You can’t go home again

Notes on Dragon Age: Origins #7 — Going back to the first place that tried to kill me

I’ve spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how I’m supposed to feel about returning to Circle Tower. Since I’m playing as a mage, I started the game in the Tower as an apprentice, first trying to survive a life-and-death initiation ritual, and then trying to navigate the intrigue of assisting/ratting out my (only?) friend Jowan.

Who turned out to be a blood mage. But not a bad blood mage. Well, yes a bad blood mage, but one who feels bad about being bad and oh maybe I just should’ve killed him.

But anyway, returning to Circle Tower to ask for the mages’ help in fighting the blight is kind of maybe supposed to feel like a homecoming?

And I’m torn, because it kind of doesn’t. In part, I think, because it would be almost impossible for a game like Dragon Age to actually put the player in the position of spending enough time with the mages to make the place feel like home. There are ways to do it, I think, but it would involve bringing the player back to their point of origin again and again, building in bonuses, and NPC interactions to build investment, and this, like voice acting, would require a lot of building for a game with as much player class and point-of-origin variability as Dragon Age.

In short, not every player starts at the Tower, and so it would be really hard to build the Tower as a place that can feel like home but won’t function that way for characters who aren’t mages.

BUT — and this, I think, is just as important — Dragon Age as a narrative experience is also built around making the character feel rootless. Every character’s point-of-origin is hostile to the character in some fashion. And once the player “escapes” their initial situation to join the Grey Wardens, they face (another) life-and-death initiation.

And then (almost) all the Grey Wardens are killed and the player sets off on their own. Again.

So I’m pretty sure that the X-Men-esque “saving a world that doesn’t much like you and may not entirely be worth it” theme is intentional, even if I won’t be ready to pronounce judgement on how well it works until I get to the end.

And, at least for me, there was one homecoming moment that felt right, which was when Cullen, the Templar who flirted with me after my Harrowing, trapped and tortured by a blood mage, screamed in rage against all mages including me. There’s a bigger theme about the unreliability of allies that I’m not really qualified to discuss at length, but my personal experience is that home doesn’t stay home.

Places and people change, and we change while we’re away. Everyone moves on, even when they don’t move away.

There’s a part of me that is that Grey Warden, rootless, gathering friends where I can, not really sure how I’m supposed to feel about the place that used to be my home.

Trying to help. Not always exactly succeeding.

Originally published 4/20/15 on Medium