Gather ‘round, children, the Crotchety Old Gamer is going to tell you a story. Long ago, in the Before Times, when we had to walk uphill both ways to the console to connect the RF switch (Yes, there WAS such a thing! Your granny isn’t lying, Google it.), things were very different from how they are now. Back then, the player lived in an oppressive communist regime where they had no choice in how a game progressed. Stop laughing, I’m telling the truth. Take that Wiimote out of your nose and listen to me!
True, in the primitive console days, you did have two choices; succeed and win, or fail and die. Sometimes while succeeding and winning you had the option of “Turn off that goddamn machine and get your room cleaned or so help me I’ll kick your lazy ass into next week!” but that would usually depend on who was home at the time. Still, even RPGs were so consistent in their oppression that the trope became known as the Communist Choice:
NPC: Would you like to: 1. Try to kill the king.
2. Try to convince the king you’re innocent.
3. Run into the sewers for a 3 hour dungeon-crawl.
Hero: Try to kill the king.
NPC: The king is too heavily guarded, we can’t!
Hero: Try to convince the king I’m innocent.
NPC: He’ll never believe us as long as the vizier is around!
Hero: (sigh) Run into the sewers for a 3 hour dungeon-crawl?
NPC: Lead on! 😀
RPG plots were fairly linear because they were all about the story. Yes, there was a role-playing aspect to the main character, but really only in the sense that you pretended to be them as the plot played out around you. You were (usually) a young man with a heroic destiny, a pack of diverse friends, and the entire Joseph Campbell library. You met the girl early on, usually while she was in disguise, suffered with her terrible stats until the inevitable kidnapping and rescue, to be rewarded with few lines in the epilogue on how you live happily ever after.
As a young butch lesbian, these stories kiiiinda fit; I was a dashing hero with incredible martial prowess and/or magical powers and/or a mech, saving my lady fair, you know, just like in real life. Still, something seemed a bit off, probably the fact that the only thing under my trousers was Lady Fruit-of-the-Looms and not a jockstrap. After a few years, you began to see RPGs with a female protagonist but true to form, you were strapped in on a 20-30 hour story ride that deposited you either at the feet of your male love interest, or with nary a mention of your sex life by the end. The closest I could get was reading my own subtext into Xena: Warrior Princess for the PS1.
Still, it wasn’t *that* big a deal. After all, I represented such a small demographic of total gamers and 10-15 years ago, homosexuality in media was a rare and controversial thing. I just shrugged and stagnated, playing my great-great-last gen console games and thinking no more on the subject.
Recently, I finally took a step into last decade and picked up an Xbox 360. My love of JRPGs has waned over the years in favor of an exciting fling with Western sword&sorcery RPGs. I’d been a fan of the Dragon Age series due to having read the books years ago and in preparation for the Fall 2014 release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I’ve been wasting my hours happily questing through DA2.
I chose to make the main character, Hawke, a female warrior, messed with her stats and appearance and sat myself down for some standard fantasy adventure. Bioware games feature a lot of moral choice, to the extent that a snide word to an NPC in the first few hours of the game can come back to bite your ass a few minutes before the final fight. I love it. You also are free(ish) in your dialogue and relationships with your companions, which includes romance, if you so choose, and homosexuality if that’s your thing.
In Dragon Age: Origins, I chose the male dwarf warrior and ignored romance on my first play-through because we had darkspawn to kill, damn it! In DA2 I was suddenly confronted with two options for lesbianism; an elf mage who looked like she was 16 to my 30 (too bad, because her voice actress was amazing), and a flirtatious pirate rogue with wit and charm and no stranger to the phrase ‘tracts of land’. My choice was obvious and I plugged away, bringing her on quests where I’d earn her approval with my decisions and stopping by the tavern for flirty conversations.
Somewhere in there, however, in between busting bandit heads and fetch-quests, my gaming experience changed. I’d triggered enough romance that, cued by me returning to base, the pirate showed up and there was a chaste sexy times cut-scene. I squeed, but then we talked and she didn’t want to bring ‘feelings’ into it, and left. Yeah, I knew from walkthroughs that with more approval, a gift and certain decisions, she’d be mine in the end, but I felt crushed and confused.
You read that right. I’m happily married in real life to a wonderful, loving woman but my character worked up the nerve to start something with a crush, who was ‘whatevs’ about it, and *I* was the one who felt confused and rejected. That, dear children, is an RPG that understands role-playing. Long story short, we ended up together and I beat the game, with the epilogue noting that all my companions eventually drifted elsewhere, except my pirate. I squeed again.
Never once in-game was there any hint of there being something wrong with a girl dating another girl. Homosexuality seems to be taken in Thedas with as much note as women warriors; that is to say, none. Here it was, for the very first time, I could be me, liking a woman like I do. My first experience with a game meant for me (as well as everyone else, but they can get their own columns) and I was totally taken aback with how much emotion that single fact evoked.
Bioware has taken a lot of flak from pretty much everyone over romances. Purists say romance has no place in games, bigots say homosexuality has no place in games, and lots of people criticized them for distilling something as complex as a relationship down to a series of algorithms and numbers. Technically that last group has a point but I think we’re all mature enough to tell the difference between a +10 approval from a companion for defending mages and understanding that in real life, even though we bought our crush dinner, he/she just isn’t that into us.
Dragon Age lead writer (and my new personal world-building hero) David Gaider recently wrote this piece about inclusion and his thoughts as a game writer and gay man. I was grousing up some Qunari when I saw the link and paused combat so I could read it. What struck me the most was that I’d felt the same way all along, just had no words to express it.
I exist and I’m gay, and a game merely acknowledging that fact, that gay people can exist, touched me deeper than any video game has before.
RPGs have come a long way since the Stone Age of consoles, to a bright current generation full of choice and consequence. For all my bluster and whining about current gen games and the good ol’ days, I’ll finally learn to double-axis toggle if it means I get games where I can…er…‘double-axis toggle’, if you know what I’m sayin’. Now you damn kids better get off my lawn before I go get my Nintendo light gun.