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Defending Isabela's honor. (In reply to "Sexual Failings")

(Due spoiler warning for Dragon Age 2 follows.)

In this week's Jimquisition, Jim Sterling lays out an argument that Bioware's claims of 'tasteful, mature sex scenes' in Dragon Age: Inquisition are complete bullshit, based upon the evidence that there has never been a tasteful sex scene in videogames before, and why should there be one now? I'm pretty sympathetic to the argument, which can be basically boiled down into three bullet points.

1. Most video game sex scenes are forced into the game as a selling point rather than to benefit the plot; and,
2. Most video game sex scenes are positioned as the culmination of romance, treated as a reward for the player completing the romance quest chain. This is a fundamentally horrible way to look at sex that reflects some genuinely sick real world attitudes about it.
3. They're fucking awful in and of themselves anyway.

Oh, there's a bunch more in the video (go watch it) but I don't think I've done the video a disservice with that truncation. And y'know what? For the most part, he's absolutely right and just about every sex scene I've ever witnessed in a video game is faulted by at least one of the two. The worst of the bunch are absolutely those of the Mass Effect franchise, which hit all three of those points with gusto. Seriously, go back and watch that Mass Effect 1 sex scene again. Just... just ugh(1). The Dragon Age: Origins sex scenes are either better or worse depending upon which qualities offend you more; they're longer and more painfully presented, they're just as obligatory, but at least they're marginally better positioned. (With most of them, the sex scene is not the culmination of the romance, at least.)

But I must leap in to defend Bioware somewhat because they have, even if it is merely in the same manner as a stopped clock with the time, gotten it more or less right at least once, with the Isabela sex scene in the flawed but under-rated Dragon Age 2. Let's break this down point by point.

1. Obligatory selling point

So, there's no real getting around this: Yes, the sex scene still trips on this point. The romance options thinking is still very much intact, and they exist within Dragon Age 2 precisely because they're an expected feature for Bioware RPG fans.

But at least here the romances do in fact make some sense. The themes of Dragon Age 2 revolve around loss and gain; Hawke gains power and success in the world at the same time as all they love is stripped away from them. They escape the blight, but at the cost of their sibling. They rise again to wealth, but their other sibling is pulled away from them. Hawke gains repute and prominence, but only after the death of their mother. Their house moves from a crowded shack in Lowtown to an empty, cavernous manse in Hightown, which is exactly the point.

Here, the romances at least have a thematic point: They're a new connection for Hawke, a way to try and fight back against the continued loss and heartbreak. It makes sense for Hawke to seek out love in this plotline in a way it never did in any of the Mass Effect games.

And of all the romances, none of them make as much sense on either side as Isabela's. If the sex scene must exist, at least here is a character designed to make the most of that. Isabela's two most prominent features(2) are her hedonism and promiscuity. She's a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking cheerful sex fiend who appears to have slept with half of Thedas and is delighted to tell you all the sordid details. She exists to shamelessly drink, fight and fuck until she is exhausted and sore, before hauling herself out of bed to do it all over again. With this character, at least the sex scene makes sense. It would be strange for her not to have one.

2. Sex as culmination and reward

But if I can only offer a half-defence against the first point, I can offer a much stronger defence against the second. This sex scene simply does not play into this problem. Let's give the context.

Isabela first appears sometime in the middle to the end of Act 1. When we meet her, she is scantily clad, drinking heavily, and then kicks the shit out of three yokels trying to strong-arm their ways into her non-existent pants. (It's basically a case-study in how to introduce a character.) Hawke can be all business with her, or decide to be mildly flirtatious. If Hawke choose's the latter, at the beginning of act 2, she invites herself over to their house and propositions them. Rather refreshingly, Hawke can act quite coy here, if so wished. The sense is very much that she is pursuing Hawke, rather than the inverse. Assuming Hawke doesn't refuse her, the two of them tumble upstairs and into Hawke's bed. Afterwards, she either implies he wasn't quite as good as he think he is (if Hawke is male) or that she really was that good (if female). And then, with some horror, she questions if Hawke was just interested in sex, or if they might actually be bringing emotion into it. If Hawke admits to genuine feelings, Isabela curses Hawke out for ruining the moment, and leaves in a huff. Over time, she comes to instead reject her previous emotional detachment and eventually a true romance forms between Hawke and Isabela.

Note the positioning here: The sex scene actually initiates the romance plot. It's as far removed from the ending as can plausibly be done. You have the option to stop it; Hawke can be completely businesslike with her to remove any chance of sex, or can simply turn her down after she comes around to the mansion. (And to Isabela's credit, if turned down, she handles it gracefully.)

There's no way in which this can be perceived as a reward for completing a quest chain. It's initiated with a bare minimum of involvement from the player, you can decline the rest of the chain off-hand afterwards (and even begin romancing another character afterwards) without Isabela being offended, and the entire thing is very much framed as being more about her choices than Hawke's. It's about as stunning a rejection of the idea as can be done.

3. Just fucking awful fucking.

Well, this one is subjective, granted, but go ahead and watch the scene.

I know Jim'd disagree, but I'd argue it's pretty good! It's much more wonderfully lusty and passionate than that godawful Mass Effect scene, and it even manages a splash of humour in it. More than most, it gets across the idea that the two people here are having sex because they find the idea fun and appealing. It's not perfect, but compared to most videogame sex scenes it's a masterpiece, and it's definitely nothing to be ashamed of.

Overall, I'd argue that the Isabela scene, more than anything else, argues pretty strongly that Bioware could deliver on its promise of mature sex scenes. It's shown it can do so in the past. Of course, the fact that they are promising them is really the problem here. This basically slams home point one; they're a marketing feature rather than anything else, and while you can work within that to at least make it work, it'd be better if Bioware just abandoned the idea that every RPG must have one sex scene. In the end, we'd be better off if Bioware stopped trying to give the fans exactly what they want and instead followed their own artistic ambitions to create something that spoke to them, even if it spoke to no-one else.

Then again, maybe not(3).

1. The Kaidan one is particularly awful because they used the same basic animation as the Ashley one, meaning the focus is entirely on fem-Shep's body. It's pretty much the most textbook definition of 'male gaze' ever invented.
2. Yes, I know.
3. If you liked Mass Effect 3's ending, go ahead and consider this an attack on the ridiculous backlash that ensued. if you hated it, you can consider it an indictment of Bioware's prior efforts at being artistic in any way. Me? I'm conflicted about the ending and don't know where I stand on it.
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About JackSlackone of us since 5:31 PM on 04.14.2013