Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dragon Age 2: Who's in charge here?

Dragon Age 2 has gone gold, the demo is out, and Bioware-fashioned hype has descended on the RPG-o-sphere like darkspawn on an unfortified village. In an attempt to inflame the passions of forum-dwellers on Valentine's Day, Bioware confirmed the love interests in Dragon Age 2 and - if that weren't enough - posted short stories demonstrating the badassery of the characters. That kicked off a 169-page (and counting) thread mostly revolving around the sexual orientation of the love interests, including some speculation that all of them are bisexual.

Totally unfounded, surely. Only an Internet forum could air such a wild notion. But wait...
And please don’t close off all those options to players of the wrong gender. Great as it is, Mass Effect is not such a literary masterwork that it would completely ruin a delicately crafted character to check the bisexual flag. And we know that’s all it takes, because modders have already done it.
That's from a recent PC gamer article 15 things we want to see in Mass Effect 3. For comedic value, I'll point out that the quote is an addendum to item number 5: "More convincing romances." Because presumably it's "convincing" when all the love interests aren't picky about the gender of their partners.

Personally, I would prefer zero bisexual love interests. It's not that I think it's such a rare phenomenon. Rather, it's the meta. It's the knowledge that the sole reason bisexual characters are being included is so that they can do double duty as love interests. That sort of thing bothers me, though I admit my perspective probably isn't representative of players at large. If it does turn out that all love interests in Dragon Age 2 are bi, I will probably skip romances entirely. Yep, I'll take my ardor and go home.

But I (like just about everyone else) have said enough about romances lately, and the larger issue here isn't about love interests per se. To illustrate, I'll throw in another thread from the Bioware forums, in which some players lobby for being able to select the talents and skills of their companions - even those that were logically "earned" before the character joined the party. After all (the argument goes), why should I be forced to turn away an otherwise desirable character just because his or her stats don't fit my party's needs?

In both cases, what players are really asking for is more power to shape the game world to their liking. In the case of bisexual love interests, players don't really want characters who go both ways, but rather characters who go their way. In the other example, they want control over a more humdrum aspect of the characters - their statistical makeup.

This is how strongly I feel about it
By now I'm sure it's obvious where I come down on this issue. The game designer in me would rather suckle a broodmother than allow one of his characters to be "configured" according to the whims of the player. I guess I'm one of those uppity designers alluded to by PC Gamer who insist on a certain amount of creative control over the characters, even in a lowly game (or worse, a mod).

But honestly, this isn't about protecting creative turf. I've always thought of RPGs as collaborations between the DM (read: game designer) and the player. In fact, the ability as a player to help craft my own experience is what attracted me to RPGs in the first place. I just think that experience is much more satisfying when the characters you encounter have wills and personalities of their own. When designers give up control of those things - in other words, when the characters lose their integrity - then the game world no longer seems real enough to be worth visiting.

It feels a little strange to be making this argument, because in general, I believe the balance of creative power has recently shifted too far in the direction of the writers and designers - at least in Bioware RPGs. As Bioware has moved more deeply into console territory, game narratives have grown more and more rigid at the expense of player choice, to the point where pregenerated PCs have now become the norm.

But though it may seem contradictory to argue for more designer control in one instance and less in another, it's really not. What I want is a certain kind of balance - the kind that has always worked for RPGs, both computer and tabletop. In short, I want the player to have absolute control of the PC and the designer to have absolute control of the outside world. With a few rolls of the dice to settle everything else.


  1. This is the second post I've read on this otherwise excellent and interesting blog that deprecatetes the notion of same-sex romance for wholly spurious reasons. The first asserted that such affairs were wholly unrealistic in a world based on medieval Europe. This of course is complete nonsense, as anyone familiar with the histriography that has grown up around this question would be aware (start with John Boswell's groundbreaking 1980 book, Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexulatity). Whatever the formal juridical situation, same-sex relationships were widely tolerated until the dawn of the 18th century (which also introduced masturbation hysteria). What IS totally unrealistic in the Dragon Age world is equality of the sexes, an inconceivable concept prior to the the availability of reliable contraception and low infant mortality. Yet not a squeak about this glaring anachronism, which sees women clucking around Ferelden in plate armor wielding broadswords.

    You now make a case that bisexual followers infringe some "meta" princinple whereby game designers should have iron control of the world they control, apart from the player character. While I am wholly sympathetic to your implied criticism of players who want the ability to respec all their followers, etc, romance subplots are a different kettle of fish, being extensions of the approval system. If all followers participate in approval changes and its consequences, why not romance?

    Of course you give the game away when you write: "If it does turn out that all love interests in Dragon Age 2 are bi, I will probably skip romances entirely." Methinks someone's homophobia is showing ...

  2. It's interesting that you're quite happy to finger point and roll out the passive aggression (from behind a veil of anonymity, no less) when you sense something important to you is being impugned. At the same time, you're more than happy to point out glaring anachronisms that would have angry feminists shrieking misogyny.

    Women "clucking" around Ferelden in full plate armour wielding broadswords can be seen as disingenuous. I've made this point elsewhere. BioWare maintains a very modern and politically correct stance across its game regardless of the cultural and historical influences they draw from. This works fine for Mass Effect. Others, like Dragon Age, feel somewhat sterile. But it's their prerogative to create their worlds how they see fit.

    I just don't understand how you can conclude that someone is homophobic because they argue that making all romanceable characters bisexual will turn them off said romances. It's not an issue of homophobia but one of bad writing: Mat said quite specifically in the other post that he'd love to play a gay character in a world that dealt with the related issues instead of outright ignoring them. Alas, making the "good art" argument seems to do nothing but fuel the victim complex in overly sensitive souls who twist the intent to something it never was.

    When a writer sits down to pen a character, sexuality is the near the top of the list of characteristics that get defined. It's an essential part of a person. Claiming it can be flicked left and right like a switch shows a complete disrespect for the craft. It amazes me how you can so readily acknowledge one aspect of bad writing but then argue for another even more egregious.

    The answer is, as always, self-interest.

  3. Anonymous, in this case my problem is specifically with bisexual characters. As I was typing this up, I was considering adding the phrases "by all means, include gay characters" and "this isn't due to prejudice (or some sense that this is a rare phenomenon...)" However, I decided it should be unnecessary for anyone who has read the blog and/or is willing to give me the benefit of the doubt.

    Someone who was being more charitable would, I think, conclude that my distaste for an all bi cast of love interests comes from the sense that they're not being presented as real characters, but playthings set forth for the player's amusement. I'd feel similarly about a character who auto-adjusted his personality so that he could be your character's ideal "buddy."

    I'm not sure I understand your point about the approval system. Are you suggesting that at some point on the approval scale, characters should be willing to ignore their sexual orientation to enter into a relationship with the PC?

    As for your comment on my other post (the one, incidentally, that concludes with me expressing my support for gay romances) you may well have a point. Perhaps I was wrong to put it in terms of realism or history. It would have been safer to make my case based on player assumptions about fantasy settings, while pointing out that the different approach to mores requires more exploration, especially as it conveniently tracks to political correctness.

  4. Wow... what a nice response.

    Boswell's treatise has been roundly criticized from both the left and the right, and while societal attitudes about nearly everything change over time, it is pretty much the concensus that what we currently call "gay" relationships were always relegated to underground activity or to those who had the money and position to do whatever they wanted with few questions asked. Only a very few cultures "tolerated" homosexual relationships. The Greeks, for example, mostly practiced specifically pederasty, and this relationship was meant to end when the boy came of age so that he could take a wife. Among the Romans, you rarely hear of it at all except for liberties masters took with their slaves.

    And that's the point. Homosexual relationships were almost always ones of unequal power: boys and men, master and slaves, etc. Such relationships between equal partners were inevitably drawn underground, as they were never seen as equally desireable to heterosexual relationships. For example, there were no gay marriages in Greece or Rome, which one would expect if it were truly a "tolerated" lifestyle.

    As for the notion that "same-sex relationships were widely tolerated" in medieval Europe? There is so much evidence to the contrary that the notion is ludicrous.

    And as an aside, if I recall correctly, even Boswell's book doesn't argue for some homosexual utopia into the 18th century. It was more like the 12th or 13th, but what's 500 years? Maybe Anonymous was thinking of Foucault, who actually did argue for Victorian prudity ruining it for everyone. But for every Foucault, there's an Edward Shorter. And on around the circle we could go, again proving that nothing is proven.

    On to something more interesting.

    "In short, I want the player to have absolute control of the PC and the designer to have absolute control of the outside world. With a few rolls of the dice to settle everything else."

    This is probably the most succinct statement of my philosophy on RPG games I've seen written. Two sentences pretty much spell it out.

    At the core are the integrity of the characters you create. Why there aren't more gay or bi characters in fantasy games is a worthy-enough topic on its own. What I'm less sympathetic to is the lazy answer of just making everyone bi.

    The real reason they'll do it, of course, is that it cuts down on effort from the designers, but that's cheating the characters. Romances of any kind are a pain in the rear to write. If done well, they require more play-testing than most would believe. And each one is complicated further by the possibility of others.

    So if they want to create a gay or bisexual character, then have the courage (i.e. devote the resources) to create one. And then let it be known in more ways than just the cheesy 1-2-1-1-3 dialog choice that gets you laid eventually. If the character's gay, make him/her gay all the time, even when you're bantering in the tavern, fighting dragons, and solving murders. And if you're a female PC who wants a gay NPC in the party, that's fine. Everyone can save the world together. Just suck it up and realize he won't be interested in a bedroom tumble. Ditto for gay PCs who want to adventure with straight NPCs.

  5. I absolutely agree with what's been said by Tiberius and Mat. It comes down to the player demand of having all options open with a certain NPC or companion, and that washes down that specific character completely. It's perfectly okay to have gay or bisexual characters in the world, let them be romancable too, but to make them believable, they need to have some kind of established mindset, determination and dignity, not being the PC's whores. "Ever since I saw my mommy's genital at the age of 3 I was scared by it, but you, oh my sexy PC, you changed everything!". Pfft.
    Obsidian actually did it absolutely right in New Vegas. You have two homosexual followers there who are absolutely believable... why? First, they don't make a huge fuss about it, it's just a sidenote in the game and the topic is never the subject of long conversation lines. They siomply are how they are. Second: They are not romanceable. Well, personally I'm a sucker for romances and might've missed romance options in New Vegas, but honestly, instead of compromising realism and the companion's dignity, they just threw them in front of the player and said "They are how they are, accept it or not, live with it".

    If you compare New Vegas' Arcade Gannon to Dragon Age's Zevran, I think there's no doubt who's the more believable and realistic character. I'd go as far as saying Arcade was the most believable gay character I saw in a game so far - nerdy, shy, not talking much about his private life and for sure not that guy you see in a pink dress on a CSD parade. I'd say even with romances in the game, he'd be almost impossible to crack, for a gay PC. And I think that'd be a good thing too to have in mind when creating a mod with romances. Veronica, the lesbian companion, might've been an option for a lesbian PC, because her personality was cheerful and open, so a flirt seemed entirely possible. Arcade though wasn't flirty, he might be gay but is strictly business, so... leave it like that, even if your PC is gay there's no way to crack that nerd. That's how it should be done in my opinion, and where Bioware fails. Their characters must be open to at least one kind of romance, otherwise the fans on the Bioboards enter a hissy fit. I'd say, let them have their hissy fit and make a character who sticks to their rules, but surely EA's market research tells them the opposite.

    The same goes for a believable world around these characters. Assuming a perfect political correctness in the world only washes down the realism. And this has nothing to do with hate or sexism. I think if DA: O's main PC entered a homosexual romance, say, female PC + Leliana or male PC with Zevran, there should've been at least one companion reacting quite negative to it. The dwarf watching a man/man romance comes to mind, how much more believable could it have been if he entered some kind of hate mode and only made snide remarks anymore. Just because that's how a realistic world functions, it's not all fun and rainbows and everyone nods and smiles in agreement. Could've even been a interesting storyline with the dwarf slowly coming to accept it towards the end of the game.
    NPC reactions just fit into the same category. Some are liberal, some are not, some might pat your shoulder, some insult you. All this is at least what I try to keep in mind while crafting my module, and I wish I saw it in other games more often too.

  6. Interesting points, and very valid. I think the nail was hit on the head when you said it's been done for the purpose of making them fit to a player desire, in other words, for simplicity, and not nescesarily meant as a literal indication of bi-sexuality. I think there is a danger of letting console rpgs fall the same way as the tabletop cousins they derived from, ie. - being overtaken by power hungry statisticians who couldn't give a dam about being immersed in storyline, preferring instead to be caked in blood (It has only just occured to me that the graphical implementation of this in DA seems to prove my point).

    Personally, I agree that the appeal of rpg IS to have control over your character, but that should be as far as the control is allowed, otherwise, you're no longer a participant in the story... in fact, you ,might as well go away and write you're own. Half the fun of roleplaying is deciding how your character makes a choice based on the environment around them. If the environment itself is dictated by the player, why bother? Far more satisfying to overcome obstacles than do away with them completely, and what better way to create such obstacles than giving NPCs pre determined character traits that can't be dabbled with by power hungry players. That's my opinion anyway.

    Casa made an interesting point about the possibility of the Dwarf being negative which is exactly the type of thing I mean.

    There was another amusing point made about realism with a historical argument coming into play. Let's not forget these games are fantasy, otherwise our female options will become severely limited ;)

  7. *sigh* "Romance" in video games... where's the option toggle for that?!

    As for the topic at hand - I agree that making all of the companions bisexual for the sake of pleasing whatever kind of player base wants that, is not good game design - It's pandering.