da:i maximum feels playthrough 8.1 : the good kind of hurt

Cut for spoilers for the DA:I Trespasser DLC.

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Here’s the thing. Or a thing, at least.

Games have always tried to sell us, and themselves, on the idea of friendship, with varying levels of success. Sometimes it is friendship that is supposed to win the day in the end–to cause the pause, the hesitation in the baddie’s eyes, that reminds us he had another choice, once, to be someone else, before the hero runs him through. Sometimes–okay, often–it is touted as the superior alternative to romance: one’s comrades, after all, are thought to be less likely to drag their new beaus out in front of you just to spite you. Etc.

Whether it’s the beefcake camaraderie of dudebros bristling with weaponry, though, or the simplistic starry-eyed devotion of JRPG characters who stood together on a beach once as kids and made foolish promises, it is a hard sell. It goes down easy, sure–but then it comes right out the other end, like crap through a goose. Because these portrayals of friendship, however recycled throughout various forms of media, are pat, hackneyed, and one-dimensional. They bear little resemblance to the friendships we eke out in our lives–particularly as adults, today, where friends don’t just grow on trees or bump into you at the water cooler. We all have Nalgenes–we don’t have water coolers anymore. Friends must be actively hunted for, wooed, and then delicately tended, like bonsai trees. It is hard fucking work. Especially if you are an inveterate asshole like me, where the urge to push just a little bit too far, to test that bond just a little too often, is directly proportionate to how much I need you in my life. The compulsive need to make sure the knots still hold has to be constantly balanced with the restraint required to exist as an adult today.

Much has been made–for good reason!–of the romantic options in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I am (hello, fanfic readers!) an avouched and ardent fan of that side of it, it’s true. For more reasons than it makes sense to say, here. But the end of the Trespasser DLC–by which time your romantic options, if pursued, have sorted themselves out, cutscenes finished–is the gut punch I was waiting for. And it is because your friendships are, if not ending, entering that stage where they exist more in each individual’s memory than in the air between you, out in the light. The friendships which, unlike those benignly colorless relationships portrayed in JRPGs, or the unquestionably loyal (and thus terribly bland) relationships between FPS commandos, are fraught with dissonance, misunderstandings, and the ever-present need for tending. These friendships took work, as friendships between adults really do. Please one person and you’ve pissed another off. Spend too much time with one and the other feels lonely–or simply has found other things to do; other people to do it with. You can’t just throw the right gifts at them and expect them to like you. Or to reference one or two memories from youth you dredged up in a back room somewhere, and expect that to count for lasting affection. Pay up–with your heart, and your time–or they will cash out.

As people do.

I spent so much time anticipating Solas’ arrival in this DLC–hurtling down hallways, cutting through enemies, slamming puzzle pieces together, all in a rush to finally confront the bald elf and have my suspicions confirmed or blown to smithereens–that I didn’t even prepare for the fact that this, all of this, was ending. I didn’t have time to think–it didn’t even cross my mind–that Iron Bull, who in this playthrough let his Chargers go in favor of the Qun (which I chose to do merely to differentiate it from my other playthroughs!), would betray me. So casually, too–and so painlessly, for him. “I felt nothing. There was no pain,” Cole insists, stunned. The betrayal did not hurt Bull one bit; his loyalty to the Qun was so complete there was no fiction he had to struggle to maintain this whole time. Sure, we were friends, yeah. Until we weren’t.

As you can see from my all-caps raging yesterday, that came completely out of left field for me, and I was livid. I’m not even the biggest Iron Bull fan–one can only make room for so many beefcake dudebros in one’s life, after all–but I was outraged. I had built that friendship. Taken him where he wanted to go, tried to comfort him, helped him mourn–and he turned it off at the flick of the switch that was an order from a fellow qunari. That burned.

But then to see everyone together. To read their little notes–like Sera’s scrap of journal paper in the tavern–or the words they don’t say, behind the words they do, in missives they’ve carefully constructed for you, to let you know how they have been in the intervening years.

To tell Solas you didn’t think of him as a person who could do this, and to hear him reply, in genuine gratitude, “Thank you.” And to know he’s going to do it anyway.

It’s a gut punch. It’s what I wanted. If people were really unfailingly loyal, unwilling to be parted from your side through thick or thin, we wouldn’t need stories of people who are like that. But the friends you forge in Dragon Age are not those one-dimensional comrades of legend. They are fallible, and they love you. To a point. Past that, they may fall away from you, even turn on you. As people do.

However full of regret sometimes, they do.

Seeing the last glimpse of these friendships, here, in all their delicacy and imperfection, is the twist of the knife that is the end of the most emotionally satisfying gaming journey I have ever had.

So thank you, everyone who had a part in it. I will miss what you created.

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