Dragon Age: Inquisitioning While Black

vivienne-news-screenshot

I’m going to assume that everyone here has seen the second movie in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, generously titled The  Devious Cashgrabination of a Beloved Story. Do you remember the scene in Laketown, where we find out that this sleepy harbor area is actually the most diverse place in all of Middle Earth? Here, allow me to refresh your memory:

the-hobbit-minorities

I’m going somewhere with this, stay with me.

A year ago, a fan asked BioWare writer David Gaider about the lack of ethnic diversity among humans in Dragon Age’s fantasy world, Thedas:

To see Dragon Age fall back on that trope of “Humans Are White, Fantastic Races are POC” was really disheartening and just plain tiresome, to be honest. This has been a thing for as long as I can remember in fantasy, especially sword and sorcery fantasy in fantasy counterpart versions of medieval Europe like Thedas. People of color, if they exist at all in these settings, are typically either Orientalist Yellow Peril monsters from the ~Forbidden East~, or dark barbarian hordes from the wastelands outside the pristine lily white lands of the heroes, always threatening the white status quo somehow. At best, we’re noble savages who can teach the white heroes ancient wisdom and life lessons about how to be better people. This, despite so much history available about the diversity of medieval Europe, how it was much less white than people generally believe it to be. I know that Thedas really relies on the fantasy counterpart culture idea, but in a land of blood magic and dwarves and darkspawn, the idea that societies are racially and ethnically homogeneous is…weird? Squicky? Fucked up?

I’ve cherry-picked the most interesting part of Mr. Gaider’s response:

I suppose you’re correct that, on some level, there seemed to be less thematic need to address issues of racism within human societies with there being such a visible “other” for them to deal with. Perhaps one could say that skin color isn’t such a big issue in Thedas when there are elves and dwarves and qunari who are so much more different among them… or perhaps that’s a cheap way to look at it? Something to think about.

That said, I don’t think the societies in Thedas are as racially homogenous as you believe— or, at least, they’re not intended to be. How well have we shown that in-game? Probably not very well. That’s due in part to the areas we’ve visited so far, in part to the Eclipse engine and its frustrating handling of darker skin tones (now thankfully a thing of the past) and in part… I don’t know?

He hinted that the next game, Dragon Age: Inquisition, would address this disparity, and BOY HOWDY did they deliver. Ten hours, one character re-roll, and a hasty strategy guide purchase into Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I can safely say that this game is possessed of the most PoC that I’ve ever seen in a Medieval/Tolkien styled mainstream RPG.

First there’s Vivienne: gorgeous, powerful, and an all around incredible character. It kinda sucks that my black male Player Character can’t enter into a romance with her–in part because, intentionally or not, she’s an Independent Black “Ice Queen“–but hey. I should just be glad she’s in the game at all, right? And in promotional materials to boot! It’s almost like BioWare wanted us to know that there would be a black character in the PC’s party.

Then there’s Josephine, the other brown-skinned woman that your PC has access too. She’s a canny genius, and most likely will be bae because Vivienne can’t be. And, of course, there’s Dorian, who’s obviously “not caucasian“. As you expect, white guys are pissed because [take your pick].

There are also (thankfully not literal) boatloads of black NPC’s in the game: Belle (a spy), Mother Giselle (a priestess), and a few random soldier dudes:

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 4.02.48 PM

For the most part, these NPCs don’t seem shoehorned in, but we still see glimpses of some of the same silly missteps in some of these characters that we’ve seen in other BioWare properties. Thankfully, the character creator in Dragon Age: Inquisition allows you to make characters somewhat darker than a paper bag, but there are still some issues with it:

Also–I’m sorry to go here–but Dragon’s Dogma has a character creator with a body slider, and yeah yeah technical limitations blah blah extra animations and models, but THEY DID IT. Diversity is more than just skin color.

For the record, this isn’t remotely an analysis or anything coming close to a cohesive argument. Just sharing notes with you all. BioWare does an better job than most with creating safe spaces in games for diverse gamers, but there’s still a while to go yet. Maybe if developers would invite people from diverse backgrounds into their spaces as writers and artists and tastemakers, they’d sidestep a lot of these pits. Instead, we get white guys explaining themselves right back into the same holes.

Still, I suppose I should be glad. Ten hours in, and I haven’t seen one clevage window yet.

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26 thoughts on “Dragon Age: Inquisitioning While Black

    • Hey brother I want to ask you a question. Do you think that Vivienne is not a romance option is intentional and her mannerisms and her behavior as an angry black woman stereotype?

      • Her not being a romance option is intentional (though it seems like this is just a married-to-the-job type thing at first, this is eventually shown to not be the case). The stereotypical behaviour I would say isn’t, because they seem to have gone full-circle in trying to make sure that that isn’t the case. She’s an elitist, anti-mage mage.

  1. Sir how black should we even go? There is fantasy and then there is that one protagonist who can’t be seen when the sun is down, I suppose character customization should to some degree reflect the land you live in.

    • There are dragons, demons, walking skeletons, giants, and your PC has the ability to use a scar in their hand to repair rifts in the Dragon Age: Inquisition universe, but having the ability to play a darker-skinned character is unbelievable to you? In a game with all of this fantastic stuff, you want to place a limiter on how dark the character creator should allow you to go.

      Right.

      I suppose when you’re able to see yourself in literally every form of mainstream media really, your ability to be sympathetic to humans who aren’t able to do that on a consistent basis is dulled a bit, huh?

      Thanks for commenting.

      • Wow, that was a really unnecessarily passive aggressive comment. Even in a fictional universe a certain degree is out of place, the setting of the game is the classic myths and magic kinda stuff set in a period where someone THAT dark toned, the kind of tone found only is specific areas of the earth due to climate, would be jarring in contrast.

        Oh, and to counter that second little point? GROW.THE.FUCK.UP. Don’t assume I have no sympathies for those who cannot see themselves represented in media as much as myself, I sincerely fucking apologise for being born as a white male you arrogant, petulant child.

      • Your initial comment was all kinds of insulting, but I’m the petulant child?

        Right. One thing I won’t do in this space is entertain *white males* who come in here and throw their tears around everywhere after 1.) offending me, 2.) attempting to derail me, and 3.) playing the victim after doing both of those–all things that you’ve done in your comments here.

        Again, thanks for commenting–even if your execution was flawed and offensive. This conversation is over.

    • “and then there is that one protagonist who can’t be seen when the sun is down”

      oh look. the racist commenter just called black people the actual literal definition of “spooks.”
      Spook: racist slur for blacks who due to their dark skin were thought to blend into the night, making them ghost-like.

      • Boy I didn’t even know what the fuck a spook was till I read this comment, I can’t know every slur every to exist.

        Oh, so you are gonna tell me that a very dark skinned person isn’t at all harder to see in the dark than a slightly dark skinned one, that the concept of hiding in the dark wearing dark clothing doesn’t fall even slightly into this ideal? I’m not calling anyone something that they aren’t, very dark things are hard to see in the night.

    • I think African flavored fantasy is cool, and I have no problem with it at all and enjoy it (Imaro rules, Spears of the Dawn is one of my favorite tabletop RPGs, etc) but one thing that’s kinda always bugged me is why can’t people in Medieval styled fantasy just be black without absolutely having to have some kind of backstory about how they’re from fantasy Kush or Mali or something?

      • Rom,

        I don’t think I can move the comments once they’re posted. You can repost the comment in a new thread if you want. I’ll delete these responses, if you do decide to repost them.

  2. I didn’t do a lot of modification on my character, but I was happy that I could choose a character that looked Black, not just in skin tone, but in facial features too. It would have been nice to have more hair texture/style options though.

    • Yeah, I’m glad that I could make full lips and a “black” looking nose in the CC. I’m still really wishing that, in the future, I can get waves like Jacob had in Mass Effect 2.

  3. Good afternoon Troy,

    My name is Tracy with Atlanta Blackstar(www.atlantablackstar.com). We have launched a category on our website called Blerds (blerds.atlantablackstar.com) and we would LOVE to use some of your content for this category. We will of course link back to your site for any of the content that is used.

    Let us know if that’s OK – we’ll like to start next week. We won’t use more than 300 words – depending on the length of each given piece it could be less.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

    Thanks,

    Tracy

    • Tracy,

      Yes! It’s totally fine for your site to use some of my posts. Do you have an email address or something where we can discuss this further?

      Edit- Logged on to the computer, and I found your email address. Will be emailing soon.

  4. The Hobbit screenshot – I SAW THAT BIT! I was like ‘Wooow, diversity in a LOTR film… this is a first.’ O_o

    Well, I’m glad you posted this because I honestly don’t play enough video games to know that things have much changed from when I was 13, when the only “technically black” NPC’s were demons. Or Ganondorf, and I would personally say that Ganon is green. A goblin…? (Heyyy Ice Queen kinda sounds like me. O_O I hope I don’t sound that posh but I’ve been told I do… euphemised as ‘well-spoken’.) Anyway, good to know.

    • Ashana,

      The only way we’ll know for sure is if you upload some audio of yourself speaking so that we can compare your voice and Vivienne’s voice.

      I don’t know if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, but the VA for Vivienne was the same actress that played Ellaria Sand in Season 4 (Indira Varma).

  5. Pingback: Inquisitioning While Black (Troy. L. Wiggins) | biowaremetacritique

  6. Having played Dragon Age inquisition, I now have interest on the racial diversity of individual races as well. Qunari likely wouldn’t care, neither would the dalish, but I would like to know how the regions are racially divided. I know folks of antiva have skin tones comparable to people of Central American Origin, but I wanna know where people of eastern descent would be, as well as African descent.

  7. I think African flavored fantasy is cool, and I have no problem with it at all and enjoy it (Imaro rules, Spears of the Dawn is one of my favorite tabletop RPGs, etc) but one thing that’s kinda always bugged me is why can’t people in Medieval styled fantasy just be black without absolutely having to have some kind of backstory about how they’re from fantasy Kush or Mali or something?

    • You mind if I address your question in a post? If you’d rather me answer it here, it’s cool. But I think it’d be more useful to other people who have this question for me to answer it publicly.

  8. Pingback: Backstories: Why Black Characters In Fantasy Need Them | Troy L. Wiggins

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