Your groundbreaking is not my groundbreaking

Note: I will be mentioning a few spoilers in this post. Look away now if you’re not ready for that yet!

So, a few nights ago I started Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third game in a franchise I’ve liked a lot over the years. Just for shits and giggles I livetweeted my game for a few hours. Most of the feed is pretty dull — like, me eating dinner while waiting half an hour for the game to finish installing on my XBox’s hard drive. But once I finally got the game going and dug into the character creator, I felt a moment of sharp bitterness at the realization that even though I write fantasy, there are times when this genre is really, really hard to love. My in-the-moment reaction:

I ended up with this when I was done rolling up my character (sorry for the terrible image; it’s just a photo of my TV screen):

image shows a DA: Inquisition character: middle-toned black female elf with white facial markings and nearly bald shaven head

She’s okay. Not what I wanted. But okay. And that’s pretty much how the experience left me feeling, despite the fact that I’ve been stupidly excited over this game for something like three years. That pretty much killed the excitement right out of the gate. I’m still playing, but I’m not raving about this game to anyone, anymore. It’s just something to do, now.

So, this little experience has me thinking a lot about the concept of “normal”.

It’s hilarious to talk about “normal” with respect to a game full of magical pseudo-uranium, holes in the sky, and shapeshifters. But a sense of normalcy is what you’re really selling, after all, in any media product: the chance for as many people as possible to feel some sense of engagement with what you’re trying to do. In fantasy — or any fiction, really — that tends to manifest as a sense of immersion, of I can relate to and feel part of this cracktastic world, and therefore I care about what happens within it. As a society, we’ve had a lot of problems with making media relevant to everyone and not just a small subset of people — generally straight white guys. There’s nothing wrong with straight white guys, mind. It’s just that our society has a nasty habit of treating them as normal while treating everyone else as… not.

So why did such a simple thing — just customization; just hair, just skin — kill my enthusiasm so powerfully? Because being treated as abnormal destroys the ability to immerse in a thing. Kinda fucks up all the fun, too.

And I get that these things are rarely the result of game companies being “evil”. I met a couple of folks from Bioware at SDCC back in 2012; they seemed nice. I’m pretty sure nobody in the planning meetings for this game went Muahahaha, now we can really stick it to those curly-haired, dark-skinned people!* I think they just started from a completely different set of assumptions about what is “normal”, than… well, what actually is normal to a lot of people. And those assumptions have skewed the whole bell curve of the game.

It’s kind of like how camera film was originally calibrated on white skin. The people who made this decision probably weren’t being intentionally racist. Most likely it just didn’t occur to them that choosing a “normal” skewed to their own personal tastes and very limited experiences would create a barrier into the field of photography for, like, 80% of humanity. They probably didn’t think about what kinds of creepy, awful messages their choice would send to all the people who struggled to make cameras simply see them as they were: “Is that how you see me? Could you not see blackness? Its varying tones and textures? And do you see all of us that way?” (From the McFadden article linked above.) They probably didn’t understand that all it takes is one experience of being treated as irrelevant and abnormal — especially for people who get treated as irrelevant and abnormal frequently in other areas of society — to kill the sense of engagement for any newcomer to a medium. I suspect those old Kodak guys just didn’t give a shit about how many would-be photographers had that experience and then walked away from photography forever.

Bioware’s starting from a better place, theoretically; they at least say they care. The company seems committed to inclusivity, and they’ve occasionally backed those words up with actions. There’s a trans man in DA:I, who thus far hasn’t been killed or subjected to tragedy; that’s good, I guess. The appearance customizer contains at least one slightly fuller face-model, so someone who wants to play as a character resembling the average Canadian woman (where Bioware is HQed; old link but probably still apropos) can get a little closer to that. Character skin colors start at colorless/albino and top out at maybe one shade darker than in previous DA games, which is a plus; still not as dark as actual human beings get, though. Maybe 2 hairstyles out of the full set of 25 have something resembling 4b hair, which is better than previous games’ texture-ambiguous buzz cuts or baldness — although that’s about it for textural variation; pretty much all the rest are type 1 hair only. Also, couple of the game trailers briefly feature shots of the default female Inquisitor. That’s an improvement over Bioware’s last big game, for which the female default character could only be featured in “alternate” marketing, at best.

But it’s all just so… little. Such creeping, grudging, tiny steps, implemented only after mass outcry. A little darker skin. One additional hair texture. A few moments in the foreground, instead of the perpetual background. Hey, there’s finally one [example of a thing], and hey, at least they’re not dead yet.

This is inclusivity? No. True inclusivity is ground-up, incorporated at every level from brainstorming to design to implementation. You can’t help but include everyone, if you’re doing it right, because inclusivity means starting from a “normal” calibrated to “humanity”. What this game displays? Is inclusivity as an afterthought. It’s standard deviations from a badly-skewed mean; to the people who think straight white guys really are (or should be) at the center of everything, these infinitesimal steps forward probably seem groundbreaking. To everyone else, they’re… nothing. Less than nothing. A loud and clear signal that we don’t really matter.


This is why I write fantasy the way I do, by the way — because showing the full breadth of human variance and complexity shouldn’t be groundbreaking. This is also how I often twist common tropes and play with reader expectations — because whether something is a cliche or a subversion frequently depends on who it happens to, in our society. Black women rarely get to be the prize that male heroes fight over, for example. White women are rarely depicted as thuggish or second banana to a woman of color in the beauty/charisma department; black men are rarely given the chance to (literally) explore their feminine side; even white men are rarely shown as marginalized and weak if they’re the hero. They say there are no new ideas, but it’s remarkably easy to freshen an old idea just by applying it to a wider variety of people. Correctly calibrating to the human norm opens up whole new matrices of storytelling richness.

So this is what I was expecting from Dragon Age: Inquisition. And this is why I’m so disappointed in the game so far. I’m still playing, like I said. My friends are helping me grind past the unpleasantness, giving me an incentive to stay engaged. I’ll post more thoughts on this game once I’ve finished at least one playthrough. It’s just gonna take more effort to get through it than I thought.

* Pretty sure they didn’t intentionally make Mother Giselle a Magical Negro, while we’re at it. Probably didn’t intentionally exclude humans who look Asian — or anything other than black or white — either. [Insert a few other unpleasant observations here.] What’s really surprising to me is that Mass Effect 3 did a decent job of these things. Why is DA:I so much worse at it?

** Sort of nonsensical hairstyles for the situation; who’s got time to precisely shave and edge every day in the middle of a global crisis? Also, totally Nineties! wtf.

18 thoughts on “Your groundbreaking is not my groundbreaking”

  1. So disappointing. How hard can it be to make curly hair? How long will it take? Not more then a day, probably.

    The last game I played where curly hair was an option was Fallout 3, I think.

    And though I love the series, Dark Souls 2 was the last game where I was really frustrated about the sliders going from white > yellow > sunburned > dark red. How hard can that be to program, to have natural skin tones? I don’t get it.

    On the other hand that is still (a tiny bit) better then the usual Generic White Guy/White Girl with boobplates choice (which I will just not play then, Witcher, Shadow of Mordor, Diablo, Divitinty etc.).

  2. Thought-provoking post as always and a reminder of how frustratingly incremental progress can be, even in a game franchise that’s lauded for being relatively progressive. As a white person, it’s a reminder of how it can be so easy for me to fall into thinking, “Oh good, I can make a dark-skinned character now. How cool,” without considering how many more choices there still are for characters who fall along the “White European look” spectrum.

    And darn it, what’s with the curly hair hate that’s been in effect for the past 20 years? I have started to see more black women wearing what I consider normal hair styles in my classes lately, and I’ve seen more white women with curls too, so maybe the pendulum is finally swinging back. I hope so, and this is not just because my own hair is curly.

  3. My black Inquisitor went with the close-cut, too, since I was wasn’t into the shaved-sides, the pretty-boy waves, the short Afro, or the…whatever that one bizarre and complicated style was. Bioware’s hair selection has always been really awful. If you play a qunari, you get the saddest set of cornrows I’ve ever seen.

    But other than that, I personally think the skin tones and feature sliders are great in DA:I, and not begrudging at all. My character (and other characters in the game) who are supposed to have an African appearance actually look that way, and not like white people with a tan due to engine limitations. I found the darkest skin tone to be a little too dark for my guy, in fact, and went one shade up (and was vindicated when I got out of the bleached lighting of the prologue and saw he kind of faded into the shadows in a couple scenes, which is my theory for why the CC doesn’t go much darker than it does). Vivienne especially is gorgeous, and, as a bonus, the most elegant and charismatic of the companions by far. Everywhere I turn, there’s NPCs of color just going about their business without needing to be explained, not having to be white and not having to be strange and exotic tokens, either. (It’s definitely notable that there’s no Far Asian parallel in Thedas. European, African, and Middle Eastern, but that’s apparently it.)

    I’ve always played nonwhite characters in DA games, and it always made me roll my eyes to be one of three black people for leagues around, but, for me, DA:I seems like serious attention was given to making people who look like me a natural part of the world. I’m surprised that you’ve gotten such a different impression of it. Just emphasizes how a piece of media can never impact two people the same way. I hope you can enjoy the game despite your disappointment! The combat is my biggest disappointment, but other aspects of the game make the frustration of my party aggressively trying to commit suicide by dragon worth it.

  4. I know they say that curly hair is harder to animate, but — haven’t played the game myself — surely they’re not bothering to go full-out and literally animate every strand of straight hair either. And for fuck’s sake, braids and such can easily be tied up and made more or less immobile, making it *easier* to animate than long, loose straight hair. And what’s their excuse for cutting off darker skin color options?

  5. The hairstyles were definitely lacking. All of them looked bad in general to be honest, but there could have been more options. I enjoyed the skin tone, cheekbone and nose selection sliders. I was able to make a character that looks like me for the first time in a game that has character customization. I’m a software engineer and not a game developer, but I think it’ll be interesting to look into the programming aspects of character customization.

  6. I would be interested to read your opinion of the transgender character in Inquisition, and if that affected your reaction to the game at all.

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  10. I haven’t tried this particular game, but your comments about “normal” reminded me of something our daughter said a couple of years ago, when she was 8. We were at Macy’s looking at Christmas decorations, and she said, “Oh, look mommy, these Santas have dark skin! I wonder why you don’t see that very often.”

    I asked why she thought that was.

    She said, “I think people who make Santas probably look at their friends around them, and they all have light skin, so they think that is normal. But what they don’t know is that in other places, most people have dark skin, so that would be normal to them. It’s not like Santa has to have just one skin color, you know. Santa is magic. He can probably change his skin color to whatever he wants.” (Then she started begging for a shiny ornament that caught her attention.)

    She is now 10 years old, and scorns narrow definitions of “normal” as lacking in imagination. I think that is exactly what it is. If you can imagine someone wanting a character with horns, you could certainly imagine a player wanting a character with curly hair.

    Saying something is difficult to animate is a poor excuse. The hair in “Tangled” was so difficult there was a Science Friday about it, and Weta bragged about making fire look realistic. Animators seem to love challenges, and get prestige for achieving them.

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  16. I agree with everything you’ve said in this post.

    Regarding the “difficulty” to animate PoC hair, or illuminate our skin tones, it’s a non-point. Look at the character design engine in Saints Row 3 (and I imagine 4, too, but I haven’t played that one yet). It was a cinch to create a Black or Asian or whatever kind of character you wanted.

    And that was back in 2011. Also open-world. Far more animation in general. There really is no excuse.

    I think it comes down to this point: “inclusivity as an afterthought”.

  17. Okay, you’ll hate me for this, but I can vouch for Bioware and curly hair. Making curly hair on a computer is VERY complicated. My brother, who does programming, can vouch for this. In the disney movie Brave it actually took a boatload of work, time, and effort to get anything done when it came to her hair and vid game companies just don’t have the budget or time. So yes maybe they should do braids, but straight up curly hair isn’t going to be an option in the foreseeable future.

  18. Sorry, Luka, I don’t hate you but I don’t buy it, either. We’re not talking Disney-movie animation; we’re talking giving everyone the same stiff plastic crap, but with a wider variety of stiff plastic crap. And you’re talking as if this is impossible, yet Bethesda (Skyrim) did it; Bungee (Destiny) did it; Volition (Saint’s Row) did it. Bioware could do it if they felt it was important. They simply don’t.

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