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Sex and intimacy in Dragon Age: Inquisition vs. its predecessors

I agree that it would be nice to see sex treated better in games and AAA games in particular, but there's an oasis in the desert. Or maybe a one-night stand in a long string of lonely nights?

Katherine Cross posted a fantastic opinion piece the other day. It's about sex in video games and how she feels that so much more could be done. She makes some excellent and thought-provoking points about how games mostly show only external aspects of sex with none of the internality of it. (All the while acknowledging the limitations of the medium that contribute to why that is so.) It's really a great read and I would suggest looking it over even if this weren't being written in answer to it.

One of the examples she gives of the "romance vending machine" model that is so common is the Dragon Age series. Input the right dialogue choices and presents, get sex scenes. This is a valid criticism of the series. I've written about my emotional attachment to Alistair before, but it sure wasn't because of the akward sex scenes. After writing that blog post, in fact, I decided to get the PC version of Dragon Age: Origins and replay it. I made the mistake of giving a DLC gift to Alistair and completely ruining the slow buildup of romance written into the game because the gift was so powerful. So these are definitely issues the series has struggled with.

I find myself wondering if Cross has played Dragon Age: Inquisition, though. I can't deny that it still has some of the romance vending machine model going. Making the correct dialogue options is still necessary, for example; they've even made the interface explicit about whether or not the player is making a romantic dialogue choice.

However, BioWare did a lot to make the romance in DA:I feel a lot more like a relationship than simply chasing polygonal tail. Gifts are gone, for example, replaced by personal side quests. You can do these side quests whether or not you're interested in romancing a character, getting to know them and learning more about them and the world without having exposition dumped on your head.

Most importantly, though, they actually did away with the sex scenes. There are "we're gonna have sex now scenes" followed by "we just had sex" scenes, but the actual hanky-panky is left to the player's imagination. This leverages BioWare's storytelling strengths to put the game's emphasis on the relationship between the characters and invite the player to write their own sex scenes with all the internality they want.

I romanced Cullen for DA:I and when we finally got it on for the first time, the scene cut from us making out, fully clothed, on Cullen's hastily cleared desk to my inquisitor finishing tying her second shoe while Cullen still slept naked on the bed behind her. The bed is the one in the loft above Cullen's office.

There's a lot that can be extrapolated from that. Maybe the desk seemed good enough at first, but the inquisitor quickly got uncomfortable, sandwiched between Cullen's armor and the hard wooden surface. Unwilling to wait the time it would take to go to the inquisitor's 100% private quarters, they instead hastened up the ladder. "Ladies first," Cullen insisted, his eyes smoldering. As the inquisitor climbed the ladder, he took the chance to fondle her rear playfully.

I'm still not even to the actual sex yet, and I already have the start of some fun fan fiction.

The post sex scene isn't about the sex at all, either. It's about Cullen's problems. An intimate conversation about choices and worries in which one person happens to be naked and the other does not. (In fact, Cullen is the naked one. A whole 'nother article could probably be written on the symbolism inherent in him being both physically and mentally naked before the supportive inquisitor in that scene.)

Another nice thing about this approach is that it neatly avoids the akward character model problem that helps break immersion where video game sex is concerned. The sex scenes in DA:O were laughably bad in that respect, even when the game was new. It didn't sully my romantic flights of fancy or anything, but it definitely didn't help with immersion. Even the kissing scenes in DA:I avoid the worst of this problem by choice of camera angle. Rather than showing the player how the characters' faces clip directly, the camera looks at the kiss from over the shoulder, implying a kiss with full body and head motions.

In conclusion, while I agree with most of what Cross says in her piece, I think it's worth pointing out that progress is happening in the AAA space. Dragon Age: Inquisition took some pretty big steps in a good direction regarding sex and romance, complete with a kink-positive relationship, a gay man who doesn't hesitate to flirt like mad with a female inquisitor, and NPCs that can be flirted with but not romanced (and in one case can be sexed up without romance). Is it perfect? No. But it's still an excellent example of where big-budget AAA games can go with sex and how far one developer in particular has come.

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