Ambiguous Protagonists, Gender Roles in Romance, and, um, Action Figures?

Still haven’t finished Dragon Age yet–the world keeps hitting me with things like my day job, alas–but I’m most of the way through. I am, therefore, going to post about the broader topic the DA romance plots bring up, because I plan on rambling enough about that to make me need to split the other stuff about the game into its own post anyhow.

So, okay. You have three potential love interests in Dragon Age: two opposite-sex, one same-sex. There’s a Venn Diagram here, but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll just say that it involves bisexual elves and not!Frenchwomen* and move on. Already I’m liking this game. (I’d like it more if there was a non-buggy option whereby I could end up with both the knight and the assassin, but hey.) You also have a bunch of platonic companions, and you interact with pretty much everyone the same way: dialog options, gifts, and, in some cases, personal quests. Choosing certain dialog options will open up romance plot; you often don’t know what these options are, which is how I ended up hitting on half the characters in the game.**

First of all, I generally like that you can put just as much effort and time into developing the platonic relationships as you can into developing the romantic ones. I like my fictional romance, obviously, but I think friendship is just as important–and the moments when my character bonded with Sten or Wynne were pretty heartwarming.

Second, the combination of well-thought-out platonic relationships and the fact that your character can be either sex and any class creates a couple interesting dynamics, at least when you’re playing a female. Or, rather, it means that you don’t get the Standard Het Romance Character Interaction, with the power issues and the jealousy and the hey now. Often, though not always, heterosexual relationships in media come with the expectation that the man should be as badass if not more so than the woman, at least physically, that he should try to protect her, and that she shouldn’t be in a position of authority over him.

Not so much! CRPGs like this always subvert the position of authority anyhow–um, I’m the PC, therefore I’m the party leader, what’s up–but neither of the male love interests in DA has a problem with this, or switches to testing-my-power mode after the romance gets initiated. The standard dialog options have my character in the role of commander and friend, and the romance doesn’t subvert that at all. In fact, both of the guys in question explicitly state that they want me to be the authority figure here.

Which, not to get into black-leather-and-chains territory, is something I appreciate.

*As so many things should, really.

**Sorry, Leilana! I was just trying to be *nice*.


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I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam Romance novels from Sourcebooks: No Proper Lady Lessons After Dark Legend of the Highland Dragon The Highland Dragon's Lady Night of the Highland Dragon Highland Dragon Warrior Highland Dragon Rebel Highland Dragon Master I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.

11 thoughts on “Ambiguous Protagonists, Gender Roles in Romance, and, um, Action Figures?”

  1. Re: the Standard Het Romance Character Interaction, Bioware has always been really good about that, even above and beyond what this kind of RPG and its gender-neutral (or, at least, “male first and then we file the serials off”) writing lends itself to. In all their games that I’ve played, not a blessed one of the possible love interests for a female protagonist has ever seemed inclined to try flexing any machismo; rather the contrary, most of them – like Alistair and Zevran, God love ’em both – seem to entirely prefer having the PC in charge.

    I am definitely looking forward to hearing your more detailed thoughts on the game once you’re done, whenever day jobs and other such necessary parts of life permit. I feel the urge to compare notes on characters and quest resolutions and endings (especially the endings; dear God, the endings) every time one of my friends plays these games.

    1. Oh, nice! I need to find a copy of the Baldur’s Gate games at some point. NWN was sort of meh, but I hear BG is much better in terms of RP and plot and so forth. Also KoToR and sequels: Star Wars is not my thing, but what I hear about character development makes up for it.

      There will *definitely* be rambling about the rest of the game sometime soon. I’ve just gotten to the Landsmeet now, so I think the ending isn’t too far off.

      1. The Landsmeet is pretty much where shit, as they say, gets real – assuming you didn’t think it was real enough after things like Orzammar and the Broodmother, I guess. (Now there’s a fun time for a female Warden.)

        I have not played the Baldur’s Gate games, admittedly; the KotORs I can vouch for, except for the part where they kind of left off big chunks of KotOR II’s ending. (And even then it’s worth it for the amazing levels of sheer intra-party dysfunction.) You will definitely be able to see the seeds of Dragon Age’s development in KotOR, especially in things like character interactions.

  2. Love DA, and I need to replay it with a female character so I can get the Alistair romance–I was sore that Bioware didn’t make HIM the male/male option, because Zevran is somewhat annoying, as is Liliana.

    Another Bioware game I highly recommend is Jade Empire. It’s like playing a wuxia movie, and the male/male romance option is particularly well-written, as are both of the male/female options. It also has the totally-surprised-me male/female/female romance (if you’re romancing both Dawn Star and Silk Fox, and tell them repeatedly when they ask you to choose that you can’t (which for me was just to put them off, because I was trying to play with NO relationship), they decide that you don’t have to–it’s a bit “male fantasy,” I guess, but not written as such, fortunately).

    1. Oh, see, I liked Zevran. (Although I’m totally going to go and find whatever mod makes him dark-haired, because…blond guys, meh, by and large.)

      Jade Empire sounds pretty awesome. I’ll have to see if there’s a PC option, although I *could* PS2 it.

      1. Jade Empire is available on the PC. I have it through Steam. Didn’t even know it was on other platforms. I like it.

  3. If it makes you feel better, it’s nearly a month after this post, I’ve had Dragon Age since its release date, and I haven’t finished it either. I…got bored. :-\

      1. I hadn’t even hit the mid-game yet. I just suddenly lost interest in all these people and their woes and this massive backstory. Probably would have been happier with “kill more things” and less with “talk to 30 people with really long winded convos.”

  4. (I’d like it more if there was a non-buggy option whereby I could end up with both the knight and the assassin, but hey.)

    Actually, I’m told there is a way. It involves being a human female noble, being romantically involved with Zevran, hardening Alistair, putting Alistair on the throne, and proposing to Alistair (that is, announcing to the Landsmeet that you’re going to marry him) at the Landsmeet. Requires Alistair approving of you, or his response will be…unkind.

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