I have a new boyfriend.
It’s this guy.
Ooh-la-la, amirite? I do like a chap with big … horns.
Actually, in all seriousness, he’s fabulous. I would legit go for him. He’s funny, tender, protective, stands in front of me when people try to kill me. To say nothing of the unabashed prominence of his pillowy manbosoms. He’s also voice-acted with gleeful conviction by – of all people – Freddy Prinz Jr, and being voice-acted with gleeful conviction is just the sort of thing I look for in an imaginary man.
So, yes, the context of this – and I understand some, perhaps all, of you will want to tune out immediately – is that I’ve been playing Dragon Age Inquisition. I can’t really tell if I’m enjoying it – I’m kind of 50 hours in, and mainly I’ve spent it picking flowers. It’s one of those “you, you are the chosen one, the world is ending but first do this eighty six gazillion trivial tasks that could surely be better undertaken by basically anyone else” type games.
Or as it’s otherwise called: an RPG … or roleplaying game.
This post is, uh, long because I got pretty excited talking about my new boyfriend. So, yes, it’s about computer games, romance,, kink, and just about the most wonktastic romance I’ve ever encountered in a game. So considered yourself warned.
Dragon Age Inquisition (being the third game of the Dragon Age series: in short, by-the-numbers grimdark fantasy) is produced by a company that specialises in glossy, cinematic, story-driven RPGs. They’re the sort of games where people talk a lot of about Choice and Agency and Story and Character. And Your Decisions Really Matter and Oh Look At The Moral Grey Area, and blah blah blah.
But there’s also a lot of focus on how you – your character – interacts with the world around, and the people in it. You get a party of interesting misfits who, in practical terms, help you not die in combat, but in story terms stand about the campfire having life stories they want to tell you, passionate opinions on whatever in-game decision you happen to make, so that it feels like you can’t change your socks with Cassandra Disapproving Strongly, and occasionally they want to bang you.
This is weirdly compelling to me.
Because computer gaming is hugely and problematic dominated by men, and we’re very often complete wankers about it, romance is kind of a … shall we … say fringe and rather devalued aspect of games. I mean, yes, there are sex-workers you can sleep with and/or run over in a stolen vehicle, and plenty of motivational wives and girlfriends, who either get murdered in the opening cutscene or wait for you in another castle while you play the game. But unless you move into visual novels or Indie gaming, actual character-driven romance is pretty rare. And if you pay attention (do not pay attention) to the responses of male gamers to the inclusion of romance (let alone queer romance) in games, I think this is largely because romance is perceived as being For Girls (and gays). Whereas real men enjoy guns and cars and saving the world. Or whatever.
If one so desired, there would be plenty of criticism one could direct at Bioware – the company behind Dragon Age (and it’s space opera equivalent Mass Effect). They always makes basically the same game with different curtains. Their portrayal of women, queers and sex in general is occasionally frankly rubbish. But they are at least portraying these things, and with every game, they do it a little better, go a little further. While male gamers shriek and howl about all the gay girly shit polluting the sanctity of the hobby, Bioware has been writing – or at the very least trying to write – adult, engaging stories that engage players in a broad spectrum of activities: yes you can save the world, or doom the world, make bad decisions and good decisions and change the fate of nations, but you can also, y’know, make friends, make enemies, and fall in love. Of course you can totally ignore all that, but I like the fact it’s there. That its considered valuable. As meaningful as … combat or world-shaping decision-making.
The truth is, I’m a huge fan of romance in games. And I don’t think it has to be defended, but, as a matter of fact, it can be: part of the pleasure of a roleplaying game like Dragon Age is creating a character, articulating them in play (albeit in a moderately limited way since you’re choosing from a set of dialogue options) and having the world respond to them. The sort of person someone loves can say an awful lot about who they are. Since there’s only so many ways you can give a player to define their character – appearance, profession, decisions, dialogue – romance simply offers an extra level of customisation in a way.
Although, honestly, I haven’t exactly been lucky in love in Bioware terms. My first lover abandoned me in a huff because I didn’t make him king (he would have made a terrible king, and I didn’t see the point of putting a random dude on the throne when there was a woman already doing a perfectly acceptable job up there) and my second lover committed an act of terrorism that killed a bunch of innocent people, kicking off a massive war. I was honestly kind of bummed on both occasions. By which I mean, outrageously betrayed and heartbroken, and swearing to never trust another virtual man as long as I lived. I understand you can have perfectly successful love affairs in the games – it’s just I, uh, didn’t. But in both cases, actually, I was kind of satisfied by the story arc: in the first game I chose principles over love and in the second … the very fact of my love and support gave my partner such conviction in his cause that … he did something utterly terrible.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a pretty bumpy road. Sex scenes do not look good in video games. Full stop. It’s like an uncanny valley of awkwardness in particularly ill-advised underwear.
And it’s very easy to make romance feel both inorganic and devoid of any real tension. It’s often literally mechanised in the sense that you need a certain approval rating before characters will develop romantic feelings for you or respond to romantic overtures, which I think is meant to reflect the idea that you’re more likely to get on with people who a) are like you and b) you are invested in pleasing, but in practice it hinders any sense of a naturally developing accord and becomes this sort of mini-game where all you’re doing is increasing a Likely To Shag score. And while I know these are imaginary people and therefore can’t give meaningful consent, it nevertheless reinforces the unreality of the characters. Since I’m pretty sure in real life if I badgered someone until they eventually slept with me that would … be the very opposite of romantic. It would, in fact, be abuse.
And obviously there has to be some way for you – the player – to signal to the game what and who you’re interested in, and there has to be some internal barrier to achieving that which implies some kind of emotional journey (even if it’s just a number gradually increasing behind the scenes). I think what Dragon Age Inquisition has done better than its predecessors is to distract from that numerical reality. Because there’s such a lot of character engagement, romance does, in fact, feel (if you’re willing to suspend disbelief) organic enough to be surprising. The other thing it has done, which I very much appreciate, is remove the plastic-doll humping, and instead relegate intimacy to dialogue rather than animation. So there’s a lot of pre-and-post sex conversation, which sort of suggests very effectively the type of sex you’d probably be likely to have with a certain character, and how you might feel about it, but everything else is clinches and fade-to-black. And that’s expressive and specific, and consequently romantic and sexy, in ways the other games haven’t managed to be. I mean, it’s hard to find anything either romantic or sexy when you’re doing cringe face.
It’s also gone further than it has ever before into broad representation. There’s always been queer options in Dragon Age, but they’ve always been, not quite an afterthought, but a side-line. Something you could have if you went looking for it, but not an equal or integral part of the narrative. In Dragon Age 1 characters were either straight or bisexual, except the bisexuality wasn’t really an identity so much as a queer-lite alternative, which only seemed to be there in order to offer queer options in a way that didn’t reduce the options for straight players/characters. This just felt unsatisfying, even more so in Dragon Age 2, where everyone was what you might call operationally bisexual. That is to say, bisexual not in the sense of having any sort of sexual identity, but in the sense that they’d bang the player character regardless of gender. This was even more frustrating because it just made the characters feel hollow (especially since they did kind of have implied sexual identities – the promiscuous pirate queen was blatantly legit-bisexual, and the rebellious mage was clearly gay) – as well as being kind of insulting to bisexuals, since being bisexual is, y’know, a real thing, and isn’t solely about sexual utility for other people.
I need to pause a moment to make this face: >.<
But in Dragon Age Inquisition there’s a broad selection of characters of differing sexualities. There’s a lesbian elf, a gay mage, a bisexual woman, three straight humans, an elf who only does elves, and my gloriously pansexual horny new boyfriend. I’m just sorry Varric the sex-dwarf is still unavailable, since my fingers have been itching to comb through his lustrous chest hair for two games now.
I’m really pleased, as well, that The Iron Bull (that’s my new boyfriend’s name) is bonkable. There’s been a tendency thus far for romanceability to be the sole province of the conventionally attractive. I played a dwarf in Dragon Age – a very attractive dwarf, by the way, with long dreads, full, sensual lips and a large, noble nose with a scar across it, I would have done me in a heartbeat – and there were a couple of romance options closed off to me solely because I was a dwarf. Which was really annoying because – to give the Dragon Age setting due credit – it treats dwarves pretty seriously. You can totally be a sexy, heroic, awesome dwarf, just as world-savingly capable as a square-jawed human or a pretty-eyed elf. So it made no sense, in that contexts, that the ladies and gentlemen of Thedas wouldn’t be interested in my … uh … axe.
But I love the way The Iron Bull looks: yes he’s not going to be Miss Alabama any time soon, but he totally smoulders. And his body is amazing – height and muscle and fat and those, uh, nipples – as he charges past me into battle to save my spindly little arse. It’s just really exciting to me that he’s a viable romantic option. And his voice, I’ve mentioned his voice right? He’s also just a fabulous person: sensual, generous, accepting, laconically amused by most things, and utterly and completely badass.
He’s also – and this I was really not expecting – kinky as hell.
And I’m genuinely not sure how I feel about it. Like, on the one hand, it’s refreshing and startling and interesting to see that portrayed in a mainstream computer game.
On the other hand, I really wasn’t intending to play a submissive gay elf.
I actually had trouble with character creation in Dragon Age Inquisition. I usually play a dwarf – the hottest dwarf I can make – but dwarfs can’t be mages, and mages are just mechanically more interesting to play. That left humans and elves. After what felt like eighty seven hours of faffing around with the character creation sliders I abandoned humans altogether as I couldn’t bear the thought of following some square-jawed chump with a bad haircut round for what would be about a hundred hours of gameplay. So I did what I always do when I’m stuck at character creation.
I made an elf who looks like Davie Bowie.
Before The Iron Bull stole my heart with his nipples, I’d sort of been vaguely intending to romance the gay character – in general support of the principle of having gay characters in games. Except … when I tried to chat him up the dialogue went:
Gay Mage: My, you’re a rather strapping fellow.
David Bowie Elf: You’re rather strapping yourself.
Because clearly David Gaider has no idea how homosexuals talk to each other. I know I don’t live in pseudo-Medieval Europe but I’ve never called anyone strapping in my life. The idea of even using the word strapping to describe another human being makes my toes curl. So that basically killed love for me. Also while there are many words one could possibly apply to David Bowie Elf, strapping is most assuredly not one of them.
So I started flirting outrageously with The Iron Bull instead, although it wasn’t until we killed a dragon together (I think his combat taunt was something like “that’s badass!” as he charged past me to tank the beast) that he finally got the message that I wanted to ride the Bull. Cue a slightly oblique conversation about whether or not I was sure what was I asking for – which, honestly, I wasn’t entirely, I just wanted to bang the guy, it didn’t have to be complicated – followed by a brief, and rather suggestive, animated scene of Bull pinning David Bowie elf’s wrists above his head… and the next thing I know he’s leaving my quarters, telling my advisor that I need my rest.
And what the shit just happened to me?
I seek the guy out after some incidental world saving, and we end up having a chat about our, uh, activities. Which is the point at which he gives me a safeword.
Yep. A character in a computer game. Just gave me. A safe word.
“I will never hurt you without your permission. You will always be safe. If you’re ever uncomfortable, if you ever want me to stop, you say katoh and it’s over. No questions asked. You don’t need to be afraid … unless you want to.”
I still don’t quite know how to process that. It’s not like I ever wake up in the morning and think “I’d really like to be a gay submissive elf today” and, well, my tastes are my tastes and those aren’t them … but it’s so gosh-darned unusual to see non-traditional romantic relationships portrayed in games – or anywhere outside romance novels – that I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be in one. Also it’s honestly not the worst depiction of BDSM I’ve ever seen. What you actually do together is referenced only obliquely: never explicitly explained or delineated. All the dialogue around it is a little coy, but I think that’s why it works so well. Apparently I’m in a fully consensual power exchange with The Iron Bull – which is tender, loving, intense, and makes me feel good – and I don’t particularly need to know what it specifically entails.
It’s not entirely unproblematic, however. I kind of feel that if the activities in which you’re participating require a safeword, you should get the safeword before you participate in them, not after. Also there’s an extent to which the game – almost necessarily – has to make some assumptions about what sort of person you are, and what you might be looking for from your interest in particular characters. I’ve never had a game assume I was submissive before, for example, just because I like my men big, and grey, and good in a fight. In fact one might almost assume that my pleasure in ordering burly fellows around a battlefield might imply the very opposite of that. So while I’m okay to go with it, I’m not entirely convinced by ideas the game – partly as a consequence of the limitations of the format – has essentially take for granted i.e. that the only/main reason you’d be into someone like The Iron Bull was if you were a submissive bottom.
There’s also a lot of rhetoric about “this” being “what I need” – which, I think, is meant to tap into the idea that the player character, who has a world to save and a war to stop and the lives of thousands of people in his/her hands, can find safety and freedom from those responsibilities in sexual submission. Which is, y’know, nice and plausible but, at the same time, I’m personally bugged that BDSM rhetoric is always so need-focused. As if people can only quite get their head around the idea that you might wanted to be hurt, or tormented, or restrained, or abased (in ways that felt good to you) because you genuinely just … like it. And, again, I don’t like the idea that submission is “okay” (or more understandable, less weird, less emasculating/disempowering) if you have tonnes of other responsibilities, like somehow this balances it out. The value of someone’s submission is no less or greater depending on what they do with the rest of their life.
And the romance in general walks this difficult line between genuinely legitimate and played for laughs. Or rather, it tries to be both (and I think, for the most part its) but, while I am absolutely in favour of humour in life, in games, in romance, in sex and also in kinky sex, I think you sometimes have to ask yourself why something is funny, and what ideas it is tapping in / supporting. There’s this scene, for example, where a whole crowd of your advisors walk in on you and react with hilarious shock/repulsion:
I do know this is just a computer game, and I’m waaay overthinking but … there’s a lot I like about this scene. I like the glimpse of The Bull being magnificently stark, ah, bullock naked, and totally unembarrassed about. And I like that fact that nobody is really homophobic about what’s going on. And, obviously, walking in on your boss bonking is always going to mildly disturbing regardless of whoever or whatever he’s doing. It is funny, it is charming, but at the same time there’s definitely the sense that everyone feels you’re a bit weird. I mean Cullen (the blonde prat on the left) is actively sniggering into his hand when Bull mentions that you’re the one who’s been “taking it.” I mean, honestly, is the fact there’s a receptive partner in anal sex still an inherently amusing idea? Are we still really finding this funny? Give me a fucking break.
I mean, it’s kind of adding insult to injury at this point: the game sort of forced me to adopt one type of sexual behaviour in reaction to my interest in a particular character, and now it’s shaming me for that? A lot of the dialogue options you’re offered when the topic of your relationship with Bull comes up are of the embarrassed/bashful/confused variety … and, seriously, fuck that. Even though I didn’t choose to be a gay submissive elf, in practice I apparently am a gay submissive elf so I’m damn well going to be proud of it. So I’ve spent an awful lot of time in this game telling people that Bull and I are together, and we’re serious thank you so very much, and what we do in the bedroom as consensual adults is our business and, yes, actually, I do take it up arse, as is my alienable right as a citizen.
It’s just … why make these big, bold gestures and then undermine thme with petty micro-aggressions about who is on the bottom? I mean, yes, I guess to a degree it’s realistic: that it’s easy to do the grand things (yes! you should be able to be a queer person in a game! Yes! BDSM is something that deserves representation!) but at the same time miss the small things (having a cock up your arse isn’t funny, kink isn’t weird).
But, don’t get me wrong, I am more than happy – delighted in fact – with what Bioware have been willing to commit to, and what they have achieved with romance in Dragon Age Inquisition. Regardless of the occasional misstep the game is full of moments that support the reality, the validity and the genuine intimacy of kinking it up with The Iron Bull.
One of your party members – my favourite after Bull, actually – is this weird spirit thing called Cole who can sense the thoughts and feelings of others. He’s just an awesome character to wander around with because he says all these random, cryptic poetic things that give you a new way of looking at the world and the people in it: Stuff like: Petals fall open as lips shape words that rhyme. Candlelight softens the edges. Yep, he’s my weird spirit kid. Never go anywhere without him. However, precisely because he’s a weird spirit kid, he has no filter whatsoever and will often announce the personal details of your relationship – or other people’s relationships – to the world at large.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourites because I like the gentleness here and the delicate balance of power it suggests: want and need and give and take and who is control. I think that’s clever, subtle, romantic stuff. Not the usual fare you get in a triple A video game:
Cole: He almost says the word sometimes. Katoh. He tastes it in his mouth, sweet release a breath away, tongue tying it tenderly, like you tie him. But he doesn’t, for you. And for him, because it makes it mean more. A fuller feeling, a brighter burst…
Iron Bull: Yeah. (Coughs) How’s he feel about you saying this in front of everybody?
Inquisitor [me taking the inalienable right as a citizen option, as opposed to the ‘Mortified’ or ‘Pretending this never happened’ option]: I don’t have a problem with it. We’re two consenting adults and I’m not ashamed of what goes on in our bed.
Cole: But not just the bed! Sometimes against the wall… and once on the war table!
Anyway, please excuse me. It seems I’m needed on the war table…