Tag Archives: Dragon Age 2

Boob Sliders, Or How Role-Playing Games Helped Me Transition

The following is a guest post from Samantha Allen:

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman and an ex-Mormon. She is also a third-year PhD student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on practices of sexual fetishism. In her leisure time, Samantha plays video games, writes music and dreams of inhabiting the universe of Twin Peaks. For more on Samantha’s PhD research, please visit her website.

The author is shown on the left in a light pink dress.  On the right, the author's female Hawke from Dragon Age 2.

“If I’m going to look at somebody’s ass for twelve hours, I want it to be a girl’s ass.”

I’ve heard countless straight male video game podcasters, journalists and message board commenters supply this as their rationale for playing as female characters in games when presented with the option. I’m willing to believe that, for some of them, the reasoning behind selecting a female avatar truly is this superficial. But it also saddens me to think that other straight men, the ones who might actually enjoy some sort of cross-gender identification in their role-playing, nonetheless supply this as their reason so that they can keep up heteronormative appearances amongst their peers.

I have always rolled Lady Shepards in the Mass Effect games and, recently, a Lady Hawke in Dragon Age II. And, when I find out a game has a character creator full of sliders for every conceivable bodily dimension—everything from boob size to brow depth—my interest is instantly piqued, even if I never end up playing the game itself (I’m looking at you, Demon’s Souls). I’ve been known to spend a full hour on the character creation screen fine-tuning the appearance of my avatar, making sure that the forehead is the right height and that the eye shadow isn’t too garish.

At the time I played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, I would have admitted, however reluctantly, to being a straight man. But I wasn’t laboring over these elaborate female creations so I could have a hot piece of tail on my screen. The key to this mystery is that I have struggled with gender all my life and, for me, these practices of character creation were a way of idealizing, visualizing, and imagining myself as female. We had a lot of shared traits, my Lady Hawke and I: blond hair, brown eyes and a big forehead. This verisimilitude was intentional. I wanted her to look just like me (with different secondary sex characteristics, of course) so that she could live out a life I couldn’t, enjoying a public career as a woman and wearing dresses when she went home to Hawke Manor. Video game commentators often refer to games as a form of escapism but, for me, I wasn’t just escaping a humdrum life, I was escaping a physical body that didn’t feel quite right. It takes a lot of courage and the right life circumstances to be able to transition (to change genders socially and, if desired, to change the sex characteristics of one’s own body).

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DragonAge2

The Border House Podcast – Episode 7: Dragon Age 2

Fan art of Dragon Age 2 characters created by deviantART user sandara. A bearded male Hawke, Anders with a kitten, and Fenris in a much more adorable style than that of the original game.

It has been awhile since the last podcast, which will be explained at the start of this new show. We now have a new host and we are definitely coming back despite the delay between episodes.

In this latest episode we discuss Dragon Age 2. It won our game of the year last year, so let’s chat about why some of us loved the game. Leala Turkey joins the Border House staff duo of Alex Raymond and Anna/Gunthera1 in this episode. Thank you, as always, to kimadactyl for recording and editing.

 

Here are the video links mentioned by Leala during the show (the full romances for Fenris and Anders):

Fenris

Anders

 

A highly stylised rendering of Meredith from Dragon Age 2, done primarily in black, grey, and red.

Immoral Women: Why We Need More of Them

A highly stylised rendering of Meredith from Dragon Age 2, done primarily in black, grey, and red.

 

One of the most irksome things I hear when I make arguments for ‘good/positive portrayals’ of characters from traditionally marginalised backgrounds is that my interlocutors immediately assume I’m calling for portrayals of moral paragons. They seem to think I’m saying “if you write a gay male character, he must be the most righteous dude ever.”

In a word, no. That’s what today’s article is about, particularly with regards to women characters.

The reality of the situation is that the portrayal of women as pure, stainless alabaster icons of virtue is a huge problem that arises from cultural stereotypes of women. The notion that women are inherently more virtuous, kinder, and so on is part of the limiting and fetishising pedestalisation that serves to fence us off from being thought of as persons. Human beings are flawed characters with failings and weaknesses; angels are not.

When I call for ‘good portrayals’ I do not mean that all women should be virtuous. On the contrary, I actually want to see more women as villains, or as morally grey/dubious characters. The simple reason for this is that such figures can be fascinating, merit much discussion, and are  fully human. Think of your own interests in fiction: what characters do you love to hate? Who is your favourite villain? What character could keep you up for hours at night as you discuss their philosophy and the writing behind them? Which characters have you debating their morality: good, evil, anti-hero? We all have answers to these questions, and that alone tells us why ‘good portrayals’ include morally flawed/villainous characters by necessity.

My objection to femme fatale villains is not that they are villains, but that women’s agency is always reduced to sexuality in such portrayals. Consider the Drow from Dungeons & Dragons, for instance. The women are defined by rampant, unchained sexuality that is used to literally dominate men. There’s nothing interesting in this, save as a rather specific form of pornography perhaps. Moral weakness, failure, compromise, and villainy are about much more complicated motivations than luring men to their dooms with T&A.

My favourite character of all time is a woman who is widely considered a villain: Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic II. My love letter about this character can be found here, but for the purposes of this article the main points to raise about are these: her character is defined by a philosophy, she is not reduced to sex, she is an agent whose motivations are complicated, her morality shades into a good deal of grey.

Kreia Being Awesome. (Older woman in Jedi robes, pallid with long pigtails, and three purple lightsabres orbiting her).

It’s hard to peg Kreia as pure evil. She isn’t. Her overarching, long-term goal is ultimately a positive one: she wants to eliminate the new Sith threat as much as you do (if you’re a light-side character), but for her the ends justify the means. Throughout the story you’re treated to many examples of Kreia’s richly self-justified taint manifesting itself in odious actions that service the greater good she has in mind. She is utterly driven by hard-won truths in a life that has been struck by torture, betrayal, and the harshest kind of learning. It produces a figure who is conscious of how far she has fallen, but will use her last gasps of energy to train someone who “may yet be saved.”

If you are a moral idealist, as I try to be, her incredibly well-written dialogue will force you to account in detail for why you believe what you believe. You may disagree strongly with what Kreia does, but you cannot deny she has her reasons—reasons she’ll talk about at length which define her character.

This is far more interesting than what we usually get.

Another example of such a character comes to us in the form of Dragon Age 2’s Knight Commander Meredith. She is horribly undermined by an ending that, in my view, reflects lazy writing and was perhaps the game’s worst moment, but you are otherwise shown an equally morally compromised woman who struggles mightily to do what she feels is right. Machiavellian evil is fascinating because it most closely imitates the evil we see in the real world. Most people are not Snidely Whiplash-esque moustache twirling sociopaths who do evil because it’s funny to them. Evil manifests itself in our world mainly in the form of people who are utterly convinced they are doing the right thing. Morality is rather tricky like that.

"Do not brand me a tyrant!" What I also find interesting about some of these characters is that they are portrayed as being older-- lines of middle age are visible on Meredith's face, for example, and Kreia is older still. It's a positive image for older women, to say the very least.

Knight-Commander Meredith is one such person. She is introduced to you quite forthrightly, her sword running through a powerful Mage on the verge of killing you. But she quickly evolves into an adversarial force. Meredith is a holy Templar commander driven by her desire to ensure that the Circle Mages under her command in Kirkwall are kept under control and do not become blood mages or abominations. With this in mind, she justifies increasingly onerous restrictions on their freedom. A literal red scare takes hold of her city as she sees the dreaded “blood mages” around every corner, purges becoming a regular feature of life in the city of Kirkwall. But through it all it’s impossible to walk away feeling Meredith has not thought this through. She commits moral wrongs in the name of moral rectitude; her convictions are deeply held and premised on fear of Mages with freedom causing widespread destruction. Meredith has considered all the arguments against her ideology. She is, you learn, painfully aware of the hurt she causes but believes strongly that she is resolutely holding back the tide of a greater evil.

To challenge her is to only compel her to stand her ground, and in a stentorian voice that feels like living scripture, she enjoins you to give her a better solution to this Gordian knot of a crisis between Templars and Mages. If you cannot—and indeed your character cannot—“then do not brand me a tyrant!” she thunders.

This is how you write a villain, and this is how you portray a woman as a human.

The most compelling characters make you think, and sometimes the most intriguing villains are those who are not outright evil, but who are morally compromised. Good people corrupted by the difficulties they confront, who convince themselves that the ends they envision are worth wicked means.

Other examples include Mother Petrice from Dragon Age 2, a quietly zealous manipulator who, again, is committed to doing what she sees as right. In a beautiful moral contest, Grand Cleric Elthina—her superior— can be shown chastising her for her radicalism, telling her “Eternity is long enough that we do not need to rush to meet it.” Elthina’s moderation contrasts with Petrice’s blossoming zeal. The struggle here is not one of cattiness, nor does it revolve around a man, but around a profound theological rift that each woman has her own struggles with.

Lord Zash, forcing someone to pay the price for their lack of vision. (Red robed, light skinned woman shooting lightning out of her hands.)

Moral complexity is wonderful, but you can also write complicated, interesting out-and-out evil. The Old Republic has a woman villain who, in an MMO with an enormous cast, manages to stand out: Lord Zash. While her physical beauty is occasionally remarked upon, what drives the story of the Sith Inquisitor class are Lord Zash’s manipulations and a carefully planned game of chess that testifies to a truly devious and thoughtful mind. A scholarly genius and an intelligent (rather than brash, impulsive, and childish) Sith Lord, she plays a long game leaving you to wonder if you’ll be ensnared next. Her evil is not the showy, infantile evil of your usual hyper-macho scarred Sith Lord (with the way some talk, it’s not hard to imagine some go out of their way to kick puppies and steal candy from babies). It is, instead, the evil of careful, strategic planning born of a true intellect. Each strike is the solution of an equation, a carefully calculated blow rather than an impulsive iota of violence-for-the-sake-of-violence.

Speaking of such, I’m making a note here to say that GLaDOS was a triumph (if ever there was one).

There are many ways to write such characters, of course, but careful attention given to motivation ensures that a character’s humanity—rather than a fetishised gender/race/sexuality—is what defines them as a narrative figure. Kreia is motivated by a drive to stop the Sith from using an ancient evil to consume all life in the galaxy, and by a long nursed hatred of the Force itself, as well as a desire for her as a teacher to have a successful student. Knight-Commander Meredith sees herself as the woman who must make painful choices to ensure peace and order in Kirkwall, and to stop Mages from becoming abominations that threaten the lives of all. In the name of all the above, they will commit to doing repulsive things.

At no point do we find ourselves harping on their looks, their sexuality, any femininity they may possess, or any other fetishised quality. Neither is turned into a man-hating caricature. And neither is a fundamentally morally righteous person; instead, they are human beings whose profound flaws are a part of their characters. What constitutes their “immorality” is also, crucially, not at all related to their sexualities.

Consider my title here: “Immoral Women.” Even now it conjures images of promiscuous, ‘loose’, or otherwise proudly sexual women, which is a testament to the suffocating and dehumanisingly limited framework with which women are saddled. I want that notion of immorality to be expanded to be something more fully human.

Speaking of fuller humanity there is another note that must be made, one of great importance when it comes to conceptualising “women”– it is a reminder that the category “woman” includes women of colour. I adore all of these characters, and am always grateful I have all these examples of great morally compromised women to choose from… and yet also dismayed that they all are, or appear white. Everything I’ve said hitherto applies just as much if not more to the lack of morally compromised, strong women of colour in games. Isabela from Dragon Age 2 is not a villain but as a rogue/pirate/renegade, definitely skirts the outer limits of ethics– and her struggles therewith define her character well. But it’s hard to think of many other women of colour with Kreia-level thought invested in their characters, regardless of whether they’re heroes, villains, or anything in between.

This brings us back to the beginning: the role of moral diversity in character portrayals and my sincere desire to see more women (all-inclusive) as villains and compromised figures. Perhaps part of the communication problem I have is that I use the word “good” when I say “good portrayals,” which leads people to think of it as a moral proposition. What I really mean is “well-written.” This includes the full spectrum of morality, it includes amorality, it includes immorality, and everything in between and beyond. Humans are flawed, and humans are capable of that full range of emotion, motivation, and morality.

No human is a true moral paragon of perfect righteousness. This is not a pessimistic statement about human nature, far from it. It is merely recognition that many people have intricate characters to some degree, and that because women are human, we can commit great wrongs as well as do good. What influences our sense of ethics is a complicated melange that no Madonna/Whore dichotomy can ever hope to capture.

The key to getting past stereotypes is recognising this.

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.

An Open Letter to Mary Kirby and David Gaider

Serendipity

A recent thread on the BioWare forums caught my attention, one in which a young trans person gave you quite the (deserved) tongue lashing about the portrayal of trans women in your Dragon Age games as in-jokes and sex workers drawn in a problematic way, a fact that I have drawn attention to myself. What impressed me was the fact that the both of you accepted MsKehoe’s complaints, took them seriously, and addressed them in a thoughtful and largely reflexive way that gives me tremendous hope for the game industry.

So, cheers for that. Really, well done, it’s a model.

I honestly could not ask for better in some of your responses. Both of you understood that intent doesn’t matter, both of you understood that you do not have the right to tell trans people what does and does not construct an unequal society for us (I prefer that phrasing to “offended”- prejudicial portrayals do not simply ‘offend.’ As MsKehoe said: they have instrumental value that operatively does something in the world, not simply make someone feel something.) I was also very pleased with John Epler’s post:

Let’s avoid trying to tell other people what they should or should not be offended by, shall we? And while we’re at it, how about we cut out the armchair psychology.

I’m going to leave this topic open, but I strongly recommend people don’t post unless they have something constructive to say. Which means that I’d rather we cut out the posts telling transgendered people what they should or should not be offended by, as I’m rather certain the majority of us (myself included) have no experience living that sort of lifestyle and dealing with the issues and societal biases associated with it.

That is all.

About my only critique here is that trans people don’t have a ‘lifestyle’ vis a vis being trans anymore than cis folks do, but I understand what he meant and what he meant was spot on: trans people are experts in our own experiences. So, cheers for that too!

But I’m writing today about something that Mr. Gaider wrote that I would like to have a discussion about; in lieu of that I’d like it if you at least considered what I had to say on the subject. In his first post in the thread, Mr. Gaider said the following:

2) Despite the above, the request for other kinds of transgendered characters is reasonable enough. We’ve even discussed it in the writer’s pit from time to time. If anything, we’ve avoided it because it’s a hard sell (in terms of it not coming across as a “gimmick” for a major character), it’s not altogether setting-appropriate (cross-dressing perhaps, but that’s not the same thing) and because unless a trangendered person somehow made themselves stand out (which someone like Serendipity would purposefully do) they’re not going to come across as anything other than the gender they’ve chosen. More subtle nuances of appearance aren’t something we’re really set up to do, engine-wise (not without creating content specifically for that reason).

This is something that I think you and I can have an interesting and productive chat about. You see, I respectfully disagree, and I think that given how open and thoughtful the both of you have been on this subject hitherto you might just understand why. It’s an unashamedly good thing that you want to avoid a trans identity or history becoming a gimmick for a character. But I would go beyond this: is that the only way to portray a trans character? No, it isn’t really. Furthermore, you suggest that a trans character would have to be made to ‘stand out’ brightly in some way (physically or otherwise) in order for their trans-ness to be relevant to their character, and that a respectful portrayal would ensure they would “not come across as anything other than the gender they’ve chosen.” So, ‘why make them trans at all, then?’ you seem to suggest.

I have problems with this line of thinking. It is not really all that different from the thinking that keeps people of colour underrepresented in a lot of movies and TV shows (and video games, for that matter), or that has prevented women from being cast as leads in all of the above. If their ‘otherness’ isn’t vital to the plot or to the character (or to the joke they embody), then they should just be white/male/hetero/cis. If you can see why thinking this about characters of colour and/or women  and/or queer characters is incorrect, you can surely see why it’s a problem to think that about trans people. Why? Well, because I exist without my being trans defining every last part of my existence. If I and most other trans people pull that off, surely a fictional trans character can.

Would an example help? If you like fantasy books (taking a wee shot in the dark here!) perhaps the both of you might like Amanda Downum’s The Bone Palace. One of the lead characters is a transgender woman, Savedra Severos, who is drawn as a full character that is not defined by being trans. Downum, with incredible skill, manages to detail little bits of Savedra’s life as a trans woman qua trans woman without letting that take over her portrayal. Savedra’s role in the plot has to do with the arcane politics of the story, not with her being trans. Her motivations are her own, and are as nuanced as those of the cis characters. She is incidentally a trans woman without being invisible. Visible but not tokenised. Human.

Downum herself is cisgender. If she can do it, anyone can.

Consider this possibility: a member of your party with a prominent role in the game happens to be a trans woman. If you get her to trust you enough, she will come out to you, perhaps opening up an incidental plot having to do with something unresolved in her past that’s not strictly apropos the main quest (Alistair, Wynne, and others all had such sidequests). Would you say that being an assassin was important to Leliana’s history if not fully defining of who she was? That this was not her ‘one note’ or ‘gimmick’? If you can thread that complex line you can understand how to portray trans people ethically.

Secondly there is the issue of whether or not trans people exist in Thedas. Mr. Gaider seems to say that we don’t. My question is “why not?” And to the extent we seem to exist, why is it only as sex workers? Now, sex workers are amazing people with powerful stories to tell: my problem with how they’ve been shown in DA is that they come off as less than human, entirely defined by their jobs. Serendipity seemed to have more potential to become a fully fleshed out character, however. Why was that opportunity ultimately missed?

I cannot really say much more about that because it’s really quite a simple matter: why wouldn’t we exist in this world? Trans-ness is certainly very historically and culturally contingent. But the basic phenomena of people having non-male/female genders, or transitioning from one to the other within the terms of their respective cultures is widespread and could easily be adjusted to fit some elements of the setting in DA. To take just one of a multitude of starting points: a Chantry myth about a saint who changed sex, becoming the venerated patron and archetype of Thedosian transfolk.

I’m not in any sense demanding that this be part of Dragon Age III (not that I’d complain!) but rather to suggest that there are a welter of creative possibilities before you for trans-recognition that generates good characters within a believable, setting-native context. DA has been praised repeatedly by me for finding ways to do this with women and with cis LGB people, there’s no reason you all can’t include the T.

Let’s work together on this and let’s keep pushing the horizons of possibility in fantasy, horizons I’ve always believed to be limitless. I think, at the end of the day, you both agree.

Thank you for listening.

Love and Kittens,

Quinnae Moongazer/Katherine Cross

The Border House Podcast – Episode 1: Lewd-onarrative Dissonance

FemShep looking at Tali with some distance between them.

FemShep looking at Tali with some distance between them.

 

It’s finally here! In our premier episode, we talk about diversity issues in the portrayal of romances in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series from BioWare. As to be expected, there are spoilers for these games in the podcast (though, if you haven’t played them, you definitely should!). We are more than happy to take feedback on how to better improve and fit our listeners’ interests, so feel free to comment about what you think.

The Border House Speakers

Host- Mattie Brice

Editing- Kim

Alex Raymond

Anna

Rawles

Guest Speaker

Kate Cox

 

Opening & Closing Credits – Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

 

Transcription: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=6665

 

 

 

 

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

The Politics of Game Hair

N.B. Many thanks to Latoya Peterson for allowing me to ask her a few questions, and my friend Janathan for reading and giving me feedback. I do not claim to have these experiences, but it is something I rarely see addressed.

The choices for game hair often are often disappointing. The physics for realistic hair are not quite there, meaning longer hair is rarely seen. However, as a white male with the accompanying privileges that can afford me in terms of being represented in games, it took me a while to realize just how bad the hair options are. It first started around 2000, when I began making my little Sims and basing them on real life friends—it was then that I realized, try that I might, I could not model my black friends effectively, because many of them liked to wear their hair naturally

Ever since that time I have kept an eye on the characters I am able to design in my games. From the original Sims to White Knight Chronicles to both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series (and many more besides—MMOs for instance), I have noticed that if I want to create a black character model, I am typically given at maximum four options, if that, when choosing hair options that are not treated in some fashion: cornrows, locks, mini-fros, or going the shaved route. Even more curious is that sometimes this is even further divided between selecting to play as a man or a woman; when playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that my male Hawke had more options than my female Hawke, oddly enough (or, as is the case with Mass Effect 2’s editor, I found myself unable to emulate Jacob’s features very well). For Ronia Shepard, for instance, I found the options to shear off all her hair, or go with the pulled back ponytail look featured below (which still isn’t perfect, but alas).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

When presenting this topic to some people, there are typically two responses. Either, as I mentioned above, all hair options are horrible, so this should be seen as either a boon (this is said with a laugh, so as to make sure I understand it as a joke) or we should work on improving hair overall. The second is rarer, but also comes from a place of privilege, asking if black people really want these options? After all, the assumption goes, how many black people play these particular games anyway? And given that the assumed number is so infinitesimally small, wouldn’t that just be a waste of resources?

Of course, games are not alone in this lack of representation. In almost any media, when we do see a black man or woman who is supposed to be taken by us as attractive, there are certain standards regarding lightness of skin, acceptable facial features, and how their hair is presented to us—Eurocentric standards. The ideal is to have flattened, straightened hair for women, and short, closely cropped hair for men. This does not mean I want to excuse games, but want to point out how games are performing the same-old, which is a shame when we have games that propose that we get to create and make ourselves, to immerse ourselves in their worlds, or to inhabit some fantasy character.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

In my first example, with The Sims, the problem was further highlighted by the fact that the game had a thriving mod community. Hair options abounded, as many were not satisfied with the original stock of hair options. Try as I might, I found myself frustrated on two fronts: rarely was black hair considered, and, back in the days of the first Sims, clothing was split into three skin color categories (white, a yellow/light brown, and a light-toned black), and quite often, white was the only option for particular sets of clothing within the modding community. With the release of Sims 2, we did not seen a return to the clothing divided by skin color, though natural hair options have still been somewhat lacking in the default selection as the series progresses.

Which only highlights the related problem of the lack of diversity in the industry, and further, those voices being heard in directing a project, or coming up with its assets. It is still common that even basic skin color never goes darker than light-brown, and that the skin tones are abysmal in certain lighting conditions. It starts to seem as if it is an afterthought. Since many white people I know are still relatively ignorant in terms of natural hair,  or how the media quietly silences all but the ‘acceptable’ black beauty, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how this occurs. Plainly: ignorance.

Games seemingly brag more and more often about their character creators, and how they have better options, allow more customization, and give the player the chance to really play themselves, or whomsoever they may choose. Myself? Yeah, I can play my pasty white-skinned self to my heart’s content, but I do not play games to always play myself, and I am one of those people aware of the self-loathing encouraged by media (both subtly and overtly) and the battles people can have about the politics of their hair in public (note: aware, not experienced). I want to play from different perspectives, even if the game does not wholly acknowledge my choices of created character.

There is a question of the social responsibility of games, and if we are to believe they have the same social responsibility as any media, we need more diversity in a number of ways, including self-representation for minorities (and theoretically for those who don’t want to play themselves all the time—much as with same-sex romance, it is folly to believe that only those who are queer would play such). The media’s black beauty standards should ideally have no role in games, though they are present. If we are to continue to open up character creators, however, we need to also allow a larger range of options, where natural hair does not get boiled down to what white society considers ‘acceptable’ and ‘politically safe.’

Characters Done Right – Aveline

Aveline Vallen - a red haired, freckled woman

Memorable characters have unique motivations, stories, and personalities. Video games often have ensemble casts with the individual party members simply serving the main character’s interests. As a healer, damage dealer, or thief they are there to compliment the gameplay style of the main character. Dragon Age 2 takes an ensemble cast and creates a detailed backstory for each party member. Instead of serving only as aides to the main character, their motivations and goals are independent of the main character. Aveline, a warrior with whom you spend the entire game, is one of these well written characters from Dragon Age 2.

This post will include several story spoilers for Aveline from Dragon Age 2.


At the start of the game your main character and their immediate family are fleeing their hometown of Lothering. On this journey out of town is where Hawke encounters Aveline Vallen and her husband Wesley. You quickly learn that she is a warrior that had fought at the battle of Ostagar. Her portrayal as a female warrior is very positive: Aveline is strong, has fought in many battles in the past, wears full armor (no chain mail bikini and high heels here) and  generally feels like a straightforward depiction of a warrior rather than an extreme version of a woman that kicks butt (such as Bayonetta).

Shortly after meeting Aveline, the party is attacked by darkspawn and her husband Wesley does not survive for long after that battle. His demise in the storyline could have become a way to make Aveline a potential love interest for the main character Hawke. But luckily that is not the path that Bioware chose for this plot point. The loss of her husband greatly affects Aveline and her mourning of her husband is handled respectfully and honestly. He was not killed to make Aveline available for Hawke, instead his death gives allows us to see Aveline go through her own emotional journey. It is a way for the player to see a side character deal with grief and then how she moves on with her own life after that loss.

Upon reaching the city of Kirkwall, Aveline’s story continues to mature. She begins to work for the city guard and is eventually promoted to Captain. Her life and path do not revolve around Hawke’s decisions and desires. As she climbs up the power structure in the guard, Aveline faces insecurities and fears. She worries about the loyalty of her guards but does her best earn and keep their trust. Witnessing her struggle with the job and her new position as Commander help draw her out as a realistic character. Her insecurities and doubt combined with her competence and care for her job make her character believable. She is a woman in charge of the city guard and her gender adds nuance to her rise to the role of Captain.

Part of what makes Aveline interesting (that is also true of the other side characters in Dragon Age 2) is her struggle with aiding Hawke. Aveline accompanies Hawke, but does so cautiously. Because she has her own set of values and beliefs, she sometimes disagree with Hawke. Dragon Age 2 does an amazing job with this personality and belief clashes within the party. Based on decisions made within the game, some of the characters may leave Hawke during the course of the journey. A set of beliefs that is separate from the goals of the main character makes the cast feel human. They are not simply a cheering section for Hawke, but a group with their own motivations and stories.

One of the great things about Aveline are her flaws and insecurities. She is a strong warrior, a leader of the guard in a large city, but she is not fully confident. This is especially true with her and romance. It a storyline during the second act of the game Aveline admits that she has becoming interested in a fellow guard named Donnic. In one set of quests, we see how unsure and awkward Aveline is when flirting. I found it endearing. She was not familiar with dating and was unsure how to act. This unease led to a lot of misunderstandings and uncomfortable moments between her and Donnic. It felt like a very human and real situation. Additionally,  when Hawke flirts with Aveline she is oblivious to the advances. She is interested in Donnic; she is not there only for Hawke. She has her own life path and that was more important than the desires of the main character.

(Trigger warning for discussion of slut shaming in the following paragraph)

Unfortunately, when speaking of flaws there is a glaring one with Aveline. Her relationship with another side character in the game, Isabela, is very strained for most of the game. In my first playthrough of the game I played as a rogue. Because of this, I rarely (almost never) had Isabela in my party because she is also a rogue. As such, I missed her interactions with Aveline. However, in my second playthrough as a mage I often went on quests with both Aveline and Isabela in my group. Isabela is a character that is very comfortable with her own sexuality. She discusses sex without shame and flirts very openly with Hawke. Aveline clearly dislikes Isabela early in the game and calls her a whore during some party dialogue. But, as the game progresses there is the hint of a change within their relationship. One exchange goes as follows:

  • Aveline: You’re right.
  • Isabela: About?
  • Aveline: About knowing who you are.
  • Aveline: I’m the captain of the guard. I’m loyal, strong, and I don’t look too bad naked.
  • Isabela: Exactly. And if I called you a mannish, awkward, ball-crushing do-gooder, you’d say…?
  • Aveline: (Calmly and firmly) Shut up, whore.
  • Isabela: That’s my girl.

That discussion makes me think that Isabela does change Aveline’s attitude over time. However, I wish the player could see that change more clearly. I want to hear her apologize at least once to Isabela for her earlier name calling. I wanted to see more of that relationship. They were not close friends at the end of the game, but I got the sense that they at least began to understand each other better. An interesting aspect to this negative side of Aveline is that is can be completely missed by the player. As mentioned, on my first playthrough I did not have these two characters interact much at all. In fact, even recruiting Isabela is optional so some players may go through the game and never see any interaction between her and Aveline. As Kris Ligman points out in her article about Isabela, it would be a shame to miss out of this interesting character.

One of the numerous things that I appreciate about Aveline’s character is that she looks like a real person. She does not represent an idealized sexual object. She is a freckled, red haired, strong, mature woman. She is attractive without using a thin, young model to create her character. Therefore I find it sad that when looking through PC mods for the game there are several out there whose purpose is to make Aveline more attractive.  I find her beautiful as she is in the game and I am glad that Bioware created a character like Aveline. I hope that the existence of such mods does not discourage companies from creating less “perfect” character models.

Overall, Aveline is a truly remarkable character because she feels human. She is not a one dimensional figure: she has flaws and insecurities, an independent storyline outside that of the main character, and she grows and changes throughout the course of the game. These things are seen in several of the side companions in Dragon Age 2 and I found their stories completely engrossing. They are what made Dragon Age 2 a wonderful and unique game.

Read more ‘Characters Done Right’ articles >

The Kirkwaller’s Guide to Social Justice

The following is a guest post from Alis Dee:

Alis Dee runs a gaming blog at azeroth.me which, despite the title, is not always about World of Warcraft. She is a multi-ethnic white-passing bisexual Australian ciswoman. The following post has been edited slightly from its original incarnation at her blog.

Stylised in-game art of the six companions' heads, arranged in a hexagon.

Stylised in-game art of the six companions' heads, arranged in a hexagon.

(Spoilers ahoy!)

It’s fairly safe to say that Dragon Age 2 has been polarising, at best; considering the mechanical and the thematic changes it introduced over its predecessor, I suppose that’s hardly surprising. And while the “mainstream” gamer press has been busy debating the merits of dialogue wheels and sped-up combat sequences, a parallel conversation has been going around the social justice gaming blog (a-har) circle, in part spurred by DA2 lead writer David Gaider’s unexpectedly accurate understanding of the concept of privilege.

Hence this post. It’s about social justice (mostly). And where and how BioWare nails it, with examples.

Before we continue: Yes, I know there’s still a bit of fail in DA2. Its handling of mental illness isn’t awesome, for example, and the game is fairly white-washed (though not nearly as badly as it could’ve been, and it probably scores higher marks than nearly every other title out there). That being said, I think it’s almost easier to pick on what BioWare has done “wrong” that what it does right here, because the exceptional elements are integrated so well into the rest of the game that they’re easy to overlook, particularly for those of us who are used to our fail beating us about the face with its obviousness. It’s hard to see what isn’t there.

Here’s what I’ve noticed so far.

Knight-Commander Meredith, a white blonde middle-aged woman in heavy armour, holding a glowing red sword.

Meredith laughs at your feeble attempts at gender policing!

#1. Subverting the worst excuse.

You know the one. It’s like the medieval fantasy equivalent of Goodwin’s Law or something. The whole, “No this homophobia/misogyny isn’t offensive! It’s realistic! This is the Dark Ages and That’s Just How Things Were.”

Loki’s stitched lips how much do I hate that excuse. Because, you know; dragons and elves and wizards and whatever are totally realistic, but treating women like they’re people rather than property? Woah! Hold on there, Captain Outrageous!

Thedas might be medieval fantasy, but it’s explicitly more gender- and sexuality-blind than the Really Real World. For starters, Thedas’ Crystal Dragon Jesus religion is basically matriarchal Christianity, and yet BioWare hasn’t fallen into the cringe-worthy traps of depicting the Chantry as either a bunch of, a) ineffectual too-pure-to-live all-hail-the-earth-mother types, or b) ball-crushing misandrists. The Chantry is a human institution staffed by humans, with both the strengths and frailties that implies. It’s neither merely a caricature of male fear of matriarchal power, nor is it an author tract against the evils (or inherent goodness) of religion. Thinking about how the Chantry could’ve been portrayed is an exercise in appreciating how it is portrayed.

The Chantry isn’t the only example; women are not denied positions of power and authority in Thedas, nor does anyone at all — from rich nobles to poor street gangs — appear to think female leaders of any kind are in any way remarkable. Women in Thedas occupy every level of the secular, sectarian and military hierarchies, and historic instances of social injustice against women, such as the story of Ser Aveline, are shown as being exactly that; historic and unjust.

Similarly, since there is no lore justification for institutionalised homophobia in Thedas, it doesn’t exist; homosexuality is neither a taboo nor a fetishised “virtue” (a la the pederastic social structures of, say, Ancient Greece/Feudal Japan, or the woeful modern Magical Queer trope). Queerness, or the lack thereof, is treated as an apolitical personal quirk; where social pressure for heterosexual relationships exist, it’s shown to be based on pragmatism (i.e. the need for children) rather than any dogmatic belief in the inherent “wrongness” of certain sexual preferences.

If you wanted to be a real smartass, you could argue that a lack of both rigid gender roles and social stigma against same-sex relationships is the justification for Thedas’ apparent rampant bisexuality. Gender-blindness in Thedas is personal, as well as institutional, with its citizens thus more likely to form relationships based on the partner as a holistic package as opposed to just, a-ha, a “package” (in fact, if you can dig it out of Anders’ dialogue trees, this is exactly the reason he gives you). This also explains why (Almost) Everyone Wants Hawke; you are, after all, the most awesome person in the story by definition, so of course your companions are more likely to subvert their usual sexual leanings under the weight of your sheer win (and utter lack of negative social consequences for doing so).

Whether you buy that explanation or not, it’s still major props to BioWare for apparently putting some thought into their setting’s sexuality and gender expectations, rather than just copypasta’ing things out-of-context from the Really Real World.

I... don't think this scene bodes anything good.

#2. How to kill a hypotenuse.

From the Death of the Hypotenuse page at TVTropes:

Alice, Bob, and Charlie are in a Love Triangle. Alice loves Bob, but also has feelings for Charlie — or maybe she doesn’t, but can’t or doesn’t want to turn him down (maybe she’s even in a relationship with or married to Charlie while pining after Bob). However will she resolve this dilemma? Well, fortunately, she doesn’t have to — Charlie meets with a convenient illness, accident, or other such fatal situation, freeing Alice up to go after Bob without guilt. If Charlie is aware of Alice’s feelings for Bob, he may tell her with his dying breath that she shouldn’t mourn him too much, because he wants his beloved to be happy.

Sound familiar?

Feminists tend to hate the Death of the Hypotenuse situation when it appears in media since, well:

[W]hen we see [Aveline's] husband die in the opening chapter of the game, my immediate thought was “of course.” Not only does this serve to remove an obstacle that might keep her from being a party member, it makes her sexually available to the player–at least in spirit. While it has already been made clear that she isn’t one of the game’s romance options, the situation appears to follow a traditional formula of male fantasy, in which there are no male competitors for a woman’s attention.

Except Aveline isn’t interested in you. At all. In fact, she’s so not interested in you that she’ll go out of her way to solicit your assistance in obtaining the actual object of her affections; the resulting side-quest is both amusingly cute and incredibly, ahem, Hawkward.

There is one character whose hypotenuse you do end up murdering, however, and you (well, “you”) do it quite explicitly to set up this trope. I’ll give you a minute to guess, since you might not have noticed it at the time.

Figured it out?

Hands up who remembered why Anders is hanging around in Kirkwall as of Act I; sure, he has a clinic, but he’s only recently set up shop and it’s mostly just to keep him busy while he figures out how to rescue his ex-lover from the Circle. You know; the ex-lover you end up killing. And once those unfortunate former romantic entanglements are handily disposed of? Go nuts with the ♥s on the dialogue wheel!

It’s also interesting that Anders only mentions Karl was his lover if your Hawke happens to be a guy. Traditional formulae of male fantasy, indeed…

Hawke, Anders, Isabela and Fenris look down on the defeated form of Meredith, surrounded by templars.

No serah, no mages her-- damn I think our cover is blown, man.

#3. The Thedas guide to passing.

From elsewhere:

First up, we must address the nature of passing. Sometimes it is active (one chooses to pass) and sometimes passive (one is passed). Sometimes it’s an interaction of expectation and experience, habit and circumstance. One cannot untangle one’s own efforts to pass or to not from the point of the idea of passing. That is, whether one passes or not is dependant on the outside observer. The whole idea of passing hinges not on what the (non)passer does, but on the observer’s response to that person. There’s an extent to which one can control it — and people have developed quite some techniques — but it’s not always a matter of choice as to whether to pass or not.

Two things on this one, both of which I’ve heard criticised as being “bad writing” on the part of DA2, and both of which I actually think were very deliberate and done to illustrate roughly the same issue.

Part the first: Remember Feynriel, the “elf-blooded human” kid? His questline aside, some people have expressed dislike with the whole “elf + human = human” thing, crying erasure. ((For anyone who hasn’t yet figured it out; elves are the “race oppression” analogy in Thedas. You could possibly argue mages are the “gender/sexuality oppression” analogy (which results in a somewhat nasty Broken Aesop), but I’d make the case that they’re actually the imperialism analogy, albeit writ down onto a social level rather than a national one.)) I think this totally manages to ignore the fact that, while Feynriel doesn’t look like an elf, he’s a lot more (ahem) fey than your average human, not to mention has a distinctly elvish name. If you bother paying attention to the dialogue, it becomes heavily apparent this is intentional.

Feynriel will actually give you Passing Privilege 101 — he even uses the word — if you talk to him in the Dalish camp. In Kirkwall, his “elfness” was erased by the humans who assumed he was “one of them”; amongst the Dalish, he will never be anything other than “the elf-blooded human”. Like all of its dealings with privilege, DA2 doesn’t pretend to give any pat answers to this; Feynriel is Othered when you meet him and he’s still Othered when he writes you his final letter about life in the Imperium. But writing Feynriel off as BioWare erasing ethnic identities is, in my opinion, a bit of missing the forest for the trees.

Part the second: I think everyone who plays DA2, particularly anyone who plays as mage!Hawke, gets to a point where the disconnect between “all mages must hide or be locked up!” and “whee I have robes and a staff and set people on fire and, oh, may I introduce my BFFs the abomination and the blood mage!” really starts to set in. I discussed this a bit elsewhere, essentially coming to the conclusion that the disconnect is a very deliberate. From the relevant footnote:

Early on the in game, if you’re a mage, you get the sense the Templars in Kirkwall have a particularly vicious form of genre blindness re. someone walking around in robe carrying a staff setting fire to people. By the end of the game, it’s fairly evident that they’re perfectly aware you’re a mage, and have deliberately left you alone; at first due to bribes, and later due to your social status. The presence of characters like Fenris’ ex-master — as well as Varric’s judicious application of bribes on behalf of Anders — indicate this isn’t an unusual situation; money and influence can buy a sort of “freedom” for mages. [...] In short, you’re privileged. And BioWare, a) knows it, and b) has set it up that way deliberately.

Some of the discussions you can have with other characters (Fenris and Anders in particular) also highlight this. It’s frequently mentioned that the main distinction between the Tevinter Circles and those elsewhere is due to Imperium mages mostly coming from noble families, while non-Imperium mages are impoverished social outcasts; either by virtue of birth or due to the forced disinheritance that comes from being taken to the Circle. When Alistair showed up for me in Act III his dialogue made it apparent that the slightly improved conditions for mages in Ferelden are due to the Crown being sympathetic (he’s there protecting apostates Kirkwall wants extradited). Not to mention the fact that my Warden — the kingdom’s hero, king-maker and Alistair’s BFF — was a mage; a fact Anders points out at least once.

This is another kind of “passing”; one bought by conferred social/financial privilege. It’s not that the mages in Ferelden are any less prone to blood magic (q.v. DA:O) or that the kingdom’s Chantry teachings against magic are any more forgiving (Anders, who’s from the Ferelden Circle, makes it clear that they aren’t, extra kissing aside). The “privilege” of the Ferelden mages isn’t really their own; it comes purely from the fact that they have the sympathies of a powerful non-mage… and one who, while popular, won’t be in power for very much longer. ((Ferelden political system aside, remember being a Grey Warden is a death sentence; Alistair has maybe another fifteen years before he books his One Way Ticket To The Deep Roads.)) Similarly, by Act III Meredith makes it pretty clear that, whilst Hawke has bought a kind of freedom due to his social position, his cage is gilded at best; if you annoy her, she makes quite a few “don’t forget I own you!” style speeches re. you and your friends. In short, the privilege mage!Hawke does have is both tenuous and relies entirely on the perceptions of others. He’s not free because of some innate right, he’s free because mainstream society finds it amusing/advantageous to “allow” him to be so. It’s not a state that was ever going to last.

Finally, and most interestingly, the need to “pass” as mage!Hawke can bleed over onto the player; I can’t be the only person who deliberately ended up wearing the least “magey” looking armour I could find — cumulating, amusingly, in a brief stint at the start of Act III dressed as a bearded Chantry Mother — despite there being no game-based incentive for me to do so. Not to mention the Mage Champion set doesn’t exactly scream “wizard” in any classical sense, particularly if you also end up wielding the suspiciously spear-like Bassrath-Kata.

Quotes again:

There’s a friction between passing and solidarity with one’s group. Those who can pass as being a member of a dominant group may miss out on many experiences and forms of discrimination that are held to be facets of that group’s commonalities. One of the main problems with passing is that in doing so an inequitable system is being held up (by those who pass others, by those choosing to pass). This is to say that passing supports the idea that equality, better treatment, is gained by melting into the dominant group.

Isabela stands back-lit in a cave/forest setting.

Seriously. I would not have picked this for my favourite character. Ever.

#4. The secret life of them.

DA2 does something I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen before in a game. Not only does it give Hawke an existence that’s partially independent of the player, but it gives your companions the same thing. Unlike DA:O, your “unused” party members aren’t just hanging around in the camp waiting for you to call on them; they actually do things when you’re not around. Anders runs his clinic. Aveline runs the guard. Varric looks after his family’s business. Fenris… broods around and plays cards with Donnic. Whatever their day job, running around babysitting Hawke isn’t actually it; helping you out is something they do for lulz on the weekends when they’ve got nothing more pressing to get on with.

The side-effect of this is that your companions end up going through character development that, again, has nothing to do with your actions as a player. The best example is probably what happens between Aveline and Isabela.

We’re all used to the set-up; the competent-but-shy tomboy versus the gregarious sex kitten. I mean, of course they hate each other, right? Except — unlike practically every other time this sort of rivalry comes up — in DA2′s case neither woman is fighting over you. They aren’t two members of your harem vying jealously for your attention; you could probably convincingly argue that Aveline’s dislike of Isabela (which seems almost entirely one-way) does stem from a sort of sexual jealousy, but the ultimate moral of the tale isn’t women need to tear each other down in order to get ahead. By the end of the game, Aveline and Isabela are pretty much Type 2 Vitriolic Best Buds, and Isabela even gives Aveline (and Merrill) several actually-not-terrible “you go girl” type speeches about self-confidence.

Actually, Isabela is pretty much an all-round legitimate harbinger of female positivity, when it gets right down to it; an actually honest-to-gods example of how to do a confident female character who not only legitimately owns her own sexuality ((For the record, I love Isabela’s outfit. Unlike every other provocatively-dressed women in a fantasy setting ever in the history of time, Isabela’s choice of revealing attire does, in fact, come across as a deliberate choice made to attract sexual partners. She dresses sexy because she wants sex. Now. Possibly with you (if you’re hot). She has agency, in other words; she’s the subject of her own sexuality and not the object of yours, oh you assumed-straight-cismale-viewer you.)) but goes out of her way to be a mentor and friend to other women. And, I think, the relationship between Aveline and Isabela is also a sneaky meta-comment on the relationship players like me have with characters like Isabela. From Isabela’s promo renders, I would in no way have been able to tell you that I think she pretty much single-handedly constitutes a good deal of the reason DA2 doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test on technicality, but blows the entire spirit of it (i.e. the presence of multiple developed female characters capable of powering their own narratives sans the presence of men) right out of the water. Future game developers take note; this is how you do it.

That aside, there’s another sneaky inversion here a la the hypotenuse scenario mentioned above. Because no, the women do not tear each other down in their attempts to fight for your attentions… but Fenris and Anders certainly do, particularly if you sleep with Fenris. Asides from just general viciousness toward each other, they’ll even get into the requisite “but why don’t you love someone more like me-ee-ee?” and “if you break his/her heart I will kill you!” speeches at various points (the latter from Fenris if you switch romance paths post freakout in Act II, you heartbreaker you).

And, yeah, I admit it; fanservicey pandering aside, I love the fact that this sort of petty bitchiness is being done by male characters for once. I particularly love that male players subsequently whinge about it. Oh, delicious irony! You bring joy to my black little heart…

The Chantry exploding with red light.

Kaboom!

#5. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A lot of the criticisms levelled at Dragon Age 2 seem to be from people who’ve mistaken it for a particularly badly-executed Heroic or High Fantasy story. This is not entirely surprising; Dragon Age: Origins could be gently said to have straddled the border between Heroic and High, probably only not qualifying for 100% High Fantasy due to the setting’s cynical approach to morality (even the Always Chaotic Evil Darkspawn get a bit… trickier if you play Awakening). Unlike its predecessor, DA2 is deliberately and unashamedly Low Fantasy; to borrow an analogy originally used for something else, the difference between DA:O and DA2 is like unto the difference between The Colour of Magic and Night Watch. I’ll let you guess which one is which.

People who went into DA2 expecting an oldskool BioWare RPG game were always going to be disappointed; as was anyone who was after a narrative they could skim through pressing-one-for-lawful-good without thinking too much. Neither of those things were going to work out; the former because the mechanics of the actual game part of DA2 were kinda bad, and the latter because the story of DA2 really does require you to drink its Kool-Aid and play it for its own sake. The game isn’t morally-agnostic; it does have something it’s trying to tell you, and not listening to that is going to make the narrative very frustrating. This, incidentally, is why I went back and re-played the game as BioWare!Hawke; imagining myself as a dude caught up in forces far beyond his control rather than as My Expy the Chosen One who was going to storm out and fix everything.

With that in mind, the story worked much better. And this is what I mean about the game being Low Fantasy. In Low Fantasy, shit happens. In Low Fantasy, the cavalry aren’t going to arrive on shining gryphons. In Low Fantasy, the bad guys might be both everyone, no-one and you, all at once. And, most importantly, in Low Fantasy you can’t save the world; if you work really hard, however, you just might be able to save yourself.

This, I think, is the point of Anders’ character; apparently he didn’t get the memo about the genre-shift since Awakening, and still thinks all the world’s ills come down to Good Guys vs. Bad Guys and can be solved by storming in committing massive acts of terrorism. The game is quite careful about pointing out — loudly and repeatedly — that, no matter how much you might end up liking Anders personally, ((And YMMV. I’ve seen a lot of gross misogyny floating around because, by the Maker, how dare any male character in a videogame not be an inarticulate, hyper-aggressive Duke Nukem expy and/or ultra-stoic, personality-free Gordon Freeman-esque killing machine! I believe Anders’ primary writer was a woman, which makes all the snide little remarks about “emasculation” particularly cringe-worthy. Anders certainly is a bit… whiny, but this is intentional and essentially his main character flaw — your other companions find it tiring sometimes too — and he’s neither completely unsympathetic nor in any way unrealistic (men, I hate to break it to you guys, but you’re frequently extremely whiny; just clearing that up, since apparently a lot of you haven’t noticed). I found him a lot more flat-out sympathetic on my first playthrough than my second, however, where I found myself yelling, “Shut up, Anders!” in fond exasperation at the screen a fair bit.)) this attitude is both irrational and dangerously naive. Isabela gets a great line of party dialogue lampshading this, mentioning something along the line of “justice only making sense in a world of ideas”.

Hawke gets to be a little more genre savvy than that, assuming the player figures it out, which he or she may not; a lot of people didn’t, judging from what I’ve read. Like Anders, they still tried to play the game like a Heroic Fantasy and got angry when that didn’t work out for them, particularly because the main theme of DA2 is one of oppression and privilege. You can’t “solve” the kyriarchy — even a fake one in a made-up fantasy land — in a Low Fantasy setting. You can’t even really do it convincingly in a High Fantasy setting, and at least DA2 is honest about that instead of indulging in the usual rug-sweeping.

Screencap of the game's credits listing the writers.

I'm just... going to put this screenshot here and let you make up your own mind about what I think it means.

Strength as weakness.

Ultimately, the main “problem” with DA2′s narrative is that it really does have Social Justice 101 and Feminist Media Deconstruction 201 as prerequisite courses; almost all of the game’s point is lost if you don’t read it from that angle (and, for gods’ sakes, one of the main characters is called “Justice”, just in case everything else was too subtle a hint for you). Even people who do will find it highly contentious — maybe even more-so — purely because the game does try and doesn’t hit 100% of all targets at all times; SJers are used to writing off non-starters, but they’re absolutely brutal with anything that tries and doesn’t make perfection.

The criticisms of DA2′s portrayal of mental illness and its whitewashing are valid, but I think they’re also almost threatening to drown out the ways in which DA2 does work. The game hits so many amazing marks — on its portrayal of women, on its treatment of sexuality, on its ability to portray complex intersectional concepts in a not-completely-cringe-worthy way — it’s almost unsurprising that it’s caused so much confusion. Because it really isn’t like anything else out there, and I think maybe that’s not going to be readily apparently anywhere other than retrospect (and once people get over the mechanical changes from its predecessor).

Everyone who likes videogames and has even a passing interest in feminism/social justice (or vice versa) needs to play this game; I can’t even stress that enough. Whether you love it or hate it or buy it or pirate it, Dragon Age 2 is closer to what people like you and me want to see on the market than anything else that’s ever been produced. No, it’s not perfect — it’s not perfect as a game and it’s not perfect as a social justice narrative — but if we don’t hold it up and scream, “YES! THIS! MORE OF THIS!” we’re going to keep getting games like Duke Nukem Forever, well, forever.

And, really. You can’t possibly tell me that’s a better option.

Hawke, Anders, Isabela and Fenris stand in front of a sunset on the Wounded Coast.

See you in the expansion, guys!

(Originally posted here on Azeroth.me)

Inclusivity Review: Dragon Age 2

If you have any interest in BioWare’s Dragon Age 2 (and I realize many don’t, after many missteps by both BioWare and EA in this franchise and others), you’ve likely heard the bad by now: entire levels are used over and over to an annoying degree, combat has changed (which will bring people down on either side of the issue–I enjoyed the changes), etc. This review is more in the line of NonCon’s review of Radiant Historia, then, covering aspects other reviews will miss or gloss over in an attempt to only discuss gameplay.

Originally I was going to write this with a frame review in mind, checking my own privilege and examining the game in such a way. As I played the game, that approach started becoming too unwieldy to attempt, however. This review will include spoilers.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

Flemeth, right, looks at Zel Hawke. The former is an elderly white woman whose hair is up in horns, and is wearing a studded leather chestpiece that inexplicably has a v-cut to show cleavage. Zel Hawke is a white man in his twenties, wearing a sleeveless, leather chest piece, and has auburn hair with a wind-blown look; tattoo markings are on his cheeks.

To start, I will claim I enjoyed Dragon Age 2, but that does not mean I ignored the areas in which it has problems. There were also moments that made me incredibly happy (such as realizing all the four main love interests were available regardless of the sex I chose to play–a point I’ll address again later). Most of these issues are not ones I will cover in much depth, as they likely need their own posts; I did want to make people aware of them, however.

Trigger warnings for: poor handling of issues with regards to mental disabilities (including violence by and exercised against such people), monosexism as exhibited by players, and oppression of entire peoples; the discussion will also cover sexuality and race.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right as she speak to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color.

Ronia Hawke, a black woman with her hair pulled back, stands right, her back to us, as she speaks to her sister, Bethany, and brother, Carver. Both have her skin tone, and hair color. The text reads, "Then let's go. Lead on."

Race

Allegra covered the whitewashing of the Champion of Kirkwall already. It remains in game, not just the demo. I can confirm that family members, including the uncle, change when you create a non-white Hawke. The reason the two siblings have black hair, for instance, is to allow for such diversity. The matter is not one of just swapping their skin color, but also changing their faces and hairstyles. I tried this two times, with a black Lady Hawke, and a Latin male Hawke. The results can be seen in some of the screenshots both above and below this paragraph.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

Redgren Hawke, a dark-complexioned man with leather armor and white hair and vandyke facial hair. His brother stands to the right, with hair that is black and faintly dread-like. His mother, whose white hair is meant to indicate her age, covers her hands. Bethany stands left, with a black-haired pixie cut.

The character creator itself is slightly better than in Origins. It is no longer the case that darker toned characters just look like tanned white people. The options are still not as robust as I would like, so it’s a step forward, but needs more work. The hair options are indicative of gaming as a whole (more directly, they’re weak), which deserves a post on its own. The specific facial features are also limiting (specifically in my mind are the options for eyes).

Kirkwall has people that are not white. The darker skin tones are actually used more often than they were in Origins, though rarely is the darkest used, from what I saw. The people are predominantly white, but as a city that is supposed to also be a accessible via sea, it has some more diversity than Fereldan and Denerim did. In the case of one of your companions, Isabela, it is difficult to say. She is darker in skin tone than most of your other companions, and her treatment by marketing is somewhat worrisome.

Isabela hails from Rivain, which, from talks with her, seems to reference the culture of the Sinti and/or Romani (the game doesn’t go into much detail, so it’s difficult to ascertain). This is the impression I received from both her character design and the references to a darker-skinned people who believed in seers (or hedge witches), which is a cultural stereotype of those two cultures–particularly in fantasy. In the first game, her model appears lighter skinned than in the sequel, but both the lighting in The Pearl, as well as the inaccurate skin tones of that character creator make it hard to clearly distinguish the intent behind her character.

Isabela was used in marketing the game. Both Bitch Magazine and Glamgeekgirl have handled the issue of her ads. In the former, we realize that while she is darker skinned in the game, the marketing lightens her skin considerably. Tied with Glamgirlgeek’s pointing out of the sexist German ad that uses her as an object to sell the game, it becomes increasingly obvious that her skin was lightened so that she would be ‘sexier’ to some notion of a  ’target audience.’ This is not new in advertising, sadly, but it is disappointing that instead of focusing on advertising diversity, they downplayed that in both reducing Isabela’s character to a sex toy rather than as a sexually-assertive and confident woman and whitewashing her for ads.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Zel Hawke in a furred, spiky armor set look down at Anders, a white male mage with blond hair. Anders looks off right.

Sexuality

There are four romance options in the base game, and The Exiled Prince DLC offers one more, albeit a chaste romance. Excepting the DLC character Sebastian, all romance options are open to either a male or female Hawke.

I have only experienced one romance as yet, that with Anders, the Grey Warden mage, as a male Hawke and it pleased me. He references a previous same-sex relationship, and while approaching him with flirting in mind, he will stop you and ask if it bothers you that he’s been in a previous relationship as such. This serves as a buffer to any who might complain they ‘accidentally’ fell into a relationship with him, as well as providing context for his character. Anders appeared in the expansion for Origins, and many have argued he never showed an interest in men in the previous game (as if that is in indication of one’s interests).

The fan reaction has been mixed. I have seen people of all sexualities claim this is ‘unrealistic.’ There is the claim that it is ‘lazy,’ but as BioWare has clearly stated, they will not have a same-sex only option. For someone who does call himself gay, this was a compromise I was willing to accept, as it opened up the majority of the the romances to everyone. Much of the debate has derailed into monosexist trains of thought, claiming that it’s impossible for that many people who happen to travel together to be bisexual, or at least open to such. Personally, I do not find it so odd at all, especially as this ignores that both Aveline and Sebastian are clearly shown as heterosexual.

In the case of two of the characters, Merrill and Fenris, their sexualities seem to not be as clear-cut. Anders and Isabela both have clear histories that indicate they are bisexual, but the two elves don’t discuss their past romances or sex lives much at all. Therefore, their sexuality is a bit more subjective in how you play and interpret it. I do not wish to indicate this erases them as bisexual characters, but that this aspect of their lives is not as clearly indicated within the context of a single playthrough of the game.

There is a brothel again this time, and the options do not include the same trans* issues the first game had. There is a range of options, with effeminate men, women who are assertive, women who are bored, men who are gruff, and such. Some of these fall into the stereotypes of the butch male dwarf and effete male elf.

Author’s Edit: Something that occurred to me after this published. I was disappointed when I discovered that stripping my male Hawke of his armor merely placed him in pin-striped pants without a top. Doing the same with Lady Hawke put her in panties and a bra. While much guffawing was done over the awkwardness of the undergarments in Origins, this approach to it seemed a slap in the face.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

An image of Kirkwall, black in the distance, with yellow and orange figures grasping their face, clearly in despair. This is during a discussion of the history of slavery in Kirkwall.

Oppression & Xenophobia

As in Origins, there is slavery, there is the oppression of the elves who live in the ghettos known as the Alienage, the subjugation of mages, and a mixture of xenophobia mixed with intolerance of other religions as exhibited toward the Qunari. These all exist in varying degrees, and the first thing I noticed were the discussions Anders and Fenris had regarding how the oppression of mages was similar to how elves were treated: both stem from the Andrastian religion. It seems to broach intersectionality and fighting against a dominant culture, while showing how minorities can be ignorant of how divisive such a culture can be, further empowering oppression.

Fenris’s own story is that of a former slave whose tattoos were seared into his flesh with lyrium by his former master. His story line does a lot to confront his own feelings, which have placed an understandable hatred for his Danarius, the Tevinter mage who owned and mutilated him. Hawke has the ability to guide him through a process where he forges a new life and/or to directly confront the injustices done to him. Of course, in this game, confrontation means killing Danarius.

The city of Kirkwall has a history of slavery, and while that is addressed in the codices, it seems to only serve as a backdrop in which one can comment on it, or notice how the refugees from Fereldan are treated with disdain. Hawke has a few options to help her fellow refugees when she improves her own status, but it’s not really seen in any measurable effect (in my playthrough of the game so far). In fact, convincing miners to continue going back to a mine so that you can eventually fight the high dragon that will be there results in them all being slaughtered.

The Alienage is not as well explored as in Origins, though issues of interracial relationships are broached a bit more, albeit through one side quest where the question of where a person of mixed races can find acceptance. When elves and humans mate, the child always ends up as human. That oppression is not really addressed,  instead the game focuses on the subjugation of mages (which reads to me as a parallel to the criminalization of  homosexuality in various cultures and decades, but I have a whole post in mind about that as well).

The option does exist to completely eradicate Merrill’s entire Dalish village, which somewhat bothered me, but the quest in which it takes place is complicated with the aforementioned issue of intersectionality, and an ignorance or distrust of certain means (in this case, blood magic, which does not have to equate with being evil, though it does seem that way quite often). The other option is to accept responsibility for Merrill’s actions, and thus be banned from visiting her clan again. The situation requires a more thorough examination than I can provide as of now.

The Qunari’s design has changed so that they are now horned and have a more light-purple/chalky hue to their skin. As they were the only race in Origins who seemed to be non-white by default, this has been a concern of mine for a while. They seem loosely based on the old Ottoman Empire, especially in both their cultural and religious clashes with the rest of Andrastian Thedas (which reads as Christianity). Qunari society is clearly sexist, they devalue individualism (their names are merely their station in life, such as Sten), and they believe in honor given through roles and fulfillment of such.

The second act of the game is dealing with the political tensions of their continued stay in Kirkwall. This can eventually result in one of four ways of dealing with the tension. If Isabela returns the book she stole from them (which she may not do, as she may run off with it), you can either give her up to them and let them leave with her as their prisoner (you later find out she escapes anyway), or fight them for Isabela’s honor. Isabela scoffs at this and demands fighting for her own honor, which the Arishok, the Qunari leader, says is unacceptable, as she is not seen as worthy. If the book is not returned, one has to either duel the Arishok one on one, in accordance to his view of honor, or bring in your entire party to fight.

The entire situation could clearly use a lot more explication and exploration for someone better versed in the such cultural conflicts, especially as it covers both religious and cultural issues. I feel it should be noted the Qunari are constantly portrayed as more technologically advanced than the rest of Thedas, but more adamant about their opposition to magic. A mixed bag from my, admittedly limited, standpoint.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

The title screen for Dragon Age 2, which uses a painting/carving aesthetic. Orsino, the elven First Enchanter mage stands left with a staff which sports three dragon heads. Meredith, the Knight Commander of the Templars, stands right, with her sword drawn, and a shield in her left hand.

Mental Disabilities

The game has a number of persons who are violently insane. Outside of Sandal, who returns from Origins, I did not really find any other instances of people with mental health issues portrayed in anything that could be considered a positive light (and Sandal is up for debate–I cannot speak to it closely).

At one point Hawke is asked to apprehend a criminal hiding in the outskirts of Kirkwall. Going there will reveal the criminal is a man who is a serial killer of elven girls. Talking to him reveals a man who hears voices, considered them demons, was told they were not by mages, and refuses to believe he is anything but plagued by demons (which should sound familiar in our own ways of communicating about issues concerning sanity). The way to deal with him is to either kill him (he begs to be killed) or return him to the authorities. There is no option for actually helping him, beyond hiding him away so his politically engaged father can continue his career, or outright killing him. His begging to be killed speaks to larger issues of our society not willing to  make room that allows many other options.

Toward the end of the second act, Hawke’s mother is abducted by a serial killer whom the player has been tracking since the first act. He has been recreating his wife, and animated her using blood magic. Hawke’s mother has the face of the man’s deceased wife. Again, the only way to deal with him is to kill him.

Again, during the same act, Varric has a personal quest that involves finding his brother, who abandoned Varric and Hawke to die in the Deep Roads. He has gone violently crazy as well, though his is the result of an item he picked up in the Deep Roads. Quite honestly, the ‘item of power makes person lose sanity’ trope is tired and as it usually results in violence from both the person who has the item, as well as to stop the violence, it is really growing problematic.

The same item is then given to Meredith, the game’s end antagonist. Her reasoning for ending up as the antagonist is perfectly reasonable in the game’s plot–as a Templar of the Chantry, she wishes to provide security at the cost of mages’ freedom. Instead of continuing that thread, she has bought the item that Varric’s brother had, forged it into a sword, and she is actually insane, which is apparently what informs her decisions. It is a Chekov’s gun that never needed to be in place, and it casts her in a final villainous light not because of her actions (which, again, could be done without resorting to her having to be insane), but because of the supposed illness that has now affected her. It was a poorly implemented plot decision that undercut both the story, as well as being ignorant toward actual issues with mental disabilities.

End

These are just the issues I have seen in my first playthrough, which lasted fifty-eight hours. Naturally, I could have missed some issues due to not seeing them, as well as being ignorant due to my own privileges. Therefore, I’d like to ask of others to speak up about other issues they have seen handled positively, negatively, or perhaps in an ambivalent manner.