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.

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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, 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.