Characters Done Well: Shale

11 Apr

First up in a series on well written and designed characters in video games (from a gender perspective):  Shale from Dragon Age: Origins.

[Spoilers Below]

Perhaps the most interesting recruitable party member from Dragon Age : Origins was, for me, the Dwarven war golem Shale. From a design perspective it is the most ‘different’ looking, or the most ‘monstrous’, which separates it from the mostly humanoid remainder of the party.  Shale also has fairly  interesting gameplay mechanics, being able to fill a wide variety of roles depending on talent specialisation.  Shale’s personal narrative was one of the more immediately engaging, and it’s dialogue was some of the more obviously humorous and least hammy.

Shale, as a character, also gently subverts audience preconceptions about gender, and delivers a satisfying ‘big reveal’ moment, that in many ways serves to highlight the audience’s internalised preconceptions about gender.

Shale, you see, is/was a woman.

Bioware seems to have knowingly anticipated the initial reaction to the character (Shale as an essentially ‘male’ character, and any quirks being considered ‘effiminate’ rather than ‘female’), and then makes the result seem so obvious, as to mock the audience for even having such preconceptions. Shale is initially presumed male by most (guiltily myself included), despite no indication that she is of either sex – no genitalia, and a voice that could very well belong to a man or a woman. It is her traits of  physical power (more so than any woman or man), rationality, sarcastic humour and perhaps aggression, that wrongly mark her as ‘male’, despite these qualities having no grounding in biology. When it is revealed Shale was a woman, it is also noted that she was one of the first, and the only woman, to undergo the transformation into a golem; thus displaying personal bravery and self sacrifice in a wartime situation, also traits traditionally associated with men.

Bioware definitely seems to have focused on building a compelling character first, who’s gender is only tangentially important. Indeed this is reflected in some of Shale’s own dialogue:

  • Shale: The swamp witch has been looking at me oddly. Stop it, or I will crush it’s tiny, bird-like head.
  • Morrigan: I am simply finding it difficult to believe that there is a woman inside of there.
  • Shale: A woman who was also a warrior. And a dwarf.

This I think neatly highlights Shale’s insistence that gender need not be one’s primary locus of identity, and profession or race are of of equal or more importance.

  • Zevran: So tell me, Shale… if you had the opportunity to become flesh, would you take it?
  • Shale: It does seem rather preoccupied with this topic.
  • Zevran: You were once a dwarven woman. With dreams and passions and all the rest. Does that hold no sway for you?
  • Shale: Why would I wish to be that woman again? She gave up her body, willingly.
  • Zevran: And what of family? Of children? Life does not begin and end with yourself.
  • Shale: I… have no desire to produce offspring.
  • Zevran: Your form is wondrous, that’s true. But while you do not suffer the lows of life, you also do not experience the highs. It is something to consider.
  • Shale: It is nothing to consider. What it speaks of is impossible.

This exchange shows that Shale also subverts some other gendered tropes, for example her focus on rationality (why bother considering the impossible?), as well as being dismissive of gendered expectations, as a woman, to produce or desire to produce offspring. This rationality is also reflected in the following:

  • Leliana: I did not realize that you were a woman.
  • Shale: That is because I am not. I am a golem.
  • Leliana: But you were once a woman. And a dwarf. Dosn’t that… mean anything to you?
  • Shale: The bard speaks of someone who lived five centuries ago. What have I in commmon with her?
  • Leliana: You share a soul.
  • Shale: I do not… it talks in riddles. Desist, or I shall crush its head.

Shale also represents an entirely non-idealised and certainly non-sexualised ‘woman’.  Shale is in fact almost the negation of gender. When her ‘femininity’ (or assumptions based on her gender)  is referenced, it is always done with humour:

  • Shale: The sister has interesting footwear.
  • Leliana: Oh? You… like shoes, do you?
  • Shale: My mass is considerable. Some cushioning on my feet would be ideal, but I doubt such footwear could be made.
  • Leliana: Hmm. I could see some nice, thick sandals being made. With very tick leather straps. Oh yes, that could be done! Perhaps we could find some cobbler who could give it a try! What color would you want?
  • Shale: Surely the color is unimportant.
  • Leliana: In fact, the color is very important. That, and picking a shape that makes your ankles look slender… and you could use some help there, I fear.
  • Shale: I… have thick ankles?
  • Leliana: It’s all right. I don’t like my thighs. What’s important is working with what you have.
  • Shale: Hmm. Very well. I wish my shoes to be red.
  • Leliana: Ooh! Bold choice! We’ll have to remember that!

and:

  • Shale: I wish to say that it has been pleasant fighting at the qunari’s side.
  • Sten: I feel the same. You are a remarkable construct, kadan. A warrior to be feared.
  • Shale: No more than the qunari, surely. The way it strikes down its foes, marvelous!
  • Sten: I smile each time you roar a battle cry, knowing our foes tremble.
  • Shale: I could watch you fight all day long–the skill you display, the form, how the light plays on its muscles… I mean… yes. Well done. With the fighting.
  • Sten: You, as well.
  • Shale: Right.

 

An interesting comparison might be between Shale’s ‘big reveal’ moment to that of Samus Aran’s from the Metroid series (similar in that their their sex is undetermined by their physical appearance). In the original Metroid on the NES, if you play well enough, you are rewarded with the revelation that Samus is in fact a woman. Play exceptionally well and you are rewarded with a mild, pixellated ‘titillation’ of Samus in a bikini. Samus’s sex is designed to be shocking. Conversely, Shale’s reveal is met with shock by the other party members (mimicking the shock of the player in Metroid), but instead of remaining silent like Samus, Shale is able to diffuse the awe of her allies with cold rationality and wit (see the above exchanges).

 

 

As such, Shale is a triumph in the writing of compelling female characters, for her ability to subvert audience preconceptions. It’s just a shame there weren’t any similarly stand-out characters in the recent ‘sequel’.

[As a side note, I’m fairly sure there is a Trans reading of Shale, but I am not knowledgeable enough on Trans issues to attempt one – comments on this welcome below]

Images: 1, 2, 3

Quotes taken from http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Shale/Dialogue

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: