The Games We Play: The Spirit Within

Brandann Hill-Mann
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Please take note Gentle Readers: This post contains some fairly significant end-game plot spoilers for Dragon Age II. If you do not want to have this roller coaster ride ruined for you, please consider moving on. You have been warned.

Now that I have showered some well-deserved praise on BioWare for Dragon Age II, and also engaged in the almost 60 hours that it took me to get to the bitter and mind-wrenchingly disturbing end, I have a few thoughts. For all of my waxing poetic about how fabulously progressive BioWare has been with their slick political messages and wiggling new ideas into the way we consume and play video games, there was this thing tugging at me as I took my Hawke faffing about Kirkwall.

Dragon Age II drops you into Kirkwall in the midst of tensions between two factions of people, and in the center swirls a major character NPC, whom I mentioned the other day, Anders. Anders is possessed by a spirit of Justice, who has been corrupted by Anders’ own hatred of the religious order who has controlled his life despite his no less than seven escapes, and a fairly colorful past that has endeared him to many fans of the game. Anders, as a result, has moved beyond wanting to enact Justice for those mages who have been wronged by the Chantry and its templars in the same way that he has been his whole life, to exacting Vengeance against those who have done them wrong. When your Hawke meets him he is barely holding on to himself in the process. I got the creepy feeling that we were supposed to see him as someone whose experiences paralleled a personality disorder.

Isn’t it clever? Because it is a spirit possession, you see!

Throughout my play of the game I got more and more upset as the final act of the game unfolded, as more characters were revealed to be doing things considered to be morally corrupt or downright evil and having my dialogue reduced to, “She’s clearly crazy” or, “Why are all the mages insane?” Some who were not evil succumbed to desperation, using forbidden forms of magic that eventually destroyed them. They were all nuts! Clearly this is the only explanation as to why a person would be driven to extreme measures. A healthy helping of ableism at its finest.

Not uncommon is the conflation of mental illness and violence, and video games are not immune to that.

Not only is it assumed that anyone who would do something morally depraved or simply wrong out of desperation is clearly mentally ill, but the laughter abounds about the status of Anders and his tag-a-long spirit. Characters were constantly asking if “Anders is in there,” though, in the writers’ defense, this was met many times with Anders rebutting their ignorance. I am still, as a person not familiar with the type of mental illness that might mirror such a struggle as Anders faces throughout the game, not sure how I feel about this depiction—even if I think the way they wrote this severe character change for him was, from a fan’s perspective, fairly clever. I don’t know that I give fantasy genres a pass to make these parallels. At least, not without questioning them.

DragonAge2 2011-03-30 14-47-25-22

The Kirkwall Chantry in Act III

When Anders commits an incredible act of violence so large-scale that it actually shook me, I couldn’t help but wonder what the implications were. Were we to blame the corrupted spirit inside Anders (the spirit in me made me do it!)? To be clear, I do not condone extreme acts of violence as a means to an end, but I am not prepared to accept, “Oh, he did it because he’s crazy” as an excuse when things of this nature are brought before us to consume.

Horrible acts of violence, when linked to mental illness in pop culture, perpetuate the stigmatization of people with mental illness in real life as potentially violent. They give audiences the idea that it is OK to strip the rights of persons with disabilities because we could, at any moment, become a danger to the public, even if we never have before. All of the mages in Kirkwall were deemed in need of control because they were all going crazy, another stereotype of the mentally ill. Eventually their deaths were all called for, because they were deemed too much of a threat. Anders’ fanatical act exacerbates this situation, and you as the player are left to make a literally life or death choice in a situation that sadly sits too close to home for anyone who has had their autonomy stripped from them due to mental illness. Yes, the NPCs believe that Anders is in fact crazy. I would lie if I said that ten minutes of game play and cut scenes didn’t make me cry.

I won’t tell you right now what my choices were regarding the end of the game, but I did feel a great sigh of relief when it ended and my Hawke left Kirkwall in an inferno of chaos. For all that I enjoy BioWare and their RPG creation, I don’t particularly care for having aspects of my own personhood treated as if they are funny or the perfect fodder for a video game story arc. I will admit, however, that there may be more to discuss here.

Have at it.


Photo, again, courtesy of Twist_Shimmy, because she is fabulous to me.

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8 Comments Have Been Posted

Bioware is bad like that:

Bioware is bad like that: they do so well, or at least take steps in the right direction, on one front, and they do the most horrific stuff on other fronts.

**RAMPANT SPOILERS FOLLOW (I am about to finish playthrough nr 4)

Of course, the message was that the Right of Annulment was called for what Anders, a crazy/abominated mage, did, but also because Meredith was crazy: if she hadn't been it would never have gone this far. She went crazy and cruel and pushed everyone else into teh crazy (or crazier) too.
She went crazy (even more literally, not 'possession that mirrors crazy' but just... crazy crazy, in the words of pretty much everyone in the game) because of the idol. Like Varric's brother who... if you don't, you know, KILL HIM, because he went on a murderous rampage because he's... crazy (and a voice told him to), gets sent to.... *drumrolls* ASYLUM. And Varric still maintains he lost his brother. And he wonders if he should have killed him after all.

Also, a crazy mage (crazy because of loss!) kills your mother. Of course, he was evil before that, but now he was also obsessed crazy!
And that guy who hears demons telling him to kill elves. His father kept him in a basement. You basically only get a good outcome if you kill him, otherwise he keeps on in a cell somewhere and the girl you rescue develops lifelong trauma and commitment issues. She's fine if you kill him.

I think you're supposed to pity Anders (maybe right up until he goes all creepy for his Justice quest), and dislike Meredith, and they threw in Cullen - who miraculously is much more mellow than in DA1 despite the rampant bloodmagic in Kirkwall - so you could still feel good siding with the Templars (which, incidentally, is the only course you can take if you want to get your little hands on that throne).

If I were to believe Bioware, half my relatives would be chopping me up or sacrificing me tomorrow (also, I should be a walking stereotype collection and only relating to machines and then going on a massacre spree because people make too much noise; ME2).
(Also, the least important thing, but still: it's ******** lazy writing.)

And what is with so many of them BEGGING you to kill them!

I never feel like it has that much to do with the possession or the 'crazy', when he blows up the Chantry. It just feels ruthless (especially with all the lying that went before), and the line about how he should die so he can inspire people to rebel more felt bloody obnoxious. I spare him just to spite him. Of course that gets me Starkhaven on my back >_>.

Goodbye continuity too: no matter how you end Awakening in DA1, Anders ends up possessed and leaving the Wardens. And I really hate voice-actor changes.

We obviously played some things differently...

I didn't get a lot of those conversation options! Anders never told me that it was so people would rebel more, and he never begged me to kill him. It might have been because of my earlier in-game decisions. I think I read much of the situation very differently, because no matter what he said about being "one person with Justice now" (AKA: Vengeance), I never felt like I was supposed to believe he was in control of what was going on. All of Act III felt like I was watching him lose some epic struggle. I didn't feel like I was supposed to pity him or that he was ruthless at all (of course, I obviously missed some dialogue you did, so my in-game Anders was not the same, I suppose). It really smacked of "Anders is going crazy so we are just going to really play that up". Of course he would do something like that. He's all crazy!

Crazy didn't even sound like a word anymore after a while.

What I saw was a person driven to feel they had only one way out after years of abuse due to a simple accident of birth. I mean, look at all that had happened to him: dragged to the Circle tied up and screaming as a child. Beaten and brought back at least seven times. A YEAR in solitary confinement for trying to escape. Conscription into the Wardens, which felt like another prison and gave him a death sentence just to escape in the first place. Then they MADE HIM GIVE UP HIS CAT and gave him a babysitter to follow him around everywhere. Anders' life was never his own. When I watched how many mages in the game resorted to blood magic or demons at sword point because they thought they might live I began to understand Anders more, and I was surprised how it changed what I thought I was going to do.

All of that said, when Cullen became the voice of reason at the end of the game I pretty much had given up on the game. I had already played the whole of Act III having to take breaks because it was just so hard to watch. I even got the impression that the templars didn't side with the templars. I am really going to have to work myself up good to roll a character to go that route.

And I wanted to kick Orsino so HARD at the end. I mean, we were WINNING. UGH! Which was fine. I mean, at that point, you had just been a puppet to both Meredith and Orsino anyhow, and even the ruler of Fereldan was trying to tell you to just keep the peace. Wev. Where was my "Just leave the place to swallow itself whole" option?

Yeah, he kept insisting they

Yeah, he kept insisting they were one person, but they kept showing it as Justice 'coming out'. It was totally different from what he said. Also if you take him into the Fade on Feynrial's quest, it's only Justice there. They seem to still be totally separate in there.

When he said he'd found a way to separate him and Justice after all, I thought "Oh good, because your life is bad enough without this too." In the sense that he almost killed a mage being harrassed by the templars (and he can actually kill her. In one of my playthroughs I chose a slightly different option and he killed her and then I threw him out of my team. But he still came back in the end and blew up the Chantry). So he'd probably be able to do more actual work of the kind he wants if he doesn't also have to constantly worry about not being in control.

But I read it as Justice only striking the spark in him to want some kind of permanent better life for all mages everywhere, and his control issues being more of a moment thing if there's high stress. The Chantry thing felt like mostly him. (And I do get it, but I'm still ******* angry over it, as well as thinking he's a totall ass for that martyr-speech).
And the thing is, in my playthrough of Awakening, he was really happy in the Wardens. My PC told him they wouldn't keep him against his will, he left for a while but came back in the end, on his own, and felt like the Wardens were his home. Also Justice was DEAD. (He was fast friends with OGHREN, not Justice). So maybe I can suspend my disbelief and think that after my PC Warden Commander vanishes, the Wardens got mean to him. But it's a bit much believing Justice somehow reappeared and they were suddenly fast friends to the point where he thinks merging is a stellar idea. (And I just can't forgive voice-actor changes. I've dropped whole series over it in the past)

Other than that I could have believed he started to care more about mage-justice for other reasons than this. And they also didn't need to have him abominated to get him to this point (that is where the "only crazy people do things like this and people who do things like this must necessarily be crazy" comes in. It would have been better without it). I think I would have appreciated it more if they didn't need him to be posssession-"crazy" to do this and maybe that's why I read it like it wasn't a (big) factor in what he did.

The Templars didn't side with the Templars. There was so much infighting there... I'm siding with the templars this time. Wish me luck. (Hawke has been pining for that throne for 4 playthroughs now, and I want to see what happens. Also after 3 playthroughs I have lost much sympathy for Orsino).
Oh, Orsino. You remember that note when you go try to rescue your mom, left for that Quentin, signed "O."?
Yeah, turns out there's dialogue in the game that makes it clear that was Orsino. So he knew Quentin was there, and more or less what he was up to. And then in the end when he changes, he also references that what he's doing is based on Quentin's ("my friend") research. I just wish you could confront him on his part in the death of your mother.
I needed some things Hawke could cling onto or I couldn't make myself RP siding with the templars.

Well, after you slice your way through Orsino, several dozen statues and then Meredith, if you sided with the mages you do in the end just leave and let them stew in their own mess. I could understand Alistair ofcourse: he's looking out for Ferelden. They're barely recovering, last thing they need is a mess on their northern border.
I was very frustrated with the Grand Cleric, I wanted her to step in and see wtf was wrong with Meredith much sooner, but she was one of those "everything has to run its own course because things are better that way even if the entire ******* world explodes into war" people. Also in desperately avoiding to take sides she just implicitly sides with the oppressors, for all that she wants to think she doesn't. "I will step in when it becomes absolutely necessary" Yeah....

Would be interesting playing a game set in Tevinter.

I have been thinking of writing two variations of this whole thing as fanfics to have people see how it all makes sense to me.

It's very interesting how differently this stuff feels when you play a Hawke that's been gunning for the Viscount's Seat from the start. Hawke feels like a much more active hand in all these affairs, or jumping in at opportune moments. Especially if you take the more aggressive dialogue options that make it clear you want to rule. Then when Cassandra remarks to Varric that Hawke was not the cause of any of this, I have much more doubt. I mean, there's some obvious stuff Hawke just couldn't have known, but it feels much more like she uses and steers a lot of this stuff.


I don't know _anybody_ who would write fanfic about that mess. *whistles*

I would certainly never write one where my Hawke never wanted to be a hero in the first place, just someone who made a better life for her family (oh, look how that worked out!). I would never write one where she decided the best course of action was to take her boy by the hands, hurt that he didn't trust her, and get the hell out of Dodge, letting the city swallow itself whole, and fighting the New Mage Revolution at his side with her sister, the another Rogue Warden. >.>

I am half afraid the next one will be set in Orlais, and I am going to have to stomach the terrible faux accent-voice acting for 60+ hours. *tries to flush the Comtesse speaking from her mind* I grew up around much of French Canada, and while I know Continental French is different, bad fake accents really grind on me.

I also never bought the whole "we are one person now" thing, especially after the Fade incident. But I think I saw the emotional tugging of each person almost opposite that you did. I saw all the extreme actions as things that Justice enacted, and the controlled side, that parts that were reasoned out, as Anders having control of everything. I really believe that it was Justice, though corrupted by Anders' hatred of the situation, that lead to the Chantry explosion. Again, I haven't had the "kill me" conversation. I think this is what I based my assessment on, because it really felt like they had a "crazy people do violent and horrible things" angle. Or, I was secretly an Anders fangirl and never knew it.

I also couldn't toss the best healer I had in the game out of my party. *metagaming rules!*

I also hated Awakenings (and was really angry that I had to have played it to get the "Find Nathaniel" quest, which I didn't do). I usually played through to a certain point and bored of it. It just was never able to get me immersed like DA:O, and certainly not like DA2 has done, even if I adored several of the characters and thought they were short-changed by the story.

Yeah, that time I threw him

Yeah, that time I threw him out of the party some 1/3 into the game because it was just the right choice to make right then, not long afterwards I was in some battle with Merril going "Fffffffff......." *Throws all her gold at health potions*
All in all the game does feel a bit like the best thing all around is if you play a mage yourself. I really, *really* hate playing mages. I only did it once in DAO, for the story.

(The fanfic will also feature asexual relationships)

(The game also has too many faux-british accents)

This game did make me wonder how clear the line is between demon-spirits and spirit-spirits. If they change that easily, and the only definition the world uses to denote a demon is that it is harmful to them.
Also makes me wonder: do they always truly merge and how does that turn out, do some stay separate, is it sometimes that one more or less disappears the other? If Flemeth really is woman+demon, that makes me wonder how much of each she is. Why did Wynne turn out fine? Did their personalities not clash so badly?

But that's more lore-stuff.

I always wince when I see Sandal, wondering what they could have him do now. Of course exploding whole hordes of abominations and darkspawn on his own again. I'm not sure if that's supposed to redeem him or just make us wary of him.
Also, how nice that his father keeps telling you what a wonderful person you are for being able to stand being around him.


I could write some Very. Long. Rants. about Sandal. :(

Sane actions in a world of insanity

I didn't pick up on an ableist mental illness/crazy discourse being played out in DA:II. I'll have to watch for it next time I play it.

Regarding Anders, I didn't pick up on the notion that he was mentally unstable or insane. I actually saw him as one of the 'sanest' characters, even when I first met him. I thought he was a little dramatic/intense, but having survived the Templars and the Circle as he did, I understood that he's known suffering and has survived some awful shit. I saw everything that he did, including his fusion with Justice, stemming from his struggle for emancipation - for freedom (from oppressive institutions). Everything he did made sense to me. I was shocked and choked when he blew up the Chantry (I had a soft spot for the Grand Cleric), but I also understood that he wasn't doing it out of 'insanity' (or that Vengeance did it), but out of radically striving for freedom, not just 'peace' with his oppressors. A kind of "drastic times call for drastic measures" situation, and I think that came across clearly in the game.

I also read the mages' extreme behavior as a situation of drastic times calling for drastic measures - not that everybody's suddenly gone crazy. Mages weren't turning to blood magic in a vacuum of insanity; they were resisting oppression, pulling out all stops to survive. The threat of the Templars and the Gallows was well acknowledged throughout the Acts of the game, especially when you lose Bethany to the Circle. And in Act III, as Meredith started kneeing into the mages, they started to retaliate. Again, I thought the game effectively demonstrated the conditions that were driving the mages to take extreme measures. Their crazy behavior were sane responses to insane conditions.

I might really go with a lot

I might really go with a lot of this if the words "crazy" and "insane" weren't used jointly with people, consistently, to describe horrible actions, or desperate actions. The ableism was astounding, for reasons I've already mentioned, and I've also already mentioned that I thought that most of the mages weren't acting "crazy", but that, yes, I agree, they were reacting to years of abuse and oppression due an accident of birth.

The writers used the word "crazy" so much it didn't even hit my notice by the end of the game. It didn't sound like a word. They used it to try to explain away so much. Of course Meredith should be sympathized with for trying to kill all the mages, she was nuts from that damned idol. Of course Orsino went crazy and abominated himself. His middle ground was taken away by a crazy possessed mage and he thought he was going to die. Of course Anders blew up the Chantry, he was a crazy, lying, fanatic (that last one I don't fully agree with, but wev, humor me).

Pop culture, here, is trying to conflate mental illness with violent and horrible actions, which perpetuates the myth that the mentally ill are dangerous. The message in Kirkwall was that these people should be killed and controlled. In the real world, it is little different for many of us. <a href="">Pop culture often defines and emulates the real world</a>, and DA2 has some disturbing themes here that do just that.

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