BioWare is one of the best developers out there when it comes to creating situations that make us care about the characters around us. From KOTOR to Mass Effect to Dragon Age and SWTOR, your companions are people with their own wants, needs, backstories, and issues. It’s up to you to deal with them–or not.
*Various spoilers for Dragon Age, The Old Republic, and Game of Thrones ahead.*
Dragon Age has a host of companion characters over its three installments, and I wish I knew a lot of them in real life. I’d take Varric as a drinking buddy in a heartbeat.
Dealing with Thom Rainier, aka Warden Blackwall, was one of the most difficult tasks that BioWare ever tossed at my feet (with an evil smirk, I’m certain). He ranks right up there with SWTOR’s Malavai Quinn when it comes to characters who put me in terrible positions and left me agonizing about my decisions.
I decided to have my Inquisitor romance Blackwall the moment I found him. In retrospect, there were clues about his deception that I failed to notice, because I was so convinced that he was a good guy that it never occurred to me to wonder if I was wrong about him. Why would it? His resistance came across to me as a struggle to put duty first and leave personal desires behind. He also made it clear that he didn’t think he was worthy of the Inquisitor. I was so determined to prove him wrong that it never occurred to me that he might be right.
When he disappeared after the long-awaited tryst with the Inquisitor, I went a little nuts. I literally dropped everything to hunt him down and find out what was going on. At that point, nothing else mattered except getting to the bottom of things–not the war, not the demons, not the Inquisition. It’s a good thing no one took the opportunity to strike, because the Inquisition could have fallen then and there, while the Inquisitor was too consumed by personal issues to pay attention to anything else.
Looking back on it, I’d put myself smack into a Game of Thrones moment and turned into Cersei. Cersei has been obsessed with thwarting her personal prophecy for a long time now, and she’s made a lot of extreme decisions along the way–one of which led to Tommen’s death, fulfilling another part of that prophecy. She’s probably realized by now that Margaery likely wasn’t the younger, more beautiful queen who was destined to topple her–but Cersei’s sure as hell not going to admit that she was wrong. She’s so obsessed with being right that she’s all but ignoring the dead things coming to kill them all.
Cersei always thinks she’s right, which is a big part of her problem. She just keeps reeling from one bad decision to the next, even when those decisions have terrible consequences. When you lose sight of the big picture, bad shit can happen.
In the Inquisitor’s case, the bad shit was learning the truth. Finding out why Blackwall was really keeping the Inquisitor at arm’s length was shocking. The guy wasn’t who he said he was, wasn’t what he pretended to be, and hello! Turns out, he not only put greed over duty, he caused the death of innocents in the process, then ran off and left his men–who thought that they were following legitimate orders–behind to take the blame.
Talk about having the scales ripped from your eyes.
Blackwall was the name of the actual Grey Warden who recruited Thom Rainier and then died before Rainier could go through the Joining. Rainier then decided to take on Blackwall’s identity. On the one hand, he’s just hiding from his past crimes more efficiently. On the other, he’s actually doing good things, and Rainier isn’t the one getting credit for them–Blackwall is. Rainier isn’t trying to clear his own name, or improve his reputation. There is some honesty in that, at least. His agony over what he’s done seems real, too. He regrets what he did, he accepts all of the blame, and in the end, he wants to die for his crimes.
Or does he? What if I was wrong about that, too?
The game gives you plenty of choices as the situation develops. You can leave Rainier behind to pay for his crimes, or you can have him released to the Inquisition so that you can judge him yourself. I chose the latter, because I didn’t know what I wanted yet. That led to an even more difficult set of choices, because now I had to decide what to do with him. Give him to the Wardens? Set him free and hope that he’ll continue down the right path? Make him keep living the lie? And what about the relationship? Rainier tells the Inquisitor that he never lied about how he felt… but is he telling the truth now? Can you trust the guy? Can you start over? Are you always going to wonder if he’s actually an evil mastermind who’s been manipulating you all along?
I devoted a lot of headspace to the evil mastermind bit. What if his protestations were a ploy? Every time he told my Inquisitor he wasn’t worthy of her, it made me even more determined to prove him wrong. What if the whole thing was a setup, right from the start? What if he planned to make her love him? What if he then rolled the dice, confessed, and trusted that her blind loyalty to him would set him free? What if he was using her all along, manipulating her into doing exactly what he wanted? And why the hell am I spending so much time thinking about a fictional character’s motivations???
Because this shit happens in real life, that’s why.
Most of us probably don’t have to deal with that exact situation, but the real-world parallels are there. How do you know when a liar is finally telling the truth? Do you give people a second chance? For most of us, that probably depends on what they did. Where do you draw the line? What about a third, fourth, or fifth chance? When are you giving up too quickly, and when is it ok to say, “This person is toxic, and I don’t need them in my life”?
But what I really wonder about is this: how many of us keep people around because we don’t want to have to admit that we were wrong about them?
People don’t like to be wrong. We’ve all watched people twist and squirm and perform mental gymnastics just to somehow make it seem as though they weren’t wrong. I have a co-worker who’s wrong all the time–mostly because he doesn’t listen–and he will literally spend ten minutes explaining why he really wasn’t wrong if you don’t cut him off.
Kathryn Schulz wrote an interesting book about being wrong (“Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error“, or check out her TED talk) and changing how we deal with our mistakes. Getting it wrong is how we learn to get it right–but you can’t learn if you refuse to admit that you’re wrong.
Of course, before we can admit that we’re wrong, we have to realize that we’re wrong. How often do you go looking for evidence that you might be wrong about something? To use a ridiculous example–if you grew up believing that mice are telepathic, when does it occur to you to check to see if you might be wrong? Probably not until you mention it to someone and they look at you like you’re a raving lunatic. Even then, you might just dismiss them as ignorant or stupid. You know the truth, and they’re just dumb. When we’re comfortable with what we believe, we generally don’t seek out information that contradicts those beliefs. Instead, we tend to seek out information that reinforces our beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable. Finding out that we’re wrong is uncomfortable. We like to be comfortable.
Is being comfortable worth it?
You may be absolutely, positively convinced that what you believe about something is right, and people who disagree are wrong (or ignorant, or stupid, or evil–again, see Kathryn Schulz’s book or TED talk–you see this in the right vs. left struggles all the time). But ask yourself this: does being comfortable outweigh the possible consequences of being wrong?
That really depends on what you’re wrong about, doesn’t it? Believing in rodent telepathy probably isn’t going to hurt anybody. There are many beliefs out there that are anything but benign.
Blackwall/Rainier taught me something about my own tendency to be blind to my errors. Luckily, it was a lesson learned in a safe space, with no consequences in the real world. Unfortunately, most of our errors aren’t taking place in a vacuum, and some of them could be catastrophically harmful to others. Harmful to people of different races, faiths, or creeds. To entire countries. To the world.
No matter how right we think we are, maybe we should all take a moment to do a reality check on our beliefs. You never know what you might find–and you never know when acknowledging that you’re wrong might make all the difference.