Friday, July 16, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins is the First Game About Gay Marriage + The Power of Mods

(I was waiting to see if the Escapist cared for an article pitch based on this blog post, but they didn't, so now I'm just going to ahead and post it.)

Dragon Age is the world's first commercial video game about gay marriage.

... and now with that incredibly misleading and generalizing hook, let me explain:

So I tricked Dragon Age: Origins into temporarily thinking my dude mage was female to trigger a gay romance with the dashing knight Alistair (and for anyone wanting to do the same, it works pretty seamlessly, just get the mod at Dragon Age Nexus) -- and the result was an oddly tragic playthrough with inadvertent commentary on gay marriage. (Inadvertent because I had to use a mod to get this reading of it.)

I mean, Dragon Age has plenty of other gay shit in it: lesbian dwarves, a threesome, two bisexual romance options, etc. And this is all the intentionally designed LGBT content that BioWare saw fit to implement, which isn't a complaint because this is probably as "progressive" a major commercial Western RPG has ever been. So kudos, BioWare.

But none of that "intentional" gay content compares to how rewarding I found Dragon Age when I hijacked Alistair's sexuality. So, this is how a gay romance with Alistair goes (minor spoilers await -- then you'll get another warning about major spoilers):

You're a dude. You meet up with this other dude named Alistair. You fight together, you are betrayed together, you distrust Morrigan together.

If your player character is a rogue or mage, he's indispensable. As an anti-mage tank in battle, he's even more indispensable: he's built to resist the crazier elemental spells and debuffs that mages throw out, especially if you're just starting the game and don't really know how to control your characters in battle. He's a safe choice and a good tank that ensures your survival.

As a genuinely charming NPC who makes genuinely funny jokes, he's quite tolerable and even fun to keep around. He has a vaguely English accent to American ears, ramping up the attractiveness quotient by about 826.34 points. He has a fashionable haircut by Western standards, a short trim with some funny little quaff-bang business in the front. In short, he's an attractive man.

Now, in novels (and probably other types of narrative) there's a literary tradition with characters who make embarrassing sexual confessions: the idea is that once they confess something so sad and awkward and emasculating, you're inclined to trust them that much more -- because what can be more pathetic than admitting that you can't get it up? So when he confesses his sexual inexperience to you from living his life as a Templar (and he's obviously embarrassed by it), he exposes his vulnerability -- and so you trust Alistair.

But when he does that, it also falls under a gay literary tradition: the anxious closet case -- that guy you had a crush on but you know he's straight yet he's secretly gay and only you, the all-knowing all-singing homosexual mentor can help him realize that.

(There's a whole sub-genre of gay pornography dedicated to these kinds of fantasies, the "straight" but curious jock who temporarily pinch hits for the other team... But I won't get into it because this blog is about games and not gay porn... for now. If you want to read an interesting article about the gay porn industry though, see here. "Know thy enemy" and all that, right? Wink nudge.)

... And then comes the profession of attraction, he gives you a rose, he says you're "beautiful," you have a lovely evening dry-humping each other in camp presumably while the rest of your party goes fishing or something, etc. Blah blah blah. (To BioWare's credit, Alistair's romance dialogue is surprisingly gender neutral. Other than a handful of references to you being a woman, it's pretty seamless, almost as if BioWare wanted you to mod Dragon Age like this, hmmm...)

For the next 40-50 hours, you presumably bring him everywhere. Alistair is your virtual boyfriend, an excellent fighter and tank / DPS dealer. Perhaps you prefer him, in some ways, to your actual real-life significant other because he takes out the trash so effectively instead of complaining.

And since you're probably a hardcore gamer, you're aware of the romance sub-plot tradition in western RPGs: there's almost always a happy ending, almost always an optimal set of choices that will let the hero get the guy, almost always a way to exact your agency and get what you want.

And that's all shattered at the Landsmeet.

That's why the gay Alistair romance is so great -- to understand it all, I have to spoil the main plot, unlike Leilana or Zevran who are pretty minor romances because it's possible to miss them and not have them in your party at all. This is also probably the first time in video game history that the romance sub-plot for straight men is so paltry in comparison -- Morrigan's story is compelling, but not nearly as important and meaningful as Alistair's.

So beware; here be spoilers for the main plot of Dragon Age: Origins...

If you're not a female human noble (or you haven't tricked the game into thinking that) then there are basically two ways to go with Alistair at this climax of the game: either (a) he's crowned king, or (b) he's exiled or executed*, thus leaving your party forever, and Loghain joins your party to replace him.

* According to the wiki there's a way to persuade Anora not to get rid of Alistair, but in my playthroughs that option never came up; she would always insist that he was too much of a threat against her.

I mean, just analyzing the choice from a gameplay perspective, it seems so obvious: Alistair already has your specific tactics programmed on him, his own set of equipment and a specific role in battle. By that time, he probably even has two class specializations (I chose Templar and Champion) so why should you give him up for Loghain, some blank slate character that you've barely even used, with some really crappy stats and abilities? So to keep Alistair, you'll probably do what makes him happy.

From a narrative perspective, Alistair's crowning is also the culmination of so many threads in the game: the idea that blood binds people together, Alistair's neglected lineage, him leaving his Templar upbringing behind and finally taking on real responsibility, etc.

Plus, you're happy that your virtual boyfriend is the king. That's gotta mean all the lyrium potion you can drink, right?

... Until he breaks up with you for precisely that reason. A king needs to produce an heir, to continue the bloodline -- and since you're supposedly a female Grey Warden also tainted with darkspawn blood, a child would never survive... But I'm not a female Elven warrior or a female Dwarf rogue. I'm a dude.

(Yeah, that "darkspawn taint" excuse? Bullshit. Hell, I've even used that line before.)

So instead, I read that moment differently -- we're both dudes, so we would NEVER be able to have children together. I started panicking. I looked back over the 50 hours of choices that preceded this moment, stretching back to a month ago. Can I reload that save game from 20 hours ago? Maybe if I told him to get pissed off at his sister instead of forgiving her? What if I put a paralyze rune on his sword instead of that fire damage rune?

And that's when I realized: this relationship was doomed from the start, from my very first choice to inhabit a male player character. Even using mods or hacks would never change this crucial consequence of the story:

Alistair must have children, but I will never be able to provide him with one because I don't have a vagina.

When I realized that, I stopped playing for more than a month. I was so upset. I whined to my real-life boyfriend, "My virtual boyfriend broke up with me!" only to get dismissed with a wave of the hand.

But I couldn't get over this, that me and Alistair would have to go back to just "being friends" -- and what pissed me off the most is that I was getting this upset over a pretty mechanical NPC. (Like many players, I quickly exhausted all of Alistair's conversation options in camp, only halfway through the game -- at that point, about the only thing you can say to him is an awkward "Never mind." I think BioWare should have gated his dialogue options a bit better.)

I researched online, poured through GameFAQs, scoured wikis for a way out. And there wasn't. The closest thing to a "happy" ending is hardening Alistair so that he'll agree to have an affair with you.

Great, I can be his guy on the side... and that is exactly what destroys the marriages of Republican senators. It's not even a marriage at that point.

* * *

Months later, having broken-up with my real-life boyfriend, I decided to pick it back up and finish the game. The final attack is about to begin. I gave Alistair a "rainy-day" gift I knew he'd adore (in case I ever pissed him off at some point with a quest decision) -- it was his mother's locket that I found in his father's desk in Redcliffe -- and it resulted in a meager +1 affection, with Alistair saying "Oh, thanks" insincerely.

The final battles were easy: paralyze the emissaries, AoE spell the grunts and demolish anything else in the way. The last fight with the Archdemon was a joke, a simple exercise in setting Wynne on Cleansing Aura and spamming mana potions. Alistair never died. Nothing mattered. It was all hollow.

* * *

People ask me why I make mods. Why don't I make "real games"? -- but just think. Without a mod, none of this would've ever crossed my mind because none of this would've happened.

Repeat after me. Mods are special, important and uniquely situated to expand the thematic and/or mechanical space of a game.

And now I realize why the Landsmeet made me so upset: it was too close to home and reminded me of my real-life relationship. It wasn't enough for us to live near each other, to enjoy each other's company, to care for each other -- we had to have a future together too. And there was no future with either of my boyfriends, real or virtual.

It also reminds me of the current battle over gay marriage. Yes, it's now generally agreed that gay men deserve the rights, that we're all created equal, that people don't just marry to bear children, etc. -- but what are we going to do with this right to marriage? What about this coming "post-gay" era?

Mainstream gay culture is predicated on a single primary ideal, that the source of our "shame" -- the act of sex -- is actually a positive, enjoyable, rewarding experience, even if it doesn't yield a "product" -- a child.

So in a way, Dragon Age: Origins with the gay-mod is exposing this nagging doubt in all of our minds about this "product," that yes gay men can fall in love and do great things. Yes gay men can have social legitimacy, but then what? Yes gay men can adopt a child or get a surrogate to bear a child, but is it the same? Is the pain and sweat and dedication the same? Really? Where's the blood?

* * *

I can see it now, my parents huddled before a character creation screen: my mom wants to make my nose smaller, but my dad's fed up with manipulating these stupid sliders. They should just click OK and move on, he argues.

Then my mom whispers something about "darkspawn taint" affecting the end game, but my dad isn't really listening. He just hopes I have a high strength attribute.