Freedom, Culpability and Failure in Dragon Age II, or: My Boyfriend The Terrorist

“Freedom was no boon.” – Varania, Dragon Age II

“I cannot imagine how we forgive ourselves for all the things we didn’t say until it was too late. But how else do you tell if something is hot but to touch it?” – Doc Luben, “14 Lines From Love Letters Or Suicide Notes

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Perhaps this is an overly dramatic way to introduce a blog post about a video game, but Dragon Age II is the kind of ambitious beast that deserves it. It’s dark and experimental and messy and very very flawed, but it just got to me in a way that I don’t think I’ve actually experienced in the medium before. As this excellent piece by Alex at While Not Finished argues, the whole game is marked by a feeling of powerlessness almost unheard of in a format which usually tries to give the player as much control as possible. Most of the major plot beats are immutable: your sibling always leaves the party after the first act, the qunari always stage an uprising, the mages and templars always wind up in a climactic battle for the city, and all you can do is try to avert the worst-case scenario. And in such a bleak setting, there’s only one way to wind up a victor:

[Another blogger] suggests that the real win condition of DA2 is to get through it without having any of your companions turn on you (which, if you have Sebastian, is impossible unless you side with the Templars), and she’s right. […] So most of the choices in DA2 are more subtle than an either-or decision at the end of a long dungeon. The most important choices in DA2 are about what Hawke does have control over: how she relates to and how she treats her companions. Does she make an effort to forge a relationship with these people? Does she earn their respect? Does she support their goals or does she thwart them? Does she help them with their problems or merely meddle in their affairs? Friend or rival? Building a relationship with these people is the most important thing […] If you want what passes for a good ending in DA2, to “win”, you need to get to know the characters. DA2 is a character drama: it is nothing without them.

By and large, I do agree with the argument that the game is about Hawke’s lack of power over the world at large, and it nails what I liked about Dragon Age II. But I differ on two key aspects, and they’re both crucial ones. One, although I do agree with the idea that it’s about making the best of the little you get, I don’t think you can “win” the game as such (and, as the credits rolled, I certainly didn’t feel like I was walking away a victor). Instead I’d argue that it doesn’t even really have a win condition, because it’s not supposed to be a game that you win or lose in the classic sense as much as it is a story you can impact. And two, the role of agency is far more complex and problematic than presented here. The game’s central theme is that of freedom and security, which permeates its whole tone; where it really shines is how this comes across (and is problematised) in your relationships with your companions, and the way you can skew them towards friendship or rivalry. It’s a brutal take on the typical affection system: agreeing with a character in order to try and win them over is synonymous with granting them agency over safety, and that’s not always the best or most satisfying way to go. The freedom given to the player is at least as problematic as the freedom given to any of Hawke’s companions, and it certainly isn’t an easy thing to bear. This game is not a power fantasy, which is why it sits somewhat oddly against the genre as a whole, but that defiance of convention is exactly why it’s so good.

Here’s the long and the short of it: Dragon Age II presented me with the greatest sense of personal failure I have ever experienced in a video game, and the real tragedy was that it was completely and utterly the cumulative product of my conscious decisions.

(Colossal spoilers for the whole game under the cut, of course.)

Dragon Age II’s main axis of communication is a sliding scale, with friendship at one side and rivalry at the other; each playable character around Hawke (your protagonist) gains friendship or rivalry points based on your decisions both in the main story and in their personal quests. It’s not a classic like/dislike scale, but a more complicated mechanic which pits what a character wants against what they actually need. Pick options which your party agrees with and you gain their friendship; do things that clash with their ideology and you gain points in rivalry.

The most plot-significant of your companions is Anders, a renegade mage who’s incredibly militant about his chosen cause of freeing all mages. The complicating factor is that he’s also under the influence of a supposedly benevolent spirit called Justice, who he offered to host; however, his repressed anger about his treatment transformed Justice into the more belligerent Vengeance. I was playing an apostate mage myself, one who agreed with Anders’s sentiments if not the extent to which he took them, so it seemed natural to try and befriend him. He’s a character who is fundamentally alone as much because of his condition as his disposition, so it made sense for my Hawke to reach out and try and support him.

As the game progresses, he becomes increasingly erratic and extreme in his beliefs: meeting with the mage underground, being increasingly evasive in conversation, and believing that there is no peaceful solution. Talking to him always left me with a sense of creeping unease, even as my Hawke began a romance with him: I wanted to trust him, but he wasn’t making that easy. So I continued to be nice and supportive, even as there became less and less there to hold on to.

His personal quest in the third and final act of the game involves retrieving ingredients for a potion, which he claims will do the impossible and help split him from Justice/Vengeance. Once you return, though, he admits that these ingredients – drakestone from the mines, and sela petrae, a powder made from crystallised urine and manure from the sewers – weren’t for a potion at all, but intended to serve a very different purpose. The only thing is, he refuses to tell you what he’s actually doing instead. All the information he gives you is that he needs your help once more, this time to distract the Revered Mother of the Chantry while he skulks around doing important things. It’s an incredibly odd and suspicious request, and one that he point-blank refuses to elaborate on. Even if you press him, he simply dodges the question and turns pressure back onto you:

This was the exact moment when the game first made me feel really, truly powerless, and somehow it was so much worse than any of the moments when I’d been left at the mercy of the plot. In a world where Hawke is otherwise swept along by forces larger than himself, I felt like I could at least exercise choice in my interactions with my companions – except here Anders was, completely and utterly twisting my arm while using our relationship as leverage. By equating himself completely with his cause, he transforms this into an all-or-nothing situation. (This also isn’t the last time he does this, but more on that later.)

This left a bad taste in my mouth, unsurprisingly, so I reloaded my save and tried calling him on it and turning down the quest. Which led to this moment:

Wait, what? Undisguised manipulation coming from another PC? This whole conversation is easily one of the most stone-cold insane things that’s ever happened to me in a video game, period. When, if ever, is a player character placed in a scenario when they don’t hold most or all of the cards in a relationship? It’s a daring move, and one that I think was intended to make the player uncomfortable – yet another occurrence of Dragon Age II deliberately being provocative.

I ended up going through his quest, of course, in the hope that he would provide some kind of explanation at the end of it. But no; all I got by way of pay-off was a thank-you for trusting him. In fact, it takes until endgame for any sort of follow-up to happen. It turns out that all of Anders’s preparations were just a prelude to him blowing up the Chantry, stronghold of religion and the main oppressor of mages, starting an all-out war. And this is where things start to get interesting.

Yes, Anders blows up the Chantry regardless of your relationship with him, with friendship or rivalry only changing the degree of control he has over his actions. But by trying to support a character who was deeply troubled and deeply unhappy and deeply alone, all I wound up doing was enabling his unhealthier delusions. Which is why, when the Chantry explodes at the end of the game, I felt like it was my fault. I wasn’t the cause of Anders’s problems and I certainly wasn’t responsible for the tense situation between the mages and templars, but I damn well destroyed both Anders and the Chantry anyway. I failed the character I was most trying to protect, and it was a deeply abject defeat.

The final choice you’re presented with – whether to kill or spare Anders in reaction to this – is supposed to be a difficult one. But for me, the real kicker came slightly later: my Hawke wasn’t bloodthirsty enough to kill him, and despite the betrayal, would have wanted to fight beside him one more time.

Your last chance to speak with your companions is immediately before the final assault. In Anders’s conversation he apologises for not trusting you with his plan (although not for his actions), and says he’s resigned to having to live the rest of his life on the run – and then he tells you that staying with him requires completely committing to his fight. He remains an extremist to whom love will always run a distant second; the best he can promise you is a life as fugitives together because of the choices you helped him make.

My Hawke couldn’t do this any more. couldn’t do this any more. So I clenched my teeth and broke up with him.

The only thing a friendly-romance Hawke can control in their relationship with Anders is, bleakly, whether or not to end it. Which is fantastic! Obviously it killed me to do it – it took me a solid ten minutes of deliberation and a couple of reloads to pull it off, and it’s absolutely hands-down the hardest decision I’ve had to make in any game – but this kind of thing is what I live for. It’s so much smaller than the classic who-lives-who-dies choice model that Bioware has patented, but it felt more significant and not a fraction as cheap.

On paper, taking the rival route with Anders winds up with him in the same position, if not slightly worse off: he’s increasingly schisming from Justice to the point where he’s no longer in control of his actions, his memory is growing patchier, and he’s clearly in the depths of misery. Yet Hawke’s final scene with a rival-romanced Anders is surprisingly tender, and he seems to care far more for you than he does in the standard romance: he kisses Hawke and says he’ll always love them, for one, instead of trying to manipulate them through sweeping polemical statements. Here he accepts his fate, and expresses the sentiment that he may be able to find redemption even if it lies in his death. (Actually, there’s an argument to be made that friend-romanced Anders isn’t even in love with Hawke, but with what they represent: an ally who’s on board with both his radical opinions and the radical methods he uses to act on them. This is further complicated by the fact that, in that route, Anders and Justice are essentially inseparable, and it’s explicitly stated that the spirit disapproves of Anders’s feelings for Hawke and views them as a distraction from their mission. I don’t know how well this sits with me, though – it’s so very much sadder if Anders is earnestly in love and either very bad at seeing what his extremism is doing to his relationship or just indifferent to it, but some of the things he (or is it Justice?) says are so damn manipulative that I’m not sure how to feel about his intentions.)

It seems paradoxical that taking Anders down the rivalry path, romantic or not, allows for far more closure than simply going along with what he wants – but at the same time, it also makes a lot of sense. This response to a fan’s criticism of the Anders rival romance perfectly outlines the catharsis unique to that scenario, which you miss completely otherwise:

A rival romance with Anders is tough on Anders and ending it with the templar path is extremely tough, but this toughness doesn’t negate the fact that this ending […] gives Anders a chance for the most introspective, self-assessing responses in the end. The understand[ing] that Anders gains in himself in this case is something valuable [… although] it might not be the ending for everyone, or for every Hawke who romances Anders.

That’s pretty much the crux of what I loved about Dragon Age II: agreeing with your companions in order to win them over, as you would do in any other game, doesn’t necessarily give you the best end. Instead you become an accessory to their greatest failings, rather than pushing back against them and helping them challenge their assumptions. Friend-side Anders seems to feel no guilt about destroying the Chantry at all, and why should he when he’s acted upon beliefs that have never been seriously challenged? He telegraphs nothing more than a sort of hollow inevitability, because after all, he had been telling my Hawke that their relationship would end badly pretty much as soon as it began. Rival-romanced Anders, on the other hand, is downright miserable and far more willing to own up to his mistakes: the bombing was Justice’s fault, but he realises that isn’t much of an excuse when they’re one and the same.

As Jennifer Hepler, one of DAII’s writers, put it (quoted in the previous article):

As a general rule, the way friendship and rivalry works, is that friendship means agreeing with and supporting the follower in what *they* want to do, no matter how crazy, illogical or dangerous to self and others. Rivalry means opposing their big cause, often for the right reasons. So it’s very possible to be a better friend to someone by choosing the rivalry path, since you’re trying to stop them from giving in to their own self-destructive whims.

This is a really sobering message, especially when taken against the kind of things you hear from the rest of the medium. So often, relationships in video games come down to simply agreeing with a character, or telling them what they want to hear. But Dragon Age II actively tries to disrupt this by forcing you to think critically about the impact of your actions, and the disconnection between intention and effect: is it even possible to save someone from themselves, and should this be what we strive for? Anders is obviously the most extreme case, seeing as there’s no way to excise Justice’s influence short of killing him, but it’s true to an extent of all your potential romances. (I don’t think it’s coincidence that Aveline and Varric, the only two members of your party you can’t romance, are also the two most put-together. Making all your options somewhat untrustworthy has to have been a very deliberate choice, and it’s one I applaud.) Merrill is the other major example: her attempts to repair the eluvian in the service of her clan – already somewhat ill-advised, considering her ditziness and propensity for blood magic – would have ended in her death if not for Keeper Marethari’s interference. Isabela flat-out abandons the party at the end of the second act while Kirkwall burns around you, taking the relic which would end the conflict with her and only bringing it back if she respects you enough; it’s questionable whether or not returning is beneficial for her at all, especially since she risks being taken prisoner by the qunari for her theft, but this moment feels like one of Hawke’s only victories. And Fenris is… well, Fenris, who’s been so badly treated that he struggles to see the world as anything other than a terrible place and baulks when faced with open and honest affection.

Here’s the thing, and it’s such a bitter pill to swallow: Dragon Age II tells us that freedom isn’t synonymous with happiness, or even necessarily a better alternative to security for most people. This comes through in the plot, of course – the qunari live by a code which dictates their roles and whole lives and are allowed to feel no dissatisfaction, almost every free mage you come across turns to blood magic and becomes an abomination – but the really clever thing is the way this is reinforced in the character dynamics. By befriending my party members and allowing them to do what they wished, I was encouraging them to frequently act against their best interests (once again discounting Aveline and Varric; the former never really has any moments of serious crisis, and the worst you’ll have to do for the latter is talk him out of the insanity produced by a malicious magical artefact). Isabela continued to be flighty and selfish and utterly unable to commit to anything; Anders continued to be a dangerous extremist who considered his beliefs axiomatic. Yet my rivals, who I granted safety rather than free rein, wound up better and smarter people because of it. Merrill came to realise that trying to repair the eluvian was a terrible idea and ultimately destroyed it; Fenris managed to let his sister go even after she betrayed him and revealed that he’d brought his condition upon himself. Either way, I felt like I was failing my companions, whether it was because I was enabling their mistakes or because I wasn’t trusting them enough to make them. It’s heavy stuff, because freedom really is such a double-edged sword and it is most definitely not the easy thing. 

As I touched on earlier, what’s really devastating about this is that I, the player, was granted a degree of agency and then proceeded to completely fuck up with it. Freedom, Dragon Age II tells us, is the chance to be fallible and make mistakes, which is a huge and terrifying thing. To allow freedom is to court disaster at every turn, but as dangerous a liberty as it is, it nevertheless has value. The plot consistently ensures that Hawke’s hands are tied, and the only arena in which you can make choices is in steering your companions down one path or another: freedom or safety, want or need. Picking rivalry and exercising your agency to suppress the agency of others is also the more difficult choice, especially because it’s arguably the less harmful one. Regardless of their decisions Hawke becomes, in some way, a mirror of Knight-Commander Meredith, only seeking to control their friends instead of all Kirkwall: she’s an excellent final boss because she really isn’t so different from you. Hawke ultimately becomes just as much of a well-intentioned tyrant, except it’s filtered through player experience and rendered insidious.

It’s been almost two days since I finished DAII, and I can’t stop picking at the ending, at the abject sense of guilt it dumped in my lap. I’m emotionally exhausted, and going back over the Anders scenes has only served to drain me more. His arc is the messiest ending in a game which refuses to make anything clean or easy. Even if everyone survives, Kirkwall is still in ruins, and Hawke and their companions quite simply fade into history (or Hawke becomes viscount and then fades into history). Freedom is the chance to fuck up, to completely and utterly fail, and Dragon Age II makes it explicit that this is as crucial as it is problematic. This is a risk that needs to be taken, even though some people will always use their agency for terrible ends. I should know: I was one of them.

When I get around to replaying the game, I think I’m going to do the Anders rivalry romance. Of course, this will have no impact on my previous playthrough, and the fundamentals won’t change: Justice will still consume what’s left of him, the Chantry will still get destroyed. And then, of course, there’s the fact I’ll be manipulating him towards closure, largely as an attempt to reach some kind of absolution after I failed so hard the first time. But all the same – it’s hard not to feel like I have a lot to make up for.

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5 Responses to Freedom, Culpability and Failure in Dragon Age II, or: My Boyfriend The Terrorist

  1. Beth says:

    I tend to RP my playthroughs (devise a personality and motivations when creating a character, and stick with it), but I’d never tried confronting Anders about his shifty behaviour before. Him being a manipulative bugger really killed my mage!Hawke’s sympathy entirely, and utterly destroyed me out of character. In that moment, I was just in total awe of the writing and character development. That really is something a lot of games don’t do, but should: tell the player, “You can’t fix this”.

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    • Gaby says:

      Yeah, it’s always just so interesting when a game deliberately tries to disrupt the traditional power-fantasy setup by making certain shitty things unfixable. It’s not a popular choice, and I can understand why most games don’t pull that on their players (because loss of control makes for poor escapism), but you’re absolutely spot-on in saying that we need more of it. And as I said above, that sense of being *complicit* in the awful and immutable events – that I not only couldn’t fix this, but that I had helped cause it – just served to twist the knife: for a medium which is defined by giving the audience agency, it’s very seldom problematised or played with or taken away.

      A side note about RPing: I think one of the reasons the Anders plot hits as hard as it does is because it puts you into a position where your reactions are going to be completely and utterly synonymous with Hawke’s (no matter how you’re RPing them) and that coaxes out some kind of emotional truth: Anders being shifty gives both Hawke and the player plausible reason to doubt him, and his betrayal operates on multiple levels too.

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      • Beth says:

        One of the aspects of DA2 that I love the most is that your Hawke is just some poor sod trying to get by after their life has completely imploded. As a result of trying to get along with people, they get used by everyone in the city to further others’ goals only to be thrown under the first bus that roars up the street — the ultimate hapless catalyst, and there’s nothing the player can do but try to make the best of it. But then, there wouldn’t be much of a story if Hawke decided Kirkwall wouldn’t be worth the hassle and moved on up the coast!

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      • Gaby says:

        Hawke really is Just Some Guy (or Girl), and it’s definitely one of the things I love the most about DA2. Sure, in the end you (barely) manage to keep Kirkwall from totally falling apart, but that’s about as grand as it gets for Hawke, which makes them a fantastic contrast to every other (Bioware) hero ever. A big part of this is how reactive they are, since they’re always on the back foot and trying to deal with things so much bigger than themselves; you never wind up taking the fight to anyone, even in the final battle. And the game actually points this out through Cassandra’s interrogation of Varric: it becomes apparent in the first ten minutes of plot that Hawke’s story is not a glamorous one, as much as others might make it out to be, and that they just did what they could under the circumstances.

        This is one of the many reasons I’ve found Inquisition a disappointing sequel (so far, I’m not quite finished with it): after a game which went so far to toy with the established facts of player power, Inquisition plays very very straight with it. Ironic, since it might actually give you *less* overall choice than 2 did while making far less of an interesting statement with it.

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      • Beth says:

        I have finished Inquisition, so I’ll just say “wait for it” — the effects of player agency are more subtle, and more sweeping, which matches the general mood of epicness they were clearly reaching for. Each of the games has a different angle for the main character — a change I disliked about DA2 initially, but it quickly grew on me. Hawke is very much an antihero, and a reluctant one — it’s fairly apparent in their character design and the way they focus on doing their best for the people they care about. The game is teeming with beleaguered groups suffering from injustice, but attempting to right wrongs bigger than themself lands Hawke in the role of the “bad guy” fairly swiftly. It’s wonderfully grey-shaded (but as the character of Loghain makes apparent in Origins, nothing is really as absolute as it may appear initially — they do a great job building him up to be the villain, only to drop the sympathy bomb towards the end).

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