According to the manual, Dragon Age: Origins is set in an "egalitarian" society, where men and women are equal and take equal part in all occupations.
Yeah, that's fail.
The game is not ALL fail. I mean, for starters, it's really well written and lots of fun to play. And even my social-justice-brain is happy with a lot of the things Bioware is doing with it. I appreciate that there are non-heterosexual romance options, especially that there are gay male romance options, since so many games only have options taken out of straight male porn.
Bioware has done this before, as well. I was recently reminded that they made Jade Empire, which also had gay male romance options. Granted, as if to smooth any ruffled feathers that might cause, not only are there two female romance options for the male character, he also has the option of sexing both of them at once. (I find this both eyeroll-inducing, and totally hot, btw.) I actually played the game at least twice as a male character, so I could access the different options. I almost never play male characters if I have a choice. I don't think I ever played Mass Effect as a male Shepard, even though I have a big crush on Ashley.
There's a really great post about romance and gaming that you should read. Here's an excerpt:
The first time we made camp, in Dragon Age, I awoke from a vivid and frightening dream and saw Alistair sitting awake, nearby. He had seen me thrashing and wanted to be there when I woke up. The dreams are part of being a gray warden, he told me, and they scared him, too. It was a kind and thoughtful gesture, and it meant something to me. I've only been playing for a week or so, and I'm already half in love with a character in the game.But because Bioware's romances are just the B-plot, the emotional dynamic winds up feeling deeper and truer than any shallow dating sim can. You're not just hanging out with the object of your affection on dates or at parties. You're risking your lives together in fighting for a common purpose. You're sharing horrors and triumphs. You're bonding through shared experience, the way human beings are wont to do.
Thus the quality of romantic drama on offer by Bioware winds up feeling richer, more complex, and truer than games that are supposed to be about love through and through. The relationships have more complexity and texture to them because the characters are all bigger than the love story. They have a place in the world that doesn't revolve around how much you want to date them.
I feel admired and respected by Alistair. The admiration and respect come first. And I think that there's something very feminist about modeling relationships like that. About feeling respected as a person, for the actions I take. Relationships in these games exist because I make it so. The romances are optional B-plots, after all, and if I don't pursue them, they don't happen. I like that.
There was also a great moment when I asked another character to tell me about his people. He said, "no." When I asked him why, he said that cultures were too large, diverse, and complex to summarize with a few words like "elves are agile, pointy-eared, and oppressed." BOOM. I sqeeeed.
And now, on to the fail:
Dragon Age is not set in an egalitarian society. It's just NOT. I've just barely hit the sandbox and the only evidence I've seen so far is the manual. I can't count how many characters have reacted to my gender. People say, "Oh, I wasn't expecting a woman." Or "as a woman, what are your thoughts on this totally non-gender-related topic?" And I'm a mage, which isn't even a male-coded class. If women were actually taking equal part of all occupations, then there would be no surprise. I mean, if I walk into a kindergarten class and say, "oh, some of you are girls!" I'd look like an idiot.
That was annoying, but I wasn't pissed off until I asked for a story from my bard, here's what she told me:
Once upon a time a couple abandoned their daughter to the woods because they had wanted a boy instead. The daughter was raised by people in the woods. She was beautiful, graceful, really good at fighting, etc. Her adopted family sent her out of the woods to compete, disguised as a man, in a tourney against the people who had scorned her. When she beats everyone, she is discovered and summarily killed. Her death showed the king just how bad it was for women, so he went out and fixed sexism and now women can be knights, all thanks to the dead girl.
There are so many things wrong with this I don't even know where to start. How about that the main character of the story has absolutely no agency whatsoever, and then she's killed so that her death can enlighten some dude? And then the dude fixes sexism. Because what women really need is a hero. [cue Tina Turner]
And the fact that all the sexism in the story's background, the strict gender roles, don't need to be explained, says a lot about the people telling and listening to the story. It's not weird to anyone that parents would prefer to have a son, or that (as in another story), brides are chosen by their husbands.
There are issues with creating overtly sexist fantasy worlds, but I find this even more upsetting. Because it's just as fucking sexist as all those other worlds, except it's holding itself up as some kind of cultural achievement.
Dear Bioware: you can do better.