Since the first literary work, the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’, was told three thousand years ago, humans have been using the art of storytelling to teach values and morals to future generations. Since then, storytelling has become a medium for the reader to explore their own personality and identity. The recent technology boom has made video games a prevalent method for storytelling to reach modern viewers. Video game developers are able to explore the human psyche by creating characters with rich backstories and complicated psychodynamic frameworks, whilst also guiding the player on their own journey of self-discovery.
Of the current array of video game developers, Bioware is a leading player in the field of interactive gaming with their Dragon Age and Mass Effect series. Bioware gives players agency over not only their character’s appearance and personality, but the direction of the plot and the development of the game’s supporting characters. For example, the personality of Alistair Theirin, a Grey Warden allied with the player at the very beginning of the Dragon Age journey can actually be changed according to the decisions of the player. A combination his past, the events that take place throughout the game and the choices made by the player all shape the way he reacts to different people and situations. The most predominant of the choices given to the player is whether to ‘harden’ Alistair or not, which can lead to the formation of either positive or maladaptive defence mechanisms.
In an intensely player centred game such as Dragon Age, it’s easy to forget that the supporting characters have their own version of the Hero’s Story (Campbell 1945), with individual sources of anxiety and resulting defence mechanisms. Both Alistair and the player share the same surface anxiety; the threat of the Darkspawn and the over looming Blight. Once the player interacts with Alistair and explores his backstory, further anxieties rise to the surface, stemming from his childhood. From birth, Alistair was lead to believe that he was little more than the son of a serving girl to Eamon Guerrin, Arl of Redcliffe, and that she died in childbirth. He was then raised by the Arl, from a distance; until rumour spread he was Eamon’s bastard, which enraged his bride, Isolde. She despised Alistair so much that she had him sent to the Chantry to become a Templar. Growing up lacking any form of mother figure and a weak father figure in Eamon damaged the formation of Alistair’s ego and super-ego, resulting in desperation to fill the void. This can be seen in the intense bond he forms with his Grey Warden mentor, Duncan, projecting upon him a father like role (Grohol 2013). Alistair becomes attached to his mentor and greatly affected by his death, so much so that the writers chose to include ‘Duncan’s Shield’ as a discoverable item in the game that is not only a powerful armour piece, but a gift item for Alistair that, when presented, initiates a sequence of dialogue in which Alistair professes how grateful he is and how he will ‘treasure’ the shield. As a warrior, this projection does deepen the bond between the two Wardens, but proves detrimental after Duncan’s death, sending Alistair into a depressed state which impairs his ability to lead. The player can then either choose to comfort their fellow Warden or tell him to move on, it is not until later in the game the player is presented with the option to ‘harden’ him.
Whether Alistair is ‘hardened’ or ‘unhardened’ not only changes the outcome of the game’s plot and the choices available to the player, but also affects Alistair as a person. As the game progresses, Alistair will confide in the player that he was aware of his father’s identity all along, and that he was actually the bastard of King Maric and half-brother to King Cailan. After Cailan’s death at Ostagar, this leaves Alistair as the only living heir to the throne by blood. The event that leads to this act of hardening is the confrontation between Alistair and his other half-sibling on his mother’s side, Goldanna. Goldanna reveals that she was paid to stay silent in regards to her brother’s royal blood and feels cheated she was left to ‘scrape by’ with five mouths to feed. She then demands that Alistair pay her more money or leave, leading to a conversation with the player outside her home. The realization that his family was not the one he had dreamed of leaves Alistair in a shocked and impressionable state, giving the player the chance to harden him. By choosing the dialogue option ‘Everyone is out for themselves. You should learn that’, Alistair’s view of the world will change. A hardened Alistair will cease to deflect serious topics with humour, becoming more assertive (Grohol 2013) and direct, taking his role as heir to the throne more seriously. At the conclusion of the Landsmeet, an unhardened Alistair will refuse to let Loghain Mac Tir live, becoming over-emotional and demanding he dies for his crimes. Hardening Alistair is the only way to ensure both Loghain live and Alistair remain as King, for he is able to suppress his anger and resentment towards Loghain and put his sense of duty to his people first. The defence mechanisms that form as a result of his hardening prove to make Alistair not only a fiercer contender for the throne, but a stronger, more self-confident person overall.
If left unhardened, Alistair continues to resort to humour as a way to sublimate (Grohol 2013) and avoid serious topics, hiding behind jokes and ‘witty one-liners’. This version of the character is far more reluctant to take the throne than his hardened counterpart, so much so as to advocate in favour of Anora Therin (neé Mac Tir), even if she is Loghain’s daughter. An unhardened Alistair is unsure of himself and his place in the world, his actions still irrational and highly influenced by his emotional state. This can be seen if the player chooses to conscript Loghain to the Wardens after his trial by combat. Alistair is so intensely opposed to Mac Tir joining their ranks that he threatens to, and depending on the choices made by the player, leaves the Warden’s party and Ferelden. In true Bioware nature, the outcome of this choice will affect the way in which Alistair makes his cameo in the second and third games of the franchise. An exiled Alistair will resort to the primitive defence mechanism of denial (Grohol 2013), becoming a drunken bar fly in ‘the ass end of Kirkwall’. He carries on wallowing in self-pity until Teagan Guerrin, brother to Arl Eamon, convinces him to return to Ferelden and the Grey Wardens. This unhardened Alistair then appears as a Grey Warden confidant to Hawke in the third game and, when prompted about his past, refuses to speak of the player’s character in Origins and deflects with humour. Choosing not to harden Alistair leads to the formation of defence mechanisms that cause extremely maladaptive behaviour, distancing himself from reality and abusing alcohol to help cope with your character’s decision, what he considers as betrayal.
It is not simply one single event or choice that determines who we are and how we function within the world around us, but a culmination of many made throughout our lives. Through the art of storytelling, humans are able to explore those events and choices and apply the lessons they teach to their own lives. Through videogames, we are now able to create and sculpt virtual worlds, giving new dimensions to storytelling, immersing the player through nearly every sense. This immersion enables players to interact with stories; their setting, plot and characters, on entirely new level. Thus, videogame characters call for depth and a high level of characterization so as to seem as real and relatable as possible. The writers at Bioware achieve this; Alastair Theirin being a prime example. Given his own unique backstory, having faced his own trials and tribulations, he is presented to the player having already formed relatable and realistic defence mechanisms. Furthermore, the player is given agency over how those mechanisms can be either altered or intensified, which changes Alistair’s psychodynamic framework and how he responds to the sources of anxiety present in his life. By interacting with a detailed and relatable character such as Alistair, players are then able to assess similarities reflected within them, becoming more aware of their own defence mechanisms and ways in which to confront them.
Campbell, J 1949 The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Bollingen, New York.
Grohol, J 2013, ‘15 Common Defense Mechanisms’, PsycheCentral, 30 January, viewed 15 4 2015, <http://psychcentral.com/lib/15-common-defense-mechanisms/0001251/>.