Back in 2009, Bioware’s dark fantasy role-playing game Dragon Age: Origins made news by including an option for male player characters to enter into a sexual relationship with another male party member: the elf assassin, Zevran Arainai. The breathlessly adjectival headlines that followed sometimes read like copy from a Middle-earth porn catalog. To hear it described by the more open-minded news outlets, in a secret scene DA players were being treated to “graphic man-elf gay sex” as a matter of course. “Does gay elf sex belong in a video game?” news magazine The Week asked, a little winkingly. The less amenable news outlets called the scene “shocking,” “dirty,” and “controversial.” It seemed a wonder that there weren’t laws being passed banning man-elf sex throughout the country.
I was, to say the least, intrigued.
I bought the game and immediately sex — sorry, set — about trying to figure out how to unlock this hidden scene. I was disappointed to learn the graphic gay elf in question didn’t join my party until at least a third of the way through the storyline, but decided to slog through to that point anyways. I made my creatively-named player character, “Zachary” the human mage, and pressed start. I was hooked in the first couple minutes. By the time I got to Zevran, I had nearly forgotten he existed.
I’ve been a gamer for the better part of my young adult life, and fantasy RPGs have always been a staple of my nerdy diet. Growing up in Jacksonville, Florida, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy series probably got me through high school. I knew early that I was gay, had come out to my parents and peers by the time I was 14, and then found myself alone there, staring into what felt like a desert of representation, not to mention romantic prospects. The queerest media I could find all seemed to be Japanese — the skinny, big-eyed boys of anime and manga, with their improbably-colored hair and occasional bouts of crossdressing, spoke to me of a culture that was wiser, kinder and infinitely more permissive than my own. I dove into Chrono Cross, Final Fantasy VII, and Star Ocean: The Second Story — not to mention Sailor Moon, though that’s a different beast altogether — and imagined twisted versions of the story where Cloud and Vincent battled down Sephiroth holding hands. It took a year and a half of trying to make it as a Japanese double major in college (it didn’t take) to finally have it sink in that the country was no better to its gay citizens than the US. In fact, it now trails us in many ways.
it seemed a wonder that there weren’t laws being passed banning man-elf sex throughout the country
One of them, interestingly enough, is video games. To this date, I can’t think of a single JRPG where player characters can enter into an open male same-sex romance. Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t even the first North American game to do so. The original Fable game of Lionhead Studios’ action RPG series had forums buzzing over the inclusion of not just gay sex as an option, but same-sex marriage. And this was back in 2004 — during the height of the gay marriage scare used by the GOP to bolster support against Democrats during the election.
But what made Origins so special to me wasn’t just that gay sex was possible, it was that a gay character was — with a romance that was part of the plot and affected the story down the line. BioWare as a studio is one of the few that invests heavily in storytelling. They have a team of writers who plot out the various possible narrative arcs, and there are many. Their games are intricate affairs in which the player character is able to respond to prompts as they see fit, playing a wisecracking do-gooder in one playthrough, and a bullish sociopath in the next. (Interestingly, no news magazines covered the “shocking” and “controversial” option of killing a little boy in front of his weeping mother in one of the game’s more chilling possible scenes.) Sex with Zevran isn’t actually a secret you unlock by mashing a code or finding a hidden cue, it’s one of a handful of romance options (there is a female-female pairing available as well) that happens by talking with him, getting on his good side, and flirting with him even when he takes the moment to point out that you are a man, and he is a man, and uh . . .
Sex isn’t the endgame with Zevran, or at least it doesn’t have to be. The randy elf (who is actually bisexual, not gay) is notoriously hard to romance, having the most tragic (read: fucked up) backstory of the four romantic candidates. That the slightly evil, damaged elf slut is also the party’s one resident male bisexual is problematic, yes, but later BioWare games have added lots of complexity to their same-gender-loving characters.
And the graphic sex scene that sparked so much consternation? A series of tableaus showing Zevran and the player character follow your first invitation for Zevran to join you in your tent. Stiff, unmoving hands caress stiff, unmoving torsos to romantic musical warbling, same as all the other pairings. (Your character doesn’t have to be human, by the way: Graphic dwarf-elf gay sex is possible. Interestingly, when Zevran romances a fellow male elf, he takes on the top role. With humans and dwarves, Zevran plays the bottom.) All told, the scene is about 30 seconds long. Completing the main story and all side quests amounts to about 60 hours of gameplay.
what made Origins so special to me wasn’t just that gay sex was possible, it was that a gay character was — with a romance that was part of the plot and affected the story
Of course, it isn’t 2009 anymore. In just half a decade it’s become hard to imagine the sort of hubbub Origins received happening again. Many contemporary North American games have included same-sex romance and marriage as options, and all trends indicate that will likely continue. To my boyfriend’s dismay. He likes to joke about sneaking into my Skyrim file and killing my in-game husband in a fit of jealousy. HA. HA. HA.
The games that have these options tend to be the highly-customizable sort, where players can fashion a character to their liking, choosing their gender, features, and abilities as they see fit, rather than playing a pre-created heroic lead. Gay protagonists that aren’t player-created are rarer — a smattering of bisexual women and Axton from Borderlands 2 were what I could find. And Axton’s bisexuality apparently began as a coding error. He wasn’t originally supposed to flirt with dudes. To their credit, the developers at Gearbox Software decided to go with it, confirming his bisexuality in a later expansion of the game.
Maybe unsurprisingly, these highly customizable games are the ones I gravitate towards. The Dragon Age series stands out in that it’s the only major game I know of where players can not only sleep with characters of the same sex, they can play a gay character whose romances impact the story. And with each iteration the male same-sex romantic options become more varied than just a single bisexual elf.
Which is lucky for me — humans are more my type.