Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Part 2

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, Hawke’s family, the Legacy DLC, and some party banter with Fenris and Anders from throughout the game.

Terms in italics are defined and described in a separate post, just in case any of my readers are unfamiliar with this franchise.

I started this series a little while ago, and I guess I’m ready to continue. I guess. Nothing else has come up regarding the insights from part 1, so I think I’m probably ready to continue on through Abigail Hawke’s story to her father’s death. It’s still her backstory, oddly enough; the game content hasn’t even started yet. Oh well.

At the beginning of Dragon Age 2, we know two things about Hawke’s father: he was a mage/an apostate and he’s dead. A bit later on, some party members comment on your skills (if you are a mage) or on your sister Bethany’s skills (if you aren’t).

Fenris comments that you/Bethany are capable of resisting temptation and worthy of respect, although he still dislikes both Anders and Merrill.

Anders comments that you/Bethany are very well trained, especially for someone who has been an apostate for their entire life. He compares the training Hawke’s father provided to his mage child(ren) with that provided by the Circle.

In order for children who have grown up outside of Chantry control to possess a strong aversion to dealing with demons (and gaining blood magic), it is very likely that they were taught this by their father. In the Legacy DLC, Hawke and/or their surviving sibling express disbelief regarding their father’s use of blood magic and his stance against it. So I believe that Hawke’s father would not want to live as a blood mage.

Meanwhile, many mages throughout the game series express the belief that “death is better than tranquility.” It’s a pretty common viewpoint, and it carries through all three of the games thus far. The basic argument is that having your emotions, personality, dreams, hopes, relationships, personality, etc. torn from your body and living as an empty (but efficient and safe) husk isn’t really living. So I don’t think that Hawke’s father would want to be tranquil either.

Which leads me to the backstory issue: fulfilling the promise to watch over him and Bethany.

No matter which class my Hawke is, she always has this burden on her shoulders; to kill members of her family if they start making deals with demons, become possessed, or are made tranquil. Even the mages swear to do this. It’s just how I feel that responsible magic use should be governed. As I mentioned above, Hawke’s father died before the game began, and Hawke was surprised by evidence of his blood magic during Legacy, so I know that she didn’t know he had already broken the rules. Instead, we have this:

It’s always a story that I tell to a party member. Who it is depends on several things (which side I’m taking in the mage/templar war, who I’m romancing, etc.), but it’s always one of the charged characters- someone who really, really cares what Hawke does in this war. So, usually Fenris or Anders, I guess. Honestly, it’s usually Fenris regardless of romance status, because I just feel like he needs to know where I stand on controlling magic.

So, outside of gameplay, but at some point during the 10 year time span of Dragon Age 2, my Hawke finds a time to talk to this person. Somewhere private, like their house or mine, or maybe outside the city somewhere. And we talk. About my family members who are still alive, and about those who haven’t made it this far.

Sometimes, I lead with Bethany/Carver’s sacrifice- talk about how they threw themselves at an ogre so that we could escape, but got killed in the fight. How we had to fight the beast anyway, and how by the time the battle had ended, it was too late. About how mother blamed me (Hawke) for their death like I had just pushed them onto train tracks or something, and how I had to just silently take that blame and anger because she’s my mother and I’m not allowed to hate her. And how she still blames me. STILL! And how I want to have my own turn to mourn the death of my sibling, but just feel like I can’t as long as she’s going to keep lashing out at me, because I always need to keep my guard up.

And how she blames me for whatever happens to the other sibling four years after we arrived in the city. (They either: die from a plague, join an elusive order and are pretty much never seen again, or are integrated into either the Circle or the templars.) If they died or joined the hidden order, it’s because I respected their wishes for their life. If they left home and got caught up in the mage/templar war, it’s because I respected mother’s wishes for their life.

I often start with these parts because in some ways, it’s a part of my story that my friend already knows. It’s a bit safer to discuss… it lets me test the waters. If all goes well, then I take a deep breath and move on.

I tell them about my father: how he lived, what he stood for, and the promise I made to him. I talk a bit about running from village to village, losing everything to keep our mages free. About leaving friends, homes, possessions, then about not making friends at all because I knew I’d be leaving or about wishing I was free to fall in love, but knowing that I could never ask someone to join our crazy lifestyle. About how I’ve never lived anywhere for more than 3 years until we came to this city, to Kirkwall. About always being chased by the templars for the crime of wanting to live as a family.

I tell them how one time, we stayed in a village for too long and the mage hunters caught us. How my father told me to take the family and run, how we locked eyes, and how I knew that he might not be coming back. How I forced my siblings and my mother to run, how we found a safe place to hide, I put Carver on guard duty, and returned for father alone.

How I tracked his pursuers from our trashed home and eventually found their camp. How I saw my father sitting among them, unbound and at peace, which he never would have done. How my heart sank as I realized that he had been made tranquil, that my father’s spirit had been killed while his body lived on.

How I took a deep breath, steeled myself, tightened my stomach, and struck him down swiftly (with poison or a very focused spell) so that he die before he could tell the templars about the rest of us. Maybe he already had. I couldn’t know. But he would have, because he had no emotional ties to us any longer, and the logical course of action would be to assist the templars in catching the rest of us.

My shoulders usually shake a bit as I tell this part- muscles tight, body poised to run, physically remembering my desperate sprint away from their camp. The third one that day- first from our home, then back to town, then out into the wilderness again in a long winding path that would keep them from being on our heels for our whole journey too a new home.

As they listen in stunned silence, I finish up with how I was exhausted and emotionally devastated by what I had done as I rejoined my family. I describe the pain in their eyes when they see that I’m alone and how steady my voice was when I told them that the templars killed father. (And it’s true, of course, because they destroyed the man that he was, but it’s also a lie, because I stole father’s final breath.)

And then, it fades into pain and silence. Maybe mother blamed me for father’s death, and maybe she didn’t. Maybe Bethany cried. Sometimes, Carver understood. Usually though, I’m just… alone. Liar. Murderer. Breaking my family into pieces through ultimate betrayal.

I run out of words. I stare at the floor. at my hands. I remember that I’m sitting in a room, that I’ve been speaking to someone else. And he says something, but I don’t hear the words. There aren’t words big enough to contain “I’m so sorry that you had to kill your father with your own hands because he made you swear to do so as a teenager and failure to do so would have broken your vow to him and endangered your family and I can’t believe that you’re still going on after all of this and that you manage to smile sometimes or joke about anything at all.”

It’s too big for words.

But I hear the sentiment. The “it’s ok” and “I know your secret crime and I still care about you” feelings. So I rest in that acceptance, and I let the world drift away.

I’ll start again tomorrow.

 

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Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Still Unpacking Part 1

This post is a follow up to an earlier post, and won’t make much sense in isolation.

Another one of the issues that surfaced through Abigail is my disappointment at unfulfilled dreams. I feel like many promises were made to me as a child. Big, wild promises like “You can be anything you want when you grow up,” which sounds nice, but doesn’t account for sociology, illness, expenses, the economy, or cultural shift. As a child, I made the foolish mistake of trusting adults, so I believed these lies wholeheartedly, and now? Now, I’ve poured time, money, and energy into studying that didn’t provide me with anything. 

College is a waste of time, because you need experience to be hired, but you can’t get experience without being hired. So then it’s just broken promises and massive debts that are hard to pay back. Oh right, and a struggle to get jobs that you’re now overqualified for, so that your degree has made you completely unhireable.

Beyond that, it was supposed to come naturally to me (top of the class, honors student, etc.), but no one mentioned the health issues that would come out of nowhere or the medication that would fog my mind enough to steal several years worth of memories from me. No one told me that it was about memorization, not learning, or that at the end, I would only barely remember anything that we covered (though they may be partly due to my learning style being different and partly due to the aforementioned meds).

So now, I am nothing. I produce nothing. I do nothing. And I have to report to every single stranger making small talk that no, I don’t “work outside the home,” even though that almost certainly triggers assumptions that I “work inside the home.” 😑 But I never agreed to being a domestic slave, so no, I’m not working without pay or sleep to provide every need for everyone. I’m being an adult who chips in with some of the shared work and who needs this chance to catch her breath and sort through all the baggage, scars, and destructive habits that she has acquired.

Thank you so much 1950s for trying desperately to undo and forget the progress that women made in the 1940s while men were away. Thank you for brainwashing a few generations into thinking that there’s only one way to run a household and that only women need to grow up (but men can remain incapable of performing basic survival tasks for their whole lives). 

/End rant.

That was a tangent anyway. The point was that if I could say “Thanks to my college degree/graduate work, I am a successful something,” then I wouldn’t feel like I had been lied to about the benefits of education. Or my potential. Or my worth as a human being. But no- the “performance = value” bubble has burst and I don’t know how to evaluate myself without a grade card. Or how I should have evaluated myself when my grades were awful and my medicine was at dangerously high levels.

So… I guess I feel like I have already failed at life, and it’s too late to change it. All I can do is watch fresh high school graduates pour into the same trap and hope (but not believe) that they have a chance to make it through without suffering the same sort of fate.

Until I find a different framework, a better framework, I won’t be able to get past this. I know that alternative views exist- there are optimists out there telling the world that it’s never too late or that if you just follow your passions everything will be fine. I just don’t… I don’t believe them yet. But part of me wants to. 

Maybe that’s enough for today.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Unpacking Part 1

I keep trying to do something else with my day, but obnoxiously, I can’t move on from this entry. So I am back. I guess I’ll schedule this for a few days from now, just in case I change my mind about part of this later.

In case it isn’t clear, this is based upon an earlier post. It will make more sense if you read that post too.

The 1st issue that really bothers me is the sacrificial mindset. I know that I do this- that I am just used to ignoring my wants and needs for the sake of others. Sometimes, I have people explicitly telling me to do this. Currently, I think that I’ve tipped the scale too far towards supporting others at the expense of myself. It’s complicated though, because if the scale tips too far the other way, I will become selfish and entitled.

So as an example, I have a few relatives who aren’t invested in my life, who buy me things that they would like, who only invite me to do things that they would like, and who make assumptions about what I will do, like, and want. I am told that I need to allow this, to make concessions, to be gracious and understanding, and to do my part in the relationship. The problem is that I can’t figure out what their part of the relationship is, and it’s hard to connect to someone who doesn’t think I’m valuable enough to get to know. We don’t participate in a mix of their things and my things, we don’t talk about their interests and mine, we just do what they want. And it hurts me, but I keep getting told that I need to go along with it and stop being hurt, because I’m just selfish.

As another example, my husband is a very gentle man who wants to have a balanced, healthy relationship. Sometimes, I hurt both of us because I’m so accustomed to ignoring myself in favor of others that I will do it even when he actually wants my opinion. And then he finds out that I hate what we’re doing. And then he feels sad because he never wants to put me in situations that I hate. And finally, as I watch my love cry for me, I realize how horrid I’m being to myself, and I cry too. At least with him, I am trying  to monitor how I feel and to communicate it, and I am improving.

It turns out that if you spend decades pushing your emotions down, it’s really, really hard to connect to those emotions later, when you actually want them again.

I just want balanced relationships, where I don’t feel like I’m being smothered by people’s expectations or plans for me, but I honestly don’t know if I’m capable of it. With my husband? Yes, because he is willing to know me and be known. With the relatives I mentioned? Unlikely, because I don’t really see them as people. 

That sounds awful.

Let me explain. So, when I make a friend, it is always someone who will share their pain with me, because I need friends who will let me share my pain with them. We have supportive, coffeehouse friendship or no friendship at all. (Coffee isn’t necessary, but it seems to go well with pouring out one’s soul.) So these people are comprised of several parts: goals, fears, joy, old wounds, hobbies, likes, dislikes, etc. They are fully formed people.

Relatives are… Or my relatives are, well, people at a distance. They don’t have fears, old wounds, or other vulnerable parts. I don’t hear them talk about their dreams, or watch them do their hobbies. I only see them for holidays, so we never get past small talk. They are like… photos of people? I know that they are fully formed, but because they don’t show me much past their likes and dislikes, I don’t know who they are.

So you know that Captain Crunch was my favorite cereal at age 12, and I know that you like chocolate pudding… What do we do now?! There’s just not enough substance to be filling. So I don’t want any at all.

But how much is my fault? How honest am I being with them? 

Well, I’m not being very open with them, but I don’t know how to ascribe blame. Most of these people are older than me, which puts them in positions of power in our relationship. Powerful people set the tone of a relationship, so might it not be my fault that they didn’t initiate a deep relationship with me? Or should I have done so? But when? At what age am I responsible for changing an established relationship? And why should I take that risk when there have been many years of shallowness already?

I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem like it’s the child’s responsibility to determine what type of relationship she will have with her aunt, uncle, grandmother, grandfather, etc. Once she grows up, she isn’t obligated to determine that relationship either, and in some families, she probably couldn’t even if she wanted to. How do you say “Stop being such a shallow jerk to me if you actually want me to care about you!” to someone?! You don’t. Well, maybe you do, I wouldn’t know, but I don’t. 😏

I just keep doing what I’m told, even though I’m an adult, because I’d rather humiliate myself than pick a fight. I guess. For now.

Background Info for Dragon Age Posts

As I work on my Game Therapy posts, I come across concepts that fans of the franchise will understand and others won’t. These ideas are foundational to the world I’m describing and the tensions my characters face, so I’m compiling a list here for reference.

Added on 5/31/16

  • Magic is widely feared, and mages are locked in giant libraries/apartment buildings to learn control of their powers. They can never leave, so they lose their families, their homes, and their freedom on the same day. They don’t marry; they don’t form close relationships; they just try to survive and avoid the attention of the guards. Some guards are fair and some are brutal.
  • Magic users are called “mages.” Their library-prisons are called “Circles,” named after their order “The Circle of Magi.” Guards who serve in these prisons are called “templars.”
  • Mages who do not live in the circle/who have not been captured by the templars are called “apostates.” They are often feared, because people think they are “maleficarum,” or “blood mages.” This type of magic uses blood as a power source, and it can be the mage’s blood or someone else’s.
  • Learning blood magic requires a mage to make a deal with a demon. Demons are corrupted spirits that embody a strong emotion (like rage, desire, or fear). They are willing to give various gifts to mortals, but they always take something in exchange, and they are not bound to uphold their end of the deal.
  • People who are possessed by demons are called abominations, and their bodies usually warp into hideous forms. Abominations will kill people at random until they are destroyed.
  • People discover their magic around the age of 12, but a few people are later or earlier than others. When I say “advent age,” I am referring to this time period.
  • The rite of tranquility removes a mage’s connection to the fade, removing their emotions, ability to dream, and personalities. It also prevents them from being possessed or using magic. Someone who has undergone this rite becomes “tranquil.”
  • The fade is the dream world/spirit world where demons and spirits live. It is the source of all magic. Humans and elves visit the fade when they dream, but only their minds visit this world, and most people can’t process what they are seeing.
  • Rogues are stealthy, fast fighters who use a pair of daggers or a bow. Warriors are strong fighters who use a weapon and shield, a two-handed weapon, a crossbow, and possibly more. Mages use a staff to focus their spells.

Added on 6/14/16

  • “Party member” is an RPG term that basically means “character who comes with you and fights at your side.” In this game, they are AI-controlled, but can be micromanaged if desired. They also have distinctive clothes, home bases, lots of scripted dialogue, and opinions on your actions.
  • Fenris is a party member, a warrior, an elf, and a former slave. His former master was a mage and a member of government in a country ruled by mages (but not the one that the game takes place in). His unresolved trauma has created a deep hatred of magic and those who possess it.
  • Anders is a party member, an apostate, an abomination, a human, and a healer. As I said above, abominations usually are warped monsters, but Anders is… different. He looks human, and his personality still shines through. As the game progresses, his possession intensifies, giving him blackouts, periods of murderous rage, and generally scary  outbursts. All the while, the human part of Anders mourns his lost control and gradually resigns himself to his fate.
  • Merrill is a party member, an apostate, a Dalish elf, and a blood mage. She is meek and socially awkward, apologizing her way through early interactions with Hawke. In Abigail’s world, a member of Merrill’s clan recently saved the world from a large scale invasion/plague (in Dragon Age: Origins) and died in the process. Merrill is focused on recovering her clan’s past, regardless of the cost, and this desire has led her to blood magic.
  • Dalish elves live in tribes throughout the countryside, trying to maintain the culture and lifestyles of their ancestors. They are nomadic and they worship a pantheon, rather than adhering to the monotheistic culture of (most?) humans/city dwellers.
  • The Chantry is… difficult to summarize. It’s a human-run church, following a monotheistic religion, with a holy text comprised of the songs composed by Andraste, its founder/holy woman/bride of the Maker. It runs the templars and the circles, and it has a history of occasionally using warfare to carry out its goals.
  • The Maker is the Chantry’s god. He created spirits/demons first, then humans/elves/qunari/dwarves/anything else out there. After that point, he went silent for a while until he reached out to Andraste, and then he went silent again. Some people are fine with this, some struggle with their faiths, and others flat out reject this.

Game Therapy: Dragon Age II, Part 1

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.”

“Why?!”

He turned towards the sunset. “Look at the sun, Hawke.”

“But-”

“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?

  1. 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.
  2. Isolation– I am the only one carrying these burdens; they are not jointly carried by a friend or family member.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.