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The Outer Worlds' Parvati Holcomb is a rare but shining example of asexual representation

Space ace.

A screenshot showing The Outer Worlds' Parvati Holcomb, overlaid with a logo reading, "Eurogamer Pride Week 2024".
Image credit: Obsidian/Eurogamer

Hello! Eurogamer is once again marking Pride with another week of features celebrating the intersection of LGBTQIA+ culture and gaming. Today, Caelyn Ellis explores Obisdian Entertainment's sci-fi RPG The Outer Worlds and its stand-out portrayal of asexuality in a medium where ace and aromantic identities are rarely seen.

LGBTQIA+ representation in mainstream video games has gone from strength to strength over the past couple of decades, both in terms of NPCs and the ability to portray your own character's gender and sexuality through customisation options and dialogue. In a remarkably short period of time, we've gone from Mass Effect's lesbian romance being the subject of a positively quaint outcry, to the big, gay love-in of Baldur's Gate 3, complete with more dragon willy options than a custom sex toy vendor.

Unfortunately, progress is neither linear nor equal. Gay representation in video games was pretty well established before trans folks even got a look in. And while that's beginning to change, it's another example of society's tendency toward cycles of acceptance and backlash - as groups become more visible and are then targeted by bigots and reactionaries. If you've wondered why transgender people suddenly became a hot topic a few years ago, it's just history repeating.

Which brings us to the 'A' at the end of the LGBTQIA+ acronym, standing for 'asexual' or 'aromantic'. It's perhaps one of the least discussed and least understood identities within the queer umbrella and has very little representation in any medium as a result.

It's something I'm acutely aware of as an asexual person (when I say Netflix and chill, I'm not being euphemistic!), and even as I began thinking about this piece, I was struck by how few examples of asexual or aromantic representation there are in video games today. That's why Obsidian's The Outer Worlds is so important, and why it has a special place in my heart; when creating Parvati Holcomb, an asexual lesbian and the first potential crewmember for your jaunt across Halcyon, the studio absolutely knocked it out of the park.

But first, for those of you who might have thought that mysterious 'A' stood for ally, or that aromantic was something to do with nice smelling herbs, I should probably elaborate. On the surface, asexuality and aromanticism are pretty simple concepts. Asexuality means not experiencing sexual attraction, while aromanticism is the same but for romantic attraction - and they're often shortened to ace and aro, respectively. Some people are both, and others experience attraction only under very specific circumstances - only when deep emotional bonds have already been forged, for instance. Feelings about sex also vary immensely between ace people. Some are sex repulsed and aren't interested in sexual contact at all, while others do enjoy sex, but in the same way you might enjoy a nice walk: it's a pleasurable enough way to spend some time with someone you care about, but there's no real drive to do so and, to be quite honest, you'd much rather be playing video games.

The brief explanations, then, are easy, but truly communicating what it means to be ace is much more difficult. Sexual and romantic relationships are such an ingrained part of our lives that it can be hard to comprehend what it's like to not desire them. At the same time, it can take a long time for ace and aro individuals to figure it out for themselves because there is no point of comparison. There's a huge difference between realising you're attracted to people of the same gender and realising you're missing a part of the attraction that other people describe. Even when you have worked that out, how do you explain the absence of something you've never felt to people who do feel that way?

It's all incredibly confusing. To this day, my own experience means I still don't know how much the average teen comedy exaggerates the extent that people will go to get laid! As an ace trans person, it took me years to figure out that what I assumed was sexual attraction was actually a form of "gender envy". Yeah, I wanted to be in her pants, but also her shoes, skirt, and so on! And being ace or aro can become even more complicated when it involves relationships. Most folks under the umbrella still desire some kind of intimate relationship, but falling so far outside of the norm when it comes to these things makes finding the right partner even harder than it already is.

With all of this to take into account, it's perhaps unsurprising that so few video games, particularly in the mainstream, have explicitly ace or aro characters. For starters, a lot of games just don't deal with intimate relationships - beyond a surface level, at least - and it's much harder to casually drop being ace into a conversation than it is to make clear a character is in a same-sex relationship. Although ironically, this same lack of relationship talk can make it easy for characters to come across as ace or aro, even if the developers didn't intend it. Stellar Blade's Eve is a recent example of a character who displays about as much interest in relationships as I do in jumping out of an aeroplane without a parachute.

A screenshot of Stellar Blade protagonist Eve.
Stellar Blade's Eve could be viewed as asexual, but only through omission. | Image credit: Sony

But while video games have already given us a couple of confirmed ace and/or aro characters - such as Maya from the Borderlands series and Daud from Dishonoured - The Outer Worlds' Parvati is different. What makes her such a successful example of representation for ace folks, is that her personal quest line revolves around her romantic relationship with another NPC, fellow engineer Junlei Tennyson. It allows for an exploration of Parvati's asexuality, how it's impacted her life so far, and the additional complexities and anxieties it brings to her courtship of Junlei.

For those unfamiliar with The Outer Worlds, Parvati is an enthusiastic and somewhat naive engineer, a clear riff on Firefly's Kaylee Frye. She serves as the crew's moral centre and adeptly manages to be a ray of sunshine without heading into annoying sidekick territory. She's led a sheltered life, having never before left her home of Edgewater, but has already experienced difficulty with relationships due to being ace - with former partners accusing her of being "cold" for her lack of interest in physical intimacy, something you discover relatively early on. It's not an uncommon accusation for ace people to face, since sex is considered an essential part of a relationship by many, but Parvati's enthusiastic, caring nature highlights that warmth can take many forms.

The bulk of your conversations with Parvati about asexuality take place as part of the quest "Drinking Sapphire Wine." Her lack of experience working on board a ship prompts her to ask you to introduce her to Junlei - chief engineer on the Groundbreaker, a colony ship turned orbital station - and the two quickly hit it off in an adorably awkward fashion. Later, Parvati comes to you to confess that she is developing feelings for Junlei and asks for some advice after having received some even more awkward romantic poetry from her, which in turn leads to the two of you having a drink together, with potentially (un)helpful interjections from another companion, if you choose to bring one along.

A screenshot of The Outer Worlds showing a conversation with Parvati Holcomb. A caption reads, "I want to be honest with her. So if she feels the same about me, there won't be any surprises."
Parvati Holcomb in Obsidian's The Outer Worlds. | Image credit: Obsidian/Eurogamer

She tells you of her fears about her asexuality. "What if she's not okay with that? What if she is, but then, later, she's not?" That was a real gut punch for me, bringing up not only my own experiences, but those of friends who had found themselves in similar situations. It's not uncommon for people entering into relationships with ace folks to not be as okay with the lack of sex as they make out, whether out of genuinely misjudging their own needs, or a belief that they can somehow "fix" their ace partner. Like any point of incompatibility, this will generally lead to the relationship breaking down, but it can also result in violence and even sexual assault.

The dialogue options that followed, however, were more than worth that brief moment of discomfort."We have that in common, you know. I'm not interested in physical affection either", reads one - and the first time I saw that line, I instantly teared up. Actually getting to express my asexuality, particularly outside of a player-focussed romantic relationship, was a watershed moment. There's even a follow up option to say you're aro as well. Parvati's response, however, was what really turned on the waterworks.

"So we're... we're kin-like. That makes me, well- unaccountably happy, Captain. It's a lonely thing, being different like this."

This line gets to the heart of not only why Parvati is so important, but why all minority representation is. Being different from the assumed default can be incredibly isolating. Even when you're fortunate enough to be able to surround yourself with people who are like you and people who care about you, not being able to see yourself in the games you play tells you that you don't belong, that you're not welcome. It's subtle and insidious, but it's powerful, especially over time.

Parvati's presence, your interactions with her, and the fact you can help her find love with Junlei are all hugely important. Not only does it tell asexual people that we're not alone, that we can find our kin and people who love us for ourselves - our complete selves - but it normalises our presence and, hopefully, opens a window to the struggles we face. While we still need more ace and aro representation in games, Parvati Holcomb stands as a shining example of how to do representation right. By opening up about her fears of being cold and distant, while demonstrating at every turn that she's far from those things, the game confronts and challenges stereotypes. She allows ace folks to feel seen and understood, and I hope more people will learn from the lesson she teaches.

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