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.