Monthly Archives: March 2011

Uncanny Valley?

There’s a scene in Mass Effect 2, after you’ve completed the loyalty missions for both Miranda and Jack, when they get into a fight, you have to pick sides, and whoever you don’t choose gets mad and you lose their loyalty unless you pass a Paragon or Renegade check. Because apparently Shepard has a crew full of teenagers.

This was probably the most annoying element of an otherwise awesome game, and it came to mind when I heard about the controversy about gay characters in Dragon Age II. Mainly because I don’t think it’s really a controversy about gay characters.

Okay, this is actually two controversies that kind of overlap. The one that seems to gotten more attention, including a weigh-in by lead writer David Gaider himself, comes from a self-described heterosexual male gamer who thinks the game was neglecting straight guys. I’m not sure how anyone can get that impression from a game that has Isabela in it, but whatever. He basically seems annoyed that the game is trying to be inclusive, which I imagine could be annoying to homophobes and there’s not really much to be done about that.

But there’s also a gamer who’s starting a petition to get Gaider fired because the game gives you rivalry points if you refuse another character’s advances:

This is completely wrong, homosexuals do not approach people and force them to kiss us, the person that wrote this game should be fired for stereotyping homosexuals in such a disrespectful way, as well as creating the worst writing in characters, plot and everything else in DA2. It felt very odd that my male companions kept making passes at me, when I never found any interest or even flirted with them. This sort of thing shows that gays are unable to be normal people and think nothing about sex. This is the type of garbage that has people believe that gays shouldn’t serve in the military. We are human beings that are the same as everyone else!

It’s worth noting that nobody in the game approaches you and forces you to kiss them. And I can recall one situation where I felt I had to flirt with Anders or choose the jerk rival response. So I chose the flirt option, then went on and romanced Merrill and everything worked out.

More to the point, I think the writer is misdiagnosing the problem. DA2 introduces the 2.0 version of the dialogue wheel they imported from Mass Effect, which makes the conversational system both clearer and more limiting. Now, every dialogue choice fits in a category — you can be nice, be funny, be mean, be flirty.

I can see why they did it: The system’s great for telling you what kind of response you’ll be making before you make it. It’s not foolproof, because it doesn’t show you exactly what your character will be saying, but the bigger problem is that the dialogue system still doesn’t really reflect the range of conversation choices you can make in real life. You could argue that’s inevitable in a game where the writers need to anticipate every dialogue option and pre-write the responses, but I think it’s actually gotten a little worse than Origins’ more traditional dialogue system. In the first game, there was usually at least one neutral dialog choice if, for example, you didn’t want to rebuff a companion but didn’t want to flirt with them either. DA2 seems to have backed off on that, which does seem kind of irritating and counterintuitive. It also seems like it would be a problem regardless of the sexuality of the characters.

Obviously this came up in the context of sexuality because that’s an issue that sparks intense feelings in people, but it’s really just an issue of an imperfectly constructed dialogue system. DA2 seems to have landed in a dialogue version of the uncanny valley (took me long enough to explain that title) where the conversations feel just realistic enough to remind you of where they fail.

Bonus rant: Incidentally, Dragon Age II doesn’t have any gay characters. Rather, four of your companions are bisexual — or they exist in some kind of weird dynamic universe where the men are gay if you play as a man and straight if you play as a woman, Merrill is gay if you play as a woman and straight if you play as a man, and Isabela jumps pretty much anything. I expect that’s as close as the game is likely to get, but it’s not an insignificant point that you can complete every romance in the game without ever entering into a same-sex relationship.