Slavery in Thedas: How BioWare Could Bring Nuance to Dragon Age
The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), video gaming’s most prominent trade show, has dimmed its lights and shuttered its doors until next June. One game that was conspicuously absent was the highly anticipated fourth installment of the Dragon Age franchise from EA-owned BioWare. This isn’t so surprising since a Kotaku article detailed the turmoil going on at BioWare that led to a truly abysmal reception for its latest game: their first try at an online loot-and-shoot adventure, Anthem.
Still, I must admit that I have thought about Dragon Age every day since The Game Awards of December 2018. That’s when BioWare dropped a 65-second teaser and launched a hashtag that had me hooting triumphantly in my living room, #TheDreadWolfRises. I even wrote an article about who from the past games should appear in the next.
I have met some of my all-time favorite characters and gone on my most beloved adventures while traversing the carefully crafted world of Thedas (The Dragon Age Setting). A big part of that is due to the broader themes of how theocracy, colonization, and war affect the marginalized and enrich the powerful.
of adventure, conflict and companionship
that inspire you to become the hero of your story.
The statement above is only one of the many messages on BioWare’s website that highlight how much they value story and characters in their games. This attitude has served BioWare well. Its last unqualified success, single player RPG Dragon Age Inquisition, earned a whopping 130 Game of the Year Awards in 2015 and had professional critics specifically praising its story.
Of course, not everyone has been impressed. BioWare frequently gets criticized by what I like to refer to as the “dude bro army” for daring to include PoVs that aren’t in lock step with the dominant culture. Read: “Y’all have too many queers, coloreds, and non-hot ladies in your games!” Back in 2011, the lead writer for the Dragon Age series at the time, David Gaider, wrote a response to one such gamer on their now-defunct message board that was so well crafted it garnered press. Gaider, an out gay man himself, challenged the notion that video games should cater to the fabled “straight male gamer” that all such close-minded dude bros evoke when complaining about diversity. As a bi Black woman gamer, this endears BioWare to me even more.
All is not perfect, however. In addition to sex and sexuality, racial oppression and hegemony are two frequently explored themes in Dragon Age games. There is an allegorical connection between the systemic and situational anti-elf sentiment found throughout Thedas and the anti-Black sentiment that runs rampant in our own world. The problem is that many of these experiences are written and crafted by folks who have never been on the receiving end of this kind of oppression. Although talent and empathy carry the stories surprisingly far, the devil is in the details.
In fact, the usual formula of giving players the freedom to choose how they want to act allows for just as much conquest, haughty disinterest in ethical decision making, and even slave profiteering as opportunities to fight those evils. (I try not to think of how many players across the globe regularly sell elves to slavers for a few in-game bucks while I’m murdering every slaver that the game will allow.)
This is why when another Kotaku article reported that a Dragon Age project set in Tevinter—the slave trade capital of Thedas—was scrapped, I didn’t share in the disappointment that bubbled throughout fandom. Quite frankly, I was relieved. I unfortunately don’t see BioWare being able to craft a story taking place in Tevinter in a way that won’t be chock full of obliviousness, microaggressions, and straight up triggers for Black players.
How can I think this way about one of my favorite game franchises of all time, you ask? Well, in Inquisition, it was not only possible, but extremely easy for someone playing as an elf to make a mistake and wipe out their entire clan while assigning missions on the war table. Because this process takes place over multiple in-game decisions and hours of gameplay, there was no way to go back and fix it. What’s more, no one even acknowledges that it happened in the game.
To be fair, the developers admitted that this was a problem, but saw it more as a design faux pas akin to other similar war table missions that went awry. To me, it resounded particularly loud to see an oppressed people who were frequently set upon by aggressive humans get extinguished like a flame all due to my actions. What’s more is that this is my Inquisitor’s family and the only society she’d known until the beginning of the game. To say it jettisoned me out of the heroic role play fantasy for a while would be an understatement.
Later in the “Jaws of Hakkon” mission, when it is revealed the first Inquisitor was also an elf but the chantry (church) scrubbed all records of this from history, the game similarly ignores the profound implications this would have for an elven Inquisitor. I have spent my whole adult life trying to sankofa (go back and fetch) all the history of my people that has been deliberately obscured or warped by a western school system. This connected to my life in a way that was never even partially explored in the game.
Other ways a few high ranking Black developers could have helped BioWare is with Dorian. Sure, he’s one of their most dynamic, fun, and charismatic characters in Inquisition. But he’s also an unrepentant slave owner who, even late in the game, vacillates between vacuously apologizing to Solas for Tevinter’s fabled domination of Elvhenan and encouraging the annoyed elf to enslave spirits to do his bidding.
And then there’s Vivienne, the one character designed as a Black woman. Look, I’m not suggesting that tough as nails, power enthusiast Vivienne should’ve dropped her unfriendly Black hottie status and held hands with everyone. But how much more nuanced and mindful would Vivienne’s characterization have been in the hands of a Black woman who has spent her academic and professional career modulating her voice and carefully curating her demeanor to avoid the scarlet letter of being dubbed “angry” or “difficult”? What made “The Iron Lady” into the cold, calculated defender of the status quo? The horrors and indignities she must have faced in the Ostwick Mage Circle that led her to create her impregnable persona are never even hinted at.
Furthermore, Vivienne is immediately and permanently pit against the most lovable character in the game, Cole. No one in the game seems to understand her position. She is a Circle mage that was taught to mistrust and fear demons before she was able to read. Of course she’s scared to death of Cole! Instead, the game just casts her as an irrational bigot and a danger to ‘innocent’ Cole, a being that even admits he is potentially quite dangerous.
And that’s not to mention Sera’s internalized elven racism and self-hatred that could have used more nuanced handling from someone of a community that deals with such things.
I just…Hire some Black writers and developers, BioWare.
That way when you explore these themes common to our experience there will be a level of authenticity Black players can appreciate and identify with immediately while non-Black players get to enjoy a narrative shaped by people with a deeper connection to the subject matter. Having multiple queer writers helped the sexuality content immensely; it’s time to do the same for the racial commentary.
Patrick Weekes, the current lead writer for the Dragon Age series is an immense talent. He wrote my favorite character in the entire franchise, The Iron Bull, and two others in my top 10, Cole and Solas. I have no doubt that he and his team will create an incredible yarn, but if BioWare wants to level up and reclaim their former glory after their last few games have struggled, leaving their brand a bit tarnished, they are going to have to evolve and invest in more diverse, authentic voices.
Crystal is a freelance writer with credits in The Verge, Looper, Blavity, and more. She loves fantasy and sci-fi television, single-player RPGs, and naps. Check out her website: wordyblerd.com.