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:
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:
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:
a) my character can’t be darker than about my real-life coloring, and b) I can’t have kinky or curly hair.
— N. K. Jemisin (@nkjemisin) November 19, 2014
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.