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"Dragon Age" (2009): Should Followers Be Playersexual?

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Ash has been playing "Dragon Age" since the first game's release. She enjoys exploring and explaining the characters and lore.

Dorian romancing a female Inquisitor. Gasp!

Dorian romancing a female Inquisitor. Gasp!

For those that don't know, "playersexual" is a game mechanic that makes all followers available to the protagonist for romance, regardless of the protagonist's sex. It's a game mechanic BioWare has used in the past, but whether or not it was a successful storytelling mechanic has long been up for debate.

There are two sides of the argument:

  1. Representation is important and characters have more "depth" when they have a set sexuality.
  2. Some people just want access to game content and the ability to tailor the story however the hell they want.

I'm in full support of argument 2. So this article will explore playersexuality, and why I believe it's actually better to have content for everyone rather than content for only some. I'm going to counter every argument I've seen on the net over the years.

Let us begin.

Playersexuality "Ruins" Character Depth

Morrigan as she appeared with her concept hood in "Origins."

Morrigan as she appeared with her concept hood in "Origins."

I remember when Origins came out and I was disappointed to get into the game only to realize Morrigan was not a gay option. My only option for a lesbian romance was Leiliana, who would not shut up about the Chantry and seemed crazy to boot (aw, the lovely crazy lesbian/bisexual trope). Meanwhile, Morrigan was so dark and mysterious. And she wasn't wearing a shirt.

She and Alistair, the straight romances, had also been given narrative favoritism, while the gay/bisexual romances had been grouped together and shuffled to the side as optional side content. You can even kill Zevran and Leliana or flat-out reject them for recruitment, while Alistair and Morrigan never go away because they're too impotant. Even Morrigan will show up at the end of the game again for the ritual.

I'm well aware why it was like this: mostly straight people play these games because . . . mostly straight people exist. Also, straight gamers get upset when gay content is "shoved in their face" so it's usually optional and shoved to the side (so amusing since straight content is always shoved in my face, and somehow, I deal with it without throwing Twitter tantrums at the developers . . .).

Eventually, I downloaded a mod that allowed me to romance Morrigan as a woman and have a baby with her during the Dark Ritual. It was a pretty epic playthrough. I got to be a part of the larger story, while romancing the character I wanted, and having access to all her content.

If Morrigan had been available for f/f romance in the original game, I could have just asked Alistair/Loghain to donate sp*rm as always. So even this aspect of the game wouldn't have altered much.

People who argue against playsexuality say that making the characters only attracted to the player (rather than having a set orientation) takes away from the story, but how did making Morrigan attracted to the female Warden take away from the story of Origins or in any way diminish her as a character?

If anything, the ability to romance Morrigan as a woman made the story better for me, a person who paid for the game and deserves to enjoy the product as much as straight people do. It also did nothing whatsoever to lessen her character or take away her depth. And it did not "ruin" the story.

I'll never understand this argument.

"Just Play the Required Gender!"

Cassandra will gently reject the female Inquisitor.

Cassandra will gently reject the female Inquisitor.

Every time fans complain that they couldn't romance so-and-so, there's a group of fans who scream, "Just play the required gender!" But as a woman who's been playing video games since she was twelve . . . I'm tired of playing a man in order to romance the woman I want and get the story I want.

I'm tired.

BioWare, bless them, has given me the option to finally play a woman who gets to be a hero and go on grand adventures, and I'm going to take it, dammit. Why should I have to compromise my story and the way I want to play for their ridiculous and unnecessary romance gates?

The only woman I wanted to romance in Inquisition was Cassandra, and sadly, I had to play a male just to get the romance I wanted. But that had more to do with the other options (Sera and Josephine) being less appealing to me than their being unavailable.

If this game had been playersexual, I could have had the story I wanted, rather than settling for the story BioWare wanted. I could have romanced someone who, once again, was a part of the larger story and actually appealed to me, rather than settling for a character who was in the background (Josephine) or didn't appeal to me at all (ugh . . .Sera).

"But Representation Matters!"

Dorian from "Inquisition," the first gay male follower.

Dorian from "Inquisition," the first gay male follower.

I just proved that representation matters by explaining how I'm tired of playing male characters in video games. Yes, for me, playing a male character at this point isn't about doing something I've never done before or trying something new or exploring new viewpoints.

This is the argument male gamers make when they talk about playing women in games to get around romance gates. It's new and "exciting" for them because they've never been forced to do it for years on end without ever having a straight male protagonist. And most of them don't have the empathy to fathom what that was like for female gamers (or, god forbid, black lesbian gamers).

Yes. We're a small portion of the fan base. That doesn't automatically mean we should be dismissed or ignored all the time. We're still people, we're still gamers, and we still pay for video games. Don't we have some right to enjoy them as much as the majority does?

I do a lot of complaining about BioWare in my articles, and while I recognize that they aren't perfect, to date, they are still the only game developer that gives a sh*t about their marginalized players. And for that reason alone, they will always have a special place in my geeky heart.

Why can't we all just . . . . get along?

Why can't we all just . . . . get along?

I'm in my mid thirties. I twas lucky enough to be at an age to game right around the time BioWare started releasing AAA games with lesbian protagonists. But I remember what it was like before that, how basically all my entertainment was centered around straight white male protagonists.

I know why it was like that. The people who rule are only concerned with entertaining themselves . . . not the people they oppress. But obviously, it still sucked.

Also, please take note that no where in my article have I "demonized" straight white males, nor do I think there's something wrong with being a straight white male (and gamers who think that are usually projecting).

I know most people in the "majority" feel they are under "attack," but that's not true. Aside from some crazies on Tumblr, no one is attacking straight white men. The internet has given "minorities" a platform to discuss how sick we are of being marginalized, which is why our voices are being heard probably for the first time ever. It's not an attack on the "majority" to acknowledge actual f*cking reality or to express ones displeasure with it.

It's easy to say "I don't care about race/gender/sexuality (sure) so long as the protagonist is written well!" when basically every story ever released to the public has been about idealizing someone like you (while vilifying people who are often coded as minorities).

It's so easy to dismiss everything as PC culture when you don't have the ability to empathize with anyone outside your lived experience.

My screenshot of Reddit.

My screenshot of Reddit.

Stumbled across this comment on a Reddit gaming sub about males who play as females. The guy compares it to playing as an alien or some other non-human creature, and that's what makes it so interesting . . . (barf), while the guy before him says that males are seen as "badasses who love to kill" so he loves playing a woman and trying to decide why she would be a "badass who loves to kill."

. . . Because she likes to? Why is it so bizarre that a woman character would be a badass who just liked killing stuff? Or do you really believe all women are physically weak, sweet and kind?

That some men casually don't see women as human beings isn't news to me. But stumbling across a Reddit thread where they compare playing as me to playing as an alien is . . . It's disturbing on a very deep level, to know that I walk around and most of the population doesn't even see me as a human being because I'm a woman (and that's before acknowledging the fact that I'm also gay and black).

Fan art of female Revan being badass and evil.

Fan art of female Revan being badass and evil.

I love Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic because it's a video game where I get to play a badass evil Sith Lord who is (gasp!) a black lesbian (and f*ck BioWare for canonizing her as male). She is evil for the exact same reason the male Revan is evil: she enjoys it. She doesn't need some special explanation because she's a woman.

Women. Are. People. That means we can be good. We can be evil. We can be weak. We can be badass. But the very notion of our humanity is lost on the vast majority of men. How is it that we are so foreign and strange to them that they can sit on a gaming subreddit and casually compare us to playing aliens in video games? We're the same f*cking species.

To the commenter's credit, he does acknowledge at the end of the comment that the genders in Skyrim are purely cosmetic. But the way he framed playing a woman as being so alien and "different" is still very disturbing to me.

What is actually so different about it? It would be one thing if there were game mechanics to make female protagonists physically weaker, but there aren't. In fact, female protagonists in video games do not face any of the hardships that real women in the real world face, making their appearance "purely cosmetic" just as the comment said.

Jane Shepard carries Kaidan in a fan made render.

Jane Shepard carries Kaidan in a fan made render.

For example, Commander Jane Shepard has the same f*cking upgrades as Commander John Shepard for the duration of the Mass Effect trilogy. This means that they can do all the same sh*t. The only different between them is the voice acting (which does make the cut scenes different, in my opinion) and who they can romance . . . That's it.

A ruthless, pragmatic Renegade Commander Jane Shepard doesn't need a special reason to be that way just because she's a woman. Women can be masculine. Women can be ruthless. Women can be pragmatic. Because women are people.

And this is the same in basically any other video game. What's the actual difference between playing male Revan and female Revan in KOTOR? None, really. The only difference is that female players have an avatar they can project onto because BioWare included us in the audience. . . . That's it.

The Reddit commenter can't relate to a female protagonist because the point of the protagonist is escapism, and men don't see themselves in women . . . while women are often asked to see ourselves in men and just shut up and enjoy the male protagonist. Apparently, we've no right to want our own power fantasizes and have no way of making our own (female developers are barely accepted in the industry even now thanks to sexism).

So, what then, makes playing a female character such a bizarre, special, unique experience? I can only imagine these male players see it this way because they view women as bizarre. . . . Even though, again, we're the same f*cking species.

Dorian being unapologetically gay.

Dorian being unapologetically gay.

I've been forced to see things from the viewpoint of straight males for twenty years, that viewpoint often being degrading to women (ah, those Miranda butt shots in Mass Effect . . .). No, thanks. I'm done. I want to play a woman, dammit, and if a video game doesn't offer that, I'm at a point where I just won't buy it.

So yes. Representation matters, but only to a certain extent. While I do want to play as myself in a power fantasy, I don't need to see NPCs that reflect me as well. I don't need to see lesbian NPCs in Dragon Age. What I need to see are well-written women who are available to romance my character. That's it.

"It Erases Bisexuals!"

Merrill in "Dragon Age 2."

Merrill in "Dragon Age 2."

Dragon Age 2 gave me what I wanted (more options) with Merrill and Isabela. Instead of the single option I had in Origins, I now suddenly had two options, and one of them (Isabela) was a huge part of the second act.

While Isabela was always bisexual, even back in Origins, access to Merrill's content wouldn't have been possible for me, the player, if the writers had decided to make Merrill straight and accessible only to a straight male Hawke.

This would have left only one option for me, which would have annoyed me because I actually prefer Merrill's romance over Isabela's.

In other words, having the characters be playersexual means that everybody wins. All players can romance whoever they want, and it's up to them to decide if their pixel lover is gay, straight, or bisexual.

One complaint I have about Dragon Age 2 is that the playersexuality isn't so much playersexual as "straight until proven bi." Isabela constantly hits on, talks about, and flirts with men (while rarely talking about women), Anders acts straight toward female Hawke, Fenris flirts with Isabela. Merrill alone never flirts with a guy aside from Hawke (that I recall). The other followers act as if they are straight, and the gay content is tucked away unless you go digging for it. It's . . . unfortunate.

But, ironically, people act like playersexuality erases only bisexuals. It actually erases both gay and bisexual people. At least, it did in Dragon Age 2. In games that actually do it properly (like, say, Skyrim ), everyone is erased and that's not an issue at all, really.

The way Skyrim does it is a whole lot better than only gay/bisexual sexuality being crammed down in the dark like something shameful that might offend the delicate straight gamers.

Anders hits on Hawke in "Dragon Age 2."

Anders hits on Hawke in "Dragon Age 2."

To be fair, all the followers in Dragon Age 2 hit on Hawke, even if she's the same sex as them. But that's because they are playersexual and attracted to her regardless, not because BioWare was trying to show actual gay content.

Merrill babbles like a fool when she meets Hawke, regardless of Hawke's gender, because she is attracted to them. Fenris shows an immediate interest the first time you talk to him in his mansion, and Hawke is given the option to turn him down. Isabela invites Hawke up to her room at the Hanged Man, and Anders, the most aggressive, will straight up ask Hawke to be with him (to the hilarious fury of many a homophobic male gamer).

The thing is, though, the playersexuality could have been achieved better if the characters had been more ambiguous about their sexuality, rather than being treated as if they were straight until the player flipped a switch in their brain. I don't mind followers hitting on me since they're supposed to be playersexual, but when they're presented as straight in every other context . . . sigh.

Again, Bethesda games just do it better. But that's because Bethesda games are about the world, not the story. While BioWare games are about the story . . . not the world.

A game that is story-intensive is going to have characters with more development, which makes it difficult to present them as playersexual. For example, Isabela has an entire background with the Qun and her abusive husband and her life as a pirate queen. Her sexuality is going to come into play in that. Meanwhile, Ysolda in Skyrim is just a bland, one-quest character who has no background (beyond being a drug dealer) and thus . . . no sexuality.

I think BioWare could figure out some middle ground if they wanted to. I mean, they could have easily remedied this by having our followers hit on characters of the same sex as well. But nope. Everyone had to be straight and were only gay for Hawke.

I hope they bring playersexuality back and improve on it. Because at the end of the day, I would still rather have more content available to me than "realistic" followers. I don't need realistic followers. I don't need my followers to represent me. I already have my protagonist for that!

Writers Can't Be Trusted to Represent Me

Why do people think Dorian is cute? He looks like he'll tie you to the train tracks with explosives.

Why do people think Dorian is cute? He looks like he'll tie you to the train tracks with explosives.

Dorian was the first gay male follower in the Dragon Age franchise and his struggles with homophobia were written realistically and accurately because a gay man, David Gaider, wrote him.

At the same time, however, Dorian also wound up being an annoying service announcement about gay rights. David Gaider is fully aware that he wrote Dorian in a tired manner and even admitted it some time after the game's release.

Gaider has also commented about his dislike for video game mods (I seem to recall him mocking fans about how the Frostbite engine was hard to mod. Such a delightful fellow . . . ), so it's my belief that he centered Dorian's story around him being gay so that it wouldn't make sense to mod him straight.

In other words, Gaider was protecting his self-insert from us evil gamers who just want to play the games we paid him for however we want. But to me it's like a shoe salesman trying to prevent his customers from dying their shoelaces purple. Once we buy the product, it's ours to do with as we please. That includes modding it!

These are games, not novels, but Gaider is a writer and views his video games as personal pieces, the way novels are. This is why I believe he hates mods and tried to prevent us from modding Dorian.

A lot of gay fans loved Dorian and were glad for the representation, but honestly? I'm a lesbian (if that wasn't clear) and I'm tired of stories where gay characters have an entire arc centered around being gay instead of just . . . being people.

The only nice thing I can say about Sera is that at least her writer didn't make being gay her entire character.

Sera in "Inquisition," the first lesbian follower.

Sera in "Inquisition," the first lesbian follower.

That said, Sera is a great example of why I don't care about NPCs being "representation" for me, and looking back years later, the demands for this were actually absurd. We don't need NPCs to represent us. All we need are protagonists we can self-insert on and followers we can mold to our particular playthrough. The rest will flow with it.

I feel this way because the writers can't represent me without being offensive as all f*ck any way. Vivienne was a sassy black asshole who rolled her neck like a ghetto stereotype (I'm black so this bothered me), and Sera was written by a straight white man . . . and oh boy, it shows.

Merrill, Isabela, and Marian Hawke fan art.

Merrill, Isabela, and Marian Hawke fan art.

In the end, I would much rather have a playersexual female character to romance, even if it means I have to put up with the "straight until proven bi" B.S. that comes with the mechanic.

At least I will have access to the content I want, at least I won't be forced, yet again, to play a male character, and at least I can participate in the greater story that is always specially reserved for straight players.

For me, the trade off is worth it.