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.
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.