Sponsored By

Why Apex Legends went loud and proud with trans legend Catalyst

Apex Legends character Catalyst is a big step forward for trans representation in games. Her creators dish on the making of a new sci-fi icon.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

June 23, 2023

7 Min Read

In late 2022 Respawn Entertainment unveiled Catalyst, a new playable character for Apex Legends. Catalyst entered the battle royale with a whole new map and witchy playstyle themed around the manipulation of ferrofluid metals.

She is also the first transgender woman in the game's cast, and one of the first to be featured in a commercial multiplayer game of this type. Respawn was not coy about her gender identity when unveiling her to the world. They told players that she was transgender in their initial marketing. Her primary character art shares the colors of the transgender flag. Her introductory cinematic makes reference to recent gender-affirming surgery.

And in game, Catalyst is loud and proud about her identity. With lines like "I am the grim trans witch your parents warned you about," and this defensive-minded legend isn't defensive about her identity.

Respawn's choice to debut a new transgender legend was not a choice made in the vacuum. Catalyst's development cycle ran parallel to a rising wave of legislative and physical attacks on transgender folks in the America, the UK, and beyond. A game studio interested in avoiding the ire of a hateful far-right movement might have canned the character. Catalyst's creators chose to elevate her.

In such a time of virulent hatred, developers have choices to make on how they design and feature characters from the LGBT+ community. With Pride month coming to a close, Apex Legends lead writer Ashley Reed, character artist Mirim Lee, and voice actor Meli Grant checked in to explain their motivations around Catalyst's design and personality—and spotlight what else developers can do for employees and players in these trying times.

There's no hiding who Catalyst is

Reed explained that the desire to introduce Catalyst stemmed from the same mindset that's shaped the rest of the Apex Legends cast. "The way we've thought it from the beginning is that this game takes place in the future of our own world, so it should reflect the world that we see," she said. "So the characters we've created—they're inspired by our [team's] own experiences."

That meant the lives of transgender women at Respawn (with some consultation from GLAAD) was the fabric from which Catalyst was sewn. Lee said that working with trans developers and consultants on a trans character helped her learn more about her colleagues—especially since she was raised in an environment without exposure to trans people. "I learned a lot of things that I wasn't aware of—I was a little bit embarrassed about it," she admitted.

Mood sketches of Catalyst

Grant said she found herself "obsessed" with the idea of landing the role of Catalyst after seeing that Respawn was looking for a trans actress. "Catalyst was very 'comfortable,'" she said while describing how much of herself she saw in the space witch. "Those are the most dangerous [roles] because the ones that you feel like you have the best shot at are usually not the ones you're gonna get."

It's passion like that that fuels all of Catalyst's showstopping energy. She's regularly riffing about magic, the moon, and her friends outside the arena. Respawn hasn't shied away from having any of its LGBT characters express their identity in-game. Other characters caught up in romantic entanglements will banter and flirt when players "thank" each other, and Catalyst has a number of voice lines that are—for lack of a better descriptor—about being a trans woman.

Reed pointed to another line where Catalyst is joking about her ferrofluid-themed powers as an example of something that came from working with her transgender colleagues: "If you can't produce your own liquid metals, store-bought is fine," Catalyst will sometimes say.

Catalyst's line references a meme riffing on chef Ina Gartner's catchphrase "store-bought is fine." The meme (originally referencing "summoning flames from hell") evolved into an in-joke for trans women that goes "if you can't make your own estrogen, store-bought is fine."

Lines like that, Reed said, reflected the Apex team's desire to have Catalyst speak to players in an authentic way. "We wanted to include lines where it felt like we weren't speaking to the audience as if we were educating them on what it means to be trans. We wanted to speak to trans people in the audience."

She emphasized that as a cisgender woman, she wouldn't have known to pull that line out of her hat, and it was only thanks to her colleagues (and some input from Grant) that they were able to include such true-to-life references.

While an authentic trans experience was at the root of Catalyst's conception, Reed added that there was another important reason for including lines like this: when Apex previously included LGBT characters, some players were ready and willing to ignore, downplay, or deny that part of their identity.

Catalyst lounges on a throne made from her metals.

"We've seen people be ready to obfuscate [those facts] when we've been more subtle about it," Reed recalled. She was primarily referencing nonbinary Apex Legends character Bloodhound, a helmeted hunter who's had their story put front-and-center before, but more frequently talks of shedding blood and honoring the Allfather.

"Despite us saying Bloodhound is nonbinary, there remains a lot of argument over [their identity]," Reed said with frustration. "We're like 'there's no argument! Why are you arguing?'"

Long-working developers may find this a familiar story. Until maybe the last five years, LGBT characters were often hidden from the marketing of mainstream games or written into a corner that could be sliced out when shipping content to countries like China and Russia (where depictions of LGBT characters are more heavily regulated or banned).

Reed said that portraying Catalyst in this way denied any chance of that happening.

Trans people need real-world representation too

While the bulk of our conversation revolved around Catalyst, Grant swung a spotlight on an important adjacent topic: it's great that Respawn and other developers are expanding transgender representation in their games—but that representation is only a fraction as vital as supporting trans developers in the real world.

"It's just as important to showcase the talent and the creative minds behind the characters who are also part of those groups," she said. "As cool as it is to see a character that looks or sounds like you on the page of the fantasy book or in the game—it's at least as important to see people like you actually thriving out there in the world. That you see that there is actually a place for you in this world and not just on the television screen or on your computer."

A photograph of Meli Grant.

Grant was able to put those feelings in the context of her own professional experience. "I can't [understand] what it means to be a trans actor working in show business just because a cartoon character exists. That doesn't teach me anything."

"But seeing an actual human out there doing it and being able to convey those experiences and also prove that it's possible—I think it's really powerful."

Since Catalyst's release Grant has made herself more publicly available to fans. She's taken up Twitch streaming and connected with people who saw their experiences reflected in Catalyst, who learned something about themselves by playing Catalyst, or who are now using Catalyst to help explain transness to friends or family.

A ferrofluid-wielding trans witch from beyond the stars can be incredible representation for players, but it's the real people who brought her to life that are at the top of Grant's mind. In a time where some forces want to wipe transgender people from existence, developers can do real good by showcasing the work of trans employees, and making it clear that their teams are ones where they can thrive.

Read more about:


About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

Daily news, dev blogs, and stories from Game Developer straight to your inbox

You May Also Like