Asexuality & Cole’s Humanity in the ‘Dragon Age’ Trespasser DLC

Dragon Age

Asexual and aromantic gamers don’t have much to choose from in terms of representation—in this or any other form of media—so we tend to take what we can get. That usually means being thrilled when we get anything at all that’s more specific than “Well, this character doesn’t have a romantic interest, so maybe …” or “Their romance doesn’t include any mention of sex, so I headcanon them as ace.” It means latching onto characters like Mordin in Mass Effect or Cole in Dragon Age: Inquisition even though they’re not human—and often, as in Cole’s case, it means inevitably being disappointed.

I actually haven’t played Inquisition yet because I am the Slowest Gamer Ever; I’m still only partway through Origins. My friend Calli has put hundreds of hours into the game since it was released, though, so I’ve heard a lot from her about various characters, including Cole and his lack of interest in sex or romance. At one point, Calli posted on Tumblr, “I love Cole; he is very important to me in addition to being adorable. There’s a conversation where Cole tells Solas that he isn’t attracted to anyone and I’m pretty sure that’s as close as I’m going to get for [aro/ace] representation for a long time so I’ll take it.” I’d only met Cole secondhand, but I felt the same way.

Then the Trespasser DLC came out, which (spoilers!) included the result of guiding Cole toward becoming truly human or remaining a spirit. And if you chose humanity, the following exchange takes place:

Dorian: You have a lady friend?

Cole: Well, I am human now.

“Welp never mind,” Calli posted, “forget I said anything. I’ll just be over here being a robot or something because I’m clearly not human. I want to be happy for Cole but I kinda feel like Bioware is taking a shot at me. I know I shouldn’t expect representation but the fact that it’s Cole saying it and not someone else makes it particularly cruel, like they wanted to make it absolutely clear what they think of anyone who is aro/ace.”

It bothered me a lot, too—that Cole’s line explicitly connected sexuality (or at least romantic attachment) with being human, as if we ace people aren’t. I commented to that effect on the earlier FemHype article, and in the Tumblr discussion that followed, user scribbleymark said this:

I learned about the Cole Gets A Girlfriend plot point in retrospect, because in my playthrough, Cole became more spirit. But apparently if you make Cole “more human,” proof of how human he has become is shown by … giving him a girlfriend. Maryden, to be exact. A More Spirit Cole becomes Maryden’s muse and helps hook her up with Krem. When I heard that the More Human Cole hooks up with Maryden instead and it’s played off as proof of how human he’s become, I was understandably irritated.

You see, asexual people are constantly hearing about how broken, weird, or messed up we are because we don’t do that MOST HUMAN THING: feel sexual attraction. I’m not even going to get into the myriad of reasons why defining sexual attraction as “the most human thing” is ridiculous. But basically, when Cole’s relationship status is played off as proof of humanity, what the hell is that saying about asexual people? Why are we making this assumption that a romantic relationship makes someone more human?

My reaction to finding out this bit of information was exactly the same as the OP above: “Wow. Cool. Guess I don’t count as human unless I’m sexually or romantically attached to someone.” Thanks for bringing that up, Bioware. It’s not like it’s something that’s continuously foisted upon ace and aro people on a daily basis.

Dragon Age

As another Tumblr user pointed out, it’s also bizarrely heteronormative for a studio that seems to pride itself on diverse representation; even earlier, when Cole expresses his total lack of interest in sex or romance, other characters repeatedly try to encourage in him an attraction to women, which is ultimately what he develops. This seems especially strange considering that the Iron Bull, who goes so far as to purchase Cole some time with a lady sex worker, is pansexual himself. It’s possible Bioware made this choice in response to discussions about the problems with evil and/or inhuman bisexual characters in previous games, which is understandable, but the structure of Cole’s awakening of romantic/sexual attraction does strongly indicate that this attraction is an inextricable part of being human.

This whole thing with Cole would bother me no matter what, but I’m especially disappointed in light of a brief Twitter conversation I had with a Bioware writer shortly after Trespasser was released. At that point, I’d heard from Calli that Cole was no longer aro/ace, but I didn’t know the full context of his statement connecting romantic/sexual attachment with humanity.

In talking about Trespasser, Patrick Weekes tweeted:

Getting a lot of “Please explain exactly what was meant by this line with perfect clarity,” questions. Politely: no. We said what we said.
Getting a lot of “Please explain exactly what was meant by this line with perfect clarity,” questions. Politely: no. We said what we said.
If you heard a line one way and someone else heard it another, embrace diversity. (Or wait for answer in future.) But we aren't the ref.
If you heard a line one way and someone else heard it another, embrace diversity. (Or wait for answer in future.) But we aren’t the ref.

So I responded, figuring (incorrectly, I think, after rereading his tweet) that the reference to diversity was along the same lines as Cassandra’s creators being very okay with the mod making Cassandra bi. I asked, “Any chance we might get a canonically asexual character in the future?” He responded (compiled from two tweets):

Hm. Good question. Possibly, but I've heard many conflicting versions of what ace folks want. Not opposed, but, as always, worries about trying and doing wrong. Definitely possibly, though.
Hm. Good question. Possibly, but I’ve heard many conflicting versions of what ace folks want.
Not opposed, but, as always, worries about trying and doing wrong. Definitely possibly, though.
Not opposed, but, as always, worries about trying and doing wrong. Definitely possibly, though.

I wasn’t overly satisfied with that answer at the time and became less so the more I thought about it. Yes, obviously there isn’t going to be a single consensus from the asexual hive mind or something, and of course it’s good to approach such things carefully, but this exact same issue will always crop up when attempts are made to represent any marginalized group. As we’ve pretty clearly seen, Bioware is normally willing to try anyway, even though no single character is going to please everyone.

Not everyone is happy with LGBTQIA+ representation in terms of Dorian, Sera, and Krem (or with racial representation in terms of light-skinned-but-oppressed elves or characters like Vivienne), for instance, because it’s impossible to have all people of any one group agree on exactly what they want for representation, but the powers that be still decided it was worth it to make those characters. Which is great! It is worth it, plenty of people do love them, and I know I appreciate the fact that Bioware tries, unlike most other major studios. I’m sure other people do, too.

The fact that these characters exist at all is importanteven if they’re portrayed imperfectly and various missteps are made (seriously, Cassandra doesn’t need to be straight, there are no queer butch women in games to make that a stereotype). So I don’t really know where “ace folks want different things” is coming from, since obviously that wasn’t seen as an insurmountable barrier in creating and (awesomely) standing by all these other characters.

Dragon Age

At its most basic level, “What ace folks want” is not that complicated. We want what everyone else wants: recognition that we’re human and that we exist. Everything else is details. Figuring out how to navigate this is done in the same way that any other marginalized group is portrayed: hire or at least talk to members of that group and ask them to check your work. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it doesn’t have to be some huge plot-altering thing, just a (human or human-equivalent) character who explicitly isn’t interested in sex and/or romance, but doesn’t make a big deal of it. Dorian and Sera aren’t just gay, Krem isn’t just trans, Leliana isn’t just bi, and the Iron Bull isn’t just pansexual; there’s no reason why we can’t also have an asexual character who isn’t defined by their asexuality. Again, there’s no hive mind, so maybe there won’t be any consensus, but since when are people going to unanimously agree on everything?

But then Calli told me about Cole’s line about being human, and that additional context makes this seem like kind of a disingenuous excuse in general: whether or not ace people can agree on what perfect ace representation would look like, it’s safe to say that the vast majority of ace people would feel very alienated (somewhat literally) by this development in Cole’s storyline. He used to be explicitly uninterested in sex and romance. Now, with one line, he’s explicitly portraying sexual/romantic connections as an essential part of his humanity.

As “Coming Up Aces” pointed out, it’s not super awesome that our only real examples of ace characters aren’t human to begin with, but that this one line from Cole emphasizes even more strongly the idea that asexuality itself is inhuman, that ace people are abnormal or broken or less human, and frankly … that hurts. Especially coming from a studio that usually does try harder than this, whose games I absolutely love for a whole lot of reasons (among them, stances on diversity/representation and willingness to piss off people who think “SJW” is a slur). Yes, unanimous agreement on asexual representation probably isn’t going to happen, but I think we ace folks can probably all agree that we didn’t want something like this.

At this point, I would love an explicitly, canonically ace character. If it were revealed at some point in Josephine’s romance that she’s not interested in sex but she really likes you and also likes to cuddle—rather than her romance just lacking a sex scene so players can headcanon her as asexual—I would be thrilled to bits (and hey, I suppose the topic could still come up in a future game). She’s human, she’s wonderful, and it would be a small part of her character, not some defining trait. At the very least, I would like Bioware to consider the implications of what they’re writing and make sure they’re not using arguably aro/ace characters in a way that could easily be viewed as dismissing the entire concept of humans being asexual. Because, you know … we exist, and we’re just as human as anyone else.

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16 Comments on “Asexuality & Cole’s Humanity in the ‘Dragon Age’ Trespasser DLC

    • While “not this time around!” would be a sensible response to resent, it doesn’t seem like that is what was intended.* As in a lot of scenarios, it might be good here to assume the best of intentions. There is merciless trolling and there is informed critique, but consider how that might have looked from the other side. Is it so easy to tell the difference, in 140 characters or less?

      They can’t accommodate the disappointment of every headcanon as post-vanilla content gets released piece by piece. If this or that character wasn’t written the way fandom wished–written as they already had been, prior to the timed release of later content–running and rearranging things to assuage internet lynch mobs (however erudite) would be a production nightmare. No marginalized group deserves less representation than the next–but that’s not what they’re saying.

      I wouldn’t risk your wrath, had there not been a comment that essentially crossed its arms and trumpeted, “ha! I knew it! evil game devs are evil!” That’s a willful misreading of what was surely a tangle of responsibilities, timing, writing, coding, rewriting, recoding, and delegation of work into one deliberately-planned black mark on the name of a group or groups. And I just don’t think they do that. None of the public personalities who’ve worked on those games have come off as those kind of people. Read the best into them. Because one line from one character who didn’t end up as you’d hoped he would really doesn’t mean they’re reading the worst into you, I don’t think.

      * Cole, as a spirit, has trouble getting people to even remember that he exists. He is thrilled when the members of the Inquisitor’s inner circle _do_ remember him. His comment might have very well been intended less as an alienating dismissal of asexuality than as a very practical comment on the difficulty of having sexual relations when one’s partner might forget who one is in the middle of the very act, if they look away for a moment. His “I am human” could just as easily mean “they won’t forget me, so it’s possible now…” in a way that it wasn’t before, when he was more ephemeral.

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      • I love Bioware and I really appreciate the fact that they are willing to try for representation, particularly in an industry where no one else really does. No one is calling the devs evil and I will support and thank them for everything they are doing but it is equally important to point out things that were not done well. I know the author of this piece and I are not the only ones who were hurt by this and we all deserve to be represented and treated like people just as much as anyone else. No one is asking them to respect every headcanon, only to show some decency and not dehumanize an entire group of people who already get enough of that. Also Cole chooses to let the inner circle remember him so that has nothing to do with this. The issue is that he specifically says he isn’t attracted to anyone, the closest we have ever gotten to someone claiming to be ace, then when he does develop a romantic relationship he links that to his humanity, thus labeling anyone who doesn’t feel romantic or sexual attraction as inhuman

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      • Well, as I said in a comment below, I don’t actually think there was any evil intention here; I think Cole’s line was written out of ignorance about what it heavily implies (I can understand your interpretation, although that doesn’t change the implications of Cole’s statement). I think it didn’t even occur to them that Cole’s line could be interpreted that way, in fact, but that doesn’t make me feel a lot better. In fact, it sort of emphasizes that even people who usually know better still don’t really recognize that we exist.

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      • WordPress confuses me so this looks like a reply to my comment and as thus I feel I should reply, but if it isn’t I am sorry for the misunderstanding

        I am not trying to say I think they had ill intentions or that “I caught them being super evil!”. What I am trying to say is that this game had seemed interesting to me once upon a time due to all the talks of the great representation, but the more I have read about the game itself, not the developers, it doesn’t seem to have the representation I want.

        For example, I wish you could have a playable trans character instead of just a trans side character who’s dialogue implies your PC is not trans, and while I am not asexual myself, I do think diverse representation is important and that it would be great to have some cool ace characters in the game to befriend or to play as too

        Surely, that must be okay to be disappointed in something you once had interest in checking out, right?

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    • Hey there! I’m the editor, and I’m just popping in to thank you for the clarification and to let you know that the word has been edited. I’m super thankful you took the time to educate me on that. It’s appreciated!

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  1. Oh boy… it’s been a while since I got my rage on about ace representation, but here it is. This is a good example of so-called “progressive” titles and companies not being perfect, and a pretty hurtful one at that. It’s hard not to feel betrayed when you start to rely on certain companies for representation and protection of your identity, and then they come out saying “well, not quite.”

    I also think Cole is a great example of the asexual representation we’re allowed: non-explicit, non-human, fixable asexuality, which is more celibacy than anything else. We can have our asexual robots, asexual our incorporeal spirits, even our asexual supergeniuses who are celibate or disinterested in sex because they’re preoccupied with transcending the bounds of human intelligence. It sends a very specific message; one that I’ve heard from almost everyone I’ve ever come out to. “Sex and romance define humanity,” goes the thought, “and no human could possibly be disinterested in both.”

    I’m so mad and hurt that I can’t define my thoughts much clearer than that. But I think this article does what I’m not currently able to. Great job.

    Liked by 1 person

    • (OP here) Thank you! And yeah, exactly. And I still love Bioware, a lot, which made this even more frustrating–as you said, when you start depending on a particular company to be progressive and inclusive, it’s even more disappointing when they fall short. And like, I don’t actually think the writers went “oh hey, some people are looking to Cole as asexual representation, let’s crap all over that,” I think it didn’t even occur to them that Cole’s line could be interpreted that way, but that doesn’t make it much less hurtful. Sort of emphasizes that even people who usually know better still don’t really recognize that we exist.

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  2. Can I just make this my home page?! I’m asexual and was deeply upset to see what they did to human Cole, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. And then it was said perfectly! GAH!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Great feedback on our Asexuality in games episode with @defira85! | outoftokenscast

  4. Thanks for writing this. I just got the Cole quest and was having trouble deciding between spirit or human. My original gut feeling was go spirit, but something about the spirit choice bugged me. On the one hand: be your natural (original, assigned at birth) self + be happy and powerful and forget everything while everyone keeps forgetting you. On the other hand: be a different, no-less-authentic version of yourself, no shortcuts to happiness, live with your pain, make connections with those around you. I had to turn to google to see what others were saying.

    Coming across this post about asexual gamers identifying with Cole (and tumblr posts from autistic gamers) I realised that that my original dilemma and assessment was incomplete: I’d read the spirit vs human choice as a transgender allegory – that is, Cole was born one thing, but (due to circumstances – have only read a description of Asunder so am not super on top of this) chose to break out of the Fade and become something different. I’d failed to consider the “human” choice as the “conform to norms” choice. Reading this perspective (and others like it) I can now see how problematic the “human” choice now is.

    Ultimately I’m still on the fence, but definitely feel less troubled about my decision to go spirit, now. Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think the intention was to be “conforming to the norm”, I think of it as Varric says “[Cole] came here to be a human, so let him be one”. I took it that humanity was something Cole wanted, but he was afraid of or unused to being selfish (especially considering that being a spirit is what made him lose his friendship with Rhys, or at least, that’s what he blames it on). Also, I DID read it as similar to being trans, though not _entirely_ since Cole was still satisfied as a spirit.
      Cole really got out of the Fade due to his connection to “Cole” the mage dying in the White Spire. Realistically, MOST spirits want to be outside of the Fade, Cole just happened to be able to thrive in the mortal world, particularly since he didn’t have to resort to possession.

      What I’m trying to say is that your interpretation might be valid, but it’s not the only one. I think that the human choice wasn’t meant to be a “conform” choice necessarily, the clumsy writing of Cole in Trespasser just made it feel more that way.

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  5. I was okay with human cole having a girlfriend, but now that I’m aware of the comment made in trespasser I’m really upset. My best friends loves Cole, he is her favorite character and she is asexual so it would’ve meant so much to her if he was asexual too. How am I supposed to break it to her…

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  6. I’m not asexual, so i don’t understand your perspective completely. But i still consider Cole asexual despite getting a girl friend. My reason? Marydon herself. I suspect he liked her since before you have the choice to change him, Not necessarily romantically. Think about it, Her voice makes people happy and He always hung out where she sang. I think he wanted a chance to make her happy , so when he became human, he decided he could be the one to make her happy. You don’t really see him playing match maker with anyone else, when he became more of a spirit, just her. So we can reason he cares for her in some way. And who does he pair her up with? Krem, so we can reason she’s different, if she cared about ‘normal’ she wouldn’t have been paired with him. What do does he say after he became more of a spirit? “thank you for not trying to change me and instead letting me be more than me, you don’t know how much this means to me”.From that I can gather he was previously feeling insecure about it. Now imagine the opposite of that, being turned human in a world constantly trying to change you, all of a sudden you have all of these new expectations on you on top of trying to get used to new bodily functions and having no more spirit powers, wouldn’t you try to latch on to the one person NOT trying to change you? And his comment when you ask him about her “she makes people happy and now I can make her happy “,even after he became human,he’s still trying to make people happy, albiet, at a dulled rate due to his loss of powers and added anxiety, but she is still making people happy at the same rate as before. I suspect he is still trying to make people happy but through her, if he can make her happy, she can continue making people happy.

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  7. I’ll admit, part of my dislike for this pairing is a matter of envy, in that my player character wasn’t able to show any particular affection for Cole, romantic or not, despite him being just my heart and soul as far as that game is concerned.
    However, the thought that this would be a kick in the teeth for asexuals didn’t escape me. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it still feels “wrong”. The idea that “sexual is more human” and it may have been inadvertent but compounded with how forced the “romance” feels… it’s too dismissive and devisive for me. It’s got uncomfortable implications and is plainly not good writing. (For context I am bisexual, but more attracted to men, so I can’t speak from an asexual perspective, but I think I can at least appreciate what I, and other people, think is wrong with this whole dilemma.)

    Completely avoiding any real-world “sexual politics” or whatever people call it, I have a few issues with the romance. I think it’s very forced and contrived for one thing. If you were going to pair up her and Cole, Bioware, would it have killed you to put in at least a scene of them interacting? I know that they could’ve done so off screen, but the fact that the player doesn’t see it makes all the difference. If Cole was going to have a romance with anyone, I feel it would’ve been more appropriate that it be someone he was close to, emotionally, which is why I think if he wasn’t going to be aromantic, having the player be able to romance him would’ve been considerably more appropriate considering that the Inquisitor was a big part of a changing point in Cole’s life.
    Basically, my biggest problem with it is that the romance felt forced in to give him an “example of humanity or something”. Maybe don’t next time, Bioware, if you’re going to do it all clumsy like this, maybe don’t.

    Unlike what some people here are theorizing, I wanted him to be more human not to conform, and I didn’t initially get the intention that Bioware was making the choice to be like that. To me I agreed with Varric’s sentiment “He came here to be a person, so let him be one”.
    I get the impression maybe, that this pairing is more down to bad writing (as in, character inconsistency, as I mentioned) than any outright offense, but overall since it upset all sorts of people I hope Bioware at least takes that their decision was poorly received into consideration.
    I’d love to see it re-done but I’m sure that’s too much to ask. Hopefully Cole shows up in the future and they’ll have worked out all the kinks then.

    P.S. It seems odd to me that “sexuality” would be considered explicitly “human” er… “mortal” (to account for the other races) when there are things like the desire demons that play off human sexuality and probably should have some semblance of sexuality. Maybe I’m reading too far into it, but regardless, isn’t the mark of being a mortal in the Dragon Age world not the ability to feel sexual attraction, but the ability to exercise free will and not have to be reliant on the emotions of other people as spirits are? Bioware certainly should’ve focused on that. Given us some bloody character interaction where Cole could talk about things he likes or does irrelevant to helping people.

    P.P.S. If rumors are correct, some people at Bioware think of Cole as childish, which they’ve used as a justification for not having a romance with him. First off, if you were going to shove him at Maryden and make him romantically interested, you could’ve given some of the players a little thought and given the Inquisitor something like a romance, by that logic. Regardless, thinking of Cole as having a mind of a child is stupid. He is ignorant of the mortal world, but he’s pretty emotionally mature. I would argue that Sera is less mature than him (with her pranks and the way she avoids rather than confronts personal issues for example) and SHE is a romance option. Is it just because he looks younger? He still looks about 19 or 20, not “underage”. Merrill in DA2 was very childlike, but you could have a romance with her! Is there a gender double-standard for maturity or is Bioware just being lazy with their explanations?
    It just seems odd to me to think of Cole as significantly childlike. Not to mention a little demeaning, both to him and people who relate to and/or act like him.

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