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No “romance” option: How Dragon Age depicts sexuality

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OCTOBER 09, 2017

We were sitting by our campfire in the woods, keeping watch for the night. Everyone else in the party had gone to sleep, except Morrigan and I. Morrigan, the witch of the wilds that I met all those months ago. She was distrustful of people, including me and my companions, yet she joined me to fight the Darkspawn that emerged from underground to lay waste to humanity.

Despite her outward appearance of disdain towards others, she has come to be a good friend, saving my back hundreds of times. With her spirited eyes, sharp wit, and fluid movements as she summoned deadly lightning storms, she was…mesmerizing and surprisingly human, far from the monstrous “witch of the wilds” that I had heard about.

My ears were turning red, which I chalked up to the intensity of the flames near me. I wanted to tell her, but I didn’t know how she’d react.  Now was as good of a time as any, I figured.

I right-clicked on Morrigan’s three-dimensional figure and my female elf character walked towards her, initiating a virtual conversation. I was already familiar with the romance mechanics of this game, Dragon Age: Origins, from talking to the other characters in the game. When I hit a certain number in their “approval” system, I could click on the “Romance” option. Yet, unlike those characters, no such option appeared for Morrigan on my screen.

Morrigan is straight. Well, designed to be, by a company of game developers and writers. It was realistic. It’s literally the societal norm. It made sense. Sort of.

Morrigan was blunt, independent and harsh, yet grows to care for others and trust them throughout the story. Maybe I saw in her some of the characteristics I admire in others. Maybe I saw some of myself. Whatever it was, Dragon Age’s Morrigan, a creation of code, writing, and voice acting, had given me role-playing experience where, through my female character, I was a woman interested in another woman, and I couldn’t do jack about it.

Writers seem to design video game characters along rigid archetypes of sexuality and gender. Of course, one does not simply choose who they love. If she’s a straight woman, then that’s that.

But, I can’t help but criticize this depiction of heterosexuality that almost seems compulsive: the writers restrict Morrigan to a heteronormative label that appears at odds with her upbringing. As witches, she and her mother are both persecuted by men who ordered to capture or kill them, forcing the two women to seek refuge in the woods.

The sole option of male-female romance limits Morrigan to loving and caring for someone she’d been taught to fear and distrust her entire life. There is no available way to display interest towards Morrigan as a female character, who might understand Morrigan better through similar experiences.

It’s not as if Dragon Age: Origins lacks representation (though many video games do), but even when characters divert from heterosexual norms, they’re relegated to oppressive and stereotypical pigeonholes. For instance, Leliana, the other young female character who can join you, is openly bisexual, but also a deceitful figure who once used her sexuality to covertly spy on nobles. Similarly, the male bisexual character, Zevran, was an orphan raised in a brothel and grew up to be an assassin for political figures. He often jokes about having used seduction in order to carry out his missions.

While Leliana and Zevran are written differently, their depiction pigeonholes bisexual people into the well-tread stereotypes as dangerous and sexually promiscuous. I do believe that the writers’ intentions were positive, since Leliana and Zevran are some of my favorite three-dimensional characters who divert from compulsive heterosexuality. While I revel in their complexity and the relatability of their internal moral battles, I wish they didn’t need a stereotypical backstory to try to explain their sexuality.

Even though in real life, my personality and identity are not dictated by lines of code, I’ve felt a similar restriction when it came to expressing romantic interest. My first times playing Dragon Age had coincided with my realization that I was crushing hard on a close female friend. While I had known for a while that I liked girls, it was the first time that I had felt confronted by the “unnaturalness” of my queer identity. I didn’t even know for sure if she was straight, but I was so fearful of her reaction to my “deviance” from the norm. I stayed quiet. Like in the game, there was no option for me.

Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living life through video games. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @spacelass.

OCTOBER 09, 2017