Dragon Age, Ma Vhenan: Lovers, Choice, and the Keep
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Warning: Dragon Age spoilers all over the place.
Love Amidst the Horrors of the Fifth Blight
I can't recall if I started Dragon Age: Origins with the knowledge that romance with party members was possible. I do recall falling in love with Alistair from the very first. A snarker with a heart of gold, he was. Together we endured betrayal and then trekked through a dangerous land with Morrigan, the ill-tempered apostate daughter of a kooky old woman. As the last two Gray Wardens in Ferelden, we waded through dwarven politics and darkspawn blood in the deep roads, slaughtered werewolves for some beleaguered elves, and took care of the bastard who got our king and our fellow Grey Wardens killed in his bid for the throne, all so that we could gather the armies we needed to fight a threat to all of Thedas and save the known world.
Our love affair wasn't all sunshine and roses, though. I bedded Zevran, the charming and sexually free elf assassin who had joined us after he failed to complete his assignment to kill me, in a moment of weakness*. Alistair confronted me about that while we were in a dungeon, both of us spattered with the blood and gore of our enemies. "This probably isn't the best time for this," he acknowledged before telling me how much I'd hurt his feelings. I promised it wouldn't happen again and we continued our slaughter of the not-so-innocent.
*The chat interface was underdeveloped in Origins, a far cry from the illustrated chat wheel we have now, and I accidentally had sex with him. I decided not to save scum.
At the Landsmeet in Denerim, after I killed Teyrn Loghain for his betrayal of King Cailan and the Grey Wardens, we had a problem. Ferelden needed a ruler. The late king's wife Anora, the daughter of Loghain, had been the true ruler during her husband's reign. She had the experience and the influence to do it well. But my dear, sweet Alistair was the bastard half-brother of the late king. Illegitimate and unprepared to rule though he was, in him were the last drops of a royal bloodline that given birth to many a great legend. The best thing for Ferelden would have been to see them married and ruling together.
Alistair wasn't okay with that option. "I can't believe you want me to marry another woman!" He wasn't willing to have me as just his mistress... and it wasn't what I wanted either, to be honest. There was no way the Landsmeet would accept me, an elf and a mage, as his queen. So we reluctantly let Anora have the throne and worked towards finishing what we had started: finding and killing the archdemon to end the Fifth Blight once and for all.
During the Landsmeet, though, we had been joined by a third Grey Warden, one who had come to us from Orlais. He had bad news -- one of us must die. When an archdemon is slain, he told us, it just resurrects, rising anew from some nearby darkspawn. The only way to prevent that was for a Gray Warden to be the closest tainted creature at the time of the archdemon's death. A Grey Warden already had a spirit, a human spirit, with which the spirit of the corrupted Old God within the archdemon could not coexist. He was prepared to make that sacrifice himself, he told us... but if he failed, the duty would fall to one of us.
Needless to say, neither of us was happy with that prospect.
Then Morrigan, that ill-tempered apostate, came to me and said that if I could convince Alistair to sleep with her that night, our lives could be spared. The child they would conceive would carry the darkspawn taint and be able to absorb the spirit of the archdemon without either of us (or the infant) dying. She would disappear and raise the child herself. Her only condition was that we never follow her, never try to find her.
I had three things to say to that. No, hell no, and frell no. I didn't trust her and I didn't like her and damn it all, Alistair was mine! If it came down to it, I would kill the archdemon myself and save my beloved Alistair.
It did come down to that, of course. The Orlesian Warden failed. I left Alistair in charge of the armies while I went off to fight the archdemon. He knew what it meant, what I was doing. It was a sad parting, but I knew that if I took him with me, he wouldn't be coming back. So instead, I sacrificed myself, for him and for Thedas, and he went on to rebuild the Grey Wardens of Ferelden.
Why Am I Telling You This?
I messed up my Dragon Age Keep file for my initial playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have no one to blame but myself, but I was actually, honestly jealous when King Alistair and Queen Anora walked into Redcliffe together early in the game. Turns out I still love Alistair, even after all these years. Honestly, I get rather attached to all the lovers I choose for first playthroughs of these games.
In my first playthrough of Dragon Age 2, I romanced Fenris, ex-slave elf warrior with power tattooed onto his skin and a haunted past. Rowr. (Side note: If you've read Jane Jensen's Gamasutra post on writing hot men for games, Fenris fits the first two romantic tropes she mentions in #5 on top of having that sexy, sexy voice.) I don't remember DA2 nearly as well as I remember Origins; I couldn't give you a rundown of everything we went through together like I did with Alistair. That's as much, I suspect, because DA2 just didn't leave as strong an impression on me as Origins did as for any other reason. But I do still get a warm, fuzzy feeling when I see a screenshot of him somewhere.
For Inquisition, it was a toss up between Solas and Cullen until I decided that Cullen's stuttering and akward lack of experience dealing with women was too adorable to pass up. I'm still not sure if I regret that decision; I really enjoyed Cullen's story (as well as his not-quite-as-sexy-as-Fenris's voice, his lack of protectiveness in battle, and his lopsided smiles), but there is some pretty cool stuff going on with Solas, too.
The creation of Dragon Age Keep has made it possible to experiment with different choices a player could have made and see how they affect Inquisition without having to go back and spend dozens of hours playing the first two games over again for every new world state the player wants to create. It's a godsend for anyone who wants to explore the complexities of the story, even if many of the choices have a relatively minor (if not necessarily meaningless; seeing Alistair with Anora elicited a genuine emotional response from me, after all) impact on the later story.
I've been watching Let's Plays of the previous Dragon Age games while working on my second playthrough of Inquisition to refresh my memory and help me try to set up a world state in the Dragon Age Keep which reflects how I think I actually played the previous games the first time. There were indeed some details I'd forgotten when setting up my initial world state and I am sure I got some things wrong (besides Alistair's status) in my initial world state setup. I've been "fixing" it as I go, putting the decisions as close to my original decisions as I can fathom in the absence of my old save files.
As dedicated as I have been to trying to recapture that original world state, however, I've sunk enough hours into multiple playthroughs of Inquisition that I am sorely tempted to... alter things a little. Knowing what I know now, I want to let Morrigan get her god baby with Alistair. I want that kid to exist. Getting to stay alive with Alistair would be cool, too.
But that wouldn't be my story. That wouldn't be our story.
And here's another wrinkle: if my initial Inquisition world state had been correct, I would have had to choose between sacrificing Alistair or sacrificing my hero from Dragon Age 2. I've already sacrificed myself for Alistair once; I would totally do it again. Unfortunately, that leaves Fenris all alone.
My choices up to this point have made me the most terrible person(s) to fall in love with. Love me and lose me, every time. I'm afraid of what will happen to poor Cullen next game. (Isn't it bad enough that he's been tortured by blood mages already?!)
With Dragon Age Keep, it would be so easy to undo that. Just change my origin story in Origins to human noble, become Alistair's queen, and sacrifice the random Grey Warden replacement, leaving Hawke alive to go home to Fenris.
But again... that wouldn't be my story. That wouldn't be our story.
The deciding factor, though, is that I play elf mages. For Origins, that was mostly chance. I felt like playing a mage and there was only one possible origin story no matter which race I chose, so I went with the race with the best magic bonuses. But then I butted up against the racism against elves and the segregation of mages and never wanted to play anything else for my main playthroughs in any Dragon Age game. (I only got half of that for Dragon Age 2, but hey.)
So that's where my temptation to change the past ends. To get to that dream state in which all my lovers are happy, I would have to change things too much. Would I have gone ahead with it if the changes needed were lesser? I don't know. But the existence of the Dragon Age Keep is what put the temptation in my head in the first place.
One could argue that if I were to go back through and play the games again, knowing what I know now, to make new save files, that I might make different choices. But I don't think so. Well, I might convince Alistair to sleep with Morrigan on the eve of the final battle. But I still wouldn't make Alistair the ruler of Ferelden because I'd still be an elf mage and we still wouldn't want me to be King Alistair's mistress. It's harder to retcon decisions like that when you have to face them head-on again than it is to just click a different picture and POOF history is different.
I think the Dragon Age Keep is a wonderful thing. It's allowed me to explore different options and see some cool stuff that I might not have seen if BioWare had decided to keep requiring us to import old save files. And although I find it fascinating that the Dragon Age Keep makes it easier to retcon one's decisions going forward, I don't think I'll be doing that. My decisions have had some painful consequences, but that's the path I chose, and I'll stick with it.
That's my story. That's our story.