Dragon Age and Me

Dragon Age: Origins art - featuring Morrigan in the foreground with a demon behind her

As I’m writing this, I’m cursing my haphazard approach to “putting things in a safe place”.

You see, I had plans. I was going to go home after work tonight and play a few hours of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I haven’t played it in at least a year. However, 4th December 2018 is #dragon4geday , an unofficial Dragon Age day, created by the fandom. It felt right to go back to the world of Thedas and say hello to some old companions.

As with all the best laid plans, they often go wrong. Scrabbling around my living room this morning, I couldn’t find my copy of the game.

It’s in there somewhere, buried under a book or an abandoned, half-finished craft project. But the momentary sadness I felt about not being able to revisit Thedas reminded me how much the whole game series means to me.

We’ve been through a lot.

Dragon Age: Origins was the first video game I ever completed, multiple times. It was also the first RPG I’d ever played. There was something that always kept me coming back: the companions, their stories, and building relationships with them.

I…wasn’t great at it to start with. On my first play-through, I was unaware that certain items were gifts that would, when given to the right character, reveal more of their personal story. I had completed nearly 75% of the game when someone explained it to me, as well as how the friendship/enemy mechanic worked. I stared at the hundred or so hours I had poured into the game, sighed, and restarted.

I next played as a female Elven rogue. I couldn’t help but fall for Alistair’s goofy humour, and set about romancing him. I was surprised by the sex scene (such as it was). Yes, it was awkward as fuck, and my character seemed to kiss by bumping her face against Alistair’s jaw. But I’d never played a game where one of the main points was to build a relationship, sexual, romantic or friendly.

I think of how I now unashamedly embrace smut and sexy times in video games, fanfiction, and not very subtle TV shows about cannibal serial-killers. That I have read and reviewed erotic fiction. I can’t help but smile at how the clumsy campfire scene once made me blush.

Dragon Age: helping you become the smut-enthusiast you were always meant to be.

I continued on with Origins – it was a struggle, but I managed to help make Alistair king. He complained, but he eventually got on with it.

Then, the ultimate betrayal: I was ditched because he couldn’t have an Elf as his queen. The people of Ferelden, he blustered, would not stand for it. I was more than a little heartbroken. After everything, the best I could hope for was to be his secret, barely-tolerated mistress. What happened to the romance, to standing up for love?!

Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins
Swooping is bad, but not as bad as supporting social injustices, Alistair

I begrudgingly finished the game, then replayed it, this time as a human. I read guides, which I hadn’t done since I was 10 years old, entering cheat codes to skip infuriating Lemmings levels. I discovered that, to make Alistair more accepting of his kingly duties, you had to persuade him to lose some of his softer side.

I finished again, this time as queen to Alistair’s king, but was still pissed off. I hadn’t wanted to change who Alistair was, but if I didn’t then he might be a terrible ruler. At the same time, I was annoyed that the social norms of Thedas meant an Elven queen would not be tolerated.

It was the first time a game had made me realise that, in order to get a particular outcome, I might need to make certain moral compromises. I had never played anything which had really given me choices, or made me face the consequences of making a choice.

It was refreshing to find myself emotionally invested in anything, let alone a video game. A recent period of depression had numbed me, and I was still clawing my way back to feeling myself.

As I was starting to care more and more, I read guides on how to say the right thing to the right characters. I wanted to get it right. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m on the autistic spectrum. It was sometimes difficult for me to work out which approach works best with different people, what things I should and should not say. It still is. However, what I didn’t know at the time was that playing Dragon Age: Origins helped me understand how to relate to others, or at least try. The characters all had pasts and preferences that affected their reactions. I was already well aware that saying what I wanted or thought didn’t generally work well in real life. Playing this game let me see that it wasn’t impossible for me to adapt if I paid attention.

On the flip side, it also played into my fears about my poor social skills. I would focus on “getting it right”, saving constantly in case I messed up. Yet, having a guide or wiki was a comfort. Here, for the first time, was a manual for how to deal with other people!

These days, I try to accept myself more for who I am, asking why others can’t adapt to me instead of me having to always change. That said, learning that I might be able to improve and manage social skills meant the world to me at the time. Though I had a small, wonderful group of friends, I always felt isolated from others, lacking confidence to manage day to day small talk due to previous bad experiences. It seems strange, looking back on it now, but Dragon Age forced me to think about the perspectives of others in a way I hadn’t been able to before.

Dragon Age: Origins also showed me that positive LGBTQAI+ representation could exist in games, or that gay relationships existed in games at all. When Dragon Age 2 rolled around with the freedom to romance any character, regardless of whether you were male or female, I was pleased they had made this an option. It also made me happy for reasons I wouldn’t really understand until last year, when I accepted another part of myself. I’m still working out what it means to me, but god bless Dragon Age’s Isabela for kick-starting my little bisexuality epiphany all those years ago.

Isabela in Dragon Age 2
She like big boats and she cannot lie

As a female character, I romanced Fenris and Isabela on different play-throughs, then as a male character with Anders (god dammit, Anders!) and Fenris again. I was drawn to Fenris’s story the most, particularly because the writers managed to represent his trauma’s long-lasting impact upon him. It takes literally years for Fenris to trust you or himself. Your romance is not an immediate fix to all his problems. I liked that, having endured a constant media message while growing up that women are supposed to magically repair men through their love.

Fenris from Dragon Age 2
You know he’s only thinking about punching Anders

By then, I was becoming more and more engaged with Dragon Age fan art and fic. Tumblr (Rest In Peace) became a source of amazing illustrations, stunning cosplay, and snarky Gifs. The dedication and warmth of the community was incredible, and I felt welcomed. That’s a rare feeling for me.

Dragon Age: Inquisition was a sanctuary. At the time, I had just left a challenging job. I can see now that a lot of the problems stemmed from my then-undiagnosed Aspergers. I couldn’t verbalise or explain why I wasn’t able to do what others seemed able to manage, or why certain tasks gave me panic attacks. I’m doing better now, with an employer and manager who understand me and how I work.

But back then, I was still dealing with the anxiety and depression fallout. Even though I had left the job and found a more suitable working environment, it would take me a long time to build myself back up. I immersed myself in Inquisition as a coping mechanism. I would come home, eat, then relax by kicking Templar arse. There was so much beauty in that game that I sometimes ran around the Hinterlands or Emprise du Lion just to enjoy the scenery. Playing the game was a comfort, one that I had felt throughout the entire series.

It also helped that I wanted to romance pretty much every character (although Solas can jog on), even ones who weren’t romance options. I can only hope that Krem makes it into Dragon Age 4.

While Dragon Age has helped me understand who I am, as well as allow me to hide away and repair myself, it also gave me a way to connect. I’ve met new people through our shared love for the world. I’ve been able to write very serious articles about who should be romance options in Dragon Age 4. I even moderated and participated in a Nine Worlds 2018 panel about inclusivity in dating sim games versus mainstream games (also called: “Dragon Age is a Dating Sim: Fight Me”).

There are worlds within these fantasy lands that spill over into reality, often in ways we don’t understand at the time. Dragon Age was that for me, and I’m grateful to have had the whole series in my life (I will defend Dragon Age 2 to the death, don’t @ me). I’m lucky that I can look back now and trace the person I was to the person I became through these games.

How could I have possibly known back then that something as silly as “swooping is bad” would be the start of so much joy?