Dragon Age romance is quite legendary for a) existing and b) being rather well done. So on my first playthrough of Origins, I was firmly decided to give it a try. Only, well, none of the options seemed particularly appealing. All the characters seemed to be full of forced bravado or over-the-top cynicism and overdone antagonism, which just irritated me.
Then I met Zevran, the foreign assassin. And it was a love at first sight. What follows is the true and unembellished tale of this love, exactly as I experienced it. And I truly mean I, the player. This is not a fictionalized account of what I imagine my character went through. This is what I felt.
I adored his joking self-deprecation, and his hints to his past intrigued me. Plus, he was really good-looking. This, I decided, was going to be the character I try the romance feature on.
Consequently, I started to put an effort into it. I found opportunities to talk to him, tried to coax more bits and pieces about his past out of him. For a time, it was going great. It was headed in the right direction, I was sure of it.
But then his cockiness started to turn irritating. I discovered he is capable of as much forced posturing as the others. Upon more talk, he refused to show even the smallest hints of discomfort for the mistakes of his past. He treated the friends of my character absolutely terribly. And when one quest made both him and Alistair strip into their underwear, I found out that Alistair looks better naked.
So then the excuses started.
His forced cynicism? He’s just afraid of showing his vulnerability. He is nervous in front of me and wants to impress me. I bet if I continue the romance path long enough, I will find out he’s actually very fragile.
His unrepentant attitude? He never knew anything else his whole life. It’s not his fault. Maybe my good influence can change him, maybe I can make him better. Perhaps that’s the point of this romance! Maybe that’s my task!
Alistair having a more impressive chest I simply waved aside, because surely I wouldn’t be that shallow?
All that time, though, there was also this other motivation: I’ve already invested too much time and effort (and gifts!) into this relationship to give up on it now.
And speaking of gifts…why was he not more appreciative? The first thing I gave him, he was thrilled. Since then, any present elicited only a sarcastic sounding “how nice”. Was I doing it wrong? Didn’t he like the gifts? Didn’t he like me any more?
That is when the new kind of doubts started to set in. Doubts about myself.
Am I doing this wrong? Saying the wrong things? Being too serious? Not serious enough? Both approaches seemed wrong based on his reactions, and I just didn’t know what was the right thing to do or say.
So I did what any desperate woman attempting romance does: I turned to Google, hoping that the vast wisdom of the internet would give me advice in my romantic ineptitude. What I found did, indeed, confirm that I’d been doing everything wrong. My confidence plunged even lower.
Nevertheless, I persisted, and finally in spite of all these issues, we were on good enough terms that I could ask him to spend the night without completely embarrassing myself. When I did, he was so coy I felt like I’d misjudged the situation again. Was he going to feel pressured? He was beholden to me, after all…was this just going to lad to tension, was I supposed to have waited until he wasn’t beholden to me, did I ruin everything?
But no, it seems he’d only been toying with me. He was perfectly willing. I felt relief…for a short while.
Then a message popped up on my screen telling me I gained the “easy love” achievement.
Immediately I panicked. Had I been too easy? Would he think I’m a slut now? Did I mess it all up?
I Googled again, and again my worst fears were confirmed. The internet told me I have, indeed, been too easy. It told me that if I had waited for him to proposition me, and then refused him, he would have respected me more. It was confirmed: I was a slut.
Every time I slept with him after that – always my initiative, because of course I’m easy, so why should he try? – he seemed to barely appreciate it, responding to my offer with “again?” and the sex barely registering in his appreciation of me. I’d ruined everything.
But still we continued sleeping together, because I continued trying, and as I did, I wondered again, a new set of doubts cropping up. Were we actually in a relationship now? Or was it just sex? How serious was he? He seemed to be all about easy pleasure, he’d even told me so himself, but there were small hints of it having potential for something deeper…I just didn’t know. I kept asking myself, “is this it? Is this all I can expect from him, from this romance?”
Then one day we had an unusually honest conversation, and he told me the tragic story of his last love. I was full of compassion, of course, but I was also thinking: damn. It sounded like this was very recent past. It had been on his last assignment. He was hardly going to be over it. And the way he talked about that woman, too. It didn’t sound like I could compare. So this wouldn’t be leading anywhere, would it? This was never meant to be a romance to last…
But on the other hand, it had been a very honest and open conversation…surely it means something?
After he was freed from his past, he thanked me and gave me a gift. I was hopeful for a moment, but then he refused to acknowledge that it means anything, and when I suggested sex, he refused. By now I was panicking. Had I ruined it again?
I realized I concentrated so much on my efforts with him that I didn’t have any close enough friends in the party to have any other real options for human contact. I berated myself for this stupid single-mindedness.
Finally, after some time and with apprehension, I asked what was wrong. He said that he was confused, because he probably loved me and the way he was raised, love was considered stupid.
I felt profound relief. I hadn’t ruined it after all.
Now look over this story and tell me it doesn’t sound familiar. And I don’t mean from your Dragon Age playthroughts, though that’s certainly possible. But tell me this doesn’t remind you of the beginnings of at least one of your relationships. Or one of your friends’ relationships. It was all deeply familiar to me. The excuses, the justifications, the uncertainty and desperate googling…
But surely this was an accident, right? Surely it just so happened that the player experience so exactly copied what many early relationships are like?
Well, let’s look at the sequel…
Hawke Strikes Back
I was more experienced now. I knew how to do romance already, and so when I saw someone I liked, I didn’t hesitate and flirted away. Especially since I could now tell what was actually flirting. No more desperate uncertainty!
As it happened, my chosen object of affection – Anders – rejected me for some stupid self-sacrificing reason, but it didn’t matter. I was less worried now, more confident, and there were other attractive options. He could still come around, and if he didn’t, I’d simply date someone else. I was a big girl, I could deal with it.
In fact, there was a character I’d already met in Origins, Isabella. While she wasn’t the type for a serious relationship, I was very happy to use this chance to sleep with her again. I didn’t worry about it, and we made it plain to each other from the start that we were just having fun.
In the meantime, I was still looking around for potential serious relationship options. The other candidate apart from Anders that emerged was Fenris. As must be obvious to anyone knowing the story from the fact that I picked Zevran before, I’m a sucker for men with a tragic past. With Fenris, though, it was more the present that bothered me. We firmly disagreed on some very essential things, and while I really liked him, he got irritated by most of my decisions. Plus he strongly disapproved of my career choice. Dating him would surely not be a good idea, I decided. Be smart, I told myself. Be responsible. This is not your first romance any more. You can guess what complications would arise from trying to romance Fenris. Keeping his good opinion of you up would be nigh impossible. Check my good friend NerdyTechy blog about electronics, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, etc.
And so when it seemed that Anders came around, changing his mind about the stupid self-sacrificing, I happily made my interest known again, pushing any thoughts of Fenris away.
Only to suddenly find myself in a committed relationship before I could say “emotional manipulation.”
Seriously, we haven’t spoken about anything romantic for ages, haven’t even flirted, and suddenly he was speaking of eternal love and adoration. My misgivings rose to the forefront again, then. This was the wrong kind of melodramatic. But still, it mostly seemed a little funny at the time, his dramatic gestures and proclamations. At the same time, though, I pitied him, and so though the idea of breaking this off before I found myself too deep did cross my mind, it seemed to me that it would completely break him. And I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take responsibility for someone’s complete mental breakdown. I I didn’t have the guts for it, so with a small sigh, I reluctantly accepted. Only to cringe through the rest of his melodramatic confessions.
I began to regret my acquiescence fairly soon. He arranged a date for that night, stating that only that would be the start of our actual committed relationship. So I went to Isabella to spend one more night with her, resigned – only to find out she already knew about me and Anders, assumed we were in a loving monogamous relationship, and so sex wasn’t not on the table. So with a reisigned sigh, I headed home, to prepare for that date with Anders. Thus began my long frustration.
There was no way out. He moved in to my house, and he was there every time I came home, reminding me of my mistake. Looking at Fenris, I tried to convince myself I wouldn’t have worked with him, that our disagreements were too profound, but to be frank, it wasn’t really working with Anders either. I resignedly thought I should have just been happy sleeping with Isabella. Who needs committed relationships, anyway? Certainly not me, if they look like this.
I turned to Google again, this time to find out the easiest way to get rid of an unwanted romantic entanglement. No one has any useful suggestions, though. It seemed I would just have to endure, my frustration mounting every time I looked at Fenris or Isabella, or every time I saw his face in my home.
He seemed to be getting only worse with time, too. At one point, he asked for my help with something pretty suspicious, and refused to tell me what. I flat-out refused to help him, even though he used no shortage of emotional blackmail to get me to do it. In fact, I hoped this would be it. He said I couldn’t claim to love him and yet refuse him in this, didn’t he? Surely this should be enough for a break-up? But no, he was too persistent by far for that. He wouldn’t leave.
My frustration reached its peak when I meet Zevran again, and I just knew, from little hints dropped by different people, that had I not been taken, I could have slept with him again, at the very least. In fact, I could have had a threesome with him and Isabella. There was little I wanted more after so much frustrating time with Anders. Instead, I was tied to that useless jerk who only ever spoke to me to emotionally manipulate me and who was becoming more and more unstable.
When Anders finally snapped, I was horrified beyond measure, never having thought he would go that far. But I also felt just the tiniest bit of relief that it was finally my chance to get rid of him. The frustration I felt over this relationship ruined the last quarter of the game for me. It soured everything I did, made me impatient in every quest and encounter. The stress had been wearing on me. But it was finally over.
So, this was different. A relationship very unlike the one with Zevran, but so familiar it hurt. Except, you know, that the thing that finally prompts a break-up is usually a little less drastic than what Anders did. Still, making allowances for the genre, it was uncomfortably spot on. I was becomign curious about the Inquisition. The Zevran romance managed to imitate the issues in an early relationship surprisingly well. The Anders one, on the other hand, replicated a much more long-standing one. If Bioware continued the tradition of sequels even in the kind of romantic issues they imitated, I couldn’t but expect to deal with the frustration of routine after twenty years of marriage…
Inquisitor to the rescue
The third Dragon Age game was before me. I would be sombre and rational about my choice this time, I told myself firmly, no more mistakes like Anders, no more being manipulated into a commitment I wasn’t interested in. This time I would do it right.
And it seemed the fate smiled on me. I met the right guy almost immediately after the game started. Finally, this was the obvious, unquestionable choice. We had similar backgrounds, shared interests, were basically colleagues. What could be more perfect?
So of course it turned out he was a condescending jerk who was convinced that his particular view of things was the only right one, and dismissive of my culture and education. Of course. At this point, I don’t even know what I expected. But I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. I wouldn’t agree to something I wasn’t comfortable with. I won’t have large chunks of the game ruined for me again by my frustration with a relationship.
So this time when a beautiful woman appeared on the scene and charmed me, I didn’t hesitate. I wasn’t going to miss on a romance with a charming lady because of a jerky man again. I learned my lesson, and I went after Vivianne.
Yeah, turned out she didn’t want me.
Resigned, I turned my attention back to the jerk, because what options did I have, really? Let’s look at the situation realistically, I told myself. Did I want to be alone? No. And he was still, in spite of his faults, the most appealing option. He wasn’t that bad, surely. Yes, he was rather arrogant, but then no one is perfect. I could deal with a little arrogance. And he was very smart, so he had something to be proud of, right? Maybe I would be arrogant too if I was him. And he seemed a little less condescending to me lately. He was a safe option, no ripe with trauma and emotional upheaval. It was exactly what I needed. Surely it would be fine.
He mostly kept his distance, not being exactly a warm person, but finally it seemed like I was making a degree of progress. Then he pushed me away again. Thinking of my past romances, I could only roll my eyes and wonder what the drama was this time. I felt too old for this shit.
But then it began to seem it was fine. It had just been some fluke, probably, some little detail. We finally got together. It was…nice, I guess. He was still very emotionally distant and sometimes extremely arrogant, but I told myself it wasn’t bad, and it was the best I was likely to get. I just had to deal with his shortcomings. Everyone had some. And surely this had a future, right, this romance was leading somewhere if only I kept to it long enough?
And then, of course, he broke up with me right before the most important event of the game. Just when I genuinely started to like him and care about him, too. Refused to even give me a proper reason, any kind of closure. And with some jerkish last line along the lines of “I will always love you”, as if he was intentionally trying to make it impossible for me to move on, he simply walked out of my life.
Later, of course, I found out there were issues in his past as well. Huge issues. Massive ones. But because I’m a lost case, instead of thinking “good riddance”, I became even more interested. Tragic past and all that. Perhaps I should just remain celibate if Dragon Age IV ever comes out…
Dragon Age managed to create romance that is incredibly realistic, probably more than they knew, since at least part of this was certainly unintentional. But it worked. With Zevran, I was reminded of the first stages of actual real-life relationships so strongly it was uncanny. Fortunately the giddiness mixed with anxiety it caused me passed soon after I finished the game. The frustration from the trainwreck that was my relationship with Anders took a little longer, and I think I’m still in that after-break up phase with Solas where I think we could have truly had something beautiful if only he had been willing to stay. Seriously, this is some dangerous territory.