Let’s talk about Dragon Age 2.
Let’s talk about the fan backlash against a game which bucked the trend and wasn’t afraid to let its player fail. Or how its character work is smart, lively and genuinely engaging, despite its mediocre gameplay and barely-serviceable aesthetics. Or how I can only think of one other game I’ve ever walked away from feeling so completely devastated.
Let’s talk about how it saved me.
Like the rest of the series, the game lets you pursue a romance with one of four other characters with some variations in dialogue depending on whether you’re on friendly or hostile terms. The character I ultimately chose to romance, the rebel mage Anders, grows increasingly manipulative and unstable in the second half of the story, and my character’s trust in him suffered accordingly. By the time the credits rolled there was no doubt in my mind that I had just been part of a relationship which could be termed emotionally abusive. You can feel their bond eroding as the story races towards endgame and by the end my protagonist couldn’t take any more. I broke up with him and walked away and going through it destroyed me.
This may not sound like such a big deal but I’d had an abusive boyfriend myself not so long before I first played the game. And seeing a version of my own marginalised experience portrayed so genuinely in such a big-budget production was the final push I needed to shed the last of the hurt.
To be honest, the details of the relationship are starting to blur together in my mind. Most days I can forget it happened, forget he existed, and I think that’s the best possible outcome. It’s so much easier to live for myself that way.
Things I can still say for sure about my ex-boyfriend: he was a month or so older than me, he lived in California but moved a state over for college, and I used to be in love with him. We met on a forum when I was 16, got together around the time I turned 17, and broke up when I was a few months short of 19. The first year of our relationship was fine but soon after I had moved from Sydney to Melbourne for university, leaving behind my family and friends, and that's when everything changed. Cut off from everyone I knew and feeling out of sorts at the college where I was living my world gradually narrowed down to just him. He suddenly began to snap at me and tell me the most terrible things, revealing an awful new dimension to himself that I could never have fathomed. I still remember how he called me stupid for misreading one of his suggestions. Or how he would call me a bitch for staying out later than I thought I would when I was with friends. Most vividly I recall spending my 18 birthday friendless and alone in a strange city, with nobody to talk to after we had a particularly awful fight.
i became afraid of him. unsurprisingly, my behaviour changed drastically in an attempt to curtail this.
I spent less and less time away from my computer in order to keep his rage under control, terrified of starting any kind of confrontation, and it made me completely miserable. I offered to cut one of my closest friends out of my life in the misguided hope that it would smooth things over-- my ex had always hated him, likely because of the contrast between an easy friendship and a relationship deeply scarred by conflict. During the last eight months of dating him we broke up ten times, but it only ever lasted for a day or two. Soon after we’d call it quits he’d threaten suicide or tell me he was finally going to leave the forums and the only social circle he had. (In hindsight, it was chillingly clear to me why he said I was the first real friend he’d made in years.) And so I’d go crawling back. Sick to my stomach but determined to keep him alive. His existence or my happiness? It wasn’t even a choice.
So what does this have to do with Dragon Age 2? Rather than being a sprawling epic-fantasy beast like its predecessor, it's a deeply personal story about people and the bonds between them. It revolves around Hawke, a refugee fleeing a war with their family, and their rise to prominence as the Champion of the city-state of Kirkwall. Over time, they come to be at the centre of a ragtag bunch of companions: city guard Aveline, enterprising dwarf Varric, former slave Fenris, naive elf Merrill, pirate queen Isabela and, most importantly, dissident mage Anders.
In the world of Dragon Age those with supernatural abilities are taken away to the Circle of Magi to be trained in safety in accordance with the religious laws of the Chantry. Mages who break with this and live freely are known as apostates; outside the watchful eyes of those at the Circle, they’re considered to be ripe for demonic possession and are widely mistrusted. Anders is one such apostate who spent much of his early life planning to make a getaway from the Circle. After escaping he met a spirit of Justice and wound up offering to let it cohabit his body. However, Anders’s anger about the treatment of mages caused Justice to warp into Vengeance, a far less benevolent entity determined to strike back.
Fast-forward to Kirkwall, where Anders is hiding out in the slums and working as a healer and reluctantly becomes persuaded to join Hawke. Over the course of the story Vengeance radicalises Anders and he grows increasingly militant in his views and actions. During the second act he becomes involved with a group of renegade mages who help people escape the Circle and it marks a major turning point. He’s always been an ideologue, but from thereon out, he becomes evasive and untrustworthy, twisting Hawke’s arm until they cooperate with him. The story ends with him blowing up the Chantry with a bomb you unknowingly helped prepare. Hawke and company feel suitably betrayed but he reacts differently to this depending on if you’re his friend or rival. If you’re on bad terms with Anders and have been challenging his convictions, it becomes apparent that Vengeance is possessing him and he is no longer fully in control of himself. If, however, you’re his friend (as I was) he and the spirit have essentially merged personalities and he feels no remorse for his actions. You’re then presented with one of three options: kill him, turn him loose, or have him stay with the party. Regardless of your choice, he’s no longer the wisecracking healer you met so long ago, but an absolute mess of a man who deserves as much mistrust as pity.
My opinions are not especially popular ones. Anders has a lot of fans, many of whom tend to be exceptionally forgiving of his flaws. Many people also read him as neuroatypical, and his writer has gone on record saying she intended him to be bipolar. My reading is as valid as anyone else’s, built upon the same canon, and the fact that I think Anders is seriously messed up in no way undermines the fact that he’s an interesting and (dare I say it) likeable character.
Dragon Age 2 does a lot of unconventional things with its narrative: it takes place over the better part of a decade, jumping years at a time, and consequently has a very episodic feel. Most importantly, it’s a story which knows it’s a story, and the narrative is framed through the perspective of the dwarf Varric as he’s grilled about its events. He’s an unreliable narrator, and the game openly plays around with this right from the start. For example, the story begins with Hawke’s flight from the town of Lothering, during the Blight which formed the backdrop to the first game, as Hawke and their sibling heroically fight through a horde of darkspawn only to be saved by a dragon. However, he’s quickly stopped by Cassandra, the woman tasked with his interrogation. She calls bullshit: there’s no way that actually could have happened.
“I’m not interested in stories,” Cassandra declares. “I came to hear the truth.”
Varric’s voice is teasing as he answers. “What makes you think I know the truth?” He’s messing with her, of course, but there’s a valid point here too. Who’s to say that Varric even knows the worst details of Hawke’s relationship with Anders, when all kinds of things could have gotten lost in the margins? Your party in Dragon Age 2 comes to feel like a group of friends despite their differences, and there’s no way Hawke could ever have jeopardised that equilibrium by opening up about one of their number. It doesn’t help that Anders seldom interacts with anyone outside of the party or the mage underground, so allegations of emotional abuse could plausibly result in him losing his whole social circle. That's not exactly something you can do in good conscience.
it’s impossibly hard to tell mutual friends about an abusive partner, and I only managed to do so myself after I’d stopped talking to my ex and no longer worried about damaging his reputation. I had to be careful who I mentioned it to, confiding in old school friends I only occasionally remembered to contact. I spent months lying to someone I’d been close friends with for a decade about my relationship status; I’d told him we’d broken up only to get sucked back in shortly afterwards, and was too ashamed to admit it. And it really is hard to get out of a relationship like that, particularly when you have next to no support network.
Leaving him taught me the toughest lessons I've ever had to learn: sometimes you really do have to force yourself to let go. sometimes love is not enough.
I have never made a more difficult choice in any game than when I had to decide whether or not to break up with Anders in the wake of his betrayal. It took me ten or fifteen minutes of staring blankly at my screen, as well as multiple reloads, for me to go through with it. And when I managed to, Anders didn’t even seem particularly sad to see Hawke go; to him, it had always been a foregone conclusion.
The day after our breakup, my ex-boyfriend pressured me into a Skype call and promptly spent the next half hour begging me to take him back. All I could do was sit there and sob, repeating “no, no, no” and hoping to god he’d get the message. By some miracle, he did. But I got lucky: I decided to end it because I fell out of love with him, not because I thought I could get away from his shit. I still shudder to think what would’ve happened otherwise, because I’m not sure how much longer I could’ve kept losing myself.
The story ended, and we went our separate ways.
When preparing to export my save data to Dragon Age Inquisition, however, the simplicity of the settings meant that I wound up inputting a completed Anders romance. And this was the point that cemented my view of the relationship as an abusive one, because the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that my Hawke wouldn’t be able to walk away. People you can’t trust to leave alone: boys who threaten suicide, men who think their lives are less important than their causes. And yet, despite all that, Anders remains one of my favourite characters in any game. There’s a strong binary in the way most media deals with abuse: it either romanticises the behaviour, as in many romance novels, or it demonises the abuser by making them completely repulsive and inhuman. Anders, though, is allowed to exist in all his complexity, even if his more manipulative aspects remain comparatively implicit. I like him because he’s a decent person plagued by genuine issues, and the fact that he usually means well doesn’t negate the fact that he’s in a seriously unhealthy place. Regardless of the fact that Anders and Justice started off as two discrete entities, they’ve bled together over time, and can no longer be separated by any method short of death. The man and the monster are the same.
I played Dragon Age 2 a little over a year after I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, and around nine months after I stopped speaking to him for good. I’d been in and out of another relationship since, which ended amicably, and my life was better than it had ever been. What I hadn’t realised was that although I thought I’d managed to move past the worst of my abusive relationship, I was completely guilty of pathologizing it. It was still a source of shame for me, doubly so because I’d been living in fear of a teenage boy on the other side of the planet, and I kept rationalizing it away. It happened to me because I was 18, because I was inexperienced, because I was socially vulnerable. I had been weak, and I’d since grown enough strength and self-respect to protect myself in future. That wasn’t true at all, of course. To say that emotional abuse happened to me because I was romantically inexperienced is like saying that rape happens because women walk alone at night. And this was why seeing an abusive relationship in DA2 was so groundbreaking for me: because here was Hawke, powerful and respected and competent, and none of that could save him from caring too much. In particular, my version of him was everything I was not- older, well-connected, male- and those factors did nothing at all to mitigate it.
And I thought to myself: well, if it happened to Hawke, maybe it's okay that it happened to me. Maybe I don't have to spend any more time and effort compensating for it. Maybe I can stop feeling like a victim and start feeling like a survivor.
Maybe I don't have to be ashamed any more.