I have to admit that the invitation I got to Nordic Game Conference-15 as a speaker at a Diversi panel pleased me quite a bit. It’s always nice to be recognized, but this time, the invitation came with a hidden bonus. I would be able to attend David Gaider’s talk. Gaider is a lead writer at BioWare, and his story crafting has been a part of some of my very favourite games. Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur’s Gate, you name it. At the conference, the main topic was diversity, and Gaider held a presentation on how that topic was handled in Dragon Age Inquisition and at BioWare in general.
He started out by defining diversity, which I found to be useful, as it is a word that can be interpreted in many different ways. By his definition, diversity in games reflects the spectrum in real life. Whatever we see around us is also reflected in-game. But, as Gaider pointed out, it’s not just about the protagonist. We can also show diversity through characters the player character interacts with. This is an important point. How many games brag abut a playable female character, only to have all the people she interacts with be men, and white? When Gaider spoke about this, he brought up Baldur’s Gate as an example. The companions in Baldur’s Gate are quite diverse, but it wasn’t a ploy to be diverse that created the gallery of characters, it was a need for variety for the sake of variety. Still, it took a designer to point out the obvious sameness of all the characters for them to be updated in the game.
Since BioWare’s games are also known for their romances, he brought up the romances in Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire. Both games play around with sexualities, something that never drew much attention (until Dragon Age II where a character named Anders hit on everyone, which made a male, straight gamer upset…). As the company developed the games, BioWare’s culture was pretty much ingrained with diversity, and a desire to do the right thing. This was, according to Gaider, reflected in how Dragon Age Inquisition was made. The design team made a conscious effort to be inclusive which can be seen in the lead cast and the people you meet in the game.
Why do this?
Gaider proceeded to talk about why BioWare makes these decisions. There is no evidence that making a diverse game will sell more copies of the game. But then again, as he pointed out, there is no evidence that diversity doesn’t sell. Inquisition has been one of the biggest sellers for BioWare yet, together with Mass Effect 3, so it obviously doesn’t hurt business to be diverse and inclusive.
Gaider talked about the fact that there are many reasons why a game sells or doesn’t sell. Unfortunately, the games publishing business is a bit one eyed in a that respect. If the game stars a woman, the default fall back on why it did poorly will be because it was a female character lead. It may just as well be any other reason. Perhaps the game wasn’t properly marketed, or a part of the gameplay was subpar. Usually, these things are never investigated. It is, in other words, very hard to say what will make a game sell and what will make it flop.
Not everyone likes the efforts towards diversity. Some praise the games made, but others say diversity is “ruining gaming”. To others, nothing is ever enough. Regardless of what you do, as a developer working with diversity in mind, you will always draw dissatisfaction or even hate. So does BioWare do it because it’s fun? Well, no. According to Gaider it’s not “fun”. It requires extra effort, and it probably would be easier to make games without thinking about diversity. But he also added this. “What we create is consumed by many people. It is the responsible thing to do.”
To give an idea of how the efforts BioWare make are experienced, Gaider illustrated some of the opposition by actual questions or statements made by gamers to the company. It was very entertaining, since these “arguments” have been present for as long as I’ve been talking about diversity myself.
“Just focus on making good games”
According to Gaider, thinking about diversity, and implementing diversity is something we should do. We, as developers, should think about how our audience interprets our games. If you are going to offend a part of the audience, at Least do it intentionally. This is a notion I totally agree with. Be aware of the choices you make.
“Games are about fun. Stop trying to make them something they’re not.”
This comment reflects the fact that to the majority group within gaming, the mere existence of diversity is jarring. Bringing up diversity forces the audience that doesn’t belong to marginalized groups to think about this issue. Consider for example the recent update to the game Rust where the players can’t themselves choose the color of their skin, and the outcry that was voiced against the developers for adding that feature. It reflects the total ignorance among the majority of that this is what marginalized groups within gaming have to deal with all the time. We never or almost never see ourselves represented within games.
“It just feels so forced.”
Some players experience the inclusivity and diversity as too deliberate, that they’re being preached at. They’re not really, but as someone who is always at the center of attention, not being the center of attention anymore can feel uncomfortable. But, as a Gaider says, why should social efforts be off limits? The diversity in BioWare’s games is intentional. He also used Mad Max: Fury Road as an example of how diversity can be accomplished without feeling forced. It’s all about making diversity feel obvious, and perhaps taken for granted.
“You’re only doing it because you’re forced to”
As Gaider said, this statement is completely false. If anything, nobody is forcing anyone to be inclusive. But he also said he felt diversity is making games better, and why shouldn’t we make games that are inclusive?
After this walkthrough of why we as developers should take responsibility to actually make diverse games, Gaider went on to describe the process with which they developed the main cast for Dragon Age Inquisition. He pointed out that diversity is not normally the starting point of a new game. It is added as the game and the cast of the game develops.
For Inquisition they started with a party of 9 members. Since Inquisition is a dialogue heavy game, about 1/3 of the writing is about the companions, but gameplay always has to take the front seat. Because of that, the writers focus on archetypes first, in order to make sure that the game has breadth. Another big part is the romances. The romances will also affect the concepts as the game is developed. Gaider pointed at how important it is to make informed choices when he said “can we defend the choices we’ve made?” Unfortunately I feel that this is a pretty unique attitude among developers. Looking at other devs and their responses when faced with criticism, the staple reply is more often than not “creative freedom” and “It’s just a game”.
Gaider proceeded to talk specifically about three of the characters in Inquisition, Dorian, Vivienne and Krem. All characters start with a focus on backstory. What is their personality and what should they be? Dorian for example started out as the “Rockstar mage”. For each character they make more concepts than they need, and Dorian’s started out as a “Tony Stark Mage”. At first he was fair skinned, but the concepting took him in a direction where his skin tone was darkened as it was fleshed out. Why shouldn’t he be from the warmer parts of Tevinter? As the concept grew, so did the backstory. Dorian is gay, but to say that he started out as the “gay mage” would be wrong. In Tevinter, being gay is not a crime as long as you are discreet. One of the reasons why Dorian is fighting against Tevinter, a country he obviously loves in many ways, is because Dorian is extravagant. Dorian doesn’t want to be discreet. Add to that a perfect family pedigree and a requirement from home to be the perfect son, and you get the heartbreaking storyline that is Dorian’s background.
Vivienne on the other hand started as “Dexter Butterfly”, meaning she was a combination of a cold blooded killer and a social butterfly. As the concept grew, she was geared more towards an lce Queen. During the concept phase something wasn’t gelling for the character, and she risked being cut from the game. It wasn’t until one of the concept artists drew Vivienne with a really dark skin tone that the character clicked. Changing the skin tone might seem like a small thing but it made the writers inspired, and having interacted with Vivienne, I can honestly say she’s a very fascinating companion.
Krem started out as a character that wasn’t that interesting. He is the Iron Bull’s second in command and a part of the Chargers. Krem did not take off until someone posited that he could be transgender. Gaider pointed out that BioWare’s previous attempts at transgender characters had been read as comedic and respectless, something they had gotten feedback on and wanted to address.
The idea was intriguing. How would a transgender character work with the Qun? Krem would allow the writers to say something about the Qunari culture and religion, in a way that they might not have been able to without him. Add the opportunity to play around with voice acting and creating a memorable character, and you have a good idea of how that tweak created a completely different perspective to Krem. Patrick Weekes who wrote Krem took the time to do research and talk to transgender people in order to try to get Krem right. Gaider pointed out that they still hadn’t gotten everything right in Inquisition but that they do listen to feedback from players, as long as it is valid.
He also talked about how they made sure that diversity and inclusiveness was respected in the process of writing the games. The first thing he brought up was peer reviews. Peer reviews are used to work out kinks and talk about concepts and approval. During one of those peer reviews, a sequence where a demon took on Leliana’s appearance and laid demon eggs inside the inquisitor was reviewed. Most of the male writers had no problem with this, but it made the women uncomfortable, as the sequence was experienced as rape.
The point of this example is that if women hadn’t been present at the peer review, it would have made it into the game, and most likely resulted in a worse game.
Be responsible with the influence that you wield. It’s not about checking in every box. Trying to be all inclusive is futile. No single game can be everything to everyone, but if a few more games tried a little harder to be inclusive, people wouldn’t have to ask. Being inclusive and diverse is an opportunity, not a restriction. It opens up possibilities and it is an entire world of experiences from which to draw. Fostering a culture of diversity is important for it to happen.
Personally I agree with Gaider on many points that he made during the presentation, and for me it felt good to have someone in the same corner, talking about responsibility and diversity. I admire BioWare’s clear stance, and I think it would be wonderful to work at a company with such a straightforward agenda when it comes to diversity and inclusiveness. I’m very happy I made it to the conference to be able to hear Gaider speak about these things. It made me feel less of an outsider.