Blood Vessels: part 1
A look at how character origins contributed to narrative themes of blood and identity in my playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins. Spoiler warnings apply, both for Dragon Age as a whole, and the Dwarf Noble origin in particular. Self-indulgent character babble warnings may also apply. Part 1 of 2, part 2 being here.
So… I played a game called Dragon Age: Origins last year, and I really rather liked it. To the extent that some people are probably utterly sick of hearing me talk about it, but as it’s got me writing again, they’ll just have to deal with it a while longer.
I want to talk a little about my first playthrough, and one of the reasons it was such a compelling experience for me, which was the story. I’m not talking about the story everyone played through, the generic but servicable enough fantasy yarn about defeating armies of darkness and so forth. I mean the story of my player character and her movement through that framework, how she changed (and was changed by) the world and the people around her. Now, that in itself is hardly unusual for a role-playing game of this type. Dragon Age allows for a large amount of meaningful choice, and no two playthroughs are likely to be identical. What really struck me, however, was the way that not only did the story of my character feel unique, it felt uniquely meaningful. A strong theme emerged, one that came to define the entire playthrough and leave me with a moral, of sorts. The theme was “blood”.
To be fair, there’s a lot of blood in Dragon Age whatever you do. Quite apart from the comical fountains of it you see in battle, splattering the faces of your party members, it appears all over the game as a stylistic device – spreading over loading screens, splotching across the map as your party moves. “This is Dark, Realistic Fantasy”, it seems to be saying, and it’s a bit silly, to be honest, but it’s not the only kind. Let’s focus on the kind of blood that stays, with luck, in people’s veins – and how it functioned within my game as a metaphor for identity and allegiance.
Royal Blood: Sample 1
I made a Dwarf Noble PC called Ruby, and she had damn fine blood. Aeducan blood, the ruling House. Royal blood, as she was daughter to the King! There are six different racial/social origins you can pick for your character, and each will subtly affect the game in different ways. I didn’t know much about that at the time, though, I just rather liked the idea of playing a Dwarven Warrior Princess.
The tutorial sections of the game are cleverly designed to encourage players to define their character’s personality early on. I decided Ruby would be idealistic, charming, dutiful and determined, since I generally go for the classic persuasive goody-two-shoes path the first time through this sort of game. However, her royal background, and status as second-in-line to the throne after her elder brother Trian implied that she would be conscious of her rank, and invested in the existing power structures that conferred it. Therefore, she would be socially conservative, and sometimes more concerned with maintaining the honour of her House and seeking glory for herself rather then always doing what was best for others, despite her generally compassionate outlook. Ruby was proud, not just of her own personal achievements, but of herself as a visible and preeminent manifestation of her House, her lineage and her blood.
Ruby initially had no designs on the throne, since she assumed that Trian would succeed her father, and she was happy win glory through her military victories rather than the dull grind of politics. However, things started happening that encouraged an ambitious streak to develop. Firstly, Ruby was named Commander, a great honour, and one she relished. The entire city of Orzammar was abuzz with talk of her greatness, and Ruby even started to hear rumours that it was she, not Trian, who was the favourite to be named as the ailing King’s successor. Ruby knew full well that she was the apple of her Daddy’s eye, but she laughed off such ideas at first. Still… it was a flattering thought, and flattery was a weak spot for Ruby. Secondly, while Trian had always been arrogant and bad-tempered, some of his actions since the announcement of Ruby’s military honour had been… worrying. He had been angry and rude towards her, which she wasn’t bothered by, but he was behaving in a violent, irrational manner towards the citizens as well, which she considered highly unbecoming to someone born to rule. Was he just jealous – he must have heard the rumours too – and therefore acting out? Possibly, but Ruby couldn’t help thinking if he carried on like this, he would not make a good king, and might even be actively damaging. At least, that’s what she told herself, when she started to think that she should be the one to rule. Not because she wanted to, you understand – but to protect the city from Trian! Ruby quietly began thinking about how she might gather support.
It didn’t take long for support to find her – in the form of her younger brother Bhelen. He claimed that Trian was indeed jealous, and was, in fact, planning to move against her – with lethal force. While Ruby wasn’t entirely sure she trusted Bhelen, the idea was plausible enough for her to take seriously. She refused the idea of a preemptive strike against Trian, but started to suspect the motives and loyalties of everyone around her, even down to her devoted manservant Gorim. Forced to take politics seriously for the first time, she spent hours agonising over possible courses of action, possible traps, possible outcomes. She found it tortuous, but the real nightmare had barely begun.
Despite her attempts to decipher the machinations going on around her, she was eventually forced into the trap. When she discovered Trian’s murdered body, and saw Bhelen leading her father and his guards to “catch her in the act”, she knew her baby brother had succeeded in outmanoeuvring her, ridding himself of both obstacles to the throne in one stroke. He had set up the evidence well, there was nothing she could do. Her pleas to Daddy fell on deaf ears, and she was sentenced to death-by-Darkspawn in the Deep Roads, the endless monster-filled caverns running beneath the earth. There, declared officially dead and stripped of everything but rags and a blade, she tried to come to terms with the enormity of everything she had lost: family, friends, name, honour, home, caste, rank, privilege. She couldn’t. All she could do was try to survive, pointlessly, mechanically. It was sheer luck that the Grey Wardens found her. A quasi-military secret order dedicated to battling the Darkspawn, their leader, Duncan, recognised her potential, and offered to recruit her on the spot. Ruby was hardly in a position to refuse.
Royal Blood: Sample 2
Let’s leave Ruby to adjust to her new situation, and look at another Grey Warden recruitment story. Alistair, like Ruby, is the child of a king, but born under rather less auspicious circumstances. He grew up in the knowledge that he was illegitimate, a bastard, his mother a serving girl seduced by the late King Maric. He spent his life receiving the impression that his royal blood made him special, but at the same time, that his common blood made him insignificant. One moment he was being sheltered and protected in case he proved politically useful, the next treated like a dog just in case he started getting ideas above his station and tried to head up a rebellion. No wonder he ended up confused as hell about who he was supposed to be, and under the impression that the only thing that mattered about him was the red stuff in his veins, which he came to hate. Never allowed to choose his own path, he was packed off to a monastery at age ten, and trained as a Templar to keep him out of trouble. Doomed to a religious life he never wanted, he was utterly miserable – especially as he found his dual-natured blood made him an outsider yet again: “The initiates from poor families thought I put on airs, while the noble ones called me a bastard and ignored me.” He would later make a point of not telling anyone about his royal blood unless he could possibly avoid it, including the player, when they meet him at Ostagar. When you eventually get the truth out of him, later in the game, he says: “It’s just that anyone who’s ever found out has treated me differently afterwards. I was the bastard prince instead of just being Alistair. I know that must sound stupid to you, but I hate that it’s shaped my entire life. I never wanted it, and I certainly don’t want to be king. The very idea of it terrifies me.”
It’s a testament to Alistair’s character that while he was (and remained) bitter about his experiences, he didn’t descend into angst and rebellion for long. As he grew up, he developed a protective shell of easy-going amiability and constant, often self-deprecating, jokes – something that would no doubt have gone down like a lead balloon had he actually joined the austere Templar order. Fortunately for Alistair, he was spotted by Duncan, and recruited into the Grey Wardens for his combat skills and positive attitude. This is significant, because it seems the first time in Alistair’s life that someone valued him for what he could do, and who he was as a person rather than what he represented in terms of his blood. In the Grey Wardens, whom he came to see as the family he’d never had, he felt accepted and valued as an individual, and thought he had finally escaped his lineage. He took great pride in being a Warden, and found himself genuinely happy.
Joining the Grey Wardens involves the recruit giving up all ties to their former life, including those of family and blood. This isn’t a mere metaphor either, as part of the initiation ritual involves drinking a magical concoction of Darkspawn blood that actually alters the blood of the initiate. “Not all who drink the blood will survive and those who do are forever changed”, Duncan tells us. “This is why the Joining is a secret. It is the price we pay.” Grey Wardens are tied to the Darkspawn by this bond of blood, allowing them to sense (and be sensed by) them. This is referred to in game as “The Taint” and perhaps someday I will mature enough to stop sniggering at it. The point here is that both Ruby and Alistair gave up their royal blood and physically took on the shared blood of the Grey Wardens. Ruby, proud of her lineage, had always seen her blood as an honour and a blessing, and had she understood the implications of the ritual at the time, she might have refused. To Alistair, by contrast, his blood had always been a curse, restricting and controlling him. He was no doubt thankful to try and wipe out all trace of it.
Ostagar is the point at which all the origin stories converge, and the “game proper” begins, with the player’s entrance into the Grey Wardens, their introduction to Alistair, and then of course, the total massacre of Duncan and all other Wardens by the Darkspawn. Alistair and the player are the only survivors, and it’s up to them to use their authority as Grey Wardens to convince various groups to pledge their armies to their crusade. Alistair is allergic to leadership – hardly surprising, given that he has never been allowed to take decisions for himself, and therefore has little confidence in his own judgement. This “conveniently” leaves the player in charge, and so the patented-BioWare-formula journey begins, winning over factions and picking up the usual ragtag assortment of diverse party members. With the introductions over, let’s leave things here for now, and return to Ruby and crew later on, after most of these allies have been assembled. In part 2, we’ll take a look at how the theme of blood affected the later game and one of the more crucial endgame decisions.