Hey, FemHype community, and welcome to the first installment of “You Wouldn’t Download a Date!” You’re going to be seeing a lot of me until 2016 rolls around, so let me take a couple seconds to run through what I’ll be talking about this month. In honor of FemHype’s one-year anniversary, I rounded up five of my favorite mods, patches, and fangames that provide romance options for non-straight players that weren’t included in the base game itself. I’m going to check back in every Tuesday to share some thoughts about each of them with you!
For this week, I played Dragon Age: Inquisition (for the very first time!) to romance Cassandra Pentaghast using the “bi Cassandra” mod, and I had a couple of thoughts about fanmade mods for games and how we talk about them.
And wow, was DA:I an unusual experience for me! I found myself constantly cross-referencing with its Wiki and looking up brief references to past games that I, as someone who’d never really personally engaged with the Dragon Age series before, didn’t get off the top of my head. Its lore is so sprawling and there were so many opportunities I didn’t take the game up on that it feels like I won’t ever engage fully enough to grasp the world that’s being presented.
There are a lot of character-altering mods I could have covered for this column. I played with a handful of different small ones in this run—especially loving the ones to make Sera look like her concept art and the one that gave my Adaar larger horns—and struggled with figuring out how to install them all for the first time. As someone who’d never played DA:I before and had never tried to set up the Nexus system, I ended up laughing my way through most of the problems (cutscenes where my Adaar spent most of her time clipping her way through the top of the frame or embedding her fingers in other people’s arms) and got so frustrated I had to walk off some of the rest (Origin’s buggy interface choosing to shut itself down under FPS- and mod-related stress every five minutes).
While I was setting it up through the lag and the crashes and the kind-of-incredibly-buggy game, I kept getting stuck on the same point: I really, really wanted the Cassandra romance to work more than anything else. And I thought about that every time Cassandra turned my Inquisitor’s way.
I don’t think that saying, “Things you choose to mod into your games are things you want to see in them” would be a controversial statement. It’s undeniably an effort to make a mod; you don’t just roll the dice and end up with the code for a retextured pair of pajamas in your lap as a gift from the universe.
So if it’s an effort to make those modifications, and their existence is proof that people want them in their gameplay experiences, it strikes me as a logical conclusion that you wouldn’t put that effort into making and uploading something you didn’t think was a worthwhile change to make. Even a gag mod like the uncanny valley Fallout 4 “Immersive Faces” mod and something as cute and minimal as these adorable nug pajamas are, in their own ways, valuable enough to their creators to be created. If they aren’t worth it in their execution, they almost certainly wouldn’t see the light of day somewhere public like the Fallout or Dragon Age Nexus archives.
But then we get to whitewashed Vivienne edits like this picture.
Following the same logic I used to explain the mods above, it’s important enough to this editor that Vivienne be white that they’ve gone out and made her white. While the picture used in that header isn’t a full mod in and of itself—rather, stemming from a forum request for a whitewashing mod that used said image as an ideal example—the Dragon Age fandom is extraordinarily familiar with mods to make brown characters paler. To “fix” its women via makeup or smoother facial textures. To take away scars, to let men date Sera or women date Dorian, to replicate in mods what already exists in fanart and fanfiction in the minds of a fair few fans. These are things Dragon Age fans want, and those mods only exist because there are fans who want them.
It’s a self-propelling cycle, but fans who want those mods for those reasons still don’t like to hear it phrased as, “You want a black woman to be white” or, “You’d rather these gay characters make an ‘exception’ for yours,” because reducing it down to those simple declarative statements—statements that are reflective of opinions that do exist in the Dragon Age fandom so clearly that I can see them happening from the sidelines, as much as a lot of fans would prefer to say they aren’t common—rips away the created veneer that these mods have somehow escaped being tangled with socially-ingrained racism or homophobia.
I don’t think it’s possible for our interactions with these games to somehow exist without being shaped by our interactions with the world at large, because that assumes we become an entirely different person when we click an icon on a computer screen. It assumes fanbases are completely above reflecting storied histories of whitewashing or compulsory heterosexuality or sexism in the things they create.
For one reason or another, all these fangames, patches, and mods I’m going to highlight in the next few weeks are creations that I think are personally worthwhile, and ones that have altered or engaged with my perception of the base game itself so substantially that I’m devoting the time to write about them. Mods are a conversation between fans—an indirect, “I felt the need for this so much I made it happen, you should give it a shot!” offered up to whoever will hear it and responded to by those who do. Often, in their open beta testing where mod makers will invite other players to report bugs directly back, they’re even a clear collaboration.
Which brings it all back to Cassandra, and where I draw a line between her “bi mod” and Dorian’s. To quote from an extremely smart post:
“we need to recognize the distinction between giving characters with normative sexualities an additional romance to make them more friendly for non-normative players, and taking characters with marginalized sexualities and erasing that representation to give the illusion of a normative romance.
nobody really wants sera and dorian to be bi so that bisexuals can have more representation. they want to have the illusion of heterosexuality. with cullen and cassandra, it really is for the purpose of increasing representation. and that’s the fundamental difference.”
The objection rarely ends with the mods themselves, given that a removal of all mods certainly wouldn’t stop someone from drawing art or having headcanons that replicated the same effect, so consolidating it as an issue with mods and not looking beyond them is to pull a small part of an argument out of a larger context. Mods to lighten Isabela’s skin or to make Sera a romance option for men fall in line with larger social institutions, because those mods are a symptom of prejudices rather than an isolated microcosm completely unaffected by our world.
By comparison, there’s no social demand that women like Cassandra love other women; in fact, even where there are so few stories like that being told, the myth (that is still going strong) is that there are too many. And, if anything, the backlash against the mod to unlock Cassandra’s romance for women proves they were never on equal footing to begin with.
This isn’t a problem that has a solution as simple as a fair and balanced discussion, because there is no way to have any kind of conversation about this that’s free of, to put it plainly, actively hurting and silencing other fans. Acting like it’d be possible to make that idealized neutrality real speaks volumes about the degrees of detachment people are already starting from—a safety net many marginalized fans aren’t afforded. The conversations those mods themselves are having with fandom by being put forward are ones inherently built on an uneven surface.
I chose to play DA:I for Cassandra’s romance in the same way I’m able to make any number of decisions about games based on my taste and ability, but the elements of the game I didn’t see and the lore I didn’t learn are still very much a part of its landscape, and so are all the mods you could possibly name. They’re there in gifsets, and videos, and altered ways in which fans draw or write or talk about their source material. My engagement with the game changes because of theories or alternative outfit designs, and I don’t think pretending that fan creations are free from impacting other fans’ ideas does anyone any good—either with the attitude of acting like mods are influence-free or with the idea that wholly neutral discussion about marginalization can exist.
There’s no easy way to wrap this up, and there’s nothing I can give you to make this stop being a problem. Systematic issues wrapped up with personal ones exist on a much larger scale than I could properly in a few thousand words. All I have to say is this: Cassandra’s romance mod opened up a door to let me hear a story about specific kinds of women I don’t get to see enough of anywhere else, and that’s always going to be that.
See you next week.