Dragon Age Postmortem: Oh, Alistair

Okay, out of my extensive readership (of possibly two dozen) this will interest, I think, four people at the very most: but I have been absolutely obsessed for the past three weeks with this computer game, Dragon Age, and I’m really kind of driven to sort out my thoughts about the game. Warning: this entry will be very spoilery for anybody who might want to play the game but hasn’t yet.

Roger Ebert recently sparked an Internet brou-ha-ha when he stated, categorically, and foolishly, that video games can never be art. (He later backed down from that stance, kind of.) That debate doesn’t interest me very much as to me it’s flatly obvious that art can potentially be made from any materials, and within any form or genre. And I wouldn’t argue that Dragon Age is Art with a capital A. But it is philosophy.

Not necessarily very sophisticated philosophy, mind you, but the game is remarkably coherent in advancing a particular worldview—one that I think, from my conversations with my BFF (a recovering philosopher), would correctly be described as utilitarian. As you play the game you are forced to make moral choices, and sometimes there is no purely “good” option. Instead you have to decide what kind of sacrifices you’re willing to accept in the name of the greater good. This is, from my perspective, what the game’s about. It has multiple interweaving storylines—potentially hundreds of them—but the main plot elements all reinforce the same theme: There is no victory without sacrifice. Some mages have been possessed by demons: do you slaughter them all—even the innocent—or do you choose to run the risk of allowing a demon-tainted mage to survive, potentially threating the entire kingdom? Orcs (well, “darkspawn,” but it’s the same idea) are marching on your fortress—will you weaken its defense by sending forces to protect the outlying settlements, or do you allow the villagers to burn in order to strengthen your position in the ultimate battle? You’re about to challenge the corrupt king in a meeting of nobles, and to win a diplomatic victory you need every vote. Will you allow the son of one of the important nobles—a rapist—to escape justice, in order to get that noble’s vote? There’s a ton of these decision points.

And sometimes it’s personal. The game gives you a small number of potential companions to help you in your battles and your political scheming, and each of these companions has their own opinions on the choices you face, as well as their own storylines and side quests. Let me introduce you now to Alistair:

Alistair is a nice guy. He likes it when you help people, and usually objects to taking the ends-justify-the-means path. He’s also really useful in battle, as he’s tough and armored and can act as a “tank,” drawing aggression away from your character and soaking up most of the damage in a fight. He’s also your first companion, tied to your character tightly in the storyline: both of you are Grey Wardens, members of an elite strike force who absorb some elements of the “darkspawn taint” into yourselves in order to be able to more effectively fight them. So you, the hero, are from the beginning tainted by darkness—it’s not subtle, is it? (When I tried to tell Sam about how my character had the taint, and Alistair had the taint too, and how this made us very close, he did nothing but laugh at me. After that it was a lot harder for me to listen with a straight face to all the game’s dialogue about taint. And there’s a lot of it, too.) Most of the Grey Wardens get wiped out early in the game, so you and Alistair are set up as the only survivors of this band of brothers. Although he’s your senior in the order, he defers to your leadership from the beginning. This might seem to be a game-mechanic contrivance—you’re the player, after all, so it’s always your decisions that matter—but other characters remark on it during the game, and as you travel with Alistair he slowly reveals more of himself.

He’s actually the bastard son of the former king, and this has caused him nothing but grief in his life. He was shipped to a distant relative of the king’s where he was raised mostly in the stable; what attention he received was mainly aimed at drilling into him that he would never have a claim to the throne. Those who didn’t hate and fear him because of his parentage were jealous of him, so affection was scarce in poor Alistair’s childhood. When he was old enough he was pushed into the clergy, which he hated, although he did take to his martial training as a knight-templar. So he shuns any sort of leadership role mostly because royal politics have been so bitter for him.

Alistair’s armored not only with heavy plate, but also with quips and self-deprecating humor. His little comments during your travels, and banter with other party members, can be inordinately funny. Under that, though, he’s starved for love, and will cling to any sort of affection shown to him. If you’re playing a woman, and you’re nice to him, he’ll start flirting with you in a tentative sort of way; you can figure out pretty quickly that, having been raised by the clergy, he’s not had a lot of experience with the fairer sex. But between his goofy jokes and bashful come-ons you’ll also see flashes of fire from Alistair: he believes strongly in justice, duty, and the honor of the Grey Wardens (who he’d latched on to as a surrogate family, before they were all slaughtered: oh, Alistair).

Anyway, you can push the Alistair relationship in a lot of different directions. Depending on your choices he can be your faithful comrade-in-arms, your lover, your King; or he can end up exiled or beheaded. Because the game is relentless in pushing its “in victory, sacrifice” motto, in many ways the outcomes that are best for Alistair are worst for the kingdom, and vice versa. In probably the cruelest ending for Alistair’s story, it’s possible to force him into taking the throne through a loveless political marriage to the daughter of his worst enemy, and then to shatter his ideals by inducting that enemy into the Grey Wardens, allowing him redemption through a hero’s death. In Alistair’s eyes this makes a mockery of justice, desecrates the meaning that the Grey Wardens had held for him, and traps him in a marriage with a conniving and manipulative Queen who will always remind him of the hatred he holds for her father. He’ll never forgive you if you do this to him: but it also results in a Golden Age for the kingdom. In the game’s logic, you see, Alistair’s mercy and compassion are well-balanced by the Queen’s ruthlessness and capacity for manipulation, as well as her political connections, and so the sacrifice of his happiness and your friendship wins the best possible outcome for your people.

I didn’t know all this when I played. I knew that I loved Alistair’s combination of wounded-puppy endearingness and knight-templar courage and convictions, and returning his affection resulted in the development of a surprisingly affecting romance, one bright and beautiful thing in all the darkness. (Again, the game’s not subtle: at one point Alistair gives you a rose and a little speech about how he picked it as his reminder that beauty exists even amid the horrors of a demonic invasion. He gives it to you because you’re his rose. Oh, Alistair.) I did my best to protect him, emotionally, as the game proceeded: this was probably a mistake, but it wasn’t until after I’d finished my first playthrough that I understood quite how relentless the game was going to be in its commitment to a shades-of-gray philosophy. I was starting to cop to the realization that in this world nice guys finish dead, but Alistair had me, to do what was necessary and to soothe him about it afterwards.

It’s actually possible to “harden” Alistair by teaching him that everybody’s out for themselves, but in order to do this you have to be cruel to him at a vulnerable moment. Because it’s Dragon Age, you probably should do this if you intend to make him King: a price must be paid, always. You actually have the opportunity to determine a royal succession twice in the game—once for the human throne and once for the dwarves. Your choice in the dwarven kingdom is between a lying, kinslaying dwarf and a noble and honorable one. It turns out in the end that the backstabbing one is capable of securing a much better outcome for his people. Similarly, a hardened Alistair makes a better King. (He also jettisons his scruples regarding sexual fidelity, which can allow you to remain his mistress even after he becomes King, if you’re willing to accept that as a “happy ending.”) In my playthrough, though, I loved my geeky, noble Alistair and so I protected his idealism and his naivete.

I had come to conceive of my heroine as empathetic and compassionate, but with a steely streak of cold pragmatism: she was not above telling people what they wanted to hear in order to get her way. I had my “Coercion” skill maxed out and could pretty much manipulate anybody into anything. I tried to use my powers mostly for good, but when it came down to it I would sacrifice innocent lives for the greater good. I decided somewhere through the playthrough that Alistair was the only person I’d never lie to, and so we had at least one memorable spat over a decision I made, but he accepted in the end that I’d done what I thought was right.

At this point you may be starting to see how sophisticated the game is in modeling a complicated relationship, and also how much emotion I was investing in the game. I was practically two-timing Sam with this collection of pixels and scripts. (Sam, somewhat infuratingly, didn’t seem to think he had any competition, and continued to get a lot of juvenile amusement whenever I babbled about taint.)

I navigated the Landsmeet well enough—didn’t get a pure diplomatic victory, had to spill some blood, but I secured the throne for Alistair and then declared that I would be ruling beside him as Queen. Alistair took this news well enough; he still didn’t want to be King, but was willing to accept it as a matter of duty, and was rather more startled anyway by our sudden engagement. (“Is this the point where everybody starts laughing at me because I have no pants on?” he muttered while the crowd was applauding us.) Later, in private, he had more to say: “I like the idea,” he told me, “but they’ll want an heir, you know…” And then he broke some bad news to me about the darkspawn taint. Not only was it going to kill us both in the end, but it has a very negative impact on fertility. I guess this means it’s okay that we were sharing a tent at night and never found any medieval condoms in the loot drops.

Well, of course, my mind immediately started churning for answers. (Maybe the Grand Oak in the elven forest could bestow some kind of fertility magic…maybe the mages could whip up some kind of silverite-based potion to temporarily suppress the taint…) but none of that was in the dialogue options, so I chose “It’s not necessary” (“Well, it won’t be for lack of trying!” seemed rather too flip a response to a serious matter of political stability) and Alistair sighed heavily and agreed with me that we could push that problem down the road for a bit, and maybe we should just concentrate on killing the Archdemon and winning the war against the darkspawn.

At this point I started to get a little bit irritated with Alistair. “I like the idea” is pretty far from a romantic proposal of marriage, after all, and I didn’t like that I’d been forced to declare myself Queen in front of the whole Landsmeet rather than having him go down on bended knee. I’d discovered, though, that Alistair would actually break up with me if I made him King without doing that: because of the fertility issue, if left to his own devices he was going to go find someone untainted to be his Queen. It was all due to that pigheaded sense of nobility and duty, the one I’d played on to get him to take the throne in the first place; he would insist on sacrificing his own happiness for the good of the kingdom. I didn’t want that, so I was willing to railroad him into marriage, but I resented it a bit.

Plus, his dialogue had changed. When we were first flirting, and he was working up the courage to ask me to share his tent, if I clicked on him I’d get a smouldering “Your desire is my command” in response. Now it had changed to a brusque “Something you need, my dear?” We still slept together at night, and I had the option to kiss him if I wanted, but he was no longer taking any initiative in our relationship. And I knew this was because he wouldn’t; Alistair didn’t have any more romantic scripts to offer because, left to his own initiative, he wouldn’t be in a romance with me. I’d used my Coercion against him after all. And the damn game wasn’t even going to be satisfied with that; the designers would be thrilled to know that they’d gotten me to violate my own private little scruple there, but the game didn’t know about it, so it wasn’t going to count as the sacrifice that would be demanded.

It was the night before the final battle when everything went to hell. First I learned the last secret of the Grey Wardens: because we had mastered the darkspawn taint (I can hear Sam chortling even now) we were the only ones who could truly slay the Archdemon. Normally its soul would simply pass into the nearest tainted vessel, meaning that as soon as one Archdemon was struck down, another would rise. But if a Grey Warden delivered the killing blow, the Archdemon’s soul would pass into us, and we would not be possessed. We’d be killed.

At this point in the game there are three Grey Wardens: Alistair, the player, and a new Warden who shows up suddenly from another kingdom to offer some exposition. New Warden offered to take the killing blow himself, but I don’t think either Alistair or I truly believed he was going to be capable of it. I said I’d do it if he fell, and Alistair didn’t argue. Then we went to bed, and not even together: we’d been given separate rooms at the estate we were staying in, and when I dropped by Alistair’s he didn’t even invite me to stay. So, fuming, I headed to bed…

…where I was confronted by one of my other companions, Morrigan the Swamp Witch. I liked Morrigan well enough—didn’t trust her farther than I could throw a cave bear, which incidentally is one of the things she can turn into—but found her powers useful and her brittle, antisocial dialogue amusing. I had however found it prudent to separate Morrigan and Alistair early on, as they were prone to falling into the kind of snappy repartee that generally (in stories at least) betrays a simmering attraction. And in fact Morrigan was there to confirm all my suspicions. It seems that, all along, her goal had been to conduct some kind of “dark ritual” with a Grey Warden, a sex rite that would get her a baby with the power of an Archdemon. If I let her have her way with Alistair, the embryo would absorb the Archdemon’s soul and Alistair and I would both live. In return, Morrigan would disappear with the child and never be seen again. She refused to say anything more about what she wanted with the baby.

I wasn’t about to be party to this. Firstly, I think imbuing a baby with the soul of an Archdemon probably counts as child abuse. Secondly, Morrigan would be the worst mother ever. Thirdly, it would break Alistair in terrible ways to know he’d created his own bastard child only to sacrifice it to a witch. Fourthly, the game had been just exquisitely cruel in letting me know that since I could never bear Alistair’s child, in all likelihood it would be the swamp witch who would have his only heir.

But if I were willing to agree to this, I could be Queen, and rule the land with Alistair as my King.

I went to Alistair just to see what he’d say. I expected he’d be horrified and that it would take massive amounts of deceit or Coercion to get him to accept this bargain. Instead he dithered about for a bit and offered up a weak: “Are you sure? I mean…is this really what you want me to do?”

“NO, you spineless idiot,” I yelled at the screen, “it is absolutely NOT what I want you to do.” I was really put out to discover that almost all of the dialogue choices lead, after some token resistance, to Alistair’s accepting the bargain. In fact I’m not sure if it’s possible to make him refuse! I knew he secretly liked her. Well, he lost a massive amount of approval points with me right there, let me tell you. Minus twenty at least. I stormed back to Morrigan and told her to shove her dark ritual where the sun don’t shine.

So I went into the final battle, knowing that I would have to sacrifice myself, and basically seething against Alistair. “I know it’s dumb,” I told Sam, “but I’m mad at him for not taking a stronger stand. I know he’s just a computer game character and it makes sense that he’ll do what the player says. But I liked him for his convictions and his passions and it’s like he doesn’t have any of that now.”

I don’t remember what Sam said but it was something along the lines of “At least you’ve still got his taint.”

Anyway, as I marshalled our forces during our final battle I kept clicking on Alistair to see if he finally had anything more meaningful to say, but it was always just “Something you need, my dear?” Finally I took down the Archdemon, and ran up to it as it fell to claim my Heroic Destiny…

…and, hey, cutscene. Alistair jumped in and wants to talk. Let me take the final blow, he says. I’m the king and it’s my duty.

Shut up, I say. That doesn’t even make sense. It’s because you’re the king that you have a duty to survive. But none of the dialogue options match this precisely, so I choose “That’s not the real reason and you know it,” annoyed again that I have to prod him into declaring his feelings for me.

Which he dutifully does. “I know how I feel about you,” he says. “I can’t let you die, not when there’s something I can do to save you.”

Here’s the dialogue option I wanted at this point: “You can’t even use the word love, Alistair? To your FIANCEE? After everything? I’m about to die, you gigantic douche. WHATEVS. Get out of my face.”

Here’s the dialogue options I actually got: One that basically said “yeah, okay, go ahead,” and one that read “No. I can’t let you die either.” I chose the No option, knowing full well that Alistair was only a collection of pixels and could only do what I, the player character, decided. No, Alistair, I told him as I clicked it. Go off and be king.

Here’s how Alistair responded:

“You say that like I’m giving you a choice.”

And then—as I gaped at the screen in slack-jawed disbelief—my computer boyfriend grabbed his sword, vaulted heroically atop the fallen form of the Archdemon, drove his blade deep in the creature’s skull, was bathed in an explosion of power, and died.

And that was the end! THAT WAS THE END. The former queen—the daughter of Alistair’s worst enemy—got to keep the throne and rule alone. She actually did a good job of it according to the epilogue. For my role in defeating the archdemon I got to ask her for a single boon; I chose the one I thought would mean the most to Alistair, which involved rebuilding the Grey Wardens. All my other party members congratulated me for a job well done and seemed to expect me to be happy for some reason. I wanted to kill them all. They all asked me what I would be doing next. None of the options included “Throwing myself on my lover’s grave and sobbing my eyes out.” My character walked off into the sunset and the credits rolled.

I went to Sam to tell him what had happened. “Alistair…killed himself! For me! I had just been complaining about how he didn’t show any initiative and then I told him I was going to take the killing blow and he said, he said, You say that like I’m giving you a choice…”

“Are you crying?” Sam asked scornfully.

At that point I went online to read about all the different possible endings. I was sure I’d gotten the very worst one, and I fully intended to reload and do whatever it took to get a happy ending. It turns out that there are lots of different paths and they branch in complicated ways. Considering Alistair’s story alone, you can “harden” him or not, romance him or not, let him remain a Grey Warden or push to make him King—in which case you can end up as Queen under a certain set of circumstances, or his mistress under another set, or he may call off the romance as I’d already discovered—you can accept Morrigan’s ritual or refuse it, and you can bring Alistair to the final battle or force him to remain behind. There are many, many possibilities, but none of them lead to a happy ending, at least not for the Warden that romances Alistair. The game is in fact absolutely diabolical on this point.

Through a process of elimination I eventually came to understand that the ending I got wasn’t the very worst. It was the only possible ending for us. Because I am not willing to accept Morrigan’s dark ritual, a Grey Warden has to die. So long as he is at my side in the final battle—and he loves me—Alistair won’t allow me to sacrifice myself. I can save both Alistair and myself by allowing the corrupt general Loghain to become a Grey Warden and to take the killing blow, but as I explained before, Alistair views this as the ultimate betrayal, much worse than death. Or I can save Alistair by refusing to allow him to accompany me in the final battle, but he objects to this too, invoking the fact that being a Grey Warden is the only thing he’s been proud of in his life and that it’s a Grey Warden’s place to fight the Archdemon. Refusing him on this is a betrayal more subtle than giving Morrigan what she wants, or making Loghain a Grey Warden, but after hearing his dialogue on the matter I accept that it is a profound betrayal nonetheless. Stripping him of a Grey Warden’s place at the crucial moment takes away something from him that has been the core of his life’s meaning.

If he weren’t in love with me, he could stand with me against the Archdemon and still allow me to sacrifice myself; but it wouldn’t be enough to simply go back to the Landsmeet and allow him to break up with me. In this devious, diabolical game he’d still love me, and so he’d still insist on sacrificing himself at the end (with the added twist that he’d declare himself a fool for ending the romance and beg my forgiveness before he died). I would have to do something terrible to genuinely lose his love. And I’m not willing to do that.

So there are a million different possible endings, but no combination of choices will let you get through without accepting some kind of pain. And because I’m me, and he’s Alistair, and this game is mean, the only ending I could ever get is the one where my computer boyfriend, a collection of pixels and scripts, shocked me at the crucial moment by being the man I’d made him.

Oh, Alistair.


46 Responses to “Dragon Age Postmortem: Oh, Alistair”

  • Jennifer Says:

    So who are the other three readers? 🙂

    I loved your post. Alistair is an interesting phenomenon. Bioware has a long history of romanceable NPCs, and Alistair was the first genuinely desirable male they’ve ever pulled off, IMO. Did you play the Baldur’s Gate games? Ugh! The romance options were like some chronically-dateless guy’s idea of What Women Want, it was cringe-worthy. Hooray for the Happy Party patch, which allowed female characters to romance female NPCs, because overall, Bioware is WAY better at creating loveable women. Zevran was fun, and a very good character – but I’ll bet his romance never sent a single female player running in tears to her husband. 🙂

    I played Dragon Age as a dwarf, and since the heir to the throne can’t marry a dwarf, it was not hard for me to persuade Alistair to marry Anora even though he was my romance in that game and I didn’t ‘harden’ him. And I sent him to Morrigan’s room. I had a pretty good rapport with her by that time and I’m not at all sure she’d be a bad mother. So my ending was one that didn’t disappoint me too much. I was SO disappointed I couldn’t romance Gorim, though – he gets some awesome flirty dialogue with the Lady of Orzammar at the beginning of the game and then it goes nowhere. My character had a huge screaming meltdown in the market when she found out he’d married another woman. If they’d made him a romanceable character, well, they just might have another Alistair on their hands.

    Have you played Mass Effect? My Bioware Boyfriend obsession is WAY more embarrassing than yours. And OMG, I do mean obsession. Apparently it happens a lot with this character though – I hear Bioware had to make him a romance option in the sequel after getting bombarded with demands by dirty fangirls like me. :-p
    http://fangirlisms.com/2010/01/08/garrus-vakarian-you-xenophilia-inducing-bastard/#more-786

    I am really lucky that my husband also gets intensely into his Bioware romances, so he doesn’t laugh. He was crushing on Leliana pretty hard there. And right now he’s blowing stuff up with his Mass Effect sweetheart, Miranda. 🙂

    • shannon Says:

      Oh! I had a question maybe you can answer — in the dwarven Noble/Alistair interaction, is there any dialogue option where you can tell him “Yeah, I know what you mean, my dad was a king too?” Or anything to that effect? It seems like it could be a nice bonding moment.

    • shannon Says:

      Also! (Man, you can see how desperate I am to talk about Dragon Age, sorry for unloading like five hundred replies on you here…) But let’s talk about Morrigan! I would have liked her better except that Flemeth won my trust almost immediately. Her dialogue is crazy good! Funny, and at the same time breaks the fourth wall in a really subtle and interesting way. Like when she calls Ser Jory “sadly irrelevant to the larger scheme of things” (it’s like she KNOWS that he’s just a temporary companion!), or when you confront her at her hut and she seems to be talking not to your character but to YOU, the player — I can’t find the direct quotes now, but during her “Or does the story take a different turn?” speech I realized she was talking *as if she knew that she was a character in a game*.

      So yeah, I’m Team Flemeth. I do like Morrigan, but I think ultimately she’s up to no good.

      • Jennifer Says:

        Shannon, I am so happy you replied because I am having exactly the same desperation to talk about my Mass Effect experience and how I felt as my choices affected the game universe. So I completely understand where you are coming from! I wish we’d been playing at the same time so we could have chatted about it as the game progressed.

        I don’t know if I made it clear in my earlier response that the Alistair romance kind of broke my heart, at the time, for almost all the reasons you mention, except that at least with me he didn’t die. And you know, when you get your heart broken, you want to talk about it with someone who will understand, who won’t smirk and go, ‘I hope you realize you are in love with a bunch of pixels, you big nerd’.

        I agree with you about Flemeth. I found it very hard, in Morrigan’s quest, to know which path to take, because Flemeth is very charismatic and seems much more sane and sensible than Morrigan (understatement!). But the evidence that she was going to kill her own daughter seemed very compelling, and even though I disliked Morrigan rather a lot up until that point, it changed the way I feel about her, that this mother who had been a real mother to her, and about whom she’d shared all these childhood memories, not only did not love her but had planned all along to slaughter her in cold blood. I mean that is really deep-level nightmare stuff! And the empathy I felt towards her from that made me very receptive to the idea of allowing her to conceive a child with the man I loved, who could not marry me even though he wanted to.

        By the way, feel free to switch to email if you prefer to take this offline! I don’t know how big you like your comment threads to go.

        • shannon Says:

          Okay, I will play Mass Effect, and then we can talk about it.

          That is a really sweet way of looking at Morrigan’s offer. But then since you took her up on the ritual, did you ever get your “I was an idiot, please let me die for you” speech from Alistair? Was there any satisfying closure to that romance, or did it just end with him breaking it off after the Landsmeet? What did he say to you after the battle?

          • Jennifer Says:

            As far as I can tell Alistair *always* tries to die in the end game. In my various playthroughs it didn’t seem to matter whether you romance him or not, make him a king or not. It seems to be a Grey Warden identity thing. The closure was weak. You talk about the Dwarf Thing when you’re talking to him about whether he or Anora should rule, and he’s all about the duty. I think they could have done that better. If he does the Morrigan ritual, you guys can agree to run off and be Grey Wardens together and give the throne to Anora, but that’s pretty much all there is.

  • Jennifer Says:

    Hmmm… apparently this blog format turns all emoticons into smiles. Well, just imagine tongue-in-cheek and winks into my comment where appropriate. Hee!

  • shannon Says:

    Huh, that’s weird about the emoticons — I just upgraded to a new version of WordPress. I wonder if it’s a bug?

    I knew you’re a gamer so I should have counted you, but I didn’t: the four I was thinking of are Dom and Dawn, who I know have played the game, my brother Jesse who has as well, and my friend Todd who had the same reaction to Alistair but couldn’t romance him because it’s a het-only romance. So he experienced The Tragic from a whole other perspective.

    And, omg, I’m a fan of the Bioware games from way back, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. I never managed to trigger the romance with Carth in Knights of the Old Republic, but I did do that stuck-up paladin in Baldur’s Gate, what’s-his-face, Anomen. Bland as porridge. I was much more interested in the adorable Mazzy to be honest, but I don’t think she was romanceable by either gender.

    I think it’s endearing that your husband went for Leliana! I gather most of the dudes go for bad-girl Morrigan, but I think picking the sweet little redhead shows plain good sense.

    I played through the Lady Aeducan opening and found it surprisingly entertaining: in fact I think it’s my favorite of the origins I’ve tried. (I don’t think I can ever do a Cousland origin again: finding my murdered nephew is just too awful, though I *do* like that you start with Dog. The City Elf origin is good if a little bit trite; the Mage origin is too railroaded, although I appreciated getting more perspective on Jowan. I haven’t tried the Dwarven Commoner or Dalish Elf origins yet.)

    While I didn’t spring for Gorim (I find large beards off-putting) I did a little throb at his parting line: “My lady, I will always be your man.” Swoon! Actually I found the snotty-princess dialogue to be irresistably funny. “Gorim, why is this peon talking to me?” “Because he has forgotten his place, my lady.” “Gorim, tell this woman that she may leave.” “Go.” “Gorim, have that man killed.” “Publicly or discreetly, my lady?” Priceless.

    I have Mass Effect (the first one) sitting on my hard drive right now, but I haven’t gotten past the expose-Saren mission. I guess I just find sci-fi less compelling than fantasy. Also, I had a look and Alistair doesn’t seem to be ANYWHERE on that starship!

    But hey, maybe I should give the hawt cat-lizard guy a whirl…

    • Jennifer Says:

      Gorim had the best dialogue in that game, he really did! I’m kind of “urg” about beards myself, but a deadpan sense of humour trumps *everything* with me. It’s just the most endearing trait a man can have.

      And oooh yes to Mazzy. I guess they figure she’s too short for the player character! I romanced Jaheira on every playthrough, *and* named my cat after her. :-p Incidentally, if you romance Alistair as a dwarf, he frets that you might think he’s too tall.

      No, you don’t get an option to tell Alistair that you’re the daughter of a king too. But you are right, you should!

      I will try not to rave about the hawt cat-lizard guy too much because. Um. I already do that too much. My husband is very patient. But I would very much like to know if you do play through, what you think! I’ve heard a fellow crazed fangirl describe him as “the Alistair of Mass Effect” and, well, it’s actually a very good description once you get to know him.

      Hey, as a longtime Bioware player: Did some Dragon Age characters seem, well, a bit recycled to you? I was like, Oh look, Haer’Dalis is back, and now his name is Zevran, and I was pretty sure Leliana was created in response to all the fanboys who were mad they couldn’t romance Imoen. I’m trying to pretend it didn’t occur to me that Morrigan was based on my Jaheira…

      • shannon Says:

        “Incidentally, if you romance Alistair as a dwarf, he frets that you might think he’s too tall.”

        *snorfle* Oh, Alistair.

        I do see shades of Haer’Dalis in Zevran, except I liked Haer’Dalis better — though I always set him up with Aerie. I’ve read about Zevran’s romance progression and will admit that it’s quite sweet, but my first reaction to the character was “I wouldn’t touch that except with gloves on. You don’t know where it’s been!”

        It did strike me that Shale is a lot like HK-47, at least at first…

        To be honest Leliana and Morrigan reminded me more of the angel and devil girls from Planescape: Torment. They’re very archetypal in their good girl/bad girl presentations.

        • Jennifer Says:

          That’s really interesting because I did not think of Leliana as a good girl. (Not that I remember Planescape: Torment well enough to comment on that aspect, since I can’t find a computer that will run that ancient game anymore, OH SOMEONE REMAKE IT PLEASE BEST GAME EVER). I actually came to dislike Leliana more than I disliked Morrigan. When she started talking about how much she liked the lying/manipulating aspect of being a spy, I lost all warmth for the character. Morrigan may be a bitch, but she’s a frank and honest bitch! She’s recycled in Mass Effect 2 as Subject Zero, and although I was disposed to hate her initially, the exact same thing happened as with Morrigan – doing her personal quest made me feel all protective of her. Which is obviously what Bioware intends.

          Oh hey! Remember Deionarra? She’s the one character I DO remember from Planescape (I will wait for you in the halls of Death, my love…), and the same voice actress is Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series. Makes me smile.

          LOLOL at “I wouldn’t touch that except with gloves on.” My exact reaction to both Zevran AND Haer’Dalis!

    • Jennifer Says:

      I meant to comment on the het-only romance thing. It is so bizarre that the butchest female characters are het-only in Bioware! I don’t know why they do that, if they’re afraid of promoting stereotypes, or what. In ME1 I fell so hard for Ashley and I couldn’t romance her, it was killing me. And then my husband *did* romance her, and I was seriously pissed at him for like a week! “You slept with my girlfriend, you pig!” And then because I couldn’t have the hot butch I went and dated the sweetie-pie girly-girl with whom I had nothing in common, and when she inevitably left me I fell in love with a space alien. It’s horribly like my real romantic history, in fact, except for the part where my husband isn’t an extraterrestrial, not more than normal human males are anyway.

      • shannon Says:

        “You slept with my girlfriend, you pig!”

        I’m laughing so hard at this.

        Yeah, I finished up the first batch of Citadel missions (I’m pretty sure we’ll be coming back) last night, and if I hadn’t had your input on Garrus I think I would mostly be choosing Ashley and Tali for my squad. We’d be like Charlie’s Angels, in space.

        • Jennifer Says:

          My Shepard is an engineer like Tali so there wasn’t much point in having her in my ME1 squad, but she’s in my ME2 party (NPCs have unique classes in ME2) and I am really enjoying her. My ME1 usual squad was Wrex and Garrus and their byplay amused the hell out of me!

          What is your Shepard like? Mine is Paragon – Spacer – Sole Survivor. I based her appearance loosely on Brienne of Tarth.

          Looking forward to hearing about your game progression. 🙂

          • shannon Says:

            I liked the default Jane Shepard face a lot, so I just went with that. I chose the Spacer – War Hero origin.

            In the first few conversations I kept getting renegade points — I was just choosing the tough-Space-marine dialogue, like “Cut the chatter” and “There’s nothing we can do for him now”. I was kind of surprised but willing to go with it: I mean, my Shepard is a hero but she isn’t *soft*.

            In the Citadel missions though I seemed to accumulate Paragon points. I do generally choose to help people, so…

  • Dom Says:

    This was really interesting to read, I’m glad the game worked for someone!

    I wasn’t actually playing, just watching Dawn, but I hated Alistair from the moment I met him. Well, no, “hated” is too strong. He’s just so useless. And it instantly broke my suspension of disbelief because he didn’t seem like a character who could possibly have grown up in this dark world – and particularly not as the son of a king. Also, his dialogue (and the lead character’s – Dawn was playing a female human noble warrior) often sounded like a modern teenager. Struggling rather weakly to be witty, showing no sense of place or culture. Ugh.

    For me the problem with the romances in all the BioWare games is that the authors have such a narrow idea of what is attractive. Not a single one of the player-is-het-male/npc-is-female romances have ever been the slightest bit interesting to me. It’s like they’ve worked out how to tell stories with computer games but haven’t yet worked out how to tell good stories.

    The problem I had with the ending was that it didn’t feel like an interesting moral dilemma, it felt like lazy writing. Someone has to die? Really? That’s like one of those classic dilemmas from African folklore where you have to choose who dies and there’s no option but to make a choice.

    If I was going to play the game myself I think I’d play a dwarf warrior and just be consistently rude to every character I met. Not because that’s my preferred style of play, but because at least that way I could be reasonably confident that the dialogue trees wouldn’t suddenly force me to act out of character!

    • shannon Says:

      I do actually agree with you on the dialogue being jarring. I would have preferred less modern dialogue — not that I want thees and thous flying all over the place, but when it’s a choice between going for the joke and maintaining a consistent atmosphere, I wish they’d go for the joke less often.

      Alistair is the first Bioware romance that seriously engaged me. And it’s not just me: he does seem to be quite the phenomenon among the fangirls. The Bioware forums are chock full of Alistair fanart and fanfic and whatnot. The fic is universally dreadful, but some of the art is quite good: a gal called Aimo does some really nice Dragon Age comics.

      I’m okay with the ending choices, even though none of them are happy. It’s possible to save everyone, after all, if you trust Morrigan (and some players obviously do). I think for a male PC who is romancing Morrigan, taking her up on the ritual makes for probably the best possible ending.

    • shannon Says:

      Along with the dialogue, Alistair’s haircut sometimes bugged me. So here we are camped out in the Deep Roads — where’s he getting the mousse to maintain that flippy bit in the front?

    • Dawn Says:

      Actually “hated” certainly summed up how you came across!

      The first time I died, the second time Alistair died for me (I think my stat hadn’t reach 100% the first time).

      Interesting to know that there really isn’t a happy ending!

  • Jessie Says:

    Nothing in particular to say about this except it was really interesting! It must have been fun to write.

  • Jessie Says:

    I mean, the game script. But your post is also interesting.

  • Addai Says:

    Hi there! Thanks for posting this on the Alistair thread on BSN. I loved reading about your experience! “Oh, Alistair” indeed.

    I’m curious about your mention of a Golden Age for an Alistair-Anora marriage. This has been a subject of some debate on BSN, because the toolset seems to point to this outcome only for Anora-male noble, but several of us have seen a slide for a Golden Age with Alistair + Anora. I’m guessing you got that slide, as well??

  • Nina Says:

    omg it is just like the end of Doctor Who season 1 when he sends her back in the TARDIS!

    okay, maybe not, but my brain can’t stray very far these days.

    nevertheless, this was a totally interesting read. gamer or not, I like to keep up with what’s going on in your romantic life.

  • Amy Says:

    Shannon, this post is utterly fascinating. My recent obsession with Eccleston-Tennant Doctor Who has raised a lot of the old questions about xenoromance from the depths of my mind (and so forth), and human/AI romance is right up in there. What is it that creates attraction and interest between creatures, and how can we assume that what looks and feels like romance to us isn’t something else for an alien or a computer? Of course, Alistair is supposed to be a person like you, but he is really a computer simulation (and clearly a pretty good one). So much of what romance is takes place in the lover’s mind, and the actions and reactions of the beloved create that series of impressions, wish-fulfillments, desires, and heartaches, perhaps without any intention or full consciousness after all. And yet it moves. Hmm.

  • mico Says:

    Nice to meet you. Shannon.
    My English is poor, but I just want say
    I have the emotion too
    when everyone looks like so happy after Alistair died
    I want to kill them all to show how painful I was
    why they just don’t get it?
    My love gone!! dies in a terrible way
    that’s totally make my heart broken
    actully I decide to let him sacrifice when I know one of us have to die
    because I can’t let him suffer from my sacrifice alone
    but I was no expect that he will deny my claim
    make me have no choice, even not saying goodbye
    I’m really really so depressed it’s end like this

    I play this game again, too
    even it’s so complicated to see him again
    alive, and not knowing his destiny after all
    I will do everything to avoid he die infront of me again
    but you know.. DAO is a game that make you feel which option is right
    then everything going worse
    so hard, but I will try
    NO MORE STUPID SACRIFICE, Alistair.

  • mico Says:

    hello, I come back again.
    with your last paragraph
    I think it’s truth
    Alistair will die like this
    only because I am myself
    and Alistair finally become the man we expect
    so in DAO
    we get the sad ending by same reason
    so hurt……….

  • Nina Says:

    Hey Shannon,

    I just wanted to say how awesome your Alistair article is! Reading it felt like watching Sex and the City in the cinema – the moment a thought would cross my mind someone on the roll behind me would say it outloud – like a unified female mind – reading your post felt the same because you have literally scripted all my emotional experiences with Alistair throughout the game.

    My experience is similar to yours outside the PC as well – just now I was reading excerpts of the article outloud to my boyfriend trying to explain why I found it so funny and true and how amazing it was that so many women can be so smitten with the same digital boy- and it sparkled this whole “what do you see in Alistair” debate. I swear I don’t know if it’s the tostesteron making it impossible or what but I just can’t make him understand. To him Alistair is this weak whiny boy that is boring to talk to and not very useful in the party because there’s like 4 other warriors in the game to choose from. He hasn’t picked up the whole taint yet but his favourite joke is “why don’t you finish your work and go play with Alistair”.

    When I was playing the game the first time it was one of my housemates that I was constantly babbling to and I remember that when I found out about Morrigan’s ritual I was heart-broken with jealousy and frustration and my housemate said “The importaint thing is that you will both survive and you will have a long happy life together and lots of children of you own” NE-NEEEEE oh wait, that’s not happening because we’re both TAINTED!!
    I was an elven mage and I thought that added a very nice dinamic to our relationship: We were both orphans raised in a strict and oppresive environment but also taught to be warriors. Before we became Grey Wardens I was a mage and he was a templar and that is the big taboo – the big forbidden love. In that way the taint actually allowed us to be together which I thought was very romantic. He didn’t care that I wasn’t human and I didn’t care he was a royal bastard. I was selfish and I wanted happy ending with Alistair where he is mine alone. It took alot from me to make him go through the Morrigan ritual and I made myself watch the video as punishment. It hurt. But in the end I realised that if I wanted to keep us both alive I had no choice. I knew that you needed a gray warden to kill an archdemon and about morrigan’s ritual before my first landsmeet but i didnt know you could choose to recruit Loghain. So when the opportunity was presented to me I thought with my selfish mind ï can recruit him and make him sacrifice himself and then Alistair will be mine alone” , I was so excited about the idea i forgot to THINK what it actually meant for Alistair. So when I tried to spare Loghain’s life Alistair flipped out and told me the most horrible things in front of all our friends and all the nobled of Ferelden, I begged him to stay but he wouldn’t have it. He left. That almost killed me, I felt so stupid and humilliated and scared that there could be no happy ending for us.

    So long story short, I made him go through the ritual and I didn’t make him king. I choose Anora. I felt really uncomfortable about my decision right up until the moment we walked on Fort Drakon’s roof when I poked Alistair for one last kiss before the end and was surprised to hear him say: “I thought I was going to have to be king and it terrified me, but you, you didnt make me king, and Loghain still got what he deserved. Everything worked out, thanks to you.” And at that moment I felt like I’d done not what was best for the kingdom but what was best for my Alistair. So I stabbed the demon in the face, choose to grant the circle of magi its independance and to rebuild the gray wardens. In the epilogue it said that Alistair stayed forever at his love’s side and left for a short time only once to go to Duncan’s home town and build a small memorial. And that was that. I felt a bit cheated however because as I was talking to alistair right at the very end after Anora’s coronation he said that he will meet me upstairs later and we can talk more then if I like and I my head was filled with illusions of sweet romantic dialogue options and then I ran out of the door and BAM! THE END
    Anyways now I am replaying the whole thing with a human noble and will harden and marry Alistair and see what happens.

    Wow it’s kind of funny how desperate I am to talk about Alistair to someone who understands! Again, thank you for writing this! I hope there is someone at least as sweet and charming as Alistair in Dragon Age II.

    Well I think I’ve ran out of things to say for now, once again, THANK YOU!!

    Nina

  • Nicole Says:

    Thank the Maker you posted this lovely piece, I was beginning to think I was all alone in my disturbingly real cartoon romance. I must say I feel very betrayed because when I first started playing Dragon Age I didn’t even like Alistair, I remember feeling extremely dissapointed when I got stuck with Alistair tagging along. I had really hoped Duncan would be the romanceable companion.

    I’m not really even sure how it happened, it was so gradual. I hadn’t even considered romancing him, then one day I found myself leaving Morrigan behind at camp, worried that they were secretly developing an underlying thing for one another. I really don’t know how he found his way into my heart, I certainly wasn’t looking for it. I suppose maybe it was his boy like innocence and charm combined with his idealism, honor and chivalry. I mean he’s litterally a knight in shining armor for cryin’ out loud, especially if you have him equipped with the juggernaut armor! Maybe part of it was that we were both Grey Wardens and we didn’t know how many might be left, we had to stick together. I just know that I found his banter endearing and loved that he was always there, he had been my faithful companion from the beginning. When we were slaying darkspawn together he would rush to my side to protect me if I were overwhelmed by enemies. He so often seemed to say just the right thing with perfect timing. And yes, I too felt protective of him, but I also felt like he would always be there to take care of me in the ways I needed. Then one evening we stayed up late into the night talking by the campfire and he then declared his love for me. A few nights later he came to me in the most endearingly sweet and nervous way and asked to spend the night with me.

    Let me just say, my sentiments on the turn our relationship took after our wonderful night together were exactly the same as yours, it’s so funny to read your thoughts because I was just as hurt and upset by his dutiful “Something you need, my dear?” and I too, hopefully went to him the night before the final battle thinking we’ll need the cosolation of each other’s arms tonight, after all, one of us must surely die tomorrow.

    In the end I chose to overthrow my morals and take Morrigans deal. Here’s why: closure and peace. I knew I could never truly move on if I watched him become exactly the man I wanted in one gloriously sweet agonizing finale. So I accepted Morrigan’s less than reassuring assurances, didn’t think too deeply on it, killed the archdemon and we walked off into the sunset together. See, this way I don’t have to cry when my husband forgets to take out the trash, lamenting because Alistair loved me enough to die for me while the man I married can’t even do this one little thing for me 😉

  • Amanda Says:

    Thank goodness it’s not just me!

    I’ve been finding myself bewildered at how enamoured I am with Alistair! I mean, I am happily married.

    After I had looked online for some advice, I find I’m having a hard time finishing the game, because I usually play these types of games as a rogue elf. I don’t WANT to share with Morrigan, or the queen…damn.

    At least I’m not alone eh?

  • deagh Says:

    Thank you for posting this – I just got Dragon Age a week or so ago as a gift to myself for accomplishing a big project at work, and I…um…finished a 75 hour playthrough already. Yeah, I am obsessed. I even figured out how he keeps his hair like that. He mentions he has a minor obsession with his hair, so he must be finding room in that pack of his for whatever the world’s equivalent of mousse is for it. It’s clearly important to him. He must stop off at an apothecary in every single town we go into, just to keep his stock of it up.

    I have to say I have had similar experiences to many of the posters here. At first Alistair made me roll my eyes, but…but…well, then he started making me laugh. I don’t really know when the stuff he said went from annoying to adorable, but it did. The other day I came home from a really crappy day and loaded up Dragon Age, and he gave me this cornball rose and then kissed me, all on his own…and I sat there with this big soppy grin on my face because Alistair cheered me up. And then the “Maker’s Breath, you’re beautiful,” comment…why doesn’t my husband tell me this stuff? (Actually that may be part of the fascination, my other half has a rather Alistair-like sense of humor, although he’s not a boy scout, like Alistair is…come to think of it I rolled my eyes at him too, right at first.) And then after I restored the circle he worked up the nerve to ask me to come back to his tent. Wait, what? You actually asked? I didn’t have to ask you? OMG I love you!

    BTW, his sister needs to die. We hates her.

    On that playthrough I played a human noble and married him, and made myself watch poor scared Alistair backing away from Morrigan, cringing the whole time. I console myself with the thought that she doesn’t actually want to birth a demon – don’t know if she was lying to me or not, but what she says is that she wants to imbue a child with the soul of an Old God. Well, a lot of belief systems (especially older ones where child and infant mortality is high) believe that children are not ensouled until they are born, some even later – its a coping mechanism to help people survive their grief, I’m sure, but it works for me here. Anyway, since she’s not really trying to birth a demon, then we can do this ritual thing so we don’t die.

    And he says it’s difficult for two grey wardens to have a child, not impossible. So I have my happy little world where Alistair and I manage, after maybe a dozen years of trying, to have an heir. We get to see the child to 18 or so, and then we go off to the Deep Roads together and kill Darkspawn broodmothers until we die. Hey, we’ll have had 30 good years together. Yep, worked all that out in my head. I have it bad.

    *ahem* So yeah, I have a Bioware boyfriend, too.

    This playthrough – yes, I’ve started it again – I am playing an oblivious elven mage. She’s been in the circle her whole life, never considered that a human male would want her – she’s been rather reviled for being an elf, you know. She’s just been friendly to him, but apparently that’s all it takes, because he’s at Care with her. I looked it up, happened when he told her about his parentage…I picked “I do like you, and not for your blood”, and apparently that’s the high school kind of like. Oh well, game gods hath spoken. I like the star-crossed potential of elven mage + human templar. But hey, Grey Warden trumps all that, so I’m keeping him in the Grey Wardens so they can be happy and maybe manage to have a little half-elven sprog (it could happen, the Dal elves mention that it’s possible.)

    Wow, look at me go on. Anyway, nice to know I’m not alone. Based on the comments here I may just have to get Mass Effect.

    • shannon Says:

      Definitely not alone! It’s so funny, I thought this post would be of interest to practically nobody, and yet it’s far and away the most popular thing on my blog. Alistair really struck a chord with a lot of us, it seems.

  • jk Says:

    It’s easy to get wrapped up in the story arc if you don’t keep a third person objectivity. I am only barely maintaining that on the third play through….telling myself that I’m only here for the unfinished origin stories, of which I still have 4 to go through. Also, half heartedly telling myself that this will be the last time I romance Alistair, because I want to experience romance with the other characters, possibly as a male character next time in order to not trigger the Alistair romance.

    If crushing on Alistair is bad only at the play through level, I think it’s even more heart wrenching after reading “The Calling” and “the Stolen Throne” and play the game again. Well, not going to give anything away. I never thought a game could make you feel this way.

    • Tania Says:

      I only recently read “The Stolen Throne” and “The Calling” after what must be my 10th play-through. It’s made me wish Maric was a character in the game and hope that someday Alistair will learn the truth about his parents.

  • Tania Says:

    I had the same ending with Alistair my first play-through. When Alistair gave me that line: “You say that like I’m giving you a choice.” and runs towards the Archdemon, I actually screamed at the tv screen “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!” and then proceeded to cry for about an hour. After that I was determined to save Alistair no matter what whenever I played again.

  • Recapper's Delight Says:

    Here’s how effective this blog post of yours was; I just discovered it today. Three years after his initial release date, Alistair continues to sweep us off our feet. I am currently playing multiple games concurrently. I wanted to see all the endings, use all the characters and romance all the players, but realized that if I only played one game at a time I would end up missing Alistair too much and end up dropping the male NPC or Zevran’s girlfriend to go back to my sweet little templar. I do think I was insanely lucky in my first playthrough; while I did not harden Alistair, I was playing Elissa Cousland and I declared myself his Queen at the Landsmeet. I also took my friend Morrigan up on her offer, and we lived happily ever after. I thought the “Something you need, my dear?” was just a sign that we’d settled into the old married couple routine and it did not occur to me to be hurt by it.

    Anyway, thanks for the great blog post. I bet you were surprised to get another reply!

    • Shannon Phillips Says:

      Surprised, but also pleased! I still love Alistair — I’ve been enjoying the Dragon Age comics because it’s nice to see what would’ve happened if he hadn’t jumped in front of an Archdemon for me 🙂

  • L Says:

    I just started playing the game this month and am 60 hours in, and this well-written post does a great job of encapsulating the whirlwind of emotions that this game sucked me into when it came to my character’s romance. I am determined to play again so I can get a marriage out of it and be queen, so I’ve started a new game already. I never expected to be drawn into a game like this, but it’s a style of game I never knew I needed.

  • Aletha Says:

    Thank you for writing and posting this blog. It was a beautiful read.

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