The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

Morrigan: A young, white, stern looking witch of the wilds.

Morrigan: A young, white, stern looking witch of the wilds.

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

Elsa: A young, blonde woman mage with the mark of the Chantry on her forehead.

Elsa: A young, blonde woman mage with the mark of the Chantry on her forehead.

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

A young man mage using Blood Magic to attack armored Templars.

A young man mage using Blood Magic to attack armored Templars.

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Anders, a blonde man mage, possessed by Justice, making his eyes glow.

Anders, a blonde man mage, possessed by Justice, making his eyes glow.

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

Merrill, an elvan dark-haired mage, using Blood Magic.

Merrill, an elvan dark-haired mage, using Blood Magic.

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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7 Responses to The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

  1. Anon says:

    … This is just off on so many levels. I’m not sure what to say – other than that mages are a metaphor and not an analogy and your whole argument is structurally unsound given the involvement of, y’know, demons and acts of terrorism.

    • Mattie Brice says:

      I don’t think my article implies anything besides metaphor. Symbolism and allegory often occurs in stories. Sci-Fi and Fantasy is especially known to be comments on contemporary society, and I don’t see how the Dragon Age games are exceptions. Seeing a parallel between mages and templars with social minorities and conservative culture isn’t a hard sell, especially if it’s the LGBT community vs religion. If you read everything as a metaphor and comment, and not a literal analogy, I don’t think the lens I provide here is that bewildering.

      • Sharna says:

        I have to agree with the above commenter. I don’t think mages vs templars are a good metaphor with what is happening with the LGBT community and conservatives at all.

  2. Keely says:

    …Yeah, I have some huge problems with this. For one thing, though some self-loathing mages might volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, most have it forced upon them. In fact, you’re given the impression that even most non-mages think there’s something pretty horrific about it (though they’re not as anti-Tranquility as mages are). I have a problem with the idea of Tranquils being classified as “good” mages when a character like Circle!Bethany or Wynne would be a better example of the type of mage held up as a paragon of their kind (lolol DA:O pun).

    Second of all, Merrill’s actions ALMOST ALWAYS RESULT IN THE DEATH OF HER ENTIRE CLAN. Anders’ decision to merge with Justice later impels him to BLOW UP THE CHANTRY. Now, I’m cis, but comparing the paths of characters like those to those of trans persons seems wildly off-base to me.

    • terminatrix says:

      I find it as a perfect metaphor, and it was the exactly the way i saw it myself when i played.

      Dark consequences: Yes of course. Merrill’s actions can result in the death of her clan, much like for many other people whose lives it generally benefits you to meditate on in November – if they had been accidentally heavily armed with an innate weapon like Merrill’s magic and could get away with it or at least had not been facing disproportionate punishment.

      Emotional disconnect: There is never a reciprocal connect first place. Disconnect, like Ander’s emotional change in the end, is just the natural tiredness from onesidedly upholding an illusion. Myself have said cute things to assorted Elthinas, because i’m really not interested in the particular branch and degree of moderation of their religion.

      Rite of Tranquility: Entirely realistic. Entirely same as IRL.The weak who TRULY choose are insignificant, both in number and, should i say, otherwise. Majority are forced. And ‘non-coercion’ in the case of blackmail and pressure does not make it consent. Like with sex.

      Blood for the Fade friends, sparkles for the Lyrium Throne, Tevinter ftw.

  3. pH-unbalanced says:

    Wow, what an interesting thesis. I hadn’t tried looking at DA through this lens (which is funny because I’ve used magic vs mundane In my own writing to explore trans identity issues).

    I’ll have to think about it a bit more to have anything more substantive to say, but I my gut level is that this is a great insight.

  4. Alex says:

    This is so interesting, I’ll have to look up “The Mulatto Cyborg”!

    I feel like the fantasy genre isn’t traditionally about social issues the way science fiction is. That’s not true any more, but when we think of fantasy the most common image is epic, fictional legends, whereas science fiction is and has always been concerned with the question of “What if?”

    One of the reasons I love Dragon Age 2 so much is it is very much about oppression and marginalization. Mages aren’t a direct allegory for queer or trans people, no, that would have Unfortunate Implications. Obviously, queer and trans people aren’t dangerous and don’t have superpowers. But mages ARE marginalized in the world of Dragon Age, and because the writers know how oppression works, there are going to be parallels between the oppression of mages and that of real-world marginalized groups, as you point out here. I think that, like science fiction, Dragon Age 2 asks a “what if?” question: What if there is a group of people who are marginalized because they actually CAN be dangerous? Is it right to oppress them then? The answer is no, but in DA2, the player has to deal with what that means specifically for the city of Kirkwall and its specific circumstances. Which is what makes it an incredibly mature game, to me.

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