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- Occult, Demonic Possession, Non-conesensual Drugging, Incarceration, Lobotomy, Self-Harm.

Our story begins when Harriet Amell* is dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, dosed with lyrium and sent unarmed and unprepared into the spirit world to face a demon.  The Ferelden Circle is the worst Hogwarts ever.**

The Fade is a yellow sky, floating islands and random art assets that make sense in other parts of the game.

As I think about this sequence, I start to wonder about things.  My first wonder is what the win condition is for a mage undergoing their harrowing.  It's not explicitly to go kill a demon (except when it is), because that's not how Harriet's harrowing goes, and a lot of the mages in the Circle really don't seem like the demon killing type.  It's not a timed thing, at least not in the sense "last 2 hours in the Fade without getting possessed;"  it is timed in the sense that, if you take too long (for undisclosed and possibly whimsical definitions of too long), a Templar will sword you.  It might be a matter of getting back out again (except when it's not), but that's not clearly communicated, either.

What does happen is that Harriet meets the ghost of someone who was a little pokey in their Harrowing and got sworded.  This is Mouse.  Mouse is all "this Harrowing thing sucks and it's unfair and the Templars are salivating over the thought of getting to sword your currently uninhabited body the way they did to mine.  Also, I can turn into a mouse."  Thus the name.  Mouse shows you the arena where you're supposed to fight a demon, so maybe you are supposed to kill a demon and bring its ectoplasmic hide back to hang up on the tower's wall.  That would kind of make sense.

Not far from the arena, there's a glowy Templar who is, apparently, a spirit of Valor, and not a demon at all.  He offers to let Harriet tool up out of his toolbox once she's proven she doesn't need aforementioned tools.  This is accomplished with her starting spells and an even more awkward than usual fight sequence.  Equipped with a mage staff, Harriet can now throw 3 point little blasts of light ever second in addition of the 24 point blast every 15 seconds.***

The only other thing to talk to in this area is a Sloth Demon**** that looks a lot like a shaved bear with random extra twisty horns.  This is not the hide Harriet has to tack up on the tower wall, and he's not very interested in helping, harming or hindering you, because sloth demon.  Mouse suggests that you could talk the bear into teaching him how to a be a bear.  This sounds fishy to Harriet, and she leaves, but soon realizes her actual demon target is not going to arrive until she convinces the sloth demon into doing what Mouse wants.  This she does and then she and Bear!Mouse head back to the arena.

The rage demon that's supposed to be her target shows up and gets its ass kicked in short order.  Then Mouse congratulates Harriet for being much stronger and smarter than all the other apprentices he's helped, and prettier, and BTW, can I hitch a ride back to the physical world with you?

Yeah, so Mouse is a demon, and Harriet asks him just how dumb he thinks she is.  Mouse turns into a Pride Demon, 15 feet tall, all lightning bolts and ridiculous elbow spurs. Harriet is a level 2 mage, at this point, and even on casual, there is no way she's getting out of this one.  The Pride demon ganks her and possesses her body, except, no, that's not what happens at all.  Instead he warns her not to get cocky and lets her go back to her body unmolested.

So the object of the Harrowing is to hang out with a surprisingly reasonable and, hell, even charitable demon, and kick around some jerks with his help?

Anyway, whatever the object, Harriet Calvinballs her way into it, and the next thing she sees is her Ron*****, an ostensible shlmozzle named Jowan. Jowan is all impressed that his bestie managed to ace the Harrowing (and asks her what it entailed, which she is NOT ALLOWED to tell, and hell, I don't think she could, because I don't know what it entailed, and I was fucking there), and really upset that he hasn't been called to do it, which means he's likely to get the forehead brand of magic lobotomy or the sword of Templar stress-relief.  But Harriet's got to go visit First Enchanter Dumbledore Irving and talk to him about things.  Also, if the dialogue options are any indication, Harriet doesn't think very highly at all of her friend Jowan

On the way, Harriet meets a couple of people - a sweet, slightly senile enchanter, a brusque elf-jerk enchanter, and Cullen, a blond boyscout of a Templar that has Thedas' most obvious crush on Harriet. He was also assigned the task of swording her if she took too long, which I don't think is a good way to tell a girl you like her.******  Irving is talking to Duncan, who's at the circle looking to recruit mages for the king's army at Ostagar, and making the Knight Commander's blood pressure spike.  Knight Commander allowed seven whole mages out of the Circle under strenuous protest and that should be enough for anyone.  Also, he really wanted to make Cullen sword Harriet, if the looks of disgust and hatred he gives her are any indication.  Meanwhile, Irving crows about Harriet acing her Harrowing and Duncan is certainlt considering putting the girl in his Warden punch line.

Harriet meets Duncan.  This part is pretty much the same as the sequence Sooney went through, so we'll spin on.  Jowan really wants to talk to Harriet, and Irving asks if she's noticed him acting squirrelly, and if she didn't mind, would she make her first assignment as a full fledged mage narcing on him?

OK, so Jowan is in the chapel with a perfectly vacuous looking Chantry sister whose name I already forget, and don't care to look up.  They're in love.******* She knows that the order for Rite of Tranquility has been put in for Jowan and wants you to help them break into the place where they keep the phylacteries and break his so they can escape.  Harriet thinks this is an endeavor doomed to fail and since my dialogue cues are that she doesn't care much for him, she chickens out on it.

But Irving wants to talk to her again, and a little way into the conversation, Harriet admits what Jowan and Chantry!GF are trying to do.  Irving says he knows already and he thinks it's a great idea for Harriet to help and then Judas Jowan and his lady over to the Templars.  His reasoning is that if he stopped the whole thing before it began, the Chantry would say that Jowan blood magicked his lover into helping, and the only way she'd take the fall is if they were both caught red-handed.  Jowan's fate is sealed, but he wants a little blood from the muggles.

And that's an order.

Fuck you Dumbledore.********

Actually performing the task isn't really worth relating in its entirety.  There's some fetch questing, attacking statues, a creepy talking statue, a cursed staff that Harriet steals, and Harriet's conscience finally convincing her to confess that she's a plant, Irving knows everything.  Jowan is upset, but before they can try to figure out how to all be fugitives together, the Irving and the Knight Commander pop up and bust the lot of them.  Irving says Harriet was acting under orders, but the Knight Commander wants two dead mages and a Chantry sister in Azkaban, and Irving better shut his mouth unless he wants it to be three dead mages.  Jowan then reveals himself as a schlemeel all along, assuming the soup in question is actually blood magic.  Big flash, exit Jowan, stage ...Fade?  Maybe?

Knight Commander is now suffering from a semi case of blue sword (SEE WHAT I DID THERE), but there's one mage for him to punish for this.  Then Duncan steps in and sword-blocks, and says "Nope, she's a Grey Warden, sucker."

Needless to say Harriet can't agree fast enough.  She doesn't even get weirded out when Duncan later kills Wedge.

* The Amells show up in DA2 as a family from Kirkwall, but somehow Harriet ended up in the Ferelden Circle.  Girl has no idea how lucky she's got it.  The horrors that inevitably visit the Ferelden Circle are what they call "Tuesday" in Kirkwall.

** This leads me to wonder what would happen to Hogwarts if it was full of magically roided up US police.  I can just see the T Shirts with some handgun bearing the words Avauda Kedavra.

*** I have no idea what I was going to footnote here.

**** There are five canonical categories of demon, in rough order of ascending power - rage, sloth, not appearing in this game, titties and pride.  DA:I introduces two more - those burrowing motherfuckers and those flying ice dicks.

***** And Ron is ok, age 11 to 17, but Jowan looks about 32, when the charms of Ron-ness is long since worn off.

****** I could be wrong.  Some people might be into that.  Harriet is not one of them.  Also, her dialogue options don't let her make any decisions about Cullen's apparent feelings or even acknowledge them.  But being told by someone who has a crush on you that they were assigned to pierce you with a sword... It doesn't seem like an opportune time to confront feelings, requited or no.

******* I'm not sure if the mages are supposed to be celibate.  None of them seem to be married, and since magic is hereditary, you'd think they'd strongly discourage known mages making babies.  You learn from Anders in DA2 that celibate or no, none of the Ferelden Circle mages were chaste, but it's strongly implied that the Kirkwall Circle mages are expected to be chaste.  And Knight Commander Meredith just does look like a panty-sniffer, anyway.  It's implied that the sister is an ordained sister and therefore supposed to be celibate and chaste.  In any case, tranquil aren't able to feel, let alone requite attraction or love, so that's all academic.

******** He comes off as unbelievably petty and spiteful, here, but petty spite is the alpha and omega of his actual power, so I kind of get it.  But still.
- Occult, Demonic Possession, Non-conesensual Drugging, Incarceration, Lobotomy, Self-Harm.  Eventually.  For now, just some vocabulary and a Chant-Day school lesson.

I really hate doing these, especially on Christmas, when you're probably starved for entertainment, but fantasy begets vocabulary, and there's a lot of vocabulary you need in order to make sense of the mage intro, so here we go.

THE CHANTRY - The church for southern Thedas, follows the Chant of Light, written by the setting's Crystal Dragon Jesus, Andraste.  The Chantry is led by a Divine, controlled by Grand Clerics pulled from the ranks of Revered Mothers (Andraste was a lady, so most of the Chantry's hierarchy is women, though some men get to be highly placed bureaucrats), who come from the ranks of Sisters (there are also Lay Sisters, who aren't fully ordained).  There are also ordained and lay Brothers, and some folks, men and women who are Chanters, under a vow to only speak when quoting the Chant.  The Divine is in Val Royeaux in Orlais.  The Chantry has authority over the Templar Order and the Circle of Magi.  The games don't make a lot explicit, but what you know about Catholocism, if you're not actually Catholic and don't know much about Catholicism at all, seems to apply.  Ordained clergy are ostensibly celibate and chaste, a matter which comes up in the sequence.

THE CIRCLE OF MAGI - Refers to the organization as a whole and individual towers where they keep mages - about 1 per nation, for reasons which aren't explained, but easy to speculate (no nation wants to have no mages, just in case they need them, and no nation wants all the mages, just in case they all go off at the same time).  Membership is mandatory.  Attendance is mandatory.  Wearing the awful robes and hats that look like the glans of a penis (often in purple) is mandatory.  Ferelden's circle is housed in a tower on a lake in the less fashionable west of the country.  It looks like a boarding school designed in the round by an asshole.  Mages are only permitted to leave the circle under extraordinary circumstances and heavy supervision.  Most who check in never check out.

THE TEMPLAR ORDER - Knightly order whose members get dosed with Lyrium to make them resistant to magic.  Those who are not housed in the circle are tasked with hunting mages who aren't in the circle.  In both cases, their remit is to protect normal folks and, ostensibly obedient mages from mages who have gone off the straight and narrow.  Tamplars seem to have similar issues that American law enforcement does these days with occupying force mentality and abuse of authority.  Add to that the fact that lyrium is addictive, and while the effects of lyrium use aren't ever stated explicitly beyond potential memory-loss, most of the templars are characterized as more than a bit aggressive and paranoid (though that could be the stress of the job as much as it could be the blue sauce).  Templars are effectively lay brothers and sisters in the Chantry under authority of a Knight Commander (who runs things at the individual Circle level).  One of your companions in DA2 starts the game married to a Templar, so I assume that they aren't under explicit  vows of chastity and celibacy, but the sympathetic Templars you meet are rather inexperienced to say the least (and there is, apparently, a problem with Templars sexually assaulting mages in some circles).  The Templars in the Ferelden Circle are, apparently, a lot nicer than most, and the Knight Commander is a paranoid tinpot who's fairly adversarial, if not hostile toward his charges.

APOSTATES - Any mage who is not safely in the Circle right now.  Templars who don't live in the circle are tasked to hunt them down and given authority to do what they feel is appropriate.  I get the impression that only very young or exceptionally pliable mages don't get killed on sight.

MALEFICAR - A blood mage.  Someone who uses blood (theirs or someone elses') to fuel their magic and access powers that law abiding mages cannot - primarily those involving summoning and binding demons and controlling minds.  Blood magic carries a mandatory death sentence.  Being suspected of using blood magic carries a fairly certain death sentence.  Being suspected of looking a little too long at the picture of the desire demon in your defense against the dark arts textbook carries a mandatory Rite of Tranquility sentence.  Apostates are considered maleficar unless proven otherwise (and the proof is mostly posthumous).

THE FADE - Place where mages get their power and you get those dreams you dream when you eat cheese to close to bedtime.  It's full of demons, who really want to get into the physical world.  They do that by possessing mages who aren't paying attention or by getting bound into the body of someone who is not a mage with the help of a mage.  Once in the physical world, they get overstimulated and go nuts.

RITE OF TRANQUILITY - A process by which a mage's connection to the Fade is cut off.  The mage is no longer in danger of being possessed, but they lose most of their emotions and executive function.  They are good at working lyrium into enchanted objects, which makes them pretty valuable, though, in the circle, most of the tranquil you see are support staff and maintenance.

LYRIUM - A blue metal that the dwarves mine.  It powers rituals, restores the personal energy of mages, gives Templars resistance to magic, and makes enchanted items.  It's also addictive when ingested and causes ... stuff to happen to normal folk who work with it.  Dwarves can make things with it because they have no connection to the Fade natually (and they don't dream!), Tranquil can use it safely for the same reason.  Everyone else takes their chances.

PHYLACTERY - Every mage who ends up in the circle has a vial of blood taken and stored either in the circle itself (for apprentices) or in the nearest important Chantry (for actual mages).  Templars use the phylactery to track down the mages not accounted for if they skip out.

RITE OF ANNULMENT - The Knight Commander at a Circle can invoke this to signify that the circle has fallen to corruption.  When this happens the Templars have to kill every single solitary mage in their local circle.  I don't think I am spoiling anything to say that every time you as a player are involved with the Circle, this is a possibility if not an inevitablility.

HARROWING - Some point, when they figure it's time to end your apprenticeship, they drag you out of bed, dose you with Lyrium and send you into the Fade with a demon, thunderdome style.  If the demon gets you, the Templars kill you.  if you take too long, the Templars assume the demon got you and kill you.  If the Knight Commander doesn't like your face, the Templars kill you.  Also, there's the demon to consider.  The stated goal for this is to see if you can handle demonic assault under the worst possible circumstances.  The practiced goal seems to be keeping the number of mages low.  Any mage who doesn't undergo the Harrowing, at a certain point is either made tranquil or a corpse.

ENCHANTERS - To the extent that any mage has authority, these are they.  I'm not sure why they are called enchanters when enchantment seems to be something dangerous for anyone who isn't tranquil or a dwarf to do, but what the hell.  Enchanters are lead by a First Enchanter, who has the authority to argue with the Knight Commander on behalf of the mages on the days when the Knight Commander is feeling indulgent.

Blah.  So that's it.  Yay.  Tomorrow, you get story for Christmas.
DRAGON AGE ORIGINS [DAO] STORY - Tower of Ishal, Teynr Loghain's Plan (AFAICT)
- Lots of violence, blood and death.

When Sooney first got to Ostagar, she had a chance to meet the villain.  Villain is a weird term for his position in the story; he is a villain, but he is not the biggest bad in the story.  That said, the biggest bad in the story has no dialogue other than RAAAAAIAAIAAIAIR and no plans other than MORE DARKSPAWN (and while MORE SOLDIERS worked just fine for Grant a lot of the time, he had some plans on how to actually use them), so Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir* gets the title.

When we meet Loghain, he's King Cailin's father-in-law and chief advisor, and he's not the fan of the Wardens his son-in-law is, and he's not the fan of his son-in-law that even the Wardens are, and Sooney had that guy pegged as nothing but... let's see, the phrase I used was, oh yeah, "a head of hair."  Sooney sympathizes with Loghain at first, he's the only one that realizes the royal frat bro with his modest intellectual gifts leading the diversionary charge from the front of the force we've designated as bait is probably a bad idea from the perpetuation-of-dynasty angle (not that she has any interest in perpetuating the Couslands, mind, but I suspect she's been raised to respect the idea if only in theory).

At the point that Sooney meets the pinch faced old man,** she doesn't have much reason not to be skeptical of the Wardens either.  If they'd gotten a chance to talk after the Joining, hell, she might have been tempted to take his side of things.

She would have been wrong, of course.  Loghain's major sin in all of this is that he is unaccountably wrong on so many levels and every time he could be wrong.

I don't think that Loghain comes off as quite the complex and nuanced character that I think the game wants him to be, but he's got more than one note.  Two notes is more than one.  Okay, two notes is probably a little charitable, it's more like overtone singing.  Either he's wrong all the time because he's a moustache twirling villain or he's the villain because he's wrong all the time.

Sooney's background makes it a little harder to see the non-villainous in Loghain, since it becomes clear later that Evil McJerk is his right hand, and one assumes, killed the Couslands with his blessing, if not on his orders.

I'm going to skip ahead a bit and use knowledge from elsewhere to piece together Loghain's plan.  This is what I've got:

Loghain was a hero of the war of independence from neighboring (much stronger, 400 years advanced technically and FRENCH), Orlais, restoring Cailin's daddy to full authority as king.  He hates Orlais the way the NeoConservatives hated France in 2003 - it's freedom fries or nothing in his Teyrning.  Merric, the old king dies and Loghain's daughter marries the bro-king and everything is groovy until the darkspawn start showing up in the south.

Grey Wardens haven't been allowed in Ferelden for a while, since they got up to some loud partying on Soldier's Peak, and the ban on them hanging out in the country is pretty recently lifted.  Consequently, there's about six of them in the country.  And Cailin loves them.  And he, at least initially, believes Duncan when he says this is a real-ass Blight (of course, he can't tell them why he knows, since it involves drinking darkspawn blood, which either kills other people or makes them into drooly maniacs, unless you do the Warden things to it first, then it just kills half the time).  The closest other Wardens are in Orlais.


Loghain doesn't believe this is a Blight.  He's pretty sure the Blight is wishful thinking on Cailin's part which Duncan is exploiting to sell Ferelden sovereignty right back to the frog eaters on the other side of the mountain, because FREEDOM.  So, in order to keep Ferelden free, Loghain has to take over.

He starts laying groundwork by attempting to murder the popular and influential nobles who he's sure won't go along with doing what he says because he says so, when he gets the opportunity to say.  This consists of Arl Eamon and, I assume, Dad Cousland.  He sends Evil McJerk to kill the Couslands (and he botches the job, asshole), and a guy to poison Arl Eamon, the old king's younger brother.  That part ends up getting botched in ways that Loghain couldn't possibly expect, and we'll learn about why when we get there (and a little bit when we introduce Harriet Amell, the mage I'm running paralell to Sooney).  I mean, the Arl does get poisoned, but then the Arl's kid ends up possessed, the Arling ends up overrun by the dead, and things get unaccountably shitty.

Loghain also manages to make some rash promises to one of the mages who shows up at Ostagar, which goes wrong in the most spectacular way possible once said mage gets back to Hogwarts.  We're talking the full Voldemort.

But with the groundwork laid, it's time to get our regicide on.

The battle plan for Ostagar goes as follows: Cailin and all the Grey Wardens in the place are going to be in a smaller force in the valley to draw the darkspawn out, and Loghain and his much larger force is going to charge the flank when someone gives the signal.

Strategy is my kryptonite.  I have an active anti-aptitude for any game that involves strategy, but this sounds like a terrible battle plan.  Great for Loghain, though, since the part where he Mufasa's the hell out of our cut-rate Simba is as easy as withdrawing when he gets the signal.  That part works like a charm.

Except that, in his fanboying over the Wardens, Cailin decided that the signal should be lit by Sooney and Alistair, a fact that annoys them both, but what are you going to do?

Sooney's actual part in all of this is pretty boring, story-wise.  She and Alistair and a couple of random dudes find the tower where they are supposed to light the signal fire overrun with darkspawn, fight their way to the top, light the signal, get overrun themselves, and then Captain Janeway beams them up at the last minute to the USS Hut-in-the-swamp.

Loghain rolls out when the signal gets lit, and every motherfucker in the valley gets massacred.  Cailin gets squeezed like the juiciest orange the the smoothie bar by an ogre, and Duncan gets his head cut off.  The music is sufficiently Hans Zimmer-esque.

Loghain heads back to the capital, reinstates the ban and a bounty for Warden heads (based on the accusation that they got Cailin killed, which is not entirely false, in a way), mostly to keep the Orlesian Wardens out, but also in case Sooney and or Alistair somehow made it out of the tower.  So he was right on that count, I guess.

One of the other things he was wrong about was that he, apparently, did not kill enough of the nobles who would have stood against him, since, even without Eamon and Dad Cousland to tell him where to stick his sovereignty, there are enough nobles around who will.  And Ferelden is suddenly on the brink of civil war.  Loghain gets to be regent because the queen is his daughter, an arrangment that deteriorates pretty fast, too, once things get going.

I've cut the jerk's head off a couple of times now, and this runthrough, I am starting to feel bad for the guy.  He's wrong about what's going to happen when he poisons Eamon.  He's wrong about the mages.  He's wrong about the blight.  He's wrong about the nobles listening to him without Eamon and Dad Cousland there.  He's wrong about his daughter just letting him run the country.

Teyrn Loghain.  Wrong for Ferelden.

(Paid for by the commitee to elect Alistair king of Ferelden).
"I'm Alistair and I... Wait.. What!?"

* Loghain is the only person in Ferelden with a name like Mac Tir, which leads one to wonder where he got it.  Wonder no more: from Americans!  Andraste's tits, we're an ignorant bunch.

** Seriously, the most villainous villain face the character customizer can make.
Dragon Age Origins (DAO) Story - Korcari Wilds.

Content - Captain JaneRed and Officer Sun, Nonconsenual Drugging, Overdose.  Sort of.

My play tends to go beyond the pace of these posts, even managing two (and soon, three) characters, so last night's session netted me two cut scenes with Tim Curry-voiced Arl Howe (a.k.a. Evil Mc Jerk), and really, I do not hear Dr. Frank in there.  There's more Tim Curry in Darkness.

Anyway, Our heroes and their Biggs and Wedge have been sent out by Duncan to collect some darkspawn blood, ostensibly from darkspawn (that's where Sooney found hers).  Darkspawn turn out to not be at all hard to find, a fact which made Wedge a little nervous, but Alistair assured him that he could sense whether or not there was a really big group of them around, and there wasn't.

For the record, we killed like 30 of the things in the space of an hour, so I have no earthly idea what Alistair thinks is a big group of darkspawn.  Wedge is not entirely without a point, here, is all I am saying.

But our crew is out for the treaties as well as blood, so eventually they do find the ruin that used to be the tower, and I've got to tell you, do not go to Grey Wardens to get construction done.  The last time the darkspawn came up with a Blight was 400 years ago, the Wardens got kicked out of Ferelden only around 100 years ago, and this place looks like something three times as old as the last Blight, hit a couple of times by a trebuchet.

Well, the treaties were gone, but the witches were still here.  The first one being Morrigan, Thedas' reigning Queen of the Side-Boob (King is under significant contention, but Morrigan's outfit has her crown nailed the fuck down.  Also some other things nailed the fuck up).  Her arrival sets the boys into a tizzy (and prompts Alistair's use of what would become his catch-phrase "Swooping is bad."), but Sooney is determined to be the rational one here.  I think that's partly because Morrigan flat out says women are more rational than men before she asks Sooney what she thinks, and so Sooney, being kind of young and still a little sore from the reception at Ostagar takes that bait like a champ.

Unlike with Arl Howe and Tim Curry, you can tell Claudia Black's voice through tooth-vibrating tinitus.  Especially if she is a celebrity crush of yours.*  Moments later, you get to meet Morrigan's mom, Flemeth, WITCH OF THE WILDS and custodian of the treaties the Wardens abandoned in the swamp, voiced by Kate Mulgrew.  Captain Janeway is only slightly less easy to pick out of her voice.

And yes, I do want a Sci Fi show with those two in it together.  I want it bad.

Darkpaisley says I don't explain enough, so before we continue, let me explain some things.

The Korcari wilds are home to some barbarians called the Chasind.  There's not a lot on them.  Ferelden became a nation when a whole bunch of Almarri tribes united under a dude and converted to Andrastianity so they could have a flag and share their love of ridiculously big doggies.  The Chasind, for whatever reason - remoteness, marginalization or something else, didn't join up.  They're still down in the swamps in the south, sort of like Florida rednecks (only Thedas is in the southern hemisphere of their planet, so it gets colder the further south you go).

The Chasind (actually all the Almarri, I guess) have stories about Flemeth, who's a big, scary, immortal witch, and her daughters, who are also big, scary, and aside from Morrigan, conspicuously absent witches.  There are stories about Flemeth turning into dragons, leading armies, eating children, you know this song.

Witch isn't a character class** that's distinct from mage, it's just what the Chasind call Flemeth and her kiddos.  But Flemeth and Morrigan are mages, do have magic, and that's a thing.

It's a thing I am going to explain in a lot more detail later, but for now, let's just say that Thedan society, by and large, tries to keep a very tight hold on their mages.  Mages are sort of involuntary clergy with 0 authority and spend most of their lives confined in towers as part of a Circle.  Mages are super dangerous, and not just because they can make your village catch fire by wiggling their fingers, and so they shut them all up in confined areas with an order of religious soldiers who take drugs to make them resistant to magic all up in their shit 24/7.  If you're a mage not in the circle, you're an apostate, and those soldiers are tasked and authorized to hunt you down and murder your apostate's ass.

Alistair was almost one of those soldiers (Templars, for the record).  He just never drank the blue kool-aid (Lyrium, for the record - is to magic what uranium is to nuclear power).  So he's super unhelpful through all of this.  Biggs and Wedge aren't any better, and I think Sooney, being raised a Teyrn's brat, is sort of used to taking charge, and used to sizing up who has authority when.  She's super polite to Flemeth.  Flemeth, slightly tickled by manners, gives over the treaties, tells our heroes to let the other Wardens know this is a real-ass Blight (they know), and has Morrigan walk them back to Ostagar.

And here is where we bid a fond farewell to Biggs and Wedge, in the Joining.

Grey Wardens know stuff about Darkspawn.  They know this stuff because they drink the red kool-aid, which, in this case, is specially prepared darkspawn blood.  What this does is kill about half of them.  The other half take on the taint in the blood that lets them tune in to radio Blight, sense the presence of the buggers and, when there is a Blight, listen to the Head Darkspawn In Charge, former Old God, now called an Archdemon.  Ours looks like something that used to be a dragon the way the Hoggle puppet looks like the beloved character in Labyrinth (1986).***

Wedge is super nervous about the Joining, even before he knows it's a 50/50 shot.  Biggs says if he dies to stop the Blight, so be it, and he promptly dies to stop the Blight, poisoned to death by the blood.  Wedge chickens out and Duncan shanks him for it.  Shanks him very much.  This gave Sooney some second thoughts about the Joining.  She'd made up her mind to do it, before, but, yeah, knowing you don't have a choice makes things really different.  That said, we're deep in cut-scene, and there's no point of user input between Wedge getting murdered and Sooney shotgunning the rest of the chalice.  I have to justify her acquiesence as shock.

Well, the stuff puts her on her ass, but there wouldn't be much game if that killed the main protagonist, so, a short cut-scene's worth of meeting the Archdemon, and then Alistair and Duncan chanting "One of us!  One of us!"

Not really.

Sooney did ask Duncan why Wedge had to die, too, but there are only so many dialogue options, and none of them are "You're mad, Duncan, and I don't trust you."  Sooney can go to the sleeping car or the dining car, but she's still on the Grey Warden Express to the Battle of Ostagar.  And the arrival at that station.  Hoo boy.

* A friend of mine once, in a conversation about shameful secrets, explained the reluctance to speak about them or get caught in them as "If you let X person know, then Y and Z person know and if they know, Claudia Black knows, and it's all over."  She's a mild celebrity crush for me (second to Virginia Hey on Farscape, even), as they go, but this friend did guess, with no prompting from me that she was one.

** Character class is actually a little hard to describe to anyone who has no background in RPGs - it's what you do.  In the Dragon Age series, warriors hit people with big weapons, rogues hit people with little weapons and mages hit people with fire and lightning.  Some games have functional differences between, say mages and wizards and witches, but, for the most part, that doesn't show up here.

*** DO NOT INVESTIGATE unless you like having your heart broken while you simultaneously throwing up in your mouth a little.

Content Labels – Game mechanics

This one’s going to be a little light on story, since the sequence in the Korcari Wilds is a sort of second breakfast of tutorial with a little elvenses of story. 

In order to do the ritual that makes Sooney a real Grey Warden, Duncan needs some darkspawn blood.  So he sends her, Shady Pick-Up Artist recruit (hereafter referred to as Biggs) and kind of pathetic, jaundiced recruit (hereafter referred to as Wedge) and the Littlest Warden (that’s Alistair) round the corner to pick some up.  And while you’re out, would you swing by a ruined tower the Wardens used to own and pick up the magically preserved treaties we never bothered to collect before?

The other recruits names are actually Daveth (who is kind of alright, excepting his pick-up lines – and those he wisely declines to use on Sooney)  and Jory (whose jaundiced pallor, I am hoping, is just coincidence and not telegraphing that he’s going to chicken out at a critical moment), but who cares.

Biggs and Wedge are a tradition of sorts for video games.  They’re names came in, as far as I know, with the localization that turned Final Fantasy 6 into Final Fantasy 3 derived from the names of Luke Skywalker’s wingmen in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope (1978), and yeah, the function follows the label.  These are the protagonists wingmen.  There’s always two, they never matter, and they either get killed by a bad guy or by you, after a sudden yet inevitable betrayal.  One’s a two-dagger rogue, the other is a two-handed warrior.  Biggs is a little shady but determined, and Wedge is a BIG CHICKEN.

Then there is Alistair, and someday soon, we’ll talk about Alistair, but for now, let’s stick with the basics.  He was trained to be a Templar – the knights who say no (to mages), he’s a Very Nice Boy, and his first act as the senior Warden of Ferelden is to tell Sooney that she’s giving the orders from now on.

The Korcari wilds is the Southern New England of Ferelden; kind of a big swamp before things get really cold.  It’s one of, if not the biggest environments in DAO in which you get to wander, which makes it kind of a shame that it’s so damned boring.  There’s some water, some trees, and a big dome from a sunken building and you do not get to go inside*.  Here is where you meet darkspawn for the first time.  Also wolves, but the wolves don’t require much explanation.  They’re very big wolves, weirdly willing to attack superior numbers of armed humans.

Darkspawn require a little more explanation.  They’re big, they’re nasty, they’re kind of sub-verbal, yet mysteriously able to manufacture weapons and armor fit for an army, they’re ALWAYS CHAOTIC EVIL, and they’re all humanity’s fault. Their blood is poisonous, and they usually spend their time underground, digging to find the Old Gods.  When they find one, it sends them to the surface to crap in all the cereal bowls in Thedas.  That’s a Blight.  Blights are bad.  Bad enough that the Grey Wardens exist to fight it.

The opportunity to fight (and fight you do) brings up some interesting thoughts about how you fight in a game, and what mechanics lead to what kind of fights.

So this is where story gives way to mechanics, but I swear to Andraste this is going to be worth reading.  Even if it’s about Hit Points.  And, well, it is.  If you’re just here for story, I suppose you don’t have to keep going, but I hope you’ll indulge me a little.  On my third outing in the series.  Yeah.  I ask a lot.

Ok, so in a game where you’re going to be fighting and it’s not a one touch and you die sort of system, you’ve got Hit Points.  When a jerk hits you, you lose some of yours.  When you hit said jerk, they lose some of theirs, and the whole object of the fight is to make that jerk run out of Hit Points first.  It’s pretty simple.

But, no, it’s not that simple, and it leads to some weirdness, not just in DAO, but there’s some here, and it’s one of the more common and also weirder forms of weirdness, and it leads to another super power that Sooney Cousland possesses.  She loses about 3 quarts of blood every fight with no lingering effect. 

Hit Points, as uncle Gary and uncle Dave designed them**, were supposed to be an abstraction, and that abstraction didn’t have much to do with how well your body took a sword going through it.  When you got “hit” in a fight, and “took damage,” it was more that you got a little more tired, used up a little more of your luck, and maybe, just maybe, got a bruise or got a little winded.

Put another way, a dude with one Hit Point was tired, out of breath, scuffed up, and maybe, just maybe, took a hit in the action hero.  A dude with 1 Hit Point from 8 to start, and a dude with 1 hit point from 80 to start were in the exact same shape, but dude B down at 40 from 80 would probably be in the same shape as dude A at 4 from 8.

Under this sort of reckoning, you’re only going to get one actual injury, and that injury will always be a fatal one.  A cat scratch and a fall off a bridge to jagged rock junction 250 feet below are essentially equal, but for what shape you have to be in before you get scared of either.  But that’s not the main problem with the system.

The main problem is that the language undermines the intent.  A car that gets hit and takes damage is going to show it, and it’s going to be expensive.  When a person gets hit and takes damage, you’re expecting broken bones and severed arteries, and that’s how it always got described to me by my Dungeon Masters***, and that’s how it looks in DAO, too. 

There’s an option in the Dragon Age games that is on by default called “Persistent Gore,” which means for about 5 minutes after any fight, however brief, you are covered in blood spatter.  This gets distracting and unintentionally hilarious in cut scenes.

Out in the Wilds, Sooney plants a knife that Crocodile Dundee would find a little excessive between the shoulder blades of a hurlock.****  Blood fountains.  The hurlock turns around and smacks her back with a 30 pound maul.  Blood fountains.  She kicks him in the darkspawns.  Blood fountains (the gentlemen in the audience wince). 

DAO has a Hit Point system.  How I know is that they reset at the end of every fight*****.  It takes a couple of minutes to get back up to full, but not many.  Sooney gets savaged by a wolf and fresh as a daisy for when the darkspawn drop by. 

Back in the 80s, once the technically mistaken notion of what Hit Points were was so ingrained in the culture that it became indistinguishable from a correct notion, folks started reacting to it and designing games to address the problem that comes up when you think of Hit Points in terms of how tough your character’s actual flesh was.  And there is something ridiculous about the notion that you could successfully hit a hobbit in the face with a sword and have to do it more times than you would have to with a grizzly bear to kill the little guy.  Folks in the 80s seemed to be about the realism, a notion I find kind of laughable, but, I will grant that they were looking at the things in previous games they thought were particular howlers.

You get things like Hit Locations, which make RoleMaster so very… distinctive****** an experience.  They show up kind of rarely in video games, though video games can take the system – tracking where the jerk hit you and what it means to the bit of you the jerk hit – and really do it justice.  Mostly, I can think of the Fallout games, DayZ and Bushido Blade.*******

You get health levels, like in the World of Darkness and Apocalypse World tabletop games (and from the looks, a variation in most modern shooters, with the addition of regeneration) where you have a pretty small number of Hit Points, and each one you lose means something to your overall effectiveness********. 

You get games like Earthdawn that try to justify Hit Points by making the only option for getting more an advantage that is described as gaining greater and greater superhuman levels of resistance to injury.

In DAO, if you run out of hit points, you fall down, a skull appears in place of your portrait and you have to try and duke it out using the other members of your party.  Since Sooney’s allies kept stopping in their tracks the moment enemies appeared if she was stealthy, this happened a lot.  Sooney would pop up behind the alpha or the emissary*********, stab it, get mobbed, promptly die and I’d be left fighting out the remainder as Alistair.

This sort of thing also happened a lot just due to the target acquisition system.  Point Sooney at a jerk, press the X button and watch her weave between the jerk and three of his jerk friends to find a position as far from the targeted jerk, usually between an ally and the jerk he was fighting, as she could get and then maybe, just maybe attack.  Most of the time she’d just stand there, stupified for a moment and then I’d be back to playing as Alistair.

Once the fight is over, Sooney would be back up, but with a little red icon over her options representing an injury.  The injuries do different things in theory, but in practice, they just mean you have to use a second kind of health potion to make it go away.

Truth is, I kind of like the thought behind the system.  Your red bar is just everything that keeps you from actually getting hurt, and once you do get actually hurt, you are down and out of the fight.  Once everything is over, you can pick yourself up, regain your energy, but you’ve still got the lingering injury and that needs treatment.

But then there’s the blood spatter, the skull over your portrait when you fall, implying that Sooney is hanging out with the other Couslands and the Maker while Alistair mops up.

This could explain why she’s not all that broken up by their loss. She gets to visit at least once a fight.

* if this were Dark Souls, we'd have died 16 times in there by now...
**I feel like I don’t need to explain that most of the things we take for granted as features in role playing video games came from tabletop RPGs, especially the one made by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (the aforementioned uncles).  I probably don’t need to, but I should.  Hit Points, levels, warriors, rogues and mages – that’s where it came from.

***You get really good at describing awful, yet non-disfiguring, -disabling or –fatal injuries.
****Hurlocks are the bigger darkspawn, genlocks are the smaller ones. A.k.a. orcs and goblins.
*****This is more a modern take on Hit Points.  Back in the old days, you had to go whine at the cleric to get them back.
******Let me tell you about the time in the RoleMaster-powered Middle Earth game where my fool of a Took bombed a stealth roll and somehow managed to get turned into marinara by some tavern steps in Bree.  Good times.  Good times.
*******A fighting game with 1-hit kills.  The graphics are 1st gent PS1, but the gameplay and the philosophy behind it are super intriguing.  It’s the only game I know of where the only way to actually win it is to run away from everyone who is not a boss encounter.
********OK, the only thing that ApocWo does in this vein is that after you reach 9 o’clock, you start losing health levels without treatment.  But it counts.
*********Alphas are the tough darkspawn warriors, emissaries are their mages.  ALWAYS KILL THE CASTER FIRST.

Content Labels – Sexism, mostly.  A little fantastic racism.

There are times in this game that I feel I give it too much and too little credit simultaneously.  The feeling tends to kick in around the time I get to Ostagar and resurfaces occasionally.  Most of the time, I feel like I give it too much credit.

Duncan brings Sooney to Ostagar, which is, apparently, a fortress built where the old empire decided “eh, let’s just stop expanding.  That always works for empires.”  It’s very pretty, but it doesn’t look like much use as a fortress.  There’s not really anything keeping an enemy out of the place.  I suppose it stands to reason, since Ferelden doesn’t seem to know how to use fortifications.  Or cavalry.  Or pants.

We assume that Sooney has worked through at least some of her grief during the map-and-voiceover that leads to a meeting with the king.

What a guy!

No really, Cailin wears golden armor with pauldrons the size of basketballs (he’s not the only one with the pauldrons), and within two lines of meeting the sovereign of Ferelden, we know three things about him.

  1. He’s a dead man walking.

  2. That fact is a kindness, because he is the kind of person who would otherwise live a long, long time before, in a horrifying flash of self-awareness, he realized the magnitude of the joke the universe has played on him.  If he were a modern guy, this realization would be somewhere in his early 50s, and probably when he was trying to sneak a look down the front of his step-daughter’s shirt.

  3. He LURVES the Grey Wardens.

Cailin (trade that first i for a y, and you have the perfect name for a five year old in Christian home-school) rushes on down to gush at Duncan about how totally radical the coming battle is going to be.  To his credit, he does promise to send his army to kick Arl Howe’s taint through his soft palate as soon as they're din here, but I’m pretty sure Sooney does not expect to collect on that promise.  I’m pretty sure that, though she is but in the dewy bloom of her youth, the girl knows the king is nothing but a head of hair on a pile of expensive metal.

So begins Sooney’s introduction to the war camp as the new warden recruit, and we learn something very quickly: Ostagar doesn’t know they made women Grey Wardens.  It’s pretty much the first thing out of the mouths of every male character you meet whose not the tranquil guy or the deserter.  It’s the first thing her fellow recruits say.  It’s the first thing Alistair says, and ALISTAIR I THOUGHT YOU WERE BETTER THAN THAT. 

Here’s the gag, and the part where I feel I might be giving DAO a little too little credit.  Sooney is hardly the smurfette of the war camp.  There’s Wynne, the leader of the contingent of mages.  There’s chantry sisters.  Oh, and there are soldiers.  Lots of them.  When you get to the scene at the beginning of the doomed battle, every third or fourth soldier in the valley is a woman, wearing that terrible boob-plate armor.   Sooney’s shady-looking fellow recruit is pulling PUA* shit on one when Sooney meets him, and the first thing he says to her is how surprised he is that there’s a woman getting recruited.

I suppose the darkspawn blood you have to drink distresses the womb or something.  But then again, it kills the little shady recruit, so yeah.

Sooney tells that guy Duncan needs to see him right away, because solidarity.  Friends don’t let friends fall into the clutches of a PUA.

Ok, so the reason why I wonder if I am not giving too little credit is this, in a world where 25 – 30% of the soldiers are women, assumedly 50% of the mages are women, there is a recurring theme of surprise any time one of these women shows up as a Grey Warden.  Mom Cousland spent a significant proportion of her precious dialogue time decrying Sooney’s choice of vocation, when she seems to have no problem fitting into the armor of her youth and shooting dudes with the arrows thereof. 

I am tempted to say that it sort of works as a commentary on the invisibility of women in male-dominated fields (like drinking poison and hunting darkspawn, apparently).  Shady fellow recruit turns from a soldier woman he was just trying to pick up to voice his surprise to another soldier woman that she’s even there, while the first stands just behind him, looking like she wished the darkspawn would hurry up and just kill them already.

I’m tempted, but I have played to this point from most of the different origin stories, and when you’re an elf, they voice surprise that you’re an elf.  There are a handful of elves in the camp, doing the menial stuff that elves in DAO get to do; they aren't fighting.  If you’re a dwarf, same business, and you don’t so much as see another dwarf for another 2 hours of game time.  Same thing if you’re a mage, but magic in Thedas is… complicated.  So, yeah, men (human, not mage) are default and universal in Ferelden, and despite the fact that there are a sizable plurality of women fighting as soldiers in the front line, apparently one more warrior’s** vagina is worthy of comment.

I’m tempted, but Darkpaisley (who works in the male dominated field of light construction and house painting, and deals every day with folks who didn’t know they made women contractors), says the whole thing is bullshit, and she’s really glad they made it a non-issue in Dragon Age 2 and only brought it up in Inquisition when it was actually worthy of comment. 

I’m going to defer to greater experience on this one.

* PUA = Pick Up Artist.  If you don’t know about these guys, you probably should for sake of self protection, but you’re not going to like what you learn. 
** There are warrior and rogue versions of Sooney for sake of game mechanic based posting in the future, but in DAO, warrior and rogue aren't really speciated, not the way mage is and not the way they will be in the later games.

Content Labels - Bat-Pain, child murder. I'm going to try to be a lot less sweary than I usually am, but... yeah. Keeping it clean is fucking hard.

Our families keep us from being adventurers.

That's a lie, but it seems super popular as lies go. Popular and kind of unspoken. Every once in a while, when I get fed up with the evil men in the world, I get the notion that I should try to annoy them full time. I suspect everyone does. It's exciting. Then I remember I've got Darkpaisley and animals and nieces and nephews and, well, something to lose.

But if I didn't, boy, I'd throw my body in the gears and get my blood all over the nice shoes of those evil, evil men. This is a selfish, horrible, puerile line of thought, but it pops up however often I chase it out. I'm pretty sure anyone who believes in a cause, or who saw The Crow (1994) as often as I have gets those thoughts. Fact of the matter is that I know, in my case, it's a lie. I've gone through the last couple of months barely functional at the possibility of losing one or both of my cats in the near future.

But I see it all the time, this notion, Bruce Wayne, Eric Draven, Dean Winchester (ok, Dean has Sam, Eric has a bird, and Bruce has a parade of different minors named after the same bird. And Alfred. And Catwoman. Sometimes. And the second-best rogues gallery in comics*). Hell, it's as old as Simon Peter telling his family they're going to have to haul the nets in without him so he can follow a guy around and hang out with prostitutes, tax collectors and Samaritans. Tyler Durden told us in order to be able do anything, you have to lose everything.

So let's meet Sooney Cousland. Second child, only daughter of Teyrn** Bryce and Teyrna Elenor of Highever. Brother, Fergus, the heir; his wife is Orina, son Oren. Don't get comfortable with these people, they are not surviving the intro sequence.

Sooney has Jeanne D'Arc bobbed black hair, dark eyes and faint facial tattoos that I imagine she got from a kidnapping to the Korcari wilds or got done a couple years ago when she was really into whatever the Ferelden equivalent to The Cure is. She has the standard issue lady-body for Dragon Age, which involves gorilla arms, stubby legs, a slightly slouching posture, and proof that Ferelden has the most supportive brassieres in all fantasy kingdoms everywhere.

Seriously, they’re the Toph Beifong of undergarments***.

Dad Cousland is going to war with his bestie Evil McJerk and sending Big Brother ahead while Evil McJerk's forces take their sweet time to show up (spoiler alert, they will be showing up to torch the place and murder all within, because that's how the McJerks do).

Sooney wants to go with them. She's got a talent for making herself invisible, which she's pretty sure will come in handy in the war, but Mom Cousland isn't having it. Dad Cousland calls her "Pup" because this is Ferelden, and Fereldens are all about their doggies (in Dragon Age 2, the Free Marchers use the slur "Dog Lord" on the Ferelden refugees that show up, but that was back before Dragon Age decided to let fly the F-Bombs, so we all know what "Lord" stands for here). Mom Cousland is motherly. Big Brother Cousland has armor with double-popped collars. Sister in Law Cousland is a proper lady and slightly foreign. Nephew Cousland mugs for the camera so hard his pixels look about set to burst into pure adorable, but then the whole effect just falls flat.

Sooney's nanny ("Nan") is irascible, her dog is to a boxer what a hummer is to a car sane people drive, and Ser Ginger McHunksalot is unaware that Sooney has a poster of him on the back of her door, with hearts drawn on.

Well, the dog lives. He or she becomes a regular party member and gives you the weird experience of having to level up a dog.

At least it's easy. Strength and Constitution all the way.

And then we get the Grey Warden, Duncan, come to recruit Ser McHunksalot. Evil McJerk is a little put out by his presence and Mom and Dad Cousland are put out by his appraisal that their daughter who can turn invisible might be just the thing he needs to kill the orc-expies his job is all about. We'll probably talk more about the Grey Wardens and what they do, but for now, let's just say they haven't had to do it in 400 years, and they're about to have to do it a lot, with only two of their number remaining. Grey Wardens have the right to tell someone that they are taking them in, and no one can do jack about it. Dad Cousland is a bit nervous.

Anyway, all the pieces are in place for the sudden yet inevitable betrayal, when Evil McJerk's men show up, try to gank Sooney in her underwear, and learn that, in addition to turning invisible, she can get her armor on in picoseconds. She got this ability from her mother, I suspect, who shows up fully armored and sporting a bow. We learn that Fereldens age extremely well below the neck, too, because the armor is... well, there's no boob windows, but that's all I am giving it. D minus.

What follows is the "How to Fight" tutorial, where you, Mom, Dog, and some random Johnny (if you have the right stats to convince him), search the castle for Dad. At this point, Big Brother has left, Sister-in-law and Nephew are murdered on the floor (and Nephew's name becomes Mom's battle cry, which might have been more convincing if the script or voice acting had been there, but actually making us care about Mugs-for-Camera Cousland and his mom would have taken time we don't have in the intro), as are Nan and most of the servants. Dad and Duncan are missing, and Ser Ginger McHunksalot is making his final stand in the great hall. Sooney doesn't get a dialog option to declare her love for him, which I think is a real missed opportunity.

Eventually, you find Dad Cousland dying in a cupboard. Duncan comes along and agrees to take you with him, but only if you join the Wardens, and of course you do. Mom and Dad Cousland die off-screen and we cut to Ostagar, where further heroic motivation is in the offing.

If you're getting the impression that I am not invested in these early proceedings, move to the head of the class. The problem here is threefold.

First, you don't get a lot of time to identify with the Couslands. In the game’s defense, you really can’t get a lot of time to be with them. You’ve got to get your Blight on, and story in the intro is all just an excuse to justify the tutorial. So trying to make you care about a bunch of pixels and recorded lines in such a small amount of time takes real brilliance, and in a game, that kind of brilliance would be badly misplaced in an intro that potentially 1/6 of the players see.**** What happens is that every attempt to make you like this family comes off as ham handed or just hammy. Mom Cousland does the best in the bunch because she’s got to shoot arrows into the soldiers that were trying to stab her daughter. Ginger McHunksalot gets second billing because he’s very pretty.

The second problem is that you see Batmanification coming the moment you meet your little scamp nephew. And that’s only if you’ve got your brain switched off. Otherwise it kicks in about midway through the conversation with Dad and Evil McJerk. Sooney Cousland is about to grind through a dead horse trope, something that has been used so often and for so long that there really is no story value left to it. It is possible to go from this trope and make a story (and I would argue the The Crow manages it best), but the trope itself – family killed, sole survivor, R3VEnG3! – does nothing for nobody anymore. Even Dean Winchester’s moved on to lying to and getting lied to by his only remaining relative as the well from which he gets his Bat-Pain.

I could talk all day about Bat-Pain and how much I hate it, but we’re creeping up on 1500 words, so I ought to get a move on.

The last problem is particular to this sequence and, to an extent, to this game. In dialogue options, you have the opportunity to protest your mom making a heroic sacrifice to buy you and Duncan time to escape. But Mom is going to sacrifice herself to buy you and Duncan time to escape. At different points, you get options to say you want to go find your brother and tell him what happened, but you and your brother are going to see each other around the same time that Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal get back together, and that’s not a spoiler alert. You know this. You can tell Duncan to shove this Grey Warden thing, the Darkspawn and his Joining up his Taint, but the game is about you being a Grey Warden. It’s not about you finding your brother and getting revenge on Evil McJerk (but what are the odds he’s never showing up again, highly placed among your enemies regardless of whether your intro sequence provided you with a personal beef against him?), it’s about saving Ferelden from the Blight.

Sooney should insist on saving her mom. She should insist on finding her brother. She should tell Duncan she’s happy to join the Wardens, but she’s got to at least tell her brother his wife and son are dead before she gets around to mastering her Taint,***** but the game is in the other direction, so I know that choosing those options just puts another line of Duncan telling me no between where Sooney is and what she’s going to actually be doing. It makes me not want to choose those options. It makes me act like Sooney doesn’t care that her family is dead.

And if Sooney doesn’t care, why the hell should I?

* Flash rogues = best rogues. I am a late convert.
** Ferelden’s noble titles are Ban, Arl and Teyrn, in, I think, ascending order of rank, though I think the Arls have more influence overall. I’ll check that in the codex, sometime.
*** I really think the old girl missed a big marketing opportunity in not going into designing underwear – UNDERWIRES, OVERWIRES, METAL BENDER APPROVED.
**** There are six possible intro sequences (two of them with personal beef against Arl “Evil McJerk” Howe), but the player base is by no means divided evenly between the six. I am guessing that most of the players get the Human Noble intro – default for human warrior – which was why I picked it.
***** The phrase “Master our Taint” is spoken without irony in regards to what Grey Wardens do. The schoolboy in me cannot let that phrase just pass without comment.

A Whole Lot of Silence and Trousers: Intro

46 hours into Dragon Age Inquisition, I ran into a bug, which blocked me off from something that I very much wanted, though something whose lack would not prevent me from finishing the game.  I thought about whether I should delete or just finish the game with the hand I was dealt, and after much consideration, chose to delete.  Then I tried starting a new character and realized the depth of my folly.  Did I want to reroll the same character and try again to do what I'd done before to the point I had reached, in hopes that the content I wanted would not be glitched away from me?  Did I want to start a new character and try something new and different, and leave the old one to its fate?

I still have no idea.  So what I have decided to do instead is kick the can on it, and start over from the very beginning.

Short version for those who savvy not the video game - DAI is the third in a series of fantasy RPGs set in a place called Thedas (The Dragon Age Setting - see what they did there), where in the first one, you get to save the unfashionable southeast corner from destruction, in the first-and-a-half one, you get to faff about in the countryside and fail to make friends, in the actual second one you get to faff about marking time in a city designed by head cases, and in the third, you get to branch out to more fashionable parts of the setting and probably save the world.

There's more to it than that.  Hours more.  And I am going to blog it, through three (maybe 4) characters, and who the hell knows how many hours.  Because winter, and because I need to make myself write somehow, and this the kind of thing all the cool kids do these days.

Now folks have been here before me. Mark Oshiro blogged his playthrough of Dragon Age Origins, hour by hour, for one example I can find really easily on the internets.  What will I do that's different from all those who came before?  Hell if I know, but I have a couple of ideas.

First thing, I'm going to be looking at this through the eyes of a tabletop game designer, looking to make a tabletop version of the setting that I would want to run and darkpaisley would want to play (I'm aware that Green Ronin made [2/3 of] one for me, and we'll talk about that in greater detail sometime, why I don't want to use it or anything else I have seen commercially available).

Second thing, I'm going to be looking at this through storytelling eyes.  I'll be looking at the tropes and tricks and things that go in my run.

Third, I will liberal all over the games, at times, but not all the time.  I will also apprentice-ally and nerd-culture on it as those things pop up.  I'll try to be up-front about my biases and put up content guides at the top.

In the interest of being up-front about my biases, I have played Dragon Age Origins to completion once, with its expansion pack Dragon Age Awakening.  I've played Dragon Age 2 to completion once with Legacy and Mark of the Assassin in there somewhere.  I've watched Darkpaisley play a lot.

Well, we shall see.

Nightcrawler and The Drop

sovay asked me to write about the movies, and while my reviews will not hold a candle to hers (seriously, go read them and learn), I do have thoughts on the two I've recently seen, which I might put in a three-film mini-fest with Drive (2011) or expand it to an all-day event with Enemy (2013) (this might make it a little heavy on the Jake Gyllenhaal) and American Psycho (2000).  That by itself constitutes kind of a major spoiler for one of the films, so beware.

Nightcrawler - Actually, it's about Ethics in Journalism.

I think to really do my experience with this film, I have to relate how it was sold to me.  darkpaisley told me she wanted to see this movie, but was evasive about what it was or why she wanted to see it.  This sets of alarm bells for me, since my formative experience for movies d|p wants me to see but about which she is evasive is Oldboy (2003).

"Actually, it's about ethics in journalism," she said, referencing #gamergate, letting me know that Erik is going to be watching this movie through his hands, because while I lack his eloquence in media consumption, I have the all the steely reserve of Mark Oshiro when he's watching things.  The reference to #gamergate is apt for this movie in a lot of different ways.  Jake Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a hollow eyed mansuit who begins the film as a player's avatar in a video game.  See him, caught stealing chainlink fence by a private security guard, assault the guard for his fancy watch.  See him exhaust dialog trees with the scrap dealer (ask for a higher price for scrap.  Ask for a job).  Bloom's dialog is just so - a tree, but unlike modern games where you can choose aggressive, kind or douche, he's stuck with the kind of language you pick up from online business courses and a steady diet of whoever is the new Steven Covey these days.  When he sees a stringer covering a fiery car crash (hey, it's Bill Paxton!  Always a welcome sight, bearded, sleazy and perfect for the part of the more experienced "nightcrawler"), he begins his journey, as controlled by some external, unseen game-player who has no fucks to give about what happens as a consequence of his avatar's actions.

Turns out that a total lack of humanity makes for meteoric success as a stringer for lurid-footage-hungry local news, and his early attempts to get that footage really do take on the cast of an action-adventure sort of videogame.  Here's the puzzle solving, there's the mandatory stealth section.  Here's the capture and the points earned.  He uses the points to upgrade his camera, his ride (a mid-80s Tercel to a red Mustang) and get a $30-a-night intern (Rick Garcia, who has been acting for as long as I have been, according to IMDB and looks like he's 25), with whom he interacts as the nightmare boss that far too many of my friends and relations know.  He levels, gains more points and continues to level.  He sabotage's his rival's van and films the resulting crash.  Acheivement unlocked.

But don't think we've dodged what #gamergate is actually about, as Bloom begins to show the main theme of that misbegotten fuckstorm in his interactions with Rene Russo's local TV station morning news director.  She's close to the end of her contract, a former field reporter whose graceful aging is just aging in LA, and hungry for the kind of news (and she makes no bones about what it is - the kind that scares white people in the suburbs with the specter of CRIME) that spikes ratings and that Bloom seems very good at getting.  He's hungry for her, and he uses his footage, in dialog tree fashion, to coerce her into a relationship with him, which, thank fuck, we never see.  As his footage garners more and more cachet, he becomes more insistent, sea lionish, and not only doesn't seem to show any grasp on what a person should do in any given situation, but the fact that the way he behaves is probably justification for homicide.  But then, he's perfectly willing to employ the threats of violence that show up in his dialog tree, as well as tipping information that he's gotten clearly from stalking.  Though Jake Gyllenhaal is much different in appearance than the specter conjured to mind of the synechdochal #gater, he's got the personality, the view of women and the hatred of everyone and everything that is not resources for him to own that suits them to the ground.

And he gets away with it.  With everything.  When he arranges a home invasion that he filmed to turn into a next-day bloodbath and chase, during which he extemporizes the murder of his increasingly balky intern at the hands of one of the home invasion suspects, the police do try to pin it on him, but his dialog tree holds the poison apple that gets him out of trouble.  We last see him having leveled up again, stolen watch still on his wrist, three interns and two vans, setting off into the night.

The Drop - Literally Everything is a Spoiler

Tom Hardy plays Bob Sagonowski, a bartender at his cousin (James Gandlofini in his last credited film, doing the kind of things you expect from him, and doing them very well)'s bar, which happens to be where drops of money from the various and sundry illicit things happening in Brooklyn sometimes come.  Bob is low-key.  And by saying he's low-key, I mean he is low-key like the previous mentioned film's protagonist is lacking in conscience.  He's low key to the point of immediate alarm.  He's pretty satisfied with his place in the world (while his cousin rails against it).  Then a couple of things happen, the first being a robbery on the bar, that nets a fairly trivial sum from the bar's Chechen mafia owners, and the second being a puppy Bob discovers in the garbage can of a young woman (Noomi Rapace, the other bright spot in Prometheus [2012]), who has the kind of ex-boyfriend who would buy a puppy, chip it, beat it and then stick it in his ex-girlfriend's garbage as a message to her.

And everything after that is a spoiler.  And everything before that is a spoiler.  Now, I was fine to spoil Nightcrawler, because that film doesn't surprise you with anything.  Bloom is a less-human Patrick Bateman, and the terrible things he does are well warned and being surprised by them or expecting them does not change your reaction.  The Drop, well, you shouldn't be surprised what happens, and the film has a bunch of weird interpolations that I want to talk about that makes me think that folks in charge of the movie were afraid you'd be too surprised by what happens, but the film does thrive on uncertainty.  You know how this is going to go, but you don't know if you're right.

It's a spoiler to tell you Bob is a lot smarter than he comes off, but there's no secret about that in the film.  We get to see him be consistently smarter than he might come off.  We see him acting on guilt in a dozen different ways, which Cousin Marv likes to lampshade.  We see him try every trick in his repetoire to de-escalate the inevitable confrontation with the technically legal owner of the dog (and would-be "owner" of dogsitter Nadia).  We see a lingering shot on an oil tank in Bob's basement with an orchestral sting on it.  We see him handle a severed arm returned to the bar with the money stolen from the Chechens, by the Chechens.

The film is full of lampshades; cousin Marv keeps his father and his hopes of returning to the respect he has as the leader of a crew on life support.  It becomes clear quite quickly that he's arranging for the robbery of the bar that he runs (and once owned before the Chechens made him blink), in hopes of putting up enough money to get his former operation back off the ground.  He's ruthless enough to kill the suriving member of the two-man team he got to rob the place in the first part when he refuses to do a repeat.  But he's desperate enough to contact the dog's owner, Eric Deeds, mentally ill and proclaimed killer of a guy whose name keeps coming up for some reason (which is spoily) to rob the bar.

Tom Hardy is great.  Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini turn in good performances.  The story works, except...  It's a weird thing, but this is one of those films where I was watching it seemed like an extra 20 minutes got slid in, a scene at a time with no other purpose but to give more clues that the final confrontation is going to end up like it did.  There's voiceover, which I always take as a film not trusting in the clarity of its own premise (I forgive it in SF and fantasy, because you need to tell people up front what they're getting out of this imaginary world, but for stuff in our world, I don't normally see the need).  There's also a detective whose investigation scenes go nowhere - they don't give more information, just hint that there is more information to be had, and I don't think any of that information is necessary.  Bob does a perfectly clear and complete job explaining to Eric what that information is at the end, and it's no surprise to anyone who stayed awake through the film.

There's also a completely unecessary and kind of disturbing ending where Bob and Nadia seem to repair friendship/nascent attraction, that did not need to be, and in fact, kind of needed to not be.  I long for a shorter cut of this movie, omitting the scenes with the detective when he's not interacting with Bob or Marv and ending on the closing voiceover.  Because this is a good film, it really is, I liked it better than Nightcrawler, even though it sounds like I do not.  It's just been cluttered up with a handful of crap it does not need, which I suspect was a studio mandate.  This one I would watch again, but probably not Nightcrawler, though both were good films and worth your time.


I am Doing NaNo this Year.

Starting tomorrow.  A story about a family of bad people who want to be important people so they try pimping a monster to a retired hero with problems of her own.  Aiming for Peter S. Beagle by way of the Coen brothers.  It should be a fun November.


Erik Amundsen

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