Blood Vessels: part 2
Part 2 of a look at how character origins contributed to narrative themes of blood and identity in my playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins. Spoiler warnings for endgame events apply! Part 1 is here.
We return to our protagonist, one-time Dwarven Princess Ruby Aeducan, much later, when she was considering her next move. She had recruited the elves and mages, and healed Arl Eamon with the sacred ashes. Nothing now remained but to head home… or what used to be home. She’d been putting it off, dreading what she might find.
She had to assume that Bhelen was king now. Her joyful reunion with Gorim in Denerim had brought with it the news that her beloved father was dead. To hear that he had realised the truth about her innocence, and died, as she sees it, of a broken heart, was almost too painful for her to bear. She swore to wear the shield he sent her until they tore it from her cold dead body, but not before she’d had the chance to Shield Bash Bhelen’s treacherous face with it. She’d never blamed her father. She even still had the sword he gave her when he exiled her.
Ruby knew she wanted revenge on Bhelen. What she was less sure about was what else she wanted. Sure, she needed the support of her people for the Grey Wardens, but the question preying on her mind was: did she want the throne? Even assuming she had the force and opportunity to press her claim with the Assembly, was it really what she wanted? It never used to be. But what was the alternative – let Bhelen get away with it? And what of her own future? After her exile, she had kept herself going with hope: hope that she could raise an army from the surface dwarves, storm Orzammar and reclaim her birthright. She told herself that becoming a Grey Warden was just a means to an end – if she was going to save her home, she had to defeat the Darkspawn first, and what better way to prove herself worthy of the throne? Simple, right?
So she had thought, a few months ago. Since then, much had happened to bring home to her that, while Orzammar had been her entire world, it was really only a corner, and there were bigger problems to face. She had become a Warden from lack of better options, with no real understanding of what it entailed, but now she was stuck with it, and Ruby was not one to shirk her responsibilities. She had committed to the Grey Wardens, and, although it was a difficult adjustment for her, she tried to remember that her first duty ought to be to them, and not her homeland, even as her desire to prove herself, revenge herself, vindicate herself burned through her veins. After all, her blood wasn’t what it used to be – it was Grey Warden blood now.
Ruby’s return to Orzammar ended up being her turning point, as a character. She didn’t get everything she wanted. She didn’t prove her innocence of Trian’s murder, but she did get to smash Bhelen’s smug face in, and that counted for a lot. More importantly, though, she let go of her dreams of the throne. From the moment she set foot back in Orzammar, it was clear her crimes were not forgotten, and there was no way she’d be able to take over through the normal channel of the Assembly. All through the long treks down to the Anvil of the Void, she kept debating with herself. Was she really supporting Harrowmont because she thought he’d be a better king than Bhelen, or was it pure vengeance and spite on her part? She had jumped onto his bandwagon because he was a weapon to strike at her brother with, but she had her doubts. Part of her still believed that only the Aeducans deserved to rule; Harrowmont was unworthy of being named king.
Returning with the crown that would give her the power to name her father’s successor, she was still wavering. Bhelen was out of the question, but part of her still wanted to put herself forward, try to claim power for herself. There were several reasons why she turned away from that path, however. One was her duty as a Grey Warden. Difficult as it had been in the beginning, she realised she no longer belonged in Orzammar, and in fact, it stifled her now. Bhelen had proved to her long ago that even family blood was no guarantee of a lasting bond, her family were her fellow Wardens now, and her place was with them, not with the Dwarves. She had a Blight to defeat, after all. Secondly, she realised that she had to let go not only of her own blood, but her beliefs about her blood. She was not the only person in the world who could govern Orzammar. Her father had trusted Harrowmont, and she respected that. For all she knew, he would do a far better job of ruling than she would, and to assume anything else was purest arrogance. Blood was just that – blood, and hers was not special just because she attached the name of Aeducan to it. After all, Bhelen was just as Aeducan as she was. It meant nothing at all. The person most suited to rule was the one who would be the best at it, not the person with the “right” blood.
(The third reason Ruby didn’t try for the throne was that there’s no dialogue option to do so! I had already decided that Ruby wouldn’t pursue such an idea, but I was disappointed when it turned out she wasn’t even allowed, when it seems so natural for Dwarf Noble PCs! Wuzrobbed!)
Harrowmont was crowned, over Bhelen’s dead body, and later Ruby watched him staring down the long line of nobles, queueing through the throne room to pester him with their petty demands and grievances. She thanked the ancestors for an arrow dodged, and ran full-tilt from Orzammar, out into the sunlight, screaming with joy.
So, the princess ended up rejecting traditional monarchic succession. Which, while it marked a shift from her earlier position, wasn’t actually a move away from Orzammar’s existing political system, since that was always more of an oligarchy anyway. However, someone who had played the next section of Dragon Age might well guess how those events might be influenced by such philosophies.
Not A Drop of Royal Blood, or: In Defense of Anora Mac Tir
The penultimate section of Dragon Age is essentially a political battle, dominated by the Landsmeet, the nobles’ assembly. The player needs to gather sufficient support from the members to win the vote, and must then choose who to put on the throne. Your choices are: trustworthy and all-round nice bloke Alistair, your brother-in-blood and possible paramour; or backstabbing Anora of the mysterious intentions, the Machiavellian daughter of Loghain, a man who has been your enemy all along. Tough choice, right?
Right. I find it very hard to understand how anyone can justify making Alistair king! Not because I think he would be bad at it, necessarily. I tend to think he’d be fine, especially if the player has talked him into thinking for himself a bit more, so that he actually wants to be king, and gains the confidence to be a strong ruler. Alistair may start out terrified of being a leader, but he does a lot of growing up in the course of the game. He is quite capable of being king, if it’s required of him. I just don’t happen to think it is, or that it should be.
A few words about Anora. Dear Anora. Many players have had words to say about Anora. “Bitch” is one. “Scheming bitch” are others, also “scheming, backstabbing, manipulative, selfish, power-hungry bitch”. Arl Eamon even calls her “…spirited”, in tones that make it very clear what he actually means. “Spirited” belongs in that category of Victorian-novel style words, along with “feisty”, and “lively” that means (to paraphrase Rebecca West) “woman who differentiates herself from a doormat”, which is to say, “bitch”. As far as I can see, the whole “bitch” thing is because Anora has the temerity to think she’d make a better ruler than Alistair, and says so. In this, she may very well be right, and certainly from her perspective it’s an extremely valid viewpoint. Anora is nothing if not intelligent and capable, and has already proven herself as a very successful Queen for the last five years, whereas Alistair is totally inexperienced. As for “scheming” and “backstabbing”, she is actually remarkably open about her goals, and is perfectly loyal to the player as long as they don’t move against her first, in which case I can hardly blame her. I have very little sympathy with the view that Alistair needs to be on the throne just to keep Anora off it. The main reason for initially proposing Alistair as king was because it was assumed that Anora was colluding with her father. Once she has been won over, once she has proved her loyalty by speaking out against her father, and especially once Loghain is actually dead, there is no longer a valid reason to shove her off the throne.
Your political advisor, Arl Eamon thinks otherwise. Here is one possible conversation path with him, after Anora offers to join forces with you:
Arl Eamon: Be careful how much trust you place in her. I do not for a moment think Anora means to give up her power easily. Still, I would rather have her where we can watch her than actively working for Loghain.
PC: I think she would make a better ruler than Alistair.
Arl Eamon: Anora was a capable administrator for Cailan’s lands, but she has not a drop of royal blood. We did not fight the Orlesians all those years just to lose our royal line in a single generation. Not when there’s a surviving son of the blood.
PC: Why does that matter?
Arl Eamon: Ferelden was first united by Calenhad, the Silver Knight. For four hundred years, his descendants have ruled Ferelden. That was the heritage we preserved from the Orlesians, and it is the heritage I will fight for as long as one of Calenhad’s descendants still lives. Without that to unite us, we could scatter back to warring teyrnirs.
Are you convinced by that? I’m not convinced by that. It sounds like handwaving and bluster. Sure, this is a quasi-medieval fantasy world, where people might be inclined to buy into the romantic myth that royalty are special magic, but I don’t have to. Nor did Ruby, for that matter – she knew firsthand just how dangerous and foolish it could be to consider someone fit to rule just because of their “blood”. Stories about unbroken bloodlines of heroes are nice to have, but at the end of the day, that unbroken bloodline is meaningless in any terms other than the purely symbolic. Everything ends somewhere, and life goes on. Despite Eamon’s vague mutterings about civil war, there is absolutely no evidence that this would be the case: Anora is wildly popular and beloved. If people are mourning for the bloodline of Calenhad to the point of revolt, they’re keeping a very tight lid on it. Anora even claims the reverse – that she is the only one who can control and unite the nobility, and prevent the civil war that would ensue if Alistair ruled.
Ruby liked Anora. They saw things the same way, and forged a loyal partnership that worked out well for both of them. I like Anora, and am inclined to argue with anyone who doesn’t. Am I just too wrapped up in Ruby’s viewpoint? Is Ruby’s Anora the “real” Anora, or just one possible Anora? One aim of this piece was to talk about how the background and experiences of a player character shaped her view of events, and an issue like Anora brings that sharply into focus. Part of me wants to argue that, objectively, she is the best choice for the throne regardless of player character, but… best choice for who? Not for everyone, perhaps – Anora has a poor record of handling the Alienage. I could certainly see a City Elf argue that they have no interest in upholding a status quo that has done so little for them, regardless of the fact that Alistair is an unknown quantity. Ruby herself had a poor record of acting in the interests of the Orzammar casteless (and speaking of character bias, Ruby’s arch-nemesis Bhelen can come across as quite the champion to a Casteless Dwarf PC). Was Ruby’s backing of Anora a case of privilege supporting privilege? Honesty demands I mention the possibility, but sympathy with Anora wasn’t the only factor in Ruby’s decision.
That whole duty thing
At the end of the day, Ruby couldn’t make Alistair king because it felt like a betrayal. When he had first told her he was Maric’s son, her political sense had immediately realised: “We could use this to our advantage!” but she had bitten her tongue, knowing it wasn’t what he wanted to hear. She had reassured him that his blood didn’t matter to her (something of a white lie), and that she liked him for who he was (true). At the time, it had been little more than a mollifying platitude; it wasn’t until after she had returned from Orzammar that she fully understood how true it was, and why it mattered.
Alistair has spent his life having his entire existence reduced to the contents of his veins, and making him be king is the ultimate expression of that. He’s unknown, unqualified, unprepared, usually unwilling, and yet some believe his blood still makes him the right choice. “Theirin blood will tell. You’ll rise to the occasion”, the PC can say to him. ”The way they talk about Theirin blood you’d think I should maybe just jar it and stick that on the throne” he mutters. The focus on his blood dehumanises him, making him nothing more than a vessel. In his life as a Grey Warden, he’s found something he’s good at, that he is valued for, and that represents a destiny he has chosen for himself. Most importantly, it makes him happy.
All through the game, the player is bombarded with messaged about duty, that being a Grey Warden is about putting your duty before everything else, certainly including your own happiness. Alistair is fixated on this noble Grey Warden ideal, and Arl Eamon exploits this sense of duty when he convinces Alistair that he has to pursue the crown. Except that… hang on, which duty are we talking about here? As a Grey Warden, Alistair has duty to not be king, since Wardens aren’t supposed to take positions of power, and in any case, he has a Blight to defeat. The only duty Alistair had regarding the kingship was to put himself forward as a candidate to unseat Loghain, which no longer holds true once Anora is on side. Even so, Arl Eamon is still pressuring Alistair to feel he has a duty to his royal blood (as opposed to his tainted Grey Warden blood, which, lets not forget, was supposed to have negated his royal blood) to be king. It almost seems like Alistair has developed such a Pavlovian response to the “whole duty thing”, as he puts it, that any appeal to it will succeed with him, even when he himself can’t actually articulate the nature of the duty he is pursuing. The fact that the alternative to this nonsensical “duty” is happiness and relative freedom actually seems to serve as a deterrent, since these are things he has been trained not to expect, hope for, or feel that he is remotely entitled to. Which is not to say that he doesn’t desire them, but it’s very hard for him to see the pursuit of them as anything other than selfish and bad. It was becoming clear to Ruby that Alistair needed saving – both from Arl Eamon trying to lock him up in yet another cage, and also from himself!
As a player, it was a strange experience to feel that my character was no longer the most important person in the story, but that’s how it felt, by this stage. As the Landsmeet loomed, Ruby and I were of one accord – we were going to do all in our power to keep Alistair off that bloody (no pun intended) throne! Everything Ruby had been through so far seemed to prepare her for this decisive moment. Her rude awakening about the corrupt and corrupting nature of royal blood. Her realisation that power could restrict you more than it freed you. She had also learned when to relinquish control, to trust in the ability of others to take the helm. This seems a very strange moral to take from a game, since games, as a rule, deal in nothing if not control. It’s also a strange thing to get from a heroic fantasy, which tend to come down to Only You Can Save The World. But then… wasn’t that Loghain’s fatal mistake? He was a great hero, he saw himself as the only one capable of saving Ferelden, that only he understood the true threat. He was dead wrong, and many people suffered as a result.
A great many Hero’s Journey-type stories, in games and elsewhere, are stories about young people coming of age, taking responsibility for themselves and others, and assuming a great and important role that only they can fulfill. Heck, I’ve told that story myself in other Dragon Age playthroughs – it’s a wonderfully flexible game in that way. But I found it very refreshing to tell a different story. One in which two people, apparently set up by fate and lineage and blood to assume positions of power and authority, turned their backs on it all. Who realised that taking responsibility didn’t mean taking on every possible responsibility available to you, regardless of whether you were the best person for the job, it meant recognising which ones were actually yours, and dealing with those. Who learned that doing your duty doesn’t automatically mean choosing the most painful thing; sometimes, if you’re lucky enough, the path of duty can also be the path to happiness. Who decided that your lineage needn’t dictate your character or your destiny, and that bonds of shared family blood can also be forged for yourself (literally, in the case of the Grey Wardens!), and can be just as binding. You get to decide what’s in your blood, and what it means to you.
Postscript: …Just me?
That, in a rather oversized nutshell (trust me, it could’ve been much longer!) is the main reason I enjoyed Dragon Age so much: the collaborative narrative experience that the writers and I shaped together. Thanks guys! However, after I finished the game, and started reading the forums and talking to other gamers, I found myself surprised. Of course, I expected lots of people to have had made different decisions from me, but it was interesting that the vast majority of people seemed to have made Alistair king. I even heard 80% quoted as a BioWare figure for it, which is unconfirmed, but since they collect data from everyone’s game, they certainly know how many players did what. It’s certainly true that there are a few conversations with Alistair towards the end of the game in which he refers to himself as king, even if the player chose Anora. I had written it off as a bug at the time, but checking the toolset, there are no alternate non-king lines written. And nobody at BioWare noticed during creation or testing? It’s tempting to interpret this as evidence they barely considered the idea that the player might not crown Alistair. Perhaps that’s why, in the recent Dragon Age: Awakening expansion pack, they chose to include him only in his capacity as King. When I imported Ruby, she was rather surprised to find her fellow Warden apparently scrubbed out of existence, and to hear herself referred to as the only living Grey Warden in Ferelden. But, y’know, I’m trying not to be one of *those* fans about it. I’m not gonna wail about imposed canon, or narrative betrayal; I can deal. My story is still my story, and I stand by my decisions. And am prepared to defend the honour of Anora Mac Tir against all comers!
Huge thanks to Alex, Erik, Karen and Scott for proofreading, feedback and discussion!