Dragon Age: Origins, Sexual Orientation, and Player Choice

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

This post was originally published at my personal blog, Acid for Blood.

I started playing Dragon Age: Origins a few weeks ago. I chose to play a female elf mage, Thurkear. I have heard a lot about the relationship and romance aspect of Dragon Age from friends who are playing it and a few bits and pieces in the media. Having heard about their enjoyment and engagement with this aspect of the game, I was looking forward to playing through it myself.

There are mild spoilers about non-player-character sexual orientation in this post.

At this point in the story, there are three NPCs in my party who I know Thurkear can try to romance. However, Thurkear is attracted to the only person she can’t have: Morrigan. This is frustrating, as Morrigan represents the most natural and ideal NPC my character would be attracted to, given the background I’ve thought up for Thurkear. As a player, I really like Morrigan. I was gutted when I discovered that Thurkear’s affections would go unrequited.

There are four NPCs available as romantic partners for your player-character: Morrigan, Leliana, Zevran, and Alistair. Both Leliana and Zevran are bisexual. Both Morrigan and Alistair are heterosexual.

  • If you have a heterosexual female player-character, you have two romantic options: Alistair and Zevran.
  • If you have a heterosexual male player-character, you have two romantic options: Morrigan and Leliana.
  • If you have a bisexual female player-character, you have three romantic options: Alistair, Leliana, and Zevran. Morrigan will never return romantic affection to a female player-character.
  • If you have a bisexual male player-character, you have three romantic options: Morrigan, Leliana, and Zevran. Alistair will never return romantic affection to a male player-character.
  • If you have a homosexual female player-character, you have one romantic option: Leliana. Morrigan will never return romantic affection to a female player-character.
  • If you have a homosexual male player-character, you have one romantic option: Zevran. Alistair will never return romantic affection to a male player-character.

It’s worthwhile to note that the heterosexual player-character is the only one that has unlimited potential romantic options, within the scope of heterosexual attraction. What does this mean? Let’s first re-state the obvious: a heterosexual player-character will always go for a romance with an NPC of the opposite sex. If you have a male player-character, your two options, Morrigan and Leliana, are always available to you as choices. If you have a female player-character, your two options, Alistair and Zevran, are always available to you as choices. In both of these cases, provided your player-character does the right things to win over the NPC, they will always be able to do so. Heterosexual player-characters are never denied a choice because all of the romantic options they would choose are always available.

The bisexual or homosexual player-character will always be denied choice in at least one instance. In those instances, no matter how highly the NPC of the same sex approves of them, that NPC will never engage in a romantic relationship with that player-character. Thurkear could give loads of presents to Morrigan (and she has), but Morrigan will never, ever return her feelings, no matter how much Morrigan likes Thurkear.

As we outlined before, a heterosexual player-character has all options available to them. Despite being denied a romance in at least one instance, the bisexual player-character has the most potential romantic options in absolute numbers terms. A homosexual player-character is the most constrained, with only one romantic option available to them.



This brings us to another point. There are no homosexual NPCs that your player-character can romance. What about Leliana and Zevran? Well, no. They’re bisexual. They aren’t gay. Bisexuality and homosexuality are separate and distinct sexual orientations, just as heterosexuality is distinct from the former two. One cannot equate two bisexual romance options with having homosexual romance options.

I am a supporter of more bisexual visibility in the media. I often feel as if bisexuality is portrayed and regarded negatively in entertainment media, in mainstream society, and frustratingly, even within the queer community. Biphobia is common. Whether it’s the ridiculous assertion that bisexual people can’t decide on which sex to be attracted to, that bisexual people are confused about their sexual orientation, that bisexual people will sleep with “anything that moves”, or whether it’s the mythical stereotype that bisexual people are untrustworthy or more likely to cheat on partners than heterosexual people or homosexual people. Having more three-dimensional bisexual characters in whatever media is a positive thing. Even though so many of those representations of bisexuality are likely to be flawed, negative, or stereotyped, there’s more of a chance that positive and non-stereotypical portrayals of bisexuality will emerge. Having said that, Zevran may not, at least on the surface, be the most non-stereotypical portrayal of bisexuality in the media.

I think it’s great that BioWare has two bisexual characters as romantic options in Dragon Age. I applaud BioWare for providing players with more choices. However, I feel that BioWare’s decision to have two bisexual romance options has far less to do with BioWare being advocates for bisexual visibility and more to do with the fact that the two bisexual romantic options provide more choices for heterosexual player-characters, while throwing a bone to queer player-characters. I think they wanted to provide at least one same-sex option for player-characters of both sexes and more romantic options for heterosexual player-characters.

Perhaps they felt that having a homosexual romance option would be a “waste” because it would deny heterosexual player-characters of the opposite sex from romancing a homosexual NPC. This, however, begs the following question: Why was it okay to deny choice to queer player-characters by making Morrigan and Alistair heterosexual, yet not create a homosexual NPC as a romantic option, which would deny choice to straight player-characters? If BioWare were truly advocates of player choice, then why the decision to make Morrigan and Alistair heterosexual? Surely the same standards hold for Morrigan and Alistair. Surely, by making Morrigan and Alistair heterosexual, it is a developmental “waste” because it limits player choice.

One of the most common defenses of the lack of diversity in videogames and the denial of player choice (a common example: not providing female playable characters), is raising the issue of the creative process. Morrigan and Alistair are heterosexual because that’s just the way those characters are are. Let’s not forget that this is a videogame we’re talking about. Every single detail and every single aspect of the game and its characters were designed and created, right down to the sexual orientation of NPCs a player-character can romance. If it wasn’t an arbitrary decision to make Morrigan and Alistair straight, if the creative process dictated Morrigan’s and Alistair’s sexual orientations, and by extension the denial of player choice, then why wouldn’t it make sense to create a homosexual NPC that only a player-character of the same sex can romance? Having homosexual NPCs as romance options would deny players romantic choices to the same degree that heterosexual NPC romance options do.

If BioWare wanted to provide the maximum amount of player choice in terms of romantic options for a player-character, making the maximum number of players happy, every single NPC that player-characters could romance would be bisexual. However, even if BioWare had done this, it would render homosexuality invisible. Heterosexuality already permeates every single aspect of society, so it’s highly unlikely that heterosexuality could ever be rendered invisible.

Given the existing romantic options in the game and the respective sexual orientations of the NPCs one is able to romance, it appears that it’s okay to provide more choices for straight player-characters than for queer player-characters. And it’s this disappointing situation that gamers find themselves in if they play a character that is not straight.

Additional Thoughts

I had a few more thoughts after having posted this on my personal blog, discussing with commenters, and thinking more about it.

One insight that a commenter raised on my blog post was the fact that there is no way to obtain all the achievements for romancing the four romance-able NPCs without playing a straight character. However, if you choose to exclusively player homosexual characters, you will not be able to get all of those PlayStation Trophies. In other words, people playing straight player-characters can completely avoid OMG TEH GAY and get all the Trophies, but people playing homosexual player-characters cannot avoid playing straight to get the same.

Another commenter asked me what ratio of queer vs. straight NPCs would be ideal for me, given a limit of four NPCs one could romance. I didn’t delve deeply into what I would perceive as “solutions” because I have absolutely no insight into BioWare’s development process or the resources they had to hand, and I’m uncomfortable with proposing solutions in ignorance. However, I was asked to think of a solution, and this is what I thought: if budgetary concerns were the factor, and they could only provide four romantic options, I would have made all of them bisexual. This option would have excluded those who play characters that are homosexual and those who play characters that are heterosexual to exactly the same degree, without completely excluding those who play characters that are bisexual. Another commenter came up with an imaginative solution, which I completely did not think about, and which I think is pretty cool, and that is to have the sexual orientation of two characters change, depending on the sex of your character:

Here’s what I think BioWare could have done with the “four NPC options” restraint. Make one female NPC and one male NPC bisexual (as they did with Leliana and Zevran), then make the other woman and the other man flexible so that (in this case) Morrigan and Alistair can be either heterosexual or homosexual depending on the gender of your player character. If you are playing a female player character, Morrigan will be homosexual and Alistair will be heterosexual; if you’re playing a male character, Morrigan will be heterosexual and Alistair will be homosexual. This would maximize player choice and allow for fairly equal representation of all three sexualities in any given play through. It would ensure that no play through (regardless of the gender of your player character or their sexuality) would be without a bisexual, heterosexual or homosexual character to, at the very least, interact with. If you have a heterosexual male player character, Alistair will be homosexual even though your player character doesn’t pursue him. At all times, homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual player characters would have the maximum number of romantic options available to them in any given play through.

I was also asked about the in-character angle, and whether Zevran and Leliana were written as bisexual, or whether bisexuality was a matter of mechanics, more than character. I can’t speak too much about Zevran, as I have yet to encounter him in-game. I can talk about Leliana, though, and compare her to Morrigan. The only difference between Morrigan and Leliana is that Morrigan no longer offers additional dialogue options when you try to talk to her on a one-to-one basis, and Leliana does. And the content of Leliana’s dialogue and attraction, so far, has been natural and not forced. Meaning, BioWare wrote Leliana’s attraction for female player-characters fairly naturally, at least to me, and being bisexual seems (so far) as much a part of her personality as being heterosexual is for Morrigan.

My post prompted an extremely heated discussion on a mailing list for women in the videogame industry. One of the common comments, which was brought up in different ways on several occasions, is that I should be grateful for BioWare’s efforts and should not complain, because at least there are options to have same-sex pairings in Dragon Age. First, I noted in my post that I fully support BioWare’s efforts. I am in no way ungrateful for the options they’ve provided. I applaud them for that. Dragon Age represents great progress.

Secondly, one can critique a game and still enjoy it. Again and again, many of us find that when we point out problematic issues in games, people say things like, “Vote with your wallet” as if not buying a game will stop those problematic issues from appearing again. Critique is valid. Critique is useful. The reason I write about games and analyse them is because I love them. Games are also my livelihood.

Thirdly, critiquing a game does not mean that one is necessarily ignorant of the realities of game development. Now, many people are ignorant of the constraints that game development studios face. I work in the games industry, so I have a little bit of insight into it, though I fully admit that I am ignorant of BioWare’s processes. However, on a mailing list full of videogame industry professionals, I was a little surprised to see this criticism leveled at me. Furthermore, just because there are resource issues involved, does not mean that the end result is beyond analysis and beyond critique from its audience and consumers.

Fourthly, and this is slightly tangential, I felt rather sad that many women on this mailing list were so resistant to critiques raised about the marginalisation of queer gamers, but who would 100% support critiques about games that marginalise women. Intersectionality: they’re doing it wrong. It makes me very sad, as a person who’s daily, lived experience exists at an intersection of different marginalisations and oppressions, that many who are also marginalised are unable to empathise with others who are marginalised, but in other ways. Even amongst people who probably perceive themselves to be progressive, there’s still a lot of consciousness raising to do.

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26 Responses to Dragon Age: Origins, Sexual Orientation, and Player Choice

  1. Rachel Walmsley says:

    Another way to do it would be to make more use of the whole spectrum of sexualities rather than just kinsey 0, 3, and 6. I think it would be interesting if, for instance, Morigan was predominantly heterosexual, but would be open to a romance with a female PC under exceptional circumstances.

    As well as allowing more people to pursue more potential romances, I could also see this being an interesting challenge from a games mechanics perspective. I think it would be interesting to have some of my choices severely restricted if I wanted to try to woo a given character. Having the player make difficult trade-offs is one of Dragon Age’s strengths, so I’d have been interested to see what they could have done with that.

    Of course, the problem with that way of doing things is that if you do it wrong there’s a danger of having it come across as “straight is the default but I suppose we can make provisions for those other people”. To really avoid that, you’d probably have to have at least one predominantly-homosexual character, and at that point you’re running into the problem of only having a limited number of characters to use.

    It’s not something with a simple answer, that’s for sure.

    • oliemoon says:

      Another way to do it would be to make more use of the whole spectrum of sexualities rather than just kinsey 0, 3, and 6. I think it would be interesting if, for instance, Morigan was predominantly heterosexual, but would be open to a romance with a female PC under exceptional circumstances.

      I like this suggestion and I agree with you. :-)

    • Brinstar says:

      I like this idea. It would be much more realistic than the simplistic scenarios I laid out above, and which BioWare have implemented, and it would have created a lot of really good opportunities for character interaction.

    • Stephanie says:

      I agree, I think that would be the most realistic idea. However, I’m sure that would make the programming more complicated. Even so, I wholly support your idea.

      However, as a “second-best” option, I do like the idea of changing the sexuality of certain NPCs based on the gender of the PC. That, I wouldn’t think (and I’m no expert) could be more complicated than some of the gender and class dependent things they have in-game.

      I wonder if the newly-announced expansion pack will have any changes with a response to comments like these. A girl can dream, eh?

      • Thefremen says:

        Given that the expansion is the same price as the full game and will only include 15 hours of game play, I wouldn’t hold my breath. I think the one exciting feature would be you can make a new Grey Warden from Orlais. So, ya know, there could be some pretty great armor sets if Orlais fashion is half as great as Leliana makes it out to be. (better hats for mages at the very least, hopefully)

  2. Mantheos says:

    I think it would be ten times more powerful for the story if your character expresses her feelings to Morrigan in actual dialogue and Morrigan refuses to sleep with you, saying to your character that she will not sleep with another woman. A point of weakness in the Dragon Age romances for me is that there is no recognition of a homosexual character liking a heterosexual character in the dialogue. It would illustrate some of the hardships of being homosexual and act as a powerful message.

    On a side note, I love the fact that in Dragon Age an npc can choose to reject your character as part of the story and you can’t do anything about it. These instances are big spoilers so I won’t say what happens, but I’d like to see more of that in the future.

    • oliemoon says:

      I think it would be ten times more powerful for the story if your character expresses her feelings to Morrigan in actual dialogue and Morrigan refuses to sleep with you, saying to your character that she will not sleep with another woman.

      Agreed. Story-wise, that would have quite an impact and would make your inability to romance certain characters feels more meaningful than it currently does. It would also be really awesome to combine this with Rachel’s suggestion above too, to have Morrigan actually reject you in game dialogue on grounds of gender and then, if you do or say very specific things after her rejection you might still have a shot with her down the line, as occasionally happens IRL. This kind of complex character interaction would be really fascinating and engaging in game, I think, and would be a big step toward moving away from the commodity model of sex that Alex has talked about in the past.

      Of course, this kind of interaction seems beyond what BioWare is currently providing in their games but at the rate they’re progressing I don’t think I’d be surprised to see them start pushing character development and interaction in these sorts of directions in future games.

    • I think it would be ten times more powerful for the story if your character expresses her feelings to Morrigan in actual dialogue and Morrigan refuses to sleep with you, saying to your character that she will not sleep with another woman.

      If that tension plays out in the rest of the story, that could be more interesting and powerful.

      However, I remember feeling rather offended back in NWN that Bioware had gone to the trouble of actually having a voice actor record the “Sorry, no women allowed” line for the female sex workers at the brothel. It was like… intentionally acknowledging that some of their players might want to do this and then *scolding* them for it.

      I suppose it would be different in a game that did allow some homosexual pairings, however.

  3. Thefremen says:

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Leliana is not interested in men at all based on all of her idle conversations and character interactions. It makes zero sense that men can sex her up in the game. Agree with Oliemoon that it would be way better to get shot down by Morrigan (especially if she said something along the lines of “I’m not really looking for a relationship right now, I just need a man to give me his seed so I can concieve a demonspawn and live forever. Maybe later on, K?”). On that note I would have liked to have been shot down by Alistar.

    • Denis Farr says:

      The awkwardness that Alistair could provide in such a rejection would be hilarious, and probably make me love him all the more.

      Y’know, I could easily see Morrigan saying something like that.

      • Thefremen says:

        OMG I can’t believe they missed such an opportunity to give Alistair a neat little bit of dialogue. Yeah the way it plays in my head it’s a funny Alistair moment that makes him a more likable character.

    • z says:

      I agree. Look at it this way — not meaning to try and co-opt her! — the way the relationship between Warden and Leliana progresses depends on a crucial bit of dialogue; you could say that in one in-game “universe” she turns out gay, and the other she doesn’t.

      Zevran on the other hand…

      • Thefremen says:

        Zevran is a horrible person anyways, on my first playthrough he sold me out at the first opportunity.

  4. Brinstar says:

    Mantheos :
    I think it would be ten times more powerful for the story if your character expresses her feelings to Morrigan in actual dialogue and Morrigan refuses to sleep with you, saying to your character that she will not sleep with another woman. A point of weakness in the Dragon Age romances for me is that there is no recognition of a homosexual character liking a heterosexual character in the dialogue. It would illustrate some of the hardships of being homosexual and act as a powerful message.

    Agreed 100%! It would have made a whole lot more sense from a role-play perspective to get shot down by the NPCs, rather than just have dialogue trees that ended, and it would have been much more impactful.

  5. Lake Desire says:

    I appreciate your point that Dragon Age does the rare act of representing bisexual people as real people. Gaeta on Battlestar is the only other bi man I can think of that’s in mainstream media and gets to be a real person. (And it only happens in webisodes, not the main series :( .)

    • YelloBird says:

      Yes, I think bisexuals exist a bit outside of most peoples perception, with quite a bit of resentment from the gay/hetero communities when they realise that you don’t 100% belong to them ;-)

  6. Alex says:

    Your posts are always so thorough, but this one is just ridiculously in-depth. Just brilliant!

  7. Simon B. says:

    Great post indeed. I was writing a post about the exact same topic of yours Brinstar, but your is definitely better. I think these kind of critics are really constructive and I’m glad you’ve raised them. Maybe Bioware will continue in a new direction for their next games and think about all of these comments. By the way, I like the idea of having a “dynamical sexual orientation” for 2 NPC (e.g. Alistair & Morrigan) according to the player gender. It could have been a really good solution.

  8. Laurentius says:

    Simon B. :
    By the way, I like the idea of having a “dynamical sexual orientation” for 2 NPC (e.g. Alistair & Morrigan) according to the player gender. It could have been a really good solution.

    I don’t, i can sense where it can lead in next games ig.
    lesbian npc being “won ” by straight male; it seems more like fuel for sexual fantasies then actual strenghtening of game storyline. Not that i find sexual fantasies to be something bad, it just i don’t think it will bring us better games.

    • Simon B. says:

      Maybe I was not really clear in what I wanted to express… Actually the idea suggested by one of the reader of Brinstar’s blog was to have 2 flexible NPC in order to have a chance to get, at least, one homosexual character. So the idea wasn’t to have, as you said for instance, lesbian NPC that can be “won” by straight male, but one homosexual character generated from the player avatar gender (and by the way, this character would only be seduced by her/his own gender).

      If we follow the given exemple, we should have Alistair who would be homosexual if the player plays as a male character and inversely, Leliana would be homosexual if the player plays as a female character. Is this idea clear or not now? :)

      • Laurentius says:

        Personally i wouldn’t like that because that’s exactly my main grudge against DA:O, not romance part per se but thing that player character has all options so easily avaliable , i can commit atrocieties one second and then noble deeds next, without any effort, i can be friendly and cheerfull and then cold and abusive, all with one or two easy clicks, in the end all these moral choices, decisions, romances come rather flat and forgetable.

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  10. Zeiram says:

    Interesting post, on which I like to add some thoughts. First to the “solution” of having npcs change their sexuality based on your own gender. Unless you really change dialog you wouldn´t notice the difference to them being bisexual. I think that problem can be seen with Leliana and Zevran. While Zevran actually has some unique words for males and makes it clear that he is bisexual (and sadly the classic pervert too) Leliana has the same dialog options for both genders.

    Third and that is to me the biggest problem, namely the problem of intent on Biowares side. I never romanced Leliana with a female character for one reason, I would have felt like the typical horny male who wants to see some lesbian action. The same horny males Leliana as actually made bisexual for. Same for Zevran who as a feminine elf is the dream of all those yaoi fangirls.

    Sadly bisexual or homosexual romance options in games are mostly aimed at heterosexual gamers. That is why npcs rarely say no to either gender but you won´t ever be able to say to a npc “Sorry but I´m into men.” (as a man of course).

    I am heterosexual and I never use these false bisexual romance options. Not because I find anything wrong in the concept but because I won´t partake in a sordid effort of game producers to deliver to the horny teenager target group.

    As you said bisexuality is often more misunderstood in the mainstream than homsexuality so you cannot expect to see it represented right in games.

    As a heterosexual supporting openess I would like to see some “pure” homosexual npc and I would love adequate dialog options. “I am flattered but you are not my “type” ” as well as “I never thought to find someone like me here” (or etc.). Unless we cannot get those things, please leave the phonys at home.

    That said, Dragon Age rocks^^

    • Thefremen says:

      Why do you let expectations based on your gender/sex/sexuality control the way you experience interactive fiction? Or any facet of your life for that matter?

      Personally I rather enjoyed the Female Protagonist/Leliana relationship and found the dialog included to be very touching/romantic/etc. Of course the sex scene made me uncomfortable but that’s the case with all of them.

      I really can’t guess as to intent, but based on the content alone I’d say they were doing a straight-up romance option for the female/female combination, there was nothing that struck me as pandering to male gaze any more than the other scenarios (that is to say, they all do to some extent).

      That said, I naturally agree with the last paragragh.

      • Zeiram says:

        Well what I meant by my first paragraph is just that I know why the bisexual option was included (to deliver to the horny male/yaoi fan girl target group) and that I´m not one of them.

        See the reason why I think games that offer romance options should have real homosexual options isn´t because I feel maximum choice should be given to me for all encompassing interactive romance. The reason I do think this should be done is because as a heterosexual the game offers me the chance to identify with my character and enhance my gaming experience. And to deny this to homosexuals is utterly unfair in my experience.

        It isn´t about opeing up possibilitys,making everything playable etc. it is just about ensuring that you have the same game experience that I get.

        Currently you are denied that and those fake bisexual npcs are just a reminder that the gaming industry rather caters to it´s perceived target group than to ensure an equal gaming experience for all.

        The goal for me isn´t the chance to sex up all npcs regardless but rather a relevant choice about my character which resonates in the world.

        Maybe I´m besides the point, I try to describe a problem which I don´t have and which I only perceive others may have. But this is a problem I care about, I don´t care about the mathematical balance of sexuality in the npcs, I care about sexual identity of the character.

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