When I play video games, I tend to build a life for my character beyond that which has been provided by the writers. It’s particularly easy and enjoyable to do so with RPGs (role playing games), because they rely heavily on narrative. Of course, what this also means is that I am creating a set of pseudo-experiences for myself: things that both did and did not happen to me. I held the controller, and I made the choices, but it’s still my character who had the interaction.
In “Game Therapy” posts, I’m going to unpack some of my thoughts and interactions with the games. Despite the fact that some games I discuss have been out for a while already, I will include spoiler warnings for those who need them.
This entry contains spoilers for Dragon Age II, regarding the prologue, act 1, and Hawke’s family.
Terms in italics are defined and described in a separate post, just in case any of my readers are unfamiliar with this franchise.
I guess I will start with my backstory. Abigail Hawke is the eldest child of three, and her parents are a noblewoman and an apostate. She has two younger siblings, twins named Bethany and Carver. Abigail is a rogue who uses a pair of daggers, Bethany is a mage, and Carver is a warrior with a greatsword.
When the game begins, my father is already dead. For my current character, I use the following story to describe my childhood, my father’s life, and his death:
From my youngest memory, my father was teaching me about magic and demons. There was always a chance that I would be a mage one day, and I needed to be prepared. He didn’t sugarcoat anything, didn’t downplay the dangers I would face. Teaching a four year old to fear the voices that would one day haunt her dreams may not sound kind, but I cannot help but call it love. Not every mage child has a parent who prepares them to fight demons in their sleep, and I was lucky.
To be honest, I cried on my 14th birthday. Since I turned 10, I had hoped for my magic to appear, but day after day slipped past and nothing changed. Even after I passed the typical advent age, I still cling to hope; some children don’t get their magic until 13, so it could still happen. But it didn’t. Not to me. On my 14th birthday I knew all of my training had been wasted, and that I would never be able to bend reality to my will, to hold fire in my hands. So I cried myself to sleep and surrendered myself to learning a fighting style and watching Bethany and Carver grow up.
A year later, Bethany and Carver turned 12, and Bethany got her magic. Carver got nothing, just like me, but he was happy enough without it. He had been more insterested in trying to learn swordplay from anyone who would teach him anyway. It was an odd feeling, watching my sister receive what I had always wanted and my brother chasing after my footsteps to attain what I already had. We formed a new family balance, father pouring all of his time into Bethany’s training, Carver and I learning to fight with our chosen weapons, and mother claiming every moment of happiness she could. Mother had lost her family and her wealth when she eloped with father, but I think she enjoyed those years when we were still all together. She seemed happy at the time, anyway.
That was the year that my role in the family changed, actually. One day, father called me aside to talk. “I won’t always be here to protect your sister, you know.”
“What, planning to run off and leave us?” I smirked.
His brows furrowed. “This isn’t a joke, Hawke.”
I bristled. “What are you talking about? Why didn’t you call me Abby?”
“Because today you grow up. You don’t have the luxury of being ‘Abigail’ any longer.”
He turned towards the sunset. “Look at the sun, Hawke.”
“Just do it.”
I moved to his side and followed his gaze. It was evening, but the light was still bright enough to make me squint. Silently, I waited for him to explain, a few tears sliding down my cheeks as my eyes strained against the light.
“How many birds can you see?” His voice was softer now.
“I can’t- all I see are sunspots! You can’t expect me to count birds.”
“I don’t.” He touched my shoulder and I turned to face him, purple dots dancing across his face. “You need to become a sun for Bethany to hide behind. To be the ‘Hawke’ that comes to everyone’s minds when they speak. The brighter you shine, the easier it will be for your sister to hide in your shadow.”
I paused for few minutes, letting his words sink in. I could do it. And he was right: neither of us honestly believed that these peaceful years would last forever. We had only lived in Honnleath for two years so far, but we would need to move soon, before anyone noticed a change in Bethany. One day, father would stay behind to buy us time to escape or be recognized my someone or something worse. Any number of sad fates could claim an apostate.
“Carver won’t like it, you know. I’ll have to outshine him as well.”
Father’s eyes grew dark. “I wish I didn’t have to choose between my children. The world shouldn’t be like this.” He rubbed his brow before continuing. “Bethany will never live free if both of you abandon her. Carver hungers for importance, for rank; he wants more for himself than to guard his sister forever.”
My chest tightened as the weight of his request settled in. “And me?”
Father met my gaze. “You respect and revere magic. You know both the danger and the beauty of it. You must protect Bethany. You will be kinder to her than any templar would be.”
“So, you’re asking me to live my life for Bethany’s sake.”
“There’s more. I haven’t brought this up before because I wanted you to be a child, not a soldier, but… There are two fates that are worse than death for a mage: tranquility and turning to blood magic. If the templars catch an apostate, they often feel justified in performing the rite of tranquility on them, destroying their mind in the process. And if a mage turns to blood magic, they are at the mercy of a demon. Neither life is worth living.”
I slowly sat on the ground. This couldn’t be real, but it was. “What are you asking of me?”
Father closed his eyes, gathered his resolve. “If Bethany or I ever suffer one of those two fates, I need you to kill us.”
It felt like I had been struck in the stomach. “You can’t be-”
“You need to kill us, Hawke.” His voice was icy as he spoke his name, my name. “At least you would be swift.”
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. Shining star and executioner? I couldn’t… I couldn’t… I felt the burden settle into my shoulders, felt my muscles tighten to accept the weight. I had to. No one else could carry that burden. Father could watch Bethany, but he could not watch himself. And mother? Mother would be torn apart by an abomination long before she would develop the strength to attack a loved one.
“I’ll do it, father.” My voice was cold, heavy. “I’ll make you proud.”
“Thank you, Hawke.” He turned to walk away, but paused. “It doesn’t change anything, but I need you to know that I’m sorry. Hate me for as many years as you need to, Abby. I just hope you can forgive me one day.” And he left.
I sat there, staring into the sun for hours, until the last of its light slipped beneath the horizon, before I went inside to sleep.
I didn’t make it to his death, because the conversation in the evening got added while I was typing. The mandate to watch and kill my father and sister if needed has always been in the character, but I didn’t have to experience it until today. I’m just a little shaken now. Forgive me.
*deep breath* So, the issue surrounding my characters in these types of stories is that, pretty often, when I am brave enough to examine them, I see things about myself that I don’t want to admit are true. They are usually things I’m not even aware of because they are buried deep beneath my conscious thoughts, where they can’t hurt me, where I don’t have to hear them any more. Alright, so… What do I see in Abigail?
- Responsibility– I need to carry burdens so that other people can live better lives. I am responsible for taking care of their problems, their emotions, and their mistakes.
- Isolation– I am the only one carrying these burdens; they are not jointly carried by a friend or family member.
- Unfulfilled Longing– I never got the life that I wanted, and I am incapable of getting it now. It’s too late, but I try to push on, even though my hope has died.
- Sacrifice– My life, my happiness, and my feelings matter less than those around me.
I… Crap. That’s not… Sorry, everyone. I need a break to let this sink in, because they feel true. I mean, I think I believe those 4 things, and that some of them are lies, and that it’s causing me pain that I don’t need. But, realizing that you have a problem is only step 1; changing the situation is steps 2-37 or so.
Just let me soak it in for a while.