(Advanced warning: this gets kind of a lot nerdy. I will attempt to come at this as though the people reading it are at ground-zero level of experience in this topic.)
So, if you follow me anywhere on social media, you’re probably aware of the love affair I’ve developed with BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise. Although, maybe this is the first you’re hearing of it, in which case I’ve severely failed to adequately articulate my obsession. I’ll admit a few things off the bat first before I dive into the purpose of this post:
- While I’ve always enjoyed watching video games, I was never a huge gamer outside of puzzle/story games like Myst, The Room, King’s Quest, The Cave, Gone Home… and that ilk.
- Games that required you to kill things have never been my thing. First person shooters, definitely not. While games in franchises like Metal Gear, Silent Hill, Tomb Raider, etc, might’ve had perfectly fine stories, I’m still content to sit on the sidelines. The combat element was why I never played King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity that released ages ago (got high hopes for the new one in the works, though!).
- Most of my experience with video games was (up until this year), primarily via videos of walk-throughs. YouTube has been my best friend of late, and is probably responsible (along with my editor, Jennifer Melzer), for getting me into actual gaming.
- The above has changed drastically, and I foresee a new era of nerdiness coming to the Huchton household, with advanced apologies to my husband. LOL
Now that all of that is out of the way, here’s what I want to talk about today. I just recently finished my third play-through of Dragon Age: Inquisition (all the way through the Trespasser DLC), and I have thoughts. See, this third time was different. In my other two games, I chose to play as female (first human, then elf). This time? Male elf.
I have a point here. Bear with me.
Why? Well, if you’re unfamiliar with the DA games, you should know that in every game you have the choice to romance several of the NPCs (non-player characters). In my other two games, I romanced the heck out of Cullen because I was a female character, and I have ZERO self-control when it comes to the commander of the Inquisition’s forces. (None. Seriously. You guys have no idea.) I realized that something had to change if I was ever going to get anything different out of the game.
Because that’s the thing about Dragon Age. The choices are myriad and the possibilities are likely endless. I’ve played it three times now, and I’m STILL finding new things I missed. This world is so expansive, so rich in detail, I really don’t think it’s possible to unlock every secret nook and cranny it has. My outcome in every game has been slightly different with every run, with epilogues ranging from “that’s absolutely perfect!” to “#$*(&#$ now I have to play it again to fix all the things I didn’t like.”
Freaking Thedas. STAY FIXED. T_T
Anyway, so I decided that the only way to avoid a Cullen romance was to play as a dude-quisitioner this time. The different NPCs all have different preferences for partner, so I had a fairly wide selection to choose from. I knew straight away my decision would be between Dorian (a mage who prefers the company of men) and Cassandra (a battle-weary badass hiding the heart of a hopeless romantic). Because Dorian hits my sarcastic snark button, he is my favorite companion, and thus won the day. But anyway, on to the main reason I’m writing this (aside from having an excuse to fangirl about this franchise).
I was really curious to see how gameplay was affected by choosing an opposite gender from myself (see also: my Flipped Fairy Tales). I’m delighted to report that the story and adventure were the same, but a few small things stuck out to me. And thus the discussion begins.
First, I went through the dude-quisitioner game a lot more detached than my other games. That’s on me, likely, and not BioWare. Not seeing myself reflected on-screen was possibly a detractor to how immersive it was. Everyone needs a Mary Sue, whether you’re male or female, straight or somewhere on the QUILTBAG spectrum, white or black or brown or purple. Everyone wants that to some degree, I think, especially when “you” are the one embarking on an involved quest as is presented in DA:I. Stepping out of your comfort zone is good thing, but for a protracted experience like this, I prefer more immersion. That’s personal preference, and not everyone feels that way.
The lesson I took away from that as a creator: make it possible for your audience to see themselves in your work, and it can help that work resonate with people everywhere.
Second, I did notice instances where there were remarks about my being a “beautiful woman” in my other play-throughs that were not echoed in “handsome man” sentiments on my third go-around. I do have to wonder why that is. Did BioWare think females needed that ego boost, but not the men?
The lesson I took away from that as a creator: if it’s necessary to say to one gender, it’s necessary to say to the other. And vice-versa.
Third, two NPCs in particular interacted with me differently, in as much as I can recall. As a male elf, it felt much easier to earn approval with Sera (lesbian elf who basically hates other elves) than it did as a female. As a female elf, she more or less hated me no matter what I said. Which I totally didn’t understand playing as a woman. She has issues.
Solas (a straight, male elf), on the other hand, felt much easier to charm as a female than a male. I earned his respect and such across all games, and it wasn’t overly difficult either way, but he is much more susceptible to feminine persuasion.
The lesson I took away from that as a creator: make your side characters as nuanced as your main characters for a richer experience.
The fourth thing I noticed, in the game where I imported my ideal world state from the Dragon Age Keep (this is set up on their website, wherein you select what happened in the previous games to inform the current one), my Hero of Ferelden (from Dragon Age: Origins) and Champion of Kirkwall (from Dragon Age 2) were both female. Cassandra remarked on this in my other game I played with this import, having her own “lady power” moment about all the fixers of Thedas being female and how proud she was to walk among them. That, needless to say, did not occur when I used that world state with dude-quisitioner. It’s both cool and strange and mind-boggling that BioWare thought far enough in advance to write that particular dialogue for that specific scenario. That’s not the only case of past game history affecting dialogue/events in DA:I, but it’s the one most pertinent to this discussion.
The lesson I took away from that as a creator: play around with alternate possibilities for backstory to see what changes. Even one little detail can alter the course of everything that comes after.
Granted, I already assumed these above lessons, but experiencing them firsthand was really interesting. Now, in other games, specifically those with social platforms (MMORPGs), there are other reasons for playing as male vs. female. Those primarily have to do with gender perceptions, in as much as I can gather from my friends and the internet, and not necessarily the gameplay itself. Whether that’s to avoid harassment as a female or to manipulate male players by playing as a female (people do this, let’s be honest), the reasons for choosing the “other” were personal choices based on the player’s perception of the world.
As far as the Dragon Age games are concerned, however, I have to give props to BioWare. Inquisition proves that you can have a truly inclusive gaming experience regardless of who you are in real life. You can see yourself on screen, or you can play as something completely opposite of yourself. It makes me wonder how that could be translated to books, which are considerably less flexible in that respect. Definitely something to think about in the future.