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Guest Column: On Monsters, Role Playing, and Blackness

When your Inquisitor recruits Blackwall in Dragon Age: Inquisition, you have a short conversation with him after he returns to Haven with you. He asks you if you're really the person they pulled from the rift in the sky, and if you're not human, he follows that up with, "I have to admit, I thought you'd be…" That question just hangs in the air, your character answering, "Human?" After picking the brains of a friend who had previously played through Inquisition, I discovered that I picked a race that's somewhat fraught in the Dragon Age universe. I played as a Qunari--I didn't actually know much about the fiction of Dragon Age, I just wanted my Big Large Devil Babe to murder a dragon and sit on someone's face. Unfortunately my Devil Babe--her name was Rihanna--was going to be spending a lot of time hearing all the ways in which people don't like or trust her.

Take Solas--I hate him. He's very well written and interesting, but by the end of the game I wanted to pull his spine out with my bare hands. He's a fragile and delicate egg lookin'-ass elf boy: It would have been easy. If you don't go out of your way to alienate Solas--I did, and I have no regrets--eventually he will tell you that you're a credit to your race. Did entering the rift and being physically changed by it change your nature as well, he asks. Why aren't you like all the other ones? He had not considered that you could be anything other than a monster.

It's worse than him hating you. If he merely hates you, you know exactly where you stand with him. He'll act like a little bitch baby while using all your resources and refusing to leave, all while straight up telling you that he thinks you're worthless. But the Solas that “likes” you also, fundamentally, hates you. He likes an aspect of you, but he thinks you're disgusting at the core. Somehow, he tells you, he has gotten over his instinctual response of a deep and pointed loathing when he is around you. That version of Solas still thinks you are worthless--you're just a little less worthless than your countrymen, and he admires you for that.

Dragon Age: Inquisition straight up sucks in a lot of ways (fuck the Hinterlands). I'm not a huge fantasy fan. I was expecting a nice distraction but probably nothing more. The writing was more complex than I had initially assumed it would be, because it appears that BioWare has the same priorities that I do. The plot of the game is less focused on Ancient Evils and Weapons of Great Power, more so on the people you spend time with. What drove me to finish it was, yes, a baseline depressive episode that made it extremely hard to talk to real people, but also just how rich, deep and thoughtful every interaction with your party members were. It's because of this that when I saw my own experiences reflected so accurately that this game became more than just a fun distraction.

Growing up, people called me "one of the good ones" with startling regularity. I was living in a suburb in Connecticut, we were the only non-white family on the street, and I was one of three black students in the private school I attended. My peers called me an Oreo, they compared me to Audrey Hepburn, they told me that I "talked white" and I took it as a compliment until I realized it wasn't. They still thought I was worthless, just a little less worthless than my countrymen. That sentiment was plain in the way they talked about black people both to me and around me.

One time, in high school, a friend of mine muttered "fucking nigger," about the teacher that gave her a suspension, and then explained, at length, no, I'm sorry, I don't see you that way, it's just that teacher is a fucking nigger. One time, in high school, my friends told me how lucky it was that I was black and a woman, that I would get into any college I wanted to because of Affirmative Action. I want to say that it was one time in college, but many times in college, men would tell me I was their "first black girl," and some of these men had white girlfriends they hadn't told me about. One time, at a Refused concert, a cop told me that if Mike Brown hadn't wanted to get shot and die in the street he shouldn't have stolen cigarillos from a convenience store. These instances are now so mundane that my biggest question is, what is a cop getting out of Refused?

In Dragon Age: Inquisition these social machinations are gamified in a way that is sometimes startling and sometimes immensely and specifically depressing. It goes a little deeper than explaining in broad strokes the political conflicts between races--yes, we know there's a huge amount of military tension between the Qunari and the rest of Thedas, we know that elves are historically enslaved and discriminated against. But the game allows you to see the material and social effects of these large background events. It's in the way that Solas waxes lyrical about the beauty of the long dead elvish empire, how it was so much more pure than this mixed world. It's in the way that every single fucking member of your party needles the Iron Bull about his feelings on the Qun, the apparently oppressive religion the Qunari follow that at times seems like either a stand in for communism or Islam. In a late game quest that deals with fancy pants Orlesian nobles, you must confront how your actions here may affect an increasingly angry elvish diaspora.

It's so hard to explain how this makes me feel, because it's so tightly wrapped up into the fabric of my life. There's an episode of Radiolab about a black, french figure skater and her inability to earn medals at the Olympics despite her tremendous skill, and at one point Tracie Hunt explains that the mere existence of racism makes you feel crazy. Her voice wavers, and she explains that never being able to know if you are being judged on your own merits or not makes it impossible to trust people. It's a simmering, underlying uncertainty beneath everything that ever happens to you. Were you passed over for that job because you really weren't the best choice, or… could it maybe be….

When you visit The Winter Palace for a ball, the game made sure I knew how little the Orlesian nobles respected me. They consider you barely above a monster, the game told me. You are going to have to work hard, harder than other players would, for them to consider you worthy of their time. You want to know a thing that I have heard my entire life? That my mother and father made sure I internalized, that they reminded me of whenever you could. When you are black, you have to work twice as hard to get half as much. All my black friends have heard this. It was in an episode of Scandal once.

The game allows the broad strokes politics to not only affect the people around you, but to affect you. And when that happens, the story changes in small, but significant ways. When the game itself acknowledges that the rest of the world sees a Qunari Inquisitor as borderline blasphemy, you will feel different about what motivates you to do the things you do. I want to say that I became more merciful, but I didn't. I wanted to see those who were unjust to me and the people I cared about punished, obliterated, just fucking wrecked. I wanted to punt Solas, with his straight up genocidal rhetoric, into the sun. I wanted to tell the Chantry to shove it. I just hoped that by the end these people who said they were my friends would understand me, that at the end of the day they'd understand that the baseline anxiety of who I was and how I existed in the world made me a little crazy.

A few days after I finished Inquisition, Philando Castille was murdered during a traffic stop. I wasn't sure if I was going to write about this, wasn't sure if it was appropriate, but that night I cried and let myself really feel it, feel how much the world hates people who look like me. When the cop was trying to explain to his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, why he shot Phil, his gun was still pointed inside the car. Phil is bleeding out, the cop's voice is anxious and terrified. "I told him to put his hands up!" he nearly screams. He saw a monster. Diamond Reynolds is getting emotional for the first time, praying that Phil doesn't die. But he did, in the hospital, after Diamond had been handcuffed and held overnight with no charge.

Before I ever met Austin Walker, he wrote something about Animal Crossing, about how disappointing it was for him not to be able to be black in the game, the subtle, but ever present weight of not seeing himself reflected. Here I am having the opposite experience, where they just fucking nailed it. It is me on the screen. The Qunari skintones are all deep and dark and her body takes up space in the same ways mine does, curving in the same places mine does. She faces the same challenges I do, she answers the same questions from the people who say they are her friends. I like to think my Inquisitor has the same doubts and insecurities. I like to think that my Inquisitor, like me, never knows what to do with her hair. I like to think that my Inquisitor lays up at night, like me, and wonders what else she has to prove. She's not a monster. I'm not a monster.

Gita Jackson is a writer and critic living in Chicago. When she's not staring at a screen all day long, she helps run Hume, an artist run studio space and gallery in Humboldt Park. She really likes cats and her favorite movie is Face/Off. You can follow her on Twitter.

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