I was in Fantasy Worlds with Quests and Wizards (Ep. 57 - Dungeons & Dragons)

This Week's Guest: David Gaider

If you could create your ideal fantasy world, what would it looks like? Who would live there? And would it include you?

My guest this week is writer and game developer David Gaider, whose work appears in Baldur's Gate 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, several novels. He's been telling stories his whole life, with one early experience involving a game in which he gave his friends the Black Death -- in a role-playing context, of course.

Games were always David's hobby. He worked in hotel management and never planned to get into the game industry, even going so far as to turn down the job that would eventually change his life. 

"One does not make a job out of things you do to creatively satisfy yourself," he told himself. But there were surprises awaiting him that gave him the nudge he needed toward creative fulfilment -- though not without taking a great risk.

For David, games were an escape from real life, and his fantasy worlds never included anyone who was quite like him. The games that he wrote were always about other people, adventures that he told for and about about someone else. "People say 'write what you know' and that just wasn't something I did," he said. "I didn't think I had a story to tell that other people would be interested in."

It wasn't until his company, Bioware, included a lesbian storyline in the game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic that it even occurred to David that he could write queer characters. "I was blown away when I heard that this is something we were doing," he said. "I didn't know that it was something I could even question or want."

And so he wrote a mage named Dorian for Dragon Age: Inquisition. Dorian's backstory involves a disapproving father and attempts at being "ex-gay" -- in the context of magic and spells. To write Dorian, David reached down deep to tap into personal experiences he'd never used in his writing before. "I finished writing it and I burst into tears," he said.

Once he collected himself, he gave the script to his editor. She came into his office crying as well. It was his first indication that he hadn't just opened a door for himself -- he'd unlocked an undiscovered realm for players everywhere.

This Week's Recommendation: Dragon Age (and Ass-Slapping)

Thanks again to David for joining me. Not just on this episode, but every time I play Dragon Age. It's a single-player game, but just as with a book or a movie or a song, when you connect with a work of art, you're doing it in the company of the people who made it. And knowing that folks like David invited us into their creations with characters who are queer makes the fantasy all the more rich.

That's why my recommendation this week is the series that he worked on, Dragon Age. There are three games, each released about two years apart, and the most recent one -- Dragon Age Inquisition -- has tons of queer content. I've been spending the last few weeks wooing a character called The Iron Bull, a giant hulking warrior who commands a group of mercenaries and whose love for your character deepens if you kill a dragon together.

Among Bull's entourage is a trans man, and there's a scene in which the game unflinchingly explains the character's connection to his gender. Later, the player's relationship with Bull can take a turn towards BDSM, and you explore safe words and consent between fights with monsters deep underground. After a grueling adventure, your can opt into being tied up and roughly sexed in the safety of your bedroom. One character observes that in your relationship with Bull, you submit, but Bull serves, explaining BDSM terms that are clearer than you'll hear at most actual bondage events.

In one scene that I've probably watched a dozen times, Bull slaps your character on the ass, hard enough that you're seen rubbing it tenderly afterward. The scene caught me by surprise at first, and then the next time it played, I made sure my partner was nearby. "Like THAT," I told him.

Not every work of art needs to accommodate every fantasy -- and in fact, they'd be pretty messy if they did. But what I love about Dragon Age is the extent to which it invites different fantasies in.

If I could only play a straight romance, or if I couldn't negotiate power roles with my partner, then I wouldn't be playing my fantasy. I'd be playing someone else's. 

The conversations and assignations of Dragon Age happen in a imaginary setting, but they could just as easily take place in a bedroom or a bar or a basement here in the real world. And at first that might seem like reality intruding into a fantasy realm. If the game's meant to be an escape, a place where your imagination can go free, isn't it distracting to be reminded of the issues of our real lives?

Well -- no. No fantasy exists completely on its own. We all bring a bit of our real lives with us when we escape into a story or music or game, whether it's a wish to be a hero or bad guy, to be important, to be loved, to be something scary or to make something beautiful.

We carry some measure of ourselves into every escape, and some measure of the escape back with us to real life, like returning to base with an inventory bulging with treasure.

From adventures like these, you might return with life-changing loot, like the courage to come out, or a deeper understanding of those you love. And sometimes even little rewards catch you by surprise, like instructions for a good hard smack on the ass.

"I think in many ways the industry is maturing," said David, who just recently became creative director at the game company Beamdog. "Sure, we're offering escapism, but to whom, and to where? And what other sorts of stories can we tell?"

Please join me for a livestreaming of my Dragon Age: Inquisition playthrough! I'm at http://twitch.tv/matthewbaume.

Clips of Stuff We Talked About

Parisian Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0