Dragons, Starships and Video Game Postgenderism

My top three PC games of 2010 were Mass Effect, its sequel, and Dragon Age - all of which happen to be Role Playing Games, or RPGs. For those not familiar with the genre, an RPG allows you to build an avatar, through which you experience the fictional universe of the game. You get to choose their name, sex, history, expertise, appearance, and in the case of games such as Dragon Age, even what species they are. It’s like picking what A-Team character you want to be in the school playground - just a lot less camp. 

In Mass Effect, my avatar’s design was plain vanilla. He got my first name, a brave and altruistic back-story, a warrior’s biceps, and the default face - think Daniel Craig with a jarhead haircut. Not exactly what I want to be like in my next incarnation, but certainly what I want my great-great-great-grandchild to be like in the 22nd century when humanity has conquered space and is pitted against xenocidal killing machines.

My avatar’s choices were as predictably moral as he was heterosexual - he looks out for the little person, has D&M time with his emo shipmates, and initiates an onboard relationship with the only character biologically capable of bearing him children. He is half Captain Picard, half Aragorn. When I learn that letting an evil covert agency take over a space station and its entire stash of alien tech (it seemed like a good idea at the time) happened to lower my standing in the eyes of my crew, I simply reloaded and played things out a bit more to their liking.

In Dragon Age, however, I resolve to be a little more risky - and a little less puritan - so, early one morning in the forests of Ferelden, a female Elf comes into being with a clever knack for picking lock, stealing wallets, and kneeing her opponents in the groin. Her first executive decision is to slaughter a small band of humans that have trespassed into her ancestral land. When the human king is about to perform an epic fail, she does not hold hesitate telling him so. Soon my avatar is dealing with the flirtations of a horny warrior named Alistair (voiced by Steve Valentine). Alistair actually turns out to be a Nice Guy with a cute sense of humour - someone you’d be happy to introduce to your mum. As they court, Alistair’s ‘loyalty’ rating slides further into the positive, unlocking extra abilities that help him slice and dice the undead. Half way through the game and they get jiggy with it; he makes pledges of fidelity; and before long, he is spilling darkspawn blood with newfound vigour. There is even the hint that, he being the bastard son of the former king and all, he and his love interest - my avatar - are set to become royalty by game’s end.

Enter the Elf Zevran - think Spike from Buffy crossed with Puss-in-Boots - a womanising hit man with a mysterious past who is allergic to commitment and openly willing to shag the entire team, male and female alike; in short, a rake. Having already maxed out the benefits of Alistair’s loyalty - and nighttime action - my avatar becomes Zevran’s lone audience in lengthy campfire monologues on the joys of serial assassination. Zevran’s loyalty - and consequently his skills - grows steadily. Then one night (with Alistair standing on the opposite side of the campfire), Zevran suggests that they continue their conversation in his tent. As my avatar follows him inside, I figure - Surely if he suspected Alistair, his brothers in arms, would have a problem with this, he wouldn’t have suggested it, right? I quickly learn however that this Tolkienesque world is not very different from our own - for as my avatar emerges post-coital from the tent, a very nonplussed Alistair confronts her. Men, I groan, as his hard-earned loyalty and talents evaporate.

After reloading to a point preceding Alistair’s hissy fit, I opt instead to shower the assassin with gifts and help him out with his home troubles, while keeping things as ambiguous as possible. There is always the hint of a trip to first base together - but not even a walk eventuates. Meanwhile, Alistair’s ego remains constantly massaged, assured that Zevran and my avatar are ‘just a friend’. My men remain besotted, killing darkspawn is more fun than ever, and Queendom seems just around the corner.

Dozens of hours of game play later my nemesis is decapitated; the dragon is disembowelled; Alistair has been boosted to the throne; and my avatar is the hero of the land. I cannot help but feel a little betrayed, then, when Alistair proposes to his widowed sister-in-law instead, and tells my avatar that - for the sake of the kingdom and his own sense of propriety and all that horseshit - they should just be friends.

Well screw you too, Alistair.

P.S. This article was originally published in the now-defunct eZine Viva Uni.