If you made a deal with a demon, what would your bargain be?
The earliest thing I can remember is sitting on clammy, brown grass, watching the movers load tables and lamps into the van. My dad sits next to me, his hand massive on my shoulders, rubbing in small circles. My face is warm, wet. I have the hiccups.
It’s the day my mother moved out. I must have been three years old.
I don’t know why she left, but knowing my dad, and knowing her, I have a few guesses. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not my story. It’s theirs.
For the first ten years, sometimes she would write, but more often she wouldn’t; and sometimes she would call, but never for long enough. I remember a series of letters I discovered when I was six or seven, handwritten on yellow legal tablet sheets with my name at the top; but my father gently, so gently, told me I should throw them out. So I did.
Best thing about Dragon Age 2
Pretty much everything.
Sorry, guys. I know this one’s a bit of a cop-out, but I’ve kinda already spent all the money in my wallet on this topic, haven’t I? There are only so many ways I can arrange 1500 words to explain why Dragon Age 2 is a digital masterpiece.
But because I love round numbers, I’ll add one more:
40. That we’re all still talking about it, nine months after we first pressed Start.
The Scene That Made You Cry
You’re kidding, right?
“The” scene that made me cry?
As in, a single scene? And not the entire fucking game, all the fucking time?
I mean, seriously.
I’ve been known to cry when the windmill goes black in the opening movie.
Or when talking to Nyssa in the alienage.
The real question here is when don’t I cry.
Now, granted, I cry easily and often, and usually whenever it’s least appropriate to the social occasion. I’ve cried on job interviews before, in museums and at circuses. Eliciting tears from me is no significant achievement – Maker, I sob at the lantern scene in Tangled, every single time.
And don’t even get me started about Zac Brown Band songs.
But Dragon Age 2 is different, in that this catharsis means something; I love this story and all its players so much that I can’t help but physically share in their triumphs and their tragedies, because they feel like my own. Or, rather, they are my own. That’s kind of the point of Varric’s story, isn’t it? In this dance between storyteller and audience, who really has the greater power over the narrative: The one who created it or the one to whom it is given? And who has ultimate ownership of the characters: the one who first gave them life, or the one whose life was forever changed by them?
Some stories touch you, if you’re lucky, if you let them, and Dragon Age 2 didn’t just touch me – it grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me close, and it hasn’t let go yet, if it ever will. I would not be the same person I am today if I hadn’t ever discovered DA2; and that honestly, it’s only a wonder that I don’t cry at more things about this game, because the entire thing, the entire fucking thing, is so perfectly written I couldn’t change a thing even if I wanted to. (Well, maybe ONE thing.)
One day I hope to write a story that engages someone else as deeply as DA2 has engaged me, because then I’ll know I have created something powerful, something that really mattered, something that was always worth the pain and effort of telling.
I’m on my ninth go-around in this universe, and even though I can recite large parts of this game by heart, my experience of it still feels as raw as my first. And part of that is because I keep seeing the characters from new perspectives each time, and part of it is that I never learned how not to be so full of feelings all the time. I have no off switch, no filter, no way to tell myself, This is just a game, so stop feeling it so much. Because the best stories, you can’t do that with. The best stories crawl under your skin so deep until you can’t even tell anymore where they end and you begin.
And so I cry. I cry over Dragon Age 2 without hesitation and with great, heaving sobs and over the smallest things, and over the biggest things too; but no matter what, it always starts when I see that windmill turn black, hope shattered, innocence destroyed: at the single step that starts a journey, at the death of Garrett, and the birth of a Champion.
Scene you wish you could change the outcome of the most: When Orsino turns into a Harvester
Orsino is one of those characters I wish I knew more about, and not just because he’s a sexy Silver Fox (and we all know how I feel about those). But there is so much left unspoken about him, in the same way there was so much left unspoken to Marlowe Dumar. That is: How does a man who seems as weak and spineless as Viscount Dumar raise a son as strong as Saemus? (Answer: Dumar is hardly weak nor spineless, not by a long shot, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Likewise, how does a man apparently as spineless as Orsino raise the Gallows mages to so suddenly and efficiently fight for their freedom?
The answer is likewise obvious: Orsino is not spineless.
Not by a long shot.
Character You’d Be Best Friends With: Varric Tethras
If I am Kirkwall, then there’s only one choice for my best friend.
Building on what I wrote yesterday, Bartrand’s St. Petersburg is Orzammar; he spends his entire life trying to chase a dream that never really existed except within him. But if Bartrand’s St. Petersburg is Orzammar, then Varric’s is Kirkwall: A city as damaged and complex as he is, whose twisted city streets he paints with such fondness you’d think it were a City of Serenity rather than the City of Chains.
To Varric, Kirkwall is so much more than a home – it is an idea, a promise, a narrative unfolding. It is the Janus head twin to Bianca, except that hers is the story he’ll never tell and Kirkwall is the story he’ll never stop telling.
Varric and Kirkwall; Kirkwall and Varric. It’s always the two, always together: the confident dwarf in the Hightown Merchant’s Guild; the trusty lush spinning tales in a seedy lowtown bar; the businessman making deals with Darktown thugs to protect his friends. He has his hands everywhere, in everything, because he owns this space, as much as anybody can own a story; and by the Maker, he’ll hold onto it as tightly as he can.
Separate one from the other and Varric will pine for Kirkwall like a lost lover. Remember how he complains about heights when you take him to Sundermount, or how he bitches about nature when you take him to the Wounded Coast – or even how he moans about the Deep Roads on the expedition? All that complaining hints at the real truth, which is simply that Varric hates to be separated from Kirkwall; he needs the place, just as surely as it needs him.
In some ways, I think the relationship between Varric and Kirkwall is DA2’s ultimate codependent relationship, one that overshadows anything you’d find between Garrett and Anders or Marethari and Merrill, but it’s so subtle and so deeply interwoven into the narrative that it’s easy to overlook. It’s the symbiotic relationship between storyteller and creation, between narrator and narrative; one cannot exist without the other.
Nobody will love a story quite like its author.
And Varric is the best kind of author: The kind who believes the best of his characters, even though he knows the worst. He acknowledges their faults, but sees them not as deal-breakers but as shadows that make the bright spots brighter. He knows the contrasts within them, the light and the dark, and he loves them anyway, because that’s what a writer does; he loves every one of his creations because they are part of himself. That Isabela (who nearly starts a war) and Anders (who does) come off as sympathetically as they do in DA2 should be evidence enough of this.
So if I am Kirkwall, then Varric is my best friend, because he sees deeper into me than anyone else; he’s walked my dank Darktown sewers and my sunlit Hightown promenades; he knows my secrets and my history, and the potential I have to become something more than I am.
He knows the fears that organize my faithful; he knows my chains and how to break them; he knows the lost and the poor and the dispossessed that inhabit my dark spaces, because he put them there, these reflections of himself, so that he wouldn’t be lonely either.
If I am Kirkwall, then Varric is my best friend, and I am his, because I will give him purpose and power; I will give him free reign to become the best version of himself; I will give him the assurance he needs that even in his darkest times, he is never, ever alone.
Character You Are Most Like: Kirkwall
Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite authors, was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. The child of a politician, Vladimir grew up in a life of privilege, education and luxury; he once wrote that his childhood was “perfect”.
But in his eighteenth year, the February Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution occurred, and his family was forced to flee the city. For Vladimir, it was only the first of a long string of Flights From Lothering; he and his family would flee the White Army and the Nazis and the assassin who mistakenly killed his father.
He lived out the rest of his life in exile, never returning to Russia, even well after the USSR became safe for travel. It wasn’t his home, you see; that place was gone, forever, and so there was no point in returning – Russia had become just a name on the map. But he never stopped thinking about his home, dreaming about it, writing about it; he never stopped longing for what never could be again.
To read Nabokov is to yearn for cities and landscapes you’ve never seen; to long for boarded up houses and thrown-away things; to ache for something you never knew you missed. All of his stories are, on some level, love letters to the city and the childhood he left behind – a past and a place that never really existed, but was real in the ways that counted.
Mages or Templars?
(This post is particularly self-indulgent. So, well… you’ve been warned. Check it out behind the break.)
Least Favorite Quest: “The Last Holdouts”
(art by runaire)
In Act 2, Anders tells Hawke that he is working with the Mage Underground, a secret organization of apostates that help free mages trapped in the Gallows. And while Anders did not form the Underground, it’s clear that over the past four years, he has become a major player within it; he even mentions personally leading dozens of mages to freedom using its resources.
But by Act 3, the Underground is all but gone, its members scattered and its secret hiding places destroyed.
A pro-mage Hawke never gets a clear answer. But a pro-Templar Hawke…
“The Last Holdouts”, which spawns only for a Hawke who sides with Meredith in the Act 3 opener, is an easily overlooked (and depressingly short) sidequest that sheds light on the exact fate of the formidable Mage Underground.
It’s also one of many cases where your actions subtly but definitively influence DA2’s meta-narrative. Only a pro-Templar Hawke can spawn this quest, because only a pro-Templar Hawke would be in a position to make events unfold they way they do. Although the Mage Underground is dismantled either way, none of what happens in “The Last Holdouts” comes to pass for a pro-Mage Hawke.
I realize I’m being vague. So let me be clearer.
In a pro-Templar Hawke game, what happened to Anders’s beloved Mage Underground?
Who removed the last hope Anders had for defying Meredith without bloodshed?
In case you’ve never gotten or completed this quest, I’ve transcribed a walk-through of the major dialogue/action/notes below the break.
I’ve gotten a lot of reblogs, replies and positive feedback on the essays I’ve been writing for the Dragon Age Daily Challenge. Thanks, everyone! They’ve been a blast to write, and very cathartic as well, and way more fun than working on actual real work. :)
In case you missed any of them, here are the first seven:
1. Favorite Dragon Age Game: Dragon Age 2
2. Favorite Character: Garrett Hawke
3. Least Favorite Character: Sebastian Vael
4. Favorite Love Interest: Friendmanced!Anders + Garrett Hawke
Least Favorite Love Interest Thoughts on the Armor of the Champion
Warden Hawke’s Story
7. Favorite Quest: A Story Being Told
My DA-ily Challenge will unfortunately be going on hiatus after today, as I’m heading out of town for almost a week where (gasp) no Internet access will be available. If I don’t come back, assume that epic Internet withdrawal has set in and I’ve succumbed to the shakes and the rages and that the rest of the challenges would have been ever so great, had I ever been able to write them, but now I will forever be roaming the Connecticut woods, a hideous abomination howling at the moon. Send cookies.
Favorite Love Interest: Friendmanced!Anders + Garrett Hawke
I must be specific here, because I actually have a strong aversion to the Anders rivalmance. Not that it’s poorly done, because it isn’t (quite the opposite) but because it’s just too tragic, too hopeless. I need a little bit of hope to cling to, some promise that my characters will see better days once more; after all, even Orestes learns something from his misery and becomes a better man as a result of his punishment. But Rivalmanced!Anders is straight up Cassandra, a visionary caught by a force he is powerless to resist, who never had a chance to veer from his fate, and in whose death (or implied future suicide) I can find no catharsis, no hope – just more misery and heartache.
I also dislike Anders with Marian, but this might be harder to explain — so bear with me.
We all know Anders tries to protect Hawke from himself no matter what; but with Marian, however, his vigilance takes on a tone that I find slightly patronizing. He shoves her away in Act 1 with a force that he does not employ with Garrett, and, IMO more tellingly, he confides in Garrett about Karl, but doesn’t do so with Marian. This isn’t sloppy writing, IMO, and I don’t think it was a mistake on Jennifer Hepler’s part; I actually love what the omission suggests about Anders’ character and the kinds of relationships he feels he can and can’t allow himself. Still, for these reasons, I feel the Garrett/Anders romance is a more egalitarian and trusting relationship, and that’s why I tend to lean toward it moreso than Marian/Anders.
(But don’t cry for Flutiebear’s Marian. She gets Fenris. And Isabela. And, if I’m feeling frisky, Zevran, too.)
Fasten your seatbelts. This is another long one.
Least Favorite Character
I struggled with how to answer this question.
Should I discuss the characters I’m most apathetic toward? (Which would be rather boring, wouldn’t it?) Or should I focus instead on the ones that evoke the strongest negative reactions? Because there are plenty of characters in this universe I love to hate: Merrill, Elthina, Meredith, Bhelen, Branka, Arl Eamon, Ghyslian de Carrac. Zathrian. Even Maric. (Fucking Maric.)
But I wouldn’t say any of those are my “least favorites” – far from it. I adore them to bits: I love to explore all their complexities and shadows, the light and the dark, the hopes and fears and faith that drive them. I love how deliciously scheming or obsessive or broken they can be; and I love their influence on their world, and how much care and detail went into their creation. If there’s one thing Dragon Age has taught me, it’s sympathy for the devil – indeed, I could never call any of these characters devils at all, just people whose idea of “the right thing” differs from mine.
There’s only one character I genuinely dislike, and by that I mean his personality repulses me so much I don’t want to get to know him better – that I in fact don’t want to know him at all, and I refrain from including him in my games as much as I can.
Favorite Character: Garrett Hawke
(Note: In my playthroughs and in the analysis below, I inevitably lean toward Garrett Hawke, because I find beards hot and Nic Boulton is a fucking boss. But all this could easily be said about Marian Hawke, too. She’s just as phenomenal. And her ass is a work of art.)
This answer might sound self-indulgent. “Hurr, hurr, Flutiebear chose the Gary Sue as her favorite character, how DROLL”. And I won’t deny that the player’s choices inform Hawke’s character in ways that wouldn’t otherwise be there: Every Hawke is slightly different, a special little snowflake, albeit ones with no shirt or red hair or bitchin’ tattoos.
But that doesn’t mean Hawke is a blank slate. Far from it.
This one will be long. You’ve been forewarned.