Geek Butch Gaming: Dragon Age 2 Part 2

Hi, all. Work has been slammed and I’ve also been having some really annoying arthritis issues with my thumbs, so I haven’t been playing DA2 as much. But I finally played through the next act, and I’m saved just before the final confrontation. I have some thoughts about everything I’ve hit as I go.

Who Can Stomach the Templars Anyway?

I didn’t buy the Templars as any kind of decent people on my first playthrough of Origins. I really don’t now, what with increased awareness of the violence inherent in policing and its US history and also having read NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth books (which, she has stated clearly, were inspired by Dragon Age). The Templars are a fascist organization that operates a theocratic prison system that can impose vicious penalties on its inmates with impunity. DA2 gives us a vivid peek at the kind of horrendous punishment the lobotomy of the Tranquil is, given one of our first encounters with someone who has been made Tranquil breaks that programming briefly and the victim begs for a merciful death rather than being allowed to return to “tranquility.”

Elsa, one of Meredith’s Tranquil slaves, pardon me, “servants.”

I imagine there are people out there who can manage to play through this game favoring the Templars. I imagine there are decent people who can compartmentalize sufficiently to play a fascist Hawke. But I imagine that there are a lot more who are just fucking fascists who think Templars are just the bee’s knees.

I understand and can wrap my head around Fenris’ anti-mage perspective — he was enslaved and abused by a mage state where corruption (in both the usual sense of the word and the Dragon Age sense of the word) was rampant. I can even understand why he’s roughly pro-Templar as a result and cannot actually believe that mages are sentient beings worthy of compassion too. But the Templars are just the other side of the Tevinter Imperium coin: still practicing enslavement and torture; still abusing sentient beings outside the “law” and getting away with it, largely by dehumanizing their victims so that no one cares about them; still a vicious colonial power that targets indigenous peoples (see the elves) who have a very different magical tradition. (I also notice that most of the Templars we see on camera are white, whereas several of the named mages are POCs if not elves.)

I also notice that the Templar organization drugs their members to keep them in line. Getting them all addicted to lyrium as a form of initiation is the act of a cult or gang, with Chantry backing (really making it the enforcement arm of a cult). I don’t think we explore enough the Chantry’s role in brainwashing or how much of a hand they had in changing the current mythology of the elves, for instance, to demonize (literally) their deities. (Though if memory serves we get some more of this in Inquisition.)

I appreciate the progressive disenchantment of Cullen with the Templars over the course of the 3 games and his redemption arc. But I’m not sure that’s enough.

Character Fridging

I had completely forgotten the creepy, awful fridging of Leandra, Hawke’s mother.

Bad enough that Carver gets aced (stupidly; like so so SO stupidly) by darkspawn in the first minutes of the game. Bad enough that Bethany has 3 routes for Hawke to lose her: she can get toted off by Templars (as happened in this playthrough), she can get turned into a Grey Warden, or she can die (being killed by Hawke) outright. But then there’s this stupid, stupid storyline that fridges Leandra.

And I call it a fridging because there is absolutely no other narrative reason for her death than to potentially throw some doubt into the mind of Hawke about mages. Add in a creepily romanticized serial killer with the idea of reconstructing his dead wife and this story is just plain Bad. Whoever came up with it (almost certainly a white cis man) should be beaten over the head with a rolled-up newspaper, as should any producers who actively approved it (almost certainly white cis men) instead of consigning it to the Trite Idea Pit where it belonged.

Oh, and the art and animation was as lovingly rendered as any boob bounce in a Tomb Raider gamer. Yes, she was creepily floppy. Yes, you could tell she was stitched together Frankenstein-monster-style and so at the end, Hawke was really only talking to her head.

I play Dragon Age to avoid the zombie games.

Playing up a mage as a serial killer (in the same fantasy that media uses on serial killers, who are never motivated this way) without balancing it out by demonstrating that pretty much all the worst Templars are also serial killers is just… bad and lazy writing. The whole story arc is stupid and awful.

Wait, What?

I’m likewise ripshit about the fate of Thrask, the Templar who spent literally years showing mages and Templars that they could work together, demonstrating the humanity of each to the other. Having Grace, the mage that Hawke saved from being murdered by Templars years before, suddenly turn on everyone out of the blue was sloppy writing. Yes, I am willing to buy that in the meantime, she poked too deeply into blood magic and got her ass possessed by the pride demon, but why do we have zero indication that this is happening along the way? She has contacts among the Kirkwall mages who could gossip about her to us. Maybe I missed it? But okay, awful characterization to fridge her, whatever. But just… ending the whole storyline by killing Thrask coupled with Samson’s inexplicable treachery is just… wow, no one gets any hope that this might be a more workable solution to Kirkwall’s (and really, all the Chantry-run world’s) issues? The Templars who participated are hauled off to be punished? I mean, I get it, I already talked about the Templars as a fascist organization, this is what fascists do, but in a complicated narrative like this, I would have liked to see some dregs of hope. Thrask would get a good last line in at a minimum. Or puts up a fucking fight and has a dialogue with Grace and/or Hawke. The idea that a senior Templar who, yes, admitted he was a little old for fighting but who has all the Templar defenses and magics, could be slaughtered out of hand is ridiculous.

Overall, the whole storyline reads like someone in management got tired of it and told the writer to wrap it up, kill off Thrask and Grace, and just get on with things. It’s one of the hackiest bits of storytelling in this otherwise tightly-plotted game.

No One Gets a Family

I find it fascinating that, on top of systematically depriving Hawke of a family, basically everyone in Hawke’s party is deprived of family. We never get deep enough into Isabela’s background to get a sense of her blood family and she glosses over the loss of her ship and crew. Anders is pretty much entirely without family — chosen or otherwise — when we meet him. But then we have:

  • Aveline, whose husband dies (must be killed by her or Hawke) in the opening
  • Varric, who dislikes his brother Bartrand, but then Bartrand goes round the bend and is either killed or locked up in a “sanitarium” (and now I really really want to know what a Dragon Age sanitarium for rich people looks like — is it very Victorian? how well do they accommodate dwarves and elves? do they do experimental treatments? who are the patients — mostly women with the rare man? are the doctors mages, mundanes, or Chantry people? how do they root out potential mages from their patients?), leaving him without family
  • Fenris, who finds his sister and is betrayed by her, leaving him without his just-found-and-remembered family.
  • Merrill, whose adoptive mother/mentor Merethari abandons her entire clan to prevent Merrill from being possessed by a demon by allowing it to possess her (which is very nearly as stupid and pointless a fridging as that of Leandra)

Now, we have 2 slight ameliorations in this: Aveline meets Donnic and marries him and also seems to consider the Guard her extended family in a sense, providing her with both companionship and chosen family. Hawke also briefly meets their cousin Charade, Gamlen’s unknown daughter, and their cousin asks for a relationship with Hawke, at least by mail. Charade appears to be an archer (possibly a rogue) and thus more than capable of handing herself. I note that she is apparently mentioned in Inquisition as an associate of Sera of all annoying people (I feel like Sera was a failed attempt to port Harley Quinn into the Dragon Age universe). I’d like to see her show up more though. Maybe with an improved hairstyle?

Oh honey, those bangs. They’re as awful as your father.

I wish that the writing gave us more of a feel of the companions being chosen family: we should have a better reason this group — refugees, people on the run (thieves, apostates, or escaped enslaved people), and people who’ve been shunned and essentially cast out by their people — spend any time together. They hang out with Hawke because they get shit done, and Hawke is willing to help them out periodically. The banter does warm up some — Aveline and Varric, by Act 3, are friendly enough that they drink together; Isabela seems to like Merrill in a very older sisterly way; most everyone gets to a point of tolerating Varric’s nonsense. But Fenris hates everyone and fails to convince me that he would hang around even Hawke for any reason whatsoever, and Anders gets along with no one but Hawke and Varric. (Despite his shared apostasy with Merrill.)

I feel like Hawke only has 3 really believable friendships: Aveline, who seems genuinely fond of Hawke and continues to work with them even after building her own chosen family; Varric, who has a very full extravert life and still chooses to hang about with Hawke; and Merrill, who is desperate for friends but has always been far too awkward for them. Honestly, Hawke’s relationships with Bodhan and Gamlen feel like they have more depth than the “friendships” with Fenris, Isabela, and Anders. This may be a function of how self-focused those 3 are, but may also be a lack of time to write those characters more depth. Since DA2 is such a short and limited game, I suppose the writers had to sacrifice depth for breadth on some characters.

Isabela and the Relic

I hit a difficulty I don’t remember having in my 2014 playthrough — at the end of Act 2, I slammed facefirst into a massive battle with the Qunari. I note that I commented in a post on my private blog during my first playthrough that I’d only died twice in my entire game. After dying 3 times in just this battle, I looked it up in a walkthrough.

I didn’t get this massive battle the first time because I had romanced Isabela, and her conscience got the better of her and she returned with the Qunari relic. We turned it over and I had a duel with the Arishok for refusing to turn Isabela over to him, which I apparently won without memorable difficulty. This time, I’ve romanced Anders after a tumble with Isabela, and apparently did not romance her sufficiently for her to turn up at the 11th hour to save us from a massive slaughterfest.

So I rolled back a few saves to the point at which I went to the Qunari compound and played through, dropping Fenris into my party in lieu of Varric, who kept dying early and often. Fenris negotiated a one-on-one duel between Hawke and the Arishok, which was much more doable after I died once and realized the bastard was taking health potions throughout the fight. I then went and finally figured out how to use health potions in combat and that let me win.

The Arishok and his grumpy, grumpy face.

I expect I knew how to use potions on the first playthrough and that’s why I didn’t have much trouble. I think I was actually able to READ the TEXT on my first playthrough — it seems so much smaller now, 7 years on. One of my biggest beefs with game design in general is the accessibility of being able to read the screen. I don’t sit directly in front of the TV, I don’t have a massive TV for gaming. I should STILL be able to read the text from across the room.

Anyway, I’m cranky that I can’t learn that impaling move.

Romancing Anders

I really really should have made a male character this time.

Anders’ “romantic” dialogue with my femHawke-headcanoned-nonbinary consisted of a stream of femininizing platitudes that would have convinced me to kick him to the curb had I not wanted to see what endgame with him was like.

At least we didn’t have a sad getting-nekkid-except-underwear animation like the first game.

Having him move into the mansion was pretty cool. But I gotta say, if Uncle Gamlen has heard that Anders is a mage, I’m pretty certain that the Templars know and aren’t doing anything about it, despite our history of harboring apostates (Bethany).

I’m largely unimpressed by the relationship with Anders, which even after pursuing all the romance options and having him move in, feels kind of pastede on yay. Like, I’m not sure he has the emotional energy to actually seem like a romantic partner, what with all his fanatic tendencies meshed with being an abomination and all. (Wynne was a much better abomination.) I’d hoped there will be more meat in Act 3, but… no.

Neurodivergence in Dragon Age

There are 2 neurodivergent major characters in DA2: Sandal and Merrill.

Sandal is the one who was clearly intended to be neurodivergent. He has delayed speech and social skill development, as well as impulse control and executive function issues. Bodhan tells us that he was determined to be a “savant” by a mage circle — a term that has been used (in conjunction with more offensive terminology) for people on the autism spectrum and/or with cognitive delays who have a very narrow and specific skill set. He has his special interest — enchantment — and is apparently dependent on Bodhan for his day-to-day care. Beyond this, Sandal is also obviously supernatural in nature, with his mysterious ability to protect himself from Darkspawn and the occasional prophecy popping out of his mouth. (I suspect, given the way Dragon Age peppers gods throughout in unexpected places, that Sandal may be one of the Elvhen gods possessing a body, especially given the rumor that Sandal is half-dwarf and half-elf or half-human.)

I do think there’s an argument to be made that all mages are neurodivergent (they have a very different connection to the Fade than non-mages, which argues that their brains work differently from “normal” people). But in the case of Merrill, I think it’s much clearer. She has her special interests, which no one in her “family” group understand (except her fascination for lore is expected of someone who might be a Keeper; her fascination for tinkering with magical artifacts, not so much). She never got along with anyone in the clan except her mother figure/mentor, and even less so after they decided to blame her for the disappearance of a clanmate into the eluvian. She seems pleased to be living alone in what is supposed to be a crappy apartment in the alienage but which is actually ridiculously palatial. She doesn’t really seek out companionship though she’s grateful to Hawke for their friendship. She’s also over-the-top clueless about conversational nuances (or maybe she’s just distracted all the time by her brain racing over magical things and plans for the eluvian). Despite this, she’s a surprisingly nuanced portrayal of neurodivergence for an American video game.

Doesn’t anyone but Hawke put their weapons down in their own homes?

Ugh, I should’ve romanced Merrill this time around. She’s a much more interesting character than Anders.

Best Callout to Other Media

“I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” – Sandal, completely out of the blue

This just COMPLETELY BROKE ME. Which baffled my game-watcher, who was not familiar with Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

Conclusion

I now have my supportive gloves for my bad thumbs, which reduce the amount of pain I have after an extended gaming session, and hopefully I’ll have a little brain break in the near future from work. I’m looking forward to diving back in for endgame to finish this up, because I’m excited to go straight into Inquisition from this one.

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