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. 

Game Therapy: Dragon Age 2- Unpacking Part 4


Here is another shot from foxybcosplay, and you can see other images from this photo shoot and more of Brooke’s work on her deviant art page.

I’ve been thinking about what I said before about Anders, and how I keep choosing to romance him even though I know that betrayal is coming. Why do I do that? What does it say about me? 

The strangest thing to me is that I just feel peace over it all, like there is nothing wrong with walking into pain over and over again. Like giving someone special the chance to hurt me so many times is fine. Maybe it is. After all, what does this really reveal about me?

I think that I’ve really grown as a person. I used to shut people out when they hurt me. Sometimes, that would even be the end of our relationship entirely. (Hurt me once and you will never touch me again.) It was very effective for protecting myself, to be sure. The problem is that no human can live forever without hurting someone, even if they love that person.

Instead, today, I am able to look at my husband and say “He is going to hurt me some day. Sometimes, it will be small and only scratch my pride. Sometimes, he will do or say things that reach into my core and crush a part of me. I know that. And I’m going to let him, because I know that I’m no better equipped to hold his heart than he is to hold mine. I will hurt him too. Sometimes, it will be minor and sometimes, it will feel life threatening. He knows that too, but he’s still giving me that chance.”

Love involves risks, being brave enough to let someone get close to you. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Hawke and Anders have a healthy relationship by default, but they spend 9 years of their lives together before everything gets to the explosion point. I’m not sure when Anders becomes consumed by anger and despair- I suppose it’s probably around or after year 6. By that point, it’s easy for me to understand why Hawke stays with him, but things do get messy after that. 

I like to think that those uncomfortable quests (the ones where he flat out lies to you) are signs of Hawke’s trust and desire to see Anders restored to his original state. The results of these quests says more about Anders/Vengeance than it does about Hawke. The only bad thing it says about her is that she sees what she wants to be true, rather than seeing things as they are. She needs to believe that Anders can be saved, that the demon can be removed, but she can live the rest of her life with him. Everyone around her can see that Anders is slipping further and further out out of reach, but she won’t listen to any of them.

I don’t think that I have this problem, honestly. As a pessimist/realist, I don’t often become trapped in unrealistic expectations for outcomes. I have more trouble believing that things are going to be earthshakingly fabulous than believing that they will be difficult. In addition, I’m not interested in changing my husband or my friends. I want to support them if they decide that they need to change part of themselves, but people are people, not projects.

So, whether I should or not, I feel pretty calm about my approach to love. That’s good enough for me.

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, 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, 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.

 

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.