Dragon Age, Customizable PCs, and Breaking Romance Dynamics

I finished up Dragon Age: Origins a day or two ago, and I admit that I’m pretty impressed. It has its failings where inclusiveness and sensitivity is concerned, but it also has some real strong points, many of which lie in your PC’s potential relationships. I’m thrilled that the game made romance optional and gave touching dialogue and important interactions to platonic relationships; I also really love that characters in romantic relationships are reasonable and adult, and resolve things through talking. Furthermore, the romance plots integrate smoothly enough into the party dynamics as a whole that they’ve made me think about how video games are in a unique position to subvert a lot of the subtler expectations in heterosexual romance.

See, we’ve moved past the “women can’t be action heroes, nope, not ever” thing, for the most part, and that’s great. But there are a lot of less blatant attitudes that don’t generally get questioned:

  • Like: women don’t inherently have the same potential for violence that men do; they need a reason to be tough.
  • Like: women can only be violent if that violence is sexualized, or if they have Traumatic Pasts.
  • Like: women can only be sexual if they’re Truly In Love, or have Traumatic Pasts.
  • Like: men should always be more powerful, more sexually experienced, and more comfortable with violence than the women they’re involved with.
  • Like: any situation that contradicts the above must be an in-story Big Deal.

That last one is subtle, but it’s the one that trips up a lot of people most these days, me included sometimes, because it leads to a weird place where you’re waving your arms around about how this character is female and awesome and awesome and female instead of just writing a character who is awesome and also happens to be female. Alice is no longer the ace starship pilot who likes country music and is weirdly superstitious about the socks she wears on every mission, she’s an ace starship pilot and a world-class guitar player or she’s an ace starship pilot WHO’S A GIRL OH MY GOD, at which point everything becomes about her issues being a girl and she starts wearing skin-tight flight suits when everyone else is in mecha.

Then there’s the love interest. An Action Girl’s love interest is almost never someone in a subordinate role. In Buffy, you have Angel and Spike (enemies turned independent agents), a handful of one-episode losers, and…Riley, who gets all pouty and Proving My Manhood Guy about ten episodes after he stops being a super-soldier.

One of the things that really seems to work in terms of avoiding the above is to make a gender-neutral protagonist. Or, rather, to start with a guy and then switch genders and basically nothing else midway through. It’s a sad commentary on our society, but the default gender has been male for so long that it has a lot less baggage associated: the idea of male heroism encompasses everything from John Wayne to Bertie Wooster. Starting with a guy resulted in Ripley, who’s competent and violent without being fetishized or broken, and it gave us Kara Thrace back before the addition of stupid backstory and WTF metaphysics.

And now, video games, and how they do this particularly well.

See, western RPGs have a pretty long tradition of having the PC be what TVTropes calls an “Ageless, Faceless, Gender-Neutral, Culturally Ambiguous Adventure Person”. Interactive fiction started out that way–though most of the stories I’ve played lately have featured a very specific PC character–the Wizardry games did it, etc. The theory is, I guess, that it’s easier for the player to project themselves into the AFGNCAAP than to identify with a random plumber. Fair enough. As games and their settings got more complex, the PC attributes switched from being neutral to being customizable. Within certain limits, you can choose your face, your age, your culture, and your gender.

This is fun and all, but it wouldn’t have a big impact except for, well, the “role-playing” aspect, by which I mean dialogue. In early games, haggling with shopkeepers or ASK PROFESSOR ABOUT DEMON was about as good as you got, but then came dialogue trees, and morality options, and all sorts of other strange pathways for your character’s personal interactions to go down. You could actually choose how you wanted to relate to other characters and develop semi-complicated relationships…well, as complicated as the AI would allow.

Which is where, I think, an inadvertent point of awesomeness for gender equality emerged. A game primarily focused on slaying the evil wizard and restoring peace to the land isn’t going to have completely different dialogue options for male and female characters. There’s only so much memory, plus I’m given to understand that the people who design such games are actually mortal and have families who like to see them at the end of the day. Re-writing the witty-banter-where-you’re-clearly-in-charge dialogue that a “default male” PC has with a sidekick to significantly alter the power dynamics just because the player took the female option? Not happening. So you have sidekick banter plus romantic interest… where the woman is the leader and the guy is the sidekick…and that’s pretty cool, because there aren’t many places where you get that dynamic.

Going back to Dragon Age: Origins as an example, neither Alistair nor Zevran have any problem with your female PC as a leader. Their dialogue once you initiate romance plot doesn’t involve testing your leadership of the group; they both seem as happy to take orders from you as the rest of the party does. (Alistair can defy your leadership to get himself killed at the end, but that comes off to me as taking the bullet–a role which has often been filled by female characters, like Eponine and Lilly Potter–rather than putting himself in harm’s way because He’s Manly and You’re Not.) Apparently BioWare is good about this sort of thing, which is why I plan to buy more games from them in the future.


  1. Cyndy Cooper says

    Are you familiar with the text adventure “Jigsaw” by Graham Nelson? If not, I strongly recommend it; it has a strong romance subplot that … well, you’ll see. It is available free, though you will need the open source Frotz interpreter to run it.

    • says

      Ooh! I actually have the Frotz interpreter at work (for when I have to stay late and wait for phone calls, any work-affiliated people reading this) so I’ll check that out. Yay!

  2. The Other Patrick says

    In Choice of Broadsides, you can also freely choose your gender and the one of your potential love interest, and the game just adapts pronouns. Which showed me that it would be possible to do naval historical fiction where a gay or a lesbian romance or a female naval captain are treated matter-of-factly.

  3. silver1881 says

    Bioware is really great about this. If you’re into sci-fi at all, try Mass Effect – playing a female is just as good as playing a male, which is especially impressive considering that the PC is a space marine. (In fact, and YMMV on this, playing a female is more rewarding because the female voice actor is so fantastic.) No one questions your authority or ability. Romances are equally well-written. And the best part is that the character can be three-dimensional; you can be “feminine”, loving, and caring, while still being tough and snarky, and that does not make you one bit less powerful or badass.

    • The Other Patrick says

      While I don’t like the blue Mass-Effect bisexual Virgin-Whore-Crone race (guess why! ;)), I loved being able to play a heavyset woman with facial scars who was a total badass and still able to connect to her people. Bioware is simply awesome with their storylines. A gay lovestory would have made me play the dude, though.

      • silver1881 says

        You’re absolutely right, and the lack of a gay option is one of the few problems I have with it. Technically, asari are monogendered, but they look just like blue female humans with head tentacles, so it caters to those who think lesbians are hot but not actual lesbians. Same goes for Mass Effect 2 – there is one bisexual, and she’s a female human. There were supposed to be gay options in the first game (I think all 3 of the love interests were going to be bisexual), but then they took it out for some reason, and every response I’ve seen to questions about it was a lot of spin and BSing but no actual answers. You can definitely see hints of it, though, since they left a lot of that dialogue in, and it’s still there in ME2. So there’s a lot of hinting but no payoff.
        Aside from that, though, Bioware is the greatest. And agreed also on the character creation – one of my female Shepards is bald and heavily scarred, and I love it.

        • says

          Interesting. I know the DA team gave a pretty “no, seriously, gay options are staying and y’all haters can get bent” interview here. I wonder if it’s a matter of different teams or–as I rather sadly suspect–the perception that Manly And Therefore Homophobic Men Like SciFi.

          I’d also be interested in hearing about Jade Empire and how it holds up on both a feminism level and a cultural sensitivity one.

          • silver1881 says

            I loved Jade Empire, especially since the setting was heavily influenced by Bridge of Birds, one of my favorite books of all time. To be honest, I don’t have enough experience or knowledge of the culture to make an educated comment on the cultural sensitivity aspect, so I’ll leave that to someone who can do better than I could. The non-romance parts of it were fine from a feminist perspective; I don’t think there were any interactions that were different if you played a female character (although it’s been a while, so if anyone knows of any, feel free to correct me). However, the outfits were all revealing. It is an older game, so the interactions themselves are more limited – as far as conversations, etc., goes, it’s more on par with Knights of the Old Republic than Mass Effect or Dragon Age. As for the romances, once again, there is one straight option each for male and female characters, and one female bisexual option. No gay male option.

          • ValeriusNaso says

            I haven’t experimented with the various permutations myself, but I read that the male NPC that can be romanced in Jade Empire is, in fact, bisexual.

            From: http://www.gamefaqs.com/xbox/918890-jade-empire/faqs/48716

            Q. What romance options are there? How do I complete a romance?

            A. Here’s the quick rundown:

            Male players can romance Silk Fox or Dawn Star or both Silk Fox and Dawn Star
            or Sky. If you try to romance one (or both) of the ladies and Sky, the romance
            with the woman (women) will take precedence.

            Female players can romance Sky or Silk Fox. If you try to romance both Sky and
            Silk Fox, the romance with Sky takes precedence.
            To complete the romance plot, just be nice or sympathetic to the object of
            your interest. The conversation options are easy enough to pick.

            (note: Dawn Star and Silk Fox are female, Sky is male, if not clear from context)

          • silver1881 says

            ValeriusNaso is right, Sky (a male) is bisexual. I can’t believe I forgot about that! Please disregard what I said.

    • silver1881 says

      One other thing that I forgot to mention – female PCs don’t have comically huge boobs, and the armor is practical and covers everything up. It looks like something a warrior would wear. And no high heels, at least not on the PC, thank goodness.

      • 12Sided says

        that’s one thing that made me soooo sad about Mass Effect 2. You come in off the equality-greatness of the first game and suddenly you have three new female squadmates; one has painted on pants and high heels, one wears nothing above her waist but tattoos and leather straps (until you get her loyalty then she can wear a shirt, or you by DLC to get her a biker look) and finally an asari whose neckline plunges to her ribcage, gravity defying breasts and wears even higher heels. It’s like one step forward two steps back

        • silver1881 says

          Yeah, there’s definitely no Ashley. I would be okay with Miranda OR Samara’s outfits, but not both, especially when we’re lacking the fully-clothed Terminator we got in ME1. In ME2, the only sensibly-shod, heavily-armored lady badass was me.

    • says

      I’ve heard some seriously awesome things about ME, quite possibly enough to overcome my usual meh-ness toward anything harder than Star Wars on the SF scale. It’s coming up on my “review the romance plots of video games” list, I think, and I’m looking forward to it!

      • silver1881 says

        The Mass Effect romances aren’t as in-depth as the Dragon Age ones, but they’re still good, except for the lack of gay options. They feel organic despite their brevity. And Mass Effect’s sex scenes are less ludicrous than Dragon Age’s, so that’s a plus.
        It’s not that much harder than Star Wars – there is more science (which actually makes sense!), but you can still enjoy the game and get the full effect of the plot without worrying too much about how everything works.

    • Patrick McGraw says

      (In fact, and YMMV on this, playing a female is more rewarding because the female voice actor is so fantastic.)

      In my experience, Jennifer Hale is awesome in every role she plays.

  4. Lindsey says

    The Dragon Age team is good about this sort of thing, the team that does Mass Effect is also decent but slightly less good–thus why men get a sexy blue sexbomb love interest alien and women get a lizard man and gays get nothing. Still, they’re ages ahead of a lot of their competitors, and they don’t even cut the belly out of the female heavy armor.

      • says

        As do I, in fact.

        I’m not sure when I’ll use it, but I suspect that I will at some point in the future. Possibly in re: Data. 😉

    • 3Jane says

      From the above comment I get the impression you think the lizard man is worse (as a love interest) than the sexy blue alien. Apparently women specifically asked for him to be romanceable. Personally I’m also happy to have that option, as I find him to be the most interesting character in the game. I rather liked the explanation in this “ship manifesto” (warning, spoilers for ME1 and ME2) – describing a slowly evolving relationship that builds on friendship and trust.

      Of course this doesn’t change the fact that there are no gay options and there are many ways the game could be improved. I just wanted to add a data point and mention that characters that aren’t conventionally sexy can be attractive too.

      • 12Sided says

        I think she was referring to Thane, not Garrus. I read an article on Thane’s design and how it was so ‘OMG soo hard’ to get the women they showed more human looking concept of the character to all agree on the same thing, then they found something that they, the designers liked and just stopped asking women’s opinions and went with him. While I like Thane and all if we were to compare Asari= totally human looking except blue with head tentacles and Thane= vaguely human face with gigantic eyes and scales on his face, there some discrepancy in the fan-service races there

        • silver1881 says

          Yes, Thane looks more like a straight-up lizard, while Garrus looks more like a bird-lizard. I think I read the article you’re talking about, and I found it funny that they went on and on about how they tried so hard to make Thane appeal to women, and he was the one character out of all 16 that I absolutely could not stand. It felt like they made up a list entitled “Stuff Chicks Like” and used every stereotype they could think of. If Lifetime made a sci-fi movie, it would be called “An Assassin’s Heart: Thane’s Story”.

        • Ikkin says

          …there’s something really wrong with the idea that they respond to their inability to figure out what women want by ignoring it completely and just doing their own thing. =/

          (Then again, western games have never been great for attractive protagonists to begin with — their faces veer a bit too close to the uncanny valley nowadays)

          • silver1881 says

            I’m not sure if I’m more offended by their blatant attempt to pander to me, or their total failure at said pandering. It might be a good thing if they did forget everything they think they know about what women like, because it’s obviously a bit off.
            That said, apparently some people did like him, so a big ol’ YMMV on that, I guess. But I don’t know any personally who did, that’s for sure. To me, he felt like an insult.
            Western games sometimes have attractive protagonists – Nathan Drake, for instance. I think it will get better as graphics get better. I have to admit that I don’t tend to find men in JRPGs attractive, but that’s just a taste thing.

          • Ikkin says

            I was going to say I would prefer pandering to a lack of acknowledgment that I’m part of their target audience… but creating a character solely to draw women in just seems like a different form of tokenism.

            As for the Thane character, I’m not all that familiar with Mass Effect, but his looks really seem to imply that Bioware thinks women don’t care what a man looks like as long as he’s got a tragic backstory.

            Nathan Drake is certainly a lot better than that, but he seems more like a goofball-type than someone who’s intended to be an attractive person using the Hollywood standard. Which is fine, of course, except that he’s probably one of the better examples.

      • Lindsey says

        I did mean Thane and not Garrus; all the female characters had to be at least somewhat conventionally sexy, even the aliens, while the males get two romanceable options that aren’t “conventionally sexy” along with non-romanceable characters who are even stranger.

        • SarahSyna says

          In fairness, you can’t call Tali conventionally sexy. You can’t see her face, and those are not normal legs.

          Also, in the first one, Liara was actually romancable by both genders. So, there was a gay option, it was just solely for lesbians. It’s pretty stupid.

          There was also a conventionally attractive guy for the girls, and he was one of the, if not THE, least popular character(s) in the first game. In fact, both of the humans weren’t the ones people found sexy. The reason Garrus and Tali became romancable is because so many people wanted it, unconventional or no.

          Hell, some people wanted to romance WREX.

          • silver1881 says

            Basically, the breakdown is this:
            Males, first game: 1 female human, 1 female (very humanoid) alien.
            Females, first game: 1 male human, 1 female (very humanoid) alien.
            Males, second game: 3 female humans, 1 female alien (who is not conventionally sexy, but was made romanceable by fan request).
            Females, second game: 1 male human, 1 female human, 1 lizard-like alien, 1 bird-lizard-like alien (who was made romanceable by fan request).
            All of these romances do have their fan bases, so it’s not really fair to say that people didn’t find them sexy. I really enjoyed the human male from the first game, and in fact stuck with him all through the second. And I know there were others who loved the human female from the first one, as well. But that’s all getting into YMMV territory. In the second game, there were two humans, one male, one female, who were VERY fanservicey, but their romances were (at least in my opinion) less well done than the others. Though I did find Jacob’s lack of brooding angst refreshing.

          • silver1881 says

            At least one thing we can take from this is that ME fans are anything but racist (speciesist?). There are lots of people who wanted to romance Wrex, Mordin, Samara, Kal’Reegar, hell, even Legion and EDI. Any ME romance forum ends up like an issue of Fornax. So at least we embrace diversity, even if the makers of the game themselves don’t!

          • SarahSyna says

            Never underestimate the power of an awesome personality (and a really sexy voice >_>).

            If Garrus wasn’t so adorably awkward despite being a vigilante or Ashley wasn’t a mix of kickass and genuinely caring with actual flaws then they wouldn’t be as well liked.

            I actually completely forgot about Jacob though. >_> He just doesn’t stick in my mind all that mind, though he’s actually an okay character, and his side mission was both creepy and heartbreaky.

            As an aside, I personally wanted to romance Jack, Thane, Garrus (did), Kaiden (jerk broke my Shepard’s heart in 2!), Joker, Legion, Mordin (he sings Gilbert and Sullivan!) and Ashley. They’re all really nifty to me.

          • silver1881 says

            Never underestimate the power of an awesome personality (and a really sexy voice >_>).

            That really sums it up, doesn’t it? One of Bioware’s major strengths is characterization, and it shows so much in the ME series. They’re able to make these complex, three-dimensional characters with devoted fanbases, all with a minimum of dialogue and interaction. (Compare the conversations with squadmates in ME to the ones in Dragon Age, where you can spend hours talking to your party members as opposed to the rather brief between-mission dialogues in ME.)
            I did test out all the romances, and while Garrus’s was very sweet (and Jacob’s was a little weird), my heart belongs to Kaidan and his ridiculously sexy voice. I wouldn’t say no to a Mordin or Kal’Reegar romance, though, that’s for sure.

          • Felicity says

            This question is for silver1881, but I couldn’t reply directly to her comment: I’m curious what was considered “fanservicey” about Jacob. I found him very physically unattractive, as did the other straight female ME player I’ve surveyed in real life — I thought his face was uncannier than most, his bodily proportions seemed radically off, and the other woman said his teeth kept clipping through his mouth when he talked. His personality seemed really boring to me too.

            I can readily see Miranda’s fanservice qualities (in that outfit, everyone can see her fanservice qualities, ba-dum-chh) but I don’t see it for Jacob. He doesn’t even have an accent Americans are generally considered to find sexay (Australian.)

            As a sidenote, while I suppose it’s cool that there are so many romance options in ME2, I wish they were a little easier to deflect, especially preemptively (I wrote a blog post about this here, rather tongue-in-cheek.) With so many characters, some of them rather unexpected, interested in Shepard, just talking to my squaddies starts to feel like going out to a club to dance and having to dodge come-ons constantly. Yecch.

            Mass Effect is, for the record, the only media I’ve consumed with a romance between a female hero and a male sidekick, as laid out in the original post here (I haven’t played Dragon Age because I heard it was mostly text dialogue, not voice-acted.) and I *loved* that. Obviously, fraternization regs are the only thing that bothered Kaidan about that situation, and that was very appealing.

          • silver1881 says

            To Felicity: I actually didn’t find Jacob physically attractive either; when I called him fanservicey, I was thinking about his abs (they’re quite lovingly rendered, and that’s all anyone seems to remember about him) and that he seems to get almost as many close-ups of his tight-spacesuit-clad ass as Miranda does. I guess it seemed to me that they tried to do the same thing with him that they did with Miranda, except it didn’t really work as well. Trying to make any of the characters very physically attractive as a selling point is kind of pointless, considering the current graphical capabilities. Miranda’s face delves into the uncanny valley at times, too.
            I thought it was a lot easier to avoid relationships in the second game; the lines that would indicate your interest were pretty obvious and easy to avoid. In the first one it was easier to accidentally find yourself in a relationship. Interestingly, Jacob’s was one of the easiest to stay out of. I had to WORK to get him into a relationship, and it actually felt a little bit like I was browbeating him into it, and that was kind of uncomfortable.
            I, too, loved being a female with a male sidekick (you do also get this in Dragon Age, and it’s just as fun, despite the text). Some of the relationships really felt organic, as you said; with Kaidan and Garrus, at least, it felt like you had already known each other and were attracted to each other for a while, and what we saw was what naturally came next in that relationship. It wasn’t abrupt like Jacob’s and Thane’s seemed to be. I haven’t done any of the male-PC relationships, or Liara’s, so I don’t know the details of those.

  5. Casey says

    I only played Saint’s Row 2 for a couple hours, and as problematic as it is/was, what with it being a low-rent GTA clone, I still loved being able to play a PC that looked kinda like me (tall, pudgy, sloppy jeans/black t-shirt, long curly brown hair, FEMALE) and act like a total bad-ass/FUCK DA’ POLICE/punch out angry drunks without my gender being played up too much in the cut-scene dialogue (besides me maybe being called a bitch by enemies) t’was fun. :)

    • says

      Appearance customization is Good Times! Part of the major appeal of Rock Band, too. A bit hazardous, since I forgot to rotate my first DA character and ended up giving the poor girl fishlips, but hey.

  6. says

    Bioware has learned a lot. They used to be famously awful at it.

    The female characters in Neverwinter Nights were classic in their horridness. There was also some dubious things in Kotor. They’ve hired much better writers for their newer games.

    You should play Mass Effect 2 (skip number 1, it’s too clunky to play in comparison). There are good and bad things about the gender roles in it. Dragon Age does it better I think, but Mass Effect is still excellent.

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