Game Therapy: Dragon Age 2- Finale

This post’s featured image comes from Bioware’s official game site.

I wanted to do a final post for this series, to look back at what I have found through the process of looking at myself through my avatar’s eyes. It may or may not be of interest to you, but I need a bit of closure.

Overall, I’m not too disappointed in what I have found. There are some posts that were harder than others, usually the ones about being a kid who had to grow up fast or who pushed herself too hard. These ones hurt because my life didn’t play out in a way that gave me freedom or peace; I didn’t get to be ‘just a kid,’ in as much as kids can’t be carefree when they are tethered to mental illness (theirs and/or a family member’s).

What do I still feel when I think of those posts? Empathy. Compassion. I need to be kinder to myself, to create a space to rest and be satisfied with myself, even if I’m not always running myself ragged. Even if some days, I just stroll through the daisies and watch the bumblebees hover between them. Because that’s a part of life too. 

I am allowed to enjoy things without the world imploding.

I will have to start a new character in a different game after a little while, and see if she has a lighter back story. I hope she will. I hope she will be happier too.

So what now? It still feels unfinished somehow. I guess that maybe I’ll take the time to tell Abigail Hawke the things that she and I really need someone to say to us.

—-

So, Hawke. Champion of Kirkwall, huh? That sounds like a heavy burden, but it’s also a sign that you did something. For better or worse, your life mattered, and that’s more than most can say.

Ouch. I just realized how that sounds. Like Bethany and Carver didn’t matter at all. Like none of your friends from Lothering mattered. Like only the people who get thrown into the fire but manage to survive are worth remembering. I’m sorry- I guess I’m not very good at this.

What I was trying to say is that you changed Kirkwall, made it better for a lot of us. Now you have a title that tells the world what you’ve meant to us. But I guess that the title isn’t what you want either. Knowing you, you’d probably trade it in a heartbeat if you could get your family, your friends, or your lover back by your side. 

You lived with your heart, you know that? You poured yourself into people- learned their problems, stood by their side against their enemies, and protected them when they couldn’t protect themselves. It might not feel like it mattered right now, living in that big house all alone, but I’m sure that it mattered to them.

Do you remember the way they looked at you? How they laughed at your jokes and smiled when you came in the room? Do you remember how Bethany idolized you, how Carver measured himself by what you had accomplished? You meant the world to them.

Maybe you didn’t get to have all the time you wanted. Maybe you didn’t get the life you wanted. It’s sad, but that was never promised to any of us. I… I didn’t get those things myself. My life can feel very empty indeed without the faces and voices that really captured my heart. But life is what it is, and we endure.

Please keep living and loving, Abigail. I know you’re hurt and scared and angry because of him- you must be!- but there is still a path for you to walk. Let me walk with you. I promise we can stop as often as you need, that we can sit down for a while, turn around to see what we’ve missed, and jog ahead to make up old ground. Whatever you need.

Maker’s breath, but you’re brave! I just can’t help but be moved by all you’ve endured. You’re so strong, and not because you win fights, but because of how richly you’ve been able to live- how fiercely connected to the world and its people you have been. All of this would hurt less if you had lived it half asleep, like so many do, but you charged head long into the fray and it’s been impossible to stop you since.

You are an amazing, strong, beautiful woman. Nothing can diminish you. Nothing. 

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Game Therapy: Dragon Age 2- Part 4


This image is a phenomenal cosplay by foxybcosplay, and you can see other images from this photo shoot and more of Brooke’s work on her deviant art page.

As anyone who has played the game can probably tell, this post is about Anders. Or, more specifically, how my Hawkes always seem to end up flirting with him during every playthrough, even though I have beaten the game and I know how it ends.

If you haven’t played Dragon Age 2, then beware, because this post contains spoilers for the entire game, from the early quests, right up through the final boss fight.

Leave now, if you’re going. No? Ok. Moving on.

I always fall for Anders. I fell for him on my first playthrough, and I just keep doing it. I have romanced Fenris as well, and I like him fine, but due to his amnesia and lyrium tattoos, it usually feels more like I’m hurting him than making his life better. I have not romanced Isabella or Merril because I’m not interested in a lesbian love story, personally. The point of including romance options in a game is to allow the player to experience a fantasy relationship, so I think it’s fine for players to stick to the character or characters who most appeal to them personally, provided that the character is an option for the player; I’m looking at you, Dorian! *sigh* Our love was never meant to be.

Sorry. Different game. Moving on.

Anders is great. I liked him since we met in Dragon Age: Origins- Awakening. (How does one punctuate that?!) He was snarky. He was a spirit healer. He had a cute little half ponytail and an earring. He accepted the kitten I gave for him. He named that cat Ser Pounce-a-lot. He moved his mouth when Ser Pounce-a-lot meowed. He was a spirit healer.

His healing magic and my insanely damaging magic worked together seamlessly. We may have been able to solo some of the battles if I could have forced him to stay hidden behind my plate-armored battlemage. (Maybe not, but man did Solona have some very crazy AoE spells that could all be stacked and centered on myself so that all of the enemies would aggro on me and run into the circle and die. Good times.) In any case, he never left my party because he was so valuable. I heard all of his banter, and I was a bit sad that my warden couldn’t flirt with him.

So he showed up in Dragon Age 2, and I was sold. Before buying the game. Anders is going to fall in love with my Hawke. Done. So we flirted. 

He’s funny and still cute. He’s sarcastic and when we first met, he was healing someone, even though it looked like the spell was taking a toll on him. A selfless, handsome man who wants to make this broken world a bit better, live freely, enjoy a good laugh, fall in love, have a pet cat, and shoot just a bit of lightning at fools… that’s not a bad package, to be honest. Anders is a great guy.

But he stupidly let himself be possessed by a demon… spirit… supernatural being somewhere on the continuum between embodying a vice and a virtue. And it’s Justice, from Awakening. Why, Anders? Why didn’t you just talk to Solona about this? We could probably have made him into a golem or something! Why?!

So, here in Dragon Age 2, Anders is… sometimes, he’s the funny, wonderful man I like, and when there is danger or he gets too emotional, he’s a glowing, superpowered angry abomination. It… makes our relationship difficult. But I believe him when he says that he didn’t know what would happen. And I always feel a bit better when I am able to talk him down from his rage, because his feelings for me are strong enough to break him free from the possession for a while. 

When we get towards the end, and he starts asking me for really sketchy things- weird chemicals for Tevinter magic and distracting the leader of the Chantry while he sneaks around the cathedral- I don’t like it, but I trust him. I want to trust him. If he’s telling me the truth and we can separate Anders and Justice so that I can live with this man without  his demon, then, I want to do that. I will do anything. So I did.

Imagine my horror when Anders blew up the cathedral with all of the people inside and showed … well, I was going to say “no remorse,” but he is remorseful. He just sits there, dejected, because it was the only way to change the system. He sits there and tells me that he’s sorry, that hates himself for this, that I can hate him, that he will let me kill him if that’s what I have to do.

I loved him! (Well, Hawke loved him.) I gave a key to my house’s basement so that he could hide from the people hunting him. I supported him when he was sad, angry, or frustrated. I came with him to investigate  possible crimes against mages. I took side quests to help more mages escape. I trusted him to do his business without me looking over his shoulder. I even listened to him and went along with the sketchy requests.

So, there I was, accessory to the largest terrorist attack I know of in the Dragon Age universe. I thought you loved me, Anders! I thought I was a bright light that made your dark life worthwhile! How could you do this to me?!

So, why do my Hawkes keep choosing him? 

It’s simple; I still like him. I still love bantering with him, hanging out with him, questing together. I still believe that mages should be allowed to have families, join the military, serve in hospitals, create art, work as craftsmen, farm the land, and live freely, as long as they do not threaten or endanger innocents. If they act like bandits, we kill them like bandits. If they live like peasants, we let them live in peace, and we protect them like we would protect anyone else.

So Anders is usually with me, since he is a healer, and I make pro-mage choices, so he naturally likes me. Add in his humorous wit and  pleasant company, and it’s just something that happens nearly every time. I just keep letting him tear my heart out, though I will say that for me (the player), it doesn’t hurt so much any more, since I know that it is coming, and I can prepare myself for it.

I still just wish that I could enter the fade and kill Justice/Vengeance, then Anders and I could live together. It could have been something wonderful.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age 2- Unpacking Part 3

It feels like a million things have happened since I wrote the last entry. The tidbits I pulled out of it just feel… Empty? I mean, yes- I think parents should protect their kids as much as possible, and yes- I did develop a nasty complex in real life where I had to be miserable in order to be alive. Both true. But hatred? Hatred comes from pain.

I guess that I just feel empathy for my Hawke because her mom wasn’t there for her as a kid and mine wasn’t there for me either. In my life, there are a zillion small strong tied to why my mom didn’t provide what I wanted, but with Abigail and Leandra? It seems so simple and small. She never protected me, so I had to protect both of us.

The pleasant, idealistic belief under all of this hurt is this:

It is possible to protect someone from the bad things in the world.

Spoilers: This is a lie. 

I couldn’t protect mom from her anxiety and she couldn’t protect me from my depression. Any parent can look at their child with a lifetime’s worth of love, but eventually, there will be someone who sees them as ugly, stupid, stuck up, weak, lazy, too emotional, too cold, boring, or worse. Someone will hurt them personally.

Beyond that, there are larger issues- social, societal, political, religious, sociological, biological, psychological, et al.- that will eventually hurt that child as well. Exponentially more if they happen to belong to one of the oppressed groups in the crosshairs of the powerful.

They will get hurt. Torn to shreds. They might hate the world some days, and they will likely be justified in that hatred. So, if you can’t protect them, what should you do?

I guess that maybe it’s enough to teach them how to handle the darkness without being destroyed by it (if possible). Or how to value themselves in spite of the darkness (if it attacks them directly). Or how to recognize the times when it absolutely sane to be hurt and angry because of injustice, and how they can channel that energy to change things (if possible). 

And maybe, you help them to find the bright spots in the world. How to love friends and family deeply and without distractions. How to focus on the people in front of them without phones or Facebook getting in the way. Maybe you teach them to find a tenuous balance between pain and joy.

Maybe that can be enough.

*sigh* I’m sorry, Leandra. Your life and death were both difficult. I just wish they had written more dialogue for us so that I could have felt loved as well. Rest well, virtual mother. I’ll see you again someday, and we will run away from Lothering together.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Part 3

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, from the prologue through the end of Act 2 and Dragon Age: Origins’ human noble opening.


When I played Dragon Age 2 for the first time, I was really saddened by my family’s fate. My father died before the game began. My sibling died in the beginning. My other sibling died in the Deep Roads because I brought the wrong party. My mother was decapitated by some sick necromancer so her head could be cobbled into his flesh golem/undead wife. I was alone.

With my backstory, both of my parents died by my hands: I killed my father’s empty husk after his soul was torn from his body and I killed my mother’s mind after her head and spirit were forged into an empty husk. I know that the cut scene for mother’s death shows her slowly fading in Hawke’s arms, but I was so horrified by the zombie bride when I first saw it that I knew my character would have killed that thing as quickly as possible.

I felt so, so alone.

I remember Aveline being very comforting at the time. I loved that she gave me permission to grieve for as long as I needed to and in whatever manner I needed to. She was so kind.

But this time…

On this playthrough, I have hated my mother. My lazy, selfish mother who won’t lift a finger to defend one of us. Who makes demands of me (“Leave your sister here, please! I can’t stand the thought of losing both of you!”) and then blames me for her inaction and inability (“If you had been here, they never would have taken Bethany away!”).

Bethany would have been safe with me, you know. I would have done what I could to keep her safe. But mother? No. Mother didn’t do anything to help protect Bethany. Or me. Or any of us.

You could argue that ‘she’s just an old lady, blah blah blah,’ but I don’t buy it. When my Warden was a Cousland, a member of a noble house, and our home was attacked, my mother and I met up in the hallway in full armor, with our weapons drawn. She took action to protect us all, and I was so proud to be part of that family. My sister-in-law came from the ‘helpless beauty’ school of femininity, so she died in the attack. 

Women are not inherently weak. It is a choice. But this woman, Hawke’s mother, she let others protect her as a noblewoman. And she let her husband protect her once they went on the run. And she let her children protect her in her old age.

I tried to protect my family. I sacrificed my childhood, my happiness, my needs, my friendships, my chance for love… Everything for my family. But it wasn’t enough. Never enough. And to top it all off, this willingly helpless woman kept blaming me for all of our hardships. 

No. Not this time. For some reason, this playthrough, I just won’t accept it any more. So as I fleshed out Abigail’s life, I knew that she didn’t spend much time at home. That she resented her mother’s plans to pick a spouse for her. That she just wanted to stop running for once, to have friends, to belong, and maybe to fall in love.

I mentioned above that Hawke sacrificed friendships and relationships for her family. I always believe that once we hit Act 2 of the game, Hawke has now lived in Kirkwall for longer than she’s lived anywhere else. Four years without running. So a part of that lifestyle, of moving at a moment’s notice to protect the family’s mages, is leaving all of your friends behind without being able to say goodbye. Which means not being able to fall in love, because you know that you’ll have to leave again, and you can’t expect anyone to join your family of well-armed vagrants.

At the end of the day, this family only works if Abigail, Bethany, & Carver are all willing to be miserable indefinitely. None of us really got to be children.

I guess that the main things I see here are these:

  1. New expectations for parents
  2. Belief that my suffering enables other people’s happiness

As always, I’ll talk about these in future posts. Thanks for reading. The image of Hawke’s mother is from the Dragon Age wiki.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Last Post on Part 2

This entry is based on a few earlier posts: here are the original concept & most directly linked entry.

Growing up early… Growing up early.

I tried to figure out why this one was included in Abigail’s list of traits. I mean, it resonated, but why?! What had happened to me that made me feel this way? Why couldn’t I point to an event that forced me to grow up?

It’s taken me a while, but I figured it out. Mom’s anxiety and break downs. The knowledge that she wasn’t strong enough to handle the world, and the childish belief that it was my job to protect her from it. That my narrow shoulders were strong enough to carry her. That my tiny hands could hold her pain.

She was wounded before I showed up, broken by the world before it laughed in her face and handed her a baby. I know that I didn’t break her, but I didn’t help either. The stress of parenting in the midst of a dark and panicked season of life, it was too much to add to her current burdens. It makes sense that she struggled.

I need to be clear: I am not responsible for anyone’s mental health but my own, and I never have been. I do not blame myself for her struggles. But I used to, before I knew better. I used to try so very hard to shield her from pain, just like she (arguably) should have been shielding me.

But life doesn’t wait until you’re ready. It comes when it wants.

Of course, I don’t actually know if I was planned or not. Maybe they thought they were ready. Maybe mom thought she was. Maybe neither realized how hard it would be for all of us.

So at a young age, I felt like I needed to be the one to guard my family, even though it was unfair to me. In addition, I felt alone in that task, even when there were others who could have contributed. 

That’s why Abigail was the only one watching, and the only one leading her family to safety, and the only one running back for her father, and the only one carrying the true burden of that day. 

It’s because I needed her to be burdened down, like me. Because I needed her to be unhappy and alone, like me. Because I needed to connect to someone in this way, even if it was just a character acting as my avatar.

It’s ok. Be kind to yourself. Go easy on yourself today, Flicker. Today, you won’t guard anyone. Today, you will be safe to rest. I release you.
Image is from the German Dragon Age wiki, and is of a young girl from Dragon Age Origins.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, More to Unpack from Part 2

I feel like I need to reiterate that in Game Therapy posts, I’m processing my reactions to content included in the game and the insights I can glean from the world I build around the game. It’s usually been easier for me to be honest about my struggles when I don’t even perceive them as mine, but as my avatar’s. I live vicariously through my protagonists, but I always need to insert some of myself back into them. It usually isn’t deliberate, and I think that I’m able to be more honest because it’s subconscious.

That’s what makes it valuable to examine my characters. That’s also what makes it difficult.

4. Responsibility Comes First and 5. Pushing Past Exhaustion:

I don’t want to write this. What can I say? Yes, I will push myself into an emotional meatgrinder if I think it will keep someone I love from feeling even a pinch? Yes. I have done that, still do that, will probably keep doing that. Why?

Because I don’t matter.

How can I still be stuck on this?! I have been wrestling this same monster forever! I thought I had made some progress along the way. Why do I still shudder inside when I even think about this issue?! WHY?!?  😩

😔 It’s just so depressing to feel like I’m not making any progress. I feel like that guy who was sentenced to push a boulder up a mountain for all eternity… Let me look up his name. Sisyphus. My Greek mythology is rusty these days; sorry. Broad strokes: Sisyphus pushes a boulder up the mountain, but it rolls right down the other side. He isn’t allowed to stop until the boulder rests atop the mountain, which is impossible, so Sisyphus travels to the Boulder and begins again. The same thing happens again and it will continue to happen for eternity. He will never ever succeed.

That’s how I feel. 

Like I will just keep sacrificing my happiness and wellbeing for the sake of others (4). Like I will just keep running myself ragged in an attempt to meet people’s expectations of me (5). Like I will never ever be comfortable enough with who I am to just stop. To rest and maybe even enjoy who I am.

I really want to make it one day. To balance the boulder at the top- maybe even to build it some sort of pedestal to hold it in place- and to be done fighting every day. Or even to just ignore the mandate all together and see if I can choose my own path without the universe unraveling.

One day.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Unpacking Part 2

It’s time for me to come back to my last post and examine the contents. This one is kind of complicated, because it includes both an experience and recounting that experience to someone. I will try to account for both layers.

  1. Desire for Intimacy: I use this story consistently, and I can’t really imagine a romantic relationship that doesn’t involve a deep knowledge of one another. Someone who wants me needs to take all of me, including any pain or baggage that I’m carrying.
  2. Selective Vulnerability: Hawke has never shared this story with everyone in her party. Some of her companions would end up fighting with her over her father’s ideals. Some wouldn’t care. She only shares this part of her past with those who really seem to know her.
  3. Growing up Fast: Hawke’s father really asked a lot from a child. She didn’t get to relax and enjoy her childhood. I imagine that she smiled enough to avoid attention and laughed for time to time, but she probably also brooded when no one was watching.
  4. Responsibility Comes First: Obviously, Hawke didn’t want to kill her father, but she did it, because she had sworn she would. She didn’t want to lie to her family either, but she did it. In a single day, Hawke sacrificed most of her life for the sake of her family’s safety and her sworn duty.
  5. Pushing Past Exhaustion: The escape required a lot from her physically, but it didn’t matter. Realistically, someone probably couldn’t do that much running in a few hours without training for it beforehand, and the emotional burden and adrenaline rushes would take a toll as well, but it never matters. Hawke always gets her family away, finds her father, and escapes his captors because she needs to.

I think that’s about all that I can see in this story, and I don’t want to start grasping at straws here. Happily, two of these traits are positive, which is better than last time, at least. 

The desire for intimacy has brought me some really good friendships and a marriage that continues to surpass my expectations. It turns out that the type of people who text you again after you break down crying over coffee and childhood trauma are also the kind of people who are also willing to show emotions and discuss hard things. It’s a real blessing.

Selective vulnerability is also good, and a healthy development for me. I lost A LOT of friends when I left college unexpectedly. Like, all of them. Even the ones who tried to keep up contact with me weren’t able to break through my pain to reach me, which isn’t their fault; however, I watched many relationships atrophy and change after my diagnosis became public, which was their fault. Treating someone differently all of a sudden is a choice, not an accident.

So after that, I became… bitter. That words is insufficient. I was angry, hurt, scared, unwilling to trust, and more. I was vitriolic. NO ONE WAS GOING TO HURT ME EVER AGAIN. I WOULD LEAVE THEM FIRST.

False vulnerability became a club, and I slammed people with it as soon as possible. ‘I know we just met, but *insert major pain that someone else has already abandoned me over*, so yeah- go ahead and leave now.’ And many people did. It was great. I could rejoice in my correct understanding of selfish, mean humans. I could be safe.

One day, someone stayed. I hit her with my pain, and she stayed. I tried to scare her off, but she wouldn’t leave. Together, I learned how to build deeper friendships, and later, I learned that I don’t need to wear my pain for all to see. I can feel it without needing to tell anyone. Being vulnerable is a choice.

So yeah. The first two behaviors are actually healthy, and I’m partially pleased by it. I just can’t be fully happy because I read the other three as I typed them, and I need to talk about those as well. Eventually. This is enough for now.