Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Choosing a Role

[This is all straight-up personal blathering about me playing Dragon Age games, talking it through to myself in more than 140 characters.]

One of the things I'm really noticing this week, while adventuring (and occasionally struggling) through Dragon Age: Origins, is to just what a high degree subconscious and indirect cues affect my perception of a game.

The first time I tried DA:O, I played a female city elf.  That's a character who has it pretty bad, all things considered: the city elves are a thoroughly disenfranchised, oppressed, despised people who live in a literal ghetto.  The origin story basically involves attempting to rescue a cousin from rape and on the way out giving a whole bunch of oppressors a sword to the face because they're there, among other things.

On that first run of the game, I made it to the battle of Ostagar, then got turned around twice somehow trying to get to the tower and light the beacon -- so really, not very far at all.  The entirety of my opinion on the game was based on the origin chapter, and my take was that Ferelden was a perilously grim and serious world, and that the Warden was a cynical, jaded, sarcastic person.  The Warden, in that game, stood in the gutter under the totem pole of society's hierarchy and had nothing to lose, but everything to gain.

I didn't feel like exploring the city elf story again this time, because I already had, and woodland elves never really were my sort of thing.  Neither are magic users, and I didn't feel like being a dwarf, so I rolled a human.  The only origin for non-mage humans, though, is Human Noble.  I also had some indecision, some mouse jitter, and a rather large glass of wine while I was customizing my would-be Warden in the character creator, and as a result some of her physical attributes are not what I ordinarily would have chosen.  Basically,  her eyes are enormous.

The end result is a character I did not expect: I now have a Disney-eyed deposed heir to a minor throne, who grew up in a full life of privilege and plenty, comfort and love.  This Warden, while still "me" in a sense as all my characters are, is a me of decades long gone.  She's the me I would have thought at 14 that I'd want to be -- young and idealistic, but trying oh so very hard to do the right thing in the world.

As a result of the character's backstory and appearance, I've realized I'm actually playing a much shallower game than my first pass.  This Warden is straight out of a fairy tale, and she knows it -- and she believes the world actually works that way.  I the player actually found myself squirming in mild embarassment in my chair last night (thank goodness the spouse was too immersed in multiplayer assassinating to notice) when I realized how very juvenile I felt my approach to the whole game becoming.

So juvenile.  Because I had every intention of deliberately avoiding the Alistair romance.  I know in advance, thanks to years of spoilers floating around, what the Warden's options are going to be, to stamp out the Blight.  I had a feel for what would be the right thing to do, in this game, and when I played the sequel first I told it that's what had happened.  Maybe the Warden and Zevran could have one really good before-the-world-ends romp, just for fun.

But then this Warden happened.  And something possessed me and honest to god now I'm playing fanfiction or something, I don't even know, but all those dialogue options came up at the bottom of the screen and my hand picked "hey let's go make out and be in love like teenagers" and now my brain is getting drunk in the corner out of disgust while Alistair and the Warden make puppy eyes at each other.  And they're such dorks, and I'm such a softie, that now I know I don't have it in me to make the "right" choice anymore, and Wynne was right to give her lecture, and I was all, "No, mom, I know what I'm doing" and *headdesk*.

I barged into Ferelden and felt like The Doctor: just this once, everybody lives!

I think some of it's a reaction to external factors.  I've been thinking about Mass Effect 3 and discussing it with a lot of other gamers lately, and I expect that game to be nothing but a wall of impossible choices, destruction, really upsetting character deaths, and sacrifices for the good of the many.  (In fact, the game cannot be nearly as tragic and joyless as I imagine it will be, because no-one would play it.  Still: grim.)  Somehow I'm not only choosing to spend March immersed in that drama, I'm also looking forward to it.  So some part of my spirit is rebelling.  Like a little child, I'm throwing a massive tantrum and declaring that this time, the hero gets the prince and that everyone lives happily ever after.  (Except the bad people.  Naturally.)

The end result, though, is that I'm playing a totally different game than I thought I was -- and a totally different game than the one I thought I'd use to set up Dragon Age 2DA2, to me, is more like the way the me-of-today perceives the world.  Hawke is a person who has been through some traumatizing events, surrounded by some likewise damaged people.  She and her friends have all come to each other as a family of choice, after losing their blood families, and they make their way through life in this big strange city together, knowing the others are out there.  They have each other's backs, even the crabby ones. 

That's the game I played.

The Warden has a different cast around her.  They're loyal to her, more or less, or at least becoming that way, but their backgrounds are not like hers.  Every one of them, except maybe Leliana, is in some way an outcast from mainstream society: Sten the qunari, Alistair the bastard, Wynne the circle mage, Morrigan the apostate, Shale the golem, Zevran the elf fleeing his failure...

But this Warden is of a noble house.  True, her family died around her due to backstabbing, disloyalty, greed, and politics -- but the lives of the nobility were always thus.  Her personal tragedy is still the mainstream story of her society.  In short, she has buckets of privilege.  And although she may be camping in the woods with a gang of misfits for now, the arc of her story has her heading back to power and privilege later.

That's the game I seem to be playing.

The reason I think it's worth playing is because when my husband sat down and spent dozens of hours on Dragon Age: Origins, he saw the story of a young man: a circle mage who had to bear the gift and curse of magical talent and who met a pretty red-haired Orlesian bard he couldn't resist.  Another friend sat down with the game and found the story of a dwarf, who had to manage culture and politics and found the Wardens as an unexpected refuge.  And then of course there's the city elf whose story I didn't finish: she would have been constantly in an uphill fight, with her gender and her race aligned against her, until earning enough respect to lead the fight against the darkspawn in the end.

So very many different games...

There are still a lot of things I don't like about Dragon Age: Origins in the realm of its mechanics and design.  And I think as an experience, I actually still like Dragon Age 2 better.  Its characters feel more real, its city feels more navigable, and since I really didn't buy the game for its dungeon delving I couldn't care less that all mines have the same floor plan.  But finding out what kind of story I choose to tell, and how that story and I both change at whim, has been a really interesting experience.

(And now I know that some part of me, deep inside, never did let go of that Disney upbringing.)


  1. I think the best parts of DA:O are the origins. It's worth playing them all just to get a sense of where the story could go, even if you never get to the Joining.  I've fully completed a male human noble and a female Dalish story, and, like you, the choices I made were based on the background information I was given, filtered through my own experiences. 

    On a related note, and because it's probably too long for us to discuss on twitter, the whole disclaimer at the beginning that gender doesn't change the game is sooooo untrue. I got way more remarks on my Warden being female than a Dalish, and my male Warden never got a single comment on anything.  If they hadn't made that disclaimer during character creation, I wouldn't have even cared; I'd have brushed it off as another stupid fantasy trope that writers decide to keep around for no reason.  (Trope brushing is also how I excused some stuff at the end that I don't want to spoil for you.)

  2. I looked up the circle mage story, caught the last name, and now want to check it out before I have another go at DA2, just to see if there are connections there I missed...

    I got really, really tired of the gender comments really, really fast but they seem mysteriously to have vanished after the first few hours.  Like everyone got tired of noticing the Warden's boobs or something.  (I make an exception for Sten's direct questioning, which felt like a fair set-up rather than just willy-nilly trope bandying.)

  3. My understanding is that if you complete a game with the circle mage, there will be some dialogue in DA2 regarding the relation.  But there's also dialogue in DA2 about the Dalish Warden (who's from the same clan as Merrill, but Merill with an American accent!).  I get the sense that there are small things in DA2 that are different based on your Warden (and end choices), but I haven't decided yet if that makes some of them worth a full playthrough.

    Yeah, I give a pass to Sten I guess. It seemed to me that BioWare was trying to tell us that gender is a non-issue in their universe. Except it isn't. That's what bothered me more than the dialogue itself: the fact that BioWare tried to pretend it didn't pepper its story with things like that.

  4. Merrill should always be Welsh. Eve Myles forever! <3

    Honestly I didn't even see the text at the beginning because I zipped through the gender screen on character creation in about a microsecond.  Maybe next time I should, like, read what's in front of me.  How novel!  ;)

  5. Choosing a gender is such a big deal to me that it always takes me twice as long there as with any other choice. At least it does the first time through, for my "me" playthrough.

  6. Origins were certainly some of my favorite parts of this game.  It's not a direction every game should take, but I love how it gives you a specific framework to work from while allowing plenty of room to create your own protagonist and story.  The idea of 'where you came from' certainly influences your attitude for the rest of the adventure.  A lovely springboard.

    On that note, I find it interesting that your city elf was 'jaded and cynical', as you put it.  My own city elf, by contrast, was a level-headed woman who deeply cared about her family, her community, and would do her damndest to do the right thing, despite the downtrodden, seemingly hopeless environment that surrounded her.  She grew from an unsure person in an unsure setting into a true leader.

    I guess it goes to show just how much room there is for interpretation.

    Can't stand that Dalish origin, though...

  7. Yeah, I understand.  (Which is to say, you and I are different, but I understand that the difference is there and completely get why you'd pause there.)

    Though if I'm being really honest, I didn't read any of the character creation screens much this time and zipped straight to the appearance sliders, 'cause I probably read 'em the first time. Maybe.

    I guess when they said gender didn't make a difference, they meant in the class, origin, or skills you get to choose.  Because it does make a difference to the story...

  8. I've started the game with an elvish sorceress and a city elf woman, both of them with the intention of being noble (though the city elf understandably very very bitter). The game I managed to complete was as a cruel, arrogant dwarf lord. Despite sharing my gender and height the dwarf felt far-and-away the least like me because I tried to play him as amoral (though committed to what he considered honor), harsh, and viewing everyone around himself as lesser (I couldn't make him full on kick-the-dog evil) which is certainly not how I think of myself thinking. Maybe it's white male hetero etc. privilege but playing a female or non-racial majority character never seems foreign to me any more than playing a character with skills I'll never posses. But playing a character with a profoundly different moral code is hard.

  9. Maybe I'm just a pervert, but . . .
    Doesn't choosing to bang or not bang Morrigan massively affect the ending? And isn't Morrigan exclusively hetero? Ergo, ipso facto delorian, choosing your gender makes a huge difference.

  10. I haven't played any Dragon Age at all.   But a very good friend (a woman) and long-time tabletop companion loves to play teenage girls.   There was a sort of ironic joy to it.   For a while, she seemed to be mocking her younger sister.   But I don't think that's the only reason.  Perhaps she always wondered what might happen if she acted on some of the impulses she had managed to repress while a teen.

    Of course, another character of hers is the, ahem, lusty warrior, done with only X chromosomes.    Eventually this character fell hard for a really brainiac type.  Go figure.

  11. Are you going to play through Awakenings as well? That's where Anders enters the game, or so I understand -- and he's a very different character from the humorless activist he is in DA2. I'm only in the middle of my first playthrough of DA:O, so I can't vouch for that directly, but it sounds like it's a pretty vital interquel.

  12. Yup.  We have the DA:O ultimate edition, or whatever it's called, that came bundled with Awakenings and all the other DLC.  I intend to play all or nearly all of it, then import my save to DA2 and play that again.

  13. I don't think Kate has finished the game, so without any spoilers, let's just say female Wardens have options when it comes to that choice.

  14. It's a spoiler I already knew. ;)  But even so, the male / female option certainly changes the way that plays out, even if it doesn't necessarily change the ultimate outcome.

  15. I'm pretty sure you can romance Morrigan as a female.  However, you can't get her pregnant which adds a wrinkle to the whole thing.

  16. I've never played nearly that far with a female warden, and all my female characters turn out too virtuous to ever get anywhere with Morrigan, but I thought the community consensus (way back when I read about DA anywhere but here) was that she only liked dudes.

  17. Dragon Age Wikia says that Alistair and Morrigan are the hetero-only romances; Zevran and Leliana are the bi romances.

    (Also Leliana seems to be in love with my Warden despite my Warden already having told her "let's just be friends.  Hmm.)

  18. Romance will be interesting if I play through as a paragony female character. I am not schtuping Alistair. Zevran's too wicked (I could play my character as naive enough to fall for his flattery and charm but that's not really appealing.)  Leliana's a bit of a flake but likable . . . enough.

  19. I highly recommend taking a break between DAO and DAO:Awakenings. I didn't, and thought Awakenings was a pretty dull slog. There wasn't much to differentiate it in my eyes so it felt pretty monotonous. I think I'd have liked it better if I'd waited awhile and let it remind me of how much fun Origins had been rather than feeling like Origin's anticlimactic dénouement. 

  20. Too late. *is 5 hours into Awakenings*

    I just... couldn't let go, I guess?  The same way I'll end up devouring all the books in a series back to back immediately.  I hate walking away from a character or from a world I've just gotten all cozy with.

    (It is interesting, though, how having played DA2 first changes my reactions to Anders.  And I gotta say I like his DA2 voice actor better.)

  21. Having finished the game now myself, is it just me or is DA:O significantly more sexist than DA2? I'm thinking specifically of the bizarre elf marriage sidequest in the Brecilian forest, and the way that the conversation trees give you a variety of aggressive responses to Anora and very few mildly approving ones.

    Also, there's an... awful lot of rape in the game. Which was weird, coming from DA2.

  22. DA:O is emphatically and in many ways more sexist than DA2, it's not your imagination.  I mean for starters if you're playing a female Warden, for the first six hours everyone's all, "Don't be silly, there aren't girl Wardens!"

    I somehow managed to bug out the Dalish marriage quest, so other than the initial talking to the dude I don't know what becomes of it, but I'm not surprised that it gets weird.  And I'll admit that what I wish I'd done in relation to the throne was just handed it to Anora.  There was loads of sexist crap around "lol girl no rule Ferelden" in that part of the game.  (I just ran with the whole broken fairy-tale story and made a dangerous power consolidation in Ferelden, where now the Warden-Commander and the King are a married pair who can't produce an heir...)  I should probably write a piece comparing the two on that front.

    But actually, yeah, I have to say -- Dragon Age 2 handled things remarkably well overall, for a Ye Olde Fantasie Worlde.  And backtracking to DA:O made me notice it all the more.