The Message of The Normal Noble in Dragon Age Origins
Disclaimer: There are some minor spoilers for Dragon Age Origins in this blog. You’ve been warned.
Disclaimer 2: I am still working on my first play through of DOA but I want to write down my thoughts as I play through. It may turn out I am wrong on a number of issues and if so I will blog about it at a later date.
I just bought a copy of Bioware’s Dragon Age Origins last week. After playing for four days I am hooked. Whereas before I was not sure if I would even like it, now I find myself thinking about it even when I’m not playing. That’s when you know you’ve found a game that rocks.
I’ve enjoyed it so much it took me two days to realize something was wrong.
Let me go back to the beginning. For those who don’t know Dragon Age, like so many other role-playing games, lets you create your character and select a background before you plunge into the adventure. I chose to be a human noble female. Now I don’t play RPGs that much but whenever I do, I always create a black woman. That way, I can bring two under-represented groups at the same time. However for some reason, I could not create a black woman this time. All I could do was give her a bit of tan that just didn’t look right. After trying four or five times I gave up, made her the best I could, and started the game.
When my character walked into the castle (she was a noble after all) I realized why my choices were so limited: my family was white. Mentally I kicked myself for being so silly. Noble. Castle. Very European. Of course they were white. That makes perfect historical sense. And so with only a twinge of disappointment, I launched into the grand epic.
After two days of killing darkspawns and demons it finally dawned on me that something wasn’t right. It turns out my character was not the problem. The family was. Well not exactly. Or maybe that’s really two problems. The first problem was that I could not create the character I wanted to create because historical accuracy (in a fantasy game mind you) dictated otherwise.
The second problem is that I accepted the fact that a noble human family in a fantasy game should be white due to the setting. Dragon Age is a fantasy, right? If I can be a part of a world that contains the most honorable heroes, the Gray Wardens, and the most vile villains then why is it so hard to have a noble family of color? In my days of traveling the land, I have seen NPCs of color, though none of significance yet. I assume I will eventually run into one who will present me with a side quest or something. So if that is the case that there are free NPCs of color in the land then why can they not be a part of the noble class?
Bioware went to great lengths to provide different backgrounds for players to select: human, elves, dwarves and so on. Moreover, they have carefully crafted a spectacular game with a rich and diverse mythology. I am still amazed by what I have seen so far. So then how hard would it have been for them to add code to change the family to fit the character? If I wanted to create an Asian male, then the game should automatically create a family to match.
The more complex and insidious issue here is that it took me a few days to realize something was wrong. You see when I realized the European setting dictated a European family, I was okay with that. It seemed very normal to me. Therein lies the problem. Because it was normal, I did not question it, though I should have. I probably should have been outraged that being white and noble was hardwired into the game as well as my consciousness. But I was having such a great time playing the game that all thoughts of accepting (or rejecting) that particular messages soon fell by the wayside. And yet this is a fantasy game. In my fantasy games, I want my heroes to be people who look like me. I did it that way in Knights of the Old Republic and I did it that way in Mass Effect. Bioware has spoiled me. What’s the difference between those two games and Dragon Age? In Knights and ME the hero came from either a tragic or mysterious background. We only got to hear about their origins. In Dragon Age, I got to experience my character’s home and family. There was a sense of community. I had access to my parents, servants, and pets. All very normal, even it all took place in a huge castle. The hidden message here: in the better or preferred background, you can’t be black or Asian. Those races are relegated to the abnormal. This other background is only acceptable for that mysterious person, that tragic survivor, the violent war hero, or the fallen dark lord.
What we are really taking about is re-imagining characters in-game and we should all be used to it by now. Last summer the entire concept of Star Trek changed with the new movie. Battlestar Galactica re-imagined the whole series including some of the main characters such as Starbuck (from Dirk Benedict to Katee Sackhoff) and Boomer (from Herb Jefferson Jr. to Grace Park). In Marvel Comics’ Nick Fury went from white (comics) to black (movies). And who can forget Brandy as Cinderella? I would like the option to either embrace or reject those messages of what is normal in my games.
Now you might think that after all this I would stop playing Dragon Age Origins. Not so. I’ve had too much fun to stop anytime soon. And it may turn out that when I choose another origin the result will be better. I have yet to try being an elf or a dwarf. But even if I run into the same problem, I believe this tale will be every bit as satisfying as Bioware’s other games. However fantasy above all else should be about escaping from the norm. Whenever writers and developers only bring those norms into the game, they limit what the player can do to enrich his/her experience by not allowing that player’s notion of identity to be included.
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