Volkai women, and so on and so forth.

For a lot of reasons, Shadowlands is one of the strongest expansions to date. However, one of the most positive changes in my mind is the way Blizzard is handling diversity. I firmly believe that the game can only get better the more is added. Whether that comes in the form of increased character customization or greater heterogeneity of female characters, I am 100% down for the ride. The greater the diversity, the deeper the world!