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The Border House Podcast
Episode 1: Lewd-onarrative Dissonance
MATTIE: Welcome to The Border House Podcast, episode one. My name is Mattie, and this week we’ll be talking about romance in BioWare’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. The Border House is a gaming site dedicated to fostering a safe place for people who are women, gay, transgender, queer, of color, disabled, poor, or any other marginalized group, along with our allies. Our goal is to promote diversity in the gaming community and provide thoughtful analysis of the latest games and news. Visit us at borderhouseblog dot com.
So, I’m just going to do a quick roll call to show who’s here. First we have two of our editors, one is Alex, and she is doing, actually a recent article on Dragon Age 2 at her personal blog, if you want to say hello…
MATTIE: [laughs] Almost kind of AA-like, but that’s okay, I’ll do it. And then also we have a new editor, Anna, hello.
MATTIE: Also excited to have Anna here. We have, as well, Rawles, who is a fellow writer along with me. Hi, Rawles.
MATTIE: And we have our guest speaker today, who is Kate Cox, and she is writing at Your Critic is in Another Castle, and also is a guest writer at The Border House, hi Kate.
MATTIE: And with me, who will chat if they want to, is Kim will help me with our technical recording and will help me put this together. So thank you, and hi, Kim.
MATTIE: Awesome. So, let’s get this started.
So I wanted to start off our conversation with kind of a personal walkthrough of how there games have affected us, speak to us. I figured I would start off with my personal experience with romance in these games. For me, what was very interesting, as a person of a multiracial and transgender identity, was how, specifically to me was Dragon Age: Origins, how this world seems to not have those kind of cues involved. Like you can create your character, but you don’t have like this multiracial option where people treat you differently, or I’m a transgender person where people treat you differently. So it was interesting for characters to just interact with me without even, is always treated like this white male, even if you’re some other kind of identity. And I was wondering if anyone else had a similar experience.
RAWLES: I definitely have, especially in Mass Effect. Just the whole situation where, yes they do just basically treat you like you’re a white dude regardless of how you make your character look, which to me as a black woman, it’s just, it’s a really really bizarre experience, frankly.
MATTIE: Yeah, I agree. For me, it was particularly interesting because I’m not used to, especially since we’re talking about romances, I’m not used to someone just kind of coming up to me out of the blue, be it like let’s say a peer or a coworker, when this sort of interesting dynamic happened with my party, especially in Dragon Age: Origins, it was a new experience for someone to just come up to me and be like, “Hey, I find you attractive.” I’m not sure if anyone else had that kind of experience.
RAWLES: I mean, for me, I think that in Dragon Age, I think one of the things that felt the most to me in that, was just the way that the characters in the party, they–like, the four romanceable characters, they are all very diverse in the way that they are presented, but they all sort of more or less react to you in a really similar way. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but because of the sort of structures of the game environment, it’s, there’s just–it’s odd, frankly.
MATTIE: Did anyone else have, kind of like a strange interaction with other characters? Like if you were being, if your identity was fully realized in the game, even let’s say… we’ve had a lot of articles about, let’s take a player–a woman’s interaction with Miranda, which is a constantly cited strange dissonant feeling where a lot of women players felt odd interaction with her, that she felt disrespectful. And like for me personally, I kept seeing her as this posed woman all the time, and that just felt really strange, and I’m wondering if anyone else has?
KATE: Oh, Miranda frustrated the hell out of me. [laughs] Yeah, she was very much targeted toward a male player that I am not, is how I felt. Although I had female friends who really appreciated her, I didn’t. What felt strange to me, actually, in Mass Effect 2, especially, was how Tali and Liara interacted with my female Shepard, in that, Tali especially, had this very sort of flirtatious sequence that just happened happened happened and came to a dead stop in the middle of conversation very, very weirdly.
RAWLES: Oh definitely, I definitely felt that too, with Tali, because yeah, there is absolutely no difference in the way that she interacts with the female Shepard and the male Shepard, except for the fact that the male Shepard then gets an option to actually continue and follow up on that.
KIM: Interesting story I heard about this, apparently the voice actor who played Tali refused to do the lines from the female/female romance option.
KATE: I never heard that, that’s disappointing.
RAWLES: Really? I never heard that, that’s upsetting.
ALEX: Yeah, that’s a shame.
MATTIE: That sucks because I’ll admit it, I had the hots for Tali. And I totally–
ALEX: Who doesn’t, really.
MATTIE: I mean, I always had her in my party, in the first game, and I liked her, just because it was an interesting place that she’s put, like the ethnic, racial sort of implications that are associated with her. It was just interesting how Tali is made to seem very flirtatious and looks up to Shepard, and I felt–I agree–I felt a sudden stop. I also thought, while we’re on Mass Effect, that that was the same for Jack, as well. There was an implication that Jack was bisexual, and, you know, you didn’t really get any more than that. And then I was like, oh you know maybe something can happen, and it was kind of like “no, thanks.”
RAWLES: I completely–oh my–Jack is so frustrating to me because she will talk to you, like you said, she will talk to you about having been with women before, and she will just discuss all of these things with you, and just everything about the character is just right there, and then yeah, the wall just slams down. And I found it so–like, as a queer woman, I don’t–okay–I don’t play as a male Shep. I don’t like to play as a dude in games, it’s just not something I do because it’s very important to me, when I have the option to create my own character, to make a character who is, you know, like me, or just not the sort of default white guy. Because there are so many narratives and so many stories where everything revolves around this sort of white guy, and if I get the opportunity to instead make the entire universe revolve around the most important person in the world be a black woman, or you know an Asian woman, or a mixed-race woman or something you know, I’m going to do it. And so the complete like lack of ability, especially in Mass Effect 2, with all of these various female characters who seemed really interested in you, but then the door slams down. It’s just really frustrating, playing a female character, not to be able to follow up on that. It was just awful, and it was so–it was also really just contrived, because there was really no reason they needed to stop it there.
MATTIE: I know, I completely agree. Kate, did you have something to say?
KATE: Yeah, it–that’s what bothered me the most, was the contrived nature of it, how you’re just going along, going along, going along, and these conversations just totally brick wall on you. And I think, part of what frustrates me in general is that I feel like, despite the fact that I love my female Shepard with Garrus forever, and I dig that like crazy even though I didn’t expect to, I feel like female Shepard kind of got the secondary sort of short shrift consideration a lot of the time when it comes to Mass Effect 2. One was one, but two, Miranda’s made this very sort of important, present dynamic character, and Jack is a really interesting character, Tali has been kicking around with you since the dawn of Mass Effect 1, and in Mass Effect 2, female Shepard gets Jacob?
MATTIE: Yeah, I mean especially if… does anyone want to comment on about how interaction between Jacob and female Shepard?
RAWLES: Oh, jeez. I have a whole thing with Jacob in that I know that a lot of people really resent the character because of the way that female Shepard’s lines are delivered to him because he just constantly sounds like, you know, FemShep talks to him, and it just sounds like throw him to the floor right then. But I don’t know, I’ve always had a sort of defensive reaction to Jacob just because I don’t think he’s a bad character, outside of, you know, it’s not the character’s fault the way that they wrote FemShep to respond to him, but I always just feel slightly uncomfortable just because there’s a whole bunch of “Oh, Jacob is useless, oh.” I think he’s a fine character, I just feel a little odd because he’s a black guy, and that’s not generally widely considered basically attractive, so, you know.
MATTIE: I was definitely appreciative of Jacob basically being, I guess, existant there, and a decent character, for the most part. But then, especially when it came to the flirtation between female Shepard and Jacob, especially the ending line, where the “spilling drinks on the citadel” line, was problematic. And Kate, do you have something to say?
KATE: I really wanted Jacob to be an interesting character because I was–excited is maybe too strong of a word because I was investigating the game, but I liked that there was a black male character there, and I wanted him to feel as important to the story as Miranda did. And he didn’t, and that’s part of what annoyed me, I would rather have had more and better Jacob and less Miranda.
MATTIE: Oh my gosh, I completely agree. Anna has something to say.
ANNA: Yeah, since people are mentioning Tali, one of the things that upset me in Mass Effect 2 was, the first game I had a female Commander Shepard, and she romanced Liara, and even with all the backpedalling that happened about whether or not that can be seen as a same-sex relationship or not, I wanted to continue that relationship in Mass Effect 2, and, while she was in the game, she wasn’t someone that I was able to really have a romance with. And so it seemed as if same-sex relationships were taken away from me when I moved from Mass Effect 1 to Mass Effect 2.
MATTIE: Yeah, the whole… it’s really strange, when it comes to how there’s this large availability, and at the same time kind of a strange muddlement of same-sex relationships, when it comes to at least female Shepard. And also what I found kind of strange was the idea, I guess the option to cheat, if you will? Because I had romanced Liara as well, and from what I could tell, because I didn’t have the DLC, I didn’t really know about it, it seemed like Liara was over me, and I was kind of heartbroken. So I moved on.
ANNA: DLC… If you’ve played the DLC–I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this, it’s a spoiler.
MATTIE: Well, you know, it’s assumed that, you know, we’re going to be spoiling Mass Effect and DA, so you can go ahead.
ANNA: Okay so if you play the DLC, and you go through the specific dialogue option, what you’ll find out is that Liara is the one that actually went and rescued Commander Shepard’s body after the end of the first game. So she was so heartbroken to have lost Shepard that she is the one that went after the character. She–to my character in that conversation then said “I do still love you and I’m still invested in this relationship,” but she’s still dealing with all the Shadow Broker stuff and was kind of obsessed with that right now and focusing on that, rather than that relationship.
RAWLES: They also did an entire comic series, a limited series going through what she did, all of that business as well.
ANNA: Yeah I ended up liking her character even more once I got that DLC and was able to get more of her story. When you just play the game itself, it feels as though while she’s just up there in this office, she’s not really talking to you. And at least for me, as I was invested in that relationship with her, I felt strange, that, not really talking, nothing is going on, what happened?
MATTIE: Go ahead, Kate.
KATE: The funny thing is, I actually romanced Liara in the first game, too, and while, by the time I got to 2 I wasn’t invested in continuing the relationship with her, I felt really badly that the game wouldn’t let me break up like a decent human being. I just felt really bad that it was this never-spoken-of elephant in the room, and I was like, can’t I at least talk to her and tell her I’m sorry and no hard feelings and thanks for rescuing me from space? So you know, the DLC felt very like content that should have been able to be in the main game. It really rounded everything out.
MATTIE: Yeah, I went through my original playthrough without the DLC, and the most heart-wrenching part was when her picture went face-down on my desk, and I was like, I felt like scum. Because there was nothing I could do, there was no options, there was nothing. I addressed relationship issues with her without this DLC. Oh my goodness.
So as we kind of seem to have already gotten there, I’d like to kind of go through both Mass Effect and Dragon Age and see how a lot of hegemonic culture is represented in kind of blocks. The diverse readership that we have, if anybody has a particular experience of wasn’t very exclusive of these games to other identities.
RAWLES: Well, I’ve always felt, just what we talked about way earlier, about how the game, sort of–Mass Effect, espcially–just assumes that… actually I don’t think that, I was going to say that the game assumes, basically, that your character is straight, except I don’t think that it necessarily assumes that the character is straight, I think the better way to put it is that would be to say that the game assumes that the person playing it is a straight male. Because, like, if you play as a male Shepard, there are all these instances where, like, women will flirt with him, and he will automatically, you know, no matter what you do, there will be automatic reactions of interest and you know if you’re playing your male Shepard as gay, then that’s completely out of character for him because obviously he’s not interested in women. And I’ve talked to a lot of people who have played their male Shepards as gay, and that just completely throws them out of the game, and they end up going through all these contortions trying to find out which options to push to sort of not be forced to show interest in women.
MATTIE: Yeah, also something that was interesting for me was, I guess, kind of an underlying concept of this entire topic is being forced into let’s say a monogamous relationship. Like for me personally, I wanted to explore like polyamory, or let’s say not rigid monogamous relationships. And I remember specifically, I was playing through the first game and there came a point where, to be honest I was flirting with both Kaiden and Liara, and eventually I was confronted about this. And I really didn’t feel like there was cheating going on, we were just talking, you know! So what was interesting was there was an option that kind of insinuates “oh, well let’s just like make something work out that’s not very traditional”? And instead the voice acting implication was like “I just don’t want to be committed, can’t I sleep with you both?” And I was like, that’s really not progressive whatsoever.
RAWLES: Oh, yeah, I know exactly what option you’re talking about. Yes, they sort of… it’s not actually a real stab at anything, you know, any kind of polyamorous situation, but they make it sound really really sleazy, and just kind of, just gross, frankly.
KATE: That gets to one of the things that really irritated me with the romances in general, which has to do with the overall structure of these games where you think you’re getting a dialogue option that you totally aren’t, or the only way to do something is a way that totally breaks with your character. I was saying before, my Shepard went with Garrus, and to me that’s, I like the story that way, but I was totally thrown by the scene in which you have to take a sort of normal conversation between the two of them and basically be like, “So, you. Me. My quarters. Let’s go.” ‘Cause it’s just so dissonant to what you feel is the picture of those characters and the conversation they’re having, and you don’t even realize what these things are going to be until suddenly they’re popping out of Jennifer Hale’s mouth and you’re like “Oh, crap!”
ALEX: Seriously, there’s like so many like cheesy pickup lines in Mass Effect 2, it’s, aw, it makes it kind of–it does make it kind of awkward if you’re trying to play the romances.
MATTIE: Anna, you had something to say.
ANNA: I had a question. When the option popped up, the “I’m not really committed to either one of you,” if you select it, can you actually be with both of them? Or does it still make you pick one character?
MATTIE: No, basically what happens is that Kaiden just says, “No, I’m not interested, bye.” And he leaves. And Liara is like, “Well, I’m here!”
RAWLES: Yeah, I always found that kind of just funny actually, that the game is just like, “Yeah, well, now you have Liara since you said that.”
MATTIE: Yeah, so, it is–I don’t know, that was very problematic for me, especially because that was kind of like an assumption of, I would say, what is going on through how we romance these characters in these games, that the end goal is just to sleep with someone. So I mean, like, in all of these, that’s what it seems, especially in Mass Effect, where it’s just like, well, how many times am I going to talk to you before I fulfill the requirements to sleep with you at the end of the game?
RAWLES: Yeah, and also, there’s also the issue of, not everybody’s ideal relationship involves sex. So, you know, that’s also an issue. There was that one downloadable character for Dragon Age 2 who you could have a romantic but not sexual relationship with.
MATTIE: Oh, I didn’t even know about that. Is that the… I’m not sure, I can’t remember.
ALEX: That’s Sebastian. The–it’s only romantic and not sexual because he’s like, taken vows of chastity or something, until he’s married or something. Because his whole story is that he was a prince and he was like a womanizer or something, and they sent him to the Chantry to shape him up.
KIM: I’m not sure how this fits in the context of Mass Effect 1 though, because it wasn’t that long ago that Mass Effect 1 was on the mainstream news as being this game that let you have 3D fantasy sex, or whatever. I don’t know if you remember the story, but Sky completely overblew it, and there was that really famous YouTube clip where some journalist was like talking to a news reporter, saying, “Well, have any of your played it?” and they were all like, “No, but I’ve read about it!” So I don’t know if half of the second game–I’m not defending BioWare by any means, but I don’t know if half of the second game was like them trying to not offend the same people again, but I don’t know.
MATTIE: Well, I find that, when you see the difference between Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 and the way relationships go, that it’s kind of like they wanted to add a more or less a Dragon Age depth, if you ask me, I saw these two games speaking to each other as a development. I mean we even see in Dragon Age 2, kind of the, you know the conversation wheel comes in and things like that. So, and what seemed very interesting about Dragon Age: Origins, at least for me and I guess Rawles as well, the characters were actually not so bad. Well, for me personally it was Alistair and Morrigan were pretty interesting, and I found Leliana and Zevran to be complicated. But it’s interesting to see how BioWare is adapting, especially when you want to see what they’re going to be doing in the future. Like I remember specifically seeing Ashley’s picture, and she’s become a little bit more sexualized, I think.
RAWLES: Yeah. I’ve been really disappointed in what they’ve shown of Ashley in Mass Effect 3 because they sort of very much sexualized her. They have her hair down now, and when they were supposed to be showing, like they were showing the alternate armors for different characters, and so all the other characters had on, like, armor, and she’s in just this little sort of outfit. It’s a very cute outfit, but Ashley was always very sort of hardline soldier, she wanted armor, and then they just said, “Oh, yeah, she has full armor in the game, don’t worry, blah blah blah” but then I’m like, “Yeah, but why did you feel the need to show her not in her armor?”
KATE: The marketing going forward into Mass Effect 3 is frustrating me so much that I just start running out of words for it. They could have done so much, so well, and instead I feel like they are regressing and getting stupider about it, after giving us some pretty good stuff for the first two games, and Ashley and the new marketing face for female Commander Shepard are the really key points there.
MATTIE: Yes. This is a nice segue into looking for improvements, how to improve what we’re talking about, the things we’ve brought up, and also what BioWare as a company, if they are listening to this, what we can say. Because we’ve seen, especially with that very infamous post about the straight male demographic being ignored, which I’m sure we can all talk about for hours, but we won’t! And to see how that reaction happened and how to include, how we want to include, we want a more diverse cast. I’d like to know what we can do for the future. Rawles?
RAWLES: Now, I spend more time than is advisable probably wandering around the BioWare social network forum. And there is this sort of bogeyman, whenever someone talks about romance in the games, including same-sex romance, and the bogeyman they talk about is Dragon Age 2, where all of the romanceable characters were available to both genders. And to me, that should be the standard going forward. Like, I don’t see any reason to do anything but that ever again. I don’t–I don’t, like–unless you’re actually going to go and make all the characters have distinctive, assigned sexual preferences, and just include people who are same-sexual-relationships-only, which they have said specifically they will never do, then everybody should definitely be available for both genders, there’s no reason not to.
ALEX: Yeah, absolutely agreed. It was pretty awesome when they–when they announced that all the, the romance interests in DA2, they were all bi. Or… yeah. They’re all–they’re available to both genders, and, yeah, that should definitely be the standard going forward.
MATTIE: Any other games that did romance well, particularly well? Anyone have any thoughts on that?
KATE: I actually wrote about this on The Border House. Fable 3 did it terribly, it’s terrible, it’s not romance at all, but that is a game where every NPC is assigned a sexuality, a sexual orientation and a sexual preference, and it shows up when you click on them and get their information. So you’ll see whether a person will sleep with your character outside of marriage, you’ll see whether a character is straight or gay or bi, and your player character can pretty much do whatever. So even though it’s kind of abysmal in so many ways, it was really refreshing to see that level of… thought, I guess? I don’t know, it didn’t seem thoughtful, but I appreciated having that in there, and it made my player character make different choices than I think I would have in a different game.
KIM: So wait, to be clear about that, do you actually have to talk to them to find out their sexual preferences and options, or is it just…
KATE: It’s just a thing that shows up when you click on them. I mean, you have to get into a conversation with anybody–it’s not a real conversation, an “interaction,” they call it–to see their stats, whatever, their information. But as soon as you see their information it just shows up, it’ll be like “Cheerful,” “Poor,” “Wealthy,” “Gay,” “Flirty,” whatever.
RAWLES: I completely agree that it was good that they actually sort of assigned everybody sort of a sexual orientation and everything, but one thing that was always really weird to me about that in Fable was that then, in the actual game, the only love interest you get that actually has any kind of actual personality at all, is always somebody of the opposite gender of whatever character you selected, which always seemed weird.
KATE: Oh, yeah, I mean, it was just terrible, incoherent, and it doesn’t stand up to thought at all, especially as you keep progressing. I had been spoiled by being deeply in Mass Effect this year, and I kept expecting to be able to enter into a romance with an actual character who had lines and a personality. So it’s certainly not an example of what I would say is “doing it right,” but in that one little aspect, I thought it was positive.
MATTIE: One thing I was hoping for, let’s say, the future of romance gaming would go is kind of like the avenue to explore sexuality and romance in a way that you maybe won’t be able to in reality. And that’s kind of important for me because I felt like I personally experienced something I have no experienced in reality, and it was interesting and strange, and I did things that, you know, I wouldn’t have done. I mean, let’s say, for some reason or another, I have more BioWare girlfriends than I will ever have girlfriends, most likely in reality. And I wonder if a lot of good can come from, let’s say, this very, this market that’s saturated with, let’s say, people who have expectations about heterosexuality. And lots of male gamers who tend to be very forward about their heterosexuality. If there were games that just allowed you, without judgement, to just try out what is it like to be another sexuality or another identity, or to have a romance of a particular situation. Because right now it seems like romances are just an added bonus, like “here’s a mini sidequest of just getting the right lines right so you can see something, like a sex scene.” So, having like another purpose for romances would be great. I don’t know if anyone else had a similar thought.
RAWLES: Well I think it’d be interesting. I definitely–if they wove it more into the actual sort of storyline. I actually think that Dragon Age: Origins did that really well. But really only if you romance Morrigan or Alistair. But it definitely did sort of weave the romances into the story of the game a lot better, I think, than sort of Mass Effect where it’s just like, yeah, you know, like you said, you just go through the romance options and you get to a sex scene kind of a thing, so.
MATTIE: Yes. Another kind of way of, I guess, how the structure of an RPG might add to that, so I was wondering if anybody had another idea of, well, something like a dating sim should be employed? Or how else can romance be used in a game?
KATE: I’m willing to cut them a little slack, and to understand that evolving this in a good way might take a really long time because when you think about it, an actual romance is deeply complicated. I mean if you think of all the flirting and the interactions and the way it grows more natural over time, I can understand why, from a development perspective, writers and coders and artists would prefer to give you very limited options. That said, I want the options I have to be better, even if they are limited.
MATTIE: Go ahead, Anna.
ANNA: So one of the things I’d be interested in seeing is that if the characters that you’re trying to romance have more of a say in that interaction because one of the problems I have with romance that I think is done badly is when, oh you give them enough gifts, or in Mass Effect 1 you need to make sure you talk to them enough, and I kind of find that problematic. I’d rather they seem to have some sort of say in whether they want to have a relationship with you, it’s not just what your main character does. And actually I think that Dragon Age 2, even though technically it was still the same setup with the behind-the-scenes numbers or something going on, it felt like the characters had more of a say because they went to Hawke to initiate the romance, which I really appreciated in that game.
KIM: I was just going to make a quick response, which is that I actually heard–again, I’m not sure if I’m just spouting unverified rumors–but there was a bug with Leliana in Dragon Age 1, where if you give her too many gifts too quickly, she wouldn’t romance you because it would glitch out and skip her personal quest so you couldn’t romance her. And so yeah, if you kind of tried to give her too much stuff she won’t be interested in you, which I thought was quite funny in an [? sorry, couldn’t hear this word] way.
RAWLES: Yeah, I actually–I have–I very much agree with you that it should be less just kind of handing people stuff, and I would definitely love to see the sort of–for the characters to have sort of more autonomy, but the thing about that is that, you know, what they did in Dragon Age 2 where there are characters who will sort of approach you, and infamously Anders, who if you’re just kind of nice to him, he will make the first sort of move on you, is that people just sort of railed and railed about “Oh no, ninja-mance!” and “Oh, blah blah blah, I didn’t mean to do this!” And I’m like, you guys, in real life, if you’re really unreasonably nice to somebody, they might think you like them, and they might say something about it. That’s good!
ANNA: Yeah, I really love that Anders did that, I love that Anders did that even if you were the male Hawke. I thought that that was a really great decision on the part of BioWare, and that’s one of the things I think they did well, even if it made some fans uncomfortable. I think it was a really good decision on their part.
KATE: I actually, a couple of male friends of mine were complaining about that at one point, and I actually, you know, it was amusing to me, I pointed out to them, this is what happens sometimes if you are female, especially if you are in a male space like being a gamer, if you are a little nice to somebody, you’ll engage them in a conversation, and all of a sudden they’re like, “So, you. Me. Bed.” And you’re like, “Oh, no no no no no no no.” And it was an interesting sort of weight for a few people to see their own privilege in a way they didn’t know they had it, and I got a kick out of that, personally.
RAWLES: One hundred percent completely in agreement there. I’ve had so many just sort of conversations with my friends, we’re just kind of laughing at all these, like, heterosexual male gamers complaining, “Oh, god, someone I’m not attracted to tried to initiate romance with me!” I’m like, yes, welcome to the life of a woman. Any woman! In the world! Because that happens all the time. And you know it’s just every time–I like to post about that issue sometimes on my Tumblr and things like that, and we’ll always people are like “Oh, but this is just so uncomfortable, you know, a male gamer is going to be hit on by a guy!” And I’m like, yes, as a queer woman, I have no idea what it’s like to be hit on by men that I’m not attracted to.
ANNA: Well and also you had the option right away to say “Oh, no, I’m not interested.” And he would back off. So not seeing what the very scary thing was.
RAWLES: Yeah, and especially–yeah. Because the whole thing, where he’ll just immediately back off, that doesn’t also happen in reality all the time. But I think it’s an issue of, you know, what they’re scared of–the gay, I guess they think they’ll catch it? I don’t, I don’t know.
MATTIE: Well, I mean, it’s definitely this interesting topic of, well, you know, is there a time where your privilege needs to show, in that sense of like, these complicated situations of a perspective that you might not see. And I think that’s what games like this can help us with, especially with romance. Romances tend to be something that we have a large media representation of something very stereotypical, but like some actual about, let’s say, sensitive things, like how to deal with someone who’s not of your sexuality approaching you with a romantic interest. Or is anybody doing that? Which is what I kind of liked about what you all have said about Anders approaching, because that’s also not something that happens in a game very often. And giving these characters a little more say with, well maybe I am attracted or I’m not. And as well, I find that things like Aveline, while we’re on Dragon Age 2, how you can try and romance her, but you can’t. You know, she’s already taken in a sense. Or just kind of, how I like that sort of–the controls aren’t exactly everything you say. And that kind of goes along with Alex’s article in a sense of what seems to be very jarring to a lot of people in these games is that there’s no control, you lose control and these events happen to you. And that’s unsettling for a gamer to have you not be the world-changing hero. So I think that’s interesting. And actually, Alex had just come back, and I wanted to see if you wanted to add anything about how to improve romances in games. We were just talking about how we want more autonomy of our characters interacting with us. Rawles, you go ahead while she thinks.
RAWLES: Yeah, about the autonomy, I think what you just said about gamers not liking sort of control taken away from them is very accurate because, especially in terms of like, what characters that they’re trying to romance, and you know, I think a lot of people actually really like it for the characters to just go along with them, that you just say a couple of good words to them and, you know, they are in love with you forever, and they never disagree with you, or anything like that. And another thing, I’ve seen peoples’ reactions to be almost bizarrely extreme to me, is for instance, in the second Mass Effect game, when either Ashley or Kaiden, when you meet up with them again, and you’re working with Cerberus, and Cerberus is this just kind of awful terrorist group, doing all these bizarre and just kind of grotesque experiments in the first game, and you meet up with Ashley or Kaiden and they’re just like, “What the hell? What are you doing?” And they get upset with you, and you can’t talk them down, they’re still going to be mad at you and they’re still going to walk away. And so many people have developed this intense anger and hatred for these characters who have what I felt was a fairly reasonable reaction to what is happening, and it’s so much is just rooted in the fact that they don’t like not being able to control everything about the game world. They don’t like that these characters have autonomy, they don’t like that these characters stood up to them, and you know, did what they thought was right, and you couldn’t just, you know, charm them out of it. And I just thought that was interesting, I mean, the conversation itself is kind of awfully, terribly written, but I think the fundamental basis of what was happening was perfectly reasonable.
ALEX: And on the flip side of that, I think later on, Kaiden sends you like a letter about how he–while he thought you were dead, he went on a date with somebody and he like, feels terrible. And I’m like, why do you feel terrible? You thought I was dead! It’s okay to move on! Like, that part just struck me as so weird.
RAWLES: Yes, oh god, yes. Like, the whole letter–and the funny thing about what you’re saying, and like, yeah, why when you were dead for two years, you went on one date, oh no, like, why would you feel bad about that? The funny thing about that is I saw so many people who are furious about the fact that he went on a date.
ALEX: Are you serious? Oh no…
RAWLES: I am absolutely serious. They’re like, they are furious he sent them the letter, they are–they somehow interpreted the letter as saying like, “Oh, well, you know, I’m seeing other people,” and I’m like, what are you–how are you getting that out of this? I don’t understand.
MATTIE: I think that BioWare relies a lot on Hollywood tropes, like they’re part of these gaming studios that are getting kind of more film-like, and want to be more like blockbusters. Like they keep using that word blockbuster in everything that they’re talking about now, which is driving me insane. And so they want these sort of movie tropes such as, hero has been gone and, you know, wife has moved on and is with another person, and there’s going to be tension, you know, that sort of thing. So there’s a lot of these complications that come into these romances because they’re also framed by this, how we–what we consume, the media, the Hollywood version of relationships.
KATE: That’s also–it’s one of those things that you don’t necessarily notice, at least not the first time, when it’s working correctly, but when you do something that the game doesn’t necessarily expect, that’s when you kind of get that dissonance. Like, I never got a letter from Kaiden because I left him to die in the first game, and I romanced Liara anyway. So it was that very different sort of, you know, where the tension is, like I was mentioning before. But the incongruity of that “By the way, I’m really sorry, I kind of dated somebody while you were dead” letter doesn’t–it’s one of those things I think the game expects the player to feel differently about it than a lot of players are going to.
KIM: I was just going to say, it’s a really interesting position because games aren’t like films, and they’re not like books, they’re really complicated and multifaceted, and they take a lot of money to produce than even a film. And it’s kind of interesting that in all of this, I think it’s important to keep in touch with, there’s not that many games that have really done romance well, like, full stop. And I actually really think it’s quite a good sign that these discussions can happen about the ones that have. And so, and again, like I really sound like I’m defending a company, but I don’t want it to sound like that, I just think it’s really interesting. And if you view it from the perspective of someone trying to write a work of fiction as well, which is essentially what a lot of these games are, like they have a main plot which has nothing to do with romance, right. The main plot has to do with saving the world. And the romance is what brings so many people in, and it’s where the fan culture comes in, and fan culture has this, like, huge impact on the way that video games work, and in a way that happens in books and film but doesn’t happen to quite the same extent as I think it does in video games. So through all of this there’s this real feeling that this is a real new media, and the ways we have to criticize it aren’t really there yet, in a way. And also the, just the budgets and time that goes into these, and then the idea that there has to be a single person just in charge of writing all of these possible ways you can play through this game and kind of make them make sense, it just seems like this crazy thing, and in some ways I don’t know even how people write them. But yeah.
MATTIE: Go ahead, Rawles.
RAWLES: Yeah, this is actually something a friend and I talk about a lot because we’re very very much into–we’re both writers, and we’re both very much into the sort of narrative of the games, particularly the BioWare games. And sort of breaking that down. And I’ve just sort of thought so much on the ways, for instance, that you write a love interest character in a video game versus the way you write it in a static work of fiction where the audience that you’re dealing with doesn’t have any input. And there are a lot of ways that they write romanceable characters that you wouldn’t necessarily write a static love interest. Because if you’re writing a static love interest in a book or something like that, you have to make them appealing because you want the audience to sort of understand why the main character would choose this person or be in love with this person, but there’s a degree to which you have to craft a video game love interest that is not present in a book or a movie or something like that because you have to make the audience member actually think, “I would want to romance this person myself,” and I think the choices that they make as to how they sort of craft the romanceable characters for targeted at specific demographics, just says so so much about the developers and their sort of views of, like, what straight women want versus what straight men want, and just kind of not thinking about what queer men or women might want, so.
MATTIE: Yes, I was just thinking about, I’m actually studying how writing, fiction-wise, differs from an interactive medium from novels and static, and it’s very interesting, we’ll have to do another talk about that. So let’s move on to Kate.
KATE: It feeds right out of what Rawles was saying in that the stories we’re telling in these games are very much, you know, the games we love may tell them better, but they’re very sort of trope-based, standard, template stories in a sense, and there comes a point in that story where the hero gets the girl. And that’s just how it goes. And I think where we do see some of that dissonance and some of that break down is when our hero might be the girl, or our hero might be a girl who likes girls, or our hero might be anything, and so they’ve kind of written themselves into a box where this is the point in the story where the hero gets the girl. How do we do that with a nearly infinite perception of our hero and twelve possible romanceable characters?
ANNA: Well, and I think that since we’re talking about these two BioWare franchises, it seems as though Mass Effect does a kind of, much more generic storyline of, clearly this woman will be in love with this man, and this man will be in love with this woman. Whereas Dragon Age, across the three games that they did, I feel like they’ve done a bit of a better job of making the characters have a bit of their own story and their own interests, and it didn’t feel as much as, if I was being forced into a relationship with any person. ‘Cause I know, as female Shepard, I kind of felt like they were forcing me into a relationship with Jacob, or just really pushing that relationship, and as a male Shepard it’s like they’re really pushing a relationship with Miranda. But I didn’t feel any push toward any one character in the Dragon Age games. I don’t know if other people had a similar experience.
MATTIE: Oh, I totally agree. There were times where I was, mostly with female Shepard and Jacob that felt really strange, just from personality-wise, there was a more platonic relationship, and it just made things really awkward. So, Rawles, what do you have to say?
RAWLES: Yeah, this actually ties straight into what Kate was saying, and definitely what Anna was just saying, that, yeah, the whole sort of trope of, you know, set up where the hero gets the girl, it can’t really sort of, it can’t really work when you put something that’s not very normative in it. And the sort of generic nature of Mass Effect where it’s just that. The hero gets the girl, they sort of point you straight at who they want you to sort of go for, as opposed to Dragon Age. Dragon Age: Origins has what I will–full disclosure–my favorite game romance, which is a female Warden with Alistair. And I find that really really interesting just because I think it was accidentally sort of subversive because Alistair is essentially–he’s essentially the, like, the sort of secret princess character who, you sort of swoop in and he’s very inexperienced, and, you know, sweet on you, and you know he loves you desperately, even down to the point where the climax of the game sort of–a huge climactic point of the game revolves around his sexual purity in a way that would normally be completely reserved for, like, a female character. And so I just found it really interesting, and just, it’s one of my favorites just because it is probably accidental. Like I said, it’s very subversive that you can have, like this female character be very very sort of, just kind of in a very masculine role in that relationship, or a traditionally masculine role, while he takes a more traditionally feminine role.
ALEX: Oh, man, I never thought of it that way, that’s pretty awesome.
KIM: Yeah, me either.
MATTIE: Yeah, that is so on point. Because I was wondering about that when I was, ’cause I had an Alistair romance as well that ended horribly, and–but, either way, it was interesting to be like, well, is it your first time? You know, that sort of kind of–he was witty and enough intelligent–I would say he kind of portrayed himself as a little dull sometimes–he wanted to be, like it was almost kind of his first relationship. And that’s not a trope that we see in gaming very often, the inexperienced male. We have a lot of men who are experienced with weapons, for some strange reason. Like you’ll have lots of young boys who know how to wield swords and guns from a very young age, and romance any woman, and you get Alistair, who you hear the entire story of how he comes into his skill and also how he is inexperienced with romance. But to tie things up, as we unfortunately have run out of time–it has been so quick!–I think that with all these, with games such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age, that once we see how a lot of other games take inspiration from what does well, I’m hoping to see kind of this compound of features, and kind of lengthening these character interactions and these romances.
But that’s it for now, I thank all of our speakers, and all of our listeners for joining us for our first episode. Hopefully you’ll like it. We’ll have a bi-weekly release of all these episodes, and a fresh new topic each time. So thank you from me, and thank you guys, and we’ll see you in two weeks.