Sexuality is Not a Game Mechanic


Dragon Age 2, BioWare’s latest RPG offering, allows players to strike up romantic relationships with party members regardless of the gender of the player character or the NPC in question. Basically, if your ideal romantic interest would have to be homosexual/bisexual in order to be romantically compatible with your particular character, they will be. This also means that you as a player may periodically experience flirty conversation from NPCS that might not match up with the sexuality you intend for your character.

After a self-professed “straight male gamer” posted on the BioWare forums complaining that he was getting hit on by male characters while playing as the male version of Hawke, BioWare’s senior writer David Gaider gave a fantastic response: essentially, “get over it.” Gaider affirmed that BioWare is committed to giving players of all sexualities the opportunity to pursure romantic interests in whatever configuration they please, which is fantastic, and a real step forward for video game relationships in general.

Somehow, though, I’m still finding cause for concern.

Video games have been struggling for a long time now to be recognized as a legitimate art form, largely because it’s not been until recently that games have even had the opportunity to have extended dialogue, like books, and voice acting, like movies. The increase in “cinematic-ness” (cinematicity?) has also led to an increase the number of memorable, “real” characters present in games.

To be fair, though, games and movies and books are often all striving for very different things. A fantasy book you read or movie you see in theaters has the aim to entertain you, to tell its own story, to present its characters in a specific set of scenes and situations. Things are a little different in modern role-playing games, especially where BioWare is concerned. While still taking part in an over-arching narrative, you’re given the opportunity to shape the world (and the narrative itself) through your decisions and interactions. And even your main character, normally the rigidly-defined cornerstone of a narrative, isn’t set in stone; you can choose different backgrounds, appearances, and, in this case, sexualities as well.

Now, contrary to what sitcoms and movies would like you to believe, “homosexual” is not a personality trait. Neither is “bisexual” or “asexual” or “only sleeps with big disfigured metal space bugbirds” (don’t judge me). But it is part of a character, of a person. Sexuality shapes interactions both personal and public, and lots of other facets of a character. Which is why BioWare’s choice concerns me.

Let me give you some perspective. I liked Final Fantasy VII just fine, but I didn’t love it like I loved Final Fantasy IX. In FFVII, with the exception of some small stat differences, all characters behaved fundamentally identically in battle thanks to all of their skill assignments being handled with Materia, useable by anyone with no restrictions. Anyone could do anything, which was a far cry from the highly specialized characters of FFIX. If I needed brute force, I knew to use Steiner. In FFVII, anyone could be my brute-force guy (or gal).

Now, perhaps it’s fallacious to use game mechanics as analogues to “real-life” traits. In fact, I know it is, and I’ll get to that. So I’ll put it in a different way. In a BioWare game, like in a good movie or book, I can expect a character to generally act a certain way. I know Garrus will have a deadpan one-liner for lots of situations. I know Miranda will choose (and suggest that I choose) the most pragmatic option in most circumstances. These are the ways these characters work, the way they react to things. They’re integral parts of their character.

So what’s not integral? Stuff that relates to or works with game mechanics. Is Miranda a fundamentally different character if she uses submachine guns instead of pistols heavily in my game as compared to my friend’s game? No, she’s still a femme fatale ice queen. Her choice of gun has an effect on gameplay, not narrative — two very different things. It affects how I experience the narrative, perhaps, but not the narrative itself. That krogan was going to meet his end regardless of the weapon used, and Miranda would still shrug it off because that’s who she is. And so is her sexuality.

Essentially, by making it something that can be adjusted, changed, deleted, what’s happening is that BioWare isn’t treating sexuality like a character trait. They’re treating it like a game mechanic. And in an oeuvre that includes games in which “relationship” has historically (and unfortunately) been defined as “a minigame with sex as a reward,” that’s actually not that surprising. In fact, I’d argue that the best way to please players of all sexualities would be to give them a handful of relationships meaningful outside of the pursuit of a PG-13 sex scene, not give them access to a large number of ultimately trivial ones.

If it sounds like I’m condemning BioWare’s decision, I truly am not. I don’t envy BioWare in their effort to please people of all sexualities, and envy them even less in trying to legitimize an art form. In fact, I don’t even think this is a bad solution to the heterosexual male-dominated “gaming culture” that thinks elves are “gay” even when they aren’t. It’s just that there’s still a long way to go if we want games to be societally progressive and a legitimate art form, and part of the latter is not just continuing to sacrifice the building blocks of a character in the name of game mechanics when there simply must be other ways to do it. Even if we haven’t thought of them yet.

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  • http://taufmonster.blogspot.com Henry

    It’s definitely lame that a character’s sexuality is treated as a game mechanic. I just wonder how someone would implement the alternative, where sexuality is fixed.

    Would you have the number of characters of a particular sexuality reflect real-world statistics? If so, then that would limit the number of gays and lesbians that are members of your party to probably just one of each. This would lead to feelings of unfairness and underrepresentation by those in the minority.

    Or would you choose an option that present an equal number of sexual partners to fit every player’s style and have an equal number of gay and straight characters and a sprinkle of bisexuals? While numerically equal, this would still lead to issues where a gamer’s desired sex partner may be unobtainable. While this reflects situations in the real world, it doesn’t make for good gameplay.

    It’s a bit of a minefield because in trying to balance things between realism, storytelling, and gameplay, there is no perfect solution to the problem of sexuality of love interests.

    I think that Bioware probably took the right step in their approach. It allows the gamer to pursue a relationship (however limited the definition of relationship in this context may be) with whomever they choose, instead of with whomever they like of those who could like them back.

    • http://taufmonster.blogspot.com Henry

      Furthermore, as an additional game design/storytelling problem: how do you go about notifying the player of a character’s sexuality?Would you require the player to test the waters? Flirt with them a few times and see how they respond. Search for clues that will inform you of their sexuality? Or will they wear their sexual preferences on their sleeve?

  • Bith

    I feel that, instead of it being a game mechanic, it is the option of the player to flesh out the character in a role-playing fashion. It would feel more limited to have it being something you choose like gender at the start-up screen, as the author seems very well aware that sexuality comes in degrees. I feel that the way in which it was implemented, while not perfect, greatly represents the fluidity of sexuality. In short, I do not view it as a game mechanic; I view it as a roleplaying identification feature.

    In addition to degrees of sexuality, it is also fluid in that it can change over time. I think that the qualms against the way in which sexuality was implemented is a limitation regarding what can be expressed/chosen in a video game.

  • JayVick

    I never really thought about it as a game mechanic, but this post kind of puts it into a different light. I am curious to go back to some of my older games now and see what kind of stuff I can pick up on beyond the “main” story. Thanks for writing about this.

  • nonentity

    I wish they’d just forget sexuality, being politically correct and all that. Design the characters you want, not the characters that you feel will least offend everyone.
    If it makes sense for a character to be heterosexual, if it fits their personality, WHO they are, how they act, think, love, ARE – make him/her heterosexual. If it makes sense make him/her homosexual.

    I really don’t care if the 7 feet guy in the party who breaks down steel doors with his bare (bear.. heh) hands likes to cuddle with dudes IF it makes sense for his character and if he is still believable.

    The way I understand it (only finished DA2 twice so far, both times with heterosexual romances) the romance-able NPCs will romance you regardless of gender, right? Great, just another way DA2 makes your choices as a player meaningless, as you covered in your previous DA2 article.
    I’ve started a third playthrough of DA2 but just can’t get into it, what’s the point actually? Yeah, there’s many choices but none of them matter so my playthrough will be 90% the same as my previous one.

    If there was an interesting homosexual character I might (not gonna lie and say “sure I will!”, I just don’t know for certain) romance him on a dude just to experience this side of the game. For that to work the romances would have to be more fulfilling than they are right now.

    Anders is one of the least appealing characters in all of DA2. I liked him in DA:A but he changed a lot by DA2, the voice just being the most obvious change. There’s little to no resemblence to the character you met in DA:A. I didn’t even want him in my party (no choice though, only long-term character with healing capabilities) let alone romance him, on a male or female Hawke.

    Fenris was little better, even romancing him on a female Hawke was like pulling teeth, don’t even wanna think about a male Hawke.

    Varric is definitely one of the best new characters and one I actually might have romanced as a male and I could actually see it fitting his personality somewhat. His homosexuality or bisexuality not being his one distinguishing trait but just part of who he is. I could see Varric hitting on a some hot guy in a bar, Hawke looking at him a bit disconcerted, surprised and Varric just asking him, deadpan, not ashamed, not teasing, not hiding, just matter-of-fact “what?”.

    Bioware steadily dumbed down romances and made them less meaningful.
    Yes, now you get a steamy… no.. boring, yeah, that’s the word… sex scene…. in full armor… oh yeah… the passion…… but actually romancing the character was never less interesting.

    Think back to Baldur’s Gate 2. Each of the characters you could romance had a personality. Starting a romance with them required you to actually get to know the character to consistently choose the right choice in your conversations with them. Be aggressive, sensitive, mocking, flattering, whatever, based on their character. The choices in romancing Viconia, Aerie and Jaheira variied a lot. You couldn’t just choose the Heart option, or always option 1 or whatever. You had to pay attention to what they said and choose the right thing.
    And they didn’t end in a sex scene… you could see.

    But I found those romances vastly more satisfying than either of the DA1/2 or ME1/2 ones with the exception of Tali, because she was always one of my favorite characters, I wanted to romance her in ME1 but couldn’t and I felt her romance and dialogue was the best (yeah, Jack opened up to you a bit, different side of her personality and all that but I never got interested in the character). And even her romance ended in a sex scene…. (I hate to say it) unfortunately.

    Sex is an important part of a relationship and if they wanted to do the romance right it would have to be a part of it. But, especially given the rules, regulations etc. on game released it might actually be better if the didn’t actually see anything.

    Dragon Age 2 actually had an amazing opportunity there and they wasted it. Given their time jumps they could have made the romances far more meaningful. Start romancing a character in chapter 1 and over the next 3 years your relationship evolves, 3 years later you’re together, you know it, your friends know it, it’s old news. You wouldn’t need companions asking questions how you’re in bed or whatever.
    Or start a 7 year on-off hate-love relationship that finally culminates in the last chapter.
    Or whatever else. Given the extended time frame of DA2 they could have made the romances, nay, relationships actually meaningful, not cheap minigames with a cheap sex scene as a reward. They could have made it something that further defined your character and the character you romance.