In fantasy worlds, historical accuracy is a lie
The mythical realms of Dragon Age grow beautifully with the telling, including their representation of Earthly minorities. Even so, something's missing...
I'd like to welcome you to Thedas, a fantastical place lots of us have lived in since BioWare's Dragon Age: Origins launched in 2009. The borders of this lush fantasy world have sprawled ever outward through the release of Dragon Age II, and welcomed ever more players. With the most recent game, Dragon Age: Inquisition we can end up a leader, whether we're a human, an elf or a dwarf.
But though almost anything's possible within Dragon Age's beloved world of Thedas, something feels off. Although Dragon Age is a fantasy roleplaying game, Thedas is overlaid with a faux-European sociopolitical landscape -- and that means there are few people of color among its citizenry. Why do the sinister old arguments of "historical accuracy" still apply to this fantasy world?
Elves, magic, dragons, shapeshifting and ancient powers of world destruction are somehow totally believable, but the idea that brown people might exist is somehow not. My colleague MedievalPOC's blog uses art, history and other resources to regularly debunk the broad but rarely-questioned misconception that only white people were around in medieval times. So if we know brown folks definitely existed in actual Medieval Europe, why are they absent from a made-up fantasy world only loosely inspired by Medieval Europe? Where are the brown folks in Dragon Age's Thedas?
Let's have a look at the history of representation in my favorite game series.
Across the series' first two games, it seems that except for a handful of NPCs (non-player characters), Thedas is overwhelmingly white. Except these NPCs and a few incredibly minor encounters (blink and you'll miss 'em) on the map, there aren't many characters easily identifiable as people of color, like Zevran Arainai, the Antivan assassin who you encounter after he's been hired to kill you. There's also Isabela, the Rivaini pirate who can teach you the Duelist specialization. There's Duncan, who initially recruits you to the Wardens, whose heritage is mixed with Rivaini. We also can't forget about the Qunari warrior Sten, who you can encounter in Lothering and rescue, or leave for the Darkspawn to kill.
Aside from these characters, we do encounter a few minor NPCs -- but oddly enough, I've noticed a pattern: The majority of them just happen to live in the town that gets destroyed first in the game. You don't have the option to help them.
Count exceptions to the rule all you like, but one has to notice there's not a lot of color in these games. Tumblr user flutiebear compiled a full accounting of just how many POC characters are in the DA world. The percentages are not heartening.
In the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, you could create a non-white Warden -- yet it wasn't really possible to make a non-white Warden that looked right, because of the limitations of the character creator. For one thing, there was something amiss when you had cutscenes with your family:
It got better in Dragon Age II, where your choices from the character creator would influence the appearance of your siblings Bethany and Carver, as well as your mother Leandra and her sibling, Gamlen.
Dragon Age II introduced "genetics" that were passed among the Hawke family (your family, as the protagonist Hawke) as a way to see family relationships. The improved graphics also allowed you to make a POC Hawke. Though there were still few dark skin tones to choose from in the character creator, it was a step up from the first game's character creator, as you can see.
That's great for players who want to have a Hawke who resembles them. But what about the city they save? If you look around, you'll find most areas of Dragon Age II's Kirkwall were populated with mostly-white background characters. The city is divided into multiple areas, and the Hightown sector is the "upper class area," where inhabitants are coded as white and affluent. Many seem to be expats from the even more-haute Orlais, and turn their nose up at being in Kirkwall, despite being in the "better" part of the city.
Despite my best efforts trawling and leveraging social media, I couldn't find many people of color in the game's religious groups (the Templars and the sisters of the Chantry). And the situation doesn't improve when we reach the third Dragon Age game: Depending on your save files, Isabela and Zevran can return, as can Fenris, an escaped slave. Aside from that, there's just a few NPCs who are people of color -- you encounter them, but they never join your party.
There's Hubert Bartiere, the Orlesian mine owner -- he's a slimy venture capitalist who's only concerned with the bottom line and disregards his employees. There's Ella, the Circle mage that is being harassed by Ser Alrik; Alain the runaway Starkhaven mage, and Guardsman Maecon, who you encounter when entering the Blackpowder Treason mission. Within the fandom, lots of us argue about whether Sebastian Vael could be considered a person of color -- I say no, personally.
We further see this imbalance in the characters that hold power in Kirkwall; Knight-Commander Meredith Stannard is in charge of the city from Act III through the game's end -- and she's a blonde, blue-eyed Templar. Viscount Marlowe Dumar, in charge of Kirkwall for two out of three of the game's acts? Also white and blue-eyed. Knight-Captain Cullen Rutherford is another white blond guy, while ruddy-complected Seneschal Bran likely runs the city for Viscount Dumar. Aveline Vallen is Captain of the Guard -- another white blonde.
While he's white-skinned, First Enchanter Orsino, elven leader of the mages, faces a situation where his authority is crippled by the fact he's an elf -- and a mage. in a city where Templars rule. Elves are often treated as second and third-class citizens in Dragon Age lore -- a lot of people compare their status to the experience of POC by many, but their appearance has changed. Where they once had a variety of skin tones, elves in Dragon Age II are mostly fair-complected.
So while Dragon Age II was a step back for the universe's NPC diversity, the latest game, Dragon Age Inquisition, has thankfully taken a leap forward in visual representation. We finally get a black party member -- a character no one can claim might not be black. Meet Vivienne De Fer, the Official Enchanter to the Court of Orlais.
We also get a far more diverse cast of characters in the recent Dragon Age: Inquisition. We have Mother Giselle, a Chantry mother you encounter early in the game, Dorian Pavus, a mage from Tevinter, Josephine Montilyet, your Ambassador from Antiva, and if you choose the Templars, you can recruit Ser Delrin Barris to the cause. There's also Master Dennet, the horsemaster from Redcliffe, his daughter Seanna and his weapons master Bron, whom you encounter during a quest.
So there are many more people of color, both non-player characters and recruitable ones, in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Great, right? Well, while Thedas certainly got more colorful between DA II and the Inquisition, it still sees some representation problems when it comes to character development and how they interact with the world and your Inquisitor.
For example, Chantry Mother Giselle seems like a great character when you first meet her. She doesn't appear to care whether the Inquisitor is dwarven, human, elven or Qunari. But once the player acquires Skyhold, we rapidly see her character degenerate into a collection of tropes: The excessively-religious, homophobic black lady. The "magical negro" who helps everyone launch into the "Dawn Will Come" musical sequence (for more on this, see my piece "My problem with Mother Giselle").
Even Vivienne de Fer, who gave me so much hope initially, disappoints. She falls head over hennin into the "Strong Black Woman" archetype from the moment she's introduced. She's a supposed "ice queen," an untouchable woman who's too good for the plebes around her. She says "my dear" like some women say "bless her heart," and her words cut sharper than any spell. Any flirtation attempts result in her putting you down, emphasizing her own unattainability. Why can't she just be a black woman with the romantic and relationship quirks we all have?
It disappoints me greatly that the first undeniably black party member this franchise gave us is a walking trope. Although lots of my fellow players love Vivienne, I can't -- she seems to me another flat, dull reflection of how women like me are seen by the media (sassy, bossy). There are also incredibly gross sequences between her and Cole, when you have them in the same party -- if you're interested in delving further into this, you can read this thread on GameFAQs (content warning: racism).
But there's still some hope. Dragon Age: Inquisition's Ser Barris is a Templar you can rescue and recruit to the Inquisition, and his blackness is never an issue in how you recruit him or interact with him. In fact, you can send him on missions and ultimately see him promoted to Knight-Commander in a wonderful scene. Actually, many non-player characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition aren't othered or reduced to one-dimensional tropes. They're just characters going about their lives, and the sight gives me hope for future installations of Dragon Age.
I hope the tropes that govern characters like Vivienne de Fer or Mother Giselle are the last we see of these types of things. I hope these missteps simply happen because there aren't many people of color working in the games industry. It's not that anyone on the Dragon Age team is willfully racist or malicious to players; it's simply that someone who doesn't have the lived experience of dealing with racism as a person of color would simply not think about these things.
I want these things to end; I want more people of color working in the games industry. I want more people on the team who can go, "whoa, wait, this isn't okay." I want more people sitting in the room who can bring things like these up when scripts are being written -- or better yet, while characters are still being conceived. These painful jabs hurt people like me as we traverse the fantasy worlds that are supposed to represent the ultimate escape from the real.
I hope the next invitation to Thedas brings me a more inclusive journey.
Also at Offworld: Fantasy worlds that break history's back, on how one pen and paper game helps players destroy racist "historical accuracy" tropes
Conversations on blackness in games
This year, I helped University of Chicago science fiction writer and renaissance scholar Ada Palmer and science historian Adrian Johns host a series of interdisciplinary seminars on "Censorship, Information Control, & Revolutions in Information Technology from the Printing Press to the Internet."
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