Back in 2009, the choice for my favorite game of the year (something I don't equate with GOTY) was quite obvious, and I stated as much on Brainy Gamer's podcast: Dragon Age: Origins. The reasoning was quite simple for me. Beyond just allowing me romance options that were same-sex, the game had instances of varying sexuality throughout Fereldan. Given such, and given that its sequel releases next week, I figured now would be a good time to cover some of those characters.
One of those instances was with the two dwarven women, Hespith and Branka. What is notable about DA:O is that many of the more prominent relationships in the game are doomed from the start, or filled with lots of tension. Being in love in the land of Fereldan seems to be a gamble as to whether or not the characters will end up happy. The same can be said between Branka and Hespith, though it's at the crux of a somewhat complicated relationship.
When the character initially learns of Branka is dependent on the origin chosen. A dwarven commoner, for instance, will learn about her much earlier than anyone else, who will learn of her as Orzammar, the dwarven city, is reached. She is a Paragon, which means she was elected to be honored as an ancestor worth remembering in dwarven history for her accomplishments. Her specific accomplishment? Discovering smokeless coal--if you're going to be underground and using coal, the less smoke the better. Unfortunately, she herself is a bit cantankerous, which I've always preferred paired up with the word gnome.
By and large Branka is a woman who goes after what she wants, however. While she is part of the more revered Smith caste, her family was hardly worth noting. She was offered in marriage to Oghren, who is part of the Warrior caste. In large part, this seems to be a political union--dwarves often angle marriage for political advantage, rather than love. After she is made a Paragon, her standing within Orzammar is increased substantially, though she does not remain content.
Instead, she runs off to find the Anvil of the Void, which was once used to create golem armies to battle the darkspawn. Immediately worth nothing is she departs with her entire house, leaving behind her husband, Oghren, who becomes the butt of a few jokes. What is worth noting is that dwarves are fine with polyamory, particularly as marriages are a political affair. At the same time, Branka took her concubine with her, leaving behind her husband.
In order to settle a dispute between who will be the next ruler of Orzammar, you must grab the word of Branka--the only Paragon alive, and whose word holds a lot of weight. What is clear as you wander the Deep Roads in pursuit of her is that she is very single-minded in her approach. Among the more disturbing moments of the game is walking my party through a winding passage as a voice spoke out in a rasping voice:
First day, they come and catch everyone.
Second day, they beat us and eat some for meat.
Third day, the men are all gnawed on again.
Fourth day, we wait and fear for our fate.
Fifth day, they return and it's another girl's turn.
There is some internal rhyming structure, but it is awkward and not exact. The meter also varies with each line. This is no attempt to make pretty poetry, or a sing-song rhyme.What is being said is a diary of events, simple enough to be repeated so that it won't be forgotten.
When you catch up to the voice responsible, you find Hespith. What you learn here is multifold, and somewhat terrifying in terms of the origins of the darkspawn, and Branka's willingness to achieve her own goals. The big reveal is that broodmothers are made from the women of a species, who in turn determine the type of darkspawn they breed.
In Branka's search, she had discovered Caridin's (he being the dwarf responsible for the discovery of making golems) traps that were put in place to prevent anyone from reaching the Anvil of the Void. She willingly sacrificed her house to attempt to get past the traps. When the darkspawn started attempting to make broodmothers of her household? She let them, hoping to use the resulting darkspawn to overpower the traps.
Hespith very clearly states a few other things though, "I was her captain, and I did not stop her. Her lover, and I could not turn her. Forgive her... but no, she cannot be forgiven. Not for what she did. Not for what she has become." She also goes on to say how she is dying; while we realize this is likely due to being infected by the taint of the darkspawn, she feels the betrayal is her undoing. In very practical terms, it is--betrayal is what led her to this death.
Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.
Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.
Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.
Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.
Now she does feast, as she's become the beast.
What is instantly revealed is how Branka is very much a person who believes that the ends justify the means. To the point that she is willing to sacrifice her own lover. Hespith? She goes and commits suicide.
It's quite bleak. She wanders off, and it's only through the use of the toolset that the community has confirmed that part of the direction in her voice-over is that she jumps off a ledge and kills herself, rather than become a broodmother. What is not made note of as spectacular is that they were same-sex lovers. Which begs the question of notable same-sex pairs in dwarven history--though as they are so narrowmindedly focused on procreation as a way to obtain class status, it lends itself to believing that among the reasons Branka left Oghren behind is that she didn't want to deal with that political mess any longer.
In fact, when you meet up with her, she scoffs at the politics of Orzammar. Her desire is to clear the Deep Roads of darkspawn, not become embroiled in politics over who is having sex with whom, popping out children, or struggling for the throne. Her concerns are much more pragmatic, though to a disastrous end.
What is set up here is an instance where you have two opposing ends: those who are so blinded by politics that they cannot see what they do to their own citizens, and those who are so blinded by their goals of helping everyone that they lose sight of what they do to their loved ones. In Branka's mind, no doubt, she probably saw her sacrifice of Hespith as an honor: she would provide the key to dwarven salvation.
Now you lay and wait, for their screams will haunt you in your dreams.
Upon reaching the Anvil of the Void, your character has a decision to make. The one I initially chose is to destroy the anvil, seeing as I was fond of Shale, and her moments of reflection during this scene reveal she was once a dwarf who was made a golem. Golems are made out of dwarves. This option sets you up to fight Branka, who arrives late to the scene and is intent on raising an army of golems.
Another option is to save the Anvil and use it to make said golem army, though this means dwarves have to either sacrifice themselves, or that Orzammar would more likely use the citizens from their casteless, who are considered a ghetto barely worth any consideration. This option would be appealing as it's stated one golem is worth the battle prowess of twelve dwarves. Once you save the Anvil, you can choose to grab Branka's recommendation for a king (a crown she crafts), and leave her to her research.
The more compelling, and revealing, option is to confront her after the crown is constructed, however. In the fight for the anvil, you confront Caridin, the creator of the Anvil, who is himself a golem. At first Branka doesn't wish to believe this; she talks of how the Anvil sings to her. You can convince her that those voices are the souls of the dwarves whose bodies were destroyed to make the golems--something she refused to believe.
It is during these moments that she has a moment where her belief system is obviously shattered. That's when she realizes what Hespith was trying to tell her. Here it's worth noting that Oghren speaks to her during this scene, though she generally just disregards him. She names Hespith, and realizes all that she has wrought. After destroying the anvil, she will kill herself.
I know I in particular desire positive depictions of the LGBT community in media. However, we're often denied them. In this case I felt torn at first, though that shifted. What has been constructed is a tale that is focused on much more than just a couple, but on issues of how far one will go to obtain power. It is a perfect reflection of the decision you in turn must make as a Warden: you are tasked with ending the Blight, and this would obviously be a great boon in that fight. To what lengths are you willing to go? Among the brilliance of the companion approval system is that there is no 'good' or 'evil' option here.
In looking at the couple themselves, they are never in the same place in our game. What we can surmise is largely from what is told to us. In addition to that, though, they are dwarven women. For one, this makes them not 'conventionally' attractive, as in they were not put in just to appeal to a male gaze standard. Beyond that? They seem much more individuals than concerned with being overly gendered one way or another.
Ultimately, Branka left Oghren, but that marriage seemed weak, and is called a lover by Hespith. While Oghren was legally bound to her, it is a stronger connection she feels with Hespith, whom she recalls when she steps back from her own megalomania. Despite the tragedy in which this all ends, that last bit speaks to being stuck in a society where one is constantly trying to prove one's worth, and is stuck to conforming to the status quo. In such a case, the tragedy behind the romance of Hespith and Branka seems as much a product of Branka's own selfishly motivated selfless desires as it does the society which shaped them: one where she is married to Oghren out of a sense of duty and politics.