Content warning: all the spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inqusition. 

Trigger warning: some discussion of slavery and sexual abuse.

Late last year, due in no small part to the visibility of its online fandom, I finally discovered the Dragon Age games. Seeing that there were three of them, I started – as is traditional – with the first one, Dragon Age: Origins. Unsurprisingly, given that both were created by BioWare, the gameplay mechanics reminded me of nothing so much as Knights of the Old Republic – morality engines, dialogue trees and a politically diverse circle of supporting characters engaging with a mute (to the player) protagonist; being attacked in temporary arenas between one map and the next; even the battle menus and combat style felt similar. Though underwhelmed by the ridiculousness of the female body types on offer (NOT EVERY NPC NEEDS THE SAME IMPLAUSIBLY PERFECT BOOBS REGARDLESS OF AGE OR HEIGHT, OH MY GOD), offput by the smattering of bizarre (both contextually and as a narrative choice) misogyny and lukewarm on the general DNDishness of the setting, I nonetheless found myself getting sucked in.

My first Warden was a Dalish elf, Lyna Mahariel. I fell into romancing Alistair with her almost by accident, which is precisely why the relationship was so compelling: it felt natural, a slow-burn progression from comrades to lovers, and despite a brief flirtation with Zevran, Lyna stayed with him. Yet even when the ease of the connection made me think the game was subtly engineered to give Alistair and the Warden a happily ever after, the plot itself proved satisfyingly more complex. Depending on my actions and despite being romanced, Alistair could still become a wandering drunk or the king of Ferelden, assuming he didn’t stay a Grey Warden – and even with that particular outcome, Morrigan’s actions at the finale were an unexpected complication. Though I ultimately stalled out on the final battle – as is typical of me when first playing a game, I’d largely ignored such vital things as weapons upgrades and advanced tactics in favour of the emotional storyline, and thereby left myself critically underpowered – the franchise had won enough of my favour that I moved straight ahead to Dragon Age 2.

And fell instantly, brutally in love with it.

Ordinarily, when given the chance to make a custom game protagonist, I stick to women, not because I dislike male characters, but because I’m so rarely offered the choice to play as anyone else. Years ago, in a deliberate departure from this norm, I rolled a male Jedi in Knights of the Old Republic. Despite having played the game three or more times by that point, I’d never realised Bastila was a potential romance option: I’d only ever played as a woman, and while I’d always found her more compelling than Carth, it honestly hadn’t occurred to me that a male protagonist would get different dialogue options until I saw it mentioned online. But when I tried to play that way, I was shocked by how quickly I became bored. There are so many stories about talented, exceptional men taking command in a crisis that the game itself felt vastly less original than when I played as a woman: those opening scenes, instead of being revelatory, felt utterly cliché. At the time, I’d encountered so few visibly queer narratives in any form of media – and none at all in video games – that I couldn’t even articulate the problem as one of homophobia in KOTOR’s construction. Instead, there was just a nameless sense of frustration, exclusion: why should I have to enjoy the game less in order to access more of it? Why couldn’t I romance Bastila as I was?

Despite winding up in a hetero romance in Origins – I never quite warmed enough to Leliana enough to want to pursue her, though Isabela, in her brief appearance, charmed the hell out of me – I appreciated the visibility of queerness as an option. Going into DA2, however, I knew that Anders was a male romance option, which I hadn’t known initially about Zevran or Leliana. In fact, that was almost all I knew: I’d seen fanart of some other characters online, but for whatever reason, most of what had crossed my path involved Anders. Armed with this knowledge, for the first time in over twenty years of gaming, I chose to play a male character in direct anticipation of the fact that he could – and would – be queer. Like me, I thought, hands gripping the controller. Hawke is queer like me. And what was more, the game itself was going to let me prove it.

An invisible detail, at least at the outset. But knowing I could act on it – knowing it mattered – made the story new for me in a way I hadn’t expected; made it intimate, powerful. My warrior Hawke, who looked like Aragorn and snarked like Sam Vimes – who could’ve passed for any one of dozens of fantasy heroes in films and books and TV shows – was queer, not just because I said he was, but because the game agreed. I had no idea who Anders was, but goddamn, was I ready to find out.

And then it happened. Or rather, Fenris did.

Given a paucity of options, scraps can feel like a banquet. Possibly I knew, in some habitual mental recess, that Anders wasn’t the only queer romance option available to me, but starting the game, that’s certainly how it felt. I never imagined that all four love interests – four, not five; I haven’t yet played with Sebastian – would be accessible regardless of Hawke’s gender, let alone that I’d be tempted by all of them. (Though Morrigan is straightlocked, she and Leliana struck me as having more and better chemistry than either did with my Warden.) But having begun the game with a specific option in mind – an option which already felt revelatory, even before I’d met the mage – I didn’t expect to be so comprehensively swayed by an alternative.

I can’t pinpoint the precise moment I sold my soul to Dragon Age, but it probably involves lyrium tattoos and the voice of Gideon Emery, is what I’m saying.

Fenris, as a character, isn’t easy to woo. By turns, he’s defensive and laconic, prickly and aloof. If I had to pick the single biggest failing of Origins as a game, it would be the Warden’s silence: it’s hard to get a solid read on character reactions when half of every conversation is rendered without body language, inflection, tone. But Hawke, however you play them, is an undeniable presence – a character whose foibles exist, not just in the player’s mind, but on screen. I’d meant to romance Anders, but his intensity soon proved far more unsettling than even his spirit possession. “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” he vows, at a point where Hawke has done nothing more than flirt while exhibiting kindness to mages. It was – and is, I believed, intended to be – a red flag, hinting at the tragic events of the game’s finale: a violent, possessive promise whose fervency is utterly disproportionate to the not-even-yet-a-relationship to which it refers. And besides, I was fascinated with Fenris, a character whose trope-riddled construction ought to have undermined him – he is, in every literal particular, a touch-starved amnesiac elven ex-slave with magic tattoos, waifu combat prowess and impossibly white hair; the archetypal broken bird in every way but gender – but which only served to make him more compelling.

Seventeen hours into the game, having bungled all my initial interactions with Fenris, I quit and restarted in order to romance him properly. Even though I was playing through the exact same levels back to back, I never lost my interest.

Right now, I’ve just embarked on my second, also back to back playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. (I’ve also got a new Origins game on the go – romancing Zevran, this time – but while I’m having fun, I’m enjoying Inquisition more.) The third game confused me when I first tried it, not least because the combat and controls are so markedly different to those of DA2. The jump button is contextually ridiculous, the open world slows the emotional pacing – doubly so in my case, as I’d assumed personal quests would trigger automatically, and so missed many pertinent conversations -and it’s easy to miss the subtleties of the war table. Almost, I gave the whole thing up after the first few hours. But given how much I’d loved DA2, I decided to stick around, if only to give Inquisitor Callum Trevelyan the chance to romance Dorian. (In this new game, I’m Asha Adaar, and flirting with everyone I meet. It’s glorious.)

But the thing is –

The thing is, I meant for this to be a post about Thedas itself: about the politics and problems of the various games, where I stand on mages and templars, and how this all impacts my love of the characters, whose backgrounds and personalities are, with a few notable exceptions, overwhelmingly well-constructed. And we’re still going to get to all that stuff: the real meta is forthcoming. But what I had to say first – what I want to make clear – is how fucking important these games are to me, in their exploration and open acceptance of queerness. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, the extent to which I currently overidentify with Krem Aclassi and Dorian Pavus cannot be measured by your human science. Dragon Age is the first time I’ve ever played as a queer character in video games, at a time when I badly needed exactly that sort of representation, and for that gift, I will love it forever, flaws and all.

Which is why – or one reason why, at least – I feel profoundly irritated by criticism of Dorian’s portrayal in Inquisition: specifically, the idea that his companion quest is badly written because it’s about his queerness. This is a position for which I would maybe have some sympathy if Dorian was the only queer character in Inquisition, instead of – as is actually the case – one of six (or seven, depending on your Hawke). Even if we discount non-romanceable characters – and I’d rather not, frankly; the fact that the Inquisitor can’t sleep with Krem or Hawke or Leliana doesn’t make their presence in the narrative any less important – we’re still left with Sera, Josephine and the Iron Bull, none of whose arcs are contingent on their sexuality.

Nor, despite hinging on Halward’s rejection of Dorian’s queerness, is his quest unrelated to the main plot. In a narrative driven by a Tevinter magister’s misuse of blood magic, Dorian’s arc serves as a poignant microcosm of the whole: where Corypheus attempts to forcibly remake the entire world, Halward Pavus attempts to forcibly remake his son. In a game where the Inquisition allies with the mages at Redcliffe, this comparison is rendered even more devastating by the actions of Alexius, Dorian’s mentor, who similarly abuses magic in an attempt to save his own son, Felix: an awful, inverted parallel to Halward’s actions, but with far greater repercussions. Just as pertinently, the inclusion of what amounts to magical conversion therapy in Thedas – we’re never told exactly what “change” Halward meant to affect, but the implications are universally frightening – is powerful all by itself, not least because it doesn’t end in tragedy. Off the top of my head, I can think of exactly one narrative that engages with queer conversion and still has a happily ever after – the 1999 film But I’m A Cheerleader – and while there are doubtless others, that doesn’t detract from their rarity.

What irks me most about this dismissal of Dorian’s arc, however, is the way in which it implicitly categorises Sera, Bull and Josephine as not queer enough. This might seem paradoxical, given the nature of the original complaint, and yet we have an unfortunate cultural tendency, in our discussions of queerness, to situate gay men as being somehow more queer than anyone else; or at least, more significantly so. In this context, I’m thinking particularly of bi/pan erasure: left to their own romantic devices, Bull and Dorian end up together, and yet every complaint I’ve seen which cites this as part of Dorian being an obviously queer character neglects to complain likewise of Bull.

Oh, but it’s not like that! Dorian is flamboyant, and Bull isn’t! Dorian draws attention to his sexuality, and Bull doesn’t! Listen, I don’t know what game you guys were playing, but it’s Bull who initiates all the early flirting and sexual banter: he’s open about his queerness from the outset, whereas Dorian takes a long time to be anywhere near so comfortable. By the same token, the fact that Dorian is cultured and witty doesn’t make him flamboyant, and even if we’re talking about his clothing choices, Bull’s the one who goes around top-half naked except for a leather harness, joking about his pecs. I’ve often seen Dorian criticised along such lines, but never Bull – even, or perhaps especially, when such observations more rightly apply to him.

It’s like a kind of straw pareidolia: the seeing of stereotypes where none exist, the better to criticise them. Nor is it the only such example of what I’m coming to think of as the DA fandom’s peculiar meta-blindness: a sort of, if not exactly wilful, then stubborn oversimplification of culture and context. Which isn’t to say that I’ve never read any good DA meta, or that the franchise itself is somehow flawless – neither of those things are remotely true. Rather, I suspect, it’s a reflection of confusion in the source material. As a franchise, Dragon Age is intensely invested in discussing the politics and ramifications of fictional axes of oppression (mages, elves) in a setting that borrows heavily from historical axes of oppression (slavery, aristocracy), but which frequently stumbles when it comes to current axes of oppression (race, gender), all of which intersect with each other in various complex ways.

The practical upshot is that, as the creators have a tendency to neglect the current implications of their fictional and the historical elements in unfortunate ways, fans are correspondingly quick to confuse creation with endorsement: that is, to conflate the deliberate inclusion of particular fictional or historical injustices with the unconscious perpetration of current prejudices. This loss of subtlety can be particularly vexing when it comes to historical (or historically inspired, at least) axes, which are most often a synthesis of the fictional and the current, though in one particular instance, I have every sympathy as to why.

I want to tread very carefully here, but given how integral the concept is to the morality problems of DA2 and Inquisition in particular, I don’t think it’s possible to unpick the world of Dragon Age without addressing slavery. And so – carefully, carefully – I’m going to try.

Right off the bat, it needs to be acknowledged: slavery, with all its awful, degrading consequences, is a theme more current than historical, no matter how much some of us pretend otherwise. That being so, the issue – the concept – is vastly more personal to some than others, and for a number of different reasons. Because of my privilege, I’m not one of those people, but that doesn’t make me magically objective on the topic: it just means that, no matter how abhorrent I find the particulars, I’m not going to hurt myself by discussing them, though I may well, despite the best of intentions, hurt others in the attempt. As such, I’m going to try and situate this analysis firmly in the context of Thedas itself, drawing on historical comparisons only if absolutely necessary.

In DA2, the primary conflict is between mages and templars, with Anders and Fenris acting as mirrored exponents for the extreme end of each position. Anders, a human apostate escaped from the Circle, is outraged by the abuse and captivity of mages, seeking to free them by (almost) any means necessary. Fenris, an elven slave escaped from Tevinter, which is run by magisters, doesn’t believe that mages can be trusted without oversight. Anders compares the Circle to slavery; Fenris, who has been a slave – and subject to considerable, horrific abuse in that capacity – disputes the comparison. It’s also pertinent to note that, whereas Anders belongs to a human majority, Fenris is an elf, which makes him both a minority and a member of a race specifically targeted for slavery. Further compounding this from a player’s perspective, although this element isn’t discussed in-game, is the fact that Anders is white, while Fenris is brown.

What’s also deeply relevant, in terms of how magic works in Dragon Age, is the fact that mages are oppressed along a fundamentally fictional axis. By this, I don’t mean to say that mages aren’t hurt in realistic ways, or that their treatment has no real-world parallels: they are, and it does. But as with the various supernatural creatures of True Blood – a show which made overt and frequent comparisons between, for instance, anti-vampire sentiment and the historical persecution of black and Jewish people – the fundamental, inborn quality which sees mages classed as dangerous isn’t just a racist myth of inferiority, but a thing which actually exists in context. Namely: mages have magic, which grants them access to the Fade, where demons live. Mages can be corrupted or possessed by demons, either accidentally or willingly. Mages have the capacity to use blood magic, some of which discipline is merely stigmatised, but much of which involves material hurt to others, and all of which, if mishandled or poorly executed, can result in demonic release or possession.

This being so, all mages, trained or untrained, regardless of their intentions, are at least potentially dangerous by virtue of what they are: the seed of fear used to justify their oppression is, at base, true. In fact, the Dragon Age system of magic is one of the more damning and punitive I’ve ever encountered in fiction. In other settings, for instance, it’s common for mages to be dangerous only when untrained: accidental harm can be clearly distinguished from intentional harm, making rational caution of mages easier to distinguish from irrational fear. But in Dragon Age, whenever mages dream, they have to listen to actual whispering demons. Mages are constantly under siege from malevolent entities seeking to corrupt or control them, and while it’s often said in-world, usually by someone like Anders, that “Tevinter exists, and the world hasn’t ended” – meaning, there is a place where mages live without Circles, and it hasn’t imploded – the fact that Tevinter not only spawns Corypheus, who does almost destroy the world, but is a slave-based empire responsible for centuries of imperialism makes it… not a morally compelling argument.

Elves, by contrast, while similarly fictional, are mistreated solely on the basis of a racist myth of inferiority: they might not actually exist, but the axis of their oppression is certainly real. Which means, returning to the specific setup of DA2, that comparing Fenris with Anders – to say nothing of the two camps they ultimately represent – is an activity rife with pitfalls. Mages are human – or elven, or Qunari – and their magic is inborn. It can’t be repressed and, except at the expense of being made Tranquil, which is abhorrent, it can’t be removed. At the same time, magic itself – the act of having magic at all – is arguably terrifying. Even without the prospect of a child being taken from their parents to be raised in a Circle, Jedi-style but without the galactic kudos, being a mage means a lifetime spent contending with literal demons. Being a mage is like being born with a sword in your hand: the presence of the weapon is no guarantee of aptitude, you’re as likely to cut yourself as do harm to others, and it makes you a visible target of mortal fear and monstrous appetites both.

In short, mages vs templars in Dragon Age is a morality problem with no obvious, easy solutions: the ultimate in quis custodiet ipsos custodes. The potential danger posed by mages doesn’t justify the abuse to which they’re subjected under the Circle system, but nor is the general fear of mages irrational. Contextually, magic is almost like a disease vector, with demonic abuse as the virus: skill and intention won’t necessarily prevent a mage from infecting themselves or others, which leaves vigilance as the only real recourse. It’s zombie apocalypse logic in a fantasy setting, but hard to identify as such because, in most other fantasy settings, which create our collective expectations of the genre’s baseline, magic-users aren’t persecuted with anywhere near so valid a reason.

And for players trying to navigate moral decisions surrounding the use and restriction of magic, the issue is further compounded by the fact that, in all three games, it’s magic that fuels the enemy, and mages from within the protagonist’s camp who ultimately betray their allies. It’s worth analysing this pattern in-depth, if only because the actual gameplay mechanic – which is to say, the handwavy justification for the creation of multiply-spawning, must-be-killed-to-death enemies for the party to encounter – can often serve to obscure exactly how fucked up the situation is when viewed at a remove.

In Origins, on joining the Grey Wardens, the protagonist learns that the Wardens are initiated by drinking darkspawn blood, a ritual which, if it doesn’t kill them outright, will shorten their lives and eventually require them to commit suicide. In Redcliffe, it’s the Arlessa’s decision to keep her son, Connor, away from the Circle that leads to his demon possession and the death of almost an entire town. At the Circle on Lake Calenhad, the rebellion of a cabal of mages leads to the death or possession of almost their whole number, along with every templar bar one – Cullen Rutherford, more of whom later – who was trapped with them. In the Brecilian Forest, the Dalish Keeper, Zathrian, is revealed to have used his magic to create a monstrous werewolf, whose bite has infected hundreds of innocents over a period of decades. In Orzammar, the Paragon Branka becomes so consumed with the need to replicate an ancient magical technology that she allows her friends and lover to be consumed by darkspawn; is even willing to kill other dwarves in order to make new golems. And after all this, there’s the final sacrifice: Morrigan’s magic can help to defeat the archdemon, but at the cost of virginal Alistair, who prizes family connections and romantic fidelity, siring a child he’s never allowed to see with a woman he hates. “Good” magic might beat “evil” on the battlefield when reduced to the status of a tool defined by the hand which wields it, but it’s the callousness of a power-hungry apostate that packs the emotional suckerpunch at the finale, and with everything that’s come before, it’s hard to view it as an isolated incident.

Similarly, in Inquisition, despite the ostensible division between mages and templars when it comes to picking allies, abuse of magic and demonic interference is the root problem in both camps. Corypheus, the long-dead Tevinter magister-turned-demigod, uses both primeval red lyrium – an effectively magical substance – and various mages and demons to try and destroy the world. Demons pour into Thedas from a rip in the Veil, and while, as always, magic is used to combat magic, the emotional betrayal of the finale comes when Solas, the elven apostate, is revealed to be the trickster god Fen’Harel, whose quest to remake a past age anew was ultimately what caused the rise of Corypheus and the near-breaking of the world.

And thus, returning to DA2, the strangeness of the contrast between Fenris and Anders, templars and mages. The city of Kirkwall, where the story unfolds, is also called the City of Chains, having been founded by Tevinter mages and famed, once upon a time, for being a major slave-trading hub. The Gallows, where the Circle mages now live, was formerly reserved for slaves, and in snippets throughout the game, we also learn the city itself is constructed in such a way as to make the Veil thinner. Blood magic is performed more easily, yet goes awry more often, while demons are stronger, more powerful there: the legacy of Tevinter and its magical priorities, or (possibly) something darker, buried underground. While there’s a clear thematic comparison in mages living where magisters once kept slaves – and while it’s clear that the resident templar Knight-Commander, Meredith, has always taken a hard line against her charges – we also learn at the finale that her ultimate descent into madness is the result of infection by red lyrium: by, in essence, the very same magic she feared. And once again, it’s the resident apostate, Anders, who concludes the game with an emotional betrayal, orchestrating a magical explosion that kills hundreds of innocents in a strike against, not the templar order, but the Chantry, which in Kirkwall was run by a moderate.

I don’t know how else to say this but baldly: by game’s end, Anders is a terrorist. Blowing up the Chantry is a literal act of terrorism, being as how it constitutes a military strike on a non-military target, and if it were performed by a character who wasn’t an attractive white guy, I’m guessing that description of him wouldn’t be so rare. And no, before you mention it, in this specific instance, I don’t care that the Chantry is ultimately responsible for creating the templar order: Grand Cleric Elthina appointed Knight-Commander Meredith, but she was also trying to compromise with the mages, blocking Meredith’s call for the Right of Annulment. Anders, in picking the Chantry as his target, specifically states, “There can be no half-measures… there can be no peace. I removed the chance of compromise because there is no compromise.” Only a Sith deals in absolutes, and that is not the language of someone who’s sorry to murder strangers. 

The extent to which the extremity of this stance can be attributed to Anders being possessed by Justice/Vengeance – and therefore the extent of his personal culpability, were the spirit removed- is going to vary depending on who you ask. Personally, I’m inclined to judge him – him meaning Anders/Justice as a single entity – in the context of his actions throughout the game, and in that light, he remains consistent throughout. Romantically, I shied away from Anders because of his violent intensity, and given his claim to Hawke that “Justice disapproves of my obsession with you,” I’m inclined to view his earlier promise – “I would drown us in blood to keep you safe!” – as a sign that, even when acting on his own impulses, Anders is still possessed of some frightening qualities. And Justice, by the magical rules of Dragon Age, was originally a pure spirit. From the examples set by Wynne and Cole, we know it’s possible for benevolent spirits to remain benevolent while possessing humans; similarly, according to Solas, good spirits can become “twisted”, their nature “defiled” by humans who misuse them. Even though it’s Justice who convinces Anders to fight the oppression of mages, therefore, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to argue that Anders himself corrupts the spirit to Vengeance.

But however you attribute Anders’s actions, canonically speaking, it’s hard to argue against his hypocrisy. Speaking to Fenris, he says of the Circle mages, “They’re slaves! You should want to help them.” And yet, despite having made this comparison, Anders is singularly dismissive of Fenris’s actual experience of slavery, saying to Hawke, “He has let one bad experience colour his whole world. Surely you want someone more open-minded?” Worse, in the same conversation – and despite his vehement objection to Cullen’s claim that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me,” – he says of Fenris – to Hawke, but in Fenris’s hearing – “He seems less a man to me than a wild dog.” This is an abominable insult, and quite deliberately so: in fact, it’s a rare, clear instance where the fictional, historical and current axes of oppression all completely align. Fictionally, elves are oppressed in Thedas, with one of the most common slurs – “rabbit” – being animal in nature; by the same token, Anders is also aware that Fenris’s name, given to him by his abusive former master, means “little wolf”. Historically, slaves have often been compared to animals in such derogatory terms; which is why, currently, referring in particular to a brown man as a “wild dog” – especially when the speaker is a white man – is reminiscent of some truly ugly things.

But of course, Anders is an attractive white man presented as a viable romantic option for the protagonist, and so we – culturally conditioned creatures that we are – don’t readily stop to consider that he is simultaneously written as a prejudiced hypocritical terrorist; and more, that he is written this way on purpose. We are meant to be morally conflicted by Anders, just as we are meant to be morally conflicted by Morrigan and Solas – and yet, over and over and over again, in discussions of all three characters, I see their deliberate failings written off as BioWare’s accidental failings, as though the writers are merely including problematic or offensive dialogue for no good reason, and not because it’s serving the purpose of demonstrating bigotry in the characters. Morrigan’s appropriation of elven culture in Inquisition isn’t the result of BioWare failing to consider the negative implications of a human drinking from the Well of Sorrows, but a deliberate choice designed to make the player uncomfortable; hence the clear comparison with Dorian, who understands exactly why he, as a human mage from Tevinter, shouldn’t be the one to steal elven secrets, even if the intention is preservation.

Inarguably, part of the problem is the sheer complexity and length of the games themselves. A single playthrough of Inquisition alone can take upwards of eighty hours, and even then, you’re not going to witness anywhere near the full total of cutscenes and dialogue options. Being a compulsive dork, I tend to play through the first time with a Wiki open on my iPad, just in case I get stuck; the phenomenon I’m observing, that meta-blindness, may simply be the result of multiple players writing from incomplete perspectives. If you don’t take Dorian to the Arbor Wilds and ask him his opinion at the Well of Sorrows, for instance, it won’t be immediately obvious that his counterexample to Morrigan exists – and yet, at the same time, I can’t help thinking that whiteness, beauty and romantic availability go a long way towards fostering the automatic assumption that, regardless of what such a character said, if it makes them look bad or cruel or bigoted, it’s a writing error until proven otherwise. See also: Solas telling a Tal-Vashoth Inquisitor that “Qunari are savage creatures… but you have shown a subtlety in your actions,” which insult has lead someone to ask, without any apparent irony, “Does BioWare not realise what they’re doing?”. Yes, random internet person: yes, they do. They want you to think Solas is an asshole.

There is also, I’ve found, an even more disturbing parallel to this phenomenon of presumed white character innocence: assumed brown character guilt. For every post I’ve seen that criticises BioWare for unintentionally painting Solas or Morrigan in a bigoted light, I’ve seen at least three others castigating Dorian – not the writers, but Dorian himself – for being a former slave owner.

Take a moment for that particular double standard to sink in.

By this toxic, racist logic, if a white character is problematic or bigoted, it’s because BioWare made a mistake and didn’t realise the negative implications – but if a brown character is problematic or bigoted, it was clearly intentional, and the character cops the flak. Consider, for instance, the problem of Vivienne: a black woman whose racial identity, as others have pointed out, is almost an afterthought, unattached as it is to any particular region in Thedas. Vivienne is often criticised for being cold, impersonal or cruel, but while I’ve sometimes seen the more problematic aspects of her characterisation attributed to BioWare, who perhaps didn’t consider the current racial implications of making their lone black female character an advocate for systematic oppression (an unchanged Circle, in this case), more often than not, she’s simply dismissed as unlikeable.

Dorian’s case, I feel, is slightly trickier (see above re: privilege and slavery), and yet his characterisation as a “slavery apologist” niggles at me. Specifically: it niggles because a similar claim isn’t ever made of Cullen Rutherford.

Why Cullen, you ask? Allow me to explain:

In Origins, Cullen is the lone templar survivor of the disaster at the Lake Calenhad Circle, a deeply traumatic experience which – somewhat understandably – leaves him with a vehement fear of mages. As such, when we see him in DA2, he’s Knight-Commander Meredith’s right hand; that he ultimately aids Hawke and the mages against her (if you take that option) doesn’t change the fact that, for the seven year duration of the game’s events, he’s been complicit in some pretty horrific atrocities, including summary executions, regular torture and confinement, mages being unfairly made Tranquil, and their systematic rape and sexual abuse. That Cullen hasn’t necessarily done all these things himself doesn’t absolve him of his role in letting them flourish; certainly, he knows about some of it, and does nothing. But by the events of Inquisition, he’s finally learned to question: though still traumatised, he’s willing to work with mages, and acknowledges them as people. Give the man a cookie!

Particularly in DA2 – which is to say, in with reference to the Kirkwall Circle, supervised by Cullen – we’re encouraged to compare Circle conditions to slavery. And certainly, whatever we might conclude about the innate dangers of mages and the practises of Circles elsewhere, in that time and place, it’s a very apt comparison. Dorian, by contrast, is raised in Tevinter – a place where elves are enslaved by virtue of being elves, but where humans can choose to indenture themselves as an alternative to poverty. This latter option is historically reminiscent of Rome, on which Tevinter is largely based, but at the same time, it’s very clear that Tevinter is its own ecosystem.

Many moons ago, I expressed my irritation with a phenomenon I think of as Sexism Without Sexists: stories where women are oppressed as a narrative default, but where the male heroes are never shown to be overtly sexist, thus enabling the creation of stories where female agency is restricted (and female characters correspondingly minimised) without damaging the likeability of the male protagonists. Since Origins, Tevinter has been established as a slave-owning country, and seldom treated with any moral subtlety as a consequence. Which, yes, on the one hand, if a country is pro-slavery, we can be pretty sure they’re not a bunch of stand-up guys. But on the other hand, one of the most horrific things about slavery is the fact that, for those not enslaved, it becomes a background element: that life goes on around it, facilitated by it, and mostly without critiquing it. And in both DA2 and Inquisition, it’s clear that BioWare is trying to move beyond simplistic, Black Hat notions of Bad Guy cultures, even if they are still using literal evil monsters like Corypheus (because fantasy tropes). Together with the changes to Tevinter, this shift is exemplified by the steady development of the Qunari from ‘conveniently warlike culture of monstrous-looking invaders’ to ‘startlingly original and complex culture of weirdly socialist, polyamorous, non-monogamous philosopher-warriors’, which is definitely a change for the better.

Similarly, in addition to establishing Tevinter and the Qunari as convenient Bad Guys, Origins also set the precedent for both nations being majority dark-skinned, or at least non-white, which… I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s problematic. By the same token, whitewashing both races in future games as a “fix” to this would’ve been equally unpalatable – and so, instead, BioWare has gone about giving their cultures nuance and depth, trying to create something positive from the mess of their early mistakes. If we’d never heard of Tevinter before Inquisition, that would be one thing; but as part of a developing narrative about an established world, it’s vital to look at how portrayals of both Tevinter and the Qunari have become more complex since Origins.

And thus, Dorian Pavus: a character intended to represent a positive scion of Tevinter without making obnoxious use of Slavery Without Slavers. It would’ve been easy in the extreme to paint Dorian as an abolitionist from birth; to make him a convenient exception to everything we hate about his country. Instead, BioWare took the harder option of acknowledging that yes, good people, however we define so perilously nebulous a term, aren’t magically immune to the uglier sides of the cultures which raise them; that questioning has to be learned. Dorian is critical of slavery, but that doesn’t mean he automatically accepts that abject poverty is somehow marvellous, either. Consider, in-game, the treatment of Kirkwall’s Circle mages; the treatment of elves in Ferelden alienages. Whether fictional, historical or current, a system of oppression doesn’t have to be called slavery in order to be morally reprehensible, or to mimic certain of slavery’s abuses.

(By the same token, when Solas says to Dorian, “If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today,” the fact that Dorian replies with “I… don’t know that I can do that,” isn’t apologia for slavery, but a literal statement of fact. He, Dorian, physically cannot do this thing, because Dorian is only one person. When Solas says “you” in this conversation, he’s talking about Dorian in the singular, not Tevinters in the plural, as contextualised by their previous remarks: Solas, being a provocative shit, is suggesting Dorian do an impossible thing, and Dorian, being honest, is acknowledging that he can’t, not stating that he shouldn’t.)

The care taken to construct Dorian’s perspective, however, is most obvious when you compare his remarks on slavery to those of Fenris. In DA2, during Fenris’s personal quest, the slave Orana exclaims, “Everything was fine until today!” To which Fenris, quiet and raw, replies, “It wasn’t. You just didn’t know any better.” This remark is a reference to Fenris’s time with the Qunari Fog Warriors on Seheron – people who helped him during his first separation from Danarius, but who he subsequently killed on his master’s orders. (“Are you my master now?” Orana asks next. And then, when Fenris says not, “But… I can cook. I can clean! What else can I do?”) Slavery, as Fenris knows all too well, is a mindset as much as an institution: obedience, even (or perhaps especially) to one’s abusers, is a habit not easily broken.

And Dorian understands this, too. Asked about slavery, he says, “Back home, it’s… how it is. Slaves are everywhere. You don’t question it. I’m not even certain many slaves do.” His subsequent statement – “Some slaves are treated poorly, it’s true. But do you honestly think inescapable poverty is better?” – isn’t exactly a glowing denunciation; at best, it reads as flippant understatement mixed with false equivalence. Yet even so, you’ll have to explain to me, please and thank you, why this is a fundamentally more repugnant, more utterly unforgivable statement than Cullen’s claim, in DA2, that “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and me.” Dorian, however wrongheadedly, is at least acknowledging that slaves don’t deserve to be mistreated; Cullen’s statement is far more viciously biogted, denying his charges even their basic humanity. And whereas Cullen has personally presided over the monstrous abuse at the Kirkwall Circle, Dorian, we’re told, has never seen his family mistreat their slaves, nor owned any himself. He spends the rest of the game – this comment being made early on – expanding his horizons.

Dorian Pavus has far fewer sins to his name than Cullen Rutherford when it comes to the abuse of powerless people under his control, yet of the two, it’s Dorian who’s more often cast as irredeemable, Dorian’s fans who are asked to justify their affection. The truth is, both men are morally complicated- BioWare, it seems, don’t do anything so dreary as simplex morality if they can help it – and both are offered redemption by the narrative. Cullen wants to find a new way for mages and templars to work together; Dorian wants to reform Tevinter. I’m not going to criticise anyone who draws the line at absolving them for their sins or who fundamentally dislikes either character, but I can and will point out the hypocrisy of fandom, as a collective entity, routinely pardoning the straight white man while demonising the queer brown one.

Returning briefly to the topic of queerness: while I understand the disappointment some fans felt regarding the romance options in Inquisition – specifically the fact that, unlike in DA2, the love interests had static orientations, rather than being protagsexual – I also think there’s value in acknowledging that queerness isn’t amorphous, but is constructed from multiple different identities. A protagsexual Dorian, for instance, by dint of being bi/pan, wouldn’t have had the same conversion therapy arc; or at the very least, it couldn’t have been told the same way. The fact that two people are queer doesn’t mean they have identical experiences of queerness, and as much as I’d love to romance Cassandra as Asha Adaar – and as much as my gleeful bisexual heart will forever love DA2 for making everyone bi/pan, it’s literally canon, fight me – it’s equally important to acknowledge a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potentially different narrative impact. (Dear BioWare, if you’re listening: why not alternate this approach from game to game? Make the next DA protagsexual again, and the one after that more specific. ALL THE QUEER ROMANCEABLES, huzzah!)

Nor is this the only important aspect of Inquisition which, from where I’m sitting, seems to get less praise than it deserves. In many respects, in fact, it’s rather revelatory, not least because the Inquisition itself is driven by women. The Inquisitor is saved from the fade by the spirit of Divine Justinia, then taken into custody by Cassandra and Leliana, the right and left hands of the now-dead Divine, who’ve taken it upon themselves to recruit, among others, Cullen and Josephine. This, too, feels like a correction of early DA errors: Origins in particular is notable for having established an ostensibly egalitarian world – or at least, a world in which women can equally fight and rule and lead in various capacities, and where the primarily religious organisation is female-dominated – while simultaneously making almost all the relevant, authoritative NPCs men. DA2 makes a stab at correcting this, but ultimately, Grand Cleric Elthina, Leandra Hawke, Patrice, Hadriana and Knight-Commander Meredith are either politely ineffectual or wickedly corrupt: it’s First Enchanter Orsino, the Viscount and his son, Commander Cullen, Danarius, Gamlen, the Arishok and a succession of male intermediaries who show a full range of moral complexity while nudging the plot along.

In Inquisition, however, not only does Josephine’s introduction render the Inner Circle predominantly female, but the game’s entire narrative is arguably split, at least in part, along gender lines. This is, of necessity, subtly done; which is to say, the women are neither absent nor saintlike, the men made of sterner, more complex stuff than straw. Rather, we’re shown a series of power struggles in which women are granted a variety of roles, and where male arrogance is largely expressed as a function of contextual male privilege. Grand Enchanter Fiona is pitted against Magister Alexius; Warden-Commander Clarel de Chanson against Lord Erimond; Cassandra against Lord Seeker Lambert (or his demon impersonator); Calpernia against Corypheus; Briala and Empress Celene against Duke Gaspard. Not all these struggles have the same dynamic, and yet, over and over again, Inquisition shows us what happens when women who’ve been manipulated and lied to by powerful men decide to fight back. Like Sera sticking up for the little people and the continual presence of small, domestic quests amidst far bigger crises, there’s a profound, continuous undercurrent of, not just inclusivity, but recognition of the fact that everyone matters when you’re saving the world, especially if you’re planning to remake it as something better when you’re done.

Nor is it irrelevant that, out of all the main characters, the three with the most prestigious, political backgrounds – Josephine, Dorian and Vivienne – are all people of colour. Cassandra, though technically royalty, is a warrior, not a diplomat: the other three are all consummate courtiers and intellectuals (though I wonder if, as a Nevarran, she might not be categorised as white-passing rather than white). Even the Iron Bull, who’s arguably a person of colour depending on how you categorise Qunari, is a spy, incisive, intuitive and literate in addition to being a massive, muscular brawler. And if you recruit the Templars, it’s Delrin Barris who proves the most honourable of his company, one of few brave enough to speak up against the corruption and brutality of his commanders. In a genre which so often exoticises people of colour while simultaneously marking them as Other by the standards of what’s contextually deemed civilised, it’s subversive as hell to take a European-inspired setting like Thedas – and particularly the deeply English/French duo of Ferelden/Orlais – and say that, actually, the people best suited to navigating these waters, out of everyone in the Inquisition, are all immensely competent outsiders: a straight black woman who’s risen to power on the basis of her extraordinary skill and acumen, a queer brown woman, nobly born, who’s managed to do likewise (and who’s bringing her family back into prominence with her), and a queer brown man from an enemy nation who still knows more about social etiquette and alliances than the commander of the Inquisition forces.

The fact that Inquisition gives us Krem, a trans male character whose companions all unhesitatingly accept him as such – and whose friendship with Bull gives me feelings – is another such diverse highlight. In fact, all our escapee Tevinter boys are rather striking, a confluence I’m discinlined to view as coincidental. Taken collectively, I’d contend, the Iron Bull, Fenris, Krem and Dorian represent four different facets of Tevinter society – the embedded Qunari; the elven slaves; the human soldier class; the aristocratic magisters – in an embedded, interrelated narrative that reads as a damning takedown of traditional, toxic masculinity.

The Iron Bull, while raised in the Qun to disregard romantic attachments, can nonetheless fall in love with either the Inquisitor or Dorian. At the same time, his hypermasculine attributes of size and strength aren’t tied, as is so often the case with such characters, to heteronormative ideals, but are rather complimented by a relaxed, comfortable, kinky pansexuality. Fenris, whose relationship with Danarius is strongly coded to imply rape (Danarius laciviously calls him “skilled” when taunting Fenris and Hawke; same sex relations in Tevinter are encouraged with favourite slaves; Fenris is touch-phobic), is one of a vanishingly rare number of male abuse victims shown in games. His arc in DA2 is – or can be; is ideally, I’d argue – one of healing and self-acceptance. Rather than relying on isolation and stoicism, Fenris heals through his friendships, by learning to trust the people he cares about; by talking, however privately, about his trauma. Krem is a trans character whose personal history, while involving flight from his family and betrayal in the army, is nonetheless presented utterly without self-hatred. Krem knows who he is, and while he can acknowledge that his life hasn’t always been easy, he isn’t a tragic character: his friends and romantic partners accept him, he’s great at his job, he’s got a killer wry sense of humour, and he doesn’t take crap from strangers. He’s level-headed, successful and just a little bit shy: a portrait in all respects of the kind of positive, diverse masculinity we so badly need to see more of.

And Dorian? Dorian is a privileged man oppressed by the same strictures of toxic, heteronormative masculinity which ostensibly see him elevated. Rather than opt for a life of misogyny and self-hatred, married to a woman he doesn’t like, love or respect, he asserts his own identity and questions the world that raised him. Conditioned to expect only physical attachment – not, like Bull, due to any cultural mandate against romance, but because his romantic inclinations don’t run in an approved direction – he nonetheless finds love and self-acceptance in the Inquisition, eventually using what remains of his privilege in the service of others. Put together, not only do all four men represent a spectrum of sexuality – Bull is pansexual, Fenris bisexual, Krem straight, Dorian gay – but their narratives engage with maleness in very different ways. None of them is a queer tragedy; all of them are men of colour; and all of them present masculinity as fluid, adaptable, variable.

How many other games can boast as much?

There’s a heartbreaking moment in DA2 when Fenris, hurt and vulnerable, asks – furiously, rhetorically – “What does magic touch that it doesn’t spoil?” (He’s covered in magic lyrium. He’s talking about himself. My heart.) It’s a question few fantasy narratives, buoyed by the genre’s love of magic as novelty, would think to ask with any degree of seriousness, let alone seek to answer with such complexity. Whatever failings can be heaped on the Dragon Age franchise, it’s hard to deny that they’re striving to tell new stories about a wide range of people; that they’re attempting, with each new game, to learn from prior mistakes; that their failures stem more often (now) from enthusiastic ambition than ignorance. In fact, they’ve created such a wealth of rich, detailed material that our critical analysis is still racing to catch up with the content: despite everything I’ve said here, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I look forward to finding more.

 

 

Comments
  1. Hell to the *yes*, on so many points I’ve lost count.

    I’ll pull one out, though: the mage thing. I don’t read a lot of meta, so maybe this is out there, but you’re one of the few people I’ve seen bring up that issue so clearly. And it’s been bugging me for a while, the way that entire situation is presented, not so much because I think Bioware isn’t doing it on purpose but because I don’t know where they intend to go with it.

    As you pointed out, the deck is stacked from the beginning: the threat which mages embody is real. There is no getting around that. They are inherently dangerous. And then, from that stacked deck, Bioware keeps dealing hands which show us that mages are a problem — maybe the problem. I noticed this in DA2, when I started keeping track of how the game depicts templar evil vs. mage evil. Time and time again, the bad things done by templars turn out to be false rumour, or just the fault of one bad apple, or secretly the fault of mages. Neither the Divine nor even Meredith herself supported the Holocaust-esque “Tranquil Solution.” Meredith’s “secret horrible initiations” were actually the work of blood mages. And when she finally tips over the edge, as you said, it’s because of the red lyrium idol, i.e. magic. The abuses of the Circle remain largely a background thing, stuff we hear about mages being mistreated but it never really comes front and center. On the mage side, by contrast, the story proves again and again that yep, mages really will call on demonic help if they think they need to, they really will plot and scheme against honest Maker-fearing citizens, they’ll go after you with blood magic even if you helped them in the past, and their leader is corrupt not because some external force has driven him to it, but because he’s apparently just an unhinged bastard. (Any sympathy I had for Orsino went out the window the instant I realized he was working hand-in-glove with that serial killer.)

    After I noticed that, I wanted a shirt that said “Fenris Was Right.” Because his take is that while individual mages may desire to be good, in the end, they’re all dangerous and can’t be let loose. And a dozen times in DA2, the narrative proves his point. (I don’t, btw, see him as the extreme end of the templar-centric side: to me, Anders’ counterpart is crazy!Meredith. Fenris never, to my recollection, advocates anything on par with Anders’ terrorism. Compared with the other two, he looks like a moderate.)

    My secret, fingers-crossed, maybe-Bioware-won’t-stab-me-in-the-heart-one-last-time hope is . . . that the end of the series produces some kind of cosmic change which restacks the deck. Because I’m of the opinion that Solas, while exceedingly wrongheaded in what he’s trying to do, is right about one thing: the current situation is twisted and awful. Ripping down the Veil wouldn’t fix it — that would just bring on a fresh new flavor of apocalypse — but it’s clear that the division between the world of flesh and the world of spirit is unhealthy, since it produces a situation where a whole category of people across multiple species are born inherently dangerous and cannot be allowed full freedom. I retain a foolish optimism that Bioware won’t just go full grimdark; they’ll allow for the possibility that something new can happen, something which actually leaves the world a better place in more than a temporary sense.

    I’m probably wrong. But I’ll keep hoping.

    • Max says:

      Marie, I’m a huge #NotAllMages apologist in DA fandom, play mages and mostly hate Templars. The impression I have is that magic in DA is conceptually very similar to the Avatar TV series (and not too far from The Longest Journey either). The Veil makes magic and communication harder for BOTH sides of the Veil. Solas’ Folly in thinking that he could protect the Spirit World/Fade/Dream from the worst, corrupting influences of people (elf and human) by creating the Veil was not realizing that corruption flows easier than good. The dreams and imagination that created “the Golden City” can’t flow across the Veil and the Fade became a corrupted nightmare of itself. Meanwhile, magic became much tougher to access in Thedas. Where magic was presumably more democratic prior to Veil it only serves to prop up the power of slave-owning elites in Tevinter, the main remaining slave culture. (Another irony of Solas’ Folly, as it began as a slave revolt of sorts.) Good spirits have a harder time crossing the Veil and without deep connection to the Fade have a hard time avoiding people corruption in Thedas when they do. Thus dark spirits and magic of corruption are easier for mages, and thus too is magic generally prone to subtle corruption. While I have hope eventually Thedas will reach a more enlightened Spirit Age, I also realize that would likely be only in conclusion to the Dragon Age, as dragons are physical representations (avatars) of magical corruption. There be a lot fewer dragons to fight, and while Spirit Age games might still be fun, they certainly wouldn’t be Dragon Age.

      • I would bet good money the Golden City isn’t actually a creation of dreams; it’s an elven city, a relic of the pre-Veil past. But possibly that’s just me hoping the game undermines the Andrastian religion in the same way it’s undermined the elven one — it will bother me a bit if the writers go, “yeah, the elven ‘gods’ were actually people just like Corypheus, and of course the Tevinter ‘gods’ are the monstrosities who cause Blights, and the Avvar are just worshipping spirits that might turn on them at any second, and the Qun is the foundation for a really controlling* caste system . . . but the Andrastians are okay.” I know the writers have said they’ll never issue a clear answer on whether the Maker is real or not, but there are other ways to give that religion problems. And it will bug me if the monotheists come out okay, while everybody else gets to explore the lies and horrors of their theology in detail.

        . . . but I did play an elven Inquisitor, so I may be a little bit extra sore about what you learn in Inquisition and Trespasser.😛

        (Seriously. Nothing like marching in the Elf Pride Parade all game long, then getting snubbed by Abelas and his people, then finding out one of your big markers of identity is a slave brand, then vanquishing Corypheus only to find out that that heritage you’re so proud of was built on a foundation of worshipping people just like him. Ouch.)

        Where did you get the notion that dragons are avatars of magical corruption? I don’t remember that being said anywhere, but would love to track it down if that comes from some piece of canon I missed.

        I do agree that any shift of that kind would end the Dragon Age — but that’s why I said I’d like to see it be the end of the series. Because as much as I’d like to be with you in #NotAllMages, I keep being presented with stories in which yes, it’s all mages, unless they submit to a system of oppression and control that has repeatedly been shown to be deeply flawed . . . and even then, they’re just one push too many away from giving in to demonic influence.

        *And to my semi-trained anthropological eye, not terribly realistic.

        • Jeff says:

          There have been some details that put holes in the Andrastians’ official party line, suggestions like Andraste being a mage, and numerous details that suggest the blight predates Corypheus & Co. breaching the Golden/Black City, but I do hope they throw more doubt and questions at the mainstream religion of these games.

          • There are really two party lines about Andraste (the Imperial one and the Orlesian one); it will be interesting to see which of them is right. But while Corypheus says the city was black when they got there (suggesting that it, at least, was already corrupted), the Blight in the sense of a plague upon the mortal world does seem to stem from the magisters breaking into the Fade. So it feels to me like the finer points of Andrastian religion have been cast into doubt, but not the foundations. I’d compare it to “the goddess Andruil used to hunt elves” vs. “Andruil wasn’t a goddess at all, she was just a mage who enslaved elves.”

  2. bluestgirl says:

    SO MUCH LOVE FOR YOUR DRAGON AGE I AM SO HAPPY YOU ARE DOING THIS.

    I LOVE your description of Anders’ intensity as a red flag for his future actions— I, too, was thrown by how SUDDENLY INTENSELY Hawke & Anders were “in love,” when it had seemed to be mostly light flirting. I’d blamed the game, actually, thinking that something about the mechanics of party interaction, dialogue, or something, had stunted the emotional development of character relationships (I was, after all, coming straight out of my feelings for Alistair, ALL THE ALISTAIR FEELINGS). But you’re right! It isn’t because I missed the friendship/romance building, it’s because the relationship DIDN’T build…

    I…can’t believe I didn’t see that…

    (I had assumed I would end up with Anders in DA2, because I really liked him in Awakenings, but hated him in DA2.)

    I will fight for Dorian’s queer storyline. Because I’d started out playing towards a queer romance with Cassandra — not something I’d planned on, but it made a lot of sense with the character I was playing, I was falling in love with the story of my Herald falling in love with Cassandra. (I back-story my characters like woah.) And then my friend says, “Um, I hate to break it to you, but Cassandra is straight.” And I was so upset! So I figured out a story where my Herald is sad about Cassandra, but starts a fun kind of rebound relationship with Dorian that could turn into something meaningful, and Friend says, “Um… Dorian is gay.” Again with the upset! I was angry at the game, thinking that there was a reason why having everyone be “herald-sexual” was the better choice, because I should be able to romance whoever I want, dammit.

    And then Dorian’s storyline came. And it felt like the writers saying, “NO, you fool, a character’s sexuality is not an interchangeable, meaningless, part of who they are. It’s not the ONLY thing that makes Dorian who he is, but it’s IMPORTANT, and it has shaped his life in small and large ways, and shouldn’t just be re-written to satisfy your lady-boner.” I felt like it was a thing I needed to see.

    Also:

    -Do people shy away from calling Anders a terrorist? It seems so…undeniable to me…:/

    -Origins establishes Tevinter as non-white?

    -One of the things I loved about DA2 was how the majority of the power was or becomes in-game in the hands of women, and no one blinked. Hawke (always always female for me), Grand Cleric, Knight-Commander, Captain of the Guard. The men in positions of power seemed to be figureheads – the Viscount & Grand Enchanter, and the Viscount is replaced by Hawke.

    I actually found Meredith to be far more sympathetically shown than Danarius, and the Viscount’s son I would categorize as being ineffectual. And I love how Knight-Commander Meredith is neither sexualized nor defeminized.  Her attractiveness as a woman is no part of her power.  No one ever remarks on her gender or attractiveness. She is never referred to as shrill, or bitchy, or any of the standard adjectives for a woman in power.

    • bluestgirl says:

      Also, I think that Inquisition is the first game where I couldn’t get every character to like me. Like, it might be the first game where it isn’t possible. Which is AWESOME.

    • I was just like you — I Anders was one of my favorite companions in Awakening, plus I had this headcanon where he was in love with my Warden, but of course my Warden was with Alistair (yeah, I sold out to Morrigan so I could have my Happily Ever After). Then along comes Hawke, who is also a sarcastic human female dual-wielding rogue, but not already in a relationship, so she was enough like my Warden that Anders’ affections easily transferred to her. But I was so busy following the story in my head that I missed the warning signs that the story in front of me was not what I thought . . . which is the kind of thing that happens in real life, I suppose.

      I’ll admit, though, that I do think the writing fell short in depicting the transition Anders went through. I agree with Foz that he corrupted Justice into Vengeance — from my perspective, that isn’t in question at all — but I would have liked to see the earlier stages of how Justice changed him, too. I don’t know whether it was deliberate or the result of a change in writers, but even from your first encounter with him, DA2 Anders is very different from his Awakening self. He really only has a couple of lines of dialogue that sound like the companion I had known before. The only way I can make the characterization work in my head is if I assume that the weight of Justice’s presence more or less ground Anders’ sense of humor out of existence, leaving him with nothing but his rage to think about. (I ran a DA tabletop game a couple of years ago in which my co-GM and I agreed that it’s possible to be a stable abomination like Wynne, but exceedingly difficult: any imbalance within the personality of the host human will twist the spirit they’ve taken on. We actually guessed at the whole “demons are corrupted spirits” thing before DA:I came out, which I’m proud of.)

      On the “protag-sexual” thing, I know that David Gaider has pushed back hard on that interpretation. They didn’t do the best job of telegraphing this in the game — for example, I’m pretty sure Anders’ relationship with Karl only gets referenced if you’re playing a male Hawke — but Gaider has said the writers conceived of and wrote all four main love interests as bisexual, rather than as situationally oriented. (Sebastian, I believe, will only have a chaste romance with a female Hawke. I originally planned to romance him with my second Hawke, a pro-Chantry warrior. I was halfway through my first playthrough when I decided I couldn’t do it: however nice a voice he has, he’s a wishy-washy, sanctimonious tool.)

      Regarding Tevinter as non-white . . . honestly, I think Bioware has tossed any real notion of a link between geography and skin color out the window. Dorian may be brown, but Danarius wasn’t; Vivenne and Sebastian are at opposite ends of the spectrum, even though Wycome and Starkhaven are at the same latitude, while Anders is totally pale, even though his family is from the Anderfels. I’ve seen brown Fereldans and brown dwarves. Basically, apart from the Qunari being “grey,” I haven’t seen anything like a pattern.

      • bluestgirl says:

        YES, and I even had to warm up to Anders in Awakenings, because my first response was revulsion. I didn’t trust him, didn’t believe that he didn’t kill the templars you find him with, and even if he didn’t, I hated his “wasn’t that funny” attitude about their deaths. Plus I was still reeling after Dead Alistair (I had been PLANNING to sacrifice the Warden, but it didn’t go as planned), and Anders seemed like a bad substitute (cheeky, sarcastic, blonde) and it pissed me off. Which made me feel even more let-down by Justice!Anders, because I was all, “I didn’t WANT to like you but now I do and THIS is who you are now?”

        It’s funny, because “protag-sexual” was actually something I used as head-canon because I *didn’t* like “every single romance-able character in Hawke’s orbit happens to be bi.”

        In my head canon, Anders & Isabela are bi. The others are… hmmm… different people in different games. That when you create a game, you sort of create the characters in it, not just the protag, so in the same way that choosing a particular Hawke also changes the appearance of Hawke’s family but lots of other, small, changes. The world is actually different in different play-throughs. A pretty creaky theory, I know. 😛 But I just didn’t see Merill & Fenris as bi?

        Also, I just now noticed, on my…4th? playthrough of Origins… Ferelden is south of just about everything, right? Neverra & Antiva & Tevinter & Qunari lands are all North. And most of them are described as being warmer than Ferelden. Soooo the parts we know about Thedas are on a southern hemisphere? It gets colder the further south you go?

        • Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re seeing the southern hemisphere. Par Vollen is tropical, and the Korcari Wilds are freezing.

          Agreed that Isabela and Anders come across as more obviously bi than Fenris and Merrill do — I didn’t realize they were all supposed to be bi instead of protag-sexual until I read Gaider’s comments on the subject. But insofar as a fictional character has a “real” orientation, I accept that they’re canonically bi, since that’s the way the writers conceived of them.

  3. Jeff says:

    Great article and great critical insights! Bioware may not always be successful, but they are definitely trying to be one of the most progressive game studios around, particularly in regard to issues of race, gender and sexuality.

    The only critique of my own is equating red lyrium with magic/mages. Red lyrium is caused/created by the Blight, just like the darkspawn, and while ‘official’ lore in-game has mages responsible for the Blight (or at least co-responsible with a spiteful creator god), there are some suggestions in Inquisition that this is not actually the case.

    An article like this examining the messed-up religious situation for the cultures of Thedas, and the contrast between established lore and in-game discovered evidence questioning that lore would be fascinating reading.

  4. Karaeir says:

    Great post, I have some small nitpicks but so small that I’m not going to talk about them😛 Okay, except for one small thing – Fog Warriors of Seheron aren’t Qunari. They are freedom fighters fighting for free Seheron against both the Qunari and Tevinter. (sorry, I just had to say that, I’m obsessed with qunari meta)
    But what I really wanted to comment on is a funny thing about romances in DA2: if you want to romance a male character you have to choose between Fenris and Anders, right? And at first glance it seems like Anders is going to have a standard, vanilla, sweet, easy romance and Fenris’s will be anger and angst-ridden and filled with difficult choices and grey morality.
    And then it’s pretty much the opposite and Fenris ends up being the sweet (difficult, but sweet) guy and Anders… well. Anders blows everything up.

  5. skadhu says:

    Yes and yes and yes to a whole lot of what you are saying.

    I completely agree that the things Bioware are doing are intentional, not accidents, and that they want you to understand that some things are both complicated and unacceptable. I agree that there is a response to some problematic issues they present that is influenced by racism.

    I also think that there is a significant problem with the way their points are being made: they are telegraphed with a brevity that makes it possible to miss or disregard them. It’s a kind of shorthand that works if you understand the larger issues, but if you don’t have the context and are unaware of your own privilege it’s possible to miss or misinterpret. The other issue is that the shorthand leaves out a lot of complexities, as you point out. This is likely due to practical issues relating to expressing narrative in a game, but it’s still problematic in practice.

    So: romance.

    Anders: yes, yes, red flags. The first time I played through he started professing love for me and I was, srsly, dude? I’ve flirted with you mildly, ONCE. It reeked of an obliviousness to social cues and a kind of arrogant entitlement that verged on sociopathy that made me dislike him intensely, and that was well before I knew his character arc.

    Solas has his own red flags. He clearly values his own knowledge above everything else, and really approves when you do too. There’s a level of hubris that is pretty unmistakable there.

    So many fans seem to disregard the issues around Anders and Solas. I can’t. The whole reclaiming the brooding, damage character thing is an awfully attractive trope—but I can’t get past the fact that both Anders and Solas are prepared to do literally anything in order to achieve their goals and see everyone as expendable, because they KNOW THEY ARE RIGHT. Nope, I can’t go there. There is no in-story redemption arc for either (it will be interesting to see where they go with Solas if the series continues), and I find it impossible to believe in one for characters who are so firmly convinced of their own righteousness.

    As far as queer romance goes, I’m not entirely in line with you there with regard to the importance of acknowledging a spectrum of sexual preferences and their potential narrative impact. Partly, yes, but partly also no.

    I immensely appreciate Dorian’s storyline: it’s important and overall I think it’s done well. In his case, there’s a very clear reason for him to be gay and not bi, and it’s important to the narrative. And it would be unbalanced to have only one character that was not bi; I get that. I appreciate Bioware’s obvious intentions with making this point, and in making some characters non-romanceable.

    But.

    I don’t see it as important to make the point about acknowledging the spectrum of preferences in a game, absent narrative reasons, in that we are all aware of that from our real lives. As a queer person I understand this very well. Is it important to make the point for oblivious straight people? Maybe; but if they are oblivious about it they’d have to work awfully hard at it, and the simple fact that everyone in a game is bi certainly attracted the attention of bigots in DA2, so that’s making points in and of itself.

    This isn’t real life. I want to romance Cassandra. There is no narrative reason that she shouldn’t be bi; the same applies to Cullen and others, for that matter (and Cullen was initially supposed to be bi, apparently).

    Cassandra satisfies my needs for tall, dark, brooding and awkward. She is not damaged though; she has adapted and functions very well, despite some social impediments. She has areas where she’s been traumatized, and it certainly has affected her, but she hasn’t turned into someone who Always Knows What’s Best—she’s constantly questioning herself, and she knows she wouldn’t be the best leader for the Inquisition. It’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her as a character.

    And despite my best efforts, I can’t get past that; she’s the one that I want to romance as a woman. She’s the only one I want to romance, really. I romanced Sera and enjoyed playing it out, but I have no emotional investment in her. I like Sera a lot, though I also have a LOT of issues with the intersection of working/underclass with slightly demented/unreliable in her presentation, and that affected my attraction to her. Josephine is cute but does nothing for me. I keep thinking I might romance her, but… meh.

    Now that Bioware has made their point, I hope that any future characters will all be bi. I don’t want to have to pine hopelessly in a game. What I’ve thought for a long time would be sensible, actually, is that there could be a “default” game set up as per Bioware’s vision. But also have “customization” options that players can set in the Keep. These options might include:

    (1) Preferences for availability: available/not available. This would allow you to set prefs for each char individually so you could customize the overall experience; so you could choose to have everyone available, or no one, or make Cullen available for s/s and Bull not. We unfold the stories in our heads as well as in the game; this would let people make their game experience match their headcanon.

    (2) Preferences for difficulty at getting the char to accept you as a romance: easy/hard. This would allow you to set up a challenge for yourself if you wanted to, which I think would be fun. Choosing hard could open new dialogue options.

    (3) Preferences for explicit sex scenes: yes/no. This would allow people who wanted sex scenes to have them, and others to skip them in favour of just romantic interludes. (Josephine gets no sex scene—what? why? That was another “seriously?” moment for me.) Choosing one or the other could result in different dialogue options, not just add-ons.

    (4) A romance/no romance option; not everyone wants romance in their game.

    But there is of course some big problems if you set it up this way. For one, it eliminates the possibility of NPC personal quests like that of Dorian: his backstory and quest don’t make sense if he’s bisexual. That’s where it gets complicated. I said that I wanted more options, because this is not real life, but at the same time I think that including his story is really important. But if one char is not universally available, then you get into issues of equity around why they aren’t and others are.

    Another argument against this kind of flexibility is that it would allow people to erase the diversity that is built in to a game, and it certainly could. But… we already edit the stories in our heads—fanfic demonstrates that. So personally, although I would demand and support diverse representation in default games, I can’t get excited about individuals changing customization preferences to eliminate options they dislike as they play. They are already doing that in their minds. A way of combatting that would be to set it up so that the choices you make change the story in interesting ways; have significantly different things happen depending on the choices, and thus encourage people to try different setups.

    I’m honestly not sure how to reconcile telling real, representative stories and also allowing customization. Perhaps requiring people to play through a default game at least once before winning access to customization options? I don’t know. It’s a tricky question. Sigh.

    • The whole reclaiming the brooding, damage character thing is an awfully attractive trope—but I can’t get past the fact that both Anders and Solas are prepared to do literally anything in order to achieve their goals and see everyone as expendable, because they KNOW THEY ARE RIGHT. Nope, I can’t go there. There is no in-story redemption arc for either (it will be interesting to see where they go with Solas if the series continues),

      I may ragequit the series if Solas’ arc follows Anders’, not because I am so partisan for him (I did follow through on that romance, but I’m not blind to the dude’s flaws), but because once is a story, twice is a pattern. If we get TWO major instances of somebody standing up for the well-being of the oppressed and turning into an irredeemable terrorist as a result . . . that’s going to send a message I just can’t get behind. I profoundly hope they’re going somewhere more complex with Solas — playing a variation on the Anders theme, rather than just repeating it with the volume cranked up.

      When it comes to the romances . . . apart from the difficulties you’ve already pointed out, I suspect it will never happen because the game designers have to decide how much of their time and money to pour into any piece of content that will not be experienced by all players of the game. Letting people fully customize the romances means creating a lot of content only a fraction of players will see, and while the relationships are certainly a big part of the Dragon Age series, they’re not central enough that I expect Bioware to ever let you toggle who you can romance and how easy they are to win over and whether you get a sex scene or not. They’d only do that if they didn’t have to change the story much at all to match our choices, and that would result in very bland characters (a Fenris who falls for you at the drop of a hat would not be the Fenris we got).

      I’ll admit, though, that I wish they hadn’t written DA:I on an engine that’s so difficult to mod. A friend of mine was able to play what amounted to a trans Warden because a mod let her turn off the gender restriction on Morrigan; she got a same-sex romance and was even able to carry out the Dark Ritual, as if her Warden were male. Writing the game so that it’s customizable by players would let us get a fair bit of our cake at no cost to them — the only real price we’d pay is that you’d get more shit like people modding Isabela to be white.

      • skadhu says:

        Ah, I hadn’t even thought of the arc that says committed to the oppressed = terrorist if carried through with Solas, but of course you’re right, and it would be very offensive indeed.

        And yes, likely the practicalities of the mechanism of customization would make it impossible without neutralizing the story, which is exactly the thing I play for. Oh well.

        I do have the bi mod for Cassandra and have played with that, but it’s not the same as if the game set it as an option. And yeah, whitewashing mods, ick.

    • bluestgirl says:

      I *really* can’t get behind players being able to decide if characters are available for romance for certain genders. I think that there isn’t a narrative *need* for Cassandra to be straight, but that she would be different if she weren’t. That she would have a different history and relationship to the Chantry, to her noble ties. Toggling someone gay/straight feels like toggling someone human/elf — you can’t do it without changing LOTS of other things. I feel like saying that orientation is a thing that can be toggled, without any other noticeable changes, is dismissive.

      • skadhu says:

        I guess we differ in this, because I don’t see that she would be at all different if she was bi, or that it would affect her relationship to the Chantry or nobility. According to World of Thedas, same-sex relations are forbidden nowhere, and “sex of any kind is only considered worthy of judgement when taken to awful excess or performed in the public eye.” Negative judgements such as those in Tevinter are related to breeding programs, as is shown through Dorian’s story.

        The Dragon Age wiki says: “Same-sex relations are generally considered strange in Ferelden, but Fereldans do not consider it immoral, and place no particular stigma upon it. Orlesians regard homosexuality as a mere quirk of character, and the Antivan Crows show a winking tolerance for relations with multiple partners of any gender. … The Chantry does not seem to have an official view on the subject, and nowhere in Thedas is it prohibited. … There is pressure in certain circles, such as the elves and the human nobility, to marry an opposite-gendered partner, but this is motivated by pragmatism rather than morality; a homosexual couple cannot have biological children.”

        I couldn’t find anything relating to Nevarra particularly, but Cassandra has rejected most of what is Nevarran, so I can’t see it affecting her. She’s also rejected the whole idea of being married off for the sake of breeding more nobles, so I can’t see those issues particularly affecting her.

        If she’s not attracted, she’s not attracted; but I can’t see how her being made bi would change her story or character in any way.

        I can see why the toggling gay/straight thing bothers you; stated baldly, it feels inappropriate and dismissive. But these are characters in a game, not people. And even real people’s preferences are not set in stone forever; I toggled straight for years before figuring out that I wasn’t (at about Cassandra’s age, actually) and finally flipped the switch. The same applies to a lot of my friends.

        And I’m not suggesting that people should be just toggled as straight/gay; I’m suggesting that everyone starts as a bisexual and that settings allow you to customize your experience more granularly in a lot of ways that accommodate different kinds of gender and sexual preferences. There are all kinds of possibilities with that kind of an approach; roll the dice and see what combination of characteristics you get. Or set character X as gay and a random character becomes straight.

        There are definitely real issues of concern with this toggling approach, but there are positive things about it as well, and I think the existing approach is also problematic in some ways. I don’t have a perfect solution for all this, though. I’m not sure one exists.

        • I can see why not being able to romance Cassandra as a woman is frustrating . . . but what makes you view it (or any other non-bi romance option) as problematic?

        • bluestgirl says:

          The way Thedas is described by the game, and my experience of it are not the same. For example, DA:O claimed that male/female roles were entirely egalitarian, and that it was an society free of sexism, and yet EVERY person my warden talked to started out saying something like, “oh you’re a woman.” Or “as a woman, what do you think?” There was evidence of patriarchy all over the place.

          Similarly, in the queer romances in DA:O, I didn’t feel like the dialog actually matched a society that attached no stigma to queer relationships. It felt to me like there was a lot more… maybe carefulness? It’s hard to describe, but it didn’t feel like the world lived up to the way it was described.

          And I feel that, even if I’m not writing queer!Cassandra correctly, that queer!Cassandra wouldn’t be identical to straight!Cassandra, and that those differences matter in both little and big ways.

          • skadhu says:

            Canon and in-game experiences are definitely not always compatible. What we learn is dependent on the choices we make in-game, and we may miss things that others encounter. We bring our own experiences to it. We already fill in gaps and “fix” narrative problems that the limitations in the storyline create. Plus as you point out, there are things that are not internally consistent: things that are supposed to be easy and equal that aren’t, and things that should have difficult consequences (like having an elf Inquisitor) that don’t have nearly the negative impacts one would expect given the world-building.

            But this is more or less my point; our experience of DA is very individual already. It’s informed by our own life experiences, understandings, and contexts: yours says that queer!Cassandra would be quite different from straight!Cassandra, and mine says that she wouldn’t. Neither of us is provably right or wrong, because it’s a fictional character without nearly enough detail to show one way or another.

            And honestly, in the greater scale of things it doesn’t matter. It’s not that one view is correct and another isn’t. If you write queer!Cassandra fanfic that shows differences in her character and development and demonstrates that her lived experience is different because of it, I am totally up for it. But I’ll likely continue to write queer!Cassandra fanfic where her character as I understand it doesn’t change, and her social environment doesn’t cause there to be differences, because that makes sense to me. Both of us are writing her from perceptions and experiences compatible with our points of view.

            I’m finding this discussion really interesting, thanks. I have more I want to write in reply to other comments, but have an appointment so it will have to wait for a bit.

            • bluestgirl says:

              A minor clarification, in case I didn’t explain it well before: I think that Cassandra could be queer and be the person we see in the game. Like, she wouldn’t need to be re-written. It’s just that, if we get to see two Cassandras, one queer, one straight, that I don’t want them to be the same. (I know we disagree on this point– I just didn’t want it to sound like I think that queer!Cassandra isn’t possible, that a queer Cassandra couldn’t possibly become the person we see in Inquisition.)

    • bluestgirl says:

      I think that, for a straight audience, ESPECIALLY a straight-cis-male audience, having characters that CAN’T be romanced, no matter what, is a really good thing… that there is no “right” combination of words & gifts & heroic deeds that will make Cassandra fall in love with a female herald.

      • skadhu says:

        I see this as two different issues.

        I see a lot of value in having unromanceable-because-not-straight characters for a straight audience as well. But for me that doesn’t outweigh the need for queer representation to the maximum degree possible, as we’ve been so starved for it.

        As for there being no “right” combination that will make Cassandra fall in love with a female Herald—I’m unclear, why is that a good thing? And for who?

        • bluestgirl says:

          I think that there are people (mostly cis-hetero-guys) who see real life women as something that can be gamed — if you just do the right thing, you can get the girl you want. I feel like this repeated over and over, not just video games. So having characters that this WILL NOT WORK for, no matter what, because the character will never be interested in the Herald, is a good thing, imo. I feel like it models something important.

          • This, thank you — I was having trouble putting my finger on what bothered me about the “you can have anybody you want” approach, and that’s it. You can’t actually make anybody fall for you just by saying the right things. And while I understand that this is fiction and it doesn’t have to be like real life, that’s one aspect where making it be not like real life would bother me. There were a lot of players (mostly male, at least that I saw) who were ticked that they couldn’t romance Aveline in DA2; it had a very strong air of “she’s a woman, so why can’t I fuck her?” Because not every woman wants you, jackass, no matter what dialogue options you choose. (Hell, some of those same players wanted to be able to romance Bethany. HAWKE’S SISTER. But female, ergo fuck object.)

            • skadhu says:

              Okay, all kinds of thoughts in response to this. I hope my reply is at least somewhat coherent. I’m combining answers to three comments from Marie and bluestgirl into one, because they’re all related. The connection is that I see it as all being about telling ourselves stories (our own stories?) as we play games. 

              I’m speaking for only myself in all this, and I’m sure not everyone agrees with me. And as I said, I don’t think there’s a perfect solution to the inherent contradictions. But I do think that Inquisition’s romance structure is problematic in some very real ways, just as it makes good points in others.

              To clarify at the start: all my thoughts are on romanceable characters. Which characters should be romanceable is a different question. I’d like to see all romanceable characters in forthcoming games handled as they were in DA2. I can live with Inquisition, though I’m still pissed about Cassandra; it was making some points with Dorian’s story and the inclusion of Sera as an exclusive lesbian. But now that point is made. 

              Marie brought up the representation of gays and lesbians: I agree, it’s critical. Finding myself able to romance another woman as a woman protagonist is INCREDIBLY important to me. Telling stories, even to ourselves as we play a game, is incredibly important. But I don’t see having romanceable characters available to both male and female protagonists as negating that representation, because I can for the most part headcanon a female romance as a lesbian if I choose to, and the story in-game doesn’t contradict that. 

              What I mean is that if I recall correctly, with the exception of Isabela, with bisexual characters their sexuality is not actually defined in-game except by who they are romancing. If I as a female protagonist sleep with Merrill or Leliana or Josephine, for example, there are no lines in dialogue to suggest that they might also sleep with men. If I choose to romance them, then it is possible for me to headcanon them as either lesbian or bi, and there is nothing in the game that will contradict that headcanon. As a player, I can choose to do either, based on my preferences and the backstory I create in my head. (If I’m wrong on this, please correct me.) 

              If that is the case, then we are already headcanoning our own stories for our romances. (Actually, I think we’re headcanoning our own stories even if it isn’t the case.) We are already making choices. And it’s my story, the one that unfolds in my head as I play, that is the important one to me; ymmv on this view of things, of course.

              Characters like Dorian are the obvious exception: his story makes no sense if he isn’t gay, or at least would have to be significantly different. But as I said, if there’s not a narrative reason for it, I can’t see a reason for characters not to be universally available. 

              As far as the issue of guys seeing women as loot, I find it entirely offensive when arrogantly entitled cis-het white men demand that games serve their needs comprehensively (and in some cases, exclusively). I also think there’s a problem with that sense of entitlement extending into the real world. 

              But if your reason for making characters available to only some players is to prove to them that their sense of entitlement is wrong, I think it’s problematic. Yes, it models that not everyone is available. But by doing so it centres the reasoning behind game structure on cis-het men, yet again. 

              And that thinking also models something to marginalized players: that it’s more important to punish/limit those with privileged positions than to be inclusive. That marginalized interests are not as important as limiting the options of guys who can get satisfaction from almost every game on the market. The guys can pick up and leave and find sex and romance in every game with a male protagonist (i.e. almost all of them); we can’t. I don’t want to play as a guy romancing a woman, or a woman romancing a guy. I’ve done it; it’s not nearly as much fun.

              I don’t think games are particularly good places for educating people beyond “look at this thing that’s outside your experience and maybe think about it for a bit, hmmm?” And if doing so harms the interests/access of marginalized groups to seeing themselves represented when they play the games, I don’t think it’s worth it. 

              I do think that representation is critically important in games, and not just of gays and lesbians and bi people: I want to see people of colour, trans people, gender-queer people, disabled people, everyone. I want them available as romances. I play games because I want to run around and have adventures and fall into the stories. Because I want the romance, as Cassandra might say. I don’t want games to limit anyone. I want an equal-access playing field. I want everyone to have fun playing the game in whatever way they choose to, telling stories that are meaningful to them.

              • bluestgirl says:

                A lot to think about here – thank you for elaborating! You’re right that “if your reason for making characters available to only some players is to prove to them that their sense of entitlement is wrong, I think it’s problematic.”

                While a certain over-served segment of the population is the most obvious target, I didn’t think of this as being exclusively for them. I feel like “do the right thing = get the object of your affections” is the basis of so many games, tv, movies, and even when it doesn’t add to an already enlarged sense of entitlement, it’s not a good way to look at the world? As in, I like to think that I don’t treat my relationships as transactional, and that I see other people as having agency, and I clearly live in a world that isn’t built for me, specifically. But when I went through my surprise and sadness over Cassandra, and then Dorian, it still felt like a reminder of something I ought to hear? It also didn’t feel to me, at the time, like a specifically queer cost. I wasn’t suffering because I wanted a queer romance and was thwarted, I wanted, specifically, Cassandra, and was thwarted. And then I wanted Dorian, and was thwarted again…

                (And it probably helps that, when I did start to pay attention to Josie, and more of her story and character filled out, that I WAS charmed, and it turned into admiration and respect and feelings! about her, so I wasn’t left brokenhearted at the end.)

                But “do the right thing=get the object of your affections,” isn’t a common queer trope. I mean, the most common queer tropes are, “be queer = suffer horribly,” or “find love = die tragically,” right?

                And when you ask, “who does it benefit, and at what cost,” even if some queer people fall within the former group (as I feel I do), your point remains that the bulk of those who gain are the already over-served population, and the bulk of those who are left out are already starving.

                • skadhu says:

                  Yes, exactly. And even sometimes if “do the right thing” does = “get the object of your affections” in media, it tends to have “be the right kind of queer” as a codicil.

    • fozmeadows says:

      I totally get what you’re saying about making everyone bi; it’s an issue I go backwards and forwards on a lot. I’m not sure there’s an easy solution, but it’s definitely worth discussing!

      Also: I feel like this is simultaneously a facetious and serious point, but when it comes specifically to Cassandra… I kinda feel like the reason she’s straight is because the DA writers didn’t want to fall into the stereotype of shorthaired woman with sword = queer, and yet pretty much *every single queer woman* playing DA (or all the ones I know, at least) looked at Cassandra and went “Yes. Her. I want that one. GIMME.”, whereas I’ve seen a lot of straight dudes just not be interested in her that way at all, no matter how much they like her character. (Though the ones who’ll romance her only if they can use the Soft Cassandra mod make me grind my teeth.) THE POINT BEING, I don’t think Cassandra is queercoded so much as she pings our gaydar, and thus there’s a greater proportional disappointment about not being able to romance her *specifically*, if that makes any sense.

      • skadhu says:

        Yes. This, exactly. I would say that she is coded as queer in ways that ping the gaydar. Some of it is stereotyping—I have known plenty of toned female jocks who are not lesbians, for example—but there is a really significant overlap with the things that are culturally coded within lesbian society as a particular set of attractive attributes. Which is not to say that other sets of attributes aren’t attractive too, they are. But this is one very recognizable cultural set.

        We are given all the cues that say, available to lesbians, and then told she isn’t, nope, no way. Ha ha, big joke. I expect that it is an attempt to avoid stereotyping; but on a personal level it feels exactly like bait and switch.

        (Working on answers to the other comments, but wanted to get this out in the meantime.)

        • I think I agree with you in the specific instance (Cassandra exhibits many attributes that are coded as attractive to lesbians; it would have been nice if she were a romance option for female Inquisitors) but not in the general (all romance options should be bi) — because the latter means you should also be able to romance Dorian as a woman, or romance Sera as a man, and in both of those latter cases I think it plays into some of the problematic dynamics of how straight women interact with gay men/straight men interact with gay women. Now, obviously Dorian in particular would have been a different character if he were bi, since him being gay was a key part of his story; we wouldn’t have gotten a bi-romanceable version of the character we had, but a different character from the outset. But I personally like to see characters like Dorian and Sera get representation, and making everybody bi would rule that out.

          • skadhu says:

            I somehow forgot to respond to your point about feeding into problematic straight/gay dynamics in my other post. Yes, I can certainly see that as a potential issue. This stuff is complicated in a lot of ways.

    • I don’t see it as important to make the point about acknowledging the spectrum of preferences in a game, absent narrative reasons, in that we are all aware of that from our real lives.

      I had to come back to this because to be honest, the “absent narrative reason” thing has been stuck in my mind since you posted it. One of the defenses that often comes up when an author gets criticized for not including many women/minorities/queer people/etc. in their stories is, “I’m happy to include such people when there’s a reason for it.” But here’s the thing: the simple fact that such people EXIST is reason enough. The chance for people who are gay, not bi or straight, to see themselves represented is reason enough. You suggested elsewhere that bi romances can be written in such a way as to be headcanonable as gay-only unless there’s a story reason for them to be gay — but I can’t shake the sense that gives me, that gay is a thing that has to be justified. It can’t just be a thing that’s there, because that’s who this character is.

      Headcanon isn’t enough. Most players are going to know from osmosis that Josephine and Iron Bull are bi, even if they only ever romance them from one side; if they’re looking for gay representation, they won’t find it there. They’ll have to read against the text to see themselves in the story. And going with a default of “all romances are bi” feels to me like it overwrites real human experience (we don’t all want the same thing) in favor of flexibility . . . and while flexibility undoubtedly has its selling points — I totally hear you about the merits of being able to have what you want in a game, especially if what you want is not usually on offer elsewhere — I can’t personally get on board with that taking higher priority than depicting the actual spectrum of human sexuality. Not just for the sake of cishet men, but for everybody.

      • skadhu says:

        I completely agree with your point that there should not have to be a narrative reason for people to exist. And I certainly don’t think that any marginalized presence needs to be justified.

        (BTW, I should note that my comments here are specific to this game and its structure, narrative and implemenation; I might feel differently about a book or even a different game. It’s all contextually conditional.)

        Where I differ from you in my response is in my priorities, and those are based on my own experiences and personal cognitive filters. Headcanon + bi representation IS enough for me. Though I identify as a lesbian I am personally capable of seeing an acceptable representation of myself in a character who is available for romance by males or females, and feeling that it represents me. I would trade off more specifically detailed and granularly accurate representation in order to get the chance to experience the story the way I want to, because for me universal access to the whole story is more critical in a world of gaming in which I’ve often been excluded. Excluding that access = excluding me from the story (*). I doubt I’m alone in that position.

        Others will feel exactly the opposite: they can’t experience the story the way they want to if they can’t get representation that feels right to them, and will happily accept more limited access in exchange. For them inadequate representation = excluding them from the story.

        I don’t think either position is right or wrong, it’s just how it is: it’s very personal. And this is why it all gets so complicated. It’s a situation where one set of interests is in tension with another, and it’s not really possible to compromise.

        (*) I’ll just add one more thing: my in-game romance with Sera was fun but half-hearted. And I don’t really want Josephine: though I am sure she’s lovely she’s not my type. The result is that there is no one in the game that I can romance that I actually really want to romance without using a mod; they’re all make-do second choices. If I romance them it will because I want to experience the romance and attached storyline, not because the character attracts me. And that feels REALLY icky to me. And yes, I know they’re not real people; but the limitations set up an interaction that models something I really dislike and disapprove of.

        • bluestgirl says:

          “For them inadequate representation = excluding them from the story.”

          That’s it, yes. Although I say this with some caution, because I don’t identify as a lesbian.

          But I am used to playing Bioware games where the queer romance characters are *always* available for male protag, so that a male protagonist has the option of *every* romance-able woman. I’m used to seeing the options being: straight, straight, bi. So the existence of Sara makes me feel like there is someone JUST for me. Knowing that she isn’t even an option for a male character, even if it never shows up in my particular game, makes me feel more included.

          (Like, I remember in Jade Empire, which was the first time I saw *any* queer options, a woman could romance Sky (m) or Silk Fox (f). A man could romance Silk Fox, Dawn Star (f), or Sky–or Silk Fox AND Dawn Star as a threesome. It felt to me like Bioware was saying, “it’s OK straight dudes, we know you’re upset by gay men, so we made you an extra special option! Two ladies at once!”)

          • It felt to me like Bioware was saying, “it’s OK straight dudes, we know you’re upset by gay men, so we made you an extra special option! Two ladies at once!”

            Interestingly, if anything Bioware has gone in the direction of catering to het female protagonists in the DA series. In DA:O, both male and female Wardens had two opposite-sex romance options and one same-sex. In DA2, both had two opposite and two same choices — but female Hawkes also had a side option of a chaste het romance with Sebastian. And now we’ve got DA:I, where male Inquisitors can choose between two women and two men . . . while female Inquisitors can choose between two women and FOUR men.

  6. This is great. It makes me so happy to see such an in depth look at the Dragon Age series, and what they’ve done right and wrong. Where they’ve improved and how those elements are regarded in the fanbase—and I don’t come across a discussion of fan reactions anywhere near as often as I see people talking about what Bioware intended to put in the game.

    I practically never see anyone liking Anders, but I do see people frequently calling him badly written—which puts me in the weird position of defending him as a character despite not really liking him as a person. Seeing it explicitly stated that a lot of the character flaws the fanbase generally considers accidental are intentional makes me realize where some of the thoughts and feelings I’ve had about this are coming from, though. The DA series isn’t afraid of the audience disliking its characters, and that comes out as a strength in my book. It’s weird to see it treated like a mistake.

    I also remember being skeptical about the 6:3 companion gender ratio going in, and while I’d still have preferred it to be more even, it was a huge relief to see the core driving force of the Inquisition to be mostly made up of women.

  7. First off, this is beautifully, BEAUTIFULLY written. I am always excited when I meet fellow travelers of Thedas. This was such a beautiful post, and I had so many responses to it, but I lost them all due to it’s length (and that is a good thing).
    The sole reason I played DAO was because of actress Claudia Black and the commercials showing hints at character stories (specifically Sten). When I actually played the game, I became entranced at, well everything. The story, the politics, the historical references, the open sexuality of characters.
    I am a hetero normative demisexual male, but when I first started playing the Dragon Age Games, I did not know that there was more to human sexuality than the SGB categories taught to me in my youth. To play the games and seeing how well the bisexual romances were written, astonished me. While certain NPC’s seemed to be written for humor that made me cringe at times (Wade the Blacksmith was very late 70’s early 80’s comedy, Serendipity the Transvestite Brothel Worker in DA2), others were more beautifully nuanced.
    Through the literature outside the games we were introduced to Transgendered Maevaris (whom I lobbied to have as a romance in DAI, and failed), and even a Gender-fluid Mage in “Last Flight”, the world that Bioware has created and continues to create is remarkably beautiful, diverse and really likes to fuck with the establishment of our real world.
    Characters like Zevran and Mae actually made me question my hetero side a bit, where as characters like Isabella, Harding and Aveline brought out my more male typical qualities.

    Some one on Facebook said it best, stating that relationships in the Bioware games are more fulfilling than in real life. Part of that I assume is because you can control the relationship due to set script but mostly because they do feel fluid. Morrigan was the character I romanced in DAO, but every play through since I have romanced Leliana; same with Merrill and Isabella; DAI on the other hand…my first character was going after Josephine, only for me to fall in love with Cassandra.

    On the subject of Anders, did you play Awakening? Or read his short story that bridged Awakening and DA2? He starts off as a funny character but due to the events that happen in between on paper and off, his viewpoints become more understandable. Especially since in Awakening Justice is a separate character.

    Slavery is more of a touchy issue, to me, Dorian was representing in that case some one like Thomas Jefferson, only without the racism. Or even George Washington. I come from Irish heritage, we were enslaved, forced form our homes, starved and all but wiped out at one point. I instinctively hate slavery and oppression, but I am also a lover of history and to see Tevinter through the eyes of a well read man, and to see his own failings due to his upbringing was so beautifully marvelous of Bioware, it made him just as fucked up as everyone.

    Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog of yours. Bravo and welcome to Thedas. I highly uggest finding Whanze on the Bioware boards and joining one of her Cards against Thedas games.
    -bairdduvessa

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