Thursday, June 2, 2022

"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

He doesn't call, he doesn't write, but finally, it looks like we might be hearing from Solas at last (2023?), as BioWare announces the official title of Dragon Age: Dreadwolf!

Hello, fellow Wardens, Hawkes, Inkies, and vhenans! It's been too long.

Today I wanted to start out with a tribute—to you, the fans, like me, of this rich and satisfying game series. Because oh, the sufferings we in the Dragon Age fandom have known! While the community can be warm and welcoming, the blanketforts soothing, the novels and comics tantalizing, it's been a long, long (I mean looooong) time since the release of the lovely Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC "Trespasser."

Seven years. SEVEN YEARS.

But I don't say this in complaint, but simply to note the patience and unwavering love of our fandom for the world of Thedas. Have we given up hope? No, we have not. We have talked, analyzed, wondered, and even (ahem, some of us) blogged to occasionally obsessive degrees. We've theorized and bonded, we've used this time to replay and rethink, and in some cases (mine, for instance) to even reexamine our own hearts, minds, and orientations in the real world ("Dragon Age: Helping thousands to figure out which letters of the alphabet apply to their own sex lives since 2009!") We have also, of course, fan-fictioned and fan-arted our little hearts out, and that's also something that always helps to further enrich and explore this world of Thedas we love in so many little ways.

But my point is, we've never given up hope. And over the past year or two, not only have we had some exciting new hints, trailers, and announcements, but today we've been given a further delicious morsel from BioWare with the announcement that the official title of Dragon Age 4 is, at last, revealed to be Dragon Age: Dreadwolf.

Like everyone else, I'm excited at this new development, not just because we get more info, but because it's official. It's not something we're thinking "maybe-might-be" about, it's BioWare feeling good enough about their progress to share, "Hey, here's where we're at!"

Which is a beautiful thing after all these years, and further progress from the lovely and tantalizing trailers we've already been given.

Potential Hints from BioWare

In BioWare's official blog post on the new title, their language includes some interesting tidbits that may be worth further examination.

Here's what they say (boldfacing is mine for occasional emphasis):

Solas, the Dread Wolf. Some say he might be an ancient elven god, but some say not. Others say a betrayer of his people…or a savior who now seeks to rescue them at the cost of your world. His motives are inscrutable and his methods sometimes questionable, earning him a reputation as something of a trickster deity—a player of dark and dangerous games.

First off, I love that the very first aspect of Solas slyly addressed here is the age-old "Is he or isn't he a god?" reference. Because, while our darling boy likes to say that he isn't and wasn't a god (and neither were the Evanuris), let's face it, I think my Inky's erstwhile elven boyfriend doth protest too much. I wrote more about this here, but essentially, I'm at the point where, if I were sitting across the chessboard from Solas, I'd go, "Dude, you're totally a god."

I mean, there's humility and then there's obfuscation and/or deliberate misdirection. He is thousands of years old (potentially tens of thousands). He was powerful enough to cast a spell that changed the entire face of the waking world and which divided the spiritual/magical realm of the Fade from the physical one. He has unprecedented powers in that spirit/dreamworld of the Fade, and can manipulate it almost endlessly to either reflect what he desires (walking the Inky through a teasing dream) or in which he can revisit an endless panoply of notable past events across all of Thedas—and even cross realities to sample the fiction and stories of other universes.

And after his tragic sacrificial power-up from Flemeth, Solas's powers have grown exponentially, in ways that I suspect are not so much an evolution as a return to his most powerful origins. As of "Trespasser," he could petrify enemies into stone with an eyeblink, and his spellcasting was so powerful the explosions were visible from miles away by the pursuing Inky and their party. He cures the Inky and removes the poisonous Mark (and her forearm, unfortunately) with a twist of his fingers.

As of Tevinter Nights, however, his powers had grown even greater. On a practical level, he had done exactly what he had suggested as strategy to Sera (for her Red Jenny organization) way back in the Inquisition days, expanding his network of spies (already impressive in "Trespasser") on dozens of missions and quests across Thedas. He had effortlessly infiltrated and thwarted Tevinter, the Qunari, Orlais, the Free Marches, the Carta, and all of the other leading powers of the land. Now using armies of spirits as well as elves (all notably missing their vallaslin slave-markings), Solas's operations were terrifying, efficient, and brutal. The body count was high, and people often died screaming. He wasn't kidding when he told the Inky that he didn't want them to see what he would become. No wonder Charter, at that crucial moment in "Dread Wolf Take You," simply and quietly begs him for her life. He is very capable of taking it—and yet the compassionate Solas we knew as Companion is the one who responds, spares her, and asks her to apologize to the Inquisitor yet again.

We can waffle about words all day, but what it comes down to (and what that added "deity" reference I think sneakily reminds us) is, Solas is a god. He may not like that title but his powers are certainly and arguably godlike. And he is a contemporary of gods with similar staggering powers, and something tells me we're going to need Solas's abilities to save the day.

Because have you seen what's coming at us in DA4? The Evanuris look like they're breaking out of that Phantom Zone (or at least some of them, like possibly Ghilly and Andruil?), and oh man, from the concept art they are downright mythical in form and power, and oh, they do not look happy. Between Solas and those estranged ancient buddies he punished ages ago, it certainly looks like we're going to see Thedas become their Thunderdome in DA4.

Bonus points if Solas greets Ghilan'nain with, "Is that a trident in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?


"Antagonist" versus Villain

My friend Stephanie noted an interesting detail in the further language of the new title announcement that I think is also worth exploring—the fact that Solas is carefully described as our "antagonist."

Whether you’re new to Dragon Age™ stories or you’ve experienced them all, using Solas’s namesake no doubt suggests a spectrum of endless possibilities on where things may go. But at the core of this, like every past game, is you. If you’re new to Dragon Age, you have no need to worry about not having met our antagonist just yet. He’ll properly introduce himself when the time is right, but we did hint at his return when we announced #TheDreadWolfRises back in 2018.

What's important about that? For me, it's another subtle reminder that we're not looking at a pure villain (Solas is one of the richest and most complex characters in fiction for me, period). "Antagonist" strikes me as a milder term than "adversary," for instance, and it is certainly notable that he is not described as our enemy or nemesis. Instead, to me it's another signifier that he's sitting across the chessboard, he's someone we may be striving against, but there's still a lot of room in such a scenario for more sophisticated story and character exploration.

Because, and this is key for me—if Solas wanted to go full-dark and villainous, he could already have done so at any time. Instead, what I think we're seeing is twofold:

• He's a careful and strategic leader, a chessmaster who wants all of his pieces in a row before springing the final trap; and/or

• He's having trouble actually taking final action

That's what I think. 

The Matter of the Veil

Why isn't the Veil down as of Trespasser? Will it already be down when DA4 begins? It's certainly a possibility (and of course if so will immediately dismantle my argument, although I would be both thrilled and horrified at that reality). 

I mean, keep in mind, I firmly believe the Veil is doomed no matter what Solas does—it's falling apart. The "Veil is thin" EVERYWHERE in Thedas. And, of course, it's more and more apparent to me that perhaps it should come down. The Veil is an artificial construct that it's arguable should never have existed. 

Expanded: With that last thought in mind, what if the whole situation is a misdirection of epic proportions?

Hear me out.

Ironic Outcomes and Potential Wild Cards

Solas fears disaster if he brings down the Veil, and in "Trespasser" openly speaks of his assumption that when he pulls the Veil down, the result will be a hellscape, a "raw and burning chaos" in which many of the peoples of Thedas suffer and die, including many he loves.

But, well, what if he's wrong—again? I mean, let's face it, Solas has already been wrong several times before. A lot. And on a scale that spanned a continent and lots and lots of millennia.

The Veil is an artificial and failing construct. It was a feat of magic that nearly destroyed the world—and it did utterly decimate the elven people Solas was trying to protect.

So what if the greatest irony of this situation is the realization that, in the end, Solas is fated to  use those godlike powers he now possesses to remove the Veil (that never should have existed in the first place), to balance the aftermath  and minimize the destruction or metaphysical tectonic shift that occurs and ultimately heal Thedas afterward? What if Solas could do that and Thedas is whole again so that magic has its natural place? 

What if Solas's action means, in the end, no hellscape or nightmare world, but instead a restored symmetry between the magical and spiritual worlds at last? The sweet-moving and magically balanced world of effortless magic that he envisioned so long ago in Haven is a possibility, however remote. And in the big picture, perhaps it is a balance that would remove the dangers of Abomination from mages (who would no longer be siphoning high-pressure magic from a dangerous and trapped demonic/spiritual dimension? If this were the case, sure, magic would still be dangerous, but the removal of the possibility of Abomination would instantly defuse much of the age-old conflicts between mages and Templars, for instance.

Do I think this will happen? No, honestly, I don't. But it's a pretty damn cool thought to me, so I had fun envisioning it.

Unfortunately for me, I'm not seeing the potential for a beautiful and harmonious magical world in DA4. It looks pretty dark, and pretty broken. Red lyrium everywhere. 

What's most intriguing for me about the glimpses of DA4 so far is that it appears to depict a world with a shattered Veil, not an absent one—one similar to that of "In Hushed Whispers." A world in which Solas has apparently allowed himself to be corrupted with red lyrium... deliberately? Or is it a nightmare vision warped in the Fade? 

Of course, the other outcome could simply be that Solas, as I've argued elsewhere, ends up healing/saving the Veil, stabilizing Thedas for another chunk of millennia to come.

Or maybe Mythal comes flying back in and tilts the entire damn chessboard, puppeteers a Well-drinking Inky (or Morrigan, although I already think she'll be Mythal's willing new carrier), and enacts a master plan that brings down the Veil, the Evanuris, the world, and changes Thedas once and for all? Because she is totally gonna do that. Or try. Never underestimate a woman still screaming for vengeance in "a reckoning that would shake the very heavens" even after tens of thousands of years! Mythal doesn't play around.

The great thing is, I'm not really invested in any of these outcomes to the extent that I'll be upset or disappointed to be right or wrong. I just want to see what BioWare gives us. Either way, I'm certain that one aspect of the outcome will be Solas's final and belated realization that none of this situation was his to fix. I'm expecting our Pride Wolf/Demon/Spirit/Companion here to get one massive reality check and much-needed dose of humility by the end. And no matter what happens, I can't wait to find out.

"Antagonist" and "Savior"

But back to that presentation of Solas's role: I do think the words "savior," "antagonist" and "trickster" are further reminders that Solas isn't going to be our main villain, which I still think is going to be one of the Evanuris, with some nice sub-bosses also occurring among the Tevinter and Qunari forces as they struggle for world domination (a nice magician's trick to serve as a distraction from the real conflict), as well as from the red lyrium-corruptions we're seeing in those last teasers and concept art reveals.

And I know I'm wearing those rose-colored Solasmancing glasses, but I also continue to think that, as in Trespasser, Solas isn't going to damn us all, but save us in the end, using his spirit and elven armies to definitively end all conflicts in a way that will hopefully prevent bloodshed and restore a future for both elves and spirits within Thedas going forward. And that he'll probably do so at the cost of his own life (at least temporarily, not permanently—we already know "the first of [his] people do not die so easily"). 

My personal suspicion is that the Inky will be present as a potential helpmate or antagonist on the scene, most likely as a guest NPC like Hawke was in Inquisition, although my hope is that we will actually get an Inky-POV segment to provide real and satisfying closure for those of us who romanced Solas, as well as for those who just hated his everloving guts and want to take him down up close and personal—an equally large contingent! Let's not forget that key "Kill or Redeem?" question that ended "Trespasser."

Meanwhile, last and certainly not least, what does the new title signify? What hints or portents can we find in this simple, single new compound word?

I've got a few ideas.

What's In a Name?

Finally, there's the title itself. And as I dive in on this part, I'll point out the obligatory warning that I may be (and probably am) wrong here. Which will be amusing when all is revealed!

But y'all know that I love to overthink everything, so this may just be me being a doofus, here. I have already overanalyzed all the nuances of Solas's name here, for instance.

But for me, the use of "Dreadwolf" as a compound word in the title is significant. Why isn't it "Dragon Age: Dread Wolf?" That would certainly seem to be the most obvious approach.

But it's not. It's two words that for the first time in this universe for us, are now one. Which again makes me wonder about the joining of two things... two worlds. Fade and reality. And taking us symmetrically back to the ritual of the Grey Wardens... the "Joining?"

My guess is that "Dreadwolf" will be the name of the operation the Inquisition (or its remaining forces/advisors) launches in opposition to Solas. It may be the new term that refers to his agents or followers—"dreadwolves." I also think the one-word name here may also become the actual name for the shape-shifted giant wolf that we now know Solas can become at will, as of Tevinter Nights. As in, "The Dreadwolf appeared," or "The Dreadwolf knows," etc. Perhaps it is simply a further evolution of Solas's name—once a mockery he wore as "a badge of pride," now once more become at last, a term of nightmare.

It brings us full circle, if you think about it. Back in Origins, the "Dread Wolf" was the ancient terror and villain of the Dalish, whose beliefs Solas later mocked in Inquisition. What if, in the ultimate irony, the Dalish were right, and Solas's final form is in fact a twisted and corrupt entity like the one we see in his final "Tower" tarot card in Inquisition? (Or something new entirely, just as the lingering "Regret" demon hinted at in TN's "Callback?")

Several have pointed out that "Dreadwolf" is also an anagram of "Fade World," but that's the case whether or not it's two words. I do think that the compound word means something more, is absolutely intentional, although that emphasis on "Fade World" certainly further hints that the Veil may already be down in DA4 and that red lyrium nightmare we've glimpsed may be the result.

Of course, the other possibility—and one I love considering—is that all of DA4 may very well take place in the Fade itself. And may even take place in another time-shifted alternate universe like that we saw in the red-lyrium-soaked "In Hushed Whispers." I still think that quest, more than any other, holds the key and clues to what DA4 may present to us—the parallels are too numerous, to me, to be accidental.

Regardless, it's great to get news of my erstwhile Fade boyfriend again (the ex my Inky shares with thousands), and I'm definitely excited to see what BioWare has in store for us.

In the immortal words of Sondheim, as Red Riding Hood's song goes, we all know how to avoid wolves:

Mother said, "Straight ahead."
Not to delay or be misled

But just like her, I want to be misled. It's been seven years since "Trespasser," so give me that twisty path through the trees—give me complex scenarios and questions and even more complicated answers. I want to get lost in the forest—and Dragon Age: Dreadwolf looks well on track to let us find and confront our Wolf at last.

What do you think of the new title? What implications do you see there—and what am I missing?

NOTE: I have added and expanded the "Ironic Outcomes and Potential Wildcards" and "What's in a Name?" sections as of 6/3, where I talk about the Veil falling and the "joining" of "Dread" and "wolf" into one word, because I realized I never addressed my main point, which is that I increasingly think the Veil should come down. Also, until my friend Amy reminded me, I totally forgot to include what I think will happen with Mythal. Oops! 

With that in mind, many thanks to @Idunasappl, @Kira_Sekai1980, @Neildoenn, @Dragon_Age_Fans, and @AmyJPetty for reminding me of these additional points I wanted to address.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Warden and the King: Analyzing Alistair

"The arl used to come here in the winter when I was small. I, uh... slept with the hounds."

"Yeeees?" asked Alistair, and I was smitten.
Well, you know what they say. You never forget your first love. And they're right.

When it comes to Dragon Age, my very first love was this guy. Yeah, him. The cutie over there to the right, with the slight goatee and the cowlick (I love the cowlick!) and the bewildered expression and the beautiful voice of a guy who got lost in a honeycomb and managed to remember how to chuckle about it later. And he'd do so in a manner that was incredibly charming and self-effacing, especially since he didn't actually seem to know it was charming. 

You remember this guy, everyone does.

The sweet, smart, funny, brave young guy in Dragon Age: Origins. You may know him as Alistair. Or as King Alistair. Or (ouch) as the bitter drunk guy in the bar in Dragon Age 2. Or, almost as tragically, as the Grey Warden who joined up and then may have sacrificed himself in Inquisition.

Rumors vary.

But I still remember when he gave my Warden a rose, out of nowhere. The world was so dark, the skies were as grimy and ugly as the landscape around us, and here was this sweet guy giving my little cynical, tired, nightmare-ridden elven mage Warden a rose.

It's a moment. Or rather, a Moment. It really is. Because he gives her this speech, and it's just lovely, and beautifully acted by Steve Valentine (who I got to TALK TO recently for Dragon Age Day! I know! I'm plotzing! I'll share links soon... he was an incredibly nice and generous interview.)

But yet—because the speech is so beautifully written and delivered, it somehow doesn't matter that we may be experiencing this touching moment covered in Dragon Age Origins gore, or when fighting the Broodmother, or (even more hilariously) in the middle of the confrontation about a possessed Connor (ask my good friend @ImaSithDuh about that one—it's a great story).

The thing is, no matter what, it's just a lovely moment in which Alistair pours out his whole heart, every pure thing within him, to the Warden, and whether or not she loves him back, the most beautiful thing about this scene for me is that the most innocent and lovely element in it is not the rose, but Alistair.

Take a picture of this moment. Save it like a snapshot.

Because, depending on our choices, this Alistair will not survive the Blight, either literally or figuratively.

A Tangled Tree of Potential Futures

Among all of the incredible characters across the world of Dragon Age, Alistair is one of those with the most varied and diverse array of potential futures.

Let's look at just a few: He may stay "soft" Alistair, or become more cynical and "hardened." He may  be someone whose first love is also his last—or he may rapidly progress to having a threesome with Isabela and the Warden. He may accept the Kingship or refuse it, and remain a Grey Warden. He may successfully woo the Warden or be turned down. If he does woo the Warden, he may marry them, dump them, be dumped by them, or take her as his mistress. Or he may end up married to Anora.

He may also quit the Grey Wardens if the Warden chooses to allow Loghain to be conscripted, and in that case, he may end a hopeless drunk, or (softened or hardened) he may accept the Kingship. 

He may refuse the Dark Ritual with Morrigan, or he may accept it, and find that he has fathered a child.

And, of course, regardless of any of his varied romantic paths, he may succeed in killing the Archdemon and survive... or sacrifice himself.

And if he lives, and continues as a Grey Warden, he may also survive only to sacrifice himself in the Fade, in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Basically, Alistair's future paths are as complicated as he is, himself.

Luckily, it's Dragon Age. It's all going to be written and presented beautifully, and here, by no less than Origins worldbuilder David Gaider, who infuses Alistair with an unflagging joy, wit, and humor that it would take a stronger person than me to resist.

But hey, who wants to resist? Alistair is a sweetheart. He's just a good guy. A good, funny, brave guy.

And maybe doomed. Maybe not.

As always... it's up to us. What happens to this guy, who's so immediately engaging? In a way, it's a beautiful encapsulation of Dragon Age. He can be a hero, a true love, or a cad. He can end up at the heights of kingship or the depths of a Kirkwall alleyway (an outcome that always destroys me).

But he's still always Alistair. He's still the person who wouldn't hesitate to die for what he believes in. He just runs into trouble when what he believes in crumbles. That's his tragedy, and the beauty of his potential character arc. What does he have if he can't die for something anymore? If what he believes in lets him down? 

The Boy With the Hounds

For me, no matter what fate awaits him, Alistair's story is always tinged with just a little bit of sadness.

Let's start with his upbringing. Born in 9:10 Dragon, it's implied that even living under the wing of Arl Eamon, Alistair grew up pretty poor and humble, told in childhood that he was a King's bastard whose mother had been a maid who'd died giving birth to him. He spent much of his time among the animals and even slept with the hounds. He was cruelly treated by Eamon's wife Isolde, who wrongly thought Alistair might be her husband's son, and he was eventually sent away to the Chantry (in 9:20 Dragon, to the monastery at Bournshire).

And excuse me for interrupting my wall of text here, but REALLY, Eamon and Isolde? Sending this sweet, funny, affectionate kid to go hang out with the livestock and bed down with the hounds? Isolde because of that stupid thing where the wife blames the kid for her husband's imagined indiscretion? (Gah. I hate this so much. Hated it with Catelyn, for instance, in Game of Thrones. hate it here. And I hate even more that it's believable psychology that actually happens. What is WRONG with people?!) And Eamon, who does all this awful stuff simply to pacify Isolde?

Eamon. Isolde. You are terrible people. Terrible, terrible people. And execrable parents.

But back to our recap of Alistair's journey.

Finding a Place

We soon discover, of course, that Alistair is actually the illegitimate child of King Maric and elven  Grey Warden mage Fiona, and that Arl Eamon had taken in Alistair at Teyrn Loghain Mac Tir's suggestion in order to shelter Alistair in Redcliffe, in part to protect the honor of Eamon's sister, Queen Rowan. Let's just say that Loghain's choice probably says something else about what an awful person he is, and as noted, I'm not a fan of Eamon's parenting skills, either.

During his years with the Chantry, Alistair was trained to be a Templar, but he chafed under the demands of Chantry life. Now an impressionable young man eager to make his mark on the world, and deeply unhappy with monastery life, he was rescued from this both literally and figuratively when he met Duncan, Commander of the Grey, in 9:29. 

Alistair met Duncan and well, it was love at first sight. Instant hero worship. And who can blame him? Duncan was a commanding and charismatic figure, a living hero doing something brave and selfless for king and country. Adding to Alistair's adoration was the reality that he was just not doing very well at the monastery—he hated life there, he hated being constantly told what to do, and wanted more. He wanted to be out there, doing, fighting, achieving—not hanging out in a church.

Not long before it would be time for him to take his sacramental vows as templar, Alistair began to push himself further, training, competing, and making an impact in a tournament where he fought bravely, but was ultimately defeated by several notable templar champions, including Ser Eryhn, a superb female templar, and other renowned champions Ser Talrew, and Ser Kalvin. 

Even in defeat, Alistair's bravery and pluck made a definitive impression on Duncan, who decided the boy would be a huge asset to the Grey Wardens, and sought to officially recruit him. Alistair was enthusiastic about the chance, and both he and Duncan eventually won out against the Chantry, which didn't want to let him go—the Grand Cleric only conceded when Duncan invoked the Right of Conscription to remove Alistair from the templars and into the world of the Grey Wardens.

But let's pause for a second again.

The Worst Gift Ever

If you read this blog, you know that I'm occasionally a bit conflicted on the Grey Wardens and how they work. I admire them unreservedly for the bravery of what they do, of the sacrifice it requires for each of them, and the courage it takes to do so.

However. I'm... not such a fan of "Let's keep the risks of the Joining secret for PR reasons!" Or, hey, "Let's conscript a sweet naive kid with a hero crush into a dangerous secret organization whose induction ceremony involves a significant risk of instant death—and a 10-15 year lifespan even if you survive!"


But. I mean, would YOU do this to someone you loved? Would YOU look into the eyes of a sweet, starry-eyed, brave young man, and decide the very best thing you can do for him is bring him into an organization with a limited lifespan, a fellowship with its share of thieves and rough, condemned men and women, and a certain ending in madness and lonely, violent death beneath the earth?

This is where I just can't help but blame Duncan, at least a little. Despite his shallow and obvious  doomed hotness.

Sorry. It's just so brutal. I do think there's real love for Alistair there, but based on what we see in Origins, Duncan is absolutely ruthless when it comes to stocking the Grey Wardens. He needs bodies. And we quickly realize that he's willing to lie to people and deceive them to get them to the Joining. 

And this is understandable, to a degree. He's a commander under huge stress and impossible odds—a guy facing a worldwide Blight, an Archdemon, and an unexpected tyrant. And he's pragmatic enough to use whatever he can. This is also key to his personality later on, when he will suggest the conscription of Loghain to the Wardens—for Duncan, every person is a potential Grey Warden, a potential tool worth spending.

But still. I'll never quite understand him looking at this young man who is almost a surrogate son... and condemning him to the Grey Wardens.

I know the story demands it. But that doesn't mean I can't resent it for that. Just a little.

Alistair in the Grey Wardens

As far as Alistair's backstory, wow, it's a poignant and predictable scenario for Alistair, in some ways. He was semi-abandoned, starved for love, treated like a stray who was sent to sleep with the hounds. He was also a lonely child who worshipped the Grey Wardens and who dreamed of the chance for future heroism. Only his mentor Duncan made things bearable, providing the father figure he'd always dreamed of.

This mentorship can, of course, end tragically if we decide to conscript Loghain, and it's a life-changing moment for Alistair—a moment that will cause him to give up on his quest with the Grey Wardens entirely. He may end up a drunk or a King, but he will never be the same again.

Neither will we.

Still, that's in the future. For now, Alistair thrived much more under the Grey Wardens than he had with the templars and Chantry, and the lonely young man found himself his first family of fellow misfits.

And then the Blight hit—and we begin the events of Origins, joining Alistair as our first window into the Grey Wardens.

Fairy Tales and Other Outcomes

Alistair is our Warden's first friend among the Wardens, and our immediate first party member. He  gives us our introduction to how the Grey Wardens function, and is basically a soft and understanding companion who guides us into our entrance into fighting a dark and Blighted world, no matter what our chosen origin story.

The key thing about Alistair is that he's just this guy who's funny and kind, our first friend, this Grey Warden who's dedicated to the cause. But his is a journey we're going to watch, up close, firsthand, whether he's our friend or enemy, whether he's a lover or more than that, and whether we dump him or he dumps us.

He's still pretty much always ridiculously charming. But that charm is different if the sweet kid becomes a cynical man, which makes it more painful if we, for instance, happen to play an elven mage romancing him during the Origins story. If we support his path toward kingship, it's that much more devastating when he promptly dumps our Warden as no longer appropriate as a consort. And he's honestly, again depending on choices here, pretty surprisingly cruel about it—especially if doing so as "hardened" (the path for Alistair in which we tell him, after the confrontation with his "sister" Goldanna, that he needs to toughen up and accept the world as it is).

So it's a crapshoot. We may end up with our chosen happy ending as Queen or (for the more accepting and cynical, as mistress), or as companion to the Warden who renounced the kingship—or we may end up dumped... or, worse, mourning the death of our lover, ex, or best friend.

Alistair as Party Member

The fun part of Alistair in our party in Origins is, of course, how he interacts both with our Wardens and (most of all) with our party members. Every relationship is fascinating and instructive, and tells us about each person—both who they are, and who they may become.

With Morrigan he is antagonistic and distrustful, and while I wouldn't exactly want to watch it, I admit that their banters are the stuff of rom-com legend, and I can totally get those who ship them. The love/hate energy is absolutely present.

With Wynne, he's boyish, familial, and a little coy, begging for shirt-mending and sock-washing and support, blushing when she offers too much help. I love their relationship, it's bittersweet when you remember that he never actually had a loving mother figure before her—more on this in my upcoming Meaningful Banters post separately.

While with Sten, he's respectful and appropriately wary. He's openly intrigued with Zevran's world-weary and open sexual confidence (and a little abashed by it), and easy and charming with Leliana (and for me, at least, it's easy to ship both of them here), and amused and curious with both Oghren and Shale. He is, of course, as the boy from the hounds, an outstanding friend to Barkspawn.

It's all so much fun, and so fascinating. 

Immortal Alistairisms

Thanks to David Gaider's innate wit and wordplay, Alistair is always charming and fun to be around, and some of his lines are easily the most immortal across the series, especially, of course, such gems as "Swooping is bad," and "I'll just stand over here until the blushing stops."

"What? Lead? Me? No, no, no. No leading. Bad things happen when I lead. We get lost, people die, and the next thing you know I’m stranded somewhere without any pants."

"Yep. Beasties. Beasties are coming."

"Have you ever licked a lamp-post in winter?"

"That's what I'm here for. To deliver unpleasant news and witty one-liners."

"Andraste's flaming sword! I know where babies come from!"

And my personal favorite: "You know, one good thing about the Blight is how it brings people together."

He's also predictably kind when delivering a notice of death: "I hope you like heroes, my lady, because your husband died like one." or "I'm sorry but your husband has fallen in battle. You have my condolences."

Basically, most conversations with Alistair feel like a warm hug with a chuckle at the end. It's incredibly disarming. It was also fun, later on, to see Gaider bringing a similar wit to Dorian, but of course with Dorian we're getting a much more sophisticated and self-aware character. But the same quick wit is still very much a throughline there.

My Journeys with Alistair 

I'm gonna be honest. I've resisted writing about Alistair because, although he was my first Dragon Age love, he also left me with some pretty conflicted feelings.

You know how it is with Dragon Age. These characters feel real. They sneak inside your heart.

And that's what happened with Alistair for me. As with so many of these characters.

My first playthrough ended happily enough, although it felt weird to me. My Warden romanced Alistair, he stayed softened (we gave Goldanna WAY too much money!), refused the Kingship, did the Dark Ritual (yes, everyone's doomed because of this, let's face it, at some point we're gonna have to PAY for this!), and they went off into the sunset together. But the odd thing was, I just didn't see it working out. I adored Alistair, but there was no way in my mind that these two people would ever last romantically. My Warden was too prickly and traumatized (city elf), and Alistair just felt too soft to me to survive her personality long-term. I was so convinced they wouldn't work out that I even wrote a fanfic about my headcanons, because honestly, by the end, I felt like she'd had a deeper connection (doomed, of course) with Sten.

I played other outcomes with Alistair after that, and weirdly that first playthrough was one of the happiest, although it played out oddly in my head. I did get another sweetheart of a playthrough with a Cousland where Alistair married her, and it was a lovely feeling to see our boy installed as King and yet happy in his new role, and with the woman he loved by his side.

The Darker Side of Alistair

Of course, I also played other, less happy outcomes. And just as a Qun-loyal playthrough will show you an unexpected and colder darker side to The Iron Bull in Inquisition, if you make certain choices with Alistair in Origins, you also get glimpses of his darker side, too. He's pretty brutal if he decides to dump you for the kingship, and if you "hardened" Alistair it's definitely one of those "be careful what you wish for" scenarios, because this is miles away from the sweet boy who once gave you a rose.

Meanwhile, if you take Duncan successor Riordan up on his suggestion to conscript Loghain for the Grey Wardens (for me, it's the perfect punishment for Loghain), Alistair goes absolutely nuclear. Even if you are at 100% approval with him, even if you're romanced, if you choose this, Alistair shuts down completely, goes stone-cold, and severs all friendship with you. He will also walk away from the Wardens (and from fighting the Blight), which stunned me the first time I played it.

The most surprising aspect for me in this potential storyline was that even when we defeat the Archdemon, if he is King, Alistair will talk to us one more time, but nothing has changed. He is still unrelenting and unforgiving, and he basically coldly tells us we should have died, and he's suspicious and going to investigate why we didn't (very plainly implying that he wanted us to do so).

And look, I get it. Every one of us has something we cannot allow, forgive, or overcome. Every one of us has an edge of the map, a "here there be dragons," go-no-further point. For Alistair, who is normally a pretty forgiving person, that edge of the map is the idea that Loghain survives in any way. For Alistair, the only appropriate outcome for Loghain's treason is death—and it's certainly the standard punishment for that crime, especially in the magical medieval world around him.

But it still shocked me. During the whole epilogue at the castle, I remember how I kept trying to talk to Alistair again, to explain that I had done what Riordan had wanted, wanting to tell him why I felt becoming a Grey Warden was actually appropriate for Loghain (he becomes the very thing he betrayed and tried to destroy), and that 10-15 years of fighting Darkspawn, ending in a lonely death beneath the earth was far more suffering than a quick fall of the ax. But of course, I couldn't. Alistair isn't going to listen, you no longer exist for him, his heart is hard, and he has a kingdom to run.

Fairytales and Their Endings

At heart, though, Alistair is a prince—a sweet guy who makes jokes even in the worst or most impossible situations, whistling in the dark. 

At his best, Alistair doesn't really want power, or kingship. Which is, of course, why I think he ends up being such a good king. It's always those who don't want the power who are best at handling it— the person who doesn't want to be king is usually much better and fairer than the person hungering for the throne. Even if he marries Anora, if he does so without taking the Warden as mistress, there is a sense (for me at least) that he's going to try to make the best of it, that he and Anora will try to find solace and companionship in each other. First, because it's expedient, and second, because, well, that's the way Alistair's built.

In the end, I really think he just wants to love and be loved. He's not just the giver of the rose that survives the storm, he's also that rose, himself—a delicate thing, whose survival was a kind of miracle.

But roses die. Princes, Wardens, and kings, die too, willingly sacrificing themselves against Archdemons or Fade monsters. Or they fade away as drunks in alleyways. Or maybe they just grow old, running a country next to a woman they may or may not love, or walking the darkness with fellow Wardens while their time runs out. In every one of these futures, Alistair is still going to be funny and charming; he's still going to say something fantastic and witty at just the right moment, no matter how much darkness or sadness is in his heart. Because that's also how he's built. He'll always try to add a bit of hope or sweetness where he can, to lighten the darkness.

Perhaps the most poignant lesson of Dragon Age: Origins is that the brightest lights are still capable of going dim. Roses bloom, even in darkness, but they also die. 

Sometimes, maybe it's enough that they ever bloomed at all.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

'Twas the Night Before Wintersend... (A Visit from Ashe'bellanar...)

A visit from Flemeth for the holidays
Just a silly little confection, hug, and thank you to you Dragon Age friends who have made my life so rich and meaningful, especially in one of the toughest years of my life (and, I know, so many of our lives).

It's goofy, but I hope you enjoy...

Note 1: I have been schooled that I should have used Satinalia, not Wintersend here, but I still think "Wintersend" sounds better. Oops! Oh well.)

Note 2: I've broken up the poem thematically if clunkily, so it's easier to read—it's just meant to be a fun exercise so I'm totally not keeping things formal, here...

A Visit from Ashe'bellanar (The Night Before Wintersend)

'Twas the night before Wintersend, and all through the Keep

Not a creature was stirring, all Skyhold asleep!

A stillness and silence filled all Herald's Rest

While up in the Rookery ravens did nest

Both mages and templars were snug in their beds,

As gingerbread Fade spirits danced in their heads

Meanwhile, up in my quarters, in halla PJ's

I'd just gone to bed for the first time in days,

When out on the steps there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my Free Marches bed -- "What's the matter?"

Then I ran to my balcony quick as a dance

Just hoping that I wouldn't see Corypants

The moon on the battlements shone with a glow

Gave the luster of Veil-Fire to objects below

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,

But a dragon and sleigh, it was actually here!

As it circled, it changed, and then oh, Maker's Breath,

I knew in a heartbeat that this was Flemeth! 

More regal than gods with her Hair Horns of Awesome

Her armor with touches of Arlathan blossom

"Now, Solas, now Seeker, now Varric," she called

"Now up, Iron Bull, Sera, Vivienne and Blackwall!

Get you up Leliana, and Josie, and Cullen

I bring Wintersend cheer, so you'd best not look sullen!

Up, Inky and Cole, and up, Dorian, boo!

And oh come all ye Chargers, and Maryden, too!

Sutherland and Scout Jim, come away from your stalking

I've got trinkets galore, so you better get walking!

But I won't wait forever, I've got things to do!

I just thought that I'd stop with a present or two.

So come down now to greet me or off I will fly!"

And so downstairs we tumbled, with our hair all awry.

And there in the courtyard, she stood with her sleigh

And eight tiny halla, already munching some hay

With a big bag of presents, at least twelve feet tall

She handed them round to us, Chargers and all!

There were goodies and treats and delectable things

And funny gifts too, like small toy nugs with wings

There was cocoa for Bull, and a dragon-tooth pile

That was perfect for weapons or one kadan's smile

There were kittens for Cole and a hat even wider

Plus a fine quill for Varric and a barrel of cider

A beard kit made Blackwall give Flemeth a blush

As he'd never seen anything nearly as plush

Fine thieves' tools gave Sera new chances for mayhem

And a fresh deck of cards tempting those that would play them

A new Swords and Shields to thrill Cass with each word

Plus new lute strings for Maryden's unsecret chord.

For Dorian, some fine ancient tomes of enchantment

To inspire him to further magical advancement

There were new paints for Solas in colors divine

And glasses just perfect for sweet elven wine

There were bangles and lutestrings and slippers for Leli

And tea cakes for Josie with Antivan jelly

There were potions for Inky and salve for the Mark

And an elfroot bouquet for when times got too dark

Then for Cullen a how-to on quick roof repair

And a silverite brooch for one Madame de Fer

For Lace Harding some beautiful blooms to bemuse

And bright armor for Sutherland's personal use

For gruff Cabot some barrels of Orlesian mead

While new runes gave Dagna the magic she'd need

There were new raven cages for Plucky's elites

New blankets for Schmooples and dracolisk treats

Plus a barrel of mint to make cats play with zeal

And cheese to give mice a more sumptuous meal

The bag it was endless and obviously magical 

Filled with fine gifts and not one of them tragical

For Skyhold's found family it was a delight

Filled with comfort and joy (and no plaidweave in sight!)

And then giving a nod and a wink from her eye

Flemeth leaped to the sleigh and then took to the sky

The Skyholders all cheered as the Witch took a lap

Round the battlements high where the brave banners flap

Observed Dorian, "The magisters had up their sleeves

Rare spells such as Flemeth has shown us this eve."

Yet as the sleigh vanished ('twas just before twelve, then)

She called back, "It is not Tevinter, but elven."

So let us heed Flemeth's wise seasonal call

And cry, "Happy Wintersend!" and ar lath ma to you all!

"Dragon Age: Dreadwolf" Predictions & Ponderings (and "What's in a Name?" Redux)

He doesn't call, he doesn't write, but finally, it looks like we might be hearing from Solas at last (2023?), as BioWare announces t...