I’m a girl who, if there’s a chance for a choice-driven romance dictated by the player in a game, will be about 70% more likely to buy said game. Or at least I’m 70% more likely to dedicate my brain-space to the consideration of buying it. I have no shame in saying, then, that one of the huge draws of the Dragon Age series for me are its potential romances. After what feels like like an eternity, one of the last possible love interests for DA: Inquisition has been revealed to the denizens of the internet last Thursday. With fan-favorites Varric (the charming surface dwarf) and Vivienne (an intriguing mage from the court of France-inspired Orlais) at the tip of fans’ tongues for “most wanted love interest”, the reveal of the newest LI—the Grey Warden, Blackwall—left a huge portion of the fandom underwhelmed and even hurt. These feelings stem not from feelings of entitlement, but from a sense that despite the game’s astounding nine romancible characters, this newest installment of the Dragon Age series has taken a step backward for minority representation.
As someone who has previously praised Bioware for their inclusivity (if only briefly on this blog), I also share in some of the disappointment. This isn’t to say that what they have added in terms of representation should be ignored, but their choices should still be looked at closely so they, and others, can understand where this hurt and anger is coming from. The easiest starting point of this is to look at who the love interests are for the game.
To sum it up quickly: there are four heterosexual characters, two bi/pansexual characters, and two homosexual characters. While this isn’t perfect or even necessarily ideal, it isn’t terrible in terms of LGBTQ+ representation—which, given the current status of the video game community, is a small victory in terms of numbers. Breaking these stats down further is when the more visibly problematic elements come out.
Ever since Dragon Age: Origins, companions—love interest or not—have been roughly equal in terms of gender. However, the gender scale has tipped significantly in DA:I. Out of the main cast with which you directly interact, five out of twelve are ladies and in the romancible cast only three out of eight are ladies. Luckily, though, we have several bases covered: one heterosexual, one bisexual, and one homosexual lady. While I’d love to be able to have the option to romance more ladies, what this ultimately hurts is the perception of the Dragon Age world. Although this could be seen as an offering towards a female audience which may be more drawn towards more personal in-depth character relationships, it begs the question: why are less female stories being told in this, the largest and most ambitious game of the series? The argument could certainly be made about telling more heterosexual stories as well, but the gender differential is especially poignant here. In a society that reveres a woman as its God figure, a society where the heads of the church—the most powerful organization in the game—are all female, why are these female stories being pushed to the side?
These romance options are also skewed towards telling white stories. Of the eight, four love interests are clearly white—two of them being white, heterosexual males—while out of the four others, two are white-passing (and are constantly being more whitewashed by fans and marketing alike) while one is a different species entirely. Again, I do think the cast as a whole is rather diverse and interesting, and I have complete faith in Bioware’s storytelling abilities, but it strikes me as odd that every non-straight character has an otherness to them. That is to say, every straight romancible character in this game is a white or white-passing human. In doing this, queerness becomes subconsciously equated to exoticness, which should be a narrative message we all should be able to move beyond at this point.
However, while it’s disappointing how things turned out, how it feels like Bioware is handling the matter is even more disappointing. Aforementioned fan-favorite Vivienne was teased as a possible romantic interest via Valentines. Of course, small fun things like this are no basis for canon and should never be taken as such, but with how long Bioware prolonged the announcement for the actual romantic interests, is it any wonder that people started hoping for a Black potentially non-straight love interest? Additionally with the company’s repeated tongue-in-cheek claims that people will hate what they’re doing, it’s more than easy for the audience to start feeling like it’s “us versus them”, especially when it feels like these concerns aren’t being taken seriously. I get it: no one wants to be told how their story should go, especially when they’re at a point where they can’t actually do anything about it. But it’s unfortunate that it’s a problem that could have been avoided in the first place with a little more careful thought.
This might seem a little nitpicky and harsh, but I think I, and other fans, are this way because we know that Bioware keeps learning. We know they’re capable of this level of inclusion and have already come so, so far since their beginnings. We push them, they push us back sometimes, but in the end the representation that comes in later games proves that these efforts do, in fact, bear fruit. I’m still going to play the game, I’m still going to love it. Am I still going to be disappointed about the things I mentioned above? Yes. But, we just have to keep moving forwards, even if we stumble back a few steps along the way. And who knows, they may surprise us with the final reveal—let’s keep our fingers crossed.