Including gender minority characters in television and movies has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, making huge headway in the last decade as characters evolve from having their gender identities used as plot devices (see: Moira/Max from the L Word) to simply existing as an intrinsic part of their person (Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black).
This evolution in other areas of pop culture hasn’t necessarily translated over to gaming just yet, but certain developers are paving the way for greater representation. With the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third major release in their incredibly popular Dragon Age series, gaming giant BioWare brings multiple transgender characters to the table and not only offers positive portrayals all around, but demonstrates some important truths while doing so.
The most noticeable of these characters is a secondary companion named Cremisius Aclassi, or “Krem” for short. The player’s character first encounters Krem as a messenger of a mercenary captain who invites the party to come see the group in. Upon arrival, the player sees Krem and the company’s success in battle, and allows the option to bring them into the fold as partners. No mention made of Krem’s life as a transgender man until further into the game. He represented as a stoic, calculated lieutenant with incredible battle prowess.
After accepting the mercenary company into their party, the player can ask questions about Krem’s past and he discloses his transgender status to the player’s character. The player can ask questions about what it meaning of transgender, difficulties Krem has faced, and how to treat a transgender person. Possibly the greatest addition to the dialogue options here are communication with Krem’s captain, the Iron Bull. Depending on the race and fighting style of the player’s character, the Iron Bull tailors beautifully crafted rebuttals to the player’s questions about Krem’s transgender status. When playing as a magic user, the player’s reminded that they “shoot lightning out of their hands”, and therefore aren’t in a place to say what is or isn’t normal.
Quite possibly more interesting than Krem is the character of Maevaris Tilani – a transwoman present only by name in the game universe, but followed in-depth with the comic books that go with the series. Mae’s character is a shrewd, connected politician who aids several fan favorites as they unravel nefarious plots in her home country. The audience isn’t told that Mae is a transwoman until the second book in the series, and the overall fan reaction to this announcement was one of approval – by the point it’s announced that Mae was assigned male at birth, readers already enjoy her as a character, and her being transgender is just an extra aspect of who she is.
Video games, like television shows and movies, are out to make a profit. With the greater demand for large, beautifully crafted worlds and characters which need top-notch programmers and artists to create, it becomes even more critical to developers that games be financially successful. This is how designers prove create characters that majority of potential players can identify with. But what does a lack of representation really mean? When we see a world lacking stories from people of color, women, young or elderly people, gender and sexual minorities and the like, it implies to the audience that those stories are not worth telling.
Though BioWare only included secondary transgender characters in this iteration of the Dragon Age universe, this alone sends an important message on multiple fronts. For cisgender fans of the series, it normalizes transgender characters and offers the opportunity to ask questions without fear of judgment. For transgender fans of the game, it gives positive representation to their small community. Perhaps the most important message to other developers – including transgender characters doesn’t take anything away from the world they’re creating, but rather adds to it.