Analysis, Feminism, RPGs

Hello From the Other Side: When Compelling NPCs Are Women

Dragon Age

It took me 170 days to complete the Dragon Age “Trespasser” DLC. Not for any lack of trying, though I will say that the combat offered some of the most challenging battle sequences I’ve ever had to endure. (Saarebas? Seriously?) The real reason why I didn’t finish “Trespasser” had to do with the fact that I wanted to hold out as long as humanly possible before officially completing the game. It was gut-wrenching when the credits finally rolled, and I—as I suspect many of you, too—couldn’t keep it together when Cassandra’s voice started reading us Varric’s latest book.

As I blinked furiously through the tears and attempted not to immediately leap back into the character creation screen, I realized that Bioware had slipped something quietly, subtly into Inquisition that I hadn’t fully appreciated. All three available DLCs are led by and about the stories of women. Each of them hold a seat of considerable power among their people, and whether or not their goals align with your Inquisitor, nothing and no one shakes their resolve. We are invited on their journey, which is as incredible as it is rare for video games across the board.

This reminds me of an article I published quite some time ago, “Of Atronachs & Hagravens: The Problem With Women in ‘Skyrim’,” where I reflected (really, lamented) the lack of complex women populating Skyrim’s vast landscape. It’s almost as if Dragon Age decided to enthusiastically answer my rallying cry for more compelling characters who are women, which is what I’d like to celebrate with you today.

In the spirit of pushing for more of that change, I’d like to revisit “Trespasser,” “The Descent,” and “Jaws of Hakkon” for what I can only hope is the beginning of a wonderful, necessary trend. Here be spoilers!

Dragon Age

“As Thane, I may guide the Gods in finding who is worthy. I decide which test will settle the dispute.”

Let’s start with my favorite of the three DLCs, shall we? You can actually experience my visceral reaction when I first met the Thane of Stone-Bear Hold who, as you can see in the video, I initially assumed was the guardsman standing right next to her. I was so taken aback that such an integral character in “Jaws of Hakkon” was being played by a woman that I almost had to stop playing just to process the implications of that. We’re now at the point where games are normalizing women’s stories, and that’s so exciting to me.

There is no dialogue option to exclaim surprise or comment in any way on the fact that Stone-Bear Hold’s leader is a woman. Whoever your Inquisitor happens to be, they’re already flanked by a team of powerful ladies, and it was refreshing that I had no opportunity to question Svarah’s authority. (Or theirs, for that matter. Try asking Leliana what her qualifications are. Go on, I dare you.) Even the mighty Hold-Beast, Storvacker, was a lady bear. You know, for the record.

It’s also interesting to note that Svarah’s face has the tired, weathered look of someone who’s seen too much of the world. We all know what our Presidents end up looking like after only a few years in office, but for a wildly popular franchise to actually allow a woman to age is unheard of. You go, Svarah!

She leads with a firm hand and a soft heart, patiently answering all the Inquisitor’s questions about her people and their culture. When the time comes to fight the Hakkonites directly, Svarah not only discusses battle strategies with the Inquisitor, but she also takes up her (very large) two-handed weapon in order to fight alongside the other Avaar. This Thane is as unyielding on the battlefield as she is from her throne, and for that, Svarah will always hold a place in my heart.

Dragon Age

“I am different. But I am still a Shaper.”

I’ll be honest—I’m not a Deep Roads fan, but I’m a sucker for new party dialogue, so down I went. In terms of the narrative, I wasn’t so much surprised to meet Shaper Valta as I was fascinated by how her story unraveled. It starts off rather cliché—an ambitious and bookish young woman is accompanied by a world-weary fighter in a quest to solve an ancient mystery. As an ardent fan of The Mummy (the first film, thank you very much), this certainly tugged at my heartstrings. You’re even given a chance to tease Valta and Lieutenant Renn—gently, of course—and they seem as adorably long-suffering as any mismatched pair. I was fully prepared to officiate a wedding in the Deep Roads when something incredible happened. Renn actually died.

Okay, that wasn’t the incredible part.

Much to my surprise, Lieutenant Renn is the one who sacrifices himself for the rest of Orzammar. I’d fully expected the sacrificial role to have gone to Shaper Valta, as she was bound and determined to unravel the secret of the titans, no matter what the cost. Instead, I was treated to a coveted place beside Valta on her journey both of exploration and self-discovery. This role is usually—if not consistently—bestowed upon men who must carry on despite the pain of losing a loved one. No matter how capable a woman is, it is through death that her true purpose is achieved.

Not so with Valta. She remains in the Deep Roads regardless of your dialogue choices, because that’s what she wants. It doesn’t matter whether the Inquisitor or anyone else understands the change in Valta, because Valta understands it for herself, and that’s so very refreshing. It’s equally important to note that her decision was based upon a sincere desire to learn more about the culture that was lost to her people, and for anyone who played a Dalish Inquisitor, it’s certainly a worthy cause.

Dragon Age

“We could have brought the South peace and wisdom along the gentle path. Now we must take the way of blades.”

While the Viddasala certainly didn’t get as much screen time as her counterparts, it’s what we don’t see that makes her equally—if not more—compelling than her peers. As the Inquisitor explores the various tools gathered by the Ben-Hassrath agents, it becomes clear just how close they were to actually succeeding. Where Corypheus only had one Eluvian to work with, the Viddasala had amassed countless, and what’s more, she collected keys that could potentially open all of them. Quite honestly, it made Corypheus’ push through the Arbor Wilds look more like a child crawling around aimlessly in a sandbox.

And when we do get to speak with the Viddasala, her command of her followers is absolute. Even the Iron Bull defers to her leadership if you sacrificed the Chargers, which makes her equal to the Inquisitor in power. She still has a dragon, after all, and with a means to produce Gaatlok on a scale never before seen in Thedas’ history, we’re actually pretty lucky that the sad egg decided to step in. Let’s face it: without Solas’ help, the Viddasala most certainly would have succeeded in every aspect of her plan. How terrifying and awesome is that? Come on.

I might not have been fearful of Corypheus in any of my playthroughs, but I was certainly intimidated by the Viddasala from the get-go. That is such a wonderful, rare feeling to have when women are so rarely allowed to stand in direct opposition of the main character.

Given the discussion the Inquisitor has with Solas following the relentless standoff with the Ben-Hassrath, it’s even easy to see the Viddasala’s side of things. Solas wanted to end the world. The Viddasala wanted to preserve it—though that would have meant reshaping it in the image of the Qun. Not so great, but it was a welcome alternative to, you know, complete and utter annihilation. Probably.

Dragon Age

Can we do better? Oh, yeah. Nothing is ever perfect, particularly in such an imperfect industry. Most of the women discussed here are white (with the exception of the Viddasala), and to my knowledge, there was no queer representation to be seen in any of them. I think it’s interesting that merely including these characters surprised me so much in the first place. That none of these women were reduced to ill-fitting clothes or meaningless ends was a blessing, and perhaps, a bit of a curse when you consider the larger implications. If something as simple as basic representation is this fascinating, what does that say about our storytelling ability?

If you’re interested in reading a bit more about the stunningly complex side characters who color the Dragon Age world, I’d highly recommend that you check out “Bad Romance: Dragon Age’s Celene and Briala.” In it, Katherine Cross provides a stunning view into the “Wicked Eyes & Wicked Hearts” quest in terms of the political scheming Empress Celene and Briala are embroiled in. That women are being given starring roles in such a wildly popular franchise gives me hope for the future of games.

I’ll leave you with a very poignant quote from Katherine’s piece (seriously—read it), one that carves out the beating heart of what we’re really trying to accomplish here:

“I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, but writing women characters well in videogames does not mean making them pure paragons of perfect morality.”

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5 thoughts on “Hello From the Other Side: When Compelling NPCs Are Women”

  1. Really interesting article here and I think even though they could do better, they are certainly making a step in the right direction by giving us women as main NPCs. That are strong in their own rights and displaying qualities in women we would like to see represented in media now.

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    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I totally agree—it’s still a step in the right direction, as they handled telling the stories of these women extremely well. It just means we’ll get even BETTER representation if we continue to discuss it.

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  2. Is it bad that this makes me want to play Dragon Age even more? It’s one of those games that I always meant to play and never quite got around to but now I really, really want to play it. I guess we really are kind of starved of compelling female characters in games like this and I want to see what it looks like when it’s done well.

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    1. It’s not bad at all! I really hope you enjoy playing through their stories if/when you get the chance. Personally, if you’re looking for a lady power game, I’d recommend that you play as a woman. Many characters comment on the fact that it’s awesome you’re leading a huge organization, which was super heartening.

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