Tag Archives: Dragon Age: Origins

Religion in a faux-medieval world

I was thinking about the question of times when I’d played a role unlike myself in games and came to the conclusion that there were two entirely different ways this can come about. On the one hand, there are the times when I’m forced into playing something other than myself because that’s all that the game offers. All too often, I’ll be playing a thin, able-bodied, straight, white male, not by choice but by default. When this happens, I generally don’t even try to get into the head of my character. He’s just some pixels on a screen which I am guiding around.

On the other hand, there are the occasions when I choose to role-play as someone that I am not because it provides an experience I couldn’t get in the real world. Sometimes, this can be as simple as choosing to play a game where the player character is an expert martial fighter or a genius strategist, since I am neither. Other times, I’m choosing to play a character who is physically unlike me, such as my Elonian characters in Guild Wars both of whom are women of colour because this fits the game lore better, whereas I am white. Still other times, I choose to play a character who is of a different personality to me. Maybe someone more gregarious, someone more overtly feminine, or someone with a shorter temper.

For me, this last is the most interesting. If a game is well written, and I’m in the right frame of mind, I can really get into my characters head. It’s a bit like method acting, only in this case, it’s method gaming.

“]Even when you first meet her, Leliana's religious conviction is obvious from her Chantry robes. [A white woman with coppery hair worn in a bob. She is wearing robes featuring religious symbols.]

Even when you first meet her, Leliana's religious conviction is obvious from her Chantry robes. [A white woman with coppery hair worn in a bob. She is wearing robes featuring religious symbols.

One particularly memorable case of this came for me when I played Dragon Age: Origins. There, I was playing a female character (as I usually do when I have the option) and I decided that of the romance options available to me, I’d woo Leliana. Now, normally, this wouldn’t have been my first choice. Leliana is not my type at all. However, seeing as how she’s female and the other two options were male, she was the closest to my type that I was going to get.

And so, I decided that while she may not have been my type, she was my character’s type. The relationship I chose to pursue heavily influenced the way I saw my character, the way I identified with her, and the way I played the game.

One of the consequences on this was my character’s take on religion. In real life I am an atheist, and by default, that usually carries over into my game characters, who tend to be wary of churches and religious institutions. Leliana, though, is not just sympathetic to the church, but is a devout believer and a member of the Chantry. She also claims to have had visions revealed to her by the Maker.

And so, my character also became religious. At first, she was receptive and open, and as she talked more with Leliana and grew closer, so her faith also strengthened. In my head at least, their shared beliefs were a large part of the bond between Leliana and my Warden that ultimately led to them becoming lovers.

Of course, my character’s religious convictions weren’t confined to her interactions with Leliana. They also guided her other choices when dealing with sacred artefacts, the church, and with magic. When I played, I was no longer Rachel Walmsley, atheist. I was Rhoswen Cousland, devout believer.

This was fun and interesting for me in its own right, but looking back on it now, I think there’s an additional lesson to take from all of this. One of the reasons why I was so effectively able to identify with a religious character is that the religion portrayed in the game was not the same as any religion in the real world.

Well, of course it wasn’t the same. Why would it be? This is a fantasy world with magic and elves; it would make no sense at all to insert Christianity into Ferelden exactly as it is in our world. I can say with certainty that if the game replaced the Chantry with the Christian Church, elves with Jews, and the battle against the darkspawn with a crusade against Muslims that I would not have been able to enjoy the game anywhere near as much. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have played it at all.

Of course, by not having our real-world religions, this made the game-world resemble Europe of the Middle Ages a whole lot less. But so what? That’s a good thing, surely. By not adhering to the real world, the game allowed me to experience being someone with a character, personality, and religion different to my own. If I’d been playing an actual historical RPG set in actual Middle-Ages Europe, I doubt I’d have been able to immerse myself the same way.

Developers have no difficulty recognising that adherence to historical accuracy is not necessary in this one aspect of their games, and yet they feel compelled by it in other areas. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia – amongst others – are all excused on the grounds of historical accuracy. That this is nonsense is unlikely to be news to readers of The Border House, but I think that comparing it with how religion is portrayed in games of this nature provides a stark and instructive contrast.

 

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One of the sex working women in VtM:B, a light skinned and red haired woman with her arms akimbo wearing a coppery thong and a tight top that barely covers her breasts, surrounded by the game's user interface.

I’m Being So Sincere Right Now: Gaming as Hyperreality

Sisters of Janus: Therese and Jeanette Voerman from Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines. Both blonde haired, pallid women, one wearing a dark grey business suit and black rimmed glasses, the other wearing a stylized schoolgirl's outfit, bra and thong visible, and a blood red choker. She also wears deep makeup.

When I play certain video games I get the strange feeling of wandering through the weird and lurid landscape of a Dali painting; beholding the familiar, albeit distorted in the strangest of ways.

One might expect this. After all, video games are not supposed to be realistic by default. They operate on their own internal logic, their worlds hewn out of something called ‘game design needs’ rather than say billions of years of geology and thousands of years of culture and history, for instance. But I came to realize it was something beyond that point which I could comfortably suspend my disbelief and immerse. What jarred me out of, almost consistently, was the fact that many games have had the pretension of being representations of the real.

A artificially warped landscape is a good and interesting thing so long as one does not purport that it is, in fact, akin to a photograph.

Rated M for Misconception

Whenever one hears the word “gritty” or “grimdark” appended to other adjectives used to describe a video game, you’ve likely stumbled on a game that does what I’m going to discuss in this article: promote a rather cliched perspective as ‘real’. Various other euphemisms for this include ‘adult’, ‘mature’, and the like. Let’s take Kieron Gillen’s review of Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for Eurogamer and allow it to speak for itself:

Bloodlines has the best script I’ve seen in a videogame since… well, since ever. In recent times, Planescape is probably hits the same peaks that Bloodlines does, and has the advantage of mass of words, but in terms of writing a modern, adult videogame, no-one’s come near. No-one’s even tried.

It makes cultural references with the casualness of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about – there’s a particularly memorable off-hand gag about fetish slang which dazzled me with the skill, audacity and comfort it showed. Where most games that try something similar come across as callow posturing, this was done as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It deals with the big adult topics – sex, death, whatever – in truthful and honest ways. It has characters who swear as much as anyone out of Kingpin – but they’re characters who swear rather than an attempt to turn the game into a noir thriller by lobbing a few four-letter words into the mix. Conversely, there are characters who have perfectly civil aspects. Troika has done the writerly thing – that is attempt to write people rather than ciphers. I can only applaud.

So ‘truth and honesty’ are themes in this game, apparently, of a rather dramatic sort. Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines is a roleplaying game set in a deeply noir Los Angeles, replete with weakly flickering neon, smoky back rooms, and the thrumming bass of rebellious club music set to the jingling chains of the mosh pit dancers. This game is nothing if not deeply possessed of atmosphere. You wander about as a newly initiated vampire in this world, a creature of the night learning the true meaning thereof in a fast-paced auto da fe of supernatural life. Aside from the cool colours of night and the chiaroscuro template of Gothy dusk that define the game’s palette, the other is of course red. A crimson that splatters many a wall.

VtM:B is a passionately violent game complete with murder, dismemberment, exploding bodies, torture, flesh eating, and, of course, rape. For how could one find true verisimilitude without sexual violation?

All of this begins to dissolve into the usual narrative that can be reduced to the following equation: “There will be blood, there will be tits; therefore there is maturity and realism.”

For there are tits. So many tits in this game. Let us revisit Mr. Gillen’s review for an interesting look at that… dimension of the story:

Take the most obviously eyebrow-raising character, Jeanette (The goth-schoolgirl whose top strains with obvious implants). While on the box you may take her as mere wrist-fodder for the strained-testicle-possessing members of the audience, she’s not treated as such. When she speaks, she’s a babble of egocentric nonsense – predictable, as she’s a Malkavian. However, it’s carefully judged egocentric nonsense. She’s essentially a goth LiveJournal with legs, and, in her extreme way, credible. Even the fact she has a ludicrous cleavage ties in tightly to the plot. Rather than many games where every woman thrusts D-cups and upwards in your direction, Vampire chooses. In Santa Monica at least, no-one has a cleavage like Jeanette. Why is she like that? To Troika’s eternal credit, it provides a reason. And if you ever wander into something that plays to what’s cheerfully described as “fan-service”, it’s because you’ve gone out hunting after it yourself.

When I read over this paragraph I felt an indescribable weirdness. I understood what he was getting at and for what it is worth, I agree to a limited extent, but the manner in which he chose to express himself is quite interesting to say the very least.

Before I analyze this further, I’d like to draw your attention to the words of a retrospective panel at Computer and Video Games about this particular title.

The panel’s views:

Steve: “It’s got that one with the big tits who looks like Britney Spears in it!”

Dan: “And the twist with her, which I won’t say out loud, is just ingenious.”

So. Reality. It apparently has big tits.

I find it fascinating that Gillen proclaims himself an expert on spotting implants. He reminds me a bit of the cis men who proudly bleat about their ability to “spot the tranny.” What is interesting to note is that the model of breasts used for Jeanette is in fact quite common throughout the game, to the point where it’s clear that (implants or no) they are simply Troika’s vision of “breasts” en toto. Jeanette is indeed a character, and one that I actually like, along with her unmentioned sister Therese. While embodying certain cliches, the pair of them do present some interesting characterization that transcends them with the power of each woman’s personal history.

Now, note how I could discuss that without speculating about the nature of Jeanette’s bosom? But why does all of this talk of cup sizes and so on become relevant? Well, it’s because of another fact. Gillen says no one in Santa Monica (an area of the game that is relatively self-contained for most of its opening acts) has “a cleavage” like Jeanette’s. Unless he got out a mental measuring stick, I’d have to dispute this.

You see, this game includes sex workers, lots of them.

And this is where pocketwatches begin bending over trees, melting.

One of the sex working women in VtM:B, a light skinned and red haired woman with her arms akimbo wearing a coppery thong and a tight top that barely covers her breasts, surrounded by the game's user interface.

Truest Blood

All over Santa Monica you find scantily clad women mincing about, fitting the perfect stereotype of the ‘streetwalker.’ For 40 dollars, your character can pay them to wander off into some alleyway with them and suck their blood to replenish their essence. Realistic, no? Quite mature. You wouldn’t find that in the Sims. But that’s not all. You see, in VtM:B, whose blood you suckle upon matters. The game makes very explicit that the blood of sex workers and the homeless (yes, they’re there to add ‘maturity’ as well) is inferior. If you play as a vampire of the noble and upper class Ventrue clan, you will actually vomit if you drink the blood of either.

It would act as a commentary on classism if this was shown to be entirely in the heads of Ventrue and other elitist vampires. But it isn’t; it’s instituted as a game mechanic. Even the wild haired anarchist vampire Smiling Jack waxes gleefully about how good the blood of a PhD tastes. This reification, aside from feeling very strange, has the entirely expected knock off effect of imputing an intrinsic inferiority to the homeless and to sex workers.

Each group is interspersed among the other random NPCs mindlessly milling about the darkened cityscape as a little bit of ‘flavour.’ And that’s what the sex workers and homeless are in this game. Flavour. It wouldn’t be mature without them, of course, and so they stand on the game-scape like poorly painted theatre props. But sex workers say naughty things, so this is a mature and honest world.

The invisibility of sex workers in this game is of a rather interesting sort. They, like most truths about women in society, hide in plain sight. They are there in Bloodlines, but they are truly not there. Masquerading as the truth about the ‘dark’ side of society are these nameless, samey, cliched street sex workers who are cast as being objectively inferior human beings.

Ten Guineas

Like most games of this sort, there is a modding community. Indeed, Bloodlines was infamously shipped in poor condition and has been restored to playable vigor by a dedicated community that created their own repair patches. Along with that extensive labour of love came other mods, one of which caught my eye as I was browsing.

Take a look at this. In particular, take a look at some of the comments from Bloodlines players.

Rofl well lets face it if they where gorgeous they would be in the porn industry not Pros. XD

.

I like how you made them graphically better, but still kept the ugly look.

Prostitutes should always be women who are on the verge of being attractive, but have tons of minor flaws. :P

So, what do we have here? What I find intriguing is the way the ‘truth’ is manipulated in games like this. Who are sex workers in a ‘truthful and honest’ game? Is this the sex that Mr. Gillen spoke of that could be described as such? One wonders where these young men in the comments section of ModDB got their ideas about how sex workers ‘should’ look.

Thus at last we stumble onto the real meaning of ‘reality’ here. It is hyperreality. Reality that, in the words of sociologists Laura Desfor Edles and Scott Appelrouth, has always already been reproduced. Put another way it is ‘reality’ that makes no reference to the real world yet purports to do so. While the postmodernists who gave birth to the term would howl at the idea that there is a real world, I contend that for sex workers there most certainly is, and that Bloodlines does not present it. In its place is a different truth written by white, cis, and middle class men based on what they think they know about the gritty realities of sex work and then present it as a courageously told and daring realism.

What is even more interesting is how these male gamers wish to modify that hyperreality further to better fit their stereotype of what a sex worker ‘should’ look like and be. To what are they making reference, precisely? Real women? It does not seem so. Rather, it is the streetwalker from countless movies and television shows, the woman heels up in a dumpster on CSI, or the modern damsel in distress that Richard Gere saves with his expense account. The Bloodlines vision of sex workers is a copy of all the above.

To use another ten guinea word from the often insufferable canon of postmodernism, this is a simulacrum of sex workers. Simulacra are copies with no true original, something that- I would contend- float beyond lived reality while able to pass themselves off as representations of that reality.

To return to Edles and Appelrouth:

As we have seen… hyperreality [refers] to this state when the distinction between “reality” and the model or simulation is completely dissolved. In the condition of hyperreality, simulations stand in for– they are more “real” than– reality; the map of the territory is taken for the territory itself.

And I might add, when the map is deemed insufficiently “accurate” a gamer will make a mod to “remedy” that fact.

The Pearl in my Eye

Dragon Age: Origins is another game released to cavalcades trumpeting fanfare about the grit and realism of their title and another game that presents a hyperreal vision of that reality that cannot be excused by its fantasy setting anymore than Bloodlines could be forgiven due to its supernatural themes.

The City Elf origin’s treatment of rape, for instance, is a lengthy and bloodsplattered caricature of patriarchy that strains mightily to immerse you in the sanguinity of its mature bonafides and yet fails to tell a story that coheres with any kind of reality. Real life rapists are rarely cackling mustache twirlers like Lord Vaughan, the ringleader of his posse of overtly misogynist gang rapist guards. We are presented with a vision of the rapist as a thoroughgoing, unlikable human being walking around with a neon sign saying “Uncouth Misogynist!” over his head.

That’s the hyperreality of sexism in society that too many men still think they see.

The reality is that rapists have included “nice men”, “likeable men”, men who “believe in equality” and so on; that people who claim to adhere to even feminist ideals are still very often sexist in ways overt and covert. The Origin here ‘deals’ with rape in a manner none to dissimilar from how Bloodlines ‘deals’ with sex workers. A distinct vision of reality as a bloody escape from the quotidian is passed off as mature and real.

Finally we come to what is nearest and dearest to me about these critiques: the Pearl. When your character visits this brothel she has the option of asking the madam for a bit of time with one of the sex workers there. Aha, this must be mature realism. I toyed around with the options and settled on asking to be “surprised.” I was then presented with an array of sex workers to “choose from” which included several ‘“Female” Companions.’

A Dragon Age Mage standing next to someone tellingly labelled a ' "Female" Companion' who is relatively scantily dressed/

Could this possibly end well?

I chose one- the auction block or meat market atmosphere of all this ‘simulation’ was not lost on me- and slept with her to see what would happen. In a short cinematic before each session you’re treated to the sex worker lounging on the bed in their underwear making a quip before the scene fades to black. For the trans sex workers, the ones whose gender was called into disrepute by the quotation marks put around ‘female’ in their floating text nameplates, there was often a lot of making light of what is actually a very serious trauma for many trans women: revealing that we are trans in a situation where power is thick in air around us. As she lounges there she is shown talking in a deep and clearly male voice set, the sight of a bulge in her panties, and some quip about how the player ‘shouldn’t act surprised.’ It’s a reiteration of the old ‘deception’ trope about how trans women deceive cis men into bed with them, revealing their genitals as sort of a “gotcha” surprise.

In that moment I realized this was what Bioware thought of me.

Much work has already been done on the nature of ‘lenses’ as held and espied through by the powerful. That is what hyperreality is, fundamentally, a lens through which the lived reality of the less-powerful is warped and distorted. What makes this pernicious is that the distortion is then presented as the real. The ‘easter egg’ style gags with the trans sex workers at the Pearl were clearly meant as ‘mature’ jokes for a ‘mature’ audience that could handle this ‘reality.’ One wonders if Mr. Gillen would also have said we could “do nothing but applaud” this “honest” recounting.

In all of these settings we see a common, bright line of a thread. Rape survivors, trans people, sex workers, the homeless, are not agents. They do not speak with much of a voice except the ventriloquy of the powerful. As I saw that trans woman in Dragon Age sprawled out on the bed in her underwear I saw exactly what cis men want to see when they look at me and my sisters. The forbidden pleasure, the easy fuck, the fantasy. The joke.

And this is “reality.” This is grit, and this is maturity.

Yet where are we?

Escaping the Fridge

by guest contributor Kateri, originally published at her blog, Falling Awkwardly.

Kateri is a whitecisbigirlclassicistgamerthing. She likes octopuses and
getting caught in the rai… no, actually, just octopuses.

When is a woman in a refrigerator not in a refrigerator?

Shianni, an Elf woman with red hair.

Dragon Age: Origins offers the player several ways of beginning the game, several “origins”. Each one provides your character with a home, a history, and a reason for joining the elite fighting force of the Grey Wardens, thus setting up the rest of the game’s story. This about one of them. Trigger warning for rape and violence; spoiler warning for the City Elf origin.

I have to say, when I first played through the City Elf origin story, I wasn’t wildly impressed. The lowdown: after a series of unfortunate events, the cousin of the PC, a young female elf named Shianni, is raped and beaten, and you, the protagonist, arrive too late to prevent it. This leads into a revenge opportunity against the men responsible and other assorted chaos that culminates in the PC being recruited into the Grey Wardens to avoid the long arm of the law.

While I didn’t think the (offscreen) rape was handled tastelessly or implausibly, I considered the whole situation rather a cheap narrative device. Specifically, I suspected they were falling into the “Women in Refrigerators” trope. For the uninitiated, this is a narrative device common to all media, but especially prevalent in comics (from where the name originates) and video games. It can be identified when a supporting character is killed, raped or otherwise traumatized horribly for the sole purpose of providing the main character with an ‘I WILL AVENGE YOOOU’ emotional motivation and related Dramatic Angst.

It’s not the presence of death/rape/trauma that is problematic, so much as the fact that the victim of this trauma seems to exist solely as a vehicle for said trauma rather than as an actual character. Once the desired Angst has been shovelled onto the – usually male – main character, the – usually female – victim, having served their purpose, is often forgotten about entirely. Surviving victims, in the unlikely event that the plot still bothers to involve them, will generally show no memory or ill-effects of their experience. The trope is cheap, frequently sexist and an insult to people with experience of actual trauma. Hence my lack of enthusiasm when I seemed to recognise it. Oh lovely, I thought, this Shianni character’s getting fridged in an attempt to provoke an emotional reaction in the player. Whatever. I left the starter area, got into the game proper, and didn’t think much more about it.

Then later, much later, I met Shianni* again. This was after my PC had been adventuring it up across the land, exploring new places, meeting new people and killing them. Shianni congratulated him on his accomplishments, in tones laced with sarcasm. Then she turned it around on him, accusing him of having forgotten, in his glorious crusade, where he had come from, and why it all started: “You don’t even feel much anymore when you remember it, do you?” she said, bitterly. “You’ve moved on, past the horror of that night. I envy you. You’ve gone on to other things, things I can only dream of.”**

I felt it like a punch in the stomach. It helped that the voice acting was a masterpiece of subtle emotion, but more than that – it was all true. She had been a plot device, her pain mere emotional leverage to set my protagonist on his journey. I had barely given her a second thought since the game proper began, focusing on my “important” quests, my “real” party members. But in that moment, she refused to let me do that. Screw you, hero boy, she seemed to be saying to my PC, you were the lucky one. I was raped, and you got to use it to your own advantage and then forget about it. I have never had the luxury of forgetting about it. Every day that you were triumphing over evil and hunting for treasure, I had to remember it, and live with it, and carry on anyway.

Shianni speaking to the player character with a sad and concerned expression on her face. 

Judged and found wanting.

Shianni subverts the “women in refrigerators” trope not just because she survives, but because she, and her trauma, do not suddenly stop mattering once their narrative usefulness is spent. She carries on – we later find her pouring her considerable energies into activism and the defense of her people – but her experiences remain part of her. She insists on being a character, not just a plot device, and she doesn’t let the player get away with treating her like one.

When is a woman in a refrigerator not in a refrigerator? When she kicks open the door and breaks it over your head.


*OK, so technically, it’s a spirit, and it’s unclear if it’s actually representing Shianni, or (more probably) a manifestation of the protagonist’s unconscious mind. For the purposes of Shianni’s character development and role from the player’s point of view, however, it doesn’t actually matter which she is!

**It’s worth noting that Shianni doesn’t have this conversation with all City Elf PCs, as I later discovered, just the ones who deserve it. A friend roleplayed a city elf plagued by guilt about what happened, and met with a Shianni who, while still haunted by the memory of what happened, gently tried to assuage the PC’s self-blame. File this under “BioWare are Impressively Sneaky”.

Homosexuality in Mass Effect 2

Tracey John recently interviewed some people at Bioware and among the questions asked included one about the lack of homosexual relationships in Mass Effect 2. The article had a quote from Casey Hudson, the Mass Effect 2 project lead,  We still view it as… if you’re picturing a PG-13 action movie. That’s how we’re trying to design it. So that’s why the love interest is relatively light. …

So, does that mean that homosexuality is R rated? I saw the implicit claim here that heterosexuality is PG-13, normal, but homosexuality is “dirtier” and deserves a stronger rating. I find that claim offensive. Love is good no matter the gender of the individuals. But the problem with this comment goes further than simply implying that homosexual sex is only acceptable for more mature audiences than heterosexual sex. A large problem with this quote is that Mass Effect  as well as Mass Effect 2 are M RATED games! These games already have the equivalent of an R rating for movies. So, is he implying that gay sex in video games deserves an even stronger rating? Is it seen as deserving of an Adults Only rating? It was possible to have a male Grey Warden character in Dragon Age Origins have a sexual relationship with the male party member Zevran. This Bioware game was rated M, just like Mass Effect 2. Bioware has already shown that they are willing to have homosexual relationships in M rated games. So what makes Mass Effect 2 different and why the PR spin? Is it simply because they felt Mass Effect 2 would be purchased by more people than Dragon Age Origins and they did not want to offend some of those consumers? If that is the case then I would like to remind Bioware and other companies that some of their consumers are gay. We are gay, lesbian, straight, bisexual, pansexual, queer, male, and female and we all count as gamers.

How Can Romance Storylines Be More Engaging?

Shepard and Thane, one of ME2's love interest characters. (Pictured: Shepard, a white woman with short red hair standing with one arm forward, aiming a heavy pistol, and Thane, a green amphibious-looking humanoid alien standing slightly behind her and to the left.)

Shepard and Thane, one of ME2's love interest characters. (Pictured: Shepard, a white woman with short red hair standing with one arm forward, aiming a heavy pistol, and Thane, a green amphibious-looking humanoid alien standing slightly behind her and to the left.)

This post contains some major end-game spoilers for Dragon Age as well as some minor character-related spoilers for Mass Effect 2.

Between Dragon Age and Mass Effect 2, there’s been a lot of talk about romance storylines in games over the past several months. They are still something of a novelty, and many people feel passionately about them, so it’s not surprising that they get so much attention. On the other hand, romance storylines tend to all progress in the same linear fashion*: pick a character you like, engage in some (sometimes adorable, sometimes hilariously bad, always entertaining) flirting, eventually have sex or get married or both. This is a shame because there is a lot of potential to really tug at players’ emotions by integrating romance more deeply into a game’s story and changing up the linear progression. (I’m focusing on BioWare-style romances for this post; for a take on breaking out of that structure, this column by Emily Short is a must-read.)

Continue reading

Console Gaming: In-Game Text Size

In a previous post I discussed the issue of text size in console interfaces. But gaming accessibility does not end at the interface screen. In-game text size can be a large barrier for visually impaired gamers.  AbleGamers recently named Dragon Age : Origins their accessible game of the year for 2009. But for all the positive things about this game, one thing that is lacking is the option to increase text size.

When playing on a computer it is possible to download mods for many games. There is already an interface mod available for the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins that increases the font size. However, this is not something that improves the experience for console gamers. When playing Dragon Age: Origins on my Playstation 3 with a 32 inch HDTV the dialogue font is only a third of an inch tall. From 8 feet away this becomes unreadable to me.

Screen shot from Dragon Age: Origins showing the text size of dialogue options

This small text size is an issue for visually impaired gamers as well as standard definition television owners. This has been a problem for many games in the last few years including Capcom’s Dead Rising and another recent BioWare game, Mass Effect 2.

Some games have much larger font that makes them easier to read. Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon for the Wii has nice large font. On my 32 inch HDTV the upper font is an inch tall while the lower text is 0.6 inches tall. Also, the white of the letters have a slight black outline which makes them easier to read when the background is a lighter color.

Screen shot of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobos Dungeon

Screen shot of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon

Clearly both Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins had much more text on the screen at a time than Chocobo’s Dungeon. But gamers would rather be able to change the setting so they can play their favorite games, even if that means scrolling through more lines of text , rather than owning otherwise unreadable games. An increased text size option in a console game improves it’s accessibility which means there is a larger pool of potential gamers/customers and that is good situation for everyone.

What Makes a Game Epic?

Contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

What makes a game epic? Dragon-slaying? Not necessarily! (Pictured: a group of four fantasy heroes battling a large, electric-white dragon from Dragon Age: Awakening.)

What makes a game epic? Dragon-slaying? Not necessarily! (Pictured: a group of four fantasy heroes battling a large, electric-white dragon from Dragon Age: Awakening.)

A great many games, particularly in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, seek to be epic in scope, or evoke a feeling of epicness. It’s an elusive quality because simply making a game very long or very large isn’t usually sufficient, and what makes a game epic may vary from person to person. One thing that I associate with epicness is not only the passage of time, but physical and emotional journeys, as well as change. Change is the key thing there: spending fifty hours in a static world doesn’t feel epic to me, which is why most of the Final Fantasy games that I’ve played don’t quite work for me on that level.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is the first game I played that truly felt epic. And the epic moment wasn’t sealing away Ganondorf, or the heartwarming and fairly silly montage of happy Gorons and Kokiri at the end. That first real moment of awe came when I stuck the Master Sword back in its pedestal and left the Temple of Time as a ten-year-old child once more. What was so epic about that moment was the reminder of how much had changed over the course of the game. Ocarina of Time is one of very few games that has the guts to create a beautiful world, introduce the player to it, and then completely destroy it for the bulk of the game–and unlike Okami or Ocarina‘s successor, Twilight Princess, things don’t get magically all better once you finish a dungeon or defeat a monster. But going back in time in Ocarina is bittersweet: it’s wonderful to see Hyrule whole and happy once more, but upsetting to know what will become of the beautiful land and its people, with small hope of preventing it. Ocarina gracefully sets up the stakes of this epic quest, something few games accomplish.

But change doesn’t have to affect the entire world to be meaningful–it doesn’t even need to be physical. The change can also be mental or emotional, a sense that the character you inhabit has evolved or grown. No game I have played accomplishes that as well as Dragon Age: Origins. In the world of Dragon Age, Mages are dangerous and feared, and so have to go through rigorous training, which is capped off by a trial where the Mage has to prove she or he is able to resist the control of demons, or die. My first character was a Mage, and the beginning of the game involved overcoming her trial (called a Harrowing). At the time she was sheltered and naive, a wide-eyed idealist, talented but knew only a few spells. Over the course of fifty hours of play time, she changed, not only becoming more powerful as in most RPGs, but growing in character and personality: she made friends, broke a curse, slayed a dragon, fell in love, executed a war hero, been to hell and back. She saw the world in its beauty and brutality, grew up, became more cynical. So toward the end of the game, when someone mentioned her Harrowing, I had a real sense of scope for a moment, of how long ago and, more importantly, different things were at the beginning of the game. Everything had changed.

For me, in order to invoke that sought-after “epic” feeling, a game has to work to show me its scope; for me it is not so much badass moments of slow-motion Ogre slaying, but in quiet moments where the game shows me something or a character says something that makes me think, “Wow, that was so long ago and so far away, and so much has changed since then.” I think a game has to go beyond simply being long, and put players on a real journey. What about you? Do you enjoy “epic” games? What games live up to this label for you, and why?

Why games are tailor-made for diversity

One of the things that I’m looking forward to here at The Border House is trying to spot the themes and trends that develop across multiple posts. Looking at issues in isolation is great as an opportunity to really focus on one thing in depth, but I think we stand to learn a lot by backing up a little and taking in the bigger picture.

Here’s something that I’ve noticed come up a few times already. We pretty much all seem to agree that we want to see more female characters in games, more minority characters in games, and generally more “people like me” in games (for whatever value of “me” each of us has).  What we also agree on is that trying to get this diversity into games isn’t always easy. For instance, if someone wants to make a historically accurate simulation of the Battle of the Somme, then it’s mostly going to contain white men out of the need for verisimilitude. (Or so I understand; history isn’t my strongest subject.)

The lead characters from Brokeback Mountain share a hug

The lead characters from Brokeback Mountain share a hug

In the long term, I can see that it could be fine for some games to deal exclusively or predominantly with straight white males, if there are other games dealing mainly with women, homosexuals and people of colour. In the movie world, for instance, Brokeback Mountain is a movie about gay men whereas Pirates of the Caribbean (for instance) isn’t. This doesn’t mean that Pirates of the Caribbean is a bad movie, nor a homophobic one. It means that they were different movies with different themes and different characters.

One of the ways that games are different from other media like film or books is that we don’t have such an enormous corpus of work to compare with and fall back on. If I want to watch a movie about transgender people, I could go and watch Ma Vie en Rose or Boys Don’t Cry or even Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so I don’t feel frustrated at movies as a medium so much when I see yet another movie about people who aren’t like me.

Without the large back catalogue, every new game is – to some extent – representative of gaming as a whole. How, then, should a game go about including a diverse cast of characters without falling victim to tokenism? Every game has a limited number of characters and there’s no way you could fit the whole of human diversity into them, and I don’t think anyone should try to.

Compared to books or movies, games have an innate advantage when it comes to covering diversity: everyone’s experience is different in a game.

If I watch a movie, it’s going to be the same every single time I watch it. If I pause after 58 minutes, it’s going to show the same picture every time. If my friend watches the same movie and pauses at 58 minutes then that picture will be identical as well. If I play the same game as a friend, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be in the same place after 58 seconds, let alone 58 minutes.

We’re used to player characters being different. We can choose different classes, modify our appearances and set our origin stories. We can make decisions as we play the game that influence how NPCs treat us. My Grey Warden is not the same as your Grey Warden. My Lone Wanderer is not the same as your Lone Wanderer. Why then do we not have the same degree of flexibility over the NPCs we interact with?

I played Champions Online for a short while after it was released, and though I quickly lost interest, one of its features intrigued me. As well as customizing your hero’s name, appearance and powers, you also got to do exactly the same thing for the super villain who served as your arch-nemesis. And why not? What good is a super hero without a suitable villain to fight against, and how are people going to become emotionally invested in their character if they end up with a generic foe who doesn’t work with their character at all?

The same could be said about any major character in any game. If I get to create my player character to my own specifications, why should I be satisfied with a generic comrade-in-arms or a generic love interest?

The arguments against doing things this way are obvious.  It’ a lot harder to create compelling characters and a compelling plot this way. The more options there are, the more dialogue would need to be written and recorded, and so on. From the stand-point of logistics alone, I can understand why games companies wouldn’t want to do this.

At least on a small scale, though, I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be done. Let’s take Dragon Age: Origins as an example. Brinstar posted last month about some of the problems the game still has with sex and gender in spite of it being one of the more progressive games out there on this front. One of the ideas she brought up there was that of making all the potential romance characters be bisexual:

However, I was asked to think of a solution, and this is what I thought: if budgetary concerns were the factor, and they could only provide four romantic options, I would have made all of them bisexual. This option would have excluded those who play characters that are homosexual and those who play characters that are heterosexual to exactly the same degree, without completely excluding those who play characters that are bisexual.

She also raised this idea, as suggested to her in a comment:

Make one female NPC and one male NPC bisexual (as they did with Leliana and Zevran), then make the other woman and the other man flexible so that (in this case) Morrigan and Alistair can be either heterosexual or homosexual depending on the gender of your player character.

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

What I’m proposing is that the sexuality of all four of the characters could have been flexible, and that the player could get to pick. If I want to have a romance between my female Grey Warden and Morrigan, then why can’t I? But at the same time, if I want my male Grey Warden to have an unrequited love for a straight Alistair then again, why not? Same thing if I want Leliana to be exclusively interested in women, regardless of the gender of my character.

We could go further. Is there any particular reason why Alistair absolutely needs to be a man? Is there any reason why Wynn need to be white? To my mind, no and no. Why not let us customize our companions to our hearts’  contents to match our customized player characters?

Now, I’m explicitly not trying to suggest that this is something that BioWare should have done. There are a lot of good reasons not to do something like this, and if you did want to do it then I suspect you’d have to make that decision very early on in development and make a lot of design decisions in that light. That wasn’t the game that BioWare chose to make, and I don’t have a problem with that.

What I am trying to suggest though is that there’s no inherent reason why a game like that couldn’t be made, and that if it were then it could have a potentially dazzling scope for diversity.

Dragon Age comic out in March, written by raging homophobe Orson Scott Card

Dragon Age comic book cover; shows three warriors, two men and one woman, standing dramatically on a precepice over an ocean with a castle in the far background.

Dragon Age comic book cover; shows three warriors, two men and one woman, standing dramatically on a precepice over an ocean with a castle in the far background.

Via Joystiq comes news that the first issue of the Dragon Age comic that was announced back in October will be out in March 2010. It is being produced by IDW Publishing and, unfortunately, still being written by Orson Scott Card.

For those who haven’t heard yet, Orson Scott Card not only holds radically anti-gay views, he is a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, and has advocated overthrowing any government that legalizes same-sex marriage. This is not a man with whom I and others simply have political disagreements with. This is a man who uses his fame and fortune to fight against the basic human rights of millions of people, based on an aspect of their identity that he doesn’t like.

The last time Orson Scott Card came up in gaming circles, it was around the summer XBLA title Shadow Complex. I’ll give an overview of the incident, since The Border House did not exist back then. OSC wrote the story and dialogue for Shadow Complex (ETA: A reader reminds me it was actually Peter David who wrote the actual story and dialogue, but it was based on a universe created by OSC, and:) his name was used heavily in order to promote the game (which is a Metroidvania-style side-scrolling shooter, with a story that revolves around a man saving his girlfriend from a liberal conspiracy). This caused ripples in the online gaming community, where many people pointed out OSC’s views and acts, some advocating boycotting the game. The arguments against boycotting mostly revolved around the question “Why take it out on an entire studio if one person involved says something homophobic?” First of all, due to the nature of privilege, pretty much all straight people are going to make SOME sort of homophobic statement at some point in their lives; it’s safe to say OSC’s behavior goes well beyond simply making ignorant statements. Secondly, this is not just some guy in the art department shooting his mouth off; the publisher and developer are using his name to promote and profit off the game.

Cover for the first Dragon Age novel, The Stolen Throne by David Gaider. In the foreground are two men, back to back, one with a sword the other with a bow. The faces of two women can be seen in the background.

Cover for the first Dragon Age novel, The Stolen Throne by David Gaider. In the foreground are two men, back to back, one with a sword the other with a bow. The faces of two women can be seen in the background.

The case is pretty much the same for the Dragon Age comic. The added irony here is that, despite valid criticisms, Dragon Age is one of, if not the, most progressive games out there in terms of sexual inclusivity. It has two bisexual characters, and allows for homosexual sex and relationships. There is an obvious conflict of interest here, especially in terms of the storytelling: will the backgrounds and personalities of the bisexual characters be rewritten or ignored? Will they be part of some inane and insulting “I had a same-sex relationship but I learned better!” plot? Or will they simply not exist at all?

In addition, why not have a BioWare internal writer write the comic, as they did for the prequel novel? This person would have a deeper knowledge of the Dragon Age lore and a better feel for the tone and atmosphere of the setting and characters than any outside writer possibly could, and also they aren’t Orson Scott Card.

My purpose in bringing all of this up again is that I think it is important to bring up Orson Scott Card’s hateful views and, more importantly, his hateful and dangerous activism whenever his name comes up, so that everyone knows about it, and people can decide for themselves whether it is worth it to support him in order to play a game or read a comic book.

More on Orson Scott Card:
Orson Scott Card, homophobic terrorist, against the orderly pursuit of happiness – Yonmei, Feminist SF blog
Orson Scott Card is a misogynistic homophobic wanker – Yonmei, Feminist SF blog
Orson Scott Card: Criminalize Homosexual Behavior – Austin Cline

Dragon Age: Origins, Sexual Orientation, and Player Choice

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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