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