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For one reason or another, the people who play BioWare titles love their in-game romances. In fact, I imagine a LovePlus spin-off featuring Garrus, Anders, and Zevran would make a tidy sum. But with these affairs come controversy.
Much hay has been made of the fact that Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard is straight, and despite fan mods that might suggest the contrary, up until now BioWare has been unapologetic in their stance that Shepard is canonically straight and will only pursue love interests of the opposite gender. Dragon Age: Origins shared a similar problem in that the two most-popular characters, Alistair and Morrigan, were canonically straight, disappointing gay and lesbian gamers who may have wanted to pursue those relationships.
A hacked game allowing for a lesbian relationship in Mass Effect 2
Dragon Age 2 solves this problem in a rather direct manner by making all the companions in the game seemingly bisexual. That way, no matter the main character's gender or preferred sexual orientation, he or she would be able to enter a relationship with any companion of his or her choosing.
VorpalBunny from GayGamer posted a rather in depth review of the romance options and the representation of sexuality, and I don’t want to repeat his points. Instead, I wanted to take a brief look at the negative response that Dragon Age 2’s romances have received from both straight and gay gamers.
Ben Kuchara of Ars Technica sums up the story, explaining that a straight gamer was offended by the fact that male companions would suddenly hit on him without any encouragement on his part while a gay gamer found it offensive that the male companions were shallowly depicted as stereotypically sex-crazed and needy.
It’s at this point where it becomes clear that what BioWare and David Gaider, BioWare's lead writer for the Dragon Age series, felt was a fair compromise led to a different set of problems they may not have considered.
It’s true that by allowing main characters of either gender to pursue a romance with all of the companions solves the problem found in Dragon Age: Origins. But the unintended consequence of that compromise is that sexuality is suddenly rendered invisible by the game, which adds a wrinkle to the gender and sexual politics presented therein.
It’s been argued that the ambivalence toward the politics of sexual identity points to a fictional world that simply has a different view on sexuality. Maybe Thedas is a society where identity politics are much more progressive than the ones found in our world — even if transgendered characters were treated very poorly in Dragon Age: Origins. And perhaps if you ignore the fact that the nobility of Thedas has a decidedly heterosexual impulse, where women must produce heirs in order to continue the family line and cement alliances, you might be able to come to that conclusion.
But that hand-wavy explanation absolves any responsibility that Gaider and his fellow writers might have had as the designers of this world. By trying to make everyone happy, in a way they have made no one happy. The writers can’t win by making the main character straight, and they can’t win by making the main character bisexual…but the elephant in the room is that the writers at BioWare have yet to design a game where the main character is gay.
VorpalBunny’s article states that Gaider sees economics as the reason why gay characters have yet to be featured in a BioWare game. But this didn’t stop them from including the option to play female characters. If you look at the box art for Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2, it’s very clear that they are pushing the image of the strong warrior male and all that that implies: These games are for men who want to play as men and enact violence on aliens or demons.
But, as we all know, you can play as a woman in these games. In fact, many gamers do choose to play female characters, even if the marketing wizards would have you believe that only men need apply. So why not let players set their sexuality in the same way that they are allowed to set their gender (as Obsidian allows you to do in Fallout: New Vegas)? Why not write strong homosexual characters who are designed to be homosexual from the moment they are conceived? Certainly, this doesn’t have to run counter to the marketing message that is being pushed on the cover and in the pre-release game trailers.
If all BioWare wants to do is shoehorn a shallow dating sim into their RPGs, then maybe it is fine that their romances are designed to appeal to gamers in much the same way that Harlequin novels appeal to their readers.
It was recently announced that Mass Effect 3 would include same-sex romance options. Whether the depictions of these characters and relationships become just another checkmark on the "inclusiveness" list or there will actually be gay or lesbian characters remains to be seen, but their handling of the issue in Dragon Age 2 leaves me doubtful.
In their attempt to try to please everyone, the writers and designers of Dragon Age 2 created characters who were generalized and empty. At that point, players are not trying to develop meaningful relationships with specific individuals — instead, it becomes fetishizing specific traits that reduces them to a series of bodice-ripping tropes cynically designed to appeal to gamers.
I'd like to think that the writers at BioWare want to do more than just pander to their fanbase. I want to believe that by allowing for female, gay, and lesbian characters, they are trying to introduce and complicate the issues surrounding gender and sexuality to a predominantly male, heterosexual audience. I hope my faith in them has not been misplaced.