It was just a few hours into the acclaimed new video game Dragon Age: Inquisition that I had the first of many revelatory moments. Exploring the grassy hills near a castle ruin, I stumbled on a female soldier being attacked by a couple of bandits. After helping her dispatch them, the body of a dead woman lying on the ground caught my eye (and cursor) prompting further investigation. My character remarked that she was a mage and appeared to have been in the middle of a picnic, leading the audibly nervous soldier to eventually admit that the two had recently become romantically involved. She wasn't nervous about being found with another woman, but being found with a "mage," which put them on opposing sides of a conflict. The lesbian angle was treated as a total non-issue and was one of many more surprises to come over the course of the game.
As a closeted gay teen growing up with the video games of the 1990s, a game like this was not something I could have imagined. Video games have long had a reputation for indulging the misogynistic and violent fascinations of teenage boys, and there's certainly a lot of evidence to back that up. That's not to say LGBT characters were completely non-existent before now, but for several decades the few high-profile representations that existed ranged from the incredibly bizarre to outright offensive. Often, it was a character you were supposed to beat up.
In many ways the medium itself had to mature along with its consumer base, and recognizing that straight adolescent males weren't (and never had been) its only market was one of the most important steps. In 2000, Electronic Arts published the first edition of The Sims, a "life simulator" that has since become one of the best-selling series of all time. The game was notable for its appeal to a wide, "mainstream" audience and the fact that it allowed you to romantically pair up characters of the same gender. At the time, such a feature was practically unheard of, but then so was the very notion of a game that allowed players to simulate major life decisions. Since then, the option for same-sex relationships has gone from novelty to almost industry standard. In fact, games that exclude such options now invite headlines and controversy. Nintendo learned this first-hand when it attempted to "patch" same-sex relationships out of the U.S. release of Tomodachi Life, and following public outcry from critics and fans, ultimately made a public commitment to make their games more inclusive in the future.
There's a difference between allowing for same-sex pairings and actively creating LGBT characters in a game world, however. Depending on how it's played, someone could easily spend hours in a game like The Sims and never know the option for same-sex couples even existed, as is the case with a few other games that allow one to pursue cursory romantic relationships with other characters or player avatars regardless of gender. This is LGBT representation hidden in plain sight -- waiting to be found by those who want to find it, but safely sequestered from those who might find it "offensive." What has been truly groundbreaking is the long overdue appearance of LGBT characters who exist out in the open, characters not hidden inside coded signifiers or innuendo, and who exist regardless of the player's choices or actions -- characters a player may even be required to interact with to keep the game moving forward.
Until quite recently, characters that met this criteria in "marquee" video games (i.e. big budget, big marketing) were practically non-existent but have suddenly started appearing more frequently in titles like Fallout: New Vegas, Borderlands 2, and The Last of Us. The latter's Writer's Guild Award-nominated add-on chapter, Left Behind, even revealed that central character Ellie had been in love with her female best friend.
LGBT characters are also gaining increasing public support from game developers. One of the most prominent voices in this conversation has been Bioware's openly gay lead writer David Gaiter, who garnered a great deal of press in 2011 when he rebuked complaints about same-sex romance options in video games, saying "the person who says that the only way to please them is to restrict options for others is, if you ask me, the one who deserves it least." Bioware (a game company owned by Sims publisher Electronic Arts) also happens to produce two incredibly successful game franchises -- Mass Effect and Dragon Age -- which have propelled LGBT representation in video games forward like no other.
The drive to provide more options for players has been a major factor here. Both series allow players to pursue scripted romances with established supporting characters, and making some of them bisexual was the first way Bioware expanded those options. That was the case in the first and second Dragon Age games, and the first Mass Effect - provided the player used a female avatar in the latter. Though Mass Effect 2 had no significant same-sex options, the series' third game was a major step forward.
Not only did Mass Effect 3 provide multiple romantic options for every player, but for the first time, two of the supporting characters were depicted as a gay man and a lesbian woman. Each also had their own individual side-story the player could explore regardless of whether they wanted to pursue them romantically. For instance, spending time chatting with pilot Steve Cortez revealed that he was still mourning the loss of his husband, who died in the ongoing war that serves as the series' backdrop. Such chats aren't just filler though, but one of the defining traits that has helped these games gain such a loyal fan following.
Over the years, Bioware's approach to constructing characters and scripting interactions has become noticeably more refined, giving their games a unique ability to create strong emotional connections between players and members of a game's supporting cast. It's not canned romance they're after; they want to you make friends, and doing so means making each character feel unique and real. This has resulted in some truly great LGBT characters and stories that would stand out regardless of the medium in which they appeared. Nowhere has this been truer than in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
There are the small unexpected moments like finding the soldier nervously mourning her star-crossed lover, which also serves to further individualize minor characters populating a big world. It stands to reason that as games grow more expansive, character diversity will likewise grow, but it's still heartening to see LGBT identities included so casually as part of that diversity. What really sets DA:I apart though, are the handful of major LGBT characters it features that actually hit the full spectrum of L, G, B, and T. Three of these -- Sera, Dorian, and the "Iron Bull" -- make up a third of the playable in-game companions the player can take out on adventures, and each has a strong personality and rich backstory waiting to be uncovered.
Dorian the mage is the series' first gay male companion, and Bioware clearly made an effort to craft him into a witty, charismatic rogue that players would enjoy bantering with. The puckish elf Sera is the series' first lesbian companion with a playfully anarchist personality that makes her unlike any lesbian characters you're likely to see on TV these days. Both Dorian and Sera also have unique romantic storylines the player can begin, provided their avatar is respectively the same gender.
Then there's Cremisius "Krem" Aclassi, who is easily the most significant transgender character in any Bioware title. Though he isn't a playable character, Krem is a transgender mercenary who is second-in-command of a group of swords for hire, and the game provides several opportunities to question Krem about his life story. In terms of representations of transgender people in video games, Krem is one of the first to be created with a nod toward authenticity, rather than comedy or exploitation. Bioware has spoken openly about its goals in creating and including the character, and Krem has already amassed a fan-following of his own online.
Perhaps the most subversive new character the game introduces is Krem's mercenary boss, the Iron Bull, who comes from a race of horn-growing giants called the Qunari and is undoubtedly the most physically intimidating playable companion character in the game. Wielding giant weapons and a giddy violent streak, Iron Bull looks like a stereotypical destructive brute -- the kind many adolescent boys love to play as -- until you spend some time talking to him. Not only does he possess a strong moral compass and genuine affection for his teammates, Bull also holds very progressive views on sexuality and gender identity owing to the beliefs of his people. In one conversation, the player has the option of asking Krem offensively worded questions about his gender, but doing so actually prompts Bull to call the player out and correct their pronoun usage. The fact that one of the toughest, scariest looking characters in the game is also a staunch transgender ally is frankly remarkable.
Then there's the matter of Bull's own sexuality, which very clearly isn't limited by gender, as any player so inclined can pursue a romantic relationship with him. Bull will talk happily of trysts with barmaids, but if the player takes both Bull and Dorian out into the field at the same time, they might hear them flirt with one another while the party makes their way through a swamp or haunted tomb. If the player doesn't romantically pursue either Iron Bull or Dorian, the pair will actually become involved with each other as the story progresses.
What's even more amazing is that Iron Bull was positioned by EA and Bioware as a major selling point for the game itself, and prominently featured in its pre-release marketing campaign. Bioware clearly wanted players to get excited over Bull, and the care that went into making him someone that could appeal to a wide audience shows. He arguably gets the game's best lines, has one of most striking visual designs, and is voiced -- quite expertly I would add -- by actor Freddie Prinze, Jr., who is clearly having a blast playing the character. The fact that he's also so innately queer completely upends player expectations for a character of his type appearing in the video game equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster. It's difficult to think of a parallel in any other form of media.
Notably, none of this seems to have hampered the game's performance, which by all accounts has been a massive hit. It grabbed huge critical acclaim right out of the gate and ended up on countless "Game of the Year" lists. Though complete sales figures haven't yet been released, last month EA called Dragon Age: Inquisition "the most successful launch in Bioware's history" and said that worldwide playtime in the game's single-player mode had so far exceeded 113 million hours. That's a whole lot of players spending time with Krem, Dorian, Sera and Iron Bull, many of whom probably don't often encounter LGBT people in their daily life.
Studies have repeatedly shown that one of the biggest factors in whether or not someone supports equality for LGBT people is whether they personally know someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In the absence of that, the characters they get to know through entertainment media are often the next best thing, and it is here that Dragon Age: Inquisition and games like it can play a role in how their audience perceives and treats LGBT people in the future. Maybe they'll take a moment to choose their words carefully when they meet a transgender person, remembering the scolding they got from Iron Bull about Krem, or maybe dragon hunting with Dorian or Sera will make them think twice about making an anti-gay joke. Maybe they'll be more inclined to see LGBT people as people first and foremost, just as deserving of respect in life as they are. It's amazing how far fostering a little goodwill can sometimes go.
It's for these very reasons that GLAAD decided to honor Dragon Age with a special recognition award as part of the 26th Annual GLAAD Media Awards, which honor fair, inclusive, and sometimes ground-breaking depictions of LGBT people in the media. This is the first time the organization has ever recognized a video game in this way, in part because there simply haven't ever been enough games in one year to warrant creating a category, but also because LGBT depictions in games have often been much more minor than those found in film and television. However, Dragon Age can not only stand shoulder to shoulder with some of the most inclusive shows on TV, it could teach the Hollywood film industry a thing or two about not underestimating their audience. As for its many LGBT fans, this is a game some of us could have scarcely imagined we'd get to play one day.