Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The gender divide is more of a skipping rope

I was playing through both genders of the City Elf intro in Dragon Age today for some research I'm conducting, and I must admit, I quite marvelled at how little difference there is dialogue-wise.  BioWare has latched onto something that is often the case in real life that never seems to make it into games :

Gender is just not that important.

Sure, you won't get hit on by Bann Vaughn if you're a guy, but really, I count that as a bonus.  However, while most of the dialogue remains the same, the actions taken are quite different.  I would argue the female City Elf intro is more moving and directive than the male.  I say directive in that it gives you a reason to act - it might have been my choice of conversation options, or the fact that I already knew what was coming, but I wasn't nearly as shocked when Nesiara got taken away.  Spoilers below, for those of you playing at home.

You may recall from my earlier post that one of the big moments of the beginning of my Dragon Age experience was playing through the City Elf opening, and meeting Nelaros, who promised to spend every waking moment learning to make me happy.  Then, to watch him be brutally cut down, unarmed, by the very guard who took away my friends just added injustice to the injury.  I looted his body by accident and found his wedding ring.  48 hours into the game, and my character is still wearing that ring, with its complete lack of stat bonuses and zero magical capacity.  I found a better ring, but couldn't convince myself to take it off.  Sure, I flirt with Alistair and Tegann and Zevran, but Nelaros died trying to save me, and I think that deserves reminding.

If you play as a man, however, your betrothed gets taken away, and instead of the guards killing Nelaros, you come across them having just killed Nola - the same woman who gets killed in the female path.  They make some distasteful comments about her body still being warm, but you don't even have the option of speaking with the Guard Captain.  He just attacks.

Once you get to Vaughn's chambers, the conversation is the same, although I did experience an option that I haven't seen before, so I'll have to test is further to see if it's available for both genders.  Nevertheless, if you kill Vaughn and his men, Soris goes to find the other women and returns with both his bride and yours.  You leave, have the discussion with Duncan, then you can go and visit Shianni.  If you visit her, you get to have a brief conversation with your betrothed, in which she wishes you well and leaves wistfully.  It's a far cry from watching a very kind man die at the hands of a soulless lapdog.

I don't know whether this is because of the real-life gender divide - I have no statistics on how many male gamers choose to play female characters, and vice versa, and I suppose if you're really after escapism, changing gender is a good way to get it.  BioWare, of course, would have these statistics, I imagine, and they do have several women on their writing team, which accounts for the veracity of Shianni's response to what happens to her.  The question then is whether men would be interested in that kind of storyline.  I'm not even going to raise the issue of whether or not they'd understand the subtleties because, frankly, I think that's unfair on every man I know.  I saw a chilling ad campaign once: "1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetime.  Will it be your wife, your daughter, your sister or your mother?"  The true discomfort there lies in the fact that it seems like it's asking you to decide.

But that's not the point of this blog post, as so many of my trains of thought tend to not be.  The point is that the female City Elf intro is, in my opinion, far more effective and affective than the male City Elf intro, and I'm wondering why that is.  Perhaps the men who play men like the idea of a sweetheart forever pining after them.  As a woman, I find it a little silly.  Perhaps the women who play women like the idea of a man who would come to save them, even though he couldn't fight and knew he would probably die.  In theory, yes, I do like that.  So, based on my own preferences, I'm going to wildly extrapolate to say the female intro was written for women, and the male intro written for men.

And if women are now getting the long end of the stick when it comes to stronger narrative, believe me, I'm grateful, but what are our male counterparts getting?

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