Ash has been playing "Dragon Age" since the first game's release. She enjoys exploring and explaining the characters and the lore.
So. Last year I decided to play the Dragon Age franchise again for the first time in a while, and I wound up writing all these articles about my favorite characters in Dragon Age 2. Two articles were about Merrill and Isabela, the romanceable female characters in the game, and how I had come to the conclusion that I loved Merrill's romance better.
But now . . . after romancing Merrill for some time, it has made me realize that I actually love Isabela a lot more, and in reality, she is a much better romance than Merrill. Dumping her for Merrill made me realize what a fool I am, and now here I am, writing this article.
So welcome to my reeducation of the Isabela romance.
Isabela Becomes a Better Person
So back in my Isabela analysis article, one of the main reasons I sited for disliking Isabela's romance was the fact that she is actually a terrible person.
If you read the comic Those Who Speak, you learn that Isabela lied about freeing those slaves. In reality, she drowned them to save her own selfish hide after nearly getting caught smuggling them. She lied to cover it up because she felt terrible.
I was pissed off when I found this out and decided to stop romancing Isabela. But two things about my emotional, irrational decision made zero sense.
- 1. Hawke doesn't know the truth, so this shouldn't influence whether or not she romances Isabela. To let this information influence that decision would be meta gaming.
- 2. Why wouldn't Isabela lie about something like that? What she did was horrendous. If she told people the truth, they would hate her and lose respect for her. She'd never have any friends, and Hawke wouldn't love her. And maybe she'd deserve that. But I feel like I'm a hypocrite for not allowing Isabela a chance to be a better person after writing a long article about my Dalish Warden being a murderer on a redemption arc in Dragon Age: Origins.
Because the thing about Isabela's entire arc, let alone her romance, is that it's actually about helping her become a better person. And what woke me up to this (admittedly obvious) fact was the fact that Merrill never changes.
Also, playing Dragon Age 2 again recently, it suddenly clicked for me why Isabela is/was a bad person.
A lot of the time when I romance Isabela, I usually let Carver die in the Deep Roads. I admit, this is partially because I find Isabela and Carver's flirting in the DLCs annoying (ha), but also because playing this way was a habit of mine for a long time.
The fact that Carver is dead also changes Isabela's interactions with Hawke and makes them more touching (the same actually goes for Merrill if Carver becomes a templar). When Carver dies, Isabela expresses sympathy toward Hawke about it.
And later, when Leandra (Hawke's mother) dies, if Carver is also dead, it changes the conversation with Isabela. If Carver is dead, Hawke will say that her mother was all she had left. Isabela is very gentle and loving when she answers Hawke and fumbles to tell her that she loves her. And depending on the dialogue chosen, she will even tell Hawke that her mother would be very proud.
In direct contrast, if Carver is still alive, Isabela's scene after Leandra's death is really . . . stern. The conversation comes off as more of a lecture rather than Isabela trying to comfort Hawke. She tells Hawke that she was lucky to have such a good mother and is a lot more distant and cold while fumbling in an attempt to say she loves Hawke.
The scene made me realize (perhaps belatedly) that Isabela is selfish and sometimes cruel because of her mother and her harsh upbringing.
Isabela reveals during her first romance scene with Hawke that her mother sold her for a goat to a man in the market (her husband), after she refused to join the Qun. This story is shown again later in the comics, with Isabela's mother being very cold and indifferent as she basically sells her daughter like cattle.
Isabela's husband then sexually abused and objectified her, and Zevran was her savior. (So, yes, I know this is why the two of them are old lovers and good friends.)
Isabela learned at a very young age that no one loved her or cared for her, and that the only person she could depend on was herself. This is why she only cares about herself and why she's so self-centered and selfish.
She let the slaves drown to save herself from being hung, which is what would have happened if she'd been caught smuggling slaves. Also, she was sort of tricked into smuggling them in the first place. She had no idea the cargo was slaves until it was too late.
Knowing all this, it's hard to hate Isabela for being selfish and for winding up in the situation she did. I'm not saying what she did in drowning the slaves was okay, just that it's hard to hate her knowing what a crappy start in life she got.
It's kind of like hating Loghain and then finding out he hates Orlesians because Orlesian soldiers raped his mother and killed his father. I don't like Loghain even after knowing that, nor do I condone his actions. But I do understand him and pity him to some degree due his background.
For me, the truly hateable people are the ones who simply have no reason for their evil. And yes, these people are out there.
Challenging Isabela Is Healthy
What brought me to this realization was, hilariously enough, an episode of Bojack Horseman. One of the characters, Diane, has a crisis when she realizes that she's settled into a comfortable relationship where her husband never challenges her, and as a result, she stays the same, never growing as a person or overcoming her faults.
Diane fell into her relationship with Mr. Peanutbutter because it was safe. She could be her flawed self and be loved unconditionally. There's nothing wrong with that. But at the same time, being married to someone who just went along with everything was stifling her potential to be the best person she could be.
In the end, her relationship with Mr. Peanutbutter was more about getting the unconditional love she never got from her parents than actually being in a loving relationship. In the end, she winds up divorcing him.
This basically made me realize that I was doing the same thing with Isabela, my imaginary video game girlfriend. Instead of killing Castillion, for example, I let her take his ship. Anything to make her happy. And during the qunari attack on Kirkwall, I gave her the relic and didn't scold her for stealing it . . .
I was a doormat, joining Isabela in her misdeeds and enabling her toxic flaws with some codependent hope that she would love and accept Hawke if I did . . .
And all of that is really embarrassing to admit.
But when I challenged Isabela by calling out her behavior, sticking to my own morals, and refusing to tolerate her bad decisions . . . Isabela learned from me and grew as a person. By the end of Dragon Age 2, she was a better woman, ready to stand by Hawke and help her defend Kirkwall, rather than running away.
I'm not saying it's someone's partner's job to fix them, but if a relationship is appeasing your worst flaws rather than challenging you to be your best . . . it's not a healthy relationship.
Woman vs. Child
You're probably wondering how the heck Merrill is any different. After all, her entire arc and her romance is about Hawke either challenging her or enabling her. My Hawke always challenged Merrill, and if you play the romance in rivalry mode, Merrill will actually break the mirror and learn from her mistakes.
So it's not so much that Merrill never changes at all. What drove me from Merrill and running back to Isabela was the fact that Merrill is a huge child and a foolish one at that.
I know I wrote a big, long article about how Merrill is an adult who looks like a child and as a result, has to put up with a lot of condescending people. She pretends to be an idiot some of the time to get out of conversations she doesn't want (with Carver in particular).
I think my problem is that Merrill is a really annoying, borderline-pedophiliac trope that I'm really, really tired of. Merrill is essentially the girl trapped in the woman's body. She's older than she looks, she's viriginal, she seems like an idiot but she's only half idiot, and she loves and adores the protagonist no matter what.
BioWare has done this way too many times. They did it with Liara and Tali from Mass Effect, and then they did it again with Merrill. It's my belief that Merrill was supposed to be a subversion and a mockery of the trope, but it was so poorly done that she still comes off as just the same plain old trope.
And the more I examine this trope, the more I'm disgusted by it. Why do all the elves in Dragon Age have the bodies of teenage girls? That's a rhetorical question. I know there's a lore reason (the elves were physically diminished over time because they lost their magic) but it's still really . . . well, gross, that this is presented as something that adult gamers should find attractive.
I'm not knocking women who look younger than they are or women who have petite bodies (you all are beautiful) but the way it's presented in video games comes off like a perverted fet*sh.
Why should our grown-ass protagonist, who is typically close to thirty, want to be with someone who looks and acts like a teenage girl? I mentioned in my Merrill article how lesbians tend to end up with huge age gaps because there aren't a lot of us, but most lesbians in their thirties would make a hard pass on dating someone who's barely twenty.
Hawke is 25 when the game begins and Merrill is barely nineteen. It just seems so . . . wrong.
A lot of fans have also claimed that they feel the relationship between Hawke and Merrill is manipulative. I made some (very weak) arguments against this in my Merrill analysis, but if I'm completely honest with myself? Merrill's romance does feel manipulative.
When Hawke romances Anders, she winds up being emotionally abused by him, but if Hawke romances Merrill, she winds up emotionally abusing Merrill. If you take the rivalmance path, Hawke can be very verbally cruel, but even on the friend path, Hawke is an enabler, taking advantage of a vulnerable person who has no one else in the world.
Merrill relies on Hawke, emotionally, for everything.
This did not hit home for me until I thought about Isabela and how she's the exact opposite. Isabela is completely emotionally independent, but in such an unhealthy way, she keeps people at a distance for fear of hurting them. This is why she never says she loves Hawke until the end of the game and why she pretends that their romance is just about sex (when in reality, she's really sad if Hawke leaves her for someone else).
When I said Merrill never changes, I think I meant emotionally. Merrill never becomes emotionally independent. If anything, she becomes more emotionally dependent on Hawke after losing Keeper Marethari and her clan. In stark contrast, Isabela learns to let down her walls and remains independent but in a healthy way. For this reason, her romance is more healthy and more fulfilling to the story than any other romance in the game.
I recently looked at Isabela's tavern fight introduction scene, and I thought to myself, "Isabela is a woman, not a little girl. Why would I romance any less?"
Her Bisexuality Is Okay Too
I made some other complaints in my article, such as Isabela's bisexuality. I never had a problem with her being bisexual. What I hated was the fact that she was constantly making d*ck jokes, flirting with men, or running off to hop in bed with one while she was supposed to be romancing Hawke.
I expressed my exasperation about her clinging to Zevran, and some fans felt the need to explain to me why Isabela is so close to him. I know why Isabela and Zevran are close. That doesn't make it okay that she is trying to run off and have sex with him while she's supposed to be in love with me! And because my character is a lesbian, it's also f*cked up that Isabela and Zevran want to get Hawke in a threesome.
Zevran, hilariously enough, is an assassin and he's still a better person than Isabela. If Hawke flirts with Zevran, Zevran only flirts back if he's single. If he's committed to the Warden, he says no.
Isabela, on the other hand, has never heard of the word "monogamy" and never stops to wonder how Hawke feels about her trotting off to bang Zevran. It's completely selfish and messed up . . . and also completely in-character for her.
Thankfully, you can ask Isabela not to go, and she won't. But my point still stands: Isabela is a bisexual stereotype to a T. She's greedy, d*ck-obsessed, and hates monogamy. This absolutely sucks for a lesbian to deal with. A lot of bisexual women don't understand this and call lesbians "bigots" for trying to avoid the situation by not dating them, but . . . it really, really sucks when you're a monogamous gay woman to be treated that way.
I could write an entire essay on why, but I'll spare you.
All that being said, I have come to the conclusion that people are flawed, and you can either accept their flaws or move on.
The nice thing about Isabela is that her worst flaws can change (her selfishness and greed, her disregard for Hawke's feelings) somewhat for the better while her trivial flaws (constantly talking about men and flirting with them in front of Hawke) can be forgiven.
I think one thing to understand about Isabela is that, like Zevran, her flirting always serves a purpose that is not entirely sexual. I believe I touched on this in my analysis of her, so I won't repeat it here. But knowing that she isn't serious half the time about the men she hits on makes romancing Isabela as a lesbian a lot easier (and it makes the constant flirting a lot easier to forgive).
Loyal for Life
I think the best thing about Isabela is that once she's in love with Hawke, she is loyal for life. No more running, no more more lying, no more betrayal. Because she realizes Hawke is the best thing to ever happen to her, and she becomes determined not to lose her.
This only becomes obvious, however, in the DLC Mark of the Assassin, where Isabela is jealous, possessive (she threatens Talis when she flirts with Hawke), and worried out of her mind when Hawke is arrested. This is the only time in the entire game (aside from her romance arc) when she shows her real emotions and is vulnerable. And interestingly enough, Hawke barely reacts (which is actually quite hilarious and exactly what Isabela deserves after years of yanking Hawke around by the heartstrings).
Isabela's default weapons when you first recruit her are two daggers named Heartbreaker and Backstabber (I love that the developers did that). Varric also tries to warn Hawke that she if carries on with Isabela, she will be hurt.
It's because everyone knows that Hawke is serious about Isabela and actually loves her, while Isabela is afraid to be vulnerable and in love and will hurt Hawke first before that happens.
I used to think this was an unfortunate part of the romance and I actually sort of hated that Isabela couldn't just love Hawke. This is also part of the reason why I wound up romancing open, abrupt (saying "I love you!" almost immediately), and in-a-rush-to-love Merrill instead. But as the saying goes . . . fools rush in. In fact, this is the name of Isabela's personal quest in Act I.
Now that I've played Merrill's unfortunate romance a few times, I've come to view Isabela's journey from closed off and afraid to open and vulnerable as very moving. She spends the entire game running from Hawke, but by the end, she winds up running to her and into her embrace. . . And then she stays!
Hawke continues to tease Isabela about betraying her in Act II, but it's clear she's not really mad and is actually very grateful that Isabela finally came around and now openly admits to loving her in return.
I used to think it was sad that the romance felt so one-sided and Hawke seemed so rejected and abandoned. In reality, Isabela was madly in love with Hawke but just too afraid to show it. And her growth over the game as she learns to be open and vulnerable is ten times better than watching Merrill do stupid things with demons, possibly not learn from it, and in the end, never really change.
So that's why Isabela's romance is the best and is better in particular than Merrill's.
Plus, Merrill looks like a giraffe.