Catalyst, the newest Apex Legends character, is "inescapably trans" and the team at Respawn wouldn't have it any other way. The latest Legend was revealed in a Stories from the Outlands trailer that openly referenced her transition, making her the first transgender woman in the Apex games. Catalyst may be a trailblazer, but she joins an incredibly diverse roster that includes Bloodhound, who's non-binary, and a host of other queer-identifying characters like Valkyrie, Gibraltar, and Loba.
But Respawn didn't handle Catalyst's creation lightly. The team worked closely with transgender Respawn employees, transgender representatives at the LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD, and Meli Grant, Catalyst's voice actor, who is herself a trans woman. I got a chance to sit down with lead writer Ashley Reed, Meli Grant, and associate director of gaming at GLAAD, Blair Durkee, to chat about Catalyst, representation, and the queer community's love of crystals.
Creating a catalyst
Respawn has been wanting to do this for a long time. "We have Bloodhound, who's a non-binary character, but we've been talking about adding another trans character to the roster for years, honestly," Reed says during our video chat. With Catalyst, the devs knew that she would be the one, but typical development delays and a desire to ensure they were handling it correctly meant the character kept getting pushed back. Eventually, Reed and the team hunkered down and said: "We just have to do it now." After that, work began on Catalyst's design.
A trans woman dev pointed out that Catalyst felt like a "techno witch," an identifier that was like a "lightning bolt that got the whole team excited." Reed explains that Catalyst's design team was constantly working with other Respawn employees. "There were people who have lived these experiences who have been very honest and forthcoming about difficult topics. And there are people who haven't lived these experiences that were really open to hearing about them and taking feedback. And just trying to make the best character they could with all of this information – and really make something we're proud of." But Respawn wanted to ensure its portrayal of a trans woman was respectful and effective, so it also made use of its ongoing partnership with GLAAD.
"We've been working for pretty much the entire year on Catalyst's voice lines and character design, all the aspects that go into making an authentic trans character," Durkee explains about GLAAD's role in the process. "We were very aligned from the very beginning that we wanted her trans identity to be super impactful to her character. I think players will be pleasantly surprised that her trans identity sort of shines through in every aspect. And that's something that distinguishes her from some other trans characters that have come before – it's not just a footnote in her bio that players will read once and then never think about again. It's something that is intrinsic to who she is in the game."
When Meli Grant was cast as Catalyst, she brought even more to the work table, and in return was given an experience unlike any other in her storied VO career. "This has been life-changing," she gushes. "It's very meaningful to be able to work with a team that I know cares immensely about making sure that they're handling this character with care, and creating a character that is respectful and has dignity and feels authentic and feels like a human being, and reflects experiences that are familiar to me. And thank goodness, they've been receptive every step of the way. We were constantly communicating about what the character could be and where they came from and where they were going. It was very much a collaboration and it was so artistically fulfilling."
In the Stories from the Outlands trailer that introduces Catalyst, her trans identity is stated outright – this is a conscious decision from Respawn, who wants to avoid any sort of confusion about her. After all, there's no real narrative within Apex Legends' gameplay – all of our understanding of these characters comes from external media, so the team has precious little time to tell their stories. "We thought: what can we do within the context of our game; what can we do with a five-minute trailer? We can't go much further than that, we have to stick to those time frames pretty closely," Reed explains. "So how do we do this quickly?"
The team worried about how to identify Catalyst, not only quickly, but clearly, so that there can be no doubt that she is a proud trans woman. "We've had a lot of conversations along the way about wanting to make sure that this character was inescapably trans, front and center," Grant says. "Because the internet's a confusing place and people like to debate everything and you want to take away as much of that ambiguity as possible. We've had enough ambiguity and queerbaiting and visual storytelling and the use of color palettes throughout media, and not a whole lot of just talking about it."
Bloodhound, a non-binary character whose Stories from the Outlands video revealed their face and voice without a mask, has been the topic of much conversation and confusion. Some Apex fans repeatedly misgender them, which means Respawn employees, players, and even voice actor Allegra Clark have had to loudly affirm that Bloodhound is non-binary. Whether that is in the back of Respawn's mind or not (I can't imagine it wouldn't be), it's clear that there can be no confusion about Catalyst. "Meli has said it very well: 'unmissable' – it cannot be ignored that she is a transwoman," Reed says emphatically.
With that, Grant and the team have imbued Catalyst with aspects that reflect the lived experiences of a contemporary trans woman. "I have not played many trans characters, and it's been a ride, exploring themes that resonate with moments in my life," Grant confesses. "One of the first things that stuck out to me was that the character has a very sardonic, steely sense of humor. I can't speak for everybody, but a lot of trans people live their lives in some amount of caution or fear – even if you've had an incredibly privileged transition where you've had the support of your family and your friends, and you've been able to continue working, and you've continued to have health care and access to the things that you need in your life, we still can't escape the fact that I can't turn on a podcast or the television without hearing someone's opinion about my existence. And that kind of creates in you a sort of natural defense mechanism where I know a lot of trans women who are very snarky and sardonic…that connected with me very, very deeply."
Her own story
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Catalyst (whose real name is Tressa Smith) is her story. Rather than introduce this character mid-transition, Respawn chose to show her after she had successfully transitioned and established a better life for herself. "We didn't necessarily want to tell the transition story, because we felt like that got told a lot," Reed explains.
With the help of GLAAD and their trans teammates, Respawn created a story for Catalyst that avoids so many dangerous tropes. "You look at a lot of trans media in the past, so much of it is rooted in these horrible transphobic tropes, and it also tends to be very formulaic," Durkee points out. "There's this idea that when you have a trans character and a story they have to have some sort of, like, singular disclosure moment. And oftentimes in those horrible tropes, it's like a shock reveal moment, right? Catalyst sort of flips that trope completely on its head, because she is just out and proud, she's not hiding the fact that she's trans."
When I ask the team about the LGBTQIA+/witch subculture, Ashley Reed laughs. "Funny story. I actually didn't know that when I started on Catalyst's story. I was aware of the witch/crystal/tarot crowd - I grew up with a lot of friends who were in that crowd. And I also grew up with a lot of people who were queer, but I didn't make the connection...As we were running Catalyst by our trans and LGBTQIA devs, a statistically significant amount said 'oh my god, she has crystals and tarot, I love her, this is great representation'. It was a really pleasant surprise. We just embraced that as we drove forward."
Far too often the media portrayal of a transgender person is traumatic or upsetting - but Catalyst is triumphant. Durkee and the team know how much weight her story holds. "This does get into some tricky territory because there's so little trans representation out there. Every new trans character that comes out, the community expects them to represent the entire trans community, and the trans community is not a monolith," she explains. "Catalyst represents a certain type of trans character who is out and proud and is proud of her trans identity.
And for Grant, who has transitioned and now lives proudly as a trans woman with an impressive VO career, Catalyst's story is one that she hopes will resonate with Apex Legends players as much as it does with her. "I hope that people will connect, that they'll see her stepping into the games and assuming the identity and the moniker of Catalyst as a big moment of self-actualization for her. And that she's able to define herself by her own terms, and powerfully be able to choose an outward trans identity and to not shy away from that aspect of herself, but be able to create relationships from scratch exactly how she wants to. That's really powerful to me, at least."
And while Catalyst's story isn't being told through in-game narrative, Apex Legends' status as a live-service battle royale means her story will continue on for the entirety of the game's life. "The cherry on top is knowing that this is something that continues on into the future, which means I continue to explore this character and discover new things for however long we get to do this," Grant says. "Hopefully she'll be an incredibly compelling character who inspires people, that people want to create art of and use in Machinima and are thinking about picking because she's compelling and not just because her kit is meta that season. Because that means that you have a very visible trans character front and center for as long as humanly possible."
Catalyst arrives when Apex Legends Eclipse drops on November 1. I can't wait to meet her.
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