In between all the other things I'm currently playing for work, I've been slowly working my way through Dragon Age Inquisition. I like Bioware games. Hell, I even enjoyed Dragon Age II for for its characters. Inquisition seems to be living up to the studio's best and I'm pretty excited about the next Mass Effect after seeing what Bioware pulled off here. (If you folks ever want to revisit Jade Empire, I'm down.)
Part of the reason I enjoy Bioware games is their general commitment to diversity in their fictional worlds. The studio feels strongly about populating the universes it creates with more women and minorities, which is why Cassandra, Vivienne, Josephine, and Leliana are around to keep my Inquistor in check. It hazards that maybe players might not run screaming from homosexual characters, culminating here in characters like Sera and Dorian, who are completely gay. Inquisition plays around with religion, faith, and philosophy with the Chantry and Iron Bull's lengthy musings on The Qun and the Qunari's totalitarian collectivist society. It even handles other less-seen groups with a deft hand, in the case of Iron Bull's lieutenant, Krem. (Spoilers if you want to know more about Krem.)
That's not to say that the studio hasn't made a few missteps in that regard. Even if you chose a dark-skinned character in Dragon Age: Origins, your family was still white; it threw me right out of the game when I played it the first time. Mass Effect 2 also had what felt like a persistent butt-cam when it came to Miranda Lawson. That said, I can overlook these errant problems because Bioware tries and improves. The studio is such a rarity in the industry that I just expect better from them next time.
Bioware has a strong focus on the main and supporting casts when it comes to diversity, but that's not what this essay is about. Instead, what really stood out for me in Dragon Age Inquisition was the incidental diversity.
Early on in your first major boss fight, the soldiers who will become the Inquisition rally around you to bring down your demonic foe. I remember getting to that moment, ready to fight, and then saying to myself "Wait, was that archer black?" Another playthrough - my third of five before I finalized my character's class and look - confirmed that yes, that archer was of dark skin. Even beyond that, many of the soldiers are women, including your lead scout, Lace Harding. In fact, as you get further into the game, the random woman or minority in the background is near constant.
It's pretty awesome.
What "Fantasy" Really Is
To understand how rare this is, we need to jump away from Dragon Age Inquisition and into literature. Most fantasy works in the game industry (and other entertainment industries) all spring from the same core: the works of author J.R.R. Tolkien. Yes, developers have an infinite canvas to work with when they're crafting game worlds, but many fall back on Tolkien's work or Dungeons & Dragons (which was inspired by Tolkien's work). That means we have an endless parade of various takes on elves, orcs, and dwarves. Some stick closer to the Tolkien framework, while others like Blizzard Entertainment start with the core and work outwards from there.
Most fantasy is really "medieval European fantasy". Green rolling hills, dark mountains, taverns, knights on horseback; most 19th century fantasy (the called fairy tales) drew from the same core ideas because it was written by European authors drawing from their own local culture. The works of authors like George MacDonald and William Morris began to build our current fantasy framework and similar ideas were carried forward into Lord Dunsany's writing in the early 20th century. (The pulp magazine format also started in the early 20th century, creating its own branch of fantasy.) When Tolkien's The Hobbit was published in 1937, it popularized and cemented a specific idea of modern fantasy.
Tolkien's work was a product of who he was, a middle-class British veteran of World War I. Bilbo's journey contains aspects of his time traveling in Switzerland as a young man. He disliked the idea of industrialization, preferring the pristine English countryside, which informed the creation of the Shire and the Hobbit style of living. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were works of a Eurocentric bias, because that's the life he lived. (He was actually rather progressive on topics of race.) Outside of background characters like the Haradrim from the south of Middle-Earth (roughly analogous with Africa) and the Easterlings from the east (roughly analogous with East Asia), Tolkien's fantasy is pretty white. And that extended to fictional worlds based on his work.
This means, if you happen to be a minority reader or viewer of fantasy, you're generally not represented, whether as a main character or just background color. Sure, there's the occasional hint of Middle Eastern, African, East Asian, Native American, or First Nation tales in our fantasy, but it's certainly not the norm.
Even in just reading novels as a kid, I tended to go with the idea of default white: any character whose skin tone is not explicitly mentioned is perceived as white. The first time I watched Ralph Bakshi's animated take on the Lord of the Rings, the darker-skinned Aragorn was completely striking; seeing anyone in fantasy that wasn't light-skinned was odd for me. Lando stepping out in the Empire Strikes Back was a major game-changer for a younger Mike. "He looks like me and he's Han's friend? And he's the boss of the city?" My mind was blown.
The Trickle Down Effect
This extends to games. If you play fantasy games, you play games painted in that European ideal. Any people of a different complexion, a different look, or different gender are rare. And when they do appear, they have to be categorized and explained, as if to answer the question "why are you here?" That ranger can't just be a woman with Korean features (people tend to forget that minority doesn't just mean "black"), there has to be a backstory, a whole series of important events to get that person to a point where she can be in the supporting cast or background shooting arrows at dragons. As if gamers can understand the short people with horns, but those with facial features and bodies closer to the real world are simply aberrant.
Bioware has progressed to the point where the studio seems to realize there doesn't always need to be a reason. (Ubisoft is getting there as well.) It's why you can have characters in Mass Effect like Donnel Udina, Kasumi, Kai Leng, Steve Cortez, or Khalisah al-Jilani. Dragon Age not taking place on future Earth means its been slower to add such characters, but now we have Isabela, Vivienne, Dorian, Josephine, and Krem. And the background characters in Dragon Age Inquisition show even more improvement on the studio's part.
That's not to say I have a problem with character stories focusing on their specific race, gender, or religion - I love the slavery-themed Assassin's Creed Freedom Cry - but that doesn't always have to be the point of a character. Sometimes a stronger statement is to just allow those characters to be in the world. That random woman standing guard in full armor, that black spy reporting in, that random male bystander holding onto his boyfriend; these are small incidental additions. Afterthoughts. These characters simply say "I exist, and by extension, you exist." They matter to people who sympathize with that experience. They matter to me.
Those of us who aren't normally seen in fictional worlds will come back to Bioware time and time again. Bioware has a fervent fanbase because they've committed to a diverse ideal. Even beyond that, there's money to be made. There's hard cash in stepping up and telling certain groups of players, "hey, we haven't forgotten you." Luckily, entertainment companies are starting to realize this and things are changing. Lando and Mace Windu may have been a start, but we just had a Star Wars trailer with a black man, a woman, and a Hispanic man kicking things off.
As we move towards that future, it's good to acknowledge those doing great work. Those attempting to move forward, even if they may misstep. So, thanks Bioware. You made a pretty cool game. Looking forward to the next one.