Take Your Damn Rivalry Points Like a Man

The Non-Dialectic of 'Dragon Age II'

by Kris Ligman

29 March 2011

This whole outcry stands as a testament to why gamers need to get over notions of "fairness" -- especially when "fairness" isn't really fair.
cover art

Dragon Age II

(Electronic Arts)
US: 8 Mar 2011

So, in case you haven’t heard, they’re all bisexual.

You may also have heard that the romantic subplots of Dragon Age II are somehow dominating the discourse surrounding the game, presumably directly after whether it’s any good or not. (To which the answer is no—and yes. See my review for more.) This, too, might have been predicted considering the extent to which BioWare RPGs often get discussed with respect to their romances, but in this debate surrounding this release, we find a curious intersection between issues of systems and mechanics and issues of writing. To whit, is Dragon Age II “punishing” the player for rebuffing a romance he doesn’t want, and do we as players need to get over our search for happy, equitable solutions?
The situation: of the four primary romance options in Dragon Age II, one of those, the apostate mage Anders, will make a pass at your Lord or Lady Hawke. He will do this if you have been nice to him, and as openly affectionate as we’ve seen Anders to be in the past, this makes a decent amount of sense. If you reject him, however, the game awards you rivalry points that scale onto Anders’ overall friendship-to-rivalry affection meter.

This has led to some open objections from players of varying stripes, from this offensively misleading CTRL-ALT-DEL strip to this open petition from self-described gay players to fire lead writer David Gaider over negative representations of gays. Denis Farr, writing at GayGamer, provides an excellent breakdown of this contestation already, so I won’t restate his points here except to say: not only is Anders’ open homosexual flirtation the exception rather than the rule in Dragon Age II, this whole outcry stands as a testament to why gamers, as a whole, need to get over notions of “fairness”—especially when “fairness” isn’t really fair.

But wait, you say, aren’t videogames supposed to be the ultimate models of fairness-as-system? Don’t they fix our broken realities? Arguably, no, if we’re reaching toward the design of games as complex systems that mirror the complexities and inequities of real life. Or at any rate, such can be said for interpersonal simulations, which will never fully encapsulate the nuances of real relationships but can successfully approximate them. In this case, what is fairer, permitting the player “no consequence” interactions or establishing that very real friction will result in whatever choices they make? Such is the case with Anders and, in a more codified and reductive way, Fable III‘s monarch sections, which confront players with a sort of bedrock of inexorable unfairness. Yes, Anders will be hurt if you reject him. He’ll be doing other things that you dislike as well later on. Yes, you can’t change Albion’s entire way of doing things—some options are so far out of the minds of its citizens as to not even be worth considering. We may not like it, and in Fable III‘s case, thisproblem definitely comes off more as a design flaw than a sociopolitical statement (although this is Peter Molyneux), but these are realities that we are faced with within the confines of these systems.

Returning to the specific instance of Anders’s offense at being rejected, I cannot help but read players’ reactions as having a great deal to do with Anders’ gender in relation to the majority of players. My suspicions were somewhat confirmed when I received a (moderated) comment on my link roundup for The Hathor Legacy yesterday, in which the commenter (amidst spelling errors and inappropriate language) contended that Anders’s single, mild inquiry was tantamount to “sexual harassment” and that the game really did need a “no homo” option for players to feel safe. This, in light of an industry which regularly has female characters flirt with the player irrespective of who’s actually holding the controller, struck me as myopic at best. Furthermore, I haven’t seen anywhere near as much contestation being raised about Isabela’s open flirtation, whose bisexuality is comparably far more overt and openly discussed by other characters. I’ve also heard no similar rumblings from players of female Hawkes about this particular point, as though Anders’s male privilege is just taken for granted . . .  What a contradiction!

Fanart by 99hunters

Fanart by 99hunters

Another contradiction lies in treating the game’s friendship-rivalry system as comparable to Mass Effect‘s Paragon/Renegade system or even to Dragon Age: Origins’ approval/disapproval meters. Rivalry in Dragon Age II is not the same as open disapproval, and rivals will still remain in the party—they even get unique bonuses that can’t be obtained if you play nice with them. I rivaled Anders myself, immediately after playing a game in which I had befriended him, and while the experience did highlight some of the more disturbing aspects of Anders’s internal conflicts, I was not left with the sense that the game was “punishing” me for establishing a rivalry. As Gaider notes on the BioWare forums, “rivalry is a path towards a relationship just as friendship is”, and he has elsewhere taken great pains to describe how the meter is expressive, not something that a player needs to fill up in order to be playing the game correctly (“Re: David Gaider needs to be fired”, BioWare Social Network, 26 March 2011).

In fact, the more one reads Gaider’s remarks across forums and blog comment sections, the clearer it becomes that Dragon Age II is deliberately written as a non-dialectic, largely in response to a perceived unreasonable demand on the part of players for “perfect” solutions.

If you’re of the opinion that every story should have an outcome that the player can directly control—I’m not going to argue with you. Not everyone is going to like that sort of tale, and certainly I think there’s a limited amount of that you can really do inside a game. But this is the sort of thinking that led to the “Save Everyone” option in the Redcliffe Quest, which ultimately became the quest option that everyone thought was the only “real” solution even though it was the least dramatic. I don’t really intend to do that again, and I’m not about to re-write it simply because some people feel uncomfortable about it. (David Gaider, “Re: Requesting Leandra Hawke DLC”, BioWare Social Network, 15 March 2011).

If you’re like me and Anders’s dramatic final act quotation just rang in your ears (“I removed the possibility for compromise—because there is no compromise”) you have to sort of admire this for the bold stance that it is, even if it becomes uncomfortable or otherwise problematic. (For example, Gaider is here specifically defending part of Dragon Age II that I do indeed take considerable issue with, but for the repulsive cliches it falls into, not the fact that I couldn’t change it.) There is something darkly compelling about all of Dragon Age II‘s fatalism, something noted in Dan Bruno’s review as well (“Shades of grey”, Cruise Elroy, 22 March 2011). In particular, I see it as making the case that player choice is not at all integral to story immersion, and as such, something I could stand to see more often.

I think it’s a reasonably written, logistical device that a character who flirts with your protagonist should feel hurt if you shut him down, regardless of whether it’s a heterosexual or homosexual interaction. Certainly it’s a minor setback if you are choosing to pursue a positive relationship with that character, but as setbacks go, this is a fairly realistic one—as well as an incredibly minor one, as the game provides ample opportunities to befriend (or offend) your companions. It does not, as the comic suggest, lead straight into some uncomfortable sexual territory that the player doesn’t want to participate in and to suggest that it does feeds only into gaming culture’s homophobia of which we already have plenty. I’ll leave off by returning to Denis Farr in his post defending the game’s writing:

Some have made the point that the self-proclaimed straight male gamer to whom David Gaider responded now knows what it’s like to be a woman in our society: someone who receives unwanted and unsolicited passes. This is only partially true, and only on the most surface level. [...] After that rejection, Anders does not call you a “whore,” “slut,” or any other colorful epithets women in our society can expect from turning down an advance. Even rivals in the game respect Hawke.

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