A look at Dorian Pavus, and how he embodies queer narratives in Bioware’s Dragon Age III.
Dorian of House Pavus
Characters who are members of marginalised classes often get a raw deal when it comes to personal storylines, narratives and histories. Gay characters, for example, often occupy a very tricky position in media: focusing too heavily on the fact that the character is gay can make them seem trite, stereotyped or farcical; however, downplaying, dismissing or outright ignoring their sexuality and its impact on their lives can be detrimental for wholly other reasons, making them “gay enough” that the character counts for some token diversity, while not being “too gay” to cause any boredom, discomfort or disgust in bigoted audience members, who can then relish the character as one of those character who’s gay, but like, it’s not even a thing, and that’s some real good gay representation there. Or, y’know, maybe not.
Dorian is the first companion in Bioware’s Dragon Age series who was specifically written for, and will only romantically engage with, a male protagonist. Although this may seem like just a cursory piece of programming – a “rainbow” flag, if you like – the inclusion of a gay male character whose sexuality IS totally, like, a thing, is powerful: even moreso when the storylines that focus on their sexuality are impactful and meaningful, but at the same time not a trope-laden rehash of irrelevant, inappropriate or misunderstood aspects of gay identity as we’re so often obliged to be thankful to receive.
Dorian of House Pavus hails from the Tevinter Imperium, an empire in the world of Thedas where perfection in all things matters most. At first glance, you could easily categorise Dorian, with his curled ‘tache, trendy undercut and snippy, sarcy snark, as practically perfect in every way, and therefore as emblematic of everything Tevinter could possibly want in a man. And he knows it – throughout the game, he’s unapologetically self-congratulatory, almost to the point of narcissism, and he never passes up the opportunity to relish in his own magnificence. But despite his seeming perfection, Dorian has left the Tevinter Imperium, disavowed himself of it, and cut off all ties with his family – a prestigious lineage of mages – in order to join the Inquisition, oftentimes working against members of his former homeland.
And, as it so often does, everything comes back to his family, his society. Dorian is the result of generations of careful social engineering, whereby powerful Tevinter families ally, intermarry and breed in order to produce the finest heirs, the strongest mages – citizens beyond reproach – in the clamour for power and prestige in a society that values only the most perfect. House Pavus’ patriarch, Halward Pavus, intended for his son Dorian to marry at the appropriate time, to the appropriate woman, in order to maintain the Pavus’ eugenics programme.
The only problem was, Dorian wasn’t attracted to women, and wasn’t interested in fathering an heir. “Selfish, I suppose,” he tells the Inquisitor, “Not to want to spend my entire life screaming on the inside.”
Dorian is characterised by dissent, dissatisfaction and disruption; he utterly refuses to acquiesce to his father’s plans for him, and rejects outright his place in Tevinter society – which is further complicated by its idolisation of mages, legalisation of slavery, and use of blood magic on terms of plausible-deniability.
In fact, Tevinter’s reliance on blood magic as a panacea for a host of problems and social ills is given a more personal and more sinister study in Dorian’s personal narrative too, as it’s revealed that, after finding out his son wouldn’t foster an heir, Dorian’s father Halward attempted to “change him” – through some means involving blood magic that is made all the more harrowing by its lack of specificity. This incident in Dorian’s past is an obvious parallel to conversion therapy, a range of frankly hellish treatments aimed at eradicating homosexual impulses in patients, particularly prominent in Europe and the U.S. in the 20th century, but still practiced in some forms today, such as through ex-gay ministries.
A relationship with Dorian’s begins with gentle flirtation, and playing into his self-aggrandisement a little. Not long into the will-they-won’t-they stage, Dorian gets a surprise meeting from his father, who is looking for atonement – and after which Dorian fully pledges himself to the Inquisition, which leads to some nerdy snogging in the Skyhold library.
Soon after, the Inquisitor and Dorian can go a stage further, resulting in the pair shagging in the Inquisitor’s quarters, after which we get a lovely, lingering shot of Dorian’s arse – something not to be understated, not only because it’s a very well-rendered arse, but because it’s one of the few times in games where there’s unapologetic male nudity, closely linked with a sexual encounter, and yet not staged as something inherently ridiculous, funny, transgressive or exploitative. It’s just his arse. A very political arse that warrants a paragraph, apparently.
As difficult as it may be to believe, the real meat is to be found not on Dorian’s backside, but immediately after this shot, where the Inquisitor and Dorian negotiate the terms of their relationship for the first time.
According to what we hear from Dorian, in Tevinter society, two men engaging in a homosexual affair are tolerated so long as they’re simply indulging in physical passion; the second it involves “something more” – that is, the fostering of a romantic relationship – it’s severely frowned upon, if not actively discouraged or dismissed. And as a result, Dorian explains, “you learn not to hope for more. You’d be foolish to.”
It’s not difficult to draw a parallel between Dorian’s feelings and those of so many gay men over the centuries – the idea that there will always be a limit to what is permitted, to how much you can get away with your “lifestyle” before it becomes a social issue, and to to how much space you’ll be given before restrictions and exceptions are imposed.
Homosexual sex is frowned upon within the nobility of Tevinter, but is apparently encouraged with slaves – bringing with it numerous issues on matters of power and consent and highlighting the moral double standards that are prevalent not only in the Tevinter Imperium and fantasy aristocracy in general, but in real-world “pinkwashing” of states, empires and institutions that are often held up as examples of equal, liberal and progressive societies simply because homosexuality is permissable in some form – while glossing over exactly who is permitted to be homosexual, who is not, and to what extent it is “permitted” before your sexuality becomes “a thing”. Homosexuality in Ancient Rome, for example, is often used as an example of a more just and tolerant society – until we consider that this was bound within another set of injust laws and mores, such as the fact that only those who were in a “dominant” role during sex retained their masculinity, legal and social standing.
Tevinter is exemplified in Dorian’s exchange with his father, who comes to Ferelden to talk with his son, perhaps seeking atonement. Halward appears genuinely sorry to have forced his son away from him due to his actions – the aforementioned blood magic attempting to “correct” Dorian’s sexuality – but Dorian is understandably irate. Like so much of the dialogue in Dragon Age, there is ample opportunity to interrogate Dorian further, to dissect the issue, examine and expose every facet of his relationship with his father and suggest reconciliation for the greater good (and greatest in-game gain)… but this time, the decision to not interrogate further and simply walk away with your friend, with no further questions asked or points argued, comes so much easier.
(Full disclosure: I almost bawled at this scene. We can argue theory about relatability and identifying with a character on an intellectual level, but this scene – much like that of Valerie coming out to her parents in V for Vendetta, with Valerie’s question, “I had only told them the truth – was that so selfish?”, echoing Dorian’s own observation about his situation – wasn’t just relatable in a theoretical way. It’s something I felt all over my skin. There is a real, visceral sensation when you experience something that’s For You, not so much a thought formed with words and proper grammar, but a rush of the blood and a twist in your breathing, that I don’t think a lot of people really understand when we talk about the importance of representation in media.)
Dorian’s narrative of disruption and dissent not only features the confrontation with parental authority that many gay men are familiar with, but also that of religious authority; at one point in the relationship, Mother Giselle of the Chantry seeks to intervenes by discreetly having a word with Dorian, to make sure that he isn’t having an undue influence on the Inquisitor’s actions – something not unfamiliar to anyone who has experienced the chill of parents, neighbours, church leaders, teachers or authority figures intruding upon one’s life out of faux-concern.
A pivotal aspect of Dorian’s characterisation is the fact that, despite all that’s happened to him at the hands of his father and his fatherland, he doesn’t remove himself from those contexts entirely. When creating a gay male character – or any character that doesn’t fit in in some way, which applies not only to most of Dragon Age‘s companions but the “adventurer” archetype in general – it’s all too easy to have him sever ties with their past entirely, to divorce themselves of their history and homeland. But under his aloof and casually-dismissive facade, Dorian does seem to experience a real longing for his home in the Tevinter Imperium, but also understands that it must change before it can be a place that he believes in; he positions himself as Tevinter, shares memories – good and bad – of his homeland, speaks of his country’s strengths as well as its shortcomings, and acknowledges its place in his life as much as his place – or lack thereof – in Tevinter.
Like Dorian, many gay folk have to leave their families – if not more – behind, to move on without them. But many of us can’t, don’t, or won’t dismiss how we were formed and informed by our upbringing, our communities, our city, country or culture. We wear those identifiers as a matter of pride, or recognition of where we’ve come from – even when the circumstances of our upbringing weren’t always something we could be proud of, or that we could recognise openly. Race, ethnicity, economic status, education, nationality, sexuality, gender, ability and disability – all of these things come together to inform who we are – and, like Dorian, sometimes we have to say “I am still part of this community, even if this community makes it difficult for me to be part of it.”
Dorian is a complex, rich and multi-layered character, and there will no doubt be numerous articles on or including him in the coming years; in fact, there’s a lot of things about him that I, specifically, can’t cover – such as the intersection of Dorian’s ethnicity and his sexuality, considering there is limited mention in-game of how race, ethnicity, nationality and phenotypes may be constructed in Thedas – especially when “race” actually means something wholly separate from just “human”, and whose terms, vocabulary and structure may not be so easily comparable to the real world.
Suffice it to say, though, that Dorian’s suave exterior hides a degree of sophistication – in terms of emotional depth and character design – that I think we’ll still be talking about for a good while yet.
This feature was originally posted as part of a series on GayGamer.Net in December 2014.