Post Script

Bio Ware sets the stan­dard for rep­re­sen­ta­tion in main­stream games


There’s a no­tion some­times ped­dled in the In­ter­net’s more re­ac­tive cor­ners that in­clu­siv­ity in­curs an ad­di­tional cost of some kind, a con­ser­va­tive view that holds that a gay character must be more ex­pen­sive than a straight one or that a woman must be more ex­pen­sive than a man. The root of many mis­guided com­ment-thread cam­paigns is the idea that pro­vid­ing a breadth of voices must mean a de­vel­oper is some­how shut­ting oth­ers out, that iden­tity is a ze­ro­sum game where the straight, white male only stands to lose.

Dragon Age: In­qui­si­tion is a timely and nec­es­sary counter to this ar­gu­ment. It’s a huge open-world game that nonethe­less grants the player and the char­ac­ters you meet a plu­ral­ity of voices, gen­ders, sex­u­al­i­ties. As other stu­dios wring their hands about let­ting you play as a woman, Bio Ware has turned up with four playable races, both gen­ders, and four dis­tinct voice op­tions for its lead.

Six out of the nine prin­ci­pal play­ers in the early part of the game are women – seven, if you choose to play as a fe­male your­self. In­qui­si­tion not only passes the Bechdel test, it proves that it is em­i­nently pos­si­ble to do so with­out break­ing a heroic nar­ra­tive.

The com­pan­ion roster in­cludes gay char­ac­ters, bi­sex­ual ones and peo­ple of colour; ro­man­tic char­ac­ters, pro­mis­cu­ous char­ac­ters and char­ac­ters who re­serve the right to ex­press their sex­u­al­ity. Vi­tally, the iden­ti­ties of your com­pan­ions are not held in iso­la­tion from their me­chan­i­cal and nar­ra­tive role in the game. In­stead they are folded to­gether sub­tly, Bio Ware un­der­stand­ing that the Dragon Age set­ting is not Earth and does not need to in­herit the same so­cial prej­u­dices.

Cole is one ex­am­ple. A lost spirit in the form of a young man, he sees emo­tions rather than peo­ple. He’s not a mind reader per se, sim­ply highly sen­si­tive to the un­hap­pi­ness of oth­ers – and he feels com­pelled to solve it, which you can ei­ther coach him through or dis­cour­age. He is in some ways a character that could only ex­ist in a game that fea­tures spir­its and demons, but could also be seen as a sen­si­tive pre­sen­ta­tion of a young per­son some­where on the autis­tic spec­trum. You can read Cole ei­ther way, and this pro­vides space for hu­man per­spec­tives that don’t usu­ally get a voice in games.

Another high­light comes when the In­quisi­tor has drinks with mer­ce­nar­ies un­der the com­mand of Iron Bull. Bull’s sec­ond-in-com­mand, Krem, is a man who you may de­ter­mine to be trans­gen­der by his voice and some­what fem­i­nine fa­cial fea­tures. In ask­ing about this, the player is given a range of ways to ap­proach the topic, from the naïve and mildly trans­pho­bic (‘Why do you dress like a man?’ ‘Are you a woman?’) to un­der­stand­ing (‘Have you al­ways known?’). Krem’s iden­tity is never the sub­ject of doubt or jok­ing, and he’s sup­ported by his com­pan­ions and su­pe­ri­ors, but the player is given the op­tion to ask ques­tions that could po­ten­tially ed­u­cate them about the na­ture of trans­gen­der iden­tity in gen­eral. Its seam­less, well-writ­ten, touch­ing.

This is where all that back­story can be turned to so­cial pur­pose. Bull ad­dresses the topic of Krem’s gen­der, ex­plain­ing that his peo­ple – the Qu­nari, who op­er­ate un­der a para-Con­fu­cian so­cial con­tract called the Qun – would not per­ceive him as any­thing other than male. The Qun dic­tates so­cial role ac­cord­ing to in­di­vid­ual fa­cil­ity (in this case, com­bat) and does not as­so­ciate iden­tity with sex­ual re­pro­duc­tion. In In­qui­si­tion, ‘lore’ is used to in­form so­cial com­men­tary in a way that is nat­u­ral, and en­hances both.

To say that no other main­stream videogame stu­dio is op­er­at­ing at this level is an un­der­state­ment. In­qui­si­tion might be a tech­ni­cally ad­vanced game, but its iden­tity pol­i­tics are – strik­ingly, almost sadly – its most fu­tur­is­tic fea­ture.

BioWare’s cutscene craft has im­proved to the point that it can do with a ges­ture what would once need a line of di­a­logue

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