The first time I came across Dragon Age: Origins, I was fifteen and going through the rite of passage for socially awkward closeted teenagers everywhere: searching for and consuming literally any and every piece of media with even a whiff of gay content. I watched all six seasons of Xena: Warrior Princess and all seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, binged all the gay-coded anime I could find, and, inevitably, fell straight into the Bioware games from the late 2000’s, Origins being chief among them.
I played it incessantly from the safety of my half-basement bedroom, a space I had specifically asked for because I could hear my parents coming down the stairs a good thirty seconds before they would get to my door. Of the four romance options, I, of course, went for the only bisexual girl available: the kind Chantry sister and crackshot archer, Leliana.
Leliana was one of my first “video game girlfriends,” such as they are. In hindsight, there wasn’t much that drew me to her character as a person at the time: she was religious, almost overbearingly so, and she wasn’t even an elf like my character. In the end, I adored her so intensely for no other reason than that I was allowed to— she was a key part of my first coming out later into highschool.
But, that story’s already been told many times, by many other people. This story starts in the summer of 2017, when I replayed Origins for the first time after a long hiatus from gaming— and from any sort of joy, in general.
Having been a fairly sheltered kid with slightly overprotective and strict parents, I went into my first year of college in a faraway city drunk with my newfound freedom and autonomy. I partied, drank, said things I still regret today, and threw myself at people because I was so enamoured that I was receiving romantic attention for the first time in my life. It was new, it felt good, and I didn’t know or care that these twenty-somethings had no business flirting with a teenager like me.
As you can imagine, it didn’t end well— I fell into a series of back to back abusive and/or toxic relationships, almost failed out of school, and finally hit rock bottom when, after four years, my last relationship blew up catastrophically and I had no new arms to fall into.
The summer of 2017 marked a year since that breakup— I had spent most of it in therapy trying to claw myself back to some semblance of peace of mind and emotional autonomy. I was successful, for the most part, mostly thanks to a good match with my therapist and a very lucky first go with antidepressants. Still fragile but content with my recovery, I decided to get back into some of my old favourite games on a whim. Origins was one of them— I happily went chasing after updated versions of my favourite mods, set myself to the arduously anticipatory work of implementing those mods, and finally eased myself back into a game I remembered so fondly.
Going in, I expected the romance with Leliana to be a comfortable, familiar story to slip into, if a little cliche. You meet a sweet, bubbly church girl who’s a little too good with weapons to be only who she says she is. She seems sincere, though, and in time, she tells you that she used to be a sort of courtesan/spy/assassin type agent in her home country. She was betrayed by her ex mentor/lover and left for dead, after which she joined the Chantry and devoted herself to a life of do-gooding until she decided to accompany you on your quest to save the world. Her ex unexpectedly appears in her life again and she asks you to help confront her, after which she reaffirms her love for you.
As far as these types of romance stories go, it’s a pretty predictable one.
What wasn’t predictable was how Leliana’s story hit me like a freight train the second time around. The nuances of her past that had sailed over my head as a teenager now struck me square in the chest: I watched as Leliana slowly revealed how she was groomed by Marjolaine as a teenager, manipulated into a relationship for many years, suddenly and devastatingly abandoned for a perceived slight, and then how she so clearly latched onto the Chantry in a desperate bid for some semblance of identity.
The fictional events that Leliana went through were far more serious than what happened to me over the course of my university years (and I had never turned to religion as a means of recovery) but the parallels were there. I could vividly imagine how Leliana must have felt during her long journey through Ferelden after Marjolaine’s betrayal, alone and destroyed. I’d been somewhere similar too— those first three months after the breakup, all I did was lay in bed, cry, and think about killing myself. Without someone else to live for, I had completely lost any sense of self, any grasp of where my life should go next. I clung to the smallest reasons why I should stay alive for one more day, just barely surviving until finally, I found something worth living for.
For me, it was spite— the desire to do better, be better, because if I didn’t care about myself, no one would. For Leliana, it was the Chantry— it was the drive to be a force of good in the world.
I loved her character all the more for that.
Many people consider her devotion to the Chantry and the concept of kindness to the point where it takes up her entire personality to be annoying. That’s fair, to a point: her brand of compassion is a clumsy one. It’s the kind that extends sympathy to everyone, regardless of context or who else that sympathy might be invalidating. As a result, she’s often incredibly tone-deaf to her own privilege and blind to the hypocrisy of the Chantry. It feels like she’s trying entirely too hard, and on a personal level, that makes so much sense.
The thing about abuse is that it erases you. Even worse— it convinces you to erase yourself in order to somehow earn someone else’s love and approval. It gives you a chisel and hammer and tells you to strike away the parts that this other person doesn’t want— and because you’re doing the work with your own two hands, it doesn’t even occur to you that you’re doing harm. You tell yourself, it’s not mutilation, it’s improvement, because this person likes you better that way and surely that means it’s better. Don’t they deserve the best version of you? How are they supposed to love you if you’re not deserving? You want this!
Worse still is the possibility of never realizing that you’re not a thing to be shaped— you’re a living, breathing creature, ever-growing, imperfect and unpredictable, and you’ve always deserved the space to grow however you want. Because of this, when you do escape abuse, it leaves you lost. Without the chisel— the person telling you what to be— how are you supposed to change into the person you want to be, a healthy person, one who is whole?
That’s the worst part of the aftermath— the devastation of realizing that you have to relearn how to grow: something that should be as natural as breathing. You have to re-acquaint yourself with the stranger you’ve neglected and locked away for years: yourself.
Leliana’s character is a bit clumsy, a bit awkward, because that’s just how it feels when you’re forced to get to know yourself again. It’s not an easy thing, mapping out the unknown of your own self when it would be so easy to just slip back into your old habits and shut yourself away. She’s trying, she’s growing, she has a vague idea of who she wants to be but doesn’t quite know how to get there just yet— her character embodies the idea that kindness is not a state of being, but a constant endeavor that it’s possible to be bad at. It was this fragile, fumbling earnestness of hers that I related to, that made her all the more dear to me.
I remember the rage beating at my chest during the confrontation between Leliana and Marjolaine in Denerim. I listened as Marjolaine dismissed the grueling, harrowing work Leliana did to rebuild herself as nothing more than an act, a farce— I wanted to kill her. I wanted to shut her up, I wanted to make sure she never touched Leliana’s life ever again. It was a vivid, visceral reaction that I didn’t expect to have towards a video game that I had already played to completion before.
But, in the end, the turning point for me in this entire process ended up being not the almost violent catharsis of the confrontation, but the conversations after. I’ve gotten angry at abusers in media before— but none of those stories set off such a change in me the way Leliana’s did.
When I watched or read other characters, other people with similar experiences to mine, it was so easy to say that they deserved better— that they weren’t to blame for what happened to them – without letting myself feel the same way about me. Every other kid that was seventeen going on eighteen was still just a kid who didn’t deserve some twenty-something laying hands on them, but me? I was different. I was the one pushing for things, I probably crossed a ton of boundaries, and I was totally mature enough to know what I was saying yes to and I only had myself to blame. I was the one at fault, 100%.
I can’t explain, with full certainty, why Leliana’s story got through to me when nothing could convince me that I didn’t deserve it, either— that I hadn’t brought all of it upon myself just because I had wanted it at the time. There was just something about listening to her question herself, her new purpose in life, her new sense of self, and having the choice of reassuring her in my hands that resonated with me so deeply. I suspect it had something to do with this very nature of video games as a medium: when you play a game, you’re not a spectator of that story the way you are with a movie or a book, you’re the central participant. When I played Origins, I wasn’t a voyeur, but an active participant in the act of loving and supporting a character whose trauma paralleled mine— and in that act, I found the parallel possibility that maybe, I could be loved in the same manner. That maybe, I deserved love and forgiveness just as much as Leliana did.
That’s not to say video game romances are a viable substitute for the extensive therapy involved in really working through these issues— hardly. But being able to participate in this act of loving opened a door for me that had been locked tight— it was the first half-step towards self-reconciliation and peace.
At this point in time, I’ve long since made peace with the fact that this will be a lifelong journey where I can get close to the finish line, but never cross it— there’s no such thing as curing trauma, after all. But there’s nothing worse than not trying at all, and I had to start somewhere. Returning to Leliana’s story was a crucial catalyst— it was that quiet sigh, that “oh” moment when I considered, for the first time, that maybe I was allowed to be angry about what happened to me.
There’s a moment in the conversations with Leliana after confronting Marjolaine that I still remember vividly, and probably will for the rest of my life: she ruminates on Marjolaine, the pain she’s been through, and the happiness she’s managed to find. Then she says,
“And… I love you. It’s so wonderful to say that to someone again.”
It broke me. I remember crumpling into tears upon hearing that line from how hard I ached to be able to feel that way. After going through all that I did, after being convinced I was too broken to be loved, that there wasn’t enough left of me to be capable of love anyway— after all that, for the first time, I didn’t care that it felt daunting, impossible, unattainable to love someone again, I just wanted it.
In the end, that’s the greatest thing I took away from Leliana’s story— the willingness to let myself want. To let myself want and to let myself hope that yes, someday, I will be able to tell someone that I love them and mean every word— and yes, it will be every bit as wonderful as I imagine.
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