Dragon Age 2 is a game about mental illness.
This is why it is not a game about victory.
Anders and his demon are the most obvious metaphor, but you and all of your friends are a bundle of neuroses. A pocket DSM. An encyclopedia of neuroatypicality. When you strip away the video game conventions (WC) and the medieval underpinnings (WC), what you're left with is mostly trauma. You wake up and you try to get over it, but it doesn't go away.
All of the romance-marked dialog choices in the world can't love away the bad things. The game doesn't offer you a chance to swing your sword and be cleansed of your issues. But it offers you the chance, again and again, to get up and fight.
For those of us with mental illness, this is a familiar battle.
In the days and weeks and months and years after I was raped, it wasn't about overcoming. It was about adapting. It was learning the walkways where I felt safest. It was about arming myself with my friends. It was about fighting the losing battle, again and again, not learning to win, but learning to get up.
Anders is the character who most obviously reflects mental illness, and this is probably why I wanted to romance him. To make myself loveable by choosing to love someone like that. I knew what it was like. To know that something bad had happened, was happening, to know it had happened to you, and to have that as a constant voice (WC) in your mind. The background music to my life was horror movie music. I knew that when I tried to talk about it the things that came out just sounded crazy. I couldn't relate to people the same way. My friends wanted to laugh and flirt and go to bars. I was the bad friend, the one who couldn't keep her weird dark comments to herself. As you round the halfway mark to the games, this becomes evident in the random dialog as you and your party scurry around. Leave Anders at home, and the attitude is light. Bring him with you, and he interjects his dark comments. He throws off the mood. He completely fucking fails the vibe check.
Mental illness doesn't make you stupid. You see yourself doing that. You just don't know how to stop it. I wasn't Anna, separate from the trauma. The trauma was so deeply woven into my mind that I couldn't parse it out. Just as Anders said that he and Justice were the same. He wasn't hearing Justice's thoughts in his head. Trauma - an instance, a lifetime - had rewired his brain irrevocably. While I struggled for words, DA2 offered a simple, true explanation.
Something has happened, and I am not who I once was.
And it made me want to bang my head against a wall, to dig a hole in the ground and scream directly into the earth. It made me want to lie in bed and not do anything at all, or quit my job and still not do anything, just bang my head, just scream.
But Dragon Age 2 is a video game. It's not open world. It only progresses when you pick a quest and choose to fight the battles. Getting your friend a date. Killing the man who made a slave of your friend. Fighting demons. Fighting dragons. Compartmentalizing and giving a name to these intangible things, each of them wrapping up by moving the plot or helping you and your friends grow. Step by slow step. I saved Isabela from the Qunari, even if she didn't deserve it. I forgave Anders, even if he didn't deserve it.
In Dragon Age: Origins, you save the world. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, you save the world. In Dragon Age 2, you save your friends. As best as you can. Which means you fail, and you fail, and you fail, but it means that you keep trying.