So here’s a story about missing the boat. A mini-controversy has erupted around the romantic and sexual content of BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, and specifically, the fact that you can trigger a sex scene between two male characters. I say “mini-controversy” because the only people who seem offended are the wingnut website World Daily News – who I won’t bother linking to – and the folks at Gawker and Wonkette, who actually weren’t offended so much as they found it hilarious.
But the story did make it as far as the New York Times this Saturday, where Dave Itzkoff wrote it up. Itzkoff knows gaming, and he got the facts of the story right, but I wish he’d given a little more context. For example: if you play the game, this isn’t really a “sex” option; it’s a “romance” option. It takes hours of building up a relationship with a character before it gets to that point. Your child, who shouldn’t be playing the game anyway (dig the “M” rating for “Mature”), will not just stumble into the bisexual elf’s tent and start having sex with him. In fact, if you’re not interested in having gay sex with the elf, you won’t pursue him at all, and you’ll never get close to propositioning him.
The game is also fairly tame. People in Dragon Age do it with their undies on, which looks awkward and not too sexy, especially after Mass Effect, where the sex was very sexy. And there was a girl-on-girl scene in Mass Effect, but that doesn’t seem to bother people because … well, I won’t rehash the double-standard about how gay girls are marketable and gay guys are anathema. I’ll just say that I don’t think it’s fair.
And that’s why I’m glad BioWare included the Zevran relationship. When BioWare introduced romance options in Baldur’s Gate II, they only had budget for a few of them: male characters had three female options, female characters got a Paladin, and that was it. Over the years, BioWare has included more relationships and has also included gay or bisexual characters. I believe there was a gay male relationship available in Jade Empire, but it hasn’t gotten much press, and it also didn’t include a cutscene. (Back in the old days, people would say, “Let us go to the tent!” and that was that.) Mass Effect had a lesbian relationship but not a gay one. And now in Dragon Age, we finally have something for everyone.
And that’s just fair. It’s your game and your experience. If the game is going to have romance, you should be able to choose the romance that you want and the fantasy you choose. I wouldn’t say BioWare has been too cautious ’til now – I think the cost of adding these things may have limited them as much as any conservativism about including gay couples. I’ve never asked them and I can’t really speak to it. But clearly they’re not afraid to handle homosexuality in a mature way, and good for them.
Okay, but back to me again. I pitched a story to a magazine about how awesome it was that Dragon Age had romance options. They rejected it, and I don’t blame them: that’s not as great a hook as, “Oh wow, gay elf sex!” The gay elf sex hook will get people to read your story. At the same time, I don’t blame the NYT for pushing that angle – I just wish the story had spent more time talking about the larger context, or talked about how long BioWare’s been doing this, how much context they set up around it, and how harmless the sex scene really is. Itzkoff brings up the Grand Theft Auto “hot coffee” fiasco, but that was an interactive sex scene – push button for thrust, push again to change positions – which is not the same thing as watching a quick little cartoon of two people rolling around in their underwear.
I did write a story about sex in Dragon Age, however: my column Chasing Alistair talks about how I played the game as a female character, and wound up deciding that the best romance option for my character was Alistair. I thought this seemed a little risky when I wrote it, but the more I look online, the more I see other guys making the same decision. They don’t find themselves “threatened” by romancing a guy in a video game; instead, they think he’s an appealing character, and they want their female protagonist to get to know him better. I’m comfortable enough in my sexuality to write a whole column about how hard it was to get this dude to give it up. And a lot of other gamers are too – no matter how much the mainstream press laughs at our silly gay elf sex.