Over the past few weeks I’ve been preparing myself for the release of Dragon Age 2, which is set for release on 11th March. I only managed to get my hands on the demo today, but already there are a few problematic elements bubbling away in the background.
The demo begins with a Chantry seeker named Cassandra calling on Varric, a dwarf who she knows spent time with Hawke–the game’s protagonist. In response to her questioning, Varric begins narrating a story in which Hawke and his/her sister Bethany are fleeing the darkspawn only to encounter a dragon. At this point, Cassandra calls shenanigans on Varric’s story, and he promises to relate ‘what really happened’.
The problem, however, is that BioWare have chosen (at least for the purposes of the demo) to give you the character creator only after this initial opening sequence. In fact, the beginning of the game gives you a simple choice between male/female and warrior/mage/rogue before throwing you into the action. This means that the first ten minutes of the game are always going to be played as BioWare’s default male or female Hawke, which in turn means that they are going to be Caucasian.
At the time of posting, the discussion on BioWare’s forum about this issue is already over twenty pages long (and really not recommended reading for the most part, with a lot of people making the point that this opening sequence presents Hawke as a legend, rather than who they really were. However, this raises the uncomfortable subtext that, while the real Hawke may be customized to suit the player’s tastes, the Hawke that people know from legends is always going to be white. Personally, I can’t help but be reminded of Jesse Houston’s assertion that BioWare’s female characters are less iconic than the male ones, and Stanley Woo’s utter failure to handle racial issues surrounding the Dragon Age games in the past couple of months.
BioWare’s reasoning behind this bizarre choice seems to be that they have concluded that they’re losing a lot of players who don’t want to be confronted with a character creator at the very start of a game. As Mike Laidlaw says in this interview:
“We saw a lot of people disengaging at hour one, hour two [...] You get to an RPG and fire it up, and it hits you in the face with a thousand stats. Those stats are very cool, but you may not be mentally or emotionally prepared to deal with them as your first thing to do in the game.”
He also goes on to add:
“Part of the glorious advantage of the frame narrative is [that] Varric kind of lies about you. We establish how people perceive the Champion. This figure is of some import to the world.”
And, apparently, the way people perceive the Hero of Kirkwall is as a white man or white woman, regardless of their actual ethnicity. Granted, this could make for a very interesting plot device should BioWare wish to use Dragon Age 2 to challenge this assumption in game, but unfortunately the demo makes no sign of doing anything of the sort.
Granted, there has been some progress since the days of Dragon Age: Origins, where your Warden of color was furnished with an entirely white family. According to the Dragon Age Wiki, the skin tones and facial structures of Hawke’s family members will now adapt themselves to compliment your customized character. However I can’t help but feel that this is at least a small step back from Mass Effect 2, where the pre-character creation sequence has been craftily put together to only show Shepard in full armour obscuring her/his skin tone and facial features until you’ve played through the opening scene.
I have to wonder: would that have been so difficult to do this Dragon Age 2, as well? Why choose to present a legendary version of the main character, and their entire family as potentially whitewashed versions of themselves, without challenging or questioning it? Will this depiction of the Caucasian Hawke of legend appear in the full version of the game? And, if so, is it plot device that BioWare have used in a ham-fisted attempt to ‘hit the ground running’, or will we be seeing more cutscenes featuring the default versions of Hawke throughout the game?
Thanks to Marissa for the tip-off, and to half the staff of Border House for the discussion