The Games We Play: The Spirit Within
Please take note Gentle Readers: This post contains some fairly significant end-game plot spoilers for Dragon Age II. If you do not want to have this roller coaster ride ruined for you, please consider moving on. You have been warned.
Now that I have showered some well-deserved praise on BioWare for Dragon Age II, and also engaged in the almost 60 hours that it took me to get to the bitter and mind-wrenchingly disturbing end, I have a few thoughts. For all of my waxing poetic about how fabulously progressive BioWare has been with their slick political messages and wiggling new ideas into the way we consume and play video games, there was this thing tugging at me as I took my Hawke faffing about Kirkwall.
Dragon Age II drops you into Kirkwall in the midst of tensions between two factions of people, and in the center swirls a major character NPC, whom I mentioned the other day, Anders. Anders is possessed by a spirit of Justice, who has been corrupted by Anders' own hatred of the religious order who has controlled his life despite his no less than seven escapes, and a fairly colorful past that has endeared him to many fans of the game. Anders, as a result, has moved beyond wanting to enact Justice for those mages who have been wronged by the Chantry and its templars in the same way that he has been his whole life, to exacting Vengeance against those who have done them wrong. When your Hawke meets him he is barely holding on to himself in the process. I got the creepy feeling that we were supposed to see him as someone whose experiences paralleled a personality disorder.
Isn't it clever? Because it is a spirit possession, you see!
Throughout my play of the game I got more and more upset as the final act of the game unfolded, as more characters were revealed to be doing things considered to be morally corrupt or downright evil and having my dialogue reduced to, “She's clearly crazy” or, “Why are all the mages insane?” Some who were not evil succumbed to desperation, using forbidden forms of magic that eventually destroyed them. They were all nuts! Clearly this is the only explanation as to why a person would be driven to extreme measures. A healthy helping of ableism at its finest.
Not uncommon is the conflation of mental illness and violence, and video games are not immune to that.
Not only is it assumed that anyone who would do something morally depraved or simply wrong out of desperation is clearly mentally ill, but the laughter abounds about the status of Anders and his tag-a-long spirit. Characters were constantly asking if “Anders is in there,” though, in the writers' defense, this was met many times with Anders rebutting their ignorance. I am still, as a person not familiar with the type of mental illness that might mirror such a struggle as Anders faces throughout the game, not sure how I feel about this depiction—even if I think the way they wrote this severe character change for him was, from a fan's perspective, fairly clever. I don't know that I give fantasy genres a pass to make these parallels. At least, not without questioning them.
The Kirkwall Chantry in Act III
When Anders commits an incredible act of violence so large-scale that it actually shook me, I couldn't help but wonder what the implications were. Were we to blame the corrupted spirit inside Anders (the spirit in me made me do it!)? To be clear, I do not condone extreme acts of violence as a means to an end, but I am not prepared to accept, “Oh, he did it because he's crazy” as an excuse when things of this nature are brought before us to consume.
Horrible acts of violence, when linked to mental illness in pop culture, perpetuate the stigmatization of people with mental illness in real life as potentially violent. They give audiences the idea that it is OK to strip the rights of persons with disabilities because we could, at any moment, become a danger to the public, even if we never have before. All of the mages in Kirkwall were deemed in need of control because they were all going crazy, another stereotype of the mentally ill. Eventually their deaths were all called for, because they were deemed too much of a threat. Anders' fanatical act exacerbates this situation, and you as the player are left to make a literally life or death choice in a situation that sadly sits too close to home for anyone who has had their autonomy stripped from them due to mental illness. Yes, the NPCs believe that Anders is in fact crazy. I would lie if I said that ten minutes of game play and cut scenes didn't make me cry.
I won't tell you right now what my choices were regarding the end of the game, but I did feel a great sigh of relief when it ended and my Hawke left Kirkwall in an inferno of chaos. For all that I enjoy BioWare and their RPG creation, I don't particularly care for having aspects of my own personhood treated as if they are funny or the perfect fodder for a video game story arc. I will admit, however, that there may be more to discuss here.
Have at it.
Photo, again, courtesy of Twist_Shimmy, because she is fabulous to me.
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