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Today we're excited to welcome Ira to Lady Business to talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition! Ira is a kickass illustrator, writer, and web developer who gained their powers by consuming the bones of their enemies. They make art, comics, and writing when they are not distracted by way too many video games. You can find more of Ira's work at their tumblr.

So I suppose it's time to talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition! In the last 2-3 months I bulldozed my way through the entire DA game series, have arrived at the end of DAI, and boy howdy, I have opinions. Let's have a spoiler-free summary up here first, with spoilery details below the cut. Overall I feel like Bioware tried to add a lot of grey, particularly to issues they'd seen people getting pretty black-and-white over, and really overcorrected with the grey.
The Dragon at Emprise Du Lion

Grey for everyone!
(Image credit: Dragon Age Wiki)

Many thanks to [personal profile] owlmoose for helping me figure out some of what was bothering me and playing editor. She may not agree with all I say, but helped shape the saying.

Things I liked!
  • Cassandra Pentaghast. She is nearly perfect as a character, imperfections and all. She's determined, loyal, iron-willed, unwavering, and sees the faults in the systems she's part of. If only my lady Inquisitor could have romanced her! But overall? This is one part of DAI that gets no [disgusted noise] from me.

  • Josephine was a treat, and I appreciate the alternate approach she represents; I often find diplomatic or third-option solutions far more interesting and satisfying. Her romance is adorable, her character is great, and I just wish we weren't such a terribly, terribly underutilized gem.

  • Cullen grew a lot -- good work, buddy. Shame you're straight too.

  • It was great to see Morrigan again, with how she's matured and changed.

  • The game is beautiful and huge -- overwhelmingly so much of the time, but I think that has more to do with my sensory overload threshold than anything else. Whenever I was up to handling it, the scale and scenery were breathtaking.

  • DAI does... some... amount of work to correct some of the flaws in its inherently misogynistic worldbuilding. There are more and more varied women, gender is made less an issue of, and overall the treatment of women is improving.

  • Krem is fucking great and I will hear no words against him and his awesomeness.

  • Dagna! Scout Harding! Dwarf ladies!

Things that rubbed me a wee bit the wrong way
  • Oppression as a theme is treated with none of the care and gravity it or Bioware's own worldbuilding deserve. The mage-templar conflict is papered over with a bit too much "both sides are just as bad" hand-waving, and the elves, POC-coded as they are, are treated terribly by the narrative, painted as foolish and participants in their own demise and ongoing oppression.

  • There's a lot of tricky-to-icky racial subtext in the game, from Morrigan's blatant elfsplaining to the first Black playable female character being classist and supportive of oppressive regimes to a POC party member being a slavery apologist.

  • GSM people continue to be majority outcast or problematic in some way while straight people continue to be majority upstanding folk. The only to-date canonical gay companion romance is written deliberately as a questionable idea. One of the gay characters gets an arc about how very tragically gay and outcast they are.

  • Most returning or past characters and factions are treated poorly by the narrative. The Grey Wardens got some unbelievably bad writing, right down to a moustache-twirling villain. Characters who would have been thematically appropriate to return, such as Merrill, didn't, while characters who did show up are poorly used and executed, written into corners by worldstates.

  • The large-scale writing is poor. The antagonists were wildly uneven, culminating with Corypheus himself who, drop dead deeply satisfyingly awesome as his voice was, amounted to little more than a by-the-numbers, suitable-for-mass-consumption, uncomplicated Big Bad. The overall plot is thin and poorly tied together.

  • The Inquisitor themselves is handed some dialogue options that are homophobic and transphobic at worst, ignorant and clumsy at best. Why?

Let's just dive right in to the dirty stuff, right? SPOILERS AHOY.

The Mage-Templar Conflict

Bioware kind of wrote themselves into a corner here. With the way they do their narratives, there was no way for the third game to explicitly take a side in the mage-templar conflict -- the plot had to stand outside the conflict or run aground on the reefs of previous player choices. Then, when they found themselves in this situation, it seems like they tried to give a more "even-handed" portrayal of both mages and templars -- we meet some good templars (but most of them only if you side with the templars anyway), as well as mages who misuse their power. But I do want to note that you'll meet Circle-supporting mages regardless of who you side with, and it's just a bit... weird... to listen to characters saying, "Well I don't mind this oppressive system! I, personally, did not feel oppressed by it!" Reminds a bit too strongly of some real-world narratives, you know?

Let's be clear, there is no viable real-world analogue for mages. Bioware built their mages that way: they are inherently dangerous, arguably inherently damaging to the world simply by existing. But around this concept of mages, Bioware has built narratives about oppression (and, arguably, economics). And sure, it's fair to ask the audience to do a bit of critical thinking with something like this -- I like that it invites thought. But at the same time, when playing around with oppression narratives, it behooves creators to be aware that they're playing with fire. Comparisons to real-world systems of oppression are inevitable: the only way we understand fantasy worlds is through the lens of our real world. So peppering the game with mages who support the Circle system is just a wee bit dangerous, especially when you make one of the most vocal supporters a Black woman. Just sayin.

So, cool, I get that players were getting pretty het up about mages vs templars after DA2 and Bioware wanted to capitalize on that without invalidating player choices/worldstates. But this is truly treacherous ground. I understand that it was narratively necessary to meet pro-Circle mages, same as Wynne was necessary to DAO's worldbuilding. But this is just the result of a large-scale problem with Bioware's worldbuilding and handling of the consequences of those choices. And speaking of playing with narratives of oppression...

How the Elves Got Everything Wrong, Did Everything Wrong, and Were Wrong in General

This game is terrible to the elves. Bioware created a POC-coded race and then spent the latter half of DAI dumping all over them. The elves got their own history wrong. The elves' own infighting led to their downfall, not the invasion of the humans. The elves practiced slavery. "Elfy elves," as Sera would call them, are continually derided by the two members of their own race we get as companions. To quote the post I just linked:
And the fact that a group of largely white, Western video game writers continually appropriate real world narratives of oppression for a fictional setting and then proceed to use real world denialist arguments to minimize that oppression in the setting and even blame the oppressed people for their oppression is disgusting and racist.

And to top it all off, Minaeve's backstory shows that Dalish (or her clan, at least) abandon unwanted mage-children. The Dalish once provided a counter-narrative for how mages might be treated, as attested in Merrill's codex entry, which implies that Dalish clans carefully cultivate mage numbers and treat mages as a communal resource and responsibility. But now even this is taken from them. I understand that Minaeve's backstory depends on her being too weak a mage to be useful as a Keeper, but strong enough to be a danger, therefore making her the type of mage that is, of all mages, perhaps best served by a Circle life. I understand that they're trying to show that there are no perfect, easy answers to the question of mages. But set alongside all the other things DAI has done to elves and especially the Dalish, it's a bit much.

In DAI, despite how many opinions we get on the Dalish from Sera and Solas (particularly if the Inquisitor themselves is Dalish), the Dalish are not granted a voice of their own. Merrill, for example, would have been an interesting character to carry forward. But instead, Solas belittles modern elves at every turn, and is retroactively framed as authoritative on the matter once he is revealed to be the Dread Wolf, and we are provided no foil for him. Unless you count Sera's own flavour of contempt or Morrigan's elfsplaining. And it's funny how when Merrill, an actual elf, tries to explore forgotten parts of her heritage she's foolish and endangering the clan and ostracized, but when Morrigan explores some of the self-same topics she's elevated, willing to look everywhere for knowledge and to preserve the old world. Hmmmmmm.
Velanna Merrill Morrigan;

Which of these characters from previous DA games seems a natural choice to make a return appearance largely for the purpose of expounding on elven history and magic?
(Credits: Velanna, Merril, Morrigan)

Speaking of which, much as I love Morrigan, it was outright bizarre to watch a human white(*) character spouting off all this narration about our local POC-coded race, especially if you happen to bring actual elves with you. Or play an actual elf. Like wow. Why this choice? Why keep Solas so quiet or provide some other elvhen voice to do this part? Sure, with the Flemeth reveal it makes some poetic sense. But is this really the price you want to pay for your poetry? Presenting a non-elf as the local authority on all things elf-related?

I have no more words. Wow.

Surprise Racial Politics! Or How to Pair Characters WIth Narratives for Great Results

Speaking of Morrigan's elfsplaining, there are some other pretty questionable pairings of race and narrative. Now, Morrigan's elfsplaining is not framed as unequivocally a good idea -- in fact after the Mythal and Fen'Harel reveals she seems a little foolish. But it exists in a narrative where we're presented with mages who agree with oppressive systems and characters of colour who agree with slavery. (We all still remember the difference between realism and realism porn, right? Good.) The context is... unhelpful.

One of those mages is Vivienne, powerful both magically and socially, extremely refined and smart, and a supporter of the Circle system. It's... a pretty questionable choice to have your first playable woman of colour be an advocate for an oppressive, easily abused system. Just... just examine that pairing of character and narrative again just a bit?

And then we have Dorian and his opinions on slavery. He's a POC character who is a slaveowner and slavery apologist -- oh sure, he claims he did not himself have any personal slaves, but his family owns slaves, whom he seems to have used and benefitted from himself with no issue. And then there's this, keeping in mind everything said earlier about elves:
Dorian: Solas, for what it's worth, I'm sorry.
Dorian: The elven city of Arlathan sounds like a magical place, and for my ancestors to have destroyed it...
Solas: Dorian... hush.
Solas: Empires rise and fall. Arlathan was no more "innocent" than your own Tevinter in its time.
Solas: Your nostalgia for the ancient elves, however romanticized, is pointless.
Solas: If you wish to make amends for past transgressions, free the slaves of all races who live in Tevinter today.
Dorian: I... don't know that I can do that.
Solas: Then how sorry are you?

Ahh racial politics.

Never change.

Those Queer People Sure Are Queer

So Bioware has kind of a history with trends regarding straight people versus GSM people, in that a far greater percentage of the DA universe's GSM population is morally grey and/or ostracized, while comparatively more of the people presented in-universe as overall good are straight. This isn't to say that the straight characters never have flaws (see: Morrigan disapproves; Alistair's lying; Sebastian's vengeance), but there is an overall... leaning... where straight characters are from socially-supported backgrounds (Alistair, Sebastian, Cullen, and Cassandra are all affiliated with the Chantry and presented as generally good) or at least powerful (Morrigan, Cassandra), while mogai characters are morally grey, disenfranchised, or dead. Again, there are counterexamples (Josephine on the one hand, Blackwall on the other), but the trends aren't great.

And DAI has... Dorian. Oh, Dorian. I love Dorian. I do. He and my Inquisitor got along famously. But why did Bioware make their first canonically gay character a POC who is a slavery apologist? Then make his companion quest about him being gay? Protip: unless you're willing to devote A LOT of care and space to it, do not make a marginalized character's story arc about their marginalization. It's reductivist. Yes, it's important to have stories that acknowledge the familial conflict and ostracization that many gay people go through. But unless your story is about that, don't make your character about that. (Once again: realism vs. realism porn, yes?) Dorian was all set to be a character who, just, well, happened to be gay (you know, like people do?) until I hit his personal quest. And then suddenly we were all about how very gay he was. Good to know.

But while we're on the topic of Dorian, he also had the privilege of being half of the canonical companion couple this time around, the other one being Iron Bull. Now, I'm overall pretty okay with how Iron Bull is portrayed in terms of his sexuality. But a lot of people have been triggered by the writing around Dorian and Bull's relationship, or have otherwise perceived it as an abusive one. I think there are valid counterarguments, and myself fall somewhere in the middle, as, apparently, does David Gaider. But the best takeaway I can find here is that the first canonical gay companion relationship was intentionally (if poorly) written as a questionable idea.

Bioware, you and your questionable ideas.

Hawke and the Grey Wardens; Or, Fighting Outside Your Narrative Weight Class

Here Lies the Abyss deserved better writing. It had some of the worst writing I've seen from Bioware, ever. The villain was deplorably simple. Clarel was treated with laughable indignity -- literally, I let out a bark of mortified laughter when the dragon chomped her. Hawke was poorly utilized. But I am pleased to say that here, at least, I'm upset about poor writing that is simply poor writing, as opposed to writing that participates in racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive and problematic narratives.

So, you know. There's that.

But this entire arc and the Grey Wardens deserved better. I'm not objecting to portraying the order as making a mistake -- Wardens have been, well, grey since the start. It's one of their defining characteristics, and a thing I thoroughly enjoy about them. But their descent deserved better. The idea of Corypheus being able to Call them is a necessary followup on the Legacy DLC, but they were given so little nuance and agency with it. The Wardens in the Legacy DLC got way more.

And the poor writing extends to the handling of the default Warden, Stroud. Simply put, he's just not in the same narrative weight class as the likes of Alistair or Loghain or, most importantly, Hawke. One of the culminating choices of Here Lies The Abyss relies for its pathos on having to choose between a Hawke (who is at the very least Varric's good friend, at most is someone players have spent an entire game with) and a Grey Warden. For the choice to have any meaning, that Warden better be in the same weight class as Hawke. Alistair and Loghain carry that, but Stroud straight up doesn't. He, or a fresh Warden character, really needed to have some quality writing invested to get them awesome'd up quite a bit for the choice to feel like it mattered. It is possible to write characters with limited screentime who the players end up caring about and valuing. But this time, they just didn't do so.

I do appreciate the exquisite pain of having to choose between Hawke and a Grey Warden you (presumably) care about. That was a neat setup. But Hawke themselves is used... weirdly. Badly. It was a risky move to bring the previous game's protagonist into this game, and they tried to play a tricky balance of keeping the "Ooh wow Hawke" factor while keeping Hawke distant enough so as to not overshadow the Inquisitor. But they paired this challenge with the challenge of writing a post-DA2 Hawke at all, especially given all the various choices the player could have made, and I think it was just too many risky moves paired with writers of not enough skill. I played a friendly, pro-mage, neutral-on-blood-magic purple Hawke, and the Hawke I was given simply did not match a reasonable extrapolation of my Hawke's choices, their love interest clumsily waved away. It's just a result of getting boxed in by worldstates, and it was a gamble upon a gamble for Bioware to take.

It's just a shame that Hawke was paired with such simplistic villains.

We Deserve Better Villains and More Plot

My favourite villains in the game is probably Florianne, followed by Alexius and Calpernia. That's because they are the only ones given any real pathos or interaction with the Inquisitor. Dancing with Florianne was the highlight of Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts for me (oh my god the fucking halla statuettes).

On the flip side we have, well, every other antagonist, but particularly Corypheus. DA2 has many, many flaws, but I appreciated the nods of humanity Meredith is given, and that you have a chance to work with her. These are interesting choices for a game's antagonist. In DAO, the ultimate big bad is the archdemon, sure, but you spend at least as much time squaring off against Loghain and his many schemes, and are given the chance to even recruit him and talk deeply with him. Corypheus's voice is an utter delight to my ears, but as a villain he is extremely shallow and out of keeping with series tradition.

DAO showed that it's perfectly possible to have a big dumb Big Bad at the end as long as you spend time with other antagonists, often agents or underlings -- ironically enough roles like the one tvtropes labels as the Dragon. Corypheus has (one literal dragon and) two possible Dragons -- antagonists who have a relatively constant presence throughout the main plot. But the parts of the plot that try to make these antagonists at all interesting are relegated to optional sidequests, inner circle quests, and a lot of reading material. (Also, Samson is just boring.) If Corypheus himself were more nuanced and compelling, then his lieutenant(s) could stand to be thin or their interesting bits hidden away. But Corypheus is pretty simplistic, and his lieutenants don't make up for it, bits of themselves scattered all over the map, loosely tied together and very optional.

This is just one symptom of an overall thin and shallow plot -- at least in proportion to the sheer size and scope of the rest of the game. The game world felt huge and epic, and I expected a plot to match, with choices of similar scope. Probably what bothered me the most on an overall writing level was how little my choices seemed to matter in the lead-up to Corypheus. What you do with Orlais and the Wardens seems to matter to war table missions more than anywhere else, not even some nice cinematics to show the results of my choices. Instead I got a lot of optional sort of related mini-plots in side areas and a handful of Here Is The Actual Plot dungeon-style areas. Some of those side plots could easily have been beefed up a bit and made into pieces of the main plot. But given how they did with Here Lies The Abyss, I'm half afraid of what the results would have been.

Why Is the Inquisitor Forced to Be An Ignorant Jackass?

So Krem is great. Overall, I really liked the writing of and around Krem, including how his dad was a positive figure (contrast Dorian's father). However, the Inquisitor was given a bafflingly large array of possible responses to Krem that were ignorant or transphobic, and vanishingly few options that were informed and supportive. Why? I understand this was probably an attempt at some Trans 101, but what about for players who don't need it and would rather give supportive and informed responses? I know Bioware gives players the chance to play as complete assholes, sure. But usually this is paired with the chance to not play as an asshole maybe?

There was a similar odd moment during Dorian's very gay quest about how very gay he is where I meant for my Inquisitor to say something like "oh, you're gay? that's cool" but what came out of her mouth was some ignorant remark along the lines of "what, no women at all?" Why? I can understand (if not really agree) the reasoning behind giving players who have maybe never been exposed to trans characters before a chance to be a bit ??? about it, but I'm pretty sure Bioware's audience know how gay people work and there's no call to be weird about it.

While I'm complaining about ignorant Inquisitors, let's bring up Morrigan's elfsplaining again in the context of a Dalish Inquisitor. Ouch. This was apparently a scripting error, and I know QA isn't perfect (boy howdy do I), but once again, Bioware is playing with a marginalized population here, and handling a conversation with someone outside that population who is presenting herself as an expert. This is some tricky ground here; is it too much to ask to double check that scripting in particular to make sure it doesn't, however accidentally, dump all over the marginalized race?

There Were Things I Liked, I Swear

I didn't hate the game. Really. I finished it in pretty decent spirits and I loved exploring the huge world and the scenery was often just damn gorgeous. I liked the companions in general. I loved that the cast overall was less straight while male than ever before. I liked the companions having distinct sexualities and orientations, including that some would always be unavailable on any given playthrough. Cassandra was a consistent delight, aided strongly by her wonderful VA Mirandra Raison. Jennifer Hale and Allegra Clark did similarly enchanting turns as Krem and Josephine, respectively. Seeing and especially hearing more of Orlais was great, though I was a bit underwhelmed by the Summer Bazaar. Having an entire "dungeon" dedicated in large part to information-gathering and intrigue was a nice change of pace -- and such a woeful missed opportunity for Josephine to shine. The potential for diplomacy in general was underutilized, but what little I got was much appreciated. Cullen, Disney Prince makeover aside, had a satisfying arc in the context of the previous two games and was an appreciated presence -- clearly still with his own biases, but always struggling to be a better person. Dagna was perfect. Scout Harding was an utter treasure.
Cassandra Josephine


Dagna Harding

Gaze upon the faces of perfection!
(Credits: Cassandra and Josephine, Krem, Dagna, Harding)

I want to pull out Josephine in particular as a character I really enjoyed and explain what I mean about her being underused. Josephine represents an entire approach to gameplay that I feel was sorely missing from DAI. Throughout the game you can, of course, kill your way to victory, or search out secrets and blackmail people or sometimes reason them into doing what you want. But did anyone else notice the lack of a Persuade skill a la DAO? Or Bribe options a la DA2? I sure did. For a game that takes you through so many political situations, there is surprisingly little politicking you can personally participate in. DAI already has an "influence" meter and clearly tracks a lot of things about how you interact with everyone, such as your stance on the whole Herald of Andraste question. What if those mechanics had been leveraged into a reputation system like in the Mass Effect games, where the way you act and how skilled a charmer you are impacts what kind of outcomes and dialogue options are available to you, opening doors for clever, diplomatic solutions. Leliana and especially Cullen's approaches are well represented in gameplay and game mechanics, but Josephine's isn't. Sometimes the special options do come along that are in Josephine's vein, but not nearly often enough. Even in Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts, which should have been her chance to shine alongside Leliana, she spent the ball accosted by family while Leliana participated in the secret-gathering quests.

Leliana's growth was particularly interesting and rewarding to watch, though. I tried but failed to make her Divine, and made her a bit alarmingly ruthless in my playthrough, but I appreciate that it's possible to shape her personality so deeply through her interactions with the Inquisitor.

Overall, it was a game that tried to give more detail and nuance. In some things, like the physical world and scenery and characters like Cassandra, it succeeded with beauty and gusto. In other areas, like its treatment of oppression narratives, it overcorrected badly.

Look. I know Bioware doesn't deal in happily ever afters. I didn't come here looking for that. I don't need the Grey Wardens to not make mistakes. I don't need for Hawke to survive, or even thrive. I don't need for elves to be "perfect victims" (may I use that phrase infrequently ever after). I don't need every member of every minority to be flawless and perfect. But it's about trends. It's about having enough diversity that no one character can really be an example of anything the way Vivienne and Dorian and Sera can be.

If nothing else, I look forward to reading more about the thoughts this game has engendered. It's gonna be an interesting ride.

(*) Morrigan's father is implied to be Chasind, so depending on how you read the Chasind, it's possible that Morrigan may be white-passing here rather than white.

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Date: 2015-01-08 03:13 pm (UTC)
heavenscalyx: (pawn of the matriarchy)
From: [personal profile] heavenscalyx
Thank you for getting into words some of the things that have been bothering me about DAI. I'm still about, I think, halfway through (just found Skyhold) and there are Issues that keep chewing at me.

One of the things I find lacking in most American games—and I only just managed to talk about this with my wife—is the real lack of a Villain or Villains. American games don't leverage the villain for the plot, or their music for characterization. I will never hear a piece of music from Dragon Age and gets chills the way I do when I hear the Sephiroth chorus or Kuja's boom-boom-SHICK, for instance, or have a little freakout while playing the game because the boss music is this cool, creepy theme and the boss is freakin' JENOVA'S LEFT LITTLE TOE, man.

Bioware writes somewhat better than most big American game manufacturers, but there's stuff that's happened in DAI that should have had me in tears on the damn floor... but my reaction was just, "Well, that kinda sucks." And then there are the racist/misogynist/homophobic/transphobic clunkers that just fling me into a rage, and... yeah.

I keep going, and I actually bought DAI new because I thought Bioware deserved support for the fact that they keep trying, which is better than most big game companies. But it's like they really want to put together a huge, sweeping opera cycle, but they're tone-deaf and have only ever poked at an out-of-tune piano.

Thanks again for helping me coalesce some of my feelings. :}

Date: 2015-01-08 08:04 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
For all that I ragged on the game for 95% of this post, I did actually buy it new, because I do believe that on many fronts, Bioware is at least trying. But neither that, nor being a AAA developer with a mainstream audience, get them a free pass.

You're right about the lackluster use of music in regards to villains. There seem to be relatively few times when music is really leveraged in the series; it seems reserved for a key moment here and there, less overt and pervasive than I'm used to from FF titles, and particularly unmemorable when it comes to character themes. That said, one thing I do very much enjoy in DAI is the ability to just hang around taverns listening to the music. I've definitely just left my Inquisitor there while I made dinner or whatever =)

I'm trying to decide if Bioware is just better at smaller-scale stories or what. I did like DA2 a lot in many of its details, and lament the game that could have been, had it not been rushed out the door. And that was a more contained story, for good or for ill. It definitely had the moments that affected me most out of the entire series, specifically the end of Shepherding Wolves (with Ketojan) and what little screen time Saemus and Ashaad got. But I also enjoyed DAO way more than DAI, all told; possibly more than DA2 when taken together. DA2 was much more uneven than DAO for me, but DAO was more by the numbers. Stuff to think about, I guess; I'm still figuring out my own thoughts on the series as a whole so far!

If you're at Skyhold, you should be a bit under halfway plot-wise, though the world really opens up with a bunch of optional stuff you can do that can suck down weeks of time. I hope you enjoy the rest, and would love to hear thoughts! There is plenty to enjoy, and in the end I criticize because I want Bioware and endeavours like Dragon Age to succeed and thrive.

Thanks so much for commenting!

Date: 2015-01-11 02:48 pm (UTC)
novel_machinist: (Default)
From: [personal profile] novel_machinist
I'm on my 3rd playthru now, and I understand a lot of your points, however I really do disagree with much of them. I'm afraid that I don't have a ton of time to write today, but if you wouldn't mind, I'd love to talk to you about it later? This sort of thing is very interesting to me.

Per the staff, elves were originally written primarily as Jewish analogs, not as PoC. as PoC began to identify more, they weren't discouraged, but it was an unintended thing. This story, again per staff has been written for years ahead of time.

Given that the elves were written with Jewish peoples in mind, it's easy to see how they lack a lot of understanding of their own history. I found that part of the writing to be painful, yes, but not to be badly done or in poor taste. The problem when your history lies in the hands of other cultures is that you do not get a pure glimpse of it. It makes sense that Morrigan has more information on those magics. She's a mage that was trained by Flemeth, she's basically a doctorate in the subject, given her past 10 years of education and training. She also is wrong about much, as many doctorate students are. It's a pretty close reading of much of academia, in my opinion.

Further, while colorism is hinted at in Orlais, it isn't in the rest of Thedas, Dorian himself makes no mention of it nor does Bull or anyone else. Mages are perhaps the second most disenfranchised class in the game. Vivienne has managed to take that and make it work for her. The whole war while a bit clumsy is a pretty good analogy for how people across the board take institutions. If it works for you and protects you, it's hard for you to want to get rid of it.

Templars themselves aren't even the real reason that the war went on, it was the Rite of Tranquility that started much of the war. In fact, Vivienne says many times that most circles were far more liberal than those in Kirkwall or Ferelden.

I loved Dorian's story not because his father did something wrong and cruel, but because his father did it with the best of intentions. This is how homophobia works these days, it's not overt, it's something people who love us do to us without thinking. The fact that Dorian is actively trying to work past that and bridge a relationship with his father again is really touching to me and it called to a lot of my own personal fears as a gay person.

Going on from that, I honestly think that you're giving the fandom WAY more credit than it deserves. Spend five seconds on the Bioware form and you'll see what I mean. The questions that are in really bad taste are shot down by any characters if the Inquisitor asks them. This is because those questions are not written for us, they're written for people who haven't had exposure or people who need to be called out on it. This is a community where "white Isabella" is one of the most popular mods and people threw complete fits over the fact that Zevran hits on the Warden regardless of gender presentation.

The Dorian/Bull romance could have been handled better in the one part that everyone likes to point to when they are saying it's abusive. However, the understanding was that you'd already bought into the type of relationship at that point. This needed to be better written, hopefully next time they learn from it and don't throw out a kink relationship altogether. There is a vast difference between unwise and chaotic than "unhealthy". I think that people are quick to say "oh it's not perfect, oh someone said something I, personally, don't like, it's abusive."

Is Dragon Age Inquisition perfect? By all means, no. But I don't think that it deserves much of the flack the Tumblr fandom seems to be giving it. In my opinion, the biggest problem is how much of the characters rely on banter and many things needed more. They ran out of time, I get that, but I would have rather waited. For example, you may only get Bull hitting on Cassandra, not the part where she says "Oh, no, you can keep flirting with me, but you'll never get anywhere". A lot is lost when people play only one sort of character and much is missing because of banter.

Like I said, I don't have a lot more time to get into it, but we should hang out soon anyway, it'd be a fun topic to discuss.

Date: 2015-01-13 12:09 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] justira
Oh my goodness this is a beautiful comment, thank you so much!

First, I'm going to have to apologize for my discourse/terminology possibly not being broad enough, in that likely it's too US-centric. I know racial terms and dynamics in the US are very different from basically the entire rest of the world (for all that I am not actually from the US).

With that disclaimer, it is my understanding that diaspora peoples are generally not considered white, or white enough, in the respective regions they populate (and even in places like the US, White Jews are offered white privilege only in exchange for assimilation). It is under this understanding that I label the DA elves as POC-coded (and likely where my terminology is failing). I know the writers were specifically basing them off Jewish peoples. But I do want to also add that author intent only goes so far — the writers may have intended one specific diaspora group, but just like real-world comparisons are inevitable in the case of the mages, so are unintended real-world comparisons inevitable for elves. In this sense, I still think the writers should work to maintain a broad understanding of and sensitivity towards diaspora groups in general, not just the one they were specifically basing the writing off.

But what do I mean by "sensitivity?" I certainly don't mean to paper over the ugliness and tragedy that can, does, and has happened with real-world diaspora groups — like I said, I don't require the elves to be "perfect victims", or to have nothing bad happen to them ever.

What bothers me most is not that bad things happened to the elves, but that they are not given a voice. Let me demonstrate what I mean by way of analogy.

So, Morrigan's clothes! She dresses in a way that's pretty revealing and sexualized, like the majority of video game ladies. But unlike her peers from other games, she exists in world populated by sensibly-dressed women who provide counter-narratives for how women look and act. Morrigan's clothing choices are brought up in conversation and repeatedly defended by her, framing them as odd and unique while simultaneously giving Morrigan a voice. Other women are likewise given voices and opinions (including on the topic of Morrigan's outfit). In this context, the way Morrigan dresses reads to me like a personal choice on her part — it serves to further her characterization and give her a unique voice and outlook, rather than being your standard display of fantasy setting T&A. Of course, it is exceedingly convenient that DAO's most marketable character — the only plot-required female companion — also happens to dress in a way that is (thought of as) marketable. But Bioware have earned a bit of trust here by treating women by and large respectfully in the realm of fashion (though see the link near the top of my review re: misogyny; see also female Dalish elves), and so Morrigan's dress doesn't bother me on this level.

On the other hand is the treatment of the elves. Dalish elves in particular are not given a voice in the installment of the DA series where their history and culture are most relevant. Solas and Sera, our two elvhen voices, are both openly derisive of most elves and Dalish elves in particular. No member of the diaspora group itself is present to give a sympathetic point of view, or even simply to react to the revelations about elvhen history and lore we come across in the game. (I am discounting the Dalish Inquisitor here, the choice of Inquisitor and how the Inquisitor is played being complete wild cards.) We've never really had that voice, but I particularly feel its absence in DAI, where it's most relevant. In DA2, Merrill's relationship with her clan was complicated at best, and her status as a blood mage was far more relevant to the game's themes and plot than her status as a Dalish elf (though the one is influenced by the other, of course). Probably the closest we've come is Velanna, who was shuffled off pretty quickly and wasn't handled with the best sensitivity.

So that's where I'm coming from — I do read the elves as POC-coded in the broadest definition, but they're treated as set dressing. Tragic, tragic set dressing. In DAI, we get a Tevinter voice, but not a Dalish one, or at even any elf that has any interest in the status of modern elves. Dorian may not agree with everything Tevinter does, but he clearly cares about his homeland and is invested in it. We don't have that for the elves, and Bioware has not done enough to earn my trust regarding oppression narratives, not like they've done with how they dress women. I like the read of Morrigan as academic/academia — I just keenly feel the absence of a voice to oppose her interpretations. This is unfortunately often the case in the real world when it comes to studying history, especially the histories of marginalized groups. But that disparity didn't have to be reproduced in DAI.

Whew, okay. That's the bulk of it regarding the elves.

Vivienne has managed to take that and make it work for her. The whole war while a bit clumsy is a pretty good analogy for how people across the board take institutions. If it works for you and protects you, it's hard for you to want to get rid of it.

There's a couple things here that I want to pull out. First, yes, I do like how Bioware shows so many ways of how people and institutions interact. It's good and necessary. But I do find it weird how much we're given that supports the previous status quo versus how much material is given that addresses the horrors of it. I'm not asking for a rehash of DA2 within DAI, but especially for players who hadn't played DA2 before DAI, it comes off as a bit skewed.

That said, I love Vivienne and how clever and resourceful and ambitious she is. But while colourism isn't intended to be prevalent in Thedas, the same way misogyny isn't, it creeps into the worldbuilding in the same way. And just as I think it's valid to critique misogynistic tendencies in Thedas based on how misogyny is realized in our own world, I find it valid to examine characters like Vivienne in the same light. So it still makes me uncomfortable that a WOC is the one advocating for an oppressive system, even though I admire that they created a character like her who made the system work for her. What would make this less problematic for me is simply having more characters of colour, just like what I was saying before about Morrigan. If we had lots of characters of colour, all with different viewpoints, then I would be pretty dang happy with Vivienne just as she is.

And just real quick, while the templars aren't cited as the main cause of the war, they're certainly framed as one face of it, especially in DA2 but continuing on into DAI, and that's the framing I keep up.

(How about that reversible Tranquility though? That was one of the most interesting implications of DAI for me; I want more about this!)

Regarding Dorian's story, I'm glad it worked so well for you and spoke to you in a positive way. It didn't speak to my own experience of queerness in the same way, but I hope it worked for more people the way it did for you than for me — I just found it too clumsy a way to deal with the issue, given either too little space/development for an important topic, or too much emphasis on Dorian's sexuality at the expense of other things they could have done with a gay character. The balance was wrong for me — but I'm glad it worked for you.

You're right, I almost certainly am giving the wider DA fandom too much credit, and I do generally applaud Bioware in persisting the way they do in the face of it. In the case of Krem, what bothers me again is less than the Trans 101 angle exists, and more that it is not counterbalanced with much of anything else. Weekes himself acknowledged this (near the end: "For example, some trans folks feel I wrote the player choices to be too clueless or uninformed, and wished for options to speak from more personal experience. I’ve heard the feedback, and I intend to do better next time."). That said, I had somehow avoided hearing about the "white Isabella" mod and... wow. I guess there's a reason I don't really venture into DA fandom at large much.

I agree that Dorian/Bull suffers from iffy writing more than anything else, but again, it bothers me that it's the first queer companion romance and it's written to be so questionable. Again, if there were more queer relationships around, then one possibly unhealthy one wouldn't stick out.

That's my overall complaint, really; what everything boils down to: issues of trends, balance, and representation. The more you have of a particular kind of person, group or relationship, the less any one instance will stick out as unintentionally representative versus simply being a matter of characterization and worldbuilding.

Finally, I agree that the game relies a bit too much on banter; too much important characterization is optional or randomized. Good point.

Phew okay, sorry that was so long, but you gave me a lot to think about, and I'd definitely love to talk more!

Date: 2015-01-14 11:23 pm (UTC)
novel_machinist: (Default)
From: [personal profile] novel_machinist

No problem! I think that may be part of the disconnect. I'm seeing it thru a very Canadian lens as that's the source material.

I worry that I may be picking at hairs with the whole PoC thing. It's something that I've had to roll about my head for a long time and I may or may not word myself correctly. I feel like I'm overstepping myself in ways because my family dropped practicing Judaism when we fled Prussia. We converted to Lutheranism as part of that assimilation process and as a result lost our culture. I've talked before about how I feel really bad about not speaking German, it's kind of bleeding into my feelings

And that's where I want to touch on author intent. Yes, it only goes so far, but the bones, the skeleton of it is still an experience that is culturally Jewish. I could be wrong, but ignoring that feels like erasure of that struggle because they are now “white” (Until the media/people have half an idea that it's going to be okay to be antisemitic, then not white anymore). By ignoring those bare bones and throwing an “all PoC” blanket over it you're not going to be upset. Seeing how wrong the Dalish got everything rang so true to me. Jewish scholars can't agree on much of the Torah or the histories. It mirrors what Jews are going through today so well.

On top of that, it's a portrayal of Jewish culture in mass media that doesn't paint them as greedy witches or pure, perfect saints. It portrays them as complex, self warring people who don't agree. I appreciate that other cultures have seen this and felt a connection, I don't want to take that from them at all. But I do not want to have that overshadow and erase the Jewish experience for what it is. The lack of a voice is not as huge an issue for me because I know the pattern of the previous games.

DA:O – Dwarfs screwed everyone over DA:2 – Humans screwed everyone over DA:I – Elves screwed everyone over

I think that the lack of voice again, is a direct trickle-down from what it was written to mirror. Did the writing convey that properly? In my opinion, no. I think that the writing suffers from a lack of really weaving the story in and out. It too, gives the fandom too much credit and is a game you actually HAVE to play multiple times to get everything out of it (like Bull and Cassandra's banter). I think that the complexity is honestly amazing. I'd love a DLC to get into more. I agree wholeheartedly that there should have been more. It absolutely should have been clearer, I agree.

The lack of knowledge is problematic in all displaced cultures. As I said above, scholars do not agree. You have Solas who is the expert on all things Dalish, but he's like a Hasidic Jew (to the 100000th degree). Sera is another side of the coin. (And remind me to talk about how much the Qun mirrors Mormonism on steriods, it's AMAZINGLY interesting)

There I agree wholeheartedly! I think that it's great that Viv says “oh no, Chantries are very permissive usually”. But we never really saw that until DA:I. On one hand, Kirkwall was a kettle of horrible wrapped in crap blankets, on the other we never saw anything different.

I completely agree with you re: Viv and Dorian being the advocates for the oppressive system. The problem is that when I look at the writing what is worse? Making Sera the dark skinned one would have played up the “ill educated black woman” trope. Making Solas brown would play into the “possibly evil magical savage” trope. Cassandra would have been a good choice, IMO, but they were limited and I think that they went with the one that would be seen in the best light? I may be giving them way too much credit tho.

If we had lots of characters of colour, all with different viewpoints, then I would be pretty dang happy with Vivienne just as she is” EXACTLY. Why did we need any white representation? That's the next thing that I was going to say. Since no one is actually in a good light (everyone has rather massive character flaws, like real people) why do we need anyone with light skin and blue eyes? Is it from a sales perspective? I'm not sure. I understand the characters already established as light skinned should stay that way, but the others?


The more I think about it, the more that I wish we would have been given Dragon Age Inquisition as a serial, not as a whole game. Then we really could have dug into everything they could have taken more time (because I think that's what they needed, more time). And maybe those characters could be read all of it. Also, when Dorian talks about his sexuality he says that he should introduce himself “I'm Dorian and I like men. That's all that everyone else seems to care about.” And in reality, that IS. When you're queer and out in straight spaces, you're the “queer friend”. You're literally defined by your sexuality.

I so wish there was a “Oh me too” option to sit down and talk with Krem. It would have been beautiful.

Do yourself a favor, stay off of the BSN then. However, I suppose it goes to speak in fandom that we need to remove ourselves form the echo chambers from time to time. Without going out there, you run the risk of seeing everything in one specific lens. Pickup Artists and MRAs see people applauding them in their echo chambers and unfortunately, Tumblr is just as bad in an opposite way if you stay to certain circles.

Please god, try a kink relationship again, Bioware, don't give up, you were SO CLOSE.

ANNNND I am so sorry that THIS took so long to get back to you and that it was so long and... okay, we both have a lot of feels here. Heaven help everyone that gets to listen to us at the next hangout.

Edited (making the formatting readable. ) Date: 2015-01-14 11:27 pm (UTC)

Date: 2015-01-15 02:25 pm (UTC)
lynnoconnacht: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lynnoconnacht
Now that I've reached the copious elfsplaining, I feel I can probably comment somewhat sensibly. <3 First of all, I want to thank you for giving me words for what bothered me and thinky thoughts about things I hadn't noticed. <3

Firstly, I am totally with you on the things you liked. I really, really liked those. (Though I'm a bit conflicted on the straight characters. On the one hand, yay Bioware's treating sexuality as part of people's character and the narrative rather than a gameplay mechanic. On the other, we have so many straight characters in games already.)

With regard to Dorian's companion quest, I think it's partially a matter of whether his experiences resonate with you? *nods to [personal profile] novel_machinist's experience being so different* I liked that they were clearly trying to show that they were listening and tried to go for a more positive story, though I recognise that it's problematic.

What did you think of Sera? She's not as vocal about her sexuality as Dorian, but she did strike me as pretty open about it. But the portrayal of her sexuality strikes me as the "just happened to be" that you wanted from Dorian and didn't get. So I'm curious. (Disclaimer note: Sera's portrayal actually sits wrong with me for reasons I don't have words for.)

Characters who would have been thematically appropriate to return, such as Merrill, didn't, while characters who did show up are poorly used and executed, written into corners by worldstates.

I think one of the reasons they didn't bring back Merill is likely to be that worldstate corner. In order for Merill to show up (with enough knowledge to rival what Morrigan has to offer) they'd need to invalidate at least the worldstate I wound up with, possibly more. It would have been nice to see Merill again, though.

And it's funny how when Merrill, an actual elf, tries to explore forgotten parts of her heritage she's foolish and endangering the clan and ostracized, but when Morrigan explores some of the self-same topics she's elevated, willing to look everywhere for knowledge and to preserve the old world. Hmmmmmm.

It's been a long time since I played DA2, but as I recall didn't they ostracise her because of the methods she used rather than the goal she used those methods for? That also fits better thematically with the mage conflict in DA2.

Why this choice? Why keep Solas so quiet or provide some other elvhen voice to do this part? Sure, with the Flemeth reveal it makes some poetic sense. But is this really the price you want to pay for your poetry? Presenting a non-elf as the local authority on all things elf-related?

I suspect it's a lot of reasons, but the predominant one for me is that narratively Morrigan is the best fit. Much as I would have loved to see Merrill again, the only way to get her to take Morrigan's place in DAI would be to invalidate at least one potential worldstate in DA2. If not Morrigan you're already looking at bringing back a lesser character and you'd likely run into exactly the same issue you've already mentioned with Stroud. They wouldn't have the screentime to carry the same weight of Morrigan (or Merrill).

To be honest, though, the latter half of the game just doesn't work as well because of that scripting error you mentioned at the end. (I'm less forgiving of QA than you seem to be, though. I got annoyed with it the first time my Dalish Inquisitor had selective linguistic amnesia in the Exalted Plains. It's not just the Temple of Mythal. It's the entire second half of the game. You have to play an Andrastan or an antheist.)

And... since we're back on things we liked. I think the only left for me to say is that you've said all I could say on the things I liked. <3 (I loved Dagna and Scout Harding. And Krem. I'm a little sulky we didn't get him as a companion. Josephine was a treasure and I too wish they'd done more with her character/the diplomacy angle.)

I look forward to finishing it (and go into it semi-prepared about the ending). I really hope Bioware keeps this up. They've been trying so hard and they are making progress.

And thank you for this guest post! I've really enjoyed it and have been able to return to my game with a lot of things to consider and think about. It'll be interesting to replay it with these thoughts in my mind from the beginning. ^_^

Date: 2015-01-16 08:20 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] haeceity
Found this through metanews.

You've hit on the things that bothered me. I really enjoy the game but the side quests grab me more than the main plot. I have a social disability and I played a Lavellan because I like playing characters outside of the average social context. I wasn't expecting how little my Inquisitor was allowed to stand up for that context. It isn't just glitches like Morrigan explaining who Mythal was while standing in the Temple of Mythal to my Inquisitor with his Mythal vallaslin, it's that there's no option to tell Vivienne the way she phrases her pro-Circle stance means advocating the destruction of the way the Dalish live. I don't mind that Mother Giselle attempts to reframe my Inquisitor's faith within her own but I do mind that I have no option to tell her to back off even as strongly as Merrill told Sebastian. Similarly, my Lavellan could argue with Sera but in the end she calls him an idiot and a demon worshiper and then I could either kick her out or let that stand. I think that's why the document in the Emerald Graves that talks about the real history of the Red Crossing bothers me so much more than Morrigan. The writers wave their hands and shout, "Moral ambiguity!" then give an answer that clearly puts the Dalish in the wrong.

I think a lot of the glossed over aspects of Dorian's characterization come from the waving and shouting. They want to have the character who's pro-slavery for ambiguity but don't have a graceful way to back away from that position. I think the dialogue between Solas and Dorian and Dorian's reaction to learning about the real history of the fall of Elvhenan are supposed to be him growing and learning beyond the bubble he lived in before the game but I don't think it's the best way of showing it. It sounded to me like that banter with Solas was supposed to come before Dorian's revelation that he might be able to change things by following the Inquisitor's example but as one of the above commenters noted, they're so spread out it's easy to miss things, so I might be overly optimistic on that. I'm not a fan of tying a character's sexuality to their entire characterization and my sexuality wasn't much of an issue with my family beyond some "it's unsafe to be out so you should really be sure before you tell anyone and you can't be sure until you've had sex and even then you should give it another think because people will want to hurt you for it" stuff when I was a teen. On the other hand, Dorian's father's response to his sexuality was strikingly similar to my mom's response to my disability right down to the use of the word acceptable. So a lot of that quest resonated with me. I don't think it's entirely disconnected from the rest of Tevinter's ongoing social problems. When Dorian says he's not sure he can free all the slaves, I think he's being literal. He has several banters and a lot of dialogue that reference how all previous attempts at reform ended in Tranquility and assassination no matter how highly placed the reformer was while the corrupt are allowed to murder people at parties in full view. Even his father and Alexius whom he saw as men of integrity turned to blood magic when it came down to it. My point being that I think the material for a good arc was there but it needed to be louder and clearer and to acknowledge that "Is slavery wrong?" is not an edgy question. (I'm not ignoring the issue of a PoC advocating slavery. I feel unqualified to comment due to whiteness. I can definitely see why this is an issue.)

In addition to wishing I could give a better response to Krem, I wish we'd had his pronouns sooner. Changing the journal entry to, "Krem wants you to meet his boss on the Storm Coast," or a background line in Haven or Skyhold where an NPC says, "There's a man looking for someone in charge to talk to by the (insert location)." Making it a reveal instead of part of how he's introduced makes me uncomfortable.

I liked Iron Bull until I played his romance. The line, "All this time and you've never said Katoh. If I'd known you'd last this long, I'd have let you pick your own watchword." killed any interest I had in seeing him romance anyone ever. I could headcanon away him picking a watchword for my Cadash because coding wise, they need to make things like that feel personalized while remaining as simple as possible like with Sera and Buckles. But praising for not safewording is a big no for me. Safewords are not airbags. And if the game mechanics don't allow me to pick the watchword, I'd rather the game not draw attention to it. Explicitly bringing it up while treating being able to choose your own safeword as something that needs to be earned strikes me somewhere between irresponsible and manipulative. And that some form of "Do you want to push me to safeword?" or "what we've been doing is great but can we dial it down a little sometimes" aren't options bothers me in a more minor way. It just came so close to being something I really want and then faceplanted on the dismount in a way I can't make the emotional leap to unseeing. It's worlds better than FSoG and I'm not judging people for focusing on the parts that work for them.


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