David Gaider, lead writer of the Dragon Age video game series, along with several others in the BioWare crew, attended GaymerX this year, in part to promote the upcoming release of Dragon Age: Inquisition on Nov. 18, 2014 (pushed back from Oct. 7). He was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview. This first segment covers his responses to several critiques I raised from long-standing fan concerns about Dragon Age, and we conversed about transgender representation, racism, Gaider’s “militant Islamic Borg” quote, and more.
Note: For both this list and the article itself, take care of yourself and be aware that potentially triggering concepts like transmisogyny, racism, and others will arise.
During our interview, David Gaider expanded on his answer to my question at his GaymerX panel’s Q&A session where I asked about Maevaris Tilani (Mae), a character introduced by Gaider in the Dragon Age comics Those Who Speak and Until We Sleep. I questioned why the decision was made to “reveal” Mae as transgender by depicting her as imprisoned and with her breasts exposed when Varric rescues her, noting the transmisogyny implied in never showing any women fully topless in DA except for Mae, and utilizing violence against women to disclose her trans status to readers. (Presumably disclose, anyway. Since flat chests, the cue for the “reveal,” are not exclusive to trans women, and round chests are not exclusive to cis women, it’s already a flawed assumption.)
David Gaider acknowledged this critique, and discussed previously receiving critique for the only other portrayal of transmisogyny-experiencing characters in the games as sex workers used as comedic relief (i.e. Serendipity). He said this problem was exacerbated by a programming bug that makes it seem like partygoers in the downloadable Dragon Age: Mark of the Assassin are making fun of Serendipity, when supposedly the writers’ intent was to tease the player character Hawke about familiarity with brothels, if applicable. Regardless, Gaider did admit the problematic nature of DA’s representations of trans women, and connected this with the advent of Mae’s character.
Gaider wished, he said, to “subtly” yet clearly get across Mae’s trans identity, without having her actually say it. Gaider claimed he performed his “due diligence” by asking a trans woman game developer to look at the comic and give critiques before publication, and said they attempted to avoid making Mae’s toplessness “titillating.” However, he admitted he now felt the scene was too matter-of-fact, and he regretted not showing more vulnerability from Mae.
Indeed it was a violation, I agree, though to me it seemed that Gaider was thinking more about Varric seeing the size and shape of her breasts as a violation of her fears about being outed as a trans woman (which very may well also be accurate), rather than additionally an act of sexual violence from her torturers and a shameful/uncomfortable moment with nudity around Varric, since the exposure of her breasts was non-consensual, the exposure of female breasts are sexualized, and Mae has female breasts because she is a woman. Since it seems at least one trans woman was involved in the process of getting Mae’s story to print, however, I will defer to the opinions of people who experience transmisogyny on these particular issues, since I do not. I’ll simply note that I’d strongly caution against suggesting one has done “due diligence” by only consulting one person of the oppressed identity one is depicting. People with the same oppressions have different views, and it’s worthwhile to explore a multitude of these views in an attempt to avoid oppressive representations.
Beyond non-player characters as trans representation, I also brought up concerns about Dragon Age‘s binary player character creation options thus far in the series. Picking a “male” or “female” character is mandated, and even within these two limited choices, the options for features, voice, and dress are very cis-centric and normative. “Yeah!” Gaider agreed. “It’s true, yeah.” As one counter-example, I mentioned the Saints Row game series, where a wider range of body diversity and a less binary character generator is available for the player. Is a more open character creation system something he and the BioWare team are considering for the future of Dragon Age? He seemed confident this is likely a change they will initiate in the future, though not for Inquisition, since their attempt to implement such a change came a little too late in the development process:
“When we looked at whether we could implement it late [for Inquisition], there were some technological hurdles we just couldn’t solve. So I think that’s probably something that will come up… Ultimately, if we can do it as an option, and it’s cheap… and it’s something that someone wants to do, I don’t see any reason not to do it… you’ve just gotta make sure that you don’t accidentally construct the framework of your game in way where that wouldn’t be allowed.”
Now that it’s something in the developers’ minds– Dragon Age 4, perhaps? It’s likely too much wishful thinking to hope the delay in Inquisition‘s release date is to set up a system like this. Future games seem like a real possibility, however. Time will tell, but if so, it would offer a great step toward validating transgender and gender non-normative DA players.
Read the rest of our conversation about Islam, the Qun, and whitewashing at shallowgraves.org.