To all the girls I’ve loved before
I stopped playing Dragon Age because I had been leading someone on and they confronted me about it.
Let me restart. I think I am susceptible to falling in love with video game characters. Not all of them to be sure. But I do get sucked into my character. I’d say it’s only partly about the story — I also have to feel invested in the NPCs.
I did fall in love with Midna in Twilight Princess, though.
I didn’t realize it was happening at the time. It’s just that at the end of the story I was unexpectedly depressed that she was gone, both IRL and in-story. I liked having her around. She had a cute voice and was fun, even if she was maybe a demon. I think she liked me, too.
Replaying the game wasn’t the same, because it was just retreading old memories of someone now gone. I never deleted the saves — that would be like deleting old photos. And I never restarted because that seemed like cheating on what we had.
I’m not sure if that personal attachment was intentional by the game designers or not, the Midna thing. She was certainly presented as a particular trope: the sort of manga-style, annoying but sweet younger neighbor character. So I guess Twilight Princess was a dating sim in disguise?
Well, I’m not sure how to process Twilight Princess being a dating sim, so back to my Dragon Age story.
I knew going in that Dragon Age: Origins had lots of conversation branching, and that your choices affected whether, if, and how NPC companions liked you. What you said to people affected the game in real ways that affected the story. For example, you can talk with a kind of bog witch and eventually develop a relationship with her. Or you can make her hate you with unkind remarks.
I remember I met her, Morrigan, and tried to be her friend. But then I said something innocuous and suddenly she was very cold to me. I still have no idea what it was or what bothered her about me. Morrigan seemed like a nice enough person, just put in a bad place. I never got to know her well. Maybe she only likes guys.
But she wasn’t the first NPC companion to join me. My first companion was Alistair. Oh Alistair. Like, seriously this sort of doofy, kind of valiant, big dumb guy who keeps trying to do the right thing. A knight.
Alistair kept flirting with me. He was irritating and also nice. He bothered me but I liked him. I didn’t find him so much “attractive” as “compelling”. There was just something I couldn’t put my finger on.
And I didn’t really want to put a finger on him, so when we talked I didn’t always flirt with him if I knew he was angling for me. But I did sometimes. And after awhile I realized that we had one of those maybe-yes-maybe-no relationships going, and it was really fun and exciting. It’s nice to feel wanted, sometimes.
We’d finish a task or a fight and he’d compliment me. Or maybe I sent him in to be a badass and he really seemed to appreciate that. I rarely took control to tell him what to do in battles. Morrigan didn’t like him.
And then we met Leliana. I think perhaps we rescued her or she asked to come with us, or something. I don’t remember the specifics. I think I didn’t like her when she first joined us.
She was a bard. This whispy thing, head in the clouds, maybe a liability to us, perhaps let’s just not bring her along? At first she seemed to me like one of those people who writes poetry at the tavern while her purse is being rifled through.
I wish I could remember what Alistair and Morrigan thought of her — I have a feeling Morrigan said, “leave without her” and Alistair was probably charming and gracious.
And then Leliana said something to me and maybe I thought it was funny or interesting and I must have said something back that she liked. She came along, we talked. Pretty soon I was actively flirting with her, too. Now I was in love with two people.
Where Alistair was like a big, dumb puppy. Leliana was lithe, surprisingly accomplished, and she seemed to have complicated feelings. I wanted to know about her past.
I eventually realized I didn’t really care about Alistair in the same way. However, I also didn’t want to kick him to the curb, because he had a good heart and said sweet things to me. And the risk was thrilling.
At one point I confessed my feelings to Leliana. But as I chose that option I knew I would intentionally keep Alistair on the back burner.
In the beginning it was fun, each of them saying something nice to me and me responding in kind, but not too much. Stringing them along. Well, maybe a little more reciprocation with Leliana. Long looks. Touches and assurances to each other at camp when I knew others couldn’t hear or see.
And I want to impress on you that it felt embarrassingly real. I would leave the game and tell my wife, “Alistair said this!”, or, “I think Leliana still doesn’t know”. And she’d just shake her head, and we’d laugh. But it really affected me! This was a new experience — I’d never intentionally played with another person’s feelings, let alone two!
Eventually I developed a little bit of angst. I wasn’t really sure what to do about my little love triangle, or pyramid, or whatever it’s called when someone is duplicitous with people’s feelings. And Alistair was getting suspicious.
Once, after a battle, he was like, “Hey, I’ve noticed you talking a lot with Leliana. Anything you want to tell me?” And I was so flustered I just got defensive, “Now isn’t a good time, Alistair.”
Another occasion he asked me more directly and I just blew him off with something about focusing on the task at hand. Morrigan figured it out pretty early on. Oddly, I think it made her like me better. As far as I know she never told Alistair. Leliana never indicated that she knew.
Despite the building tension, we were an effective team for quite awhile. We travelled forests, we rescued people, solved quests. We added a dog and a giant and a super creepy dude who very obviously wanted to get into my pants.
All the while I was trying as hard as I could to keep my doe-eyed Alistair from falling for me any harder, and to keep my secret whispers and blushes with Leliana hidden.
Outside the game I lamented to my spouse that I had no idea what to do. How am I going to fix this situation? How do you fix any of this? I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just didn’t realize how far it would go! There was no way to let anyone down easy.
It’s hard to convey how much anxiety this gave me. Each evening I’d load the game with trepidation. I was afraid of what would happen next. I craved the fight sequences, because at least during those there was no dangerous talking. But I couldn’t stop playing because it was intoxicating to be pursued.
And then one day, as we entered some building in some town to meet some old man to help us on yet another quest, Alistair stopped me in a hallway to talk. There I was thinking, “For fuck’s sake, Alistair”, and prepared to pick a noncommittal option if he wanted to talk about “us”. But my chest was tight with dread.
He did want to talk. I said, again, “Not now” — still harboring the idea that Alistair, the big dumb puppy, was somehow oblivious to my romance with Leliana. Thinking that I had been careful enough, and spoken with enough guarded language. Still believing he was oblivious to my relationship with Leliana that had, frankly, gotten Almost But Not Yet Fully Serious.
This time Alistair was firm and he made the decision for me. I don’t remember much from this 6 year old conversation, just him angry and hurt telling me that whatever had been between us was over. Alistair angry and hurt and haltingly saying, “Just… just don’t hurt Leliana”, and then my heart breaking and my world crashing down.
He knew all along. And his heart so big and so hurt that he feared I would do the same thing to Leliana.
You know, tonight I spent a fair while trying to find Alistair’s specific dialog. I wanted to find the exact words he said to me because I can’t really remember. And while there are lots of play throughs and recordings on youtube, I can’t find the specific audio that matches my memory. “Just don’t hurt Leliana”. I can’t relive the moment, and maybe that’s for the best.
But in the process I watched a lot of videos, saw a lot of clips. It was like going through an ex’s Facebook. I got to hear his voice again… so sweet, so earnest. An English accent. He sounds like a nice guy with a good heart. Not the brightest, maybe, but he did mean well. I was such a jerk.
I do remember that after he confronted me I just skipped through the following encounter in the building with the old man. I didn’t care about our quest or what we were supposed to be doing at that point. I just wanted to get back to camp. I wanted to see if there were any options, any way to fix things up.
Alistair gave me no options. We were just companions on a mission and he had nothing to say to me right now.
Early on in the game I had decided on a sort of loose rule that I wouldn’t go to bed with any of the characters, I didn’t want to make it weird. If presented, I wouldn’t choose a sex option, I’m not that kind of girl. I’d already turned down Leliana, once.
The night after Alistair confronted me, I went to Leliana’s tent to see if she still loved me, and this time I didn’t leave. And that evening I turned off the console and didn’t return.
I never finished Dragon Age. I never played the sequels. I couldn’t risk seeing her or seeing him.
I mean, I know that it’s just a script and I played only the options made available to me. Lots of people have done variations of the same damn sequence and had the same damn outcome. You can google it.
But I’m going through a lot lately and tonight my heart is sore. I know that I chose those options, and I wish I wasn’t the kind of person who did.
Tonight I guess the best I can do is wish Alistair good night from afar, and make sure I choose my options better the next time.