[Sidebar: I adore that SWTOR lets me not only go from grey-white to ebony black but all the primary colors and combinations thereof. I have sky blue, deep green, blood red, and chalk white as well as my humans. It’s agonizing to pick for new characters, but an agony that I enjoy to the hilt.]
Dragon Age 2 did a little better but anything darker than a light tan tended to look odd. However, there’s been a lengthy and intermittently interesting debate about the inclusion of cultural elements from outside medieval Europe which has somehow devolved into a discussion of Africa, genetic phenotypes, and how Isabela can be black.
Now, it turns out that David Gaider specifically said (at the 2012 ComicCon) that she was black, and that the people of Rivain (from whence she hails) have “skin tones ranging from dark tan to ebony”. In case you’re unfamiliar with the name, that’s essentially the word of god in the DA universe. If Gaider says it, it’s lore.
You can’t tell that in the game, however, hence my explanation of the available skin tones. In Dragon Age: Origins Isabela had straight hair, basic leather armor, and was pretty much a white girl. In DA2 she had loosely-curled masses of hair, a nice tan, and a gypsy outfit. Again, Mr. Gaider has specified that her skin color was due to the limits of the game engine.
The issue becomes a very ticklish one at this point. “Black” is not some monolithic label you can slap on anyone that matches a certain set of Pantone swatches. There’s no handy chart somewhere you can use to decide whether to apply a stereotype of “black” to a given person. In my experience, calling yourself or someone else black has at least as much to do with culture as it does with skin color.
The trick is that skin color makes a completely useless reference point. At best, I would posit that African offers a more-specific idea of the intent behind Mr. Gaider’s statement, except that, gosh!, there are an awful lot of people in an awful lot of colors living in Africa. On top of that, there are thousands of different cultures and subdivisions across that enormous continent based on a whole lot more than skin tone.
When Gaider refers to the Rivaini as “black people” he isn’t saying a thing about their culture. He’s simply responding to a criticism that there aren’t any black people in the Dragon Age universe using the terms of the accusation. As BioWare hasn’t physically been able to show us to date, I can only hope that DA: Inquisition gives them the opportunity.
Skin color and cultural elements, however, should have nothing to do with one another. The key word remains “elements”. I don’t believe anyone proposes copying the beliefs and practices of an entire culture, existing or historical, to be reproduced in Thedas. Certainly attempting to create a people in the DA universe that look and act like some particular cultural subset of humanity is a recipe for disaster.
It would surprise me greatly if anything the BioWare writing team decided to include from a “real world” culture had not been wrapped thoroughly in Thedosian lore. To date they’ve not directly copied large swathes of a particular culture or even time period. Much of the setting implies medieval Europe but the descriptions of Orlais tend more toward later centuries in France. Elves, Tevinter, and Qunari all diverge from that base in varying ways.
[Sidebar Two: I still can’t believe the writers chose Thedosian over Thedan for the term that refers to something common to all of Thedas.]
BioWare has given us only a glimpse of the world on which the Dragon Age saga takes place. As they expand the story across the continent and perhaps beyond (and I fervently hope they do so) they will have the opportunity to create cultures and appearances for whole cloth. Some of the warp and weft will undoubtedly be inspired by human history. Thankfully, they’ve got a whole tapestry from which to pull threads, no matter what the color.