Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Gift of Hindsight: Solas on the Brink

Hey, sweetie... let's catch up before we go observe some playful wyverns in their natural environments...
SOLAS: With luck, some of the past may yet survive.

I've been inching along on Solas's romance analysis, and hey, we're almost there! And here we are, with our unsuspecting Lavellan alone with Solas in the Rotunda after the events of the Temple of Mythal, and on the precipice of that pivotal, terrible, lovely, Last Date.

But before they go off ambling amongst the wyverns, they take the time to talk in his office. And for me, it's a big deal, this moment. There's something genuinely electric and strange going on in this scene for me—something that feels (as with so much to do with Solas) hidden in plain sight. The brief conversations that precede that last fateful date can seem innocuous, yet they are actually among the most crucial in the Solas-Inquisitor game relationship (especially if romanced).

Which is the reason for this blog post, and why I keep finding more to say before the actual date itself—which, I swear, will be my next post. NO REALLY. 

Yet as we reach this vital point in Solas's romance, I feel like it's important, given what follows, to take a look at where Solas is at this specific moment, in terms of his state of mind. For me, we can't fully appreciate what happens later on in Crestwood, if we don't take assessment his position right now, from a story and character point of view. So (with your patience) I'm gonna pause, and take some time to address the details—to take a few deep breaths before we move forward into all the lingering looks, intense close-ups, and regretful butt-grabs to come.

So here, ir abelas, let's take a brief look at Solas's situation before the break—at the changes he has undergone emotionally during the past year or more, and at who he is in this specific moment.

We have the gift of hindsight. So let's rewind, observe... and assess.

The Precipice (Beyond the Past, Before the Future)

At this point, as the Lavellan Inquisitor protagonist romancing Solas, we've achieved so much at this point in the storyline ourselves. (And it does feel, as always, like it's "us," doesn't it? Thanks to BioWare's superb handling of point of view. So that when the next major thing happens, on the date, it's... actually, personally, painful, for many players. Me included.)

But meanwhile, hey, we've stepped up. Been brave. Built the Inquisition. Closed rifts. Conquered masses, even while possibly losing every single member of our family and clan to a brutal massacre. We've also fought countless battles. Assembled a remarkable group of companions and advisors. We've played the Great Game and created alliances with Orlais at Halamshiral with charm and guile. We've further consolidated forces and achieved tangible military victories in the Arbor Wilds, and outraced Corypants through the eluvian to safety. 

We also may very well have drunk from the sacred Well of Sorrows, accepting the geas that lay upon it (eternally bound to the will of Mythal herself) for the sake of knowledge and power. And in this very Rotunda, just moments before, had that last big debate with Solas after the fights, mysteries and discoveries of the Temple of Mythal, and that crucial conversation about choice, freedom, and what Lavellan might do with all that power if she drank from the well. Where, for better or for worse, most of our choices there seemed to convince Solas that his path is a righteous one.

In addition across that past year or so, of course, we've also managed to embark on an intense romance with—unknown to us—an ancient elven god (or the closest thing to it). 

Now let's continue briefly on from the Well discussion, as Solas gives himself a mental shake, and moves forward in the moment, while I analyze every single tiny aspect. (Hey, it's what I do. Even though I know, somewhere, that those past and present Dragon Age writers who are kind enough to visit my blog are also surely shaking their heads and laughing over some of my conclusions and assumptions. I also occasionally imagine facepalm GIFs. Maybe some especially expressive eyeroll emojis too.)

I appreciate the metaphor that Lavellan is talking with Solas just before her date while facing his fresco of the obliteration of the Conclave. The symmetry is painful but accurate.
The Pause Before the Storm

SOLAS: Forgive my melancholy. Corypheus has cost us much. The Temple of Mythal did not deserve such a fate. The orb he carries, and its stolen power… that, at least, we may still recover. With luck, some of the past may yet survive. 

As always, there are so many double meanings to much of what Solas tells Lavellan here, even in this relatively brief statement. Examining each aspect of this line of dialogue—the Temple, the orb, its power, the recovery of the past... each element is vital to understanding Solas both now and in the future.

First, his comment about the Temple is intriguing. Sure, the Temple didn't deserve its fate—not recently—or millennia back, either. When Solas talks about what was 'deserved' at the Temple, isn't he speaking in layers again, and very likely also thinking of poor Abelas and his fellow ancient sentinel elves? The brief expression of regret is appropriate if they were in fact killed by the choice of the Inquisitor, but it's also similarly so in a quieter way even if they survived.

I've never seen this addressed (possibly because I am just that weird) but I always find it subtly sad that Mythal's Temple is now empty after the events at the Well of Sorrows. Now it's just one more elven ruin among many.
The Silent Temple

Despite its damage, the Temple of Mythal had managed to hold onto its ancient holiness and secrets, so that its sentinels lived still beyond all expectation, millennia later, protecting the holy waters of knowledge and sorrow in the name of Mythal herself. Whether through combat with the Inquisitor, or with the drinking from the Well, either way, that holiness is gone now. 

It is a sad and beautiful idea, to think of the Temple of Mythal in this moment with Solas. The Temple itself has been pithed; it is empty and hollow now. No longer will proud ancient elven sentinels walk its shadowed corridors and protect its secrets. The Well of Sorrows is dry, and the flowers and trees that surrounded it will go untended, as well its gardens surrounding those lovely magical pathways. The eluvian is dead and dull. The whole place will simply fall gently into the surrounding jungles—what's one more elven ruin in a world filled with them, after all?

The idea reminds me a little of a key moment in Mary Stewart's beautiful novel The Hollow Hills (the second book in her marvelous Merlin trilogy, which I cannot recommend enough), when Merlin enters an ancient shrine as a young man, years after encountering its holiness in his youth, and realizes with grief that the holiness is now gone, the god that was honored there now fled and silent.

But what of those who served Mythal? What do they do now?

Surely this hunk of ancient elven magnificence deserves to go forth and find love and happiness in the living world after a service of millennia, right?
His Watch is Ended

I have to think, if Abelas survived, that despite the palpable sadness of Abelas's departure from the Temple as the sacred well was emptied, Solas may even be happy for Abelas on some complex level, perhaps even envious—after all, Abelas's job is done. He owes nothing further to anyone... not even to Mythal herself.

Solas may even see there an echo of his own freedom (at last) from his long watch over Thedas from the Fade. And just as Solas had traumas galore to recover from at that emergence, so, too, must Abelas. 

What comes after duty? Is Abelas now free, at long last, to imagine living a flesh-and-blood life? (I mean, hey, judging by the fandom, I know there are hundreds or even thousands out there who would be happy to take Abelas out for the amusing meal and house wine...)

Me, I'm also wondering if Solas is thinking of the proud former Temple guardian and considering the fact that, years after he killed Felassan, hey, he does really need a new first lieutenant. Hmm...

That Orb? Stolen. So, so stolen. Seriously. It's a crime that nobody caught Corypants, you know, in the act of stealing it. Is it hot in here? It's hot in here, right? Ouch. SO STUFFY IN HERE!
The Open Falsehood

As far as the Orb? Let's face it, Solas is openly lying about the Orb as a "stolen" power, since we'll find out later on that he himself caused the Orb to reach Corypants, hoping that his tinkering would both unlock the Orb and kill him (a definite win-win for Solas).

And yet this realization is, paradoxically, why I do have sympathy for Solas when it comes to the devastation of the Breach, despite his own complicity and recklessness in handing over an ancient Orb of incredible power to our favorite grumpy, stripey-stockinged Darkspawn Magister. As with his long-ago raising of the Veil, which resulted inadvertently in the enslavement and devastation of the very people he was trying to save, I believe that Solas had no idea Cory would actually succeed with the Orb, much less create the Breach, rifts and untold horrors—or that, because of that moment, hundreds of thousands across Thedas would die.

I've seen a lot of Solavellan fans argue that Solas never lies, that his mistruths are more the product of avoidance and slippery wordplay. But I can't agree. As he does about the Orb here, Solas lies to our faces several times throughout the story of Inquisition (most notably, when directly queried about the Orb, the Conclave, or Skyhold). It's not something I'm angry with him for—I've found it really interesting, in fact, to try to imagine when Solas was most tempted to speak up and tell the truth, finding always that he was unable to do so.

Of course, we already know one major moment of temptation lies just moments ahead for him. But I think there have been others, too (I'd imagine the Fade Kiss was another one).

Solas also suffers from another flaw that only the immortal being can truly assimilate: He has grown used to tragedy. Large-scale apocalypses may bum him out, but they are, for him, not that unusual at this point.
Awakening Dread

While the impending Last Date ends badly for us Lavellans, I think there's real agony and breakage in that ending on both sides. And I also believe that it's not there, but here in the Rotunda, where Solas begins to crack. I mentioned previously that I perceive the scene here as one in which Solas seems a little unstable (and I think Gareth David-Lloyd leans into this subtly in his performance)—Solas is by turns enraged, scared, arrogant, worried, and... perhaps most unsettling of all, euphoric. There are little potential moments in this conversation where he comes across, well, like a cult disciple who's just been served a brand-new dose of tasty Kool-Aid. (Oh, dear.)

Let's face it, Solas is a brilliant tactician and strategist, one who successfully defied the gods that once ruled multiple worlds, from the Fade to the layered kingdoms of Arlathan. He's a superb mage, with talents I believe he has kept tamped down and carefully hidden, once he began to regain his strength over the past year to eighteen months (Like, come on! He has to be able to shapeshift into a Dread Wolf. In my head it's already true, darn it). But he's also a flawed and sometimes arrogant man who cannot admit what he doesn't know, and he's blind in ways that are believable and self-perpetuating. Solas may have survived for millennia, but he did so with every one of his formidable flaws intact, as well as his equally formidable gifts. He also suffers from another flaw that only the immortal can assimilate: He has grown used to tragedy. Large-scale apocalypses may bum him out, but they are, for him, not that unusual at this point.

What writer Patrick Weekes has done with this situation in a literary sense is both tricky and subtle; they've let Solas's own failings sink and mark him, so that when Solas awakened from the Fade, all his careful plans fell to pieces like a house of cards, because everything had changed, because this world was alive after all. He might have emerged cold and certain, focused only on bringing it all back, the past he had doomed, but, well, one assumes that it wasn't as easy to kill up close, out of the dream-reality of the Fade.

I think this is an important detail. It was one thing, the dialogue implies, for Solas to plan for his actions from within the Fade. Even when those actions were cruel, he would allow them as necessary and regretful. He would take responsibility, feel grief, and yet continue forward. Better that, than to live with his own failure. At first, it may even have seemed easy—after all, it's apparent in hindsight that Solas for the longest time can't accept the current world state he finds, can't accept these other beings as people. It's "In Hushed Whispers" all over again. Everything must go. Nothing matters but that promise of restoration.

And for awhile he's managed himself mercilessly to stay on-path. The sad Fade-execution of Felassan at the end of The Masked Empire is notable both for its swiftness and for its implacability. Felassan knows before he meets Solas that he is already doomed. He already knows there is nothing he can say that Solas will hear... yet.

Until Solas stumbles into the living Thedas and finds within a few short months that, oh shit, Felassan was right. And he's sorry. He's really, really sorry.

For Solas, the events of Dragon Age: Inquisition are, at most, a few chapters in a story spanning millennia.
A Different Story

One of my favorite writing tricks when it comes to character is to remind myself that every single character thinks that they are the center of the story. From Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to Fredegar Bolger, Smeagol, Morrigan, Taryon Darrington, Squidward, E. B. Farnum, and beyond, when it comes to point of view, there are no bit players. We're all the heroes of our own stories. This is doubly (and literally) true for Solas, who not only understands far more than anyone else in DAI about what's really going on, he has to live with the fact that he was also the architect of several of those events.

For our Inquisitor, and for most characters we encounter, Inquisition is a story with a beginning, middle and even (thanks to "Trespasser") an ending of sorts. For Solas however, alone among our companions, the DAI story is merely an interlude, a chapter and diversion. He is living and reacting to an entirely different, hidden story.

There's a reason Solas bonds so closely with Cole in friendship, and it's not just because he loves Cole for his spirit-self (and may feel kinship there). I think it's also because, like Cole, Solas is a dead man walking—a vengeful, wounded ghost among the living. 

Inquisition presents us with companions and advisors whose futures and fates each depend on a choice in a crucial moment. What's different with Solas's character arc is that his choice was made thousands of years ago, and he's been dealing with the aftermath ever since. Nothing we say or do can change that choice or threaten his goals. 

Unless we get him to forget, for a little while. Unless he falls in love.

The Gift of Hindsight

As players, we get to be gods too, though. We see more clearly than those around Solas.

So when we replay the game, things get understandably more complex. We can see what Solas is trying for, what he's working towards. We can see the bitterness and self-judgment and guilt of his past actions. We can taste the loss of his own past even as he helps a Tal-Vashoth Bull find new hope. We hear his anguish (and envy) even as he provides friendship and family to Cole. We see him find peace with his past warrior-self with everyone from Varric, to Blackwall, to Cassandra as he accepts and befriends them and supports that with the right cause, a pen, a sword, a shield, can be noble.

And of course, we see him fall fatally, hopelessly in love. Not just with the Inquisitor. With Thedas. And all at once, this awful muffled world he hated before is now filled with light and color. He is alive again, and whole. He can still feel. 

But. As with everything to do with Solas, this outcome must be measured, of course, against the potential chaos which might result from his own self-admitted, larger plans to tear down the Veil. He may not have intended this exact catastrophe, but at the moment he passes along that Orb, he's still taking concrete steps to remove the Veil and bring back the past, whether or not lives are lost in the process. So there's all this other emotional stuff going on with Solas, too—in every bantered conversation with companions, in every interaction, and (especially) in every scene in his romance. He's not just a humble mage, nor is he an ancient elven princeling, god, wolf, or trickster. He's a walking shadow filled with shame, guilt, sorrow, grief, self-hatred, trauma, and (unfortunately) certainty. But that's a post for another day, and I'll examine that complex ethical puzzle later on, in "Trespasser."

I also think there was another emotion when the Conclave exploded: relief. His plans were stalled. There was nothing he could do in the immediate moment. He was given a period of grace in which to watch, wait, acclimate, and... atone.

Lingering Questions

I've noted here before that I think that, emerging from the Fade and out of his "dark and dreaming sleep" into reality, Solas was concentrating on one step at a time, following a series of actions that would enable him to power-up back to his formidable evanuris-level skills. However, as always, the outcome far exceeded his expectations—or nightmares.

I also wonder, at this point, if Solas simply thought Corypants would use magic to try to unlock the Orb, or if he was aware that the unlocking would involve the ritual sacrifice of the Divine herself (I can't quite call Divine Justinia 'innocent,' since she was a Pope with her own spy network and lead assassin). If so, he implies fairly often in the banters with Blackwall and Sera later on that he would have accepted his culpability there, even while grieving the loss of life.

That's all assuming he's unshakably on-mission. Yet... my question, after the Breach, and for a long time is... but is he still?

I don't think so. 

As we pause here in the Rotunda... I think for most of that 18-plus month period Solas spends with the Inquisition, that from the moment of the explosion at the Conclave and his meeting with the Inquisitor (especially a romanced Inky), that he was so off-balance, so traumatized, guilt-stricken, and confused, that for awhile he just let everything go. He knew he would need power. He also knew that he would have to help the Inquisition through this terrible interlude and try to fix his latest mistake. So he allowed himself to do that. And by doing so, he dropped his guard. He got seduced—by emotion, by empathy, by friendship and love, and by the beauty of this damaged yet still recognizable world.

Enough so that he's allowed himself kisses in the Fade, and dreamed up sensual walking tours of dramatic, wyvern-filled jungles with the woman he loves.

Until he can't anymore. Until he wakes up, again.

Part of Solas's tragedy is his own age and perspective: To someone who has lived millennia, his companions and even the woman he loves are fireflies at best and ghosts at worst; already gone.
On the Brink

Thanks for letting me ramble! I wanted to take this pause, to do this analysis, because I wanted to both hold Solas accountable (most notably, for the Orb situation) and to express my conflicting feelings about his situation. I fear for what he plans to do, but I also think there's so much room for interpretation here that I can't judge him going forward until he acts. For now, I'm cautiously on the side of "antihero" versus "villain, so we'll see how it goes (I'll address his truly heroic acts in "Trespasser" later on, as well).

As a writer, I love and deeply enjoy the rich paradox of Solas as a character. In the beginning, he surprised me with his capacity for fire and feeling. Just as, in the end, he surprised me equally with his capacity for coldness. The fact that both opposing character elements are completely believable is a testament to the talents of the Dragon Age writing team, especially Weekes.

It's called Solavellan Hell for a reason, right? It's not fun examining this stuff. Because at this point in our story, we've walked with Solas and watched his reawakening from trauma, his slow realization that there is beauty, and courage, and worth, in this world, however stifling he had initially found it to be. I truly believe Solas loves Lavellan and at least some of her friends, that he has found real friendship, admiration and intimacy with his companions.

And then the last hurdle falls, and he feels admiration for the simple people of Thedas, for their courage. He feels this and accepts the shame that goes with it, because if his plans succeed, that courage won't matter, and many of those brave people may die or face a vastly different universe. When he makes that comment that he will remember their courage, he is talking about people he may already see as dead and gone. This past year has changed him, but what is a year or two among thousands? To someone who has lived millennia, everyone Solas meets are fireflies at best and ghosts at worst; already gone. Which is why his beautiful frescoes may be as much of an epitaph to Lavellan and the Inquisition as they are a gift or an homage to her story.

And that's why Solas's position in the story is so brilliant. Because that epilogue and its revelation about his true identity and true goals is a gut-punch. It hurts. And it should. Betrayal always does. Finding out you've been lied to always does. It's something Lavellan is about to experience firsthand.

The irony is that we can see, with our omniscient-player view of future and past alike, how Solas at this moment is poised on the brink, balanced between his past heroics and sins and his future potential apocalypses. Based on comments by Weekes about Solas's state of mind in Crestwood, I think Solas isn't planning on stomping on his beloved's vhenan at all. Right this second, he's feeling wonderful, victorious, and in love. He wants to take her to a place where magic prickles on the skin like electricity in thanks for what she has given him, and then further gift her with the truth. So that he can finally reveal himself and be honest, so that he can reveal the wolf who has walked beside her even when she was unaware. And to finally, I'm assuming, consummate their romance.

"Come with me, vhenan."

That's what's so perfect and terrible about this moment in the torchlight of Solas's tower room. He looks... happy. We should have known how terribly things were about to go. 

Unfortunately, blessed with hindsight as we are, we already know that Solas's joys, like his victories, never last.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A Taste of Lies and Sorrows... Talking with Solas After the Arbor Wilds

In his "You have impressed me" compliments, the idea that Solas is professing that love in response to having his worst impulses confirmed is deeply sad to me. That's why it's a brilliant lead-in to the next moment... that of our last, terrible date.

SOLAS: You honor the past and work to recover what was lost, even if the cost is high. I respect that, and I am indebted to you for the reminder.

So I'm on the home stretch to my analysis of Solas's romance, but before we get to the kisses, tears and regretful butt-grabs of The Last, Worst Date Ever, I want to take a closer look at one of the most pivotal companion conversations in Dragon Age: Inquisition—our talk with Solas after the events of the Arbor Wilds and the vir'abelasan (The Well of Sorrows). (Note: I've updated this slightly from the original post to fix a few typos, and added a reference to the fact that the epilogue scene may take place in the Crossroads, as posited by @LadyInsanity.)

Saying No to a Sip

If we didn't drink from the Well, Solas is calm and even mildly euphoric after the Temple of Mythal. There's something complacent and secretly pleased about his demeanor, and, as with the events of Halamshiral, he's playing his cards close to the vest. He comments that "The Temple of Mythal was extraordinary. In all my journeys, I never dreamed of finding anything like it."

Which, to me, isn't a throwaway comment but an observation that is worth examining. It's Solas writer Patrick Weekes being subtle with us again, giving us something potentially complex and layered within a seemingly innocuous, simple statement by one of their characters.

First and foremost, it's obviously a pretty disingenuous comment by Solas, since he would have to have seen far grander temples to the Evanuris back in the ancient days. Not to mention the fact that, right there at the Well itself, ancient elven sentinel Abelas had just told us that Mythal's Temple was destroyed by the very people who betrayed and murdered Mythal herself.

A Little Deception

Doesn't Abelas's job sound awful, by the way? He and the ancient sentinel elves evidently spend all their time sleeping, basically snoozing their way through millennia, only waking up on alert in time to fight or banish anyone who tries to enter the Temple of Mythal. If they survive after combat, they apparently just go back to bed until the next incursion. It's like the worst on-call fireman's job ever. And with no side benefits like a fireman's pole, dalmatians, communal cooking, riding around in a cool fire truck, or getting the thanks of a grateful community.

So it's another small moment of deception from Solas, if we examine it, because he has likely already been to the Temple of Mythal, even if it was millennia back. Wasn't it likely the site of Mythal's actual murder? Even though it's implied that Solas and Mythal were divided at that point (perhaps over differences on the issues of elven enslavement, the use of the vallaslins, or some other betrayal), we know that there remained deep love between them, to the point that Mythal's death sent Solas spinning into acts of revenge and retribution that would change the entire face of the world.

So it seems likely that Solas would have hastened there himself way back when, either to prevent her death, or to discover it on his own. The other Evanuris beings who killed her may even have hoped to pin the death on Solas himself, for all we know. Either way, I think he's been there before. Ironically, before most of his many journeys to come across both Thedas and the Fade.

And keep in mind that the Temple of Mythal is also strongly implied as the prearranged meeting-place for Solas and Flemeth in the shocking final epilogue scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition. (although there is also a persuasive case by LadyInsanity that it takes place in the Crossroads, as well). But I'd swear on my stuffed Emerald Graves Nug that both of them know the place all too well.

That's all we get if we didn't drink—it's a mild, quiet conversation with no surprises (yet).

However, the situation is, of course, much more fiery and emotional if we did, in fact, drink from the vir'abelasan.

What Inquisition has accomplished beautifully in a big-picture way with Solas's story is to constantly remind us that sometimes the worst fate you can suffer is to be trapped in your own guilt and regret.

The Taste of Sorrow

If we drank from the Well, the encounter is more volatile. Solas confrontational—frustrated, angry and scared at the implications of what the Inquisitor has done. As always, he cannot tell her what he knows about the immortal contract to which she has just agreed. As Inquisition's greatest champion of free will, Solas is predictably devastated that the Inquisitor is now bound to something she does not understand. He cannot tell her Mythal is real, the gods were real (at least, in some capacity), and that he himself walked among them, saving and dooming Thedas as a result.

Solas gets a lot of anger from many fans, and he undoubtedly deserves it. He's walked at our side for over a year now in the timeline of the game story, and he has reserved, omitted, and even obscured essential information from the Inquisitor and the Inquisition at large repeatedly in order to cover his own identity, motives and actions. 

Yet what the game has accomplished beautifully in a big-picture way with Solas's story is to constantly remind us that sometimes the worst fate you can suffer is to be trapped in your own guilt and regret (a fate Abelas understands all too well). It's something Weekes makes painfully acute in almost all of Solas's dialogues with companions, and especially with a beloved Lavellan. He wants so badly to speak. And yet he cannot do so. And because he is a true believer, because he truly thinks he is doing the right thing, his prison is binding. No moment of weakness or regret will salvage him because every moment of pain or loss simply provides him with the chance for further righteous sacrifice or abnegation.

And oh, The Last, Worst Date is looming, and I would argue that here's where we begin to see that fallout... even here.

So I like the scene a lot, because it's one of those moments in which I feel we're watching Solas have to face the bleak reality of his choices... and lose control. And justifiably so. He can't fix things, he can't go back, and he's caught in a cruel stasis in which he alone knows the miseries yet to come for those he has come to care for. Even though Solas seemed to tacitly want for us to drink at the time—or, at least, to do so instead of Morrigan, who he views as grasping carelessly for ancient power she does not understand ("She is right about only one thing: we should take the power which lies in that well")—he's nevertheless deeply, visibly upset.

This scene is instantly presented as intense and dynamic—we walk into the Rotunda with Solas, and he rounds furiously to confront Lavellan for drinking from the Well. Solas is about as emotional and unguarded as we've ever seen him.

SOLAS: I begged you not to drink from the Well! Why could you not have listened?
SOLAS: You gave yourself into the service of an ancient elven god!
INQUISITOR: What does that mean, exactly?
SOLAS: You are Mythal’s creature now. Everything you do, whether you know it or not, will be for her. You have given up a part of yourself.

Solas and Lavellan can have more conversations here, but they're mostly variations in which Solas reinforces the danger of the decision (and her loss of agency) while emphasizing the fickle and potentially twisted nature of the original 'gods.' In one of my favorite moments, Lavellan calls him out on the fact that she knows he doesn't believe in gods, and Solas agrees, but clarifies that he believes that these powerful beings did exist in some fashion, whether gods or something else. Again, I always love these moments in which Solas tosses out an idea like a guess, when he knows the truth beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Regardless, within a few short moments, Solas seems to take a breath, and to accept that what's done is done, and he makes a visible effort to calm down.

SOLAS: And you are bound to one of them now. I suppose it is better you have the power than Corypheus, which leads to the next logical question… 

And... here we go.

Oh, sweet Creators, and oh dear and fluffy Maker, Solas, please do not thank us for this particular revelation. Shit.

The Hidden, Vital Question

This, this, is the big moment for Solas... where, in hindsight, we realize all realities for Solas collide. He asks the question that means more to him than anything in the world, I believe. Right here and right now, Solas must know the answer to a vital question: What will she do with this divine power now? How will she use it to affect the world?

SOLAS: What will you do with the power of the Well once Corypheus is dead?

Lavellan can reply in a variety of options, here. She can respond that she will undo the chaos Corypants caused, she may respond that she trusts her friends, say that she will attempt to stay humble and share her power, or (last but not least) that she will not look back, but try to move the world forward.

It's no surprise that Solas reacts most powerfully to two of these responses—to the Inquisitor's resolution to bring back the past, or to move beyond that past into something wholly new. 

"I am indebted to you for the reminder"

Every one of these options includes an important disclosure from Solas. But, in hindsight, his open happiness if Lavellan responds, "I'll bring back what was," should be a warning bell that clangs across the Frostbacks. Solas is openly euphoric at the idea that Lavellan would put things back "the way they were, because it's the affirmation he so desperately desires—confirmation from someone he has come to love and admire that undoing the past is a good and honorable thing. No matter what the cost:

INQUISITOR: I’ll use whatever power I have to undo the chaos that Corypheus and his allies have caused.
SOLAS: You would put things back the way they were before?
INQUISITOR: Yes. I mean, not exactly…
SOLAS: I know what you mean. Thank you.
SOLAS: You have not been what I expected, Inquisitor. You have… impressed me. You honor the past and work to recover what was lost, even if the cost is high. I respect that, and I am indebted to you for the reminder.

Note how Solas's final moment of appreciation here emphasizes Lavellan's willingness to honor the past and "recover what was lost, even if the cost was high." He's happily grateful for the reminder.

I adore Solas. But his goals scare and worry me, and this, in retrospect, is pretty terrifying.

"I trust my friends"

In response to Lavellan's desire to trust her friends, Solas answers with a differently, yet equally telling, revelation:

INQUISITOR: I trust my friends.
SOLAS: I know that mistake well enough to carve the angles of her face from memory.
INQUISITOR: Why is this so important to you?
SOLAS: You have not been what I expected, Inquisitor. You have… impressed me. You must not let false modesty allow you to pass your power to someone else. There are few regrets sharper than watching fools squander what you sacrificed to achieve.

Which—that's Mythal, isn't it? It has to be about Mythal. Whom he loved and trusted, who may have called him out of the very Fade itself and into flesh all those thousands and thousands of years ago... and yet, at some point, he felt that she betrayed him. Then their friendship was sundered, even if the love remained.

I like the way this version of Solas's "You have not been what I expected" compliment also subtly references the fact that he feels like whatever he achieved in raising the Veil and imprisoning the Evanuris was then squandered by "fools" who came after. Are these the Dalish, perhaps, who became a wandering and lost people unable to remember their own history? Or all of the modern elves, Dalish and city elves alike? Or simply all of Thedas?

Yet it's worth noting that the first thing Solas did upon emerging from the Fade was to go straight to the Dalish and attempt to share his knowledge with them. Knowledge they declined, before forcibly casting him out.

Perhaps it is only then that, to him, bitter in his isolation, they became fools. 

"The Lure of Power's Corruption"

In option three of Lavellan's potential answers here, she attempts to retreat into the safety of abnegating power and ruling by committee, while Solas is instantly skeptical:

SOLAS: You think to share your power, to avoid the temptation to misuse it. A noble sentiment… but, ultimately, a mistake.
SOLAS: Because while one selfless woman may walk away from the lure of power’s corruption, no group has ever done so.

I love the foreshadowing here, as this, of course, is a situation Trespasser directly addresses front and center, and it turns out to be the central question on which the entire Halamshiral hearing hinges: Will the Inquisition remain as an organization or will it be absorbed into the Chantry, to answer to the Divine? Or is now simply the time for the Inquisition as a formal political entity to end? Our choices for our Inquisitors there will surely have massive repercussions in Dragon Age 4.

As a last interesting little detail, this is the only answer to Lavellan's plans where Solas does not give some version of the "You have impressed me" speech.

And here we are again, making a massive mistake, and simply reinforcing Solas's terrible agenda even when we express the actual reverse of his current and determined path. Because all roads lead to the din’anshiral for him at this point.

"I'll help this world move forward"

I find it interesting that the last option in our responses to Solas—the one that is the flip side to the first option (to "restore what was")—is the one that also draws the most emotional response from him. Which makes sense, since both answers, bookends though they are, are intertwined: 

INQUISITOR: The war proved that we can’t go back to the way things were. I’ll try to help this world move forward.
SOLAS: You would risk everything you have in the hope that the future is better? What if it isn’t? What if you wake up to find that the future you shaped is worse than what was?
INQUISITOR: I’ll take a breath, see where things went wrong, and then try again.
SOLAS: Just like that?
INQUISITOR: If we don’t keep trying, we’ll never get it right.
SOLAS: You’re right. Thank you.
SOLAS: You have not been what I expected, Inquisitor. You have… impressed me. You have offered hope that if one keeps trying, even if the consequences are grave… that someday, things will be better.

All Solas takes from this is, "I just have to keep trying, even if the consequences are grave." It's basically the worst and most tragic possible lesson he could take from what the Inquisitor noted. Instead of being freed by the idea that he can and must let go of the past—that he should move on both literally and figuratively from what haunts him—Solas sees this conversation that if he wants to undo the past, he simply needs to keep trying.

All of which makes that final "You have impressed me" compliment he gives to a romanced or high-approval Inquisitor bittersweet, to say the least. Because for me it's a disingenuous end to a disingenuous beginning. And as I always do, I love Gareth David-Lloyd's performance, as he communicates the slightest undercurrent of instability here, of euphoria and excitement beyond the moment. Something is not quite right here. Solas may actually be trembling in the aftermath of revelation and... relief?

It's worth repeating that I believe that Solas does truly love and admire the Inquisitor. Yet here, the idea that he's professing that love in response to having his worst impulses confirmed is deeply sad. That's why I find it a brilliant lead-in to the next moment... that of that last, terrible date. 

Solas tells us he loves us many times, and I believe them all within the story of the game. Yet here, his proclamation of admiration is not only somehow unearned and hollow, it is a subtle harbinger of sadness to come. 

In falling in love with an ancient god, we are already on the path to the din’anshiral. Solas is already far ahead. The greatest tragedy of the situation is that it's a path he walks alone, and love or no love, he will not wait for us.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Trespasser Turns 4: Celebrating 10 Favorite Moments...

INQUISITOR: We save Ferelden, and they’re angry! We save Orlais, and they’re angry! We close the Breach twice, and my own hand wants to kill me! Could one thing in this fucking world just stay fixed?

September 8, 2019 marked the 4-year anniversary for the Dragon Age: Inquisition DLC “Trespasser,” which is arguably the most impactful and tantalizing DLC of the entire game trilogy.

Personally, I still can’t believe it’s been four years… some part of me is still back there, honestly, listening to bard songs, weeping over the outcome for my Qun-loyal Bull, or still ruminating on that final conversation with my other digital boyfriend Solas, and enjoying the prospect of even more heartbreak to come.

From Origins through Inquisition, each chapter of Dragon Age has included a DLC that served as a tantalizing yet crystal-clear link to the next game. From Origins' “Awakenings,” to Dragon Age 2’s “Legacy” to Inquisition’s “Trespasser,” these DLC milestones provided a subtle step forward while presenting the issues and story elements that would be highly impactful in the next major release and a dramatic step in the game story.

I love all of these DLCs, from “Awakenings” and its bittersweet foreshadowings of darkness for some of its brightest characters (Anders) to the way “Legacy” pointed us directly into the bleakness and chaos of Corypheus in Inquisition.

But my favorite DLC so far has to be “Trespasser,” which provides us with everything we loved and hated about Solas in a single DLC, and which instantly paints him as someone who is both irredeemable in his goals and yet intensely worth love and loyalty (for many, at least) for the reasons behind his actions, as well as for his quiet and rather surprising continued loyalty to (and compassion for) the Inquisitor and the Inquisition.

Following are some of the most surprising and emotional moments in “Trespasser” for me… from joy to anguish and everything in between. Here goes!

1. The Time Jump

It's genuinely shocking to go into "Trespasser" and to realize that not only have two years gone by, but that our companions have gone on with their lives, often in poignant and significant ways. The Inquisition has grown, perhaps disquietingly so. Varric leads Kirkwall. Whether with the Inquisitor or Dorian, Bull and his romance have progressed in intimacy and commitment. Blackwall has found a newfound peace and purpose. Sera has found love as well as a newfound acceptance, regret and maturity. Dorian has come to terms with his complex family and heritage. Vivienne has settled back into her scheming, while still retaining her cold affections here and there.

We really get the sense that everyone has, well, lived, during the two-year gap. It feels real, and messy, and complicated, and I love it. For me, the one slightly sad element is that, unless romanced, the Inquisitor still feels a bit lost... in stasis. Committed to a larger goal that may no longer exist anymore.

My favorite aspect of all of this is the way the game story is actually daring to imagine a complex answer to the question: "Is the Inquisition finished? And if not... should it be?"

2. Oh, Teagan!

Feel free to fight me on this, but perhaps there is no outcome as unexpected or cruel for those of us who’ve been with Dragon Age since Origins as the revelation that Arl Teagan has gone, in ten brief years, from a sexy, elegant and supportive stealth hottie, to a bitter, twisted man prematurely aged and prunified by his circumstance. 

As a huge fan of Teagan in Origins (and who spent way too much time in that final Archdemon battle spamming heals and frantically making sure he was okay), I found myself mentally shrieking at him constantly in “Trespasser,” unable to process his loss of hotness (or empathy). Ultimately, I just ended up whispering “Who hurt you?” in answer to all of his bitter, nasty, political diatribes (even if he did, occasionally, have some genuinely good points about what, exactly, the Inquisition was still doing existing, for instance).

Also, that hat. That hat. Why, Teagan, why? (This is where I shake my fist at the heavens, as cinematically as possible…)

Honestly, I blame Isolde.

3. The Lost Worlds

Thanks to some gorgeous conceptual design and rendering, "Trespasser" gives us, at long last, an achingly beautiful rendering of what it might have looked like to walk way back in the glory days of Arlathan and the elven people. The ruins our Inquisitor navigates are stunning and regal, and are populated in bittersweet moments by flashbacks, books, spiritual memories, and are all the more painful because they offer a taste of something delicious we can't quite have for ourselves. We do not get to enjoy Arlathan. We just get these tiny glimpses. It hurts, and it's also wonderful.

4. The True Terror and Wonder of the Qun

Sure, we've heard stories from Sten, and (often heavily propagandized) from Bull. And we definitely saw the devastation on the small city-wide scale in Dragon Age 2's Kirkwall. 

But now, for the first time, "Trespasser" gives us a more expansive and terrifying real glimpse of the Qunari and its goals. We finally begin to understand that the Qun doesn't bend; it never bends. It pushes and pushes and either wins or it breaks.

For this reason, for me, there's always something extra-awful and sort of horribly lovely about our progress through the Darvaarad. Finally, as with the elven Fade, so many secrets unlocked and accessible! And yet, still so alien. As far away as ever.

5. The Missing Ones

It’s one thing to lose characters in Inquisition, depending on your choices. But if you played a colder, crueler or more insular Inquisitor, “Trespasser” can feel like a ghost town, an abandoned palace of emptiness. 

Depending on those decisions in both recruitment and in approvals, we may find no sweetly befuddling Cole outside the tavern, no teasing Dorian or Bull banter, no spa date with Vivienne, no surprising maturity and sweetness from Sera, and no warm and kindly update with Blackwall.

And if we chose to save the Qunari dreadnought in Bull’s loyalty quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition, sacrificing the Chargers to preserve an alliance with the Qun, then “Trespasser” is not only pretty grim, it’s downright depressing. With no Chargers, there is no lighthearted birthday celebration for Bull, no sweet Krem presence in the tavern, quietly protecting Bull’s blind spot, or (potentially, depending on your choices) romancing bard Maryden.

There’s just nothing. Nothing but Bull sitting alone at the bar, waiting for the moment when he sells his soul for good and all and his suffering ends. In the meantime, he does what he’s best at, and waits, drinks, and lies.

6. "Wait, We Get to Save a Dragon?!"

The revelation of the project entitled "Dragon's Breath" is both tragic and yet rewarding. We realize just how far the Qunari are willing to go, and it's doubly upsetting if we flash back to that conversation with Bull from Inquisition about the kinship the Qunari feel to dragons. It's one thing for them to fight a dragon free and clear and honorably; it's grotesque for them to harness and weaken one for their own aims.

As someone who always secretly hated killing the dragons (yeah, I'm one of those) in Inquisition, it's therefore doubly satisfying to be able to finally save one in "Trespasser." And that cutscene of the dragon smushing a fleeing Qunari warrior? Is glorious.

7. Everybody Loses Their Shit (Including the Inquisitor)

One of the biggest surprises for me in "Trespasser" was also one of my favorite emotional moments in the DLC. It occurs fairly late in the questline, when we’re nearing the end of the story, and in a terrific and very human moment, every single person in the room loses their temper. Including the Inquisitor. It’s a moment that shocked me when I first played it, because it’s the rare occasion in which our heroic, bright-eyed Inky goes full-on ballistic and has had enough with everything and everyone. But before she does? So does JOSIE.

It’s great drama, and it’s emotionally affecting because we haven’t seen the Inquisitor this way. Up til now, they’re arguably never out of control even during the most emotional moments of Inquisition. So the moment when our long-suffering Inquisitor, facing a scary and painfully disintegrating Mark, finally realizes their own mortality and simply loses their composure to their inner council of Josie, Leliana and Cullen is pretty surprising and powerful, and – best of all – it happens right after Josie absolutely loses it first (“Do you know what this has cost us with Orlais and Ferelden? They are planning to dismantle us as we speak! And perhaps they are right…”)

After Josie’s outburst, the Inquisitor’s Mark flares again, and they gasp, then actually scream in pain. Here, we can choose for them to react in confusion, in fear, in bravado, or (my favorite) with outright frustration:

INQUISITOR: Shit! Damn it! We save Ferelden, and they’re angry! We save Orlais, and they’re angry! We close the Breach twice, and my own hand wants to kill me! Could one thing in this fucking world just stay fixed? (They sigh, panting.) I need to get to the Darvaarad. You can all fight amongst yourselves once I’m… once I’m back.
It’s the first time the Inquisitor really loses it in the entire arc of their sufferings despite the Mark, and the moment is really beautifully played, no matter which Inquisitor voice you chose to convey it – Alix Wilton Regan, Sumalee Montano, Jon Curry, or Harry Hadden-Paton.

I especially love the final moments, when the anger fades, and they attempt to skip past the certainty that they won’t survive.

And from then on, there's this slight vulnerability to the Inky, taken right along down to that final run for the Darvaarad, when, once again, they admit to their companions (either in seriousness or as dark humor) that they're probably not coming back from this.

8. “Nothing Personal, bas.”

"Nothing personal, bas." Three words that will always resonate within the vast emptiness of my Dragon Age soul on its darkest night. (Well, those, and "Ar lath ma, vhenan...")

I always argue with those who characterize this as The Iron Bull’s “betrayal,” because to me that’s simply not accurate. While it’s devastating, Bull is betraying nobody here. In his loyalty quest (“The Demands of the Qun”), he asked us what to do, and unfortunately, in this specific Qun-loyal scenario, we answered “Bull, you must stay true to the Qun. No matter what the cost to you.”

Bull's answer: "Okay, bas" (Freddie Prinze, Jr. is a genius, because, with Qun-loyal Bull, that affectionate "Boss" nickname is gone forever... if we listen closely enough).

So that's brutal. Because Bull heard us, took orders like a good soldier, did exactly what we asked, right down to watching the slaughter of his entire found family (including beloved Krem), and then he predictably retreated back into the shell of himself for the sake of his own tattered sanity. My personal belief is that Bull himself died (or the best of him did) in that lonely final, devastating reaction punch after the loss of the Chargers back at Skyhold.

After that grief-stricken punch, my take is that our friend and companion Bull is gone, gone, gone—a shell going through the motions and pithed by our (and the Qun’s) demands.

It’s even worse if we read between the lines when “Trespasser” takes place, after this scenario, because the implication is that Bull has spent the intervening years back in the bosom of the Qun and (it’s heavily implied) under further brainwashing or “reeducation.”

Bull has, of course, potentially continued to romance the Inquisitor (or Dorian) for the sake of his calling, but coldly, without warmth. Until he is freed, rather ironically, by the Viddasala’s command, when he can at last take action against the Inquisitor who cheerfully ordered the killing of his family, revealing that to him they are not even worth the title of being called a basalit’an (a non-Qunari deserving of respect). Instead, the Inquisitor is just bas. A thing. And he can now, at last, unleash his grief from the depths and die fighting and feeling… something.

And, worst of all, still following orders. All the way to the death.

9. Solas's Confession... 

Surely there’s rarely been an RPG game conversation as cursed, complex, beloved, or debated as Solas’s final astonishing, bittersweet confessional in “Trespasser,” especially with a romanced (and dumped) Inquisitor. 

I'll be going through this in more depth later on as I finish analyzing Solas's entire arc (and romance), but for me, let's just say that his appearance in "Trespasser" is what great drama is made of, and entirely worth the wait.

It's a genuinely cinematic moment, and the BioWare artists and directors involved really deserve so many kudos here. The Inquisitor enters the ruined courtyard through the shimmering eluvian, confused and visibly shocked to find herself (if a romanced Lavellan) navigating a wilderness of grey motionless statues, Qunari warriors frozen in mid-attack. Trevor Morris's gorgeous music soars. As she makes her way through, we hear that voice we haven't heard since the steps above Skyhold, as Solas finally speaks—and the fact that it's been so long since we've heard it just adds to the impact of Gareth David-Lloyd's silken Welsh voice here. He speaks with slow regret and equal contempt (and who would have expected Solas's first words to be in Qunlat?). Just two short, devastating sentences: "Ebasit kata. Itwa-ost." ("It is ended. You all have fallen.") 

The Viddasala ignores his warning and attacks from behind, and in a casual blue flash of his eyes (not even bothering to look back), Solas petrifies her, freezing her in place and adding one more warrior to the silent forest.

And then he pauses, rather slyly. He doesn't turn around, and thanks to some superb character rendering and movement... it's so real for me. The little details. Like, I always get the palpable sense that he's using the drama, enjoying the moment and even savoring it. Then, with that hidden sense of wit and humor I've always enjoyed about the character, Solas glances aside, still mostly hidden from us, and says, simply: "I suspect you have questions."

And then he turns around, finally, to face the Inquisitor. 

And hot damn, he is totally working the ancient elven armor here. Every time this scene plays, several thousand loyal Solasmancers suddenly fan themselves then faint. So does Dorian.

Oh, boy. Where do we even start? And why is this segment only five to ten minutes long (or 15 if you linger over all the options)? I would have happily gone through, like, an hour of just finally talking to Solas. Or, who am I kidding? At least two hours. I would've bought an entire fourth Inquisition DLC that was just us talking to Solas in his Hot Ancient Elven Armor for hours. (By the way, "Hot Ancient Elven Armor" would also have been my preferred DLC title, although "Those Solas Thighs" would also have been a decent runner-up.)

Either way, we get the scene we've been waiting for, and after all this time, they talk. And Solas is finally honest. He reveals his ultimate plans, talks openly about his deceptions, and admits some of the darkest aspects of his motives. What makes this excruciating is that, of course, Solas also unveils his real self, past, sufferings, heroics, and more, right alongside his open commitments to actions that are both horrifying, short-sighted and grotesque.

Thanks to the care and delicate attention to detail by the Dragon Age writers in "Trespasser," and most notably by Solas writer Patrick Weekes, this moment is both satisfying and the very definition of complex. 

Solas is, by several accounts in past behavior, a hero, a freer of slaves and rebel against tyranny. However, his actions since his awakening (which, granted, were I believe highly affected by trauma) have certainly not been as clear or supportable, most especially in his deliberate conveyance of his Orb to Corypants), causing the Conclave explosion, as well as all of the devastation of the Breach and rifts across Thedas that sparked the events beginning Dragon Age: Inquisition.

To his credit, Solas was, and is, openly horrified by that outcome, and his work with the Inquisition was, I believe, his attempt to atone. 

But… his future plans are all the more frustrating and upsetting given the gentleness and romance of the scene with his romanced Inquisitor. And yet… Solas, who once disdained being called a god, who can now turn armies to stone with an eyeblink, who claims he is set on the path of death and cannot be moved from it... has nevertheless moved heaven and earth to both save Thedas from this latest Qunari threat, to protect the Inquisition and his former companions... and to save the life of the Inquisitor.

How do you react to someone who's saved the world three damn times right in the moment they've just confessed how they plan to singlehandedly end it?

So it’s an interesting conundrum, to say the least. Do we love Solas, or hate him? Thousands of fans eloquently defend options on either side. Do we choose to redeem him, or kill him, in the chapter ahead? It's not a given—one answer doesn't necessarily track with another here, as plenty of those I know who love Solas have, for instance, pledged to kill him if and when Dragon Age 4 shows up.

The genius of Dragon Age is that Solas knows that he is a paradox, and he expresses that knowledge, handing your protagonist a further weapon against him going forward.

I think that's my favorite element of this conversation. It goes against so many tropes in its own odd way; it's not a villain gloating, but a former hero mourning what he feels he will have to do. Instead, it's Solas going, "So, hey, schmoops, I haven't been totally honest with you, and there are things you need to know in the future so that you can fight me and have even the faintest chance of winning."

Solas may be the unexpected Big Bad of Inquisition and “Trespasser,” but he is also, so far, in this moment, the lonely and antiheroic Big Good. He can still go either way.

All we can do now is wait and wonder. And hope it isn’t four more years until we find out.

10. "I'm in the Book!"

Thank all the gods of Thedas for the never-ending prickly, adorable and complicated relationship between the Seeker and Thedas's favorite author.

Otherwise, those of us still weeping over Solas's final moments and that mournful epilogue would not have gotten the relief of Cassandra's inspired and ultimately delighted reading of Varric's tales about his years with the Inquisition, right down to fabulous impressions of all the characters (wonderfully and hilariously presented by Cassandra actress Miranda Raison) in the moment.

It's the perfect antidote to the near-operatic drama we've just endured in "Trespasser," and the perfect affectionate near-farewell to the companions we've all spent so much time with... a final reminder of what we loved about them... and what they loved about each other.

Perfectly embodied by Cassandra's overjoyed: "I'm in the book! I'm in the book!" and... "I am going to read the shit out of this."

As always (disgusted noises and all), once again, Cassandra is... all of us.

The Gift of Hindsight: Solas on the Brink

Hey, sweetie... let's catch up before we go observe some playful wyverns in their natural environments... SOLAS: With luck, some o...