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On Storylines, Queer Inclusivity, and Dragon Age

Jason Beck
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Alexandria
Virginia
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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love universal bisexuality

Between recommendations on Facebook, Twitter, this blog, and in person, it seems I’ve become something of a shill for Bioware lately. Today I’d like to continue this trend and discuss Dragon Age II's integration of queer romances into the storyline; you can read my full review of the game here, and you can read my initial thoughts on why queer romances and queer inclusivity are good things here. I am not, however, going to re-hash my opinions on why I think Bioware has done a good thing by being more queer-inclusive. Rather, I’d like to discuss the how of what they’ve done in Dragon Age II and why that’s important, too.

(This should be considered to have small romantic spoilers for the male-Hawke-Anders romance storyline, but for the sake of narrative clarity I’m not going to hide things behind spoiler boxes all the time.)

When you first encounter Anders- a cute but, um, slightly unstable, mage- it’s in the context of rescuing a male friend of his. Later, after further discussion with him, a number of things are revealed about his past. Anders is interesting because he will actually initiate the flirting with Hawke, a change from the normal will-never-initiate-any-flirting-NPCs in these games. It isn’t done in an overly ridiculous way, though, and if Hawke is receptive to the flirting the story will actually slightly change: with a female Hawke, the friend that needs rescuing is just a friend; with a flirting-receptive male Hawke, the friend is more than just a friend.

These subtle changes will take place elsewhere in the story and the game world, but they are never over-the-top, they are never stupid, and they are never immature. In fact, it seems safe to say that the queer inclusivity in DAII is done in a manner that is uniformly excellent, uniformly mature. All four of the romantic options (two male, two female) in the game can be romanced by either male or female Hawke and the game happily avoids the pitfall of throwing in a "token gay" as a sop to the gayming audience. Indeed, the queer romantic options feel like characters first and ‘mos second: this is as it should be, of course.

The maturity and depth of the integration continues throughout the game. This being Bioware, your companions will always have plenty to say, and this includes commentary on any romantic entanglements you may be in. The comments are never disrespectful, though, they’re never bigoted- they may be snarky, sure, but I never felt uncomfortable, never felt like there was any underlying bigotry being directed at me (or any other gaymer). In fact, there was only one of those tedious, "So who wears the pants in the relationship?" jokes (which, really, is just a terrible thing to say), but the context/framing of it was so entertaining that it was clearly meant without malice.

In all this, DAII represents a significant step forward for Bioware. Dragon Age: Origins features a single male-male romantic option (Zevran) while featuring a number of hetero options. Mass Effect 2 represented a step back for the company, as there were several hetero-only options, as well as a female-female option, but no male-male option. DAII’s romantic options, therefore, represent a move forward into a gaming environment where there are options for everyone.

The issue has gotten a little attention very recently because of a response from (Bioware senior writer) David Gaider on the Bioware Social Forums to a post from a gamer insisting that Bioware had neglected the "Straight Male Gamer" in this latest iteration. The original post is an excellent example of an homophobic nerd shackled by an extremely heteronormative worldview, but Gaider’s response is at once a) an example of how to respond to a position you disagree with on the internet [that is, polite, respectful, firm, informative] and b) an excellent and quick take-down of heteronormativity within this specific context (DAII) and within a broader context (gaming). (You can find this here; it is a worthwhile read.)

A potential problem raised by some: universal bisexuality. If you make everyone bi, after all, isn’t that just as unrealistic as making no one a homo? That is essentially what has happened here, no? Except, really, it isn’t. The upside of RPGs is that the story can be told and re-told differently, so in the first game, sure, Anders might’ve been totally gay for me, but if I re-play it as a female Hawke, then he’s totally straight for me. "Universal bisexuality" is, I think, a confusion of a storyline in a game and the mechanics offered by the game itself. That is, just because these options are available to me doesn’t mean they’re going to be a part of the story every time I play. Certain characters can be bi, of course (see also: Zevran), but that doesn’t mean that the mechanical option available behind the scenes, as it were, is going to make an appearance all the time.

And this, really, should be how these things are handled, shouldn’t it? Making options available to players is almost inevitably a good thing. This "universal bisexuality" may be a mechanical necessity; would I have serious objections to DAII if, instead of featuring multi-option romance characters, it had featured, say, two hetero women, two homo women, two hetero males, and two homo males? Well, no: equality of inclusivity is a good thing. But, really, that doubles the amount of work that has to be done, and so accepting that a character can swing either way is not just a question of making an important distinction between mechanics and story, but is also recognition of the very real limits imposed by the medium itself.

It is worth noting, however, that I am in no way mandating that it Must Be This Way in All Games Forever and Ever et saecula saeculorum, amen. No, no: queer inclusivity in games where it makes no sense is not something I’ve ever said was a good idea. If I’m playing a game about the medieval period, I’m not going to expect to be able to get married to a dude. Rather, in games where queer inclusivity is acceptable within the setting, inclusivity is to be applauded. So, since there are (apparently) no problems with the ‘mos in the DA setting, including same-sex romance options is assuredly a good thing.

In all, DAII represents an important step forward (at least, in my eyes). We have a significantly mainstream game here that is not only including same-sex romance options, but also is not making a big deal about it. These kinds of improvements in queer representation/inclusivity can (and should) be applauded (and, really, rewarded with money!- that is, you know, by buying the games and stuff). Hopefully, as inclusivity moves more into the mainstream, we will see more of it, and the more we see, the more mainstream it’ll all become. In the meantime, it’s worth taking note of those companies that are (for whatever reason) doing the right thing, and doing it well.
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