I was around thirteen or fourteen the first time I encountered Dragon Age. My sister’s newest boyfriend had brought over this cool-looking high-fantasy RPG that he thought my sister, my brother, and I might like. After watching he and my sister play it for about a week – and learning there were romance options, something I had never actually encountered in a video game other than The Sims – I decided to give it a try. I created my character – a female Dalish elf rogue with no face tattoo because I did not yet understand what it was to be Dalish – and got started. I loved it immediately, but it didn’t change my life until I encountered another elvin rogue: the walking sexual innuendo Zevan Arainai. It was love at first sight. He had tried to kill me, but I didn’t mind. I started pursuing a romance with him. At one point he stopped me in the midst of flirting with him and informed me that he had also been with men and asked if it bothered me. As a somewhat closeted bisexual, this question startled me. I had never seen another bisexual person in anything before. I did some research and realized that both he and the resident bard Leliana were openly bisexual and, more importantly, it was a total nonissue. Dragon Age: Origins quickly revealed itself as the game I thought I’d never get to play. And, unlike the LGBT books I hid under my bed, the game was completely mainstream.
BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise began in 2009 with the release of high-fantasy RPG Dragon Age: Origins and the prequel novels Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne and Dragon Age: The Calling. In a surprising turn of events, Origins was met with high critical acclaim – being named RPG of the year in 2009 – and, by 2010, had sold more than 3.2 million copies.
Despite what many game developers and consumers may believe, the inclusion of women in prominent places of power as well as main characters with openly queer identity had no measurable effect on on the sales or reception of the game. Dragon Age would go on to include three more books, two more games (and counting), three spin off games, an animated film, a table-top RPG, a webseries, and several series of comic books. Throughout this the Dragon Age team never shied away from telling queer stories, their boldness and breadth of representation growing with each game.
In other words, BioWare somehow managed to create a franchise that is so incredibly queer it’s provided gaymers (read: gay gamers) with an actual army of queer video game characters to love and protect. Not only that, but gaymers got to be the hero and be gay. For me, and for many other gaymers, Dragon Age became a turning point in how we learned to accept and value ourselves.
That, however, does not make it immune from scrutiny. While the queer rep in Dragon Age is substantial, it is far from perfect.
The franchise started strong with the introduction of bisexual characters Zevran, Leliana, and Isabela. Zevran and Leliana are party members and romance options, and each express themselves and their bisexuality differently. Isabela is a pirate you meet in a brothel in Denerim and, despite pretty much being there to provide the (in)famous orgy of the game, is given her own personality and an expression of bisexuality that differs from both Leliana and Zevran.
Isabela proves herself as complex as Zevran and Leliana when she returns as a companion in Dragon Age II. This, however, was where Dragon Age began running into problems. With the decision to make Isabela the only openly queer character in the game and write the other romances as ‘player-sexual’ – and correcting fans who called this bisexual – the writers and developers showed an odd unwillingness to write queer stories.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved that (almost) every possible love interest was able to be romanced by either gender available to the player character. What I didn’t like was the fact that the queerness of these characters was swept under the rug. For example, Anders never mentions his romantic history with Karl unless a male Hawke is flirting with him. This goes in stark contrast to the way Zevran was handled, as he made sure the Warden understood that he was bisexual before pursuing anything. The writers later shied away from the idea of player-sexual, making Fenris, Merrill, Anders, and Tallis all officially bisexual.
Prior to the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, BioWare added several queer women to the Dragon Age canon. The book Dragon Age: The Masked Empire introduced two lesbians dealing with both a tumultuous court and an ridiculously unhealthy relationship: Empress Celene Valmont I, and her elvin handmaid Briala. The comic Dragon Age: Those Who Speak introduces Maevaris Tilani, a transwoman and respected (and feared) magister in Tevinter. Maevaris is only mentioned in Dragon Age: Inquisiton, but both Celene and Briala appear in the main quest Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts to continue their fuckery.
By that I mean: they are unhappy lesbians in a tragically abusive relationship that can be brought back together because love or something regardless of the fact that Celene is actually a monster.
Other than falling into the tragically unhappy lesbians trope, Dragon Age: Inquisition is a notable improvement from Dragon Age II in terms of queer rep. We get Josephine, The Iron Bull, Dorian, Sera, and Crem. On top of that, the world is populated with dynamic NPCs, some of whom mention having same sex attraction.
In Josephine we get another great bisexual character. The Iron Bull becomes the franchise’s first pansexual character. Dorian is the first gay man, and Sera is the first in-game lesbian. Crem is the first transman in the series but, unlike the other four, he is not available as a romance option. It is also notable that he is voiced by a cis woman and not, you know, an actual trans person. Despite this, in these handful of characters, players are treated to BioWare at it’s best, in terms of queer rep. In a ridiculous act of self sabotage, BioWare makes three seriously cringworthy (read: kind of disgusting) mistakes.
The first, of course, is allowing player characters to reconcile Celene and Briala without once mentioning that Celene committed an act of genocide against Briala’s people to avoid any suspicion that she may actually care about what happens to the elves under her rule. Honestly. That happens.
Second, BioWare admitted that Cullen and Solas were both originally meant to be bisexual but the devs ‘ran out of time.’ This one is much less disgusting than the first, but shows very clearly that straight is the only default any of these people care about. It perpetuates heteronormativity, and that’s never good.
Finally, Cole. Oh, Cole. My light, my life, my everything. Boy, did they fuck this one up. In his first appearance in the tie-in novel Dragon Age: Asunder, and during his time in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Cole was coded as, but not explicitly stated to be, asexual. Throughout the game several other characters would try to push him into romantic or sexual interactions with girls around Skyhold (the home base) or out on their various adventures. Each time, Cole expressed his lack of interest. If, in his personal question, you chose to make him more human (as he is, technically, a spirit, and not a human), this will change. It’s not the fact that this changes that hurt people, it’s what he says when it does. Dorian asks him about having a ‘ladyfriend’ now, and Cole responds by saying “Well, I am human now.”
If you don’t understand why this is awful, allow me to explain you a thing. Asexual people constantly have to deal with dehumanization, as most of us live in a culture that has tied being sexual to being human. In this scene, Cole equates humanness with sexuality. On top of that, the writers have given him a girlfriend as proof of his humanity. Now, I am not asexual, and I in no way want to speak for the asexual community. This article explains better than I could the depths of this fuck up, and the fuckery that followed as concerned gamers tried to reach out to Dragon Age writers about this issue.
At the end of the day, Dragon Age is written by mostly straight, entirely cis, and entirely white writers. While they can try to understand and incorporate characters and issues important to their fanbase, there are some things they simply can’t understand. They could be consulting queer writers, they could be consulting their largely queer fanbase. But, it seems, they writers of Dragon Age don’t know what they don’t understand. They are doing their best, and I will always be grateful for that, but sometimes one’s best just isn’t good enough.
I love Dragon Age. With all my heart, I love it. But I also realize that, while the writers have been incredibly successful in several areas, they are still places where they can, and should improve.
But, for the time being, Dragon Age might just be the best we’ve got.