Ever since I was a queer kid, I often wondered what it’d be like to have a big, adventurous tale of love that was equally tragic and fun. I loved epic romances like Han Solo and Princess Leia, and often reimagined Solo as a female smuggler instead to fit my image. It was innocent, near mindless thoughts of love between two women that I was closeted enough to keep to myself. Until I played Dragon Age 2 and met Isabela.
Isabela, much like Solo, is a smuggler, a captain, and a bit of a jack of all trades. She’s got a little of Jack Sparrow inside of her too: she wildly exaggerates, can drink like mad, and is on most port of authority’s shit-list for reasons that range from sleeping with someone’s wife to cheating at gambling and making off with someone’s possessions. For the most part she’s incredibly unapologetic about her shenanigans, too. For the most part.
You see, one of the things I adore about Han Solo was that in spite of all his bravado, his constant reassurances that he was a selfish person who only looks after himself, he has a heart of gold that says otherwise. Isabela, despite her own pleadings to the people around her that she’s a selfish person who only cares for herself, also possesses that same heart of gold. That doesn’t stop her or Solo from doing terrible things – they both have – but it also doesn’t straight-up make them a bad person either. Their heart of golds may be a cliche, but it’s one that I didn’t think I’d get to see in a female character back in 2011, nevermind a character who you can actually get to know in a more intimate way – either as a friend or a lover.
But it isn’t just Isabela’s sporadic selfless acts that make her one of the best Dragon Age characters of all time. What drew me to her character is a combination of her love for women, her desire for a free world, and her tragic perspective of herself that truly pulls at my heartstrings.
From the very moment Isabela was revealed to be a companion in Dragon Age 2, I knew I was going to romance her. Her appearance in Dragon Age: Origins only told a small side of her, but it was an interesting one: she was a provocative sea-raider, a smuggler, a legendary duelist, and a huge flirt. She was powerful, but down to earth and didn’t quite gel with authority or those who were ‘her betters.’ It’s no wonder then that you meet her in the brothel of Denerim, The Pearl. Already she was a fascinating character, so her announcement as a companion and romance option drew me to her immediately.
And I’m so glad it did. One of the very first things that Isabela does to a female Hawke is warn her about The Hanged Man and its locale. “You’re nothing but tits and arse to the men in this place, and they won’t hesitate to grab at both.” It’s one of the small differences in the friendship and romance between a Male and Female Hawke and Isabela that just makes sense and conveys Isabela’s protective nature of women from the very first moment you talk to her.
Isabela’s protectiveness isn’t just once or twice either. Throughout the game Isabela gains rivalry points – points that show Hawke’s decision goes against her ideals – if you’re nasty towards victims of domestic violence and are kind to their abusers. She straight-up tears into a character called Ghyslain for his comments about his missing wife and gets frustrated when you agree to help him. She also despises if you choose to let Kelder, a serial killer who targets young, elven women, go back into the city and not kill him yourself. And if you’re mean to Bethany, Merrill, and, to some extent, Aveline? You can forget trying to get Isabela’s approval. So often are women pitted against one another in media, and even Aveline and Isabela’s relationship fall prey to it before being resolved as friendly banter in Act 3 of the game, that for Isabela to be a character wholly against that is refreshing, even now.
There’s also tragedy to Isabela’s story, because of course there is. Just like how Han Solo’s tragedy is never really addressed in the films, Isabela’s traumatic beginnings aren’t really talked about in Dragon Age 2. And why would they be? Isabela does her best to ooze confidence, but her vulnerability is rarely on show unless you’re in a romantic relationship with her. It’s one of the reasons why a romance with her is so rewarding. She’s the first to admit that she loves the adventure and doesn’t like being tied down in any relationship, whether it be friendship or romance. But Hawke is able to see that the reason behind both of those things is because of how Isabela was hurt before by people who were supposed to love her unconditionally. It’s part of the reason why Isabela wants a free world, so people can do what they want and live the life they want to lead. Her vulnerability is directly linked to her ideals – it makes sense why a relationship based on love is so terrifying to her. It’s let her down before, and has coloured her view on it in a way that makes her just as tragic as Anders, Merrill, and Fenris. Sure it may seem like she’s ‘the fun’ romance, but it’s the bigger moments where Isabela shows that she’s more than just a character who loves sex and being a sea raider. When she loves, she loves deeply and that, in itself, is something that terrifies her.
It’s why her coming back to save Hawke – and Kirkwall in the process – is such a big ‘hero’ moment for her. She has the relic that’ll keep her safe, and with it she’ll be able to slip out of sight, out of mind, and leave the others to clear up the mess in her wake. But it’s her feelings for Hawke (“I didn’t do it for them. I did it for you. It was always about you”) and the others that make her turn around and rush back to save the day. It’s akin to the moment where Solo joins Luke in A New Hope to help destroy the Death Star – it opens up a new perspective for players on just who Isabela really is and really solidifies her as my favourite character of all time. She’s vulnerable, has a touch of self-loathing, can be selfish, but is ultimately someone who strides for good and personal justice in the world of Thedas.
It’s a shame then that, despite her being an incredibly evocative character, she is often the butt of a lot of fandom jokes and digs that target her sexuality. And that’s not even addressing the amount of racism that was thrown at her throughout the modding community. Part of the reasoning for this is that, as much as I love Dragon Age 2, the game has aged poorly in how it treats Isabela in general. Too often the game strikes low and targets Isabela as having STDs with no real reasoning behind ‘ha ha, a sexual disease for the character who has a lot of sex, get it?’ Isabela is, undoubtedly, a combination of some of my favourite scoundrels in media, but she is still a woman thats game is weirdly at odds with her character for no real reason apart from sexist writing. Despite writing her in a way that says there’s more to her, it still falls into the same traps of misogyny.
Sexist writing aside, that doesn’t stop her from being one of my favourite characters of all time. Because she has something that a lot of these ‘scoundrel’ characters don’t: confidence in knowing who she truly is, despite what people may say about her. Sure she may be insecure deep down, but that doesn’t stop her from acknowledging that what people say about her isn’t the whole truth. Only she knows that truth. One of my favourite quotes is when she says to Aveline that it doesn’t matter what people think of her because ‘they don’t know me, I know me.’ That confirmation of who she is is, in my mind, more endearing than any sort of magic or history of Thedas.
But as proven by the Dragon Age comics and multiplayer of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Isabela’s story is far from over. Will we see her in Dragon Age 4? Only time will tell – but until then, I’m going to continue living my best Isabela life.