For the first time in my history as a gamer, I was brought to tears over a gay romance in a video game, courtesy Dragon Age II. Granted, it doesn’t take much for me to cry. If you bring a copy of Steel Magnolias within ten feet of me, I devolve into a quivering Poké Ball of emotion. But in the predominately straight-male governed world of video games, I was quite confident that the crap between Yuna and Tidus in the Moonflow was about as gay as games were going to get.
Enter a little company called Bioware.
Now, I know queer characters have appeared in games for quite some time, but the vast majority of them are there for (often stereotypical) comic relief and are usually relegated to the NPC waste bin of ultimately unimportant characters. Other games, like Fable, allow you to identify as gay or bisexual, but the romance is often tangential to the actual story. What was different about the Dragon Age series was that not only could you make your main character gay, but the romances you strike up with party members and NPC’s actually effect the story the same way heterosexual romances in other games could. And the stories were actually pretty good.
The first game in the series, Dragon Age: Origins, allowed the player to engage in a same-sex romance with the assassin Zeveran if you were a male or the bard Leliana if you were a female. While I liked both characters, frankly neither were the relationship sort, so there was a bit of a disconnect. Dragon Age II drastically widened the field, allowing players to romance most companions regardless of sex. I was a little apprehensive about that when I first heard it because I figured the romances wouldn’t be quite as fleshed out because there were more options. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the interpersonal relationships with your companions was much deeper than anything I had seen before. That combined with much more freedom to direct how you wanted your character to be perceived made the game as close to playing out a fantasy novel as I’ve ever seen.
The games have their problems – as most games do – but because I knew from the beginning that the option was there for a gay relationship, however complex they turned out to be, I felt myself becoming more emotionally vested in my character. When the companion I wanted to romance flirted with me, I got a warm fuzzy feeling like you’d get on a first date and your love interest tells you that you look good. What most straight gamers take for granted, added a whole new depth to me. I felt more connected to the story and was pleased to find that as I progressed through the games, fellow companions and even NPC’s were not only tolerant of their heroes sexuality, but made it seem as if there was no issue about it at all.
Which reminds me – how about a round of applause for the citizens of the in-game world of Thedas? I mean they are from a civilization that by our modern standards is in the Dark Ages, and yet they all seem to not care one lick whether you’re smooching someone of the same sex. It’s pretty amazing to think that in the US we just struck down a law that prevents gays from serving openly in the military, and in Thedas, same-sex lovers storm the battlefield side-by-side and nobody bats an eyelash which is good because, as we learned from the Greeks, there’s nothing quite like post-warmongering sex.
Now, as we all know, these days you can’s sneeze without the interwebs exploding in controversy, so naturally, the recent release of Dragon Age II was met with a fair amount of criticism and Bioware got it on both ends (no pun intended) from the straights and the gays. On the straight side, Bioware was accused of ignoring their main demographic of straight male gamers by having same-sex party members hitting on your main character, while many gay gamers complained about the ambiguous sexuality of the player’s romance options, preferring that there be explicitly gay options rather than just have everyone be “bisexual.”
Oddly enough, my response to both of these criticisms is the same: it’s a role playing game. Ultimately, the characters are what you make of them. If you don’t like being flirted with by companions of the same gender, then respond with an angry dialogue option. They’ll get the hint. And if you want to establish your main character and his or her potential lovers as gay, then you can do that as well. In my playthrough of Dragon Age II, I never considered my male Hawke and Anders – the party member I decided to romance – as anything but gay and the game did nothing to break that illusion. In fact, Anders even alludes to having been in a long-term relationship with his friend Karl, which is dialogue only available if you are playing a male character. That sounds pretty darn gay to me, so to call all the characters “bisexual” is really incorrect terminology.
Lead writer of the game, David Gaider, summed it up nicely in his response to the criticism on the Bioware forums: “Even if someone decides that [having Hawke initiate all the romances in the game] makes everyone “unrealistically” bisexual, however, or they can’t handle the idea that the character might be bisexual if they were another PC… I don’t see that as a big concern, to be honest. Romances are never one-size-fits-all, and even for those who don’t mind the sexuality issue there’s no guarantee they’ll find a character they even want to romance. That’s why romances are optional content. It’s such a personal issue that we’ll never be able to please everyone. The very best we can do is give everyone a little bit of choice, and that’s what we tried here.”
Now, I know that at the end of the day, a romance mechanic is just a small part of a much larger game. But I bought into the romance. Those emotional “goodbyes” said before the climactic battles at the end had me reaching for the tissues. The fact that for the first time, game publishers like Bioware are recognizing that it is economically viable to include interesting and emotional same-sex options is a very promising sign for the future of queer-friendly gaming. I’ll be eagerly awaiting what they plan to do in Dragon Age III.
I just hope I’m well-stocked in Kleenex.
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