What People Want?: Bioware and the Downloadable Femme Fatale

Bioware is a game company that is responsible for some great characters in this generation of gaming, both female and male. They have this way of fleshing out everyone so that they are complex and interesting to learn about through gameplay. Even the player-controlled characters fall under this routine. However, as in everything good and holy, there are times when characters are treated unfairly based on circumstances that the audience chooses to ignore partially or entirely (such as Queen Anora from Dragon Age: Origins) or on extenuating circumstances outside of the game and its universe. This latter portion is what I hope to be exploring in part today.

Recently, Bioware released a downloadable content for one of their newer games, Dragon Age 2, called ‘Mark of the Assassin’. This DLC stars a new character named Tallis and, from what I have seen, she has met with an overall chilly reception. Accusations fly about how this character is a Mary-Sue. This was my first impression, but in reality, how well do theses assertions hold up? And why is this character considered any worse than other DLC characters, such as Mass Effect 2’s Kasumi Goto? Note that this comparison is not only one concerning the two’s character quests—despite the fact that they are by and large the same quest in a different time period, and the comparison between the two could make an article in and of itself—but also a look at the motivations of each character and how she deals with the problem presented in front of her. It should go without saying but here is your spoiler alert.

Right off the bat, the main similarity between the two is that they both play the role of a thief. Kasumi is a master thief with a notorious lack of reputation (which I guess Cerberus wants on their mission for some reason) who wants to steal her partner, and lovers, greybox (a literal box that contains all the memories of a person)back from a rich arms dealer who profits off the misdeeds of mercenaries. Whereas Tallis presents herself as a thief who is trying to steal back the elusive jewel, the ‘Heart of the Many’, but nothing more than that is revealed at the start. In this first similarity is the first distinction between the two thieves: level of trust. Right away, Kasumi tells the audience what she is after, the stakes, and the importance of said item. In this way, the quest becomes less about stealing from the rich bastard and more about helping Kasumi get closure from her lover’s murder despite the potentially dangerous information contained in the greybox. Tallis, on the other hand, only says that her ‘Heart of the Many’ is important and that it “belongs to the people” before whisking the player away to steal it back. The player character notes Tallis’ strange behavior as the quest continues but the reason for which isn’t brought to light until the middle of the quest. Both methods of storytelling are legit and perfectly good, adding nuances to the character that take a little more thought than exploring a dialogue branch, but the divide in closeness to the character is also affected. Kasumi is telling the truth from the start, Tallis is obviously lying about something: it’s much easier to dislike Tallis for this.

But, this different form in narrative style is allowed because Tallis’ mission is much longer than Kasumi’s mission was. There was a necessity in keeping Kasumi’s mission short and sweet to follow suit with the other companion recruitment missions in Mass Effect 2. You, as the main character, only have a short time to save the universe so it would be ridiculous to tromp through the entire galaxy helping one person with one mission. Essentially, there was no time to deal with the repercussions of deception so it wasn’t a plot point. However, in Dragon Age 2 the companion quests happen continuously over an in-game 8-ish year period, thus the allowance for quest length is expanded. This allows Tallis to have motivations that aren’t immediately clear to the audience and for the main character to gallivant through the nooks and crannies of another country. Luckily, this does much credit to the quest as I don’t think it would have been able to stand up to Kasumi’s given the same time restraints.

One other point of discrepancy between the two is their apparent level of skill at their job. They both make the strange choice of trying to directly follow the main character into the building where the “treasure” is without doing anything remotely subtle. Kasumi is not allowed in, Tallis is. Life goes on and they both get to what they’re looking for. For all the ridiculousness of trying to just waltz in, Kasumi is extremely talented with breaking through computer codes, getting pieces of DNA or voice clips to break through other protection methods, and with planning. All of this makes a strong case for  her having done this many times before and makes her seem deserving of the title “master thief”—not to mention she can do this cool little trick where she turns invisible, but I digress. Tallis comes off as much more…incompetent, but this is not entirely her fault. Each time she tries to knick the mansion keys off of [insert servant figure here], she finds that they don’t actually have the key so we’re treated to a lot of scenes of, “Guess he didn’t have it, lol” which is incredibly annoying. In fact, she doesn’t even get the keys in the end: the player character does. My character was a rogue class, so it made sense for her, but how would it make any sense for a, let’s say, warrior class with low cunning and dexterity to be able to simply pilfer the keys from the freaking Duke’s son?! It doesn’t. Its things like this and her constant nervousness that makes Tallis seem rather incompetent at her supposed job. Of course, later on we find out that she’s not a thief at all but it doesn’t stop that whole part from being completely illogical and a little scaring for her character.

Now that some basics have been covered, I think it’s time to delve a tad into their motivations. From what I’ve written earlier, you probably have figured out Kasumi’s main issue. She used to work with a skilled Tech (hacker), named Keiji, and they eventually fell in love. All was well and good until Keiji was murdered by said arms dealer, Donovan Hock, who wanted the secrets locked inside Keiji’s greybox. The interesting thing is that Kasumi doesn’t necessarily want revenge; all she wants is the greybox. These motivations stay pretty linear even up until the end of the quest: it’s there where you have to help Kasumi decide whether to keep the greybox and live with a shadow of her love forever, or to destroy the greybox, it’s terrible secret, and Keiji. It is at this part where we see this strong woman finally breakdown over the thought of having to lose Keiji again and struggling with his own last request (to have his greybox destroyed) verses her desires (to be with him, even if it is only a memory). In this, she becomes a sympathetic, realistic character in only a few short minutes and although not terribly complex, it is enough to solidify her worth as a character.

Tallis and her motivations, on the other hand, are a bit murkier. As I stated earlier, we start her quest by thinking she is a thief after a jewel that was unrightfully stolen from her clan or something: it’s not terribly clear. After she and the main character are thrown into jail, however, we find that she had been lying the entire time. The ‘Heart of the Many’ is not a jewel, in fact it is the translation of the title of her caste. Oh, and she’s a Qunari assassin.

For those of you who have not played Dragon Age at all, Qunari is a religion (and also what seems like could be a race) based on the thought that each person is born for a particular place in society and they cannot ever break from that role lest they be outcast. It’s strict, but also provides a peace of mind to those that join it: which is why Tallis did (she’s an elf, notably, and thus isn’t considered ‘full Qunari’). However, in this game the Qunari have uncomfortably set up shop in the town of the main character and, depending how far you have gotten, may or may not have taken the entire town hostage and beheaded the Viscount while threatening to convert every person in the town. Forcefully. So, let it be known that no one really likes the Qunari in Dragon Age 2.

What Tallis is actually trying to steal is a list containing names of people in Kirkwall that are practicing Qunari so she can protect them from the inevitable backlash against them. From what she says, most of the people on the list are innocents and she doesn’t wish to see them harmed due to the mistakes of the Arishok (the leader of the Qunari). If that wasn’t enough, she is also trying to track down her master—the one who trained her and led her to the Qunari religion—and kill him as he was the one who gave the Duke (this quest’s rich bastard) the aforementioned list. From this, the audience begins to realize why she was acting so nervous earlier but from there, the opinion on Tallis is completely up to the player/player character. There is no big moral decision that fleshes out the character (unlike in Kasumi’s mission): either you choose to help Tallis or not, but either way she gets the list and disappears. Having to hide her true intentions due to persecution and faced alone with her self-given duty to take out her teacher, Tallis not only is separated from the ‘normal’ citizens of the Dragon Age universe, but she also has separated herself from the other Qunari (as they do not care about her plight). She is utterly alone and finally her unwillingness to trust the main character rings clear. But, the thing that I believe fleshes out this Qunari elf most effectively is her struggle with the Qunari religion. It is obvious that she likes being a Qunari and finds contentment in their teachings, but she realizes how it can lead to religious zealots and unnecessary strife within and with others, and she takes issue with that. The player character can continue to prod her about what she believes, but it is fractured and she is unable to fully describe what she likes about it. I cannot speak for everyone, but I feel like a lot of people can relate to that kind of uncertainty.

So, in comparing these two character-wise I really cannot find a good reason in the vast difference in opinion on the two. They both are strong female characters with a clear goal and the determination to get there with or without (but preferably with) the main character’s help. But, there is always another side to the story and in Tallis’ case this couldn’t be truer.

Before I go on, unfortunately I do not follow the Mass Effect fandom as much as I do Dragon Age so I do not have as much insight on the initial receptions of Kasumi as I do Tallis. From what I looked up, however, a majority of the fans seemed ready to embrace Kasumi and were excited to try a newer type of mission based on subterfuge rather than hack and slash. She was the mysterious woman, an unknown in the Mass Effect universe but obviously this is not the same with Tallis. With Tallis, it seemed like the reason for her being was her downfall.

That reason being Felicia Day.

This is not a personal affront to her: I have nothing against Ms. Day but she had to expect a little bit of backlash based on what we know about her. Before this DLC release, Day had said that she was a fan of Dragon Age: Origins and was particularly fond of her city elf Tabris character (all the player character city elves automatically have the last name Tabris) who was a rogue. Flash forward to now, and we have Day voice acting an elf rogue that also looks a lot like Day herself. The similarities look-wise were intentional, but these factors set off the ‘Mary-Sue alarm’ in many a fan’s head. Not to mention that as the quest progresses, we get mention of how beautiful, skilled, tricky, etc. Tallis is even when she isn’t so much. The “beautiful” part could be discounted as false flattery to lure her into safety on the part of the Duke (who knows who she is and why she is there from the get-go, but doesn’t say anything) but there is nothing supporting the claims that she is any trickier than a rogue player character. The only reason Tallis had the opportunity to show off in this quest is because for the sneaking sections of the quest Bioware took out all of the player character’s rogue abilities—containing such things as “avoid detection”—from that part (not to mention ALL class’ skills were gone besides the amazing ‘throw a rock for distractions’ and ‘hit someone in the back of the head with a board’). It doesn’t make Tallis seem skilled, it just makes it seem like Bioware is trying too hard to convince us she is.

The voice acting in and of itself can be problematic at times as well. There is no denying that Day has talent in acting and writing but perhaps not for this type of character. Day’s trademark quirky, adorable girl characters are fine and it works even for Tallis in some parts but it seems as if Tallis just never quite sobers up and meets the conflict with the seriousness it deserves. If Day had the chance to grow into her acting chops a bit more or chose to break out of the typecasting rut she seems to be stuck in then I think the character would have been more compelling than she ended up being.

Lastly, I’m sad to say that one of the typical “girls in games” problems has decided to fall down upon Tallis: her outfit just doesn’t make sense to me. Problem one came when the art director in charge of bringing Day’s character to life stated that he wanted to make her sexy. Not a problem, but whenever someone in the gaming industry says “sexy” it usually means “cleavage” and, of course, this was the case. Again, I don’t have a problem with cleavage but I do have a problem when the character designers don’t take into account what their style choice says about the character.

Another character in Dragon Age 2, Isabella, shows off her cleavage all the time and has no need for those silly things called pants. This works for her character because it further emphasizes that 1)she’s a free spirit, 2)she’s empowered about her sexuality, and 3)more clothes would probably just get in the way of her dueling style.

Her main fighting style is (via in-game cut-scenes) throwing daggers at people and using smoke and mirrors to sneak up on her opponent. So in this case, more armor-like fixings aren’t needed.

Whereas Tallis’ armor isn’t hideously revealing, it still tries to say things about the character that just aren’t true. First off, there are way too many open spots on her armor, especially around the neck area. This leads you to believe that she is perhaps more confident in her abilities than she is. Also, there is a hood to the corset (which also had holes between the crossties and no protection underneath) which I guess is for disguising herself but there’s no fucking way you can make yourself undetectable with pale green elven light armor. This brings up another point: why elven armor? She never seems to take pride in the fact that she’s in elf, and usually this kind of armor is reserved for the Dalish elves (the “pure” elves that still live outside the city’s influence) in the DA2 universe. Why not a more Qunari design? She’s been with them long enough, I would think, and it would express her feelings in a more resolute way. I know they probably didn’t want to give away the big twist, but I’m not saying dress her up like the Arishok; just twist the light armor she has in a way that will amount into an “OOOOH!” moment at the big reveal. Easier said than done, perhaps.

Overall, both characters are good characters that obviously have a lot of thought put behind them. Both lend themselves well to the game and are worthy to stand along with the non-DLC characters. However, what brings down Tallis the most, I think, is Bioware’s excitement to get the DLC out. The DLC coincides with the release of the mini-series, Dragon Age: Redemption that also stars Tallis so I think there was a lot of pressure to meet that date (although you would think that they could have planned it better). If they had just spent a little more time on figuring out what they actually wanted Tallis to be, the character and the story would have benefited from it. So, is Tallis a Mary-Sue? No. But unfortunately she does come off as an above-par fanfiction character and ultimately pales in comparison to characters like Kasumi despite the in-game time used to develop the character. Remember, Bioware: less is sometimes more.