I was going to pick Alistair, but magesmagesmages already did such a fantastic takedown of that one, that I would only be rehashing what she already brilliantly said.
I will have to go with Anders, and I say this as a person who almost can NOT resist clicking that little heart icon every time it pops up. I have completed the Anders romance more times that I have completed the others combined.
My issues with the Anders Romance have almost nothing to do with Anders as a character, his actions, or how I feel about him in-game at all. Once again my criticism comes down to mostly writing and game mechanics.
I love the Anders Romance. I find it beautifully tragic in all the best ways. I love the way that he is overly flowery with his language and feelings towards Hawke. I even enjoy the melowdrama.
What I don’t like is what we don’t get to see, and also some of the tropes that are attached to Anders. This is a lot of area to cover, so I will try to be brief.
Jennifer Brandes Hepler, who wrote Anders for DAII, admits that she was trying to create a real world parallel using magic that demonstrates the dynamics of relationships with a person who struggles with mental illness. I think this was successful and not in his portrayal. You get to see someone who loves a person with mental illness (assuming that we accept this metaphor Hepler was trying to achieve) trying to come to terms with that person’s illness. But isn’t that always the way we see mental illness portrayed? Through the eyes of the Really Great People who deign to love them IN SPITE of their mental illness? Those fantastic and generous people who would tolerate and love a person above all their flaws. I mean look how hard it is to love a person with mental illness!
I would like to see a game portrayal of a person with mental illness who is loved for just being them. I would love to see a pop-culture portrayal, at all, that can show that the mentally ill (or other people with disabilities) as being full people, and have their disabilities not be an issue.
I’ve seen some really great people address the issue of their Hawke loving Anders above everything, but still, it always feels tinged with “I love him even though…”.
Additionally, the Anders romance is designed into the crux of the end-game. A mentally ill person does an incredible act of violence, and as I’ve written before, the conflation of people with mental illness and acts of violence is one of the greatest — pardon the terminology — injustices in pop culture with regards to the mentally ill. The idea that Anders and Justice would merge to have this goal isn’t what bothers me (I quite unpopularly support what he does end-game from a SJ standpoint), it’s the adding of the element that we are meant to read him as mentally ill that does.
BioWare has a deep problem with this issue. They are fond of their characters who do things that are unspeakable because they are “crazy” when there was no reason to ever bring their mental state into question. Often these characters (such as Loghain, Meredith, and Orsino, just to name a few) have enough reason to do what they did without making them “paranoid” or “crazy” or “insane” or any other incredibly ableist term we see thrown at these people. I for one don’t think that what Anders did end-game was the act of a mentally unstable person. I’ve written before that Anders made logical and calculated decision because he was suffering under institutionalized oppression.
I think the greatest thing that bothers me about the Anders romance is everything we don’t get to see. We meet a mage in the beginning of the game who is, yes broken, but who is doing reasonably well with his situation. By Act III he is in a state and a half of depression, anxiety, and is withdrawing from Hawke. If you rivalmance him, he becomes aggressive and easily agitated. What we don’t see, and instead have to read in the codices, is what happens to get him from point A to point B. I am not sure why this angle was glossed over in the game clean up, and it could have been handled better with a few more conversation options. But there are a lot of gaps in Anders’ personality that we have to fill in ourselves, and what this causes is the gut reaction many people have being “Well, clearly he went nuts and blew up a Chantry”.
That’s not what happened, though. Also, a person doesn’t need to be mentally ill to do something shocking and violent and morally upsetting. We see this every day in our modern life.
I think that is what disturbs viscerally about the Anders romance is that we are lead to believe that you either love him in spite of his mental illness (instead of accepting it as a part of the whole person), or he is a dog to be put down because his particular brand of crazy means he’s too dangerous to be allowed to live. Both of these are incredibly damaging to actual people living their lives with mental illness every day. I know the intent behind writing Anders the way he was, but honestly, it comes off slightly as caregiver porn, and frankly, the case that Justice (the element meant to be portrayed as the mental illness) isn’t what ultimately drives Anders to do what he did. This was always inside Anders. Justice just gave him the drive, and possibly the power boost, to do it. This makes this conflation incredibly damaging and dangerous to the mentally ill. It isn’t like the mentally ill aren’t stripped of their autonomy all the time because they are deemed too dangerous to exist with the “normal” people. Oh, wait, that actually happens all the time.
I can not accept a spirit of Justice/Vengeance as a neat stand-in for mental illness just as I can’t stand the dichotomous way that we are meat to view St. Hawke for loving him or murderknifing him in the back (or abandoning him, which I think is the most cruel option of all, but that is my opinion). It’s the same way that I can not possibly excuse Loghain’s actions as a war criminal, and refuse to exonerate Meredith just because they threw in that ridiculous idol as a plot device. People don’t need mental illness to do unspeakable and shocking, often violent things. All of these characters had legitimate reasons for the choices they made. Some of them were horrendous reasons, but none of that needed to be connected with mental illness.
Least of all Anders’ grab for freedom and release from oppression and abuse for all marginalized people like him.
So, I guess in conclusion, I love Anders, I love romancing him, but I hate the way the romance plays out. The parallel fell flat and in many ways, incredibly offensive to me.