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Friday, 4 July 2014

Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and LGBT Representation.


Who is editorial.

What did he see.

Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and LGBT Representation. 


So, a – while ago, I'm not entirely clear on the time frame, Bioware announced that the eagerly awaited Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third entry in their sort-of-dark fantasy series, would contain a gay party member character who could only be romanced if you were a man.

The internet promptly had a minor explosion.

Permit me to put this into context: In almost all Bioware RPGs, you have romance options that tie into the story and which you can develop over time with conversation and so on, and so forth. The idea of being able to romance someone of the same gender in a Bioware RPG is not new either, I should note, in fact it's true of more of their original works than it isn't. For example, in Chinese mythology epic Jade Empire, men are quite welcome to romance male thief Sky just the same as women are, while women are able to romance rebellious princess Silk Fox and, I think, childhood best friend Dawn Star, although don't quote me on that last. 

Here, have a picture of Morrigan instead.

In the first Mass Effect game, there's no option for a male-male romance, but you can have a lesbian romance, and the same is true of Mass Effect 2, much to the chagrin of many people who wanted to do unspeakable things to bird man Garrus Vakarian or abs-ful special forces operative Jacob, and to the alarm of Bioware themselves who later remarked that they couldn't have included romances between two men, as there were no gay men on staff.

I was quite vocal about my distaste for this excuse then, as even though I'm not particularly fussed about RPG romances, it stank of the same disingenuity as Ubisoft claiming it's too difficult to animate women, and I remain so now. In the interests of fairness, though, it's worth pointing out that Bioware did attend to this in Mass Effect 3, making one party member, Kaiden, bisexual, and giving you a non-party NPC, Steve, who was gay and romance-able. 

Greatest Hits of Barry White Album intensifies.

In Dragon Age: Origins, gender is no barrier to either elven assassin Zevran or religious bard Leliana, but it's Dragon Age II I'm going to dwell on, as it's from that that I first became aware of a contingent of fanboys – and they are exclusively fanboys, I have yet to seen a single fangirl protest about the ability to have her charming female Hawke chat up Isabel – who were deeply, deeply offended by the possibility that they might stumble upon to a romance with a man.

To hear them put it, the presence of romance options with two of the games' male party members – emo mage Anders and equally irritatingly angsty elf mutant Fenris – meant that they were compelled to take those options. Much they spoke of being unwillingly forced into romancing these characters, as if just before the final battle the game stopped and angrily demanded that they partake of Anders' venison sausage or else be denied progress through the game. Much was made about how these obligatory same sex romances made them uncomfortable, conflicted with their deeply held beliefs, made them feel … strange … tingling sensations.

This, of course, isn't the case at all. Not only do you, the player, have to prompt these romances starting at all by specifically picking a dialogue option labelled with a tremendous gaudy pink heart, and at any point have the option to break said romance by picking the dialogue option labelled with a similarly large and obvious symbol.

The only thing one can reasonably assume, then, is that these gamers' were sitting in front of their consoles, angrily muttering to themselves about how they're being forced into the gay agenda, as they spin their dialogue wheels past the angry option, the stoic option, the sarcastic option, and the end romance option to get to 'Why don't we go upstairs and make a venison sausage casserole,' while winking seductively option. As Hawke sidles closer to Anders with intent in his eyes, they fold their arms, ignore the trembling in their knees, and whisper 'no homo.'

ALL HOMO.

It did, in fact, prompt an official response, in which Dragon Age writer David Gaider very calmly and measuredly reminded them that Bioware makes their games for all gamers, not just straight men who also happen to be extremely uncomfortable with even the distant, faint possibility of another man looking their way with anything more heated than mild friendliness.

Which leads us to this next kerfuffle, about a character who is male, and gay, and cannot be romanced by women. In theory, if these fanboys are playing male characters – and they seem likely to be, somehow – this decision doesn't really affect them at all. They have exactly the same romance options as if Bioware had made all the characters bisexual, as they did in Dragon Age II. If anyone should be protesting, it's those who would play a female character, who might want to romance this unnamed gentleman. Not a peep out of them, though. They've rolled with it.

The protests are frankly bizarre, as well. Accusations that Bioware is only doing this because being gay has become fashionable, or because of Hollywood, or because of a secretive gay agenda – it's as if these people have never actually stepped into the real world and instead spend all of their time not playing video games watching Fox News.

Liara disapproves.

Personally, I'm fairly pleased with Bioware's track record on LGBT representation. It isn't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and as I find a lot of Bioware's characters boring (I find their characters most interesting when they're distinctly non-human: I'd pay money for a romance option with gestalt consciousness artificial intelligence Legion) I tend not to be all that concerned with their romance storylines, but there are very few games out there which have taken the pains that they have to acknowledge and incorporate LGBT characters and storylines into their games.

Especially as for all of their LGBT characters, it's not a major part of their personalities. While I didn't mention it in my review of it, one of the things I have praised Nobunaga the Fool for elsewhere is that it has two bisexual characters and one gay character, and these are the least interesting aspects of their personalities – Leonardo da Vinci is as gay as the day is long, but the show acknowledges it all of once or twice, because the fact that he's a diabolical manipulator and semi-prophet is more relevant to the story; Nobunaga's bisexuality is a plot point, but it's never presented as the most remarkable thing about him. The Dragon Age II characters are the same – Anders likes men and women, but the fact that he's an angry terrorist demon hunting mage possessed by the incarnation of vengeance is really a more important part of his character, and the game knows it. Isabela will happily sleep with anyone she finds attractive, and isn't shy about telling you, but she's equally un-shy about telling you how she'll steal anything not nailed down.

Which does become a problem at one point.

When Bioware includes LGBT characters, which is more often than they don't, they're people first and sexualities second. It's why it doesn't feel jarring when Kaiden reveals in Mass Effect 3 that he's bisexual, despite there being no suggestion of it in Mass Effect, because it's never treated as a big deal, or as a particularly important part of his personality.

So, Bioware's not perfect, but they are good at LGBT representation, and they are always pushing to improve, and I can respect that, both as an ethical direction to take and as a wise business and storytelling practice. 

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