Skip to content

Escaping the fridge

September 6, 2010

A quick break from srs metaphysical bsns to talk about ladies and kitchen appliances.

When is a woman in a refrigerator not in a refrigerator?

Dragon Age: Origins offers the player several ways of beginning the game, several “origins”. Each one provides your character with a home, a history, and a reason for joining the elite fighting force of the Grey Wardens, thus setting up the rest of the game’s story. This about one of them. Trigger warning for rape and violence; spoiler warning for the City Elf origin.

I have to say, when I first played through the City Elf origin story, I wasn’t wildly impressed. The lowdown: after a series of unfortunate events, the cousin of the PC, a young female elf named Shianni, is raped and beaten, and you, the protagonist, arrive too late to prevent it. This leads into a revenge opportunity against the men responsible and other assorted chaos that culminates in the PC being recruited into the Grey Wardens to avoid the long arm of the law.

While I didn’t think the (offscreen) rape was handled tastelessly or implausibly, I considered the whole situation rather a cheap narrative device. Specifically, I suspected they were falling into the “Women in Refrigerators” trope. For the uninitiated, this is a narrative device common to all media, but especially prevalent in comics (from where the name originates) and video games. It can be identified when a supporting character is killed, raped or otherwise traumatized horribly for the sole purpose of providing the main character with an ‘I WILL AVENGE YOOOU’ emotional motivation and related Dramatic Angst.

It’s not the presence of death/rape/trauma that is problematic, so much as the fact that the victim of this trauma seems to exist solely as a vehicle for said trauma rather than as an actual character. Once the desired Angst has been shovelled onto the  – usually male – main character, the – usually female – victim, having served their purpose, is often forgotten about entirely. Surviving victims, in the unlikely event that the plot still bothers to involve them, will generally show no memory or ill-effects of their experience. The trope is cheap, frequently sexist and an insult to people with experience of actual trauma. Hence my lack of enthusiasm when I seemed to recognise it. Oh lovely, I thought, this Shianni character’s getting fridged in an attempt to provoke an emotional reaction in the player. Whatever. I left the starter area, got into the game proper, and didn’t think much more about it.

Then later, much later, I met Shianni* again. This was after my PC had been adventuring it up across the land, exploring new places, meeting new people and killing them. Shianni congratulated him on his accomplishments, in tones laced with sarcasm. Then she turned it around on him, accusing him of having forgotten, in his glorious crusade, where he had come from, and why it all started: “You don’t even feel much anymore when you remember it, do you?” she said, bitterly. “You’ve moved on, past the horror of that night. I envy you. You’ve gone on to other things, things I can only dream of.”**

I felt it like a punch in the stomach. It helped that the voice acting was a masterpiece of subtle emotion, but more than that – it was all true. She had been a plot device, her pain mere emotional leverage to set my protagonist on his journey. I had barely given her a second thought since the game proper began, focusing on my “important” quests, my “real” party members. But in that moment, she refused to let me do that. Screw you, hero boy, she seemed to be saying to my PC, you were the lucky one. I was raped, and you got to use it to your own advantage and then forget about it. I have never had the luxury of forgetting about it. Every day that you were triumphing over evil and hunting for treasure, I had to remember it, and live with it, and carry on anyway.

Judged and found wanting.

Shianni subverts the “women in refrigerators” trope not just because she survives, but because she, and her trauma, do not suddenly stop mattering once their narrative usefulness is spent. She carries on – we later find her pouring her considerable energies into activism and the defense of her people – but her experiences remain part of her. She insists on being a character, not just a plot device, and she doesn’t let the player get away with treating her like one.

When is a woman in a refrigerator not in a refrigerator? When she kicks open the door and breaks it over your head.

*OK, so technically, it’s a spirit, and it’s unclear if it’s actually representing Shianni, or (more probably) a manifestation of the protagonist’s unconscious mind. For the purposes of Shianni’s character development and role from the player’s point of view, however, it doesn’t actually matter which she is!

**It’s worth noting that Shianni doesn’t have this conversation with all City Elf PCs, as I later discovered, just the ones who deserve it. A friend roleplayed a city elf plagued by guilt about what happened, and met with a Shianni who, while still haunted by the memory of what happened, gently tried to assuage the PC’s self-blame. File this under “BioWare are Impressively Sneaky”.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 7, 2010 07:10

    I don’t suppose you know of a link to that actual Shianni scene do you? I DID have a question, and while ‘offscreen’ effectively answers it, I’d still like to see it for myself.

    Though I suppose I could wait, until I can actually pleh it (which at this rate won’t be until Dragon Age 3).

    • Kateri permalink
      September 7, 2010 09:48

      OK, found a few… – scene starts around 7.15 and continues in the next part, though I guess for full context you could watch from part 1.

      Here’s the later scene with her (starts at 5.45)

      • September 7, 2010 18:18

        Heh, okay—you’re right. That’s definitely some ‘chilly’ stuff (I watched all 5 btw). As far as this goes, I think it’s a bit more horrid to let stuff like that happen offscreen. It DID answer my question though, which is whether Shianni was was 100% absolutely raped, or if it was HEAVILY implied that she was.

        More to the point though, it kind of confirms yours that she was merely used for the PC’s benefit (and it’s also kind of cool she kicks her way out). The question becomes now, how does one design a ‘tasteful’ rape scene, and furthermore, how does one do it for a game?

        Personally, I don’t think it should be that hard really, as some of us who play through these role-players can easily become engrossed enough to earnestly be affected by such a scene, but you need artists (i.e. a screwed-up crafters) to illustrate those kind of instances and experiences, which most designers are simply not.

  2. September 7, 2010 10:10

    Thank you for this post! You frame your observations here so well, and put voice to exactly what troubled me about the City Elf origin (honestly not my favorite character, so it took me a long time to get to the relevant bit). I remember finishing that origin with a bad taste in my mouth–“Really? Again? Even BioWare can’t come up with a way to include a female NPC as a significant figure without resorting to the emergent-badassery-through-rape trope?”–and was pleasantly shocked when I realized my PC had been carrying this thought all along.

    I’m really intrigued by the way that scene would play out differently, for me, with a male PC as compared to a female PC.

    • Kateri permalink
      September 7, 2010 12:12

      I played it first with a male character, but when I was thinking about this post, I replayed with a female PC to see what the differences were. There’s definitely a slightly different vibe to the female character’s experience – a bit less Rescue teh wimminz, a bit more Kill Bill – but Shianni’s role is pretty much the same in both. It’s still my least favourite origin story, but Shianni verbally smacking down my PC is one of my Best Gaming Moments Ever. She was the hero of that Alienage, not him.

  3. September 15, 2010 20:33

    Really interesting analysis! I never actually played the City Elf character, so I missed out on all of this entirely. The fact that Shianni does adjust to your character’s actions throughout the rest of the game is a testament to how sneaky Bioware can be, and an excellent reinforcement to the player that, yes, your choices DO matter sometimes beyond just “who in my party am I going to attempt to sex up?”

  4. MaryBeth Schroeder permalink
    September 19, 2010 10:20

    This was an amazing post. I have Dragon Age: Origins on my “to play” list and I’ve been told that the voice acting was stellar but this was the first thing I’ve read that was like “BAM THIS IS POWERFUL.” Love it. I am new to gaming and I am perusing a lot of female written game blogs. Yours raised the bar. Cheers!


  1. Escaping the Fridge | Border House
  2. Some really good Out of the Fridging « Out of the Fridge
  3. “A more practical benefit than equality for equality’s sake alone” | Gamervescent

Leave a Reply

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

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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 )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: