[Content Note: Rape]
Dragon Age: Origins. Now, I am a reviewer at heart, so while I have already reviewed the game (back in the early days, when it was fresh off the shelves), I thought I would take the time to review one of your support characters - Warden Alistair, who is seemingly an incredibly polarizing character, judging from the fan forums. As you can tell from the title, this isn't going to be a particularly positive review, although it should be noted (in an attempt to deflect fan-girl rage) that I don't actively *hate* Alistair (he's a video game character, after all), but I *do* wish Bioware would give us girls a little more variety in the department of Romance Options. Frankly, I would have preferred to woo Sten, and I was disappointed to see that he wasn't an option. Spoilers ahead, although at this point so late after release it's very much an It Was His Sled situation.
1. Alistair's comic relief lines are immersion-breaking at best.
Now, I like me some good old-fashioned gallows humor. There's nothing quite like staring in the face of death and laughing heartily. And I have to admit that when you first meet Alistair, standing down an angry mage (who is incensed because Alistair has brought him a summons from the mother priest), I *did* laugh at Alistair's opening "Isn't it great how a Blight brings people together?" lines. Considering that he'd just been shouted at unfairly, I appreciated his willingness to let the tension roll off his back, and I warmed at his ability to laugh in the face of the upcoming battle.
It doesn't take too long to figure out, in fact, that Alistair is the designated comic relief in this Bioware game (although "designated" is a bit much - almost all your support characters have a laugh-out-loud punch line in their dialogue trees somewhere). And since Bioware's concept of "characterization" generally boils down to Planet of the Hats, but with Deeper Dialogue Back At Camp, this means that you're going to be hearing Alistair crack jokes on the road a lot.
At first I enjoyed the snarky (if sometimes a little dim-witted) remarks coming from over my PC's right shoulder, but I can't progress too far into the game without worrying about Alistair. Confronted with the grisly sight of fellow soldiers strung up and left to rot? It's time for a joke about excessive force - oh snap! Trapped in a cavern with slaughtered villagers behind us, a crazy and violent cult before us, and a dangerous and deadly dragon above us? Muse that the priest mother's head would explode if she were there - ice burn!
If you're into game immersion, like I am, it's difficult to cope with these shoe-horned "comic relief" attempts by Bioware - the only plausible in-game explanation for Alistair's steady one-liners is (a) he's too stupid to gauge situational severity nor to understand the seriousness of death, (b) he's a quite literal sociopath who feels no concern for the suffering of others, or (c) possibly a combination of both. None of those options strike me as the sort of person I want in my bed.
2. Alistair disregards the personal feelings of others.
Remember that mage that was shouting at Alistair when we first met him? Once you've played DAO a little bit, you may come to realize that mage isn't just a dick on a power trip. He's lived his entire life under the watchful eye of an order of religious fanatics who have carte-blanche power to kill him at any moment, for any reason, with no consequences. If they kill him from afar, via his blood stored for "safe keeping" in the capital, he won't even see his death coming. The head of this religious order is in camp right now, and she's using Alistair as her errand boy to push this mage around - he can either perform his camp duties, or he can report to her as ordered, and dereliction of either of those two could get him killed before sundown.
Alistair knows all this backstory, even when the player doesn't - he was raised by the templars. He doesn't like the templars (he considers himself lucky to have gotten out), and he certainly doesn't have to obey their orders now that he's a Grey Warden. In fact, his commanding officer pretty much scolds him for getting involved, period, so I don't know what to take from this except that he gets off on making mages scared. Considering how he goes after Morrigan and her mother, it starts to ring a little false that he didn't enjoy mage-hunting.
Think I'm reading too much into one incident? Shockingly (for a Romance Option), Alistair consistently doesn't care about the personal feelings of the PC. If you tell him - upon being conscripted against your will and taken from the only home you've ever known, by a man you barely know who is literally consigning you to a guaranteed death sentence - that you're not too thrilled with the situation, he'll take a disapproval hit. Yes, being a Grey Warden is traditionally a big honor, but that's largely because they are exotic and mysterious and no one knows what that entails. And, yes, it's a dream-come-true for Alistair because he hated being a templar so much. But your situation is different, and nothing you can say or do will ever get that through to him - if you want to romance Alistair, you'll have to agree with him on the collective awesomeness of Duncan and the Wardens, because in Alistair's world, there's no agreeing to disagree on this.
It's worth reiterating that almost all the origin stories involve your family and friends being raped or murdered in various ways, but don't bother trying to bring that up - at best, Alistair will acknowledge that you both have a lot in common, what with you losing your entire family and him losing a man that he knew for literally less than 6 months, and who didn't see fit to take him along on the two week journey to the starting origin areas.
3. Alistair expects the world to grind to a halt for *his* personal feelings.
Obviously I'm okay with characters who don't give a toss for my feelings, or I wouldn't have mentioned Sten in a positive light earlier. No, I don't have a problem with snarky stoics. I *do* have a problem with hypocrites, though. It's worth mentioning - again - that Alistair has known Duncan for all of six months, and he has good reason to feel ambivalent about the man. After all, Duncan didn't warn Alistair prior to taking him from the Chantry that coming along would be a death sentence. And, technically, by invoking the right of conscription, Duncan didn't give Alistair a choice in the matter. Considering that Alistair is technically some flavor of royalty (as is the Cousland human noble PC), Duncan is damned fortunate that Wardens get such a free reign, because he's practically committing regicide.
(And let's not forget that the Wardens recruit in times of peace, too. They have to, or the order would die off. If they've been recruiting since the last Blight, 400 years ago, and they only have 30 years to live, give or take, even if they keep their numbers at less than 25 Wardens at a time, that's a lot of people that died drinking Darkspawn blood.)
But Alistair has daddy issues, so he's remade Duncan in his mind into the perfect father figure, and not even the end of the world is going to stop him brooding over it. Expect Duncan's tragic death - a death that was going to come soon anyway because Duncan was nearing his expiration date on the tainted blood - to come up in no less than five separate conversations. Fine, I can dig a sentimental guy, Bioware, even if the sentiment is for the wrong reasons. Attempt to drag Ferelden kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages by refusing to indulge in revenge-dressed-up-as-capital-punishment? That's the one thing that will make Alistair bail on this whole fight-the-Blight thing.
Yes, that's right. He won't leave the quest to run off and live happily ever after with the PC, but he will give the whole thing up if you refuse to chop off the head of a guy whose political wranglings resulted in the death of a guy who was going to die, one way or another, within less than a year.
Alistair is, in fact, so sensitive that for all his "fun loving, easy-going" pretensions, he's pretty much the easiest person in the game to lose favor with. Snark back at him? He disapproves - he can dish it out, but he won't take it in turn. Turn him down for sex after he turned you down? Good luck getting him to talk to you after that. Follow his advice on the Redcliff quest? He'll hate you for it. Let's not even get into the king-making. I won't say that all the juvenile pouting isn't in character for a child that had a less-than-perfect upbringing, but I will say that I prefer my Romance Options to have an emotional maturity greater than a twelve-year-old. Moving on.
4. Alistair can't imagine taking a third option.
Ferelden sucks. Even the people who live there will tell you so. The local nobility are a bunch of back-stabbing bastards, angling for more power after years of war. The Dalish elves patrol the forests, shooting anyone who trespasses too close to camp. You can't really blame the Dalish, though, because the humans round up whatever elves they find, toss them into city slums, and then openly rape and murder them without consequence. Given all this, you pretty much have to be a heartless evil bastard to not put Alistair on the throne, in the hopes that he might enact a touch of civil reform. Maker knows Anora isn't going to do it, and furthermore she's a commoner - her only claim to the throne is that the very young, very dead king slept with her a few times before dying in battle. In real life, the only way there wouldn't be some kind of civil war over her rule would be if she married a noble, and if they're all anything like the arl's son in the City Elf origin story, the best reform we could hope for in that case would be limiting gang-rape to wedding days only. So if you're playing, say, a City Elf, the only way to make sure that another cousin isn't savagely gang-raped is to crown Alistair, even if he's not confident in his abilities to rule.
And what does he do? He dumps your ass.
He's not racist, because That Would Be Bad, and the dark, gritty realism of this world couldn't possibly extend to the Creators' Pet. And while it may be true that some men have different standards as to who is beddable and who is wedable, Alistair isn't like that. No, he's concerned about your ability to bear an heir, and heirs are very Serious Business. But while I can get onboard with the fact that "no heir" spells c-i-v-i-l-w-a-r, I simply cannot get onboard with Alistair's insistence that his heir must be his magic sperm baby. If anything, a blooded heir causes even more problems because (a) any child of Alistair and Anora will be less than one quarter "noble" (Anora is a commoner, and Alistair's mother was a serving maid), and (b) tainted blood, anyone?
If only there was some precedent for designating an heir who isn't a direct descendant of the king. Some system of designating, in advance so that there can be no dispute or confusion, someone qualified - perhaps an uncle or cousin on the Redcliff side, or perhaps a relative of the previous royal queen, or possibly by some other established and trusted royal family, maybe even one elected or appointed by the nobles. If only that were possible! But, no, it's vitally important for the functioning of the kingdom that Alistair get a baby with tainted blood on the nearest blonde, with full knowledge that the political fight over who will be regent for the baby when Alistair dies an early death will likely be much, much more bloody than a calm power transistion to an older, pre-selected candidate.
But hey, the important thing is that Alistair's legacy will live on, and Ferelden's safety and health be damned. Priorities, people.
5. Alistair is relatively boring and shallow.
Alistair is a mopey Bioware Romance Option, so of course he has a tragic backstory. He lived a crappy life as an unloved, bastard orphan; was handed off at a young age to train in a monastic order that exists to hunt and murder fugitive mages; and his surrogate father figure just died tragically in a battle he wasn't even allowed to participate in.
It's hard not to feel sorry for Alistair... unless you're playing through the non-human noble origin story. Let's say, again for the sake of argument, that you're a City Elf. You've lived your entire life in a city slum, never allowed to leave the enclosure of the alienage. The orphans of your people weren't sent to scrub pots for the chantry - they got to starve to death, or they were worked into an early grave (Ferelden doesn't have child-labor or labor-safety laws). The "lucky" ones were sold into prostitution. Considering how quickly your pretty city elf PC is snapped up to be raped by the local lord's son, you can take it as read that this isn't her first time; and considering that the lord's son in question is no spring chick, it's probably not even her first time with him. Let that little depressing tidbit sink in for a moment.
Now look at your party members. Sten is a foreigner in a foreign land who can never return home. Morrigan believes she was most likely stolen as a baby, raised by a literal demon, and exists merely to serve as a shiny new body for her "mother". Wynne was raised under the templars' swords her entire life, and she is literally at death's door. Leliana and Zevran are orphans who were forced to be assassins (the kind who get killed when caught, unlike the templars who can say 'boo' to whoever they want) who have to use their bodies in order to get close to their marks. Kind of makes Alistair's story dry up a notch, considering that he didn't have to go through buggering training as part of his templar classes, no?
Unlike every other person in your party, Alistair has a home to go to after this. The Arl who raised him seems to truly like him, and now that his wife has her own precious snowflake child/heir, she doesn't mind Alistair's presence at the dinner table. Unlike every other person in your party, Alistair has some memory of a happy childhood - memories that aren't tainted by the retrospective knowledge that rape or death or betrayal was always right around the corner. Frustratingly, annoyingly, maddeningly, Alistair sometimes can't seem to shut up about how shitty his childhood was and his life is... unlike every other person in your party, the rest of whom seem to be fairly cheerful about their tragic pasts, all things considered.
There comes a point where the phrase "world's smallest violin" ceases to be appropriate.
Beyond all this, Alistair comes off as distressingly shallow, as Romance Options go. Agree with everything he says and he'll tumble into your bed without too much protest, but... then what? Dialogue options with him dry up immediately after, making him seem less like a viable relationship option, and more like a trophy to hang on the wall. Even Leliana and Zevran will, as friends, talk to you about the future after the Blight and dream about traveling with you and seeing the world. Alistair, on the other hand, will plan no plans, dream no dreams, and will shut you down if you try to - which is perhaps in keeping with his childish personality, but again makes him seem like an empty cipher, post-sex.
Ultimately, for all his backstory and wangst and witticisms, Alistair doesn't have much of a personality. Whatever dreams of escape he might have entertained in the chantry, he never shares them with us; if he has any goals beyond the immediate threat of the Blight - rebuild the local order? constantly fight the darkspawn in the dwarven tunnels? travel to make new allies and see the world? - we never know them. He starts to feel like the standard Bioware Male Romantic Option: he only exists to tell the female PC that she's a wonderful, beautiful, strong, sexy goddess (with a nice ass!) - a big, strong meatshield who follows you around and says things like "Your desire is my command," in a voice that's apparently supposed to be seductive, but which I rather find terribly worrying.
You see, ultimately I like men who are human beings - ones that have depth, personality, and dreams. And while it might be nice wish-fulfillment to imagine a piece of beefcake following me around, doing my bidding, and worshiping my ass - at the end of the day, I can't help but feel that the "Romance Option" presented is really just a well-animated blow-up doll with a British accent stuck on a loop.