While the recent news of no playable female characters in Ubisoft’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity game has come as a let down, I hope that Dragon Age Inquisition, Canadian game company Bioware’s newest installment to the Dragon Age franchise, will pick me back up.
Inquisition is going to be released on October 7, the same month as Unity. The promising spoilers Bioware has dropped so far have revealed characters of color, characters with different sexualities and the ability to choose both male and female playable characters. More importantly, though, Dragon Age has shown progress in the five years the franchise has been around. Diversity improves with each game, and it’s managed to do in five years what Assassin’s Creed hasn’t been able to do in seven: give us what we asked for.
What is Dragon Age? At its core, it’s an RPG (role play game) with a medieval-era fantasy setting that involves its protagonist solving problems that arise in quests that move the plot along.
And, you know, a dragon pops up every once in a while and spits fire at you.
The Dragon Age games follow the template of other Bioware games, allowing for liberal customization on the part of the player. The playable character, which may be male or female, can be designed at the beginning of the game with a range of skin tones and facial structures. In the Dragon Age world there is no game play advantage to playing as one gender versus the other.
The open-ended character design was great in the first installment of the franchise Dragon Age Origins, though it didn’t extend to all facets of the game. I encountered the curious problem of picking a protagonist of color but still having two white parents (there was also the case of terrible Black hair options and that one Black skin tone that looked kind of purple).
Meanwhile, the majority of the NPCs, or non-playable characters, were white, including your companions. Dragon Age II upgraded this feature, allowing for your game parents and siblings to share skin color and facial features. There was a little bit more color in companions, but the majority of the NPCs and companions were still white. Inquisition again sports a cast of party members, this time with Vivienne, a Black female party member and the first clear party member of color (that is, a party member that was not ambiguously brown) in a Dragon Age game.
Bioware’s games are known for giving the player a lot of choices to make that can affect later events in the game. The Dragon Age universe is comfortable with all sexualities, and there is room for a range of sexualities for the playable character. Inquisition introduces the first gay romance option for male playable characters — all characters available in Dragon Age games before have been either heterosexual or bisexual.
Note that, while Dragon Age has been broadening its horizons on diversity, it has somehow found the ability to work in a protagonist of both genders in each of the Dragon Age games as well as in its other franchises like Mass Effect and Baldur’s Gate. Though fans have asked for protagonists of both genders in the Assassin’s Creed games, Ubisoft has managed to poorly explain away the lack of female characters in all of its major campaigns (the excuse for Assassin’s Creed III, the game before Unity, was that the American Revolution was “the history of men”).
Dragon Age and Assassin’s Creed are part of different genres (you won’t find elves or dwarves in Assassin’s Creed, which is based on historical events), but that doesn’t free either from a demand for diversity. The different “races” in a fantasy game like Dragon Age should reflect the different races of the people who are playing the game, just like a game that focuses on historical events in Europe should at least include people of color and women.
Dragon Age isn’t a perfect game, but each series installment improves on the one before it. The writers show commitment to the diversity that the players want, and they’re willing to grow with each installment of the series, something that the Unity writers seem to have little interest in but no problem explaining away with weak, constructed excuses (The history of men? Seriously, where do they think babies come from?).
In the meantime, Dragon Age is not the only game that has embraced a representative cast of characters. Maybe the Assassin’s Creed franchise will come around — or maybe it will get left behind. In the meantime, my copy of Inquisition is already pre-ordered. I know which game I’d rather be playing