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Blood sugar sex magik: examining Dragon Age's Morrigan

4:00 PM on 12.17.2009 // Anthony Burch

I just finished Dragon Age: Origins the other day, and was truly surprised to have enjoyed it as much as I did. I'm not really a fan of tactical RPGs, nor the swords-n-sorcery setting Dragon Age halfheartedly gussies up with a few dozen buckets of blood. Still, I have to admit it's one of the better RPGs I've ever played.

Part of that is due to the fact that, for seemingly the first time ever, I actually enjoyed playing as a mage.

Equally surprising, however, were the characters: yes, they fell into the established tough guy/sexy chick/pure woman cliches, but they never really felt as boring as they by all rights should have. Sten is a slave to idiotic traditions that have made him equal parts honorable warrior and aloof, monosyllabic monster. Zevran is charming and sexy (in a Jack Harkness sort of way, come to think of it), but he's also a duplicitous scumbag.

And then, of course, there's Morrigan. In my fortyplus hours with the game, I was never quite sure how to feel about her -- and I mean that in the best way possible. She's extremely useful in combat, but she's also the most unrepentantly amoral character in the entire game. Her sarcasm and occasional (and very, very brief) moments of goodness makes her strangely likable, yet I never, for a second, trusted her.

Then the ending came around, and I felt conflicted enough about the final choice regarding Morrigan to write an editorial about her.

This is that editorial. Spoilers for Dragon Age and Mass Effect. And Fallout 3, come to think of it.


The problem with BioWare RPGs, at least in my experience, is that the characters, the gameplay, and the story often seem to be pulling in different directions. Good drama necessitates that bad things should occasionally happen to characters whom you like, but the player's combat strategies are ruined if they are suddenly and permanently forbidden from using a character they like. Because of this, you end up with situations like Wrex's maybe-death scene in the original Mass Effect, or Zevran's betrayal in Dragon Age: if you like a character a lot and have proven so through dialogue and constant use of them in battle, then the character stays around and the story dramatically suffers for it. If you haven't shown an intense desire to keep the character around, then the character is killed off, which, unfortunately, changes neither the gameplay nor story as far as the player is concerned.

Morrigan's final conversation with the player does an interesting job of circumventing these problems, even if only partially.

In case you don't remember, or just don't care about spoilers: the night before the Last Big Epic Fight Against the Archdemon, Morrigan appears in the player's room and offers him a deal. If the Warden has sex with her, she will immediately bear a child (I can't help but imagine her stomach instantaneously getting twenty times larger without warning, accompanied by this noise) who will absorb the Archdemon's soul once the Warden kills him. After the Archdemon's death, Morrigan will take the kid away to raise it as her own and will never again speak to the Warden.

If the player does not give Morrigan a child, or at least persuade one of the other Grey Wardens to do so, then she will immediately leave (rendering her unavailable for the final boss fight) and the player will be forced to sacrifice either his own life, or the life of another Grey Warden in order to kill the Archdemon once and for all.

Unlike in Fallout 3, however, the player's ultimate fate sort of matters, in the grander scheme of things. Given the way BioWare is handling the Mass Effect series, wherein the player controls a single, persistent character through three different games, it is not altogether unreasonable to assume that they'll do the same thing for the Dragon Age series (and considering how well it's doing, it almost certainly will be a series). Thus, Morrigan's proposition has a greater sense of consequence attached to it: do you want to give birth to a demon baby and let Morrigan do whatever she wants with it, or do you want to run the risk of your character never seeing Dragon Age 2?


Ideally, the choice would be made even more complex due to Morrigan's promise that she will leave before the fight if the player doesn't impregnate her. That this effectively becomes a moot point is probably the ending's biggest flaw. As incredibly useful as Morrigan is in the first half of the game, she becomes less and less deadly compared to her companions as the campaign wears on. Once everybody (except the dog) starts getting spectacular area-of-effect attacks and damaging hexes, Morrigan becomes somewhat redundant. Morrigan's gameplay relevance would have ideally been the deciding factor in the dilemma she presents, but it instead took a backseat to how I personally felt about her, as a character.

Luckily, my own feelings toward Morrigan were so confusing and contradictory and weird that, ultimately, I still had a surprisingly hard time with the decision.

On the one hand, I would have absolutely no qualms about killing Morrigan if I had to. None. Through every other moral quandary in the game, Morrigan forever plays the part of the devil on your shoulder, advocating the exact wrong course of action. Don't destroy the magic anvil that enslaves innocents and grants power, she says; use it yourself and sacrifice innocents to make yourself stronger. In the beginning of the game, she shrugs and sighs and loses affection for the player every time he or she chooses to take optional side quests that would benefit innocent people (I don't know why Morrigan stops reacting this way after a few hours of play, because she really should have continued to do so -- it creates an interesting conflict between doing what is right and making her like you). Even after she begins to warm up to the player, she remains a cold, selfish sociopath who the player can never fully trust.

That said, I would also have no qualms about having the Warden marry her (apart from how incredibly, incredibly awkward and weird and sad that would be). I hate to say it, but there's something kind of admirable and alluring about how unrepentantly bad a person Morrigan is; unlike many BioWare characters of the past, she never warms up in any significant way, never changes her philosophies, and thankfully, never tells the player character that she "loves" him (as I type this, I am wincing at the memory of KotOR's Bastila Shan admitting that she truly, madly, deeply loved me in the game's final moments).


Since I met her early on in the game and frequently used her in battle up until the last fifth of the game, I couldn't help but feel a connection to her. Usefulness breeds empathy: it's why I cared about the dog in Fable II, and why I didn't care about Cole's friends in inFamous. Morrigan is initially very useful, and thus -- quite against my own will -- I found myself beginning to like her.

Also, she is sexy.

I don't say that in a drooly, were-she-a-real-woman-I'd-bum-her kind of way -- Jim's got that area covered with his own particular juices -- but in that she's one of the few sexy characters I've seen in a game whose sexuality is an actual aspect of her persona, not just a bottom-of-the-barrel method of selling more copies to virgins. Yes, Morrigan is heavily defined by her plunging neckline and whorish makeup, but that's because she's a manipulative bitch who uses sex to make people stupid. She's not Lara Croft. She's not shouting, "respect me as a strong female character" while slowly disrobing; she's trying to seduce every man around her because they're simply more useful when they're horny.

That such a person would accidentally find themselves caring about the player's character after receiving a few gifts and wisely-chosen dialogue responses represents an interesting complication: does she really care about the Warden, and literally does not know how to deal with those feelings? She'll have sex with the player once (and if we're being honest, the less said about that sex scene, the better), but never again, claiming that the intimacy frightens her. Is she simply engaging in the longest performance of "not tonight, honey, I have a headache" known to man, or is she legitimately terrified of her own attraction to him? We're never given answers, and are thus free to believe pretty much whatever we wish to believe, within reason; I choose to decide that Morrigan was being honest with me.


But that didn't stop me from kicking her ass out when she asked me to impregnate her with an Archdemon spirit.

I liked her, I valued the time I'd spent with her, and I wanted her by my side when I felled the Archdemon, but in the end I simply could not trust someone as knowingly amoral as her with a potentially omnipotent devil child. I do not think I am exaggerating when I say I've never felt so ambivalent about an NPC before -- I've truly liked a few characters and truly hated many more, but before Morrigan, a character had never made me feel both emotions simultaneously.

That said, I'll be very irritated if, in the sequel, Morrigan magically has a devil-child anyway. The epilogue says that a woman who may or may not be Morrigan was seen heading into the sunset, and also that she may or may not have had a child with her. Despite the fact that I didn't impregnate her, and the only other surviving Grey Warden (Alistair) wouldn't have touched her with a ten foot rod, it sounds like it was the power of sequel necessity, rather than any elven sperm, that managed to impregnate Morrigan's festering womb.

Maybe that's just me, though. Morrigan walks a fine line between "well-written amoral female" and "porn star with a magic wand," so perhaps my Y chromosome is causing me to see things that aren't there. What did you think of the Dragon Age companions? How did you feel about Morrigan?

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