Welcome to VBR’s LGBT Spotlight, an on-going, non-consecutive series highlighting my stumbling across LGBT characters in videogames, explicating their use as a character, and examining how their sexuality is treated. This particular post will contain spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins.
Zevran Arainai is hired by Loghain to assassinate your character, the Grey Warden. After the initial encounter, the player can choose whether to grant him his life, or kill him where he has fallen in his botched attempt. Granting him his life also nets you a companion, with whom you can choose to have sexual intercourse, regardless of your own sex.
The initials interactions with Zevran would have many believe him to be a rather stereotyped gay or bisexual male: he’s easy to bed, willing to sleep with many people without romantic attachment, and, as has been the case for non-heterosexual males in many media over time, cast in a villainous light.
Except this is only the initial interaction with him. Reading over a forum thread on the BioWare Social Network, in the Gay Wardens group, many people have not been the biggest fans of him. The divide seems to be along the lines of, “I like Zevran as he has been written, but I would personally never go for his type.”
While I will not be discussing my own type here, I find it important to note that for my own playing of games, I do not play myself, but treat my characters as a role to inhabit on a stage–the stage and play being encompassed by the game. For this reason, my amoral, self-serving mage got along rather well with Zevran.
And yet, Zevran made him reconsider a decision (one of two characters to do this to him, which I consider brilliant). Upon going to the Alienage in Denerim, the player is tasked with finding out why the revolt happened in this part of town, which caused Loghain to essentially cordon it off from the rest of the city. Advancing in the story finds that people from the Tevinter Imperium had Loghain initiate a lock-down of the Alienage because of a deal struck between them where Loghain was receiving coin (to fund his own campaign against the player) to sell off slaves–elven slaves.
My character, being a blood mage, received an offer from the leader of this group to let him go with the slaves and he would use his own magic to bolster my abilities. After initially wanting to go along with this proposition, Zevran stepped in and told me to look into these elves’ eyes and tell me I could condemn them to slavery. I ended up killing the leader.
Zevran is not amoral, though he may appear to be at first. This interaction highlights many things about his character that are never explicitly stated: Zevran’s own past has influenced who he is. While normally irreverent and flippant, his stance on this issue brings to light that his past is something that has had an effect on him, and like any good assassin (and the lesbian romance option, Leliana), he has learned to put forth an act.
To expect an assassin to reveal his own character, even if he is part of your group, seems folly. Zevran’s actual personality became among my favorites because he was able to roll with punches, accept humor at his expense, and offer the same back. He is, in many ways, a larger metaphor for the masks, closets, and facades many people in the gay community put on to this day to be able to function in society.
Here is a young elf male who was brought into the world by a sex worker, sold into indentured servitude to a group of assassins, and finally meets someone who accepts him for himself, not for what he can provide. His role in society had been mapped out as an assassin, and it is the player who can bend that path and give him a new life. If he were not an assassin, he’d be seen as a lesser citizen due to his being an elf, which plays an important role in the construction of his character.
Zevran is a victim of his circumstances, and if the character can establish a bond, he will eschew his past. He no longer becomes just a one-dimensional figure who sees everything as an innuendo to be made and enjoys the thrill of the hunt, but explodes into a character who is afraid of exploring a portion of his life he has been led to believe could never be within his grasp.
Which is exactly how the romance plays out. Upon refusing the player sex, Zevran starts to admit he does not know how to deal with the feelings he has established. Considering his usual bravado and over-confidence, it is a sign that, again, he has been wearing a mask and playing a role.
Antiva, from how the game portrays the country in its codices and talks with Zevran, is a place of appearances. There is a ruling class, though they are no more than mere puppets. It is the Antivan Crows, the assassin group to whom Zevran belongs, that rule the country. They are the reason no one assaults a seemingly weak country with no real standing army, and they must put on an appearance of having no weaknesses, using guises and subterfuge to their advantage.
So, yes, Zevran initially is portrayed as a superficial stereotype, but so is every character; the problem therefore lies in the fact that the LGBT community is more aware of how these stereotypes have been used negatively in the past to create a stock character. However, from my initial play of the game, I would venture to say that none of the companions in the game are wholly a stock character, though some may be more problematic than others. They all have a sustained narrative that the character affects in some manner.
For instance, it is intriguing to note how subtle factors like race and gender expectations shape how people feel about Zevran, and also feed into the way they feel about his representation. Elves through the Tolkien-inspired fantasy world are considered lithe, less muscular, and by this rote, more traditionally feminine in their portrayal. The fact that Zevran is not human already puts him at a disadvantage for many, particularly in a gay community that now puts on a face of being more ‘straight-acting’ and masculine.
Zevran is not really feminine, displaying traits of sleazy bravado that borders on machismo, and fitting more into a stereotype of a Don Juan. His sexuality and openness to sex are products of his own upbringing, from which I can speak personally as someone who was raised in a sex-positive family, for whom the notion of only ever having sex with one person was a bizarre concept. This brings into question the morality of a society, and like the game’s decisions, the ‘moral good’ has no clear-cut path, and begs to be brought into focus as something that has no particular merit in terms of quantifiable stats.
While Zevran is easy to bed, he feels no easier to win over into a romantic relationship than the other romantic options, who all require care brought to their individual desires and backgrounds. This fact alone makes me appreciate the way the male same-sex romance was included as a romantic option no different than any other.