Like millions of other gamers around the world, I am a tremendous fan of the Dragon Age series. If you haven't played, they're pretty much dating sims dressed in costume as RPGs. I'm only sort of joking, here; while it's possible to completely ignore the romantic parts of a Dragon Age game, many players consider it the series' biggest draw. And even if you play as an aromantic hero, the game relies heavily on your relationships with your friends and allies to deliver its emotional payload.
The series is also widely considered an achievement of progressive thought and action on several levels—interrogating systems of oppression, allowing for gay and bisexual characters and relationships, introducing meaty layers of moral ambiguity and complicity. Not perfect, but some good-faith effort to be welcoming to a diverse audience is definitely at play.
I'd like to point out a way in which I think the next Dragon Age game could do a little better. See, what Dragon Age needs is a little more sexual objectification. Objectification of the male body.
First a little history: Dragon Age: Origins came out in late 2009. It was a different time for gamers; it was before GamerGate, before Dickwolves. In 2009, people were already complaining about the overabundance of grizzled white male space marines, but the business wasn't yet paying much attention.
Dragon Age: Origins already had a heavy payload of everything the franchise would come to represent through later installments: complex relationships between the player and other characters, morally ambiguous decisions that affected the course of your story, a richly textured world that treated you very differently depending on who you chose to be.
But as fervently as I loved that game—and I loved it very, very much—there was always a sour note in the series. Something that left me uncomfortable and aware that while I might be able to play as a woman, my gaze and tastes and preferences weren't quite what the designers had in mind. It was the desire demons.
In the Dragon Age universe, demons and spirits are otherworldly beings that manifest a single concept, like justice, envy, or rage. The desire demon is an entity that feeds off of your most deeply held desires by fulfilling them (or providing the illusion of fulfilling them). It's clear from the narrative of the game that this means a wide spectrum of possible desires; it might be for a loving and stable family life, for example.
But the character design for desire demons is at odds with this, and makes it very clear that the primary reading should be of erotic desire. And more specifically, a very mainstream male heterosexual desire.
See, the desire demons in Dragon Age: Origins are evil sexy ladies. They have spiraling horns and nipple jewelry that can be hard to distinguish from bare breasts and nipples. They wear a wisp of scarves and chains over their netherparts. They have round, perky breasts and defined waists and abs. You're clearly meant to read them as succubi.
The requirement that you kill women expressing an aggressive sexuality is common in video games . . . and horribly misogynistic. It has painful echoes of tacit approval of violence toward transgressive women throughout history. Women who actively want sex are bad and evil (demons!). You know what they say about women like that, right? She wasn't being a good girl. She was asking for it. She just got what she deserved.
I hope I don't need to spell out further why that subtext bothers me so much.
So every time I encountered one, it was a deeply uncomfortable moment in an otherwise exceptional series. Oh yeah, the sexy ladies that I have to kill, right. Checkbox ticked. Origins was still far and away a better experience as a female player than I'd had to date basically anywhere else, but those desire demons left me feeling . . . not great.
Desire demons appeared a few times in Origins, and then several more times in Awakening, Dragon Age 2, and various DLC expansions. But I loved my game series, so I persisted. We try to overlook the flaws in the things we love. And so when Dragon Age: Inquisition was finally released, I braced myself to suck it up and ignore that painful off-note when the desire demons cropped up again. And I waited, and I waited, and I waited.
Inquisition is all about demons. The core conflict of the story is that rifts are opening between your world and the Fade, the place where demons live. It's your job to kill the demons that have come through and then close those rifts. And so you fight dozens—hundreds!—of demons. Demons of rage, fear, despair, envy.
But the world has changed since 2009, and the Dragon Age series has changed along with it. In Inquisition, there are characters who are exclusively gay or lesbian, and not just conveniently hero-sexual. There's a trans character who isn't the butt of a dirty cross-dressing joke. There are subplots dealing with family acceptance of a child as-is, which are metaphorically and even explicitly about sexuality.
It is not the perfect diversity game for the ages, no, and there's room for more improvement along racial lines in particular. But let's recognize the miles traveled. You wouldn't have seen a AAA game as diverse nor as representative as Inquisition in 2009. No freakin' way.
Some of those changes have been an increased sensitivity toward elements that might make female players feel . . . slightly less welcome. And so the desire demons, those topless beauties of old, just didn't make it into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Poof. Vanished.
With one exception. And here we get to the meat of my problem. One subplot in Inquisition deals with searching for the notorious desire demon Imshael. My ears perked up at this, and I became very excited. A desire demon—coded as male? Could this be the game I love acknowledging the existence of a female sexual appetite? O frabjous day!
Turns out, no. Imshael, when you find him, looks like . . . just some dude. He is not a particularly sexualized dude, either. He's wearing a ratty fur vest and a full-length coat. He has demonic dark shadows under his eyes. There's not a hint of tight abs or buns nor of pleasingly broad, bare shoulders.
Imshael even frames himself not as a desire demon, but as a choice spirit. He's here to give you the choice of having all the riches and power you deserve. Harmless, really! Nothing predatory or sexual about that! Why, he's not like those other desire demons at all! It's ironic that in order to introduce moral ambiguity and depth to the motivations of a desire demon, they made it male. And then put a lot of clothes on him.
The writers did remove the underlying problematic slut-murdering misogyny that historically came along with desire demons, so that's nice. More than nice: it's magnificent, and I feel really great about having given Bioware my money so consistently over the years.
But they did it by removing that element of erotic desire completely. Did they really have to?
It's common to interpret the feminist wish to avoid sexualization and objectification of women as a wish to remove sex from our entertainment and public discourse completely.
But the issue with objectification as I see it lies in the Always/Only Test. Objectification is a problem when women are always objectified, and only women are objectified. Dragon Age has always been pretty great about providing us with characters like Cassandra, Aveline, and Wynne: well-rounded female characters who aren't designed solely to be sexy, sexy eye candy. So, the Dragon Age series passes the "always" part of the test with flying colors.
But what about the "only" part? It's true that men are available to the hero for sexual relationships in any given Dragon Age game. But none of them have the plunging necklines you find on Morrigan or Vivienne, or the figure-hugging garb of Merrill or Isabella. (You can make a case for Varric and his luxuriant chest hair, but he's never available to the player for romantic times.) None of the men are ever designed to be superhot first and foremost. And of course, there are no male desire demons.
The problem as I see it isn't sexualization as such. It's inequality in who gets catered to with that sexual content. So sure, you can cut away sexual content in order to avoid stepping into misogyny, and I respect and support that decision.
But it's not the only way. It's not even the most interesting way. Imagine how much richer a creative decision it would be if the developers had used their pure avatar of lust to cater to a wider array of tastes and preferences. Maybe the game notices who you flirt with the most, and models the desire demon on that gender presentation and body.
And imagine how the subtext of always killing the sexy lady changes when the sexy isn't always a lady. That's the kind of challenge and trope-subversion I expect from Bioware in general, and from a Dragon Age game in particular. This is a series that revels in asking difficult questions and putting you into uncomfortable situations.
And so I'd like to make a public plea. Hey, Bioware. Do me a favor, will you? And make me some smokin' hot, mostly naked, male desire demons in the next Dragon Age game. Even in some DLC if you have time. I and other fans of the masculine form thank you in advance. It's only fair, isn't it?