I usually discover the best stories about games over a quiet drink with a friend. This week I am residing in the Isle of Wight, working with the artist Howard Hardiman, author of The Lengths. The Lengths is, amongst other things, an exploration of the world of male gay escorts based on real conversations with sex workers; illustrations and dialogue of the feelings and life of someone who lives to please other people. I found myself in The Mess asking Howard which games he liked that expressed something about the relationships between people. This will contain spoilers for Dragon Age II.
Howard explained to me that Aveline's crush on a coworker in Dragon Age II almost broke his heart. So we went back home to play The Long Road.
It turns out Howard made the main character, Hawke, a rogue assassin and a spitting image of Sophie Ellis Bextor.
Most battles we encountered were accompanied by my singing 'Murder on the Dancefloor'.
(This did not make Dragon Age II battles more enjoyable.) (This is probably not Sophie Ellis Bextor's fault.)
The Long Road is a companion quest in Act 2 of Dragon Age II that pops up just before you turn in the quest Blackpowder Courtesy. This quest is particularly interesting because if you think of it as a 'quest' that Aveline, the stern ginger Scottish widow, is giving you, it's a very frustrating one. Hawke, a fully kitted-out high dragon-smasher, is asked by her best friend Aveline, a warrior and Guard Captain of Kirkwall, to go and give a package to Donnic Hendyr, who is a guardsman.
Guardsman Donnic is situated just down the hall from Aveline's room in the keep. Just down the hall. He is in the next room over, pretty much. You could throw the package in there. It's the sort of 'quest' that your best friend might give you when you are both eight and playing at being mages and assassins in the playground.
"It must be something important if you're going to all this trouble," Sophie Ellis Bextor says.
"That's none of your business," Aveline says, in her clipped Scottish tone. She has a very pained look on her face the entire time she's discussing the issue.
"I'll walk a hundred feet to him," Sophie Ellis Bextor says, sort of shrugging.
We sort of dander out of the room, expecting the whole building to suddenly go on fire and dragons to appear to try to punish us for protesting a quest that completes one hundred feet from Aveline. Instead we just run into walls by accident, accidentally navigate the wrong way and eventually learn to use the minimap to follow the gold quest mark. When I say 'we' I mean me. I could get lost in my own museum.
We get to Guardsman Donnic, who just seems to be standing around in the keep doing nothing. Sophie Ellis Bextor has not seen Donnic in three years, and she forgot he was a hunk. He looks like Mr Darcy. He's got those sideburns, you know, like he actually sculpted his facial hair instead of letting it grow the messy way Sophie Ellis Bextor likes it. (Sophie likes stubble.) Donnic greets us sort of happily. This is probably because we saved his life way back and he remembers that he likes being alive, I think smugly.
"It's apparently very important," we say, giving Donnic the package.
It is a copper relief with marigolds on it. "It's a copper relief...with... marigolds on it," he says. He seems confused. We have just given him garbage.
It's at this point you can glimpse the teenage awkwardness. You understand how this is going down: Aveline, widowed three years ago, possibly forced to kill her own husband out of mercy... Well. She is lonely. And she has forgotten what it is like to tell a man she wants to be close to him.
Aveline remembers that remark made back when she hired Donnic. He said he looks forward to having Aveline "over me... above me. In rank." The awkward correction was something she noticed. She was probably shocked that anyone could think that way about her. She probably remembered what it was like to have a libido. She probably understood at that moment that other people besides her husband could want her.
It takes a very fine writerly hand to extrapolate moments like this, to gently tug players' memories into connecting one-line moments together. This moment is quite funny in one way: my Sophie Ellis Bextor is standing there hating the situation, annoyed that she has basically been employed to give someone a terrible piece of tack. She's standing there in full armour just seething. The armour is probably very heavy. It is probably not often used to transport copper flower flibbertigibbets. And Donnic seems completely bemused.
JUST TELL HIM YOU WANT TO FUCK HIM! my brain yelps, which is curiously similar to what Isabela, the sex-positive pirate thrill-seeker in my party, will say later. (I feel as if Isabela and I would get on very well.)
In another way, this moment is incredibly sad. Aveline is restrained and haughty. She seems afraid to let go of any kind of control. She understands what she is doing is unethical: Donnic is in her employ. And she seems unable to be open about her feelings, even to her friends, who are all standing in the room witnessing her pained expressions. In particular, Isabela is there, someone Aveline constantly slut-shames and calls a whore, but Isabela is happy with her life and her sexual relationships, demonstrated in a nice piece of incidental conversation that can happen as you wander about the game. It must be painful for Aveline to see Isabela enjoy herself, and not be party to the self-hatred Aveline seems to harbour.
Aveline is outsourcing flirting to us.
Aveline then gets us to post the patrols roster up for her--something she could do herself--and listen for Donnic's reaction when he gets a preferred route. It all backfires when the other guards think he's brownnosed some higher-up to get it.
Aveline then proposes to send a dowry to Donnic's mother! "Goats" and "sheafs of wheat"! This is an unusual reversal of roles: Aveline's assumed the traditional medieval western man's role here--she is essentially bypassing Donnic as an agent of consent, or at least suggesting that a bribe would be more likely to get his attention than a simple hello or an invitation to a drink at the pub. She comes to the sensible conclusion on her own.
We offer to drag Donnic into the office ourselves. Aveline thinks it'll look bad and she's right. So she makes Sophie Ellis Bextor ask him out for a drink so that she can interrupt and say hello.
~oh teen romance~
So Sophie Ellis Bextor sits in the pub with Donnic and it's the most awkward thing ever. Donnic is bored and wants to leave. Sophie Ellis Bextor gets a little drunk and he tells her that he's not into her, which is pretty insulting, but, you know, Sophie Ellis Bextor can just ask Isabela for a little attention if Sophie Ellis Bextor wants it. She is bound to her duty.
Aveline lurks in the background and bottles it. Donnic leaves, and I hit my chair in frustration.
The elf in our party, the one who has been a slave for most of his life, tells Aveline that she's squandering something she doesn't understand. I feel a little sting for Aveline: I think she does understand what she is squandering, but she doesn't understand how she is squandering it.
So we embark on a mission to kill some irritating questcreatures, and we draft Donnic's help, of course.
It is a mission filled with awkward conversations about how nice swords are and aren't swords good and... well, perhaps there is some sort of double entendre at play but Donnic doesn't take a hint. One starts to think that Donnic is a little emotionally thick.
Part of me is genuinely thinking: AVELINE IS WAY OUT OF HIS LEAGUE. WHY DOES SHE LIKE HIM? HE DOESN'T EVEN LIKE TO TALK ABOUT SWORDS.
"Take a hint and bend her over a basin," Isabela says to Donnic, finally, with everyone standing around.
Did I mention I really like Isabela?
"Captain?" Donnic says to Aveline, all discombobulated like a fuzzy little dachshund.
He goes back to the barracks and it's easy to think it's all over for Aveline. If it were me in real life, it'd be all over. This sort of stuff never comes good for me. Usually whenever you really want someone, really want someone, you can't actually have them. You really want them for a reason. Usually because they are not for you. At one point I was tempted just to use a romance option on Aveline, one that said "He's not the one for you."
Back at the barracks Aveline thinks she has to apologise to Donnic and try to persuade the other guards they can still trust her not to hit on them and try to seduce them all day; Sophie Ellis Bextor seems annoyed at her panic-stricken face. One of the conversation options is to tell her to ply him with awkward gifts, which I am pretty sure is a piss-take of how Dragon Age: Origins relationships used to work. (You used to just give Alistair gifts until you could plough his royal ass into the sun.) But reassuring Aveline that everyone understands libidos happen seems to calm her down a little.
Donnic turns up and wants to have a word with Aveline. They shut the door and Sophie Ellis Bextor eavesdrops like a scumbag. After a while there is giggling.
"Donnic did not file a complaint," Aveline says to you after Donnic leaves.
Howard and I burst into laughter.
This little strand of companion quests is very touching: there's a little teenage angst there that's quite rare to see in games. Everyone involved behaves like a human being: awkward twitching masses of attraction, misunderstandings, frustrations. There's little feeling that this is taking place in a fantasy realm apart from the fact that you have to go down a quest halfway through to beat up some weird creatures. Aveline's past with her late husband, which the player had some part in, looms large over all her emotional foibles and hovers gently over all your conversations with her. You want her to succeed, but she's making it very hard. Isabela's sex-positive outlook wins out in the end - her outburst "Take a hint and bend her over a basin" is a necessary burst of honesty that finally has Donnic understand what is happening around him.
Usually 'quests' are about the difficulty of overcoming enemies you are fighting, but there's a very interesting narrative difficulty presented here. The 'quest' structure is used to illustrate some major barriers to articulating how you feel to another person. Often the quests are about the actual failure of indirect communication: the gift system of the first game is neatly critiqued in the giving of some meaningless trinket to Donnic, and mentioned jokingly in later dialogue options.
The whole pattern of having a crush is played out over a few short, very easy quests. The finding reasons to be close to someone. The attempts to contact your crush through another person.
In short, this Dragon Age II quest, instead of being about killing enemies, has articulated very well how a person might try to fight themselves.
Anyway, it turns out Donnic did not try to file a complaint.
The previous S.EXE columns are here.