essay, video games

The Succubus Problem

The game series Dragon Age and Diablo share a common representative problem: succubi. A holdover from their heteronormative neomedievalism influence of fantasy settings in which women can play roles of power, both series, despite the sometimes-best intentions of the developers, still fall back to the roots of feminine constructions within their basis as both sexualized objects and enemies to defeat. No matter how strong or diverse their player-character depictions, the developers of fantasy settings like those of both Dragon Age and Diablo still use the same succubi types of enemies, undercutting attempts at positive representations with those which propose sexualized women who “tempt” and must therefore be killed to continue with play.

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Desire Demon from the Dragon Age series (pictured here from Dragon Age: Origins)

For the Dragon Age series, these are desire demons. Presented as a form of temptation within the Fade, the Dragon Age series proposes that each major “sin” is represented in a different form metaphorically related to its visualizations. Unlike their brethren Rage demons, who appear as fire-like; Hunger, who have skeletal growths and extended limbs; and Pride, who show in force, strength, and size, Desire demons have a woman-like appearance. Introduced in Dragon Age: Origins (2009) as a force which can be first encountered as part of either The Arl of Redcliffe or Broken Circle quest lines, they appear in either cases as nearly-naked women which attempt to seduce the player regardless of their performed sexual preference. As the only demon which appears with any physical sexual characteristics at all, they are also the first major appearance of nudity within the game outside of relationship sex scenes and a contributor to the more mature rating of the first game.

Reduced in their overt usage in Dragon Age II (2011) and Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) as direct, visual enemies who have dialogue and a presentation centered on their form, they still appear alongside other demons as those which can be fought during different quests. Seemingly moving away from their more explicit forms from the first game, Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) also presents demons in different ways and includes Imshael as an example of shape-shifting powers. Expanded on in official canon at the same time, desire demons have also been named by their performed self for gender self-labeling. When possessing or appearing as different than their seemingly “default” feminine form, the books and even later games like Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014) use the pronoun “he” and possessive “his” instead of the assumed “her.” While not as much is made officially of this transition from the visual aspects of demons from their major emphasis in the first and increasingly reduced roles across the games, the move certainly demonstrates the way demons, and Desire demons particularly, can remain effective threats without their more sexualized nature.

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Succubi from the Diablo series (pictured here from art for Diablo III)

Officially described as “handmaidens” to Andariel, the only female Evil within the pantheon, their appearance in Diablo (1996) is part of the player’s descent into areas which overlap with Hell within the deepest layers of the game and as a confrontation with Archbishop Lazarus. Presented as winged, barely-clothed women which serve as temptations for the player, they appear in all three games and are closely associated with their more traditional roles as “teasing” (distance-only attacks) and with the women who also command them. In Diablo II (2000), for example, once their ‘leader’ Andariel is slain in Act I, they only appear as part of the expanded Act V, Lord of Destruction (2001) as part of Baal’s attack. However, they do retain their linguist closeness with enemy labels such as “harlots” and “temptresses” depending on their level and enemy type.

In Diablo III (2012), succubi appear as part of the attack on the Arreat Crater and later High Heaven. Presented first as “daughters” of the Maiden of Lust, Cydaea, they continue their distance attacks and moaning upon death tracked across the games and as part of their presentation. Following their attacks, Cydaea comments on the player’s attacks and how she enjoys their torment despite her own soldiers dying around the player. Cast in a similar way to those she commands, Cydaea herself is presented as a “twisted” temptation with her more sexualized upper body on top of a spider torso. Re-appearing after the confrontation and defeat of Cydaea, succubi show up as one of the demons which can be fought in High Heaven upon its invasion and as part of random enemy encounters within Rifts as part of post-game Adventuring mode.

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Cydaea from Diablo III

Between their first and second games, both series reduced the appearance and role of enemies who appear as succubi, with Dragon Age II (2011) and Diablo II (2012) both showing limited usage of the trope and body type. With the movement into Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), most demon presentations changed toward more personal, relational problems instead of those targeted strictly to “sexual” desire. Instead of confronting “naked” demons, the player instead fought forces which had been twisted by the pursuit of power in more abstract forms. For Diablo III (2012), however, this was a move backward with succubi appearing and narratively justified as part of an attack by a “Maiden of Lust” and thus making the direct connection between the virgin/whore binary within its simulation of a neomedievalism fantasy world.