The following is a guest post from Alis Dee:
Alis Dee runs a gaming blog at azeroth.me which, despite the title, is not always about World of Warcraft. She is a multi-ethnic white-passing bisexual Australian ciswoman. The following post has been edited slightly from its original incarnation at her blog.
It’s fairly safe to say that Dragon Age 2 has been polarising, at best; considering the mechanical and the thematic changes it introduced over its predecessor, I suppose that’s hardly surprising. And while the “mainstream” gamer press has been busy debating the merits of dialogue wheels and sped-up combat sequences, a parallel conversation has been going around the social justice gaming blog (a-har) circle, in part spurred by DA2 lead writer David Gaider’s unexpectedly accurate understanding of the concept of privilege.
Hence this post. It’s about social justice (mostly). And where and how BioWare nails it, with examples.
Before we continue: Yes, I know there’s still a bit of fail in DA2. Its handling of mental illness isn’t awesome, for example, and the game is fairly white-washed (though not nearly as badly as it could’ve been, and it probably scores higher marks than nearly every other title out there). That being said, I think it’s almost easier to pick on what BioWare has done “wrong” that what it does right here, because the exceptional elements are integrated so well into the rest of the game that they’re easy to overlook, particularly for those of us who are used to our fail beating us about the face with its obviousness. It’s hard to see what isn’t there.
Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.
#1. Subverting the worst excuse.
You know the one. It’s like the medieval fantasy equivalent of Goodwin’s Law or something. The whole, “No this homophobia/misogyny isn’t offensive! It’s realistic! This is the Dark Ages and That’s Just How Things Were.”
Loki’s stitched lips how much do I hate that excuse. Because, you know; dragons and elves and wizards and whatever are totally realistic, but treating women like they’re people rather than property? Woah! Hold on there, Captain Outrageous!
Thedas might be medieval fantasy, but it’s explicitly more gender- and sexuality-blind than the Really Real World. For starters, Thedas’ Crystal Dragon Jesus religion is basically matriarchal Christianity, and yet BioWare hasn’t fallen into the cringe-worthy traps of depicting the Chantry as either a bunch of, a) ineffectual too-pure-to-live all-hail-the-earth-mother types, or b) ball-crushing misandrists. The Chantry is a human institution staffed by humans, with both the strengths and frailties that implies. It’s neither merely a caricature of male fear of matriarchal power, nor is it an author tract against the evils (or inherent goodness) of religion. Thinking about how the Chantry could’ve been portrayed is an exercise in appreciating how it is portrayed.
The Chantry isn’t the only example; women are not denied positions of power and authority in Thedas, nor does anyone at all — from rich nobles to poor street gangs — appear to think female leaders of any kind are in any way remarkable. Women in Thedas occupy every level of the secular, sectarian and military hierarchies, and historic instances of social injustice against women, such as the story of Ser Aveline, are shown as being exactly that; historic and unjust.
Similarly, since there is no lore justification for institutionalised homophobia in Thedas, it doesn’t exist; homosexuality is neither a taboo nor a fetishised “virtue” (a la the pederastic social structures of, say, Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan, or the woeful modern Magical Queer trope). Queerness, or the lack thereof, is treated as an apolitical personal quirk; where social pressure for heterosexual relationships exist, it’s shown to be based on pragmatism (i.e. the need for children) rather than any dogmatic belief in the inherent “wrongness” of certain sexual preferences.
If you wanted to be a real smartass, you could argue that a lack of both rigid gender roles and social stigma against same-sex relationships is the justification for Thedas’ apparent rampant bisexuality. Gender-blindness in Thedas is personal, as well as institutional, with its citizens thus more likely to form relationships based on the partner as a holistic package as opposed to just, a-ha, a “package” (in fact, if you can dig it out of Anders’ dialogue trees, this is exactly the reason he gives you). This also explains why (Almost) Everyone Wants Hawke; you are, after all, the most awesome person in the story by definition, so of course your companions are more likely to subvert their usual sexual leanings under the weight of your sheer win (and utter lack of negative social consequences for doing so).
Whether you buy that explanation or not, it’s still major props to BioWare for apparently putting some thought into their setting’s sexuality and gender expectations, rather than just copypasta’ing things out-of-context from the Really Real World.
#2. How to kill a hypotenuse.
From the Death of the Hypotenuse page at TVTropes:
Alice, Bob, and Charlie are in a Love Triangle. Alice loves Bob, but also has feelings for Charlie — or maybe she doesn’t, but can’t or doesn’t want to turn him down (maybe she’s even in a relationship with or married to Charlie while pining after Bob). However will she resolve this dilemma? Well, fortunately, she doesn’t have to — Charlie meets with a convenient illness, accident, or other such fatal situation, freeing Alice up to go after Bob without guilt. If Charlie is aware of Alice’s feelings for Bob, he may tell her with his dying breath that she shouldn’t mourn him too much, because he wants his beloved to be happy.
Feminists tend to hate the Death of the Hypotenuse situation when it appears in media since, well:
[W]hen we see [Aveline’s] husband die in the opening chapter of the game, my immediate thought was “of course.” Not only does this serve to remove an obstacle that might keep her from being a party member, it makes her sexually available to the player–at least in spirit. While it has already been made clear that she isn’t one of the game’s romance options, the situation appears to follow a traditional formula of male fantasy, in which there are no male competitors for a woman’s attention.
Except Aveline isn’t interested in you. At all. In fact, she’s so not interested in you that she’ll go out of her way to solicit your assistance in obtaining the actual object of her affections; the resulting side-quest is both amusingly cute and incredibly, ahem, Hawkward.
There is one character whose hypotenuse you do end up murdering, however, and you (well, “you”) do it quite explicitly to set up this trope. I’ll give you a minute to guess, since you might not have noticed it at the time.
Figured it out?
Hands up who remembered why Anders is hanging around in Kirkwall as of Act I; sure, he has a clinic, but he’s only recently set up shop and it’s mostly just to keep him busy while he figures out how to rescue his ex-lover from the Circle. You know; the ex-lover you end up killing. And once those unfortunate former romantic entanglements are handily disposed of? Go nuts with the ♥s on the dialogue wheel!
It’s also interesting that Anders only mentions Karl was his lover if your Hawke happens to be a guy.
Traditional formulae of male fantasy, indeed…
#3. The Thedas guide to passing.
First up, we must address the nature of passing. Sometimes it is active (one chooses to pass) and sometimes passive (one is passed). Sometimes it’s an interaction of expectation and experience, habit and circumstance. One cannot untangle one’s own efforts to pass or to not from the point of the idea of passing. That is, whether one passes or not is dependant on the outside observer. The whole idea of passing hinges not on what the (non)passer does, but on the observer’s response to that person. There’s an extent to which one can control it — and people have developed quite some techniques — but it’s not always a matter of choice as to whether to pass or not.
Two things on this one, both of which I’ve heard criticised as being “bad writing” on the part of DA2, and both of which I actually think were very deliberate and done to illustrate roughly the same issue.
Part the first: Remember Feynriel, the “elf-blooded human” kid? His questline aside, some people have expressed dislike with the whole “elf + human = human” thing, crying erasure. ((For anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out; elves are the “race oppression” analogy in Thedas. You could possibly argue mages are the “gender/sexuality oppression” analogy (which results in a somewhat nasty Broken Aesop), but I’d make the case that they’re actually the imperialism analogy, albeit writ down onto a social level rather than a national one.)) I think this totally manages to ignore the fact that, while Feynriel doesn’t look like an elf, he’s a lot more (ahem) fey than your average human, not to mention has a distinctly elvish name. If you bother paying attention to the dialogue, it becomes heavily apparent this is intentional.
Feynriel will actually give you Passing Privilege 101 — he even uses the word — if you talk to him in the Dalish camp. In Kirkwall, his “elfness” was erased by the humans who assumed he was “one of them”; amongst the Dalish, he will never be anything other than “the elf-blooded human”. Like all of its dealings with privilege, DA2 doesn’t pretend to give any pat answers to this; Feynriel is Othered when you meet him and he’s still Othered when he writes you his final letter about life in the Imperium. But writing Feynriel off as BioWare erasing ethnic identities is, in my opinion, a bit of missing the forest for the trees.
Part the second: I think everyone who plays DA2, particularly anyone who plays as mage!Hawke, gets to a point where the disconnect between “all mages must hide or be locked up!” and “whee I have robes and a staff and set people on fire and, oh, may I introduce my BFFs the abomination and the blood mage!” really starts to set in. I discussed this a bit elsewhere, essentially coming to the conclusion that the disconnect is a very deliberate. From the relevant footnote:
Early on the in game, if you’re a mage, you get the sense the Templars in Kirkwall have a particularly vicious form of genre blindness re. someone walking around in robe carrying a staff setting fire to people. By the end of the game, it’s fairly evident that they’re perfectly aware you’re a mage, and have deliberately left you alone; at first due to bribes, and later due to your social status. The presence of characters like Fenris’ ex-master — as well as Varric’s judicious application of bribes on behalf of Anders — indicate this isn’t an unusual situation; money and influence can buy a sort of “freedom” for mages. […] In short, you’re privileged. And BioWare, a) knows it, and b) has set it up that way deliberately.
Some of the discussions you can have with other characters (Fenris and Anders in particular) also highlight this. It’s frequently mentioned that the main distinction between the Tevinter Circles and those elsewhere is due to Imperium mages mostly coming from noble families, while non-Imperium mages are impoverished social outcasts; either by virtue of birth or due to the forced disinheritance that comes from being taken to the Circle. When Alistair showed up for me in Act III his dialogue made it apparent that the slightly improved conditions for mages in Ferelden are due to the Crown being sympathetic (he’s there protecting apostates Kirkwall wants extradited). Not to mention the fact that my Warden — the kingdom’s hero, king-maker and Alistair’s BFF — was a mage; a fact Anders points out at least once.
This is another kind of “passing”; one bought by conferred social/financial privilege. It’s not that the mages in Ferelden are any less prone to blood magic (q.v. DA:O) or that the kingdom’s Chantry teachings against magic are any more forgiving (Anders, who’s from the Ferelden Circle, makes it clear that they aren’t, extra kissing aside). The “privilege” of the Ferelden mages isn’t really their own; it comes purely from the fact that they have the sympathies of a powerful non-mage… and one who, while popular, won’t be in power for very much longer. ((Ferelden political system aside, remember being a Grey Warden is a death sentence; Alistair has maybe another fifteen years before he books his One Way Ticket To The Deep Roads.)) Similarly, by Act III Meredith makes it pretty clear that, whilst Hawke has bought a kind of freedom due to his social position, his cage is gilded at best; if you annoy her, she makes quite a few “don’t forget I own you!” style speeches re. you and your friends. In short, the privilege mage!Hawke does have is both tenuous and relies entirely on the perceptions of others. He’s not free because of some innate right, he’s free because mainstream society finds it amusing/advantageous to “allow” him to be so. It’s not a state that was ever going to last.
Finally, and most interestingly, the need to “pass” as mage!Hawke can bleed over onto the player; I can’t be the only person who deliberately ended up wearing the least “magey” looking armour I could find — cumulating, amusingly, in a brief stint at the start of Act III dressed as a bearded Chantry Mother — despite there being no game-based incentive for me to do so. Not to mention the Mage Champion set doesn’t exactly scream “wizard” in any classical sense, particularly if you also end up wielding the suspiciously spear-like Bassrath-Kata.
There’s a friction between passing and solidarity with one’s group. Those who can pass as being a member of a dominant group may miss out on many experiences and forms of discrimination that are held to be facets of that group’s commonalities. One of the main problems with passing is that in doing so an inequitable system is being held up (by those who pass others, by those choosing to pass). This is to say that passing supports the idea that equality, better treatment, is gained by melting into the dominant group.
#4. The secret life of them.
DA2 does something I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen before in a game. Not only does it give Hawke an existence that’s partially independent of the player, but it gives your companions the same thing. Unlike DA:O, your “unused” party members aren’t just hanging around in the camp waiting for you to call on them; they actually do things when you’re not around. Anders runs his clinic. Aveline runs the guard. Varric looks after his family’s business. Fenris… broods around and plays cards with Donnic. Whatever their day job, running around babysitting Hawke isn’t actually it; helping you out is something they do for lulz on the weekends when they’ve got nothing more pressing to get on with.
The side-effect of this is that your companions end up going through character development that, again, has nothing to do with your actions as a player. The best example is probably what happens between Aveline and Isabela.
We’re all used to the set-up; the competent-but-shy tomboy versus the gregarious sex kitten. I mean, of course they hate each other, right? Except — unlike practically every other time this sort of rivalry comes up — in DA2’s case neither woman is fighting over you. They aren’t two members of your harem vying jealously for your attention; you could probably convincingly argue that Aveline’s dislike of Isabela (which seems almost entirely one-way) does stem from a sort of sexual jealousy, but the ultimate moral of the tale isn’t women need to tear each other down in order to get ahead. By the end of the game, Aveline and Isabela are pretty much Type 2 Vitriolic Best Buds, and Isabela even gives Aveline (and Merrill) several actually-not-terrible “you go girl” type speeches about self-confidence.
Actually, Isabela is pretty much an all-round legitimate harbinger of female positivity, when it gets right down to it; an actually honest-to-gods example of how to do a confident female character who not only legitimately owns her own sexuality ((For the record, I love Isabela’s outfit. Unlike every other provocatively-dressed women in a fantasy setting ever in the history of time, Isabela’s choice of revealing attire does, in fact, come across as a deliberate choice made to attract sexual partners. She dresses sexy because she wants sex. Now. Possibly with you (if you’re hot). She has agency, in other words; she’s the subject of her own sexuality and not the object of yours, oh you assumed-straight-cismale-viewer you.)) but goes out of her way to be a mentor and friend to other women. And, I think, the relationship between Aveline and Isabela is also a sneaky meta-comment on the relationship players like me have with characters like Isabela. From Isabela’s promo renders, I would in no way have been able to tell you that I think she pretty much single-handedly constitutes a good deal of the reason DA2 doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test on technicality, but blows the entire spirit of it (i.e. the presence of multiple developed female characters capable of powering their own narratives sans the presence of men) right out of the water. Future game developers take note; this is how you do it.
That aside, there’s another sneaky inversion here a la the hypotenuse scenario mentioned above. Because no, the women do not tear each other down in their attempts to fight for your attentions… but Fenris and Anders certainly do, particularly if you sleep with Fenris. Asides from just general viciousness toward each other, they’ll even get into the requisite “but why don’t you love someone more like me-ee-ee?” and “if you break his/her heart I will kill you!” speeches at various points (the latter from Fenris if you switch romance paths post freakout in Act II, you heartbreaker you).
And, yeah, I admit it; fanservicey pandering aside, I love the fact that this sort of petty bitchiness is being done by male characters for once. I particularly love that male players subsequently whinge about it. Oh, delicious irony! You bring joy to my black little heart…
#5. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
A lot of the criticisms levelled at Dragon Age 2 seem to be from people who’ve mistaken it for a particularly badly-executed Heroic or High Fantasy story. This is not entirely surprising; Dragon Age: Origins could be gently said to have straddled the border between Heroic and High, probably only not qualifying for 100% High Fantasy due to the setting’s cynical approach to morality (even the Always Chaotic Evil Darkspawn get a bit… trickier if you play Awakening). Unlike its predecessor, DA2 is deliberately and unashamedly Low Fantasy; to borrow an analogy originally used for something else, the difference between DA:O and DA2 is like unto the difference between The Colour of Magic and Night Watch. I’ll let you guess which one is which.
People who went into DA2 expecting an oldskool BioWare RPG game were always going to be disappointed; as was anyone who was after a narrative they could skim through pressing-one-for-lawful-good without thinking too much. Neither of those things were going to work out; the former because the mechanics of the actual game part of DA2 were kinda bad, and the latter because the story of DA2 really does require you to drink its Kool-Aid and play it for its own sake. The game isn’t morally-agnostic; it does have something it’s trying to tell you, and not listening to that is going to make the narrative very frustrating. This, incidentally, is why I went back and re-played the game as BioWare!Hawke; imagining myself as a dude caught up in forces far beyond his control rather than as My Expy the Chosen One who was going to storm out and fix everything.
With that in mind, the story worked much better. And this is what I mean about the game being Low Fantasy. In Low Fantasy, shit happens. In Low Fantasy, the cavalry aren’t going to arrive on shining gryphons. In Low Fantasy, the bad guys might be both everyone, no-one and you, all at once. And, most importantly, in Low Fantasy you can’t save the world; if you work really hard, however, you just might be able to save yourself.
This, I think, is the point of Anders’ character; apparently he didn’t get the memo about the genre-shift since Awakening, and still thinks all the world’s ills come down to Good Guys vs. Bad Guys and can be solved by storming in committing massive acts of terrorism. The game is quite careful about pointing out — loudly and repeatedly — that, no matter how much you might end up liking Anders personally, ((And YMMV. I’ve seen a lot of gross misogyny floating around because, by the Maker, how dare any male character in a videogame not be an inarticulate, hyper-aggressive Duke Nukem expy and/or ultra-stoic, personality-free Gordon Freeman-esque killing machine! I believe Anders’ primary writer was a woman, which makes all the snide little remarks about “emasculation” particularly cringe-worthy. Anders certainly is a bit… whiny, but this is intentional and essentially his main character flaw — your other companions find it tiring sometimes too — and he’s neither completely unsympathetic nor in any way unrealistic (men, I hate to break it to you guys, but you’re frequently extremely whiny; just clearing that up, since apparently a lot of you haven’t noticed). I found him a lot more flat-out sympathetic on my first playthrough than my second, however, where I found myself yelling, “Shut up, Anders!” in fond exasperation at the screen a fair bit.)) this attitude is both irrational and dangerously naive. Isabela gets a great line of party dialogue lampshading this, mentioning something along the line of “justice only making sense in a world of ideas”.
Hawke gets to be a little more genre savvy than that, assuming the player figures it out, which he or she may not; a lot of people didn’t, judging from what I’ve read. Like Anders, they still tried to play the game like a Heroic Fantasy and got angry when that didn’t work out for them, particularly because the main theme of DA2 is one of oppression and privilege. You can’t “solve” the kyriarchy — even a fake one in a made-up fantasy land — in a Low Fantasy setting. You can’t even really do it convincingly in a High Fantasy setting, and at least DA2 is honest about that instead of indulging in the usual rug-sweeping.
Strength as weakness.
Ultimately, the main “problem” with DA2’s narrative is that it really does have Social Justice 101 and Feminist Media Deconstruction 201 as prerequisite courses; almost all of the game’s point is lost if you don’t read it from that angle (and, for gods’ sakes, one of the main characters is called “Justice”, just in case everything else was too subtle a hint for you). Even people who do will find it highly contentious — maybe even more-so — purely because the game does try and doesn’t hit 100% of all targets at all times; SJers are used to writing off non-starters, but they’re absolutely brutal with anything that tries and doesn’t make perfection.
The criticisms of DA2’s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work. The game hits so many amazing marks — on its portrayal of women, on its treatment of sexuality, on its ability to portray complex intersectional concepts in a not-completely-cringe-worthy way — it’s almost unsurprising that it’s caused so much confusion. Because it really isn’t like anything else out there, and I think maybe that’s not going to be readily apparently anywhere other than retrospect (and once people get over the mechanical changes from its predecessor).
Everyone who likes videogames and has even a passing interest in feminism/social justice (or vice versa) needs to play this game; I can’t even stress that enough. Whether you love it or hate it or buy it or pirate it, Dragon Age 2 is closer to what people like you and me want to see on the market than anything else that’s ever been produced. No, it’s not perfect — it’s not perfect as a game and it’s not perfect as a social justice narrative — but if we don’t hold it up and scream, “YES! THIS! MORE OF THIS!” we’re going to keep getting games like Duke Nukem Forever, well, forever.
And, really. You can’t possibly tell me that’s a better option.
(Originally posted here on Azeroth.me)