Monday, November 7, 2011

Punch Anders in the Face, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Bomb.

I'm playing Dragon Age II, as everyone who follows me on Twitter will have heard a thousand times in the last week.  At the point of this writing I'm in the middle of Act III, with a female rogue Hawke.  Spoilers for 2/3 of the game (and predictions about the remaining events) follow.

Because this is a BioWare game, Hawke picks up a number of companions along her way.  And because this is a BioWare game, those companions are strongly-written individuals, with their own stories, characteristics, personalities, and lives.  Despite my low-level general dislike of party-based gaming even now (which is a longer post that I've started writing but put on the back burner because this post was more urgent), Hawke's companions are the entire reason I'm playing DAII.  I love them, they are fantastic, and I want to spend more time with them.

Especially Fenris who, while always brooding, doesn't always look quite that murderous.

Bethany, Aveline, Varric, Merrill, Anders, Fenris, and Isabela -- these are the seven characters whose story this game is here to tell.  (I'm aware that if I had any DLC, there'd be more.)  And dropped into the middle of their lives, the thread connecting them all and drawing them and their stories together, is Hawke.

I like to think of myself as a generally decent person, with a healthy amount of self-respect.  I'm a constant work in progress (who isn't?), but I'm a reasonably well-adjusted adult and I make a point of surrounding myself with non-toxic people: with good friends.  Sure, some of us don't call as often as we'd like, and I've got some friends who have opinions I disagree with, or who have made choices I don't like.  But generally, we're respectful of each other, we trust each other, and we don't use or lie to each other.

This Hawke (blue-eyed red-haired Miriam), like my Shepard before her and my Courier and Lone Wanderer before them, is an extension of me.  She looks quite a bit like me, she shares my preferences and tastes, and she shares my moral compass.  That's how I like to play an RPG of this sort.  When Varric and Merrill are good friends to Hawke, I then feel that they are good friends.  This is by design; especially on a first playthrough, we're often meant to put ourselves, the players, in the hero's shoes.

So when Aveline, flustered, comes to Hawke for help with her love life, I feel like I'm helping a (hapless) friend.  When Varric good-naturedly gives Hawke shit just because he can, I feel like I'm joking around with a friend.  When Merrill bares her soul to Hawke, I feel like I have been trusted by a friend.  When Fenris walks around town wearing Hawke's crest on his belt, I feel a little more gushy than "just friend" ( <3 ).

Which means when after two acts -- seven story years -- of friendship, Anders lies to Hawke and uses her?  I get angry with the betrayals of a "friend."

Anders wants to justify himself.
Through the first two acts of DAII, I kept working toward friendship with Anders because, overall, I agreed with him.  Mages really do get the short end of the stick in the society of the Dragon Age games, and it's a big problem.  Knight-Commander Meredith in particular is a power-hungry ass and a liar and I'd like her deposed promptly, possibly even at the point of my dagger if that's what it takes.  There are enormous problems of inequal rights and prejudice all over Thedas and I'll even concede that, despite my strong personal preferences, solving them might require violent tactics rather than diplomacy.  And I'm always good for fighting injustice.

I had no strong reason to be rivals with Anders.  Our means were different but our goals, overall, the same.  I could set aside his overbearing righteousness with an internal eye-roll, pick witty dialogue, and have us continue along our mutual goal of "kill ALL the monsters!"  And of course, one of my biggest issues as a gamer is the deep-seated need for everyone to like meNearly always

So I was inclined to give Anders a chance, despite his flaws and quirks.  He's a prominent NPC and a party member: surely I'm meant to cut him some slack?

Demonic posession is kind of a big personality quirk, IMHO.

I managed benign disintrest with Anders until reaching his Act III quest, "Justice," at which point I instantly developed an overwhelming desire to punch him in the face.  Twice.  The quest is nothing short of infuriating.  By the point in the game at which Anders asks you to go gather some ingredients for him, the game has made sure that Hawke knows (1) there hasn't been a known way to separate a demon and host without killing them, and (2) dwarves and Qunari both make, steal, or have gunpowder / explosives.

And so, Anders sends Hawke forth to collect saltpeter and sulfur for him, assuming:
  • That she is too stupid to know what these ingredients are
  • That she is too stupid to know what these ingredients do
  • That she will trust whatever it is Anders tells her
  • That she doesn't actually need to know what she's up to, because Anders said so
  • That she'll be fine with this gaping and suspicious hole in knowledge
  • That she won't actually put together the ninety million clues surrounding this request
  • That his cause is so righteous that it's all right to hurt everyone and everything else for it...
  • ...including the people he supposedly wants most to help.
I can get behind a lot of suspicious behavior, in a game.  But a supposed friend lying to me in order to go make a (potentially suicide) bomb and blow the shit out of people whose fight this isn't?  I don't think so, friend.

I stewed over this for quite a while.  My first concern came from a game mechanics perspective: helping Anders, or indeed aiding magi in general, make it challenging to maximize friendship with Fenris.  Having chosen the Fenris romance, and choosing to believe that the character has a better nature that Hawke can appeal to, I find I need to be very careful in what order I choose to help people.  And so at first I'd framed the problem as, "How can I be sure to do everything I need to with Fenris first, so that then I can do what I need to for Anders?"

After sleeping on that for a night, though, I finally realized the solution: to hell with Anders.  If a real friend of mine in the flesh-and-blood world pulled the sort of shenanigans he's up to, I'd be unable to remain close to that person.  Our relationship would strain and although I might feel wistful for the loss of what once was, I wouldn't feel guilt about cutting ties.  So why I have been letting my pixellated avatar be guilted or bullied into giving support that I wouldn't give?  If Hawke is modeled after my gut and my ethics, why on earth would I let her put up with this?

For all that I've always needed to maximize the number of NPCs who like or respect my PC, I've never particularly needed the bad guys to like me.  Why would I?  They're terrible people and I'm perfectly comfortable being morally opposed to them.  The Legion, the Reapers -- their disapproval is a point of pride.  And for all that I try to avoid conflict and remain friendly in the real world, there are some people out there whose approval I've never sought.  If the racists and homophobes of the world ever start singing my praises, I'll have a serious and urgent need to re-examine the course of my life.

What Dragon Age II has done for me is that it has allowed me to bring that last, formerly missing piece of my personal moral core with me into my characters.  You know what?  I don't need Anders to like me!  I don't need to help him.  And if he's making a series of poor choices that harm Miriam Hawke's life and her other relationships?  He can go to hell.

For all that I raged and agonized about Kate Shepard's inability to keep both Jack and Miranda loyal in Mass Effect 2, I appreciate that it happened.  Sometimes, when you're surrounded by people with different priorities, you do find yourself in conflict, and there's not a soul on earth powerful enough to resolve every single conflict among his or her peers just through the force of good will alone.  Companions might choose a (metaphorical) hill to die on that ends a friendship, or co-workers might join cause for a common goal even if they hate you.  That's how the real world works.  And if I'm looking for mature nuance in my game writing (which I am), I have to be able to acknowledge that there are some hurts that my heroes just can't fix.

I've avoided spoilers regarding the rest of the game, but I'm pretty convinced at this point that Anders is going to blow the shit out of a major part of Kirkwall with or without Hawke's help.  As a result, innocent people are going to die -- a lot of them.

Knowing that, and knowing that Anders is so set on his path that he won't even tell Hawke the truth, to let her give him aid freely or not at all?  He can well and truly go to hell.  Blackmail is no mark of friendship, and I'm over it.  Anders has cured me of one small portion of the ego of the gamer, and brought me to a more mature approach toward my characters as a consequence.

I'll still create characters who are essentially me and play as if I were there, because that's half the fun.  But I the player have the self-respect not to take abuse or cavort with assholes, and now I've realized: Hawke does too.

I'm choosing against friendship and I'm choosing against helping, and those go against my grain. 30 years of RPGs have taught me to accept every quest and seek every approval, and 30 years of female socialization have taught me to be careful when and how I make waves.

But 30 years of moral judgement have also taught me right from wrong.  Anders is wrong, and feeling that I can and should tell him so is surprisingly satisfying.  I just wish there were a "punch in the face" animation to go with.

21 comments:

  1. This is a fantastic post. I think I've fought some of the same mental battles about this character as you. I'm like "well, I need him" when really, I don't. 

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  2. Isn't it amazing what can be done when you combine interaction and well-written stories?

    My first time through, I played a female Hawke who went with the Anders romance option. I empathized with his struggle against the templars, I generally found his party banter wittier than most of the other options (especially when you through Varric in), and as my only healer after Bethany left I always had him in my party. Sometime between doing the quest you mention and the end of the game, I stopped playing for a few months--it's a long game, got boring, life got in the way, etc.--so I completely forgot about that quest. Obviously, something happens, and I felt very betrayed by it.

    I really like the entire Anders character arc. After beating DA2, I went back and got the DA:Awakening expansion. It's really striking to see how Anders changes: in Awakening he's slightly manic, a sarcastic ass who merely wants to escape from the Circle. Once he becomes a Grey Warden, he ends up seeing numerous horrors and becomes the increasingly sullen (yet still sarcastic) jerk we know in DA2. And it's not until Kirkwall and Justice that he becomes radicalized, with the future ambiguousness of who's driving his personality at any given time. And even then, it's gradual, taking place over years.

    I also appreciated that the radical terrorist is essentially a doctor. That's a subversion from what we often see in games (healers are stereotyped as nuturing) what not being uncommon in reality.

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  3. I loved reading this! Self-realization and -actualization through video games -- how does that not make the medium art?

    I don't play RPGs this way at all. I never put myself into my PCs, but make them new and different (usually way, way different) people whose lives I step into. That's another way to figure out stuff, but it probably isn't as immediate as the kind of journey you talk about here.

    Also, as I said on Twitter: yummy screenshots.

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  4. This is one of the things some folks didn't seem to Get about DA2, but the Friendship-Rivalry thing is SUCH a fantastic fit for what DA2 is trying to do. There is none of this "figuring out what your companion wants to hear so you get stat bonuses" thing that there was in DA:O. It's more about building respect for one another rather than agreeing with them all the time. I really wish they had demonstrated it better, especially since most people only have Carver around for 5 minutes and thus don't really get into the whole "sibling rivalry" vibe. But the only thing encouraging people to befriend everyone is gamers' own desire for everybody to like them. Which is strong, I admit, it happened to me too! But it was a lot easier to fight on my second playthrough.

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  5.  Rivalling everyone in my party, including even Varric, was the most fun I had in the game, and it became my canon playthrough. Much better than giving Morrigan 20 meat bones to recover from doing a nice thing to someone one time in Orzammar.

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  6. Is this the same Anders I hated so much in DAO: Awakening? Because fuck that guy.

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  7. I don't always feel nearly that personal about characters, and that's sort of the core of the other post I'm working on, on how it is that I still claim not to like party-based games.  It has to do with whether I end up feeling like the other characters are skillsets, people, or dead weight to drag around.

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  8. Oh, you did better than I did. I was following a very similar path to yours, and I got to that point with Anders -- whose friendship was maxed out at that point -- and I had to stop and stew for a few hours. And in the end I caved and said, "fine, I'll help you out", but it made me feel pretty dirty. I *was* pleased to see that when you go down that branch, Hawke says that she doesn't like being blackmailed like this. That made me feel slightly better. But you chose the better course.

    Even at the time, while I was stewing and being pissed at Anders, I appreciated that I was thinking about how to role-play this situation. I was invested in the story & characters, and not in min-maxing some stat or trait.

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  9. One of the reasons that I teach martial arts is that it allows me to be there when students (some of them female, a few of them male, in fact) have the realization that you describe.   It's precious to me, and you've described it well.

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  10. Don't even bother to argue the case that games are art.  Of course they are.   Your fundamental humanity is not something that's up for debate.

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  11. "Bethany, Aveline, Varric, Merrill, Anders, Fenris, and Isabela"

    You forgot Carver :(

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  12. Well, from Miriam Hawke's point of view, the only thing Carver ever did was drop dead in his first moment on screen. ;)  I may  do what I need to do to switch siblings for a second playthrough, though.

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  13. You managed to rival *everyone*? That's impressive!

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  14. Switching siblings is simple: play as a mage. Bethany is there to provide initial mage support regardless of your opening part if you're a rogue/warrior; Carver is there so you have a tank before your start using Aveline or Fenris. Carver's definitely the more annoying sibling, though, and (spoilers that you've already passed alert!) I was happy to ship him off to the Wardens (downside: two annoying sarcastic gits in my party in the Deep Roads quest).

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  15. Nice to see some love for DA2. I feel like there's a bit of a consensus out there that it was a weak entry, but I thought it was fantastic.

    What Anders actually does is a wonderful moment of storytelling; shocking and believable for all the right reasons, and the aftermath delightful. I felt that one of the strengths of DA2 was the surprising decision to set virtually the entire game in Kirkwall. By the end of the game you have a real feeling for the city's political balance of power and this gives a visceral understanding of what he's done and what the consequences will be.

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  16. I ended up loving the crap out of this game and thinking that confining it to a single (large) city and its immediate environs was perfect.  And you're right about Anders as storytelling: that I got passionate about wanting to punch him in his stupid face shows how very effective and engaging it was.

    While I was playing I was tweeting up a storm, and one of the things I felt most was that I was glad not to be out saving the whole world form an existential threat just this once.  It was meaningful to the citizens of Kirkwall, and there are greater political ramifications across Thedas and especially as far as the Chantry and Circles are concerned, but really it's the story of local politics and individual prejudice -- and it's a really compelling story.

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  17. They will never know it, but EA and Bioware have you to thank for selling another copy of DA2 (in my case, on PS3).  I had never played a WRPG before, so I figured I'd enjoy your observations about some game I'd never care to play myself and move along.  But your post made it sound amazing, just the sort of thing I would like to play.  And my experience with it so far (about halfway through Act I) has completely borne that out. My background with JRPGs means I've mostly been watching movies with battles in between, and this feels very, very different from that.  It's both playing into my desire for pragmatic, results-based strategy, and throwing my emotions into a huge snarl. I've, mostly unconsciously, "othered" my Hawke by using the standard male model.  Ignoring questions of appearance or age, I probably couldn't play the game with a "me" in the lead role.  Even as is, playing this game is almost too raw for me, and I keep saying "me" and "I" when talking about Hawke in my conversations, and reloading when "my" friends aren't happy with the things "I" say or do. :) The friendship thing in my game is working very differently with your run.  My Hawke is repulsed by blood magic and demon pacts, so despite Anders and Merrill's cute qualities, he's avoided having them in party unless there's a quest specifically centering around them, and is working hard on being rock-steady with Varric, Aveline and Fenris.  His being a mage himself caused some confusion when he realized he has a crush on a certain mage-averse character.... Goes to show there's lots of leeway to play it your way, with this one.  Great stuff.

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  18. This is the most amazing comment.  Thank you so much for leaving it!  <3

    (Varric is 100% pure awesome, also too, and Aveline might be one of the best female characters put in a game in ages.  I like to imagine Hawke spends much of those intervening years hanging around having a pint with them both. ;) )

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  19. Aw, thanks. <3 

    (I'm still at a fairly early stage of DA2, but the romance characters not being included in your bar scene is food for thought.  How will Hawke and X spend their time together during intermission?  Maybe on common interests.  Clearing Kirkwall of gangsters, fake guardsmen, and slavers... or making free with Denarius's wine stash.  Heh.)

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  20. I don't agree with  you there yes Anders does betray you  but, if you were listening when he was talking durring that point he was afraid that you wouldn't help him or worse help him. He was just trying to help all mages and with out him doing that who knows what Merrideth would have done  to all the mages if somehting hadn't been done.

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