Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

Dragon Age 2: Schrödinger’s Sexuality

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

Anders, left, cupping Zel Hawke's face with a caption stating, "This is the rule I will most cherish breaking."

 

It was March of last year, during the week before the release of Dragon Age 2, and I still recall that slightly feverish late night hanging around BioWare’s forums as rumors that all the love interests from the game would be bisexual. “They’re all bi!” was passed around jubilantly; someone was livestreaming a play of a review copy to show it was possible to flirt with everyone, regardless of the sex of Hawke. While I did not watch the livestream, I was in the impromptu chatroom that people had set up to discuss the issue. I myself have thus far only played the game twice, once romancing Anders as a man; once romancing Fenris as a man. My next two playthroughs will likely follow suit with playing a woman romancing Isabela, and then another who will romance Merrill.

It is fairly rare to have the option to play four different characters and romance four different characters in a game and have them all be same-sex, sure. However, what intrigues me about this game in particular is what it can say about how we react and respond to sexuality. Canonically, I do believe all the characters are bisexual, though it is not difficult to imagine one might not be aware of this.

For someone not paying attention to forums or online discussions of the game, and only basing their knowledge of the characters from the game itself, the only character who immediately appears to be bisexual is Isabela. For anyone playing a male Hawke, it would also become apparent that Anders is bisexual, as his somewhat desperate playboy personality in Awakening is contrasted with his relationship with Karl in the sequel. As David Gaider, a senior writer for the Dragon Age series,  has stated, that relationship happens, whether we see it or not, though a player who has a female Hawke and romances Anders would not necessarily be exposed to it. In that light, she might well assume that Anders is heterosexual exclusively.

Meanwhile, there is Fenris, who has the option to start a romance with Isabela if your Hawke romances neither of them. If a Hawke goes this route, one could assume Fenris is heterosexual, as he is involved in a sexual relationship with a woman. At the same time, during my male Hawke’s romance of Fenris, there was no real indication that I saw that he was interested in women. For that particular Hawke, Fenris was not bisexual (then again, he also sided with the Templars, so he was not at all a character I would use to describe my own personality). While I, in a meta fashion, knew better, this being a game where I enjoy actually inhabiting a role, that Hawke just assumed Fenris was actually gay. It made him view his history as a slave in a slightly different manner, whereas in a meta fashion, his bisexuality made me do the same.

Merrill, a Dalish elf with markings on her face, before the game's final battle. Caption reads, "(Laughs) The Champion of Kirkwall going to battle naked ... why can't I ever have that dream?"

Merrill, a Dalish elf with markings on her face, before the game's final battle. Caption reads, "(Laughs) The Champion of Kirkwall going to battle naked ... why can't I ever have that dream?"

 

I cannot speak to Merrill from a romantic sense in the game as yet, but from what I have discussed with other people, she does not really mention her sexuality outside of a relationship. The only hint we get of such is a line she has during the final battle, where she mentions wishing she could have a dream of Hawke riding into battle naked, regardless of the sex of Hawke. The comment itself does not seem to say much about Merrill other than build upon her sometimes socially awkward character. Therefore, any Hawke entering into a relationship could assume she is exclusively homo- or heterosexual.

This is something that exists to an extent in all media (there is the somewhat recent example of J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore posthumously and after ending the books), though games that allow romance options have the ability to make this this all the more apparent due to their interactive and quantum narratives. Because the player can make assumptions about the characters based on only what the game’s text presents, I call this Schrödinger’s sexuality. Again, as this has the chance to exist on a spectrum for the character and player, either individually or together, certain states and assumptions about the character may exist dependent on the text to which they are exposed. As yet, I don’t believe we have horribly many examples of such, but depending on how games proceed in the future, this is a possibility that can occur more often.

Now, the characters actually being bisexual regardless of whether or not our Hawkes are privy to this fact does tend to underline that we can often make assumptions about peoples’ sexuality that may well be erroneous. In Dragon Age 2, this has often taken the tone of bigotry against bisexual people themselves, which also includes some peoples’ tendency to assign a certain label until proven to be otherwise (therefore, a person in a same-sex relationship is gay, until proven bi, or vice-versa with a heterosexual relationship). What the game has the chance to do in the metanarrative, then, is to apply a social commentary about people who see it through the lens of Schrödinger’s sexuality, or allow their Hawkes to do so.

As I am of the belief that Dragon Age 2‘s characterization is for the most part well-written, this then allows a further example to be drawn about how we see and assume certain aspects about people in real life. Just as assumptions about gender and pronouns to use are often made on first contact by many (though not all, depending on one’s own privileges and acknowledgment thereof), having a cast that includes at least four bisexual people speaks to society’s own expectations when people start to naysay this in various fashions. When people make the argument that it is unrealistic to have a party where so many people could be bisexual, they are imposing their own world, and in particular worldview on to the game. As someone whose friends include quite a number of people among the queer spectrum, it really is not that difficult to imagine.

Therefore, that Schrödinger’s sexuality can be said to exist in the game for some people says more about the individual, as either a player or Hawke, than it does about the game. This is where authorial intent can become tricky for some, as they are firmly bisexual, regardless of how our Hawkes may interpret their sexuality. After all, if Fenris, Merrill, or Anders (in the case of a female Hawke) never reveal their bisexuality to Hawke, that is their right and decision to make. That does not mean they are exclusively hetero- or homosexual, though.

23 thoughts on “Dragon Age 2: Schrödinger’s Sexuality”

  1. This is such a timely piece since we were just discussing those kinds of assumptions in the Border House 2011 Awards post.

    I think that one of the things that is done well in Dragon Age 2 is that the relationships feel real to me. Just as what happens in the game, people disclose their sexual histories when they feel it is appropriate or they may chose to keep quiet about their past. Someone who has been in same sex relationships does not walk around with a sign to that effect just as someone who is straight does not. No matter their sexuality, people rarely walk up to you and announce, “Hi my name is Todd and I am straight”. So sexuality gets assumed and it may be decided incorrectly. Just as that is true in real life, that is true within Dragon Age 2. We are told that the characters were all created as bisexual but, because they do not carry a sign that says this, we players make assumptions based on whatever knowledge we get in game and the personal bias that we bring with us. While this is realistic, the ambiguity also allows us to view the characters in a way that is different than their intended traits.

    Overall, I think this was a great read! Thank you so much for this article.

  2. For Merrill and Fenris, I get the impression you view their “true” nature as one that allows for all possible actions within the same identity. That is: the Merrill you meet in your first play-through is the same Merrill that I meet, and the same Merrill you meet again if you play the game another time. If I’m wrong on that, please disregard the rest, since it speaks to that assumption of “true” nature.

    I always had the impression that Schrödinger’s sexuality—or characters being Hawkesexual—hinged on a view that they have potentially a different identity in each instance of the story, just as Hawke does. Do you feel it’s a disservice to the writers, or the characters themselves, to take this view not just through identification with Hawke but as the player proper?

    Can a homosexual Fenris, a heterosexual Fenris and a bisexual Fenris not co-exist in quantum, as you reference? I understand the “there couldn’t possibly be this many bisexuals in one place!” stance is absurd, but I wonder if the only conclusion to arrive at is that they are all bisexual because they have these varied relationships in what amount to alternate universes.

    1. “I understand the ‘there couldn’t possibly be this many bisexuals in one place!’ stance is absurd, but I wonder if the only conclusion to arrive at is that they are all bisexual because they have these varied relationships in what amount to alternate universes.”

      I wondered about that. Was the variety of sexuality expression a function of giving greater agency to the player (alternative worlds) or was it just that their was “a party where so many people could be bisexual”? Then, of course, I thought about which of those might be the best idea.

      I agree that people who say that there can’t be a party full of bisexuals are imposing their worldview. One of the more interesting ideas out of the Sleeping Beauty series by Anne Rice was that her world was Europe without the influence of Christianity (or even Islam). Even though I have not played Dragon Age 2, I wondered if something similar was at work in the world from just playing Dragon Age: Origins. Was it just that bisexuality was part of the normality of the world and thus, while not always expressed by everyone, generally acceptable? After all, as far as I could tell, no one on the world ever judged either mine or other character’s choices within the game.

      If that is the case though, then it might not be that the character’s are in quantum flux (to be locked upon player instancing) but more that they are locked by the player’s own worldview as they bring it to the game and proceed to play within a role. If they did not consider a character gay or straight, then, for them, it was not the case until proven otherwise — as Denis mentioned.

      I hope it’s that. Because, if it isn’t, then it might be what glamgeekgirl mentioned below, that the player can “influencing their orientation.” (From a mechanical level, that’s definitely the case as the game adjusts to input.) Could someone help me here? Are there canonical sexual preferences? And, if so, does it actually matter? Which is more important, the player’s story or the game’s story for this topic?

  3. I agree with you that it can be as realistic to team up with a large number of bi- or homosexual people just as with heterosexuals. I worked at a radio station where most of the news people were gay, quite a contrast to my entire everyday peer group at the time at college. But it is not us, whether in-game or IRL, who defines the sexuality of others. (At least, it shouldn’t be.)

    I have thought about what would happen if starting the game would randomly set each character’s preferences (of course allowing all options). I can see the positive side of what you’re describing, don’t get me wrong. But often feel weird if characters are fundamentally different just because of me being male or female. Of course, heroes like Hawke influence a lot of people in a lot of ways, but that is proactive and often intentional. It seems a bit weird to think about Hawke influencing their orientation? (Unless it was helping that character to come out of the closet, but that doesn’t usually happen, either.)

    It would be an interesting experiment if it were out of our hands what kind of people we meet under such extreme circumstances, like in real life (bc it’s not like Hawke had a choice what people to mix with for most of the game). Okay, it would probably annoy a lot of people…

    BTW I had no idea about Fenris and Isabela! I like the idea; why should it be always the Hero & his harem trope. ;-) I can’t remember “party pairs” since Baldur’s Gate! (Yikes, has it really been this long?)

    1. I’m in a hostel lobby right now, so my answer is quite short: Your “experiment” sounds reminds me of Star Ocean (was it part 2?), where players’ parties were completely different if they didn’t look up info on the net. Devs implemented a large group of possible party members, who may never appear to players if certain conditions were/weren’t met.

      I’d definitely approve such a thing in any modern RPG.
      “I use X as my main healer.” – “Who?” <3

    2. Fire Emblem is another series that has some romantic pairings spread throughout the party, with what they call the “support [conversation] system”. It’s a bit different context, of course, being both a Japanese RPG (less focus on first-person roleplaying) and an SRPG (usually 10-20 characters per battle), but it’s still an interesting look at how that sort of thing can be done.

  4. This is an awesome, awesome post, thank you for writing it.

    The way I look at it is: even if we consider different playthroughs to be alternate universes, why would the character’s sexuality be the only thing that changes? Literally nothing else about the character would change. It doesn’t make any sense.

    1. That’s something I took for granted: I assumed there are differences in characters’ actions or dialog outside of the romances. It’s really odd if that’s not the case, and I agree with you. There’s no reason that only their romantic/sexual preferences would change in the different “universes,” they would have to be the same identity in all instances, just expressed differently based on Hawke’s/player’s actions/decisions.

      1. Yeah, exactly.

        And I mean, the character arcs of each companion can be different, but that’s based on Hawke’s actions and how he or she relates to the other characters (eg. rivalry vs friendship), not his or her gender.

  5. First, “Schrödinger’s sexuality” is a brilliant description of this.

    Second, I think this design decision helped with the romances themselves. Kate Cox (IIRC) makes the point that because Shepherd could be male or female, Bioware was forced to write a character that was more interesting because it couldn’t fall back on conventions that would look or sound ridiculous with a Shepherd of the other gender.

    Similarly, here the Bioware writers had to find ways to make the romance storyline resonate across several variations, one of which was Hawke’s gender. From a story-telling perspective, no one gets with someone else just because they have compatible sexualities. There’s always a reason. By committing to a Schrödinger’s sexuality model, the writers were forced to focus the romance story line around that reason, rather than the sexualities or genders of the various characters involved in them.

    1. “…the writers were forced to focus the romance story line around that reason, rather than the sexualities or genders of the various characters involved in them.”

      I haven’t finished DA2 yet, but from what I’ve played and what I’ve read, I totally agree with this statement. It just works better than so many other romances in various media, because, like you say, the people involved are interested in each other for a reason. How many times do we watch a movie or play a game that has a (typically male) protagonist hook up with a (typically female) love interest, for seemingly no other reason than the fact that they’re there? It’s practically a formula by now, and because of that these relationships often come across as artificial and unnecessary.

      I like how the Dragon Age series gives players more choice with regards to romances, both in terms of there being a variety of love interests and that pursuing a romance isn’t mandatory. If there was a similar in-depth relationship mechanic for friendship as well as romance, then I’d like it even more (hey Bioware, just because I don’t want to date someone, it doesn’t mean I never want to speak to them again [mostly going off of Mass Effect, here]).

      1. (1) Totally agree about Mass Effect. There is no reason why e.g. FemShep should not be able to have the “military buddy” relationship with Jacob that MaleShep does.

        (2) You probably shouldn’t read it until after you finish DA2 (SERIOUSLY MAJOR SPOILERS if you care about that sort of thing), but this issue of ctrl-alt-defeat has an article about the romances of DA2 and how they provide an avenue towards overcoming the commodity model of sex/romance that we see in games nowadays.

        1. That article sounds really interesting; I’ll have to read it when I get around to finishing the game. Thanks for the link!

  6. Awesome!
    Seriously lagging behind Twitter right now, due to limited net access. Caught up on your discussion, wanted to add my 2 cents… and realize it’s been said already. I approve :)

    I’ll still post my thoughts, for completeness’ sake. Like some of you, I don’t regard characters decisions and actions from different playthoughs as canon. This results in – and I thought I was creative there for a moment – parallel universes where the story (mostly) is the same (unless there are different endings, paths, etc.), but characters slightly differ. This may result in a fighter who deals slightly more damage than one of the other instances, or one thathas another sexuality.
    Still, DA2 is pretty open about bisexuality as a concept.

    1. (Damn you phone, why do you press the send button too soon?
      contd.)

      … as a concept.
      Therefore, while in other games/stories I’d expect a character’s sexuality to be the one, and exactly the one, as seen (guy flirting with guy -> gay, etc.), DA2 reminds me of the fact that what I see is proobably just a part of the whole story. So, while gay Fenris is a completely different one from straight Fenris, they MAY actually both be different bi Fenris…es.

      As I said, nothing new to this thread.

  7. Is there anything in Dragon Age II that would dispute the possibility that bisexuality is the norm in this world?

    It seems rather ethnocentric when people look at a completely fictional world and assume its norms match ours. As a sci-fi/fantasy novelist, I find this particularly frustrating with readers and my fellow writers. Time and again in these novels, patriarchy is the norm. Heterosexuality (and heterosexism) is the norm. In NONE of these fictional alternate worlds can we imagine that gender egalitarianism, matriarchy or bisexual normativity is a possibility?

    In my own fiction, I often write nonhuman protagonists into my fantasy just as a chance to play with alternate societies without readers/writers trying to constrain me with ethnocentric expectations. If I write a matriarchy or (non-patriarchal) meritocracy in a fantasy novel with a human cast, I get howls of protest at how unrealistic this is. Yet, if I try these same social experiments with a cast of naga or satyrs people seem more willing to entertain the idea that women might inherit property or bisexuality is the norm.

    1. I can’t think of any bisexual NPC pairings in any major RPG. But that may be me. I completely agree with you. It’s like BioWare tried to sell us the idea that there are no Turian females because they couldn’t put breasts on them. WHO says that alien females must have breasts??? Especially from a race that is based on birds!

    2. Good point. That’s something that’s always frustrated me in fantasy/sci-fi worlds, how un-fantastical they usually are, even when making the society follow Western patriarchy’s norms makes no sense (I’m looking at you, Star Wars universe).

      I took Dragon Age II’s gender-neutral honorific “Ser” and the bisexual romance options as signs that that world has a much different outlook on gender from our own. It honestly made the game for me. That it was published by the same company that couldn’t give us female Turians because there was no way to make them sexy boggles the mind.

  8. As discussed by other posters, the Heisenberg ;-) uncertainty of characters’ sexualities seems to be a mechanistic consequence of player determined gender for Hawke, and the whole relationship system set up as being Hawke-centric. It’s good that Bioware were “forced” to write more diverse characters, but it seems that the importance of this being a design solution takes precedence over their commitment to creating organic characters with varying sexualities.

    I think that more focus on inter-NPC romances would help, not only in creating more interesting characters and dynamics, but also in moving the romance system away from the appearance of being Hawke-fantasy-fulfilment. Admittedly I haven’t played DA2 yet (or even finished DA:O :() so maybe Bioware is already starting to do this (Mass Effect at least, is terrible in this regard).

    I can see how leaving sexual orientation as an “uncertain” variable, and exploring player privilege and assumptions that arise from this through the meta-narrative is useful. On the other hand I can’t help but feel that any kind of “uncertainty” makes it far too easy for many players to fall back on a heteronormative interpretation of the game world, whether consciously or not.

    I’d prefer it if Bioware created “characters who are bisexual/gay etc.” instead of “bisexual/gay/straight character M/F, only IF Hawke M/F”. I can’t comment based on DA2′s writing, but judging from the range of relationships for Hawke other players have engaged in, i’d like to think that bisexuality is perhaps the accepted norm in the world of Dragon Age. As such, the apparently low number of same-sex relationships seems statistically incongruous. If characters are indeed “all bi”, I would hope that this is reflected generally throughout the game world instead of only through Hawke’s romances. Something as simple as having more characters in same-sex relationships would be enough to provide context for whatever romance the player decides to engage in.

    Of course, not having played DA2 my interpretation of things is probably way off base, please correct me and i’ll see if I can get away from Skyrim long enough to focus on finishing DA!

  9. (Caveat: I haven’t played DA2.)

    Some interesting points here, especially in reply to the inane “But it’s not realistic!” claim and about how people, even fictional people, have the right to not disclose aspects of their past or themselves. Such a simple truth, which is often overlooked. I think a lot of players feel strongly entitled to being in complete control of the party members in general, and even more entitled to having a “perfect LI”, and that bugs me. IMO the NPCs should be “real people” first and foremost, not exist just for the protagonist. That’s why I’d prefer to say they are all bi and just don’t necessarily talk about it.

  10. As interesting as the idea may be, I think it’s very important to keep ourselves from talkin about the characters as real people and not constructs created by people whose ultimate purpose is to satisfy an audience. These creators are overwhelmingly heteronormative, and the Schrödinger option is a way of adding some diversity without challenging the less tolerant crowd.

    Dumbledore is an example of this par exellence in the way that he is portrayed. First off, in the books he is the only character whose romantic relationships is relegated to subtext, and I’ve seen some people defend this as adding slice to the plot, but the fact that it never happens to straight couples unless there’s something scandalous about them tells us that that style of writing is intimately connected to the taboo of homosexuality. Secondly, and more overtly, the movies were altered because of his sexuality. There was going to be a line for him before his outing about an old flame in HBP that was cut afterwards. More subtly, his subplot was cut from the Deathly Hallows 2, and the only sign of affection that we saw from Grindelwald’s side was changed into one of betrayal. Connecting this back to Anders, we have him tell the story about Karl without knowing Hawke’s own thoughts and in a defiant way, as if he’s expecting resistance, but the relevant part of that conversation is cut if Hawke is a woman. There’s also a gender aspect to be seen here, as DA2 follows in DAO’s footsteps when it comes to portraying lesbian and bisexual women openly while mostly relegating their male counterparts to comedy.

    So what do we actually have here? It’s not true to the character for one. Their stories are actively altered to have moments important to them removed, and wether it’s concious or not, their stories are changed to cause less conflict with the heteronormative world. If the character had indeed been real people, I would have called this straight up discrimination. So, while this particular trope does bring about questions about the audience, I should think that it is just as important to not liet writer get away with censoring their gay characters.

  11. If you think about it, although the game is obviously set in a world apart from the world we live in, it is similar to England way back when. In the time of way back when (sorry for not being precise lol), I think it was more common to be bi as it wasn’t as taboo like in today’s society so that could be why all of the romance options are bi.

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