Originally Published: 29/06/2015

The dark-fantasy world of Dragon Age has three AAA games, a series of art books, comics, novels, a table top game, an anime film and a web series under its belt. Dragon Age and the franchise’s developer BioWare are at the forefront when it comes to addressing topics regarding sex and sexuality within the video-game medium, including, but not limited to, homosexuality, bisexuality, transgender, gender-roles, and racial issues. As surmised by PC Gamer’s Richard Cobbett (2014), “What matters though isn’t really the execution, but the willingness to try. BioWare is a fascinating study into sexuality both for what they’ve gotten right, and what they’ve gotten wrong over the years… With each game though, BioWare has gone out of its way to Do Better, and not always by heading down the obvious path”. This essay is a critical examination of the universe of Dragon Age and how BioWare has addressed real-world issues surrounding sex and sexuality. By considering the game’s romance mechanics, the racial, cultural and national lore of the game, we can examine a series of case studies on how BioWare deals with the controversial and diverse topic of sex and sexuality.

The universe of Dragon Age has over a thousand in-game codices and two books dictating its lore; BioWare has created a vastly diverse and varied world for players to explore. To better understand how Dragon Age deals with issues surrounding sex and sexuality one needs to look at the game’s own lore regarding its various nations, races and their respective cultures. The World of Thedas (Marshall, 2013) describes the universe’s nations; Ferelden, Nevarra, Orlais, Antiva, the Free Marches, the Anderfels, the Tevinter Imperium, Rivain, along with the island of Seheron and neighbouring Par Vollen. Acknowledging cultural, racial and national influences is essential when, even in the real world, sex and sexuality topics are addressed. To maintain the necessary layer of complexity, BioWare has created four different races, residing within the aforementioned nations, namely: Humans, Elves, Dwarves and the Qunari.

Dragon Age’s romance mechanics are fairly simple. While traversing the story line, players have the opportunity to get to know the characters they encounter better and, by choosing select dialog, the opportunity to start a more romantic relationship with some. This ‘select dialogue’ option has caused BioWare’s implementation of such a mechanic in older titles, like Mass Effect, to be scrutinized as ‘vending machine’ models (Raymond, 2009). While not a perfect mechanic, developers like Chris Dahlen (2014) are coming up with innovative ideas to move the mechanic away from players merely choosing a predetermined, ‘best’ conversation option for a character. The opportunity to get to know fictional characters better through a more personal, romantic approach is something unique to the video-game medium. Even with the limitations of this romance mechanic, BioWare has still managed to leave a trail of broken hearts with its latest title, Dragon Age: Inquisition. The Guardian journalist Kate Gray praised Inquisition as; “easily the most personal, well-designed relationship system I’ve ever seen” in her 2015 article entitled: My boyfriend in Dragon Age: Inquisition broke my heart when he told me he was gay.

There is no small supply of diverse characters which players can form relationships with. In Dragon Age: Origins, players become the Hero of Ferelden, a Grey Warden battling the 5th Blight. Ferelden is one of the newest nations, after battling for independence from neighbouring Orlais, strength and courage are valued above heritage or wealth. In Origins players have the option to romance Leliana, Alistair, Morrigan or Zevran. Of these four, Leliana and Zevran are bisexual options, while Alistair and Morrigan are heterosexual options; there are no homosexual love interests. Leliana is a Chantry sister who was once a bard from Orlais, known for its noble’s excessive and extravagant culture. Bards are an intricate part of the Orlesian Grand Game, a socio-political game the nobles play as they vie for power. Zevran is an elven assassin from an infamous guild in Antiva, a romantic nation known for its wine and sailing, led by a body of merchant princes. Alistair is a fellow Grey Warden, former templar and the bastard son of Ferelden’s King Maric. Morrigan is a dark, mysterious mage from the wilderness of Ferelden and daughter to a powerful witch, Flemeth. In an interview with some of BioWare’s creative leads, Kimberly Wallace (2013) discusses how they choose romanceable characters; “If you build the temptress or something like that, you’re going to build a cliché,” says creative director Mike Laidlaw. “You need to make sure they’re a real character and a person first”.  BioWare puts a great amount of thought and effort into designing any character; it is essential that critics understand, at the very least, the fundamental physical and cultural characteristics of the romanceable companions. To ignore such highly defined personality traits would be a discredit to each character and would cause the game’s romances to be dismissed as just another “male gamer fantasy” and not worthy of importance. “Because there’s more than insert coin, get sex, right? The follower characters in general are enormously complex,” says lead writer David Gaider. “They’re a massive investment in terms of gameplay and storytelling. We want a player who isn’t romancing a character to still get a sense of who that character is and feel like they have a relationship” (Wallace 2013).

Dragon Age 2 takes players along the path of Hawke and the conflicts that lead to the Mage-Templar War. The tale takes place in the city Kirkwall in the Free Marches, a nation of wealthy city states, each ruled independently. Marchers rarely agree on anything and only unite when threatened. Players can peruse relationships with Fenris, Isabela, Anders or Merrill. Dragon Age 2 took a new approach to sex and sexuality; all the romanceable characters of Dragon Age 2 are bisexual, dubbed ‘Schrödinger’s sexuality’ by blogger Dennis Farr (2012). Fenris is an escaped elven slave from the Tevinter Imperium, whose existence has been branded, like the marks on his skin, by the mages that once held him captive. The Imperium’s culture is dominated by the ruling mage elite and was once the ruler of most of the continent; slavery is still actively practiced and the Imperium is blamed for the blights of darkspawn which have ravaged Thedas throughout the ages. Isabella is a roguish pirate from Rivain, a matriarchal society and the only nation in Thedas to maintain a peaceful coexistence between three different religions. Anders was once part of the Circle of Magi in Ferelden, who later joined the Grey Wardens to escape the Circle’s strict templar confines. During his time as a Grey Warden, Anders became host to a Spirit of Justice, which changed into a Spirit of Vengeance, determined to right the wrongs done to the mages under the rule of the templars. Merrill was once a nomadic Dalish elf, but exiled by her clan for using blood-magic to preserve her peoples’ dwindling history. The sexually-open approach of Dragon Age 2 came under further scrutiny on the BioWare Forum, Kotaku’s Mike Fahey reported: BioWare was accused of “Neglecting Their Main Demographic: The Straight Male Gamer”. Lead writer David Gaider responded with, “The romances in the game are not for ‘the straight male gamer’. They’re for everyone. We have a lot of fans, many of whom are neither straight nor male, and they deserve no less attention… The ‘rights’ of anyone with regards to a game are murky at best, but anyone who takes that stance must apply it equally to both the minority as well as the majority” (Fehay, 2011).

Finally, Dragon Age: Inquisition takes players on the journey to become the Inquisitor, tasked with restoring order in a world literally torn asunder by the war between mages and templars. The Inquisitor is thought to be the Herald of Andraste, touched by the prophet of Thedas’ most widespread religious institution. In Inquisition, players can romance Cassandra, Iron Bull, Blackwall, Cullen, Josephine, Solas and Sera. Inquisition provides a more realistic romance balance, with Cassandra and Dorian as exclusively male romances, Sera and Blackwall as female-only romance options, Cullen and Solas are racially selective options, while Josephine and Iron Bull provide racially and sexually open romances. Cassandra Pentaghast is a Seeker of Truth from Nevarra, a nation known for their strange burial practices and ruled by her estranged family for centuries. Iron Bull is a hulking Qunari mercenary, originally from Par Vollen, the Qunari homeland, a culture dominated by strict religious doctrine known as the Qun. Bull has also spent time on the neighbouring island of Seheron, a nation dominated by the conflict between the Qunari and the Tevinter Imperium who have been warring over control of the island for centuries. Blackwall is a Grey Warden, supposedly from the Anderfels, a severe nation shaped by the wars between their Grey Wardens and the darkspawn of the Deep Roads. Sera is an elven rouge, originally from an Alienage in Ferelden, her life coloured by the humans’ treatment of elves as servants, slaves and second class citizens. Solas is a mysterious elven apostate, a mage who has avoided a life imprisoned in the Chantry’s Circles. Cullen is a former templar, originally encountered in the Circle of Ferelden and again at Kirkwall’s Circle. Lastly, Josephine is charming diplomat from a minor noble family in Antiva. Inquisition holds a more accurate attitude towards its romanceable characters. While not as liberal as the system of Dragon Age 2, the romanceable characters feel more realistic and still manage to cover the main demographics. In her essay entitled: I am in love with someone who doesn’t exist, Annika Waren (2010) examines the romances in Dragon Age and what causes players to become so emotionally invested in non-existent relationships. She posits that making romance options designed to fit the players, not the characters, effective ‘bleed-in’ occurs, making players more willing to become emotionally invested.  This emotional investment is followed by a ‘bleed-out’ effect and causes players to experience emotions of infatuation, even love, for their in-game romances. BioWare’s ability to elicit these effects may be considered one of the most important factors to their games’ successes and subsequently what makes their romantic elements so appealing.

 

The World of Thedas also gives us a direct description of sex in lives of everyday Thedosians: “What I find most interesting is that, despite the lack of open discussion on matters of human sexuality, there is commonality to be found on the subject in all Andrastian lands. Typically, one’s sexual habits are considered natural and separate from matters of procreation, and only among the nobility, where procreation involves issues of inheritance and the union of powerful families, is it considered of vital importance” (Marshall, 2013, p.72). An example of this occurs if players romance Alistair in Origins. At one point, players are given the option to decide who Ferelden’s next King or Queen will be and may choose Alistair. If the player is any race or class other than a human noble, their relationship becomes taboo, an affair, upon Alistair becoming King. If they are a human noble, however, they can only continue an official relationship if they marry. “Yet, even there, a noble who has done their duty to the family might be allowed to pursue their own sexual interests without raising eyebrows” (Marshall, 2013, p.72). Alistair essentially breaks up with the player, saying that he can no longer put his desires above his duties to his kingdom, but leaves it open to the player whether they want to continue a secret kind of relationship. Alternatively, if the player is a noble, they now need to decide if they commit to a marriage in order to do their duty to their kingdom. More heart-breaking is the option for players to wed him to the current Queen in order to cement an alliance.

An interesting case study that addresses race-specific sexual issues is the noble hunters among the dwarves of Orzammar.  Dwarves are a stout, stocky race who traditionally lived underground, but were the first to fall when darkspawn attacked their Thaigs. Dwarves who still remain underground are extremely insular and adhere to strict cast restrictions. At the bottom of the dwarven hierarchy are the casteless, who dwell in the lowest reaches of Orzammar. Dwarves who live on the surface are also considered casteless, but are respected above ground as shrewd traders and craftsmen. The codex An explanation of the casteless explains the noble-hunter subculture: “Even so, there is some hope for the casteless, a dangling rope that offers a way up into greater Orzammar society. Since a dwarf’s caste is determined by the parent of the same sex, the male child of a nobleman is part of that noble’s house and caste. Strangely, it is acceptable for casteless women to train in the arts of courtly romance to woo nobles and warriors; they are known as ‘noble hunters.’ Any male born from such a union is considered a joyous event, considering the low rate of dwarven fertility. The mother and entire family are then taken in by the father’s house, although they retain their caste” (BioWare. 2009). This can be experienced if a player chooses the Dwarven Casteless origin story, their sister Rica is a noble hunter, pregnant with a prince’s child but living in squalor. When the player returns home Rica has had a son and now lives in the Diamond Quarter of Orzammar in comfort and luxury. This interesting story in Origins utilizes unique racial and gender qualities to tell a compelling and diverse story, potentially opening players up to thinking more deeply about the challenges people from different races and cultures face in the real world.

“The view on indulging lusts with a member of the same gender varies from land to land. In Orlais, it is considered a quirk of character and nothing more. In Ferelden, it is a matter of scandal if done indiscreetly but otherwise nothing noteworthy. In Tevinter, it is considered selfish and deviant behaviour among nobles, but actively encouraged with favoured slaves. Nowhere is it forbidden, and sex of any kind is only considered worthy of judgment when taken to awful excess or performed in the public eye.” (Marshall, 2013, p.72). This codex scratches the surface of how players can expect the different characters from these contrasting nations might react to issues around sex and sexuality. A heart-breaking account of the issues that homosexuals face is told in Dorian’s story. Dorian is a mage from Tevinter; born into wealth and privilege, he was always expected to continue his family’s legacy, marrying the right woman, keeping everything unsavoury private and locked away, but he wouldn’t put on a show. His father attempted to use a forbidden blood-magic ritual to change him: alter his mind, make him ‘normal’. Dorian states “it also could have left me a drooling vegetable; it crushed me to think that he found that preferable to scandal”. While homosexual acceptance is becoming more progressive around the world, research shows that only about half of those who ‘come out’ to their family are ever accepted (Subhrajit, 2014). In his article, Subhrajit also discusses the impact this rejection has on homosexuals, affecting their self-worth and well-being; we can see many of these issues reflected in Dorian’s story (2014).  It is essential that a medium like video-games address these issues and that players are given an opportunity to encounter a homosexual character’s struggle. It is also interesting to note the racial and classist undertones of a nation like Tevinter, since any deviant sexual behaviour is encouraged among slaves, most of which are elves, yet homosexuality among nobles is scandalous.

In addition to being a good platform to discuss issues around homosexuality, video-games can also be a safe space for players to explore their own sexuality. An anonymous blogger on VGA Boundaries 2 gave a very personal account of how Inquisition helped him explore his own sexuality and helped him better define himself along “a long a spectrum of infinite possibilities” (2015). Exploring my Sexuality through Dragon Age: Inquisition gives an insightful personal account of some of the social stigmas people, with men in particular, face when trying to understand and explore their own sexuality. In fact, games that help us explore our own sexuality are nothing new; we have been using games to explore sex and sexuality ever since our first game of spin-the-bottle at sleepovers. “The ability to make me experience things first hand, instead of watching others experience it and then try to empathise, connects me stronger with it than other media” – Manveer Heir (2014).

Another excellent case study of Dragon Age’s progressive attitude towards sex and sexuality is the story of Cremisius Aclassi, BioWare’s first transgender character. Krem is Iron Bulls lieutenant; originally from Tevinter, he fled after the army found out he was not genetically male, after which he was rescued by Iron Bull. What is so beautifully illustrated about Krem is how players generally only ever realize his genetic gender after they have been casually told over a round of drinks.  Another fact that makes Krem’s story so noteworthy is, in spite of his difficult past, he is accepted by Bull; when the player asks if Krem’s gender bothers Bull he responds with “He is a NOT a woman… Krem’s a good man. I don’t give a nug’s ass it’s a little harder for him to piss standing up”. Bull also notes that even among the strict Qunari doctrine, Krem would be an Aqun-athlock, born one gender but living like another, and would be treated no different than any other man, “They ARE real men, just like you are”. Krem also gives players an account of the kinds of stigmas transgender people face, providing the player with an insight into what life is like when you are not born the gender you’re meant to be, “I didn’t decide anything, I’ve been like this my whole life… Every day I’d put on a dress, look into my father’s shaving mirror and just, hate myself… My mother wanted to throw me out… My father, when I was little he’d angle his mirror down so I could attempt to shave just like him.” In her journal article, Adrienne Shaw asks a very important question: the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender are represented in all other forms of media, some even have their own dedicated media, why, now more than ever, are we not including them in video games? (2009)

Dragon Age is a colourful and diverse tapestry; it discusses more issues around sex and sexuality than can be sufficiently described in a three thousand word essay. This is an introduction to but a few of the characters we meet in the universe of Dragon Age, a sample of each of their unique stories. The game deals with a plethora of real-world issues, with the writers of BioWare always searching for creative, compelling and intricate characters, ways to deal with real issues and ways to make their players vulnerable to new ideas. While other developers shy away from the challenge of discussing sex and sexuality, BioWare tries to build understanding. They may not get everything right the first time, but they are known for their willingness to listen to fan feedback and do better the next time round. “The industry has entered a place where video games have, not only the technical ability to show sexual situations, but the willingness to include them… We want to be taken seriously, we want to have mature titles, with mature themes, we want to push the boundaries”- David Gaider (2013).


Bibliography:

*NB- All capitalization and spelling of contextual words, i.e. elven or mage has been referenced directly from The World of Thedas.

 

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