Contains minor plot spoiler which is indicated.
In the last year, I’ve played Dragon Age Inquisition (game three in the series) twice. It might be my favourite game. Ever.
My first play though was as a man (and while we’re here, how extraordinary is it that some games let you choose a gender then experience the world in those eyes. Seriously. How many other mediums out there let you do that, other than surgery?), and I loved the game. I loved my character – a cheeky, flirty blue eyed man’s man with a big beard, named Beothor – he was fun and silly and didn’t really know what has happening but embraced the world and the responsibilities as they were thrust upon him. To give you an idea of how much I loved my first play through: for a fantastic birthday present, my husband took me on a gin tasting and making course. Long story short, you can now go to the Ginstitute on Portobello Road and order your very own bottle of Ginquistion: Beothor’s Reserve (it’s a rather good sipping gin blended with earl grey, bergamot and orange).
It took about three dud characters and maybe 10ish hours of false starts until I created a character that clicked for me. I always do this with character design RPGs, it’s at least half the fun for me. So there I was, travelling along, enjoying the game just fine, liking my character, interested in the world, revelling in the comparatively elaborate conversations you can have with your ‘staff’, when Beothor met Dorian. I flirted when the options came up in Bioware’s largely unique conversation menus. Then lo and behold (SPOILERS) dear Dorian turned up in my private quarters, wanting to take our fledgling relationship to the next level.
And here’s what blows my mind with David Gaider’s game: the world of Dragon Age, Beothor’s world, specifically, is so ‘liberal’ compared to the real, modern western world, that it wasn’t strange for my character to have a sexual encounter with another man who’s company he enjoyed. It wasn’t ‘an experiment’. It wasn’t a ‘phase’ they were going through. It was . . . normal! Beothor wasn’t and isn’t ‘gay’ because he/I fell for the character of another man. In the world of Thedas, where Dragon Age Inquisition is set, gender is constructed. You literally construct it to your choice before you even play the game, with a beautiful character creation menu where you chose name, race, gender, physicality. Then you’re launched into the story. You can romance supporting characters, or not. Romancing them opens up wonderful sub-plots and insights into your own character, so it would be a shame not to, but gender, sexuality and romance are completely optional.
And that leads to the other super interesting aspect of Inquisition; the above is only optional for you. The implication being, other, non-playable, supporting characters have already determined what works for them and what doesn’t. If I had chosen to play the game in a woman’s body, Dorian would have very politely and sincerely told me he liked me as a friend, but couldn’t do what I needed him to, so to speak. Fair enough. The game doesn’t ‘force’ this NPC to reciprocate my romance. There’s a good article about this over on Guardian, by Kate Gray, worth a read.
So of course I played my next game in a woman’s body. Mind blown. Again. My character and I fell head over heels for Cullen, who had politely turned Beothor down like a bedspread.
Suffice it to say, Dragon Age Inquisition (as opposed to the previous two games which were perfunctory, at best) gave me the best glimpse into a gender neutral society that I have ever found. I don’t want to oversimplify the game, despite the rather apt summary by a reviewer that it is ‘a dating simulator with dragons’, the gender issues are there to be explored or overlooked as is your preference. And as revolutionary as they are, they are not robust. The inclination to design your character as physically attractive is powerful, there is no overt way to create a trans character – although this aspect of sexuality is not overlooked! It is designated to a non-romanceable supporting character – and the various race choices you make for your character impact on their romantic lives in a fairly predictable manner (think, like-for-like).
But it’s okay that it’s not perfect. In fact, it shouldn’t have to be. What’s resonant is not this games’ limitations or revelations, what’s resonant is that this game is one of the very few things out there presenting gender as a choice, without social consequence, without religious overtones of right or wrong, without even political debate as to traditional or liberal. Dragon Age Inquisition’s gender and sexuality shouldn’t have to be perfect, because it shouldn’t have to be the only mainstream game giving us these options.