‘Dragon Age’ Lets Me Celebrate Girl Power (And Doesn’t Make Me Self-Conscious)

As is the case with about half of the Moving Pixels blog’s writers, I’ve been replaying Dragon Age: Origins and its accompanying DLC recently in anticipation of the sequel’s release. Admittedly, this is as deeply as I’ve ever gotten into it, and I was surprised at the extent to which the writing emphasizes the female warrior as not secondary or conditional.

It’s important to not conflate the idea of “woman warrior” with “feminine strength” because strength and femininity both take a variety of forms. That being said, I’m not very traditionally girly, and I like it when a video game character is able to communicate that mixture of gendered ideals without becoming a caricature. I found that in Dragon Age.

There I was, at the character selection screen before the final battle. I had already decided to leave Alistair, my former boyfriend and current sovereign, to defend the gates and protect himself from the Archdemon. All that remained was to pick my top healer, rogue, and brute to accompany my protagonist tank, a female dwarven commoner. In went Wynne, the wise matriarchal mage; Leliana, a Joan of Arc rogue; and Shale, a female dwarf who had been converted into a massive and deep-voiced golem centuries before. This had been my standard team for a major part of the game, but this was the fist time that I realized that A) they were all women and that B) I did not feel as though the game was expecting me to look at their posteriors.

As much as we should separate “strong woman” from “warrior woman”, I think it would also be salient to separate my personal aesthetics (which even I would call slightly prudish) from the larger apparatus of sexualization and spectacle of women in games. We waste time wagging fingers at improbable bodies and clothing held up with double-sided tape (although my first thought upon seeing Isabela’s Dragon Age II upgrade is wondering where her pants went). I’m more interested in how the player’s gaze is being directed, how a character is portrayed, and what she is shown as able to do. In the case of my all female party, very little of their portrayal and abilities is left outside my control with respect to the battle system. I decide which abilities best suit them as well as what they’re wearing and at no point does the game zoom in, Miranda Lawson style, on some skin tight curves that I did not feel should be there. Armor is generally practical, though some sets are lower-cut on women than on men. Conversation scenes stay focused on faces. Interactions emphasize who they are and how they feel far before concerns about image. If anything, to my recollection only Shale makes some concerned remark on whether certain equipment makes her look too big, and at that point, the player doesn’t even know her gender.

In sum, through a combination of how the narrative treats characters and the hands free way in which the management system allows me to customize their appearance and performance, I did not feel at any point that my play experience was being dictated to me in accordance with someone else’s preferences. I’d assembled a party of women who each expressed their femininity in a way that was unique to them and did not make me feel that they existed to arouse an assumed, invisible, prurient male spectator.

The fact that this feels anomalous to me is perhaps frightening. Yet that’s the kind of culture of the male gaze that video games have developed, in which I, as a female gamer, can be surprised when a game does not strongly enforce a viewpoint on a woman character’s sexuality to me. It does not mean that deemphasizing femininity is the only positive approach (a claim that I made in a misguided article years ago and now strongly regret) but that options, variety, and a more objective gaze can all be used to great effect in allowing the minority player to better relate to the game in the manner and style that she wishes.

One, perhaps unwelcome extrapolation from this is that by approaching games as more objective and less dependent on a particular gaze or perspective, we are moving away from games as strictly cinematic. Do we find this beneficial or regressive? It remains to be seen what path Dragon Age II takes, though so far it seems to be emulating its science fiction cousin in enforcing a more unified, singular narrative and all that entails regarding player suture. The devil, as always, is in the details. So, we’ll see.

Bioware could also just include Shale again, mind you. That’s one quick way to earn my support.