The Hall of Video Game Art, Exhibit 714: Yes, This Post Is About Breasts But It's Not What You Think
Ah, environmental storytelling. It is, without question, one of the things I love best. I’m delighted whenever I encounter it, be it in film, in illustration, in theme parks — and yes, indeed, in video games. In this series, I’ll be taking a deep dive into some of my favorite examples within that modern medium. See, I come from a theater background, and I’m often struck by the parallels between plays and games. Both are creative composites, constructed from elements that can be appreciated on their own — writing, music, vocal performance, costumes, and so forth — but come together into something greater than the sum of their parts. And just as every play exists on borrowed time, so, too, does a game. A theatrical production eventually closes; a game eventually becomes unplayable as computers progress. C'est la vie.
That limited lifespan is what makes me want to celebrate the small details that bring virtual worlds to life. Many objects I’ll describe in the months ahead cannot be interacted with. None are addressed by dialogue, nor are they required by quests. These are things you could easily walk past or miss altogether. The brilliant background is what I’m tackling, the sublime details that transform a mere scaffold of pixels into a soulful work of art.
Which is why I’ll begin with Bethany Hawke’s tits.
I can’t call them breasts, not in this context. Breasts are a physical feature that exist in reality, and we’re well outside that ballpark here. It’s true that for the majority of Dragon Age 2, the party member in question does indeed possess the breasts of an ordinary human. My own breasts gaze upon hers and know they are among kin. But in the early minutes of the game, Bethany’s torso is burdened with what can only be categorized as tits — impossible, distracting, bargain-bin-paperback tits.
You could not be blamed if, while playing, the tits escaped your notice. There are many other things happening during their short time on screen. Giant monsters are killing a lot of people, for one. Two, you’re supposed to be fighting said giant monsters and are still learning how to do that. Besides, this is a video game, a realm in which female anatomies that ignore the need for a functional spine are an institutional hallmark. If you’re a seasoned veteran of roleplaying games — or really, high fantasy settings in general — you are well familiar with the heaving status quo.
But this is not most roleplaying games. This is Dragon Age 2, a game with one of the boldest narrative setups I’ve seen yet. Allow me to set the stage: Varric Tethras, a charismatic dwarf of many talents, is being held by the Chantry (read as: fantasy Catholic Church). We meet him in a dark room, slumped in a chair, undergoing a stormy interrogation conducted by Cassandra Pentaghast, one of the two personal agents of the Pope-In-Everything-But-Name. Something very bad has happened in the troubled city of Kirkwall, and Cassandra knows Varric was mixed up in it. He’s best friends with Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall, and the Champion is at the heart of whatever very bad something went down.
The entirety of Dragon Age 2 is Varric’s explanation of events, and you, as you may have guessed, play Hawke. Structurally, it goes like so: An expository cutscene with Cassandra and Varric, a flashback in the form of a playable chapter, a cutscene of Cassandra and Varric hashing out the consequences of what you just did, and so on, and so on. It’s an interesting arrangement on its own, but here’s the bit that makes the whole premise sing: Varric is a liar. This is a man who gilds the lily by force of habit, who sees telling a good yarn as social sport. He’s even turned that talent into a career, writing his friends into the sort of trashy adventure smut every SF/F fan has spent some quality time with (whether they want to admit it or not). Varric knows the power of a good story, and he’s got a sixth sense for what people want to hear. Even his closest confidants know better than to expect straight answers from him. None of this is to suggest that Varric is a shifty character. On the contrary, his steadfast loyalty to his pals fuels his best fiction. He’ll say anything to keep Hawke safe — especially where Cassandra is concerned.
And so, in the first playable sequence in Dragon Age 2, Hawke is ridiculously overpowered. You’ve got a slew of high-level abilities. You’re taking down monsters left and right. The final ogre you slay literally explodes. As this goes on, your family is with you — your mother, Leandra, and your younger twin siblings. If you play Hawke as a mage, you’ll be paired with your sword-wielding brother Garrett during combat. If you choose warrior or rogue, however, you’ll team up with your magical sister Bethany and her enormous pair of tits.
The scene ends abruptly as a hulking dragon appears, scaring off the hordes of baddies. “Bullshit,” Cassandra says, bringing us to the present. “That’s not what really happened.”
“Does that not match the story you’ve heard, Seeker?” Varric asks.
“I’m not interested in stories,” she says. “I came to hear the truth.”
After a bit of arguing, he relents, and the player begins the sequence again. Hawke scales down to what you’d expect from a starter character. Only a fraction of monsters remain. And most importantly for the topic at hand, Bethany has but mortal breasts.
In other words: Bethany briefly appears as a female fantasy game stereotype because Varric is lying.
I’d be amiss if I wrote this off as “and that’s why Varric Tethras is funny, the end.” His choice to sexually exaggerate Bethany in particular is an odd one, given both his relationship to her and his character as a whole. Varric is a master of innuendo, but he’s not a lech, and he’s not a creep. His feelings toward Bethany are platonic. Protective. Brotherly. This is his best friend’s little sister we’re talking about. He’s gentle toward her. He nicknames her “Sunshine.” Bethany’s fate in the game is variable depending on how the player steers things, but all options have poignancy — a sentiment underlined by the emotion in Varric’s voice when he speaks of her during scenes with Cassandra.
Wherefore, then, the tits? For that, we go to the answer Varric already provided: “Does that not match the story you’ve heard?” Or, to put it differently, is that not the story you were expecting? Varric isn’t describing the real Bethany Hawke, the person he knows and respects. What he’s done is slap a name Cassandra would know on a puppet in his pageant.You want a story, Seeker? Fine. Here’s an overpowered hero, a stupid number of disposable monsters, a super hot lady mage with cleavage for days, and a big ol’ dragon at the end. That’s how these stories go, right?
The kicker is, that’s exactly the story the player expects. Nothing about that opening scene makes you think it is anything but the game as it's meant to be played. Varric’s lies are subtle padding, not overt parody. The exploding ogre is not played for laughs, and Bethany does not enter wearing a chainmail bikini. She looks like a thousand other buxom mages I’ve seen, and she’s still wearing the same low-cut outfit when the truth comes out. It’s no surprise that a lot of fellow Dragon Age fans I’ve mentioned this to didn’t notice the change in Bethany at first (I’m not even sure I did on my first playthrough). This is a fourth-wall-knocking combo punch, an inclusion that tells us not only that Varric is a character with a keen understanding of storytelling tropes, but that the game knows what’s up, too.
I’m sorry. I must end abruptly end this post now. Scrivener tells me I am at exactly 1337 words.