Representation vs Presentation: Writing Blackness into Dragon Age: Inquisition

What truly means representation to you? As video games continue to think about ways to incorporate underrepresented groups into their stories, roleplaying games and their character customization have provided a way for people of color, and Black women specifically, to write ourselves into narratives that we have been barred from. For me, Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inquisition has allowed me to write myself over and over (and over and over) again into over 500 hours worth of stories spanning inquisitors from every present race, gender, and class. I have been able to see myself physically, as a Black woman, in almost every iteration. However, only as a Qunari — with grey skin, horns, and a statuesque physique — have I felt most like myself: invisible to society at large until I have been tasked with the seemingly impossible. 

Character customization places visual representation in the hands of the player. My inquisitor can have brown skin, a wide nose, and full lips all while slaying demons, influencing international politics, and building coalitions. For once, the chosen one of the narrative is a Black woman capable of the unimaginable. We are so rarely centered in any narrative, video game or otherwise, that finally seeing and being seen inspires awe and giddiness. But that eventually wears off, and something becomes annoyingly transparent. 

By necessity, character customization requires that the narrative move away from the specific in order to accommodate the general. The inquisitor is in every way a blank slate: a paragraph-length backstory, no real connection to anyone not related to the plot, and a milquetoast personality. An inquisitor’s heritage is presented in optional dialogue options with few, if any, references in entirely scripted scenes. Unmarked, easily assimilated, and readily accepted, the inquisitor’s journey through the world is tempered only rudimentarily by what fantasy race they are and whether or not they’re a mage. My inquisitor may be Black, but her experience in the world, even when she is an elf or a dwarf, fails to replicate the otherness that nonhuman races allegedly feel; the experience of being her falls flat. 

Fantasy racism often fails because of the underlying assumption that an oppressed or declining race has done something to deserve their persecution. In Dragon Age’s world of Thedas, mages deserve to be locked in towers and overly policed because they could lose control, elves were guilty of enslaving each other and messing with powers beyond their comprehension, and dwarves are so insular and conservative that an insurmountable caste system plagues their society. In a world where a pseudo-Christianity and human society reign supreme, these groups are othered, but they are familiar; they are humanoid, primarily white, and largely blend into the background. 

The Qunari, while not immune to this plight, are undoubtedly alien. From Par Vollen across the sea, the Qunari are different in every conceivable way: tall, grey-skinned, horned, stoic yet bloodthirsty. Their society mimics a well-oiled machine that clashes constantly with humanity’s ideals of self-determination, and their minimal clothing and face paint stand in direct contrast to the general fantasy attire of all other races. Religious zealotry and militarism mar almost every interaction they have in the narrative. Rarely are we shown the Qun, their religion, or the Qunari in a positive way, and when we are, the speaker is often presented as a fanatic or brainwashed. While every other race has multiple representatives to provide different perspectives, the Qunari are not afforded the same level of humanization. Their appearance anywhere in the narrative incites fear and mistrust in equal measure, painting them as villainous when they are nothing more than another sentient race. In almost every way, they are presented as monstrous. 

Playing as a Qunari — or a Tal-Vashoth if your character does not practice the religion — the game becomes a lot more interesting. Suddenly, my inquisitor actually moves differently through the world. Now I am in the world of Thedas, but I am not truly of it. I am too big to contain, come from a background that is feared, and yet in my hands rests the expectation to save the world. While the other nonhuman races are met with confusion or disdain, the Qunari deals with disgust and even fear depending on the setting. In some ways, my experience as a Black woman, especially now as our world metaphorically and literally burns, has been transferred to the screen. Scorned in one breath then expected  to save those who look nothing like me in the next, my Qunari inquisitor has shown that my experiences are worth noting as well, not just my skin color. Docked social points during the ball at Halamshiral, confusion as to why I exist in a specific place or role, often being the only one of me in a room. Trauma and microaggressions are not the sole indicators of Blackness, but in a game that struggles to show difference in any other way, it perhaps speaks closest to my own experience. My Qunari inquisitor may not be brown-skinned, but her experiences with those around her feel more authentic to my own reality.  

Games, and speculative genres specifically, allow the player to explore themes and situations from a level of removal. A dig at the Qunari will never be comparable to playing a game in a historical setting or one in which real world slurs are used; I am not nor will I ever be seven feet tall, horned, and grey-skinned. However, because I am so removed, even from an in-game experience that superficially resembles my own lived one, I am given space to explore and inhabit my differences with very low stakes. The potential for trauma is significantly reduced; I can actually triumph over this specific evil. I cannot solve our world’s many many problems, nor is it my responsibility to, but my Qunari can save Thedas and sometimes, that is enough.