Thursday, August 31, 2017

"In Your Heart Shall Burn," Part 2: Finding Haven

NOTE: This post is part 2 of 2 in my analysis of the pivotal sequence of "In Your Heart Shall Burn" from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Read Part 1 here

And please note as always, that SPOILERS on major plot points and character identities will abound! 

We're only 10% into the game and already my poor Inky
needs a vacation. Perhaps Rivain?
So here we are... 

Enter Coryphypants. Pursued by a dragon.

Thanks for joining me. We're at the final stretch of "In Your Heart Shall Burn," as the Inquisitor then goes once more into the breach along with her brave companions, to fight the remaining forces, to stall Coryshits, and to wrangle that last trebuchet into position.

By the way, I think it’s interesting to note here that the Inquisitor isn’t the only one in this moment who’s actively willing to die for the village: So are our companions, whoever we brought with us.

It's never commented on, it's never acclaimed... but it should be, and it almost makes me wish we'd gotten a moment with our chosen final party, before we moved forward, although I guess this might also have over-weighted the moment a bit much dramatically so early in the game. Still, they're here, they're unswervingly loyal, they are willing to die to save the villagers, and it's one of the little memories that becomes incredibly bittersweet later on for me in Trespasser, if we don’t save the Chargers. (Think about it.)

Meanwhile, we predictably triumph (temporarily at least) in this crucial onslaught against the final waves of Red Templars (or corrupted mages, depending on your choices), and do we manage to wind up that last trebuchet to the proper position? Why, yes, yes we do.

Then the companions escape (unwillingly; they have to be ordered away), Cory arrives, and there’s that great confrontation over the Mark. And it’s worth noting that this is probably the most terrifying Corypheus is in the entire game—his entrance as a shadowy twisted figure through the fire is gorgeous, and his voice and aura of command are pretty scary (kudos to voice actor David Sterne).

But before we go on, I just want to share a specific scenario with you... 

A Brief but Vital Headcanon Break...

Walking through fire never gets old! Corypheus is probably
a real hit at parties, too: "GIVE ME ALL THE SNACKS."
This will sound nuts to some. But I always, always picture Solas as lingering here, driven to eavesdrop, and experiencing a pretty interesting if hidden crisis of conscience while doing so. I think he’s got to be hiding behind a nearby shed or wall to witness this conversation, perhaps protecting himself from the flames around him in order simply to listen. (Come on, he has to, right? How can he not?) And although it’s hidden from us on first playthrough, the one person this scene would matter most to—tremendously—would of course be Solas. 

So I absolutely think he’s present here somewhere, and listening—and it’s a fascinating thing to envision. If Solas likes our Inquisitor (or even feels the beginnings of love), he is aware that he is probably witnessing her death (and losing the Mark, the only way to seal the Rifts and heal the terrible damage he has inadvertently caused). His orb is right here only feet away, but in the hands of a pontificating madman—the orb that he used to start all of this to begin with.

Of course, if Solas is here, and listening… he’s probably not feeling all that great about himself right now. Deservedly so. What I wonder is... perhaps this makes him evaluate his situation, his choices, the things he's done that brought him to an utterly destroyed village on top of a grievously damaged world.

Perhaps he regrets these things. Perhaps not. Perhaps his only desperate thought is for the Orb (but I don't think so). Perhaps he even wishes he could join the Inquisitor in this moment of hopeless courage. Or perhaps (and this one is most likely, and what I picture)—perhaps Solas stays still and quiet, but rallies his slowly returning powers in desperation so that he can call the wolves to his will when needed most. Just in case he can still save the life of the person he has come to see as crucial or even beloved.

Villainous Monologuing 101

Now, back to the big moment, flames and all, when Cory confronts the Inquisitor, and while most of it is pretty standard villainous monologuing, I love the fact that it does go beyond that in a few key moments that betray Corypheus's own fears and anxieties (especially pleasing for me as a terminally anxious person—hey, even 1000-year-old demigods have 'em!).

The blocking of the action in the Corypheus scene is wonderful, by the way. I love the way Corypheus plays with the Inquisitor like a cat with prey, and how his dragon sort of circles itself around her, creepily, when she’s thrown to the ground.

Meanwhile, Corypheus’s monologue gets very interesting once he picks up the Inquisitor again, dangling her like a puppet:

"How YOU doin'?"
Corypants: It (the Mark) is meant to bring certainty where there is none.

I once breached the Fade in the name of another, to serve the old gods and the Empire in person. I found chaos and corruption, dead whispers. For a thousand years, I was confused. No more. I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own. To champion withered Tevinter and prevent this Blighted world. Beg that I succeed. For I have seen the throne of the gods… and it was empty.

This is it, his one human moment, if we look closely. It's telling that Corypheus only shows real emotion when he confides that he went looking to conquer the Maker “and the throne was empty.” Even a thousand years later, you can tell that Corypants still can't believe he got stood up. He's still offended by the Maker being a no-show to his “Let’s fiiiiight!” And terrified by that absence, as well... did the Maker simply abandon him (and us)? Leave? 

Or was He never there to begin with? How long, exactly, had that throne been empty?

This moment right here makes Corypheus a real person to me, a terrified child faced with an outcome he cannot accept. He even admits it: He was confused for a thousand freaking years. (Meanwhile, somewhere, Solas is smirking and going, "Really, dude?")

Darkness Inescapable

There’s a lot of very interesting additional lore stuff here that’s worth noting for future exploration—Corypheus is talking about the fact that, along with the Magisters Sidereal, he concocted a plan to enter the Fade, and from there, to enter and claim the Golden City (and the Maker’s throne).

Chantry legend says that when the Magisters accomplished this, the moment they set foot in the Golden City, their touch defiled it, and the Maker cast them out in rage and turned the Golden City black before turning his back on his children for centuries to come. It's a scenario that reminds me very much of Tolkien's mythologies from The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, detailing the doomed attempt by the Numenoreans to conquer the blessed isle of Valinor (Elvenhome), and of how the moment they set foot there, the island vanished, the Numenoreans perished, and a great wave destroyed their island home, guilty and innocent alike.

However, what’s interesting about Cory’s speech here is that he’s implying that the city was already black… and that the Maker’s throne was empty. There is actual emotion when Corypheus admits this to the Inquisitor, by the way, and it’s fascinating—as I mentioned above, we’re witnessing the worst reality of the true believer—not that God was angry… but that God was gone… (a scenario that is also central to Tony Kushner's gorgeous Angels in America).

My name is Lavellan. You tried to kill my village. Prepare to
die. (Also, your breath is just terrible. Sorry.)
Again, this instantly makes Corypheus a more interesting villain for me than he perhaps appears to be for most. He wants something—not just to rule, but to understand, and most of all, simply to be acknowledged (something his arrogance demands). He's a selfish child, as noted later by Solas, one who demands answers and refuses to accept that the universe just doesn't provide them. Ultimately, just as with Anne Rice's vampires, Corypheus has aged, but he hasn't learned. He's trapped in the persona of who he was a millennium ago. He is the very antithesis of the Dalish curse Dirthara-ma ("May you learn"). Corypheus has learned nothing. He never will.

In other words, he’s still a fanatic, and a thousand years of imprisonment have only sharpened his resolve to rebuild the world (and heaven itself) as he sees fit.

Huh. Sound like anyone we know? (Cough.)

Farewell to Haven

Meanwhile, after proclaiming these revelations and tossing our poor Inquisitor around through this scene, which is especially painful if they're wee Cadashes (dwarves) or delicate and fragile-looking Lavellans (Dalish elves), we look up into the soft dark skies above the deeper shadows of the Frostback Mountains. And a miracle occurs, because there, faint and fragile, shines the brief spark of Cullen’s beacon. Our people are safe.

Which means we can now Unleash Hell. And after all of Cory’s evil monologuing, it’s satisfying when the Inquisitor is able to stand up straight, make a snarky comment, adjust their sunglasses, and set off that perfectly positioned trebuchet. (In my own headcanon, my hapless Inky may or may not have backed into it and knocked the handle, but the timing was still perfect! And of course accomplished in slow-motion...)

Either way, Boom goes Haven, and the Inquisitor (off and running in perfect action hero mode) is knocked into safety via an old mine shaft or tunnel, even as Cory’s wafted away undeservingly by his pet dragon in the nick of time, all while Trevor Morris’s magnificent score makes the entire moment even more dramatic and epic than expected as we wait to see what happens next.

A fragile flame in the darkness tells us our friends and
companions are safe. Eat it, Coryphyshits.
But let's take a moment. Haven is no more. It’s a beautiful moment of symbolism if you think about it. The destruction of Haven is important and symbolic. It means anything can happen; that no one is safe; that nothing may in fact be what we think it is. And by the end of Inquisition (and especially Trespasser), boy, is that true.

Meanwhile, we experience a slow fade through darkness, then the blazing of the Mark as it awakens the Inquisitor painfully, and in confusion, to isolation and a white snowy world. We're limping and sore and cannot move quickly. We can only stumble, slowly, seeking some kind of exit. We battle demons, discover the Mark's new powers, and then emerge into the lonely, snowy mountain forests.

May the Dread Wolf Guide You

There’s a Dalish saying: “May the Dread Wolf never hear your steps.”

But... we know him better now, don’t we? We don't mind him hearing. We trust him. We maybe love him. He might even love us.

And if our Inquisitor is lost, who better than the Dread Wolf and his companions to guide her back to her loved ones? It’s an intriguing idea, because, as our Inquisitor emerges, wolves howl almost immediately (within seconds of emerging from the tunnels)… Are they howling for sustenance? Or to help us, guide us?

Me, yes, I'm a romantic. But I think they're there to help.

I believe this because, as we begin our slow and snowy trek, after passing the remains of that burning wagon, when we turn in the proper direction for the next slog? A wolf howls, loudly. As it doesn't attack (even with a pack pretty aurally present), one could certainly argue that it’s trying to guide us, to tell us where to go. In fact, to test this, I tried running in the opposite direction. No wolves. Then I heard faint wolves again—from back where I needed to go.

If our Inquisitor moves forward, after the next fade through black, wolves are now howling very loudly right in front of us if we go the right way. I tried running around again at this point, and this time when I went the wrong way, the wolves continued to howl BEHIND ME, where I needed to go.

Then, after the next and final fade through black, we’re again faced with very clear and loud wolf-howling as the Inquisitor heads to the abandoned campsite and its embers. More howls as we go forward the right way. 

What's most intriguing about this sequence is that, here, so near the end, we now hear many howls—both near and far. Are they messages? Communications to Solas that "Hey, the Inquisitor's safe, they're almost here," for instance?

Or am I simply reading too much into every single possible thing here? Um, absolutely. It's pretty much the core definition of my existence.

And please note—this isn’t an idea that’s original to me in any way. I’ve seen it discussed in Dragon Age groups and Reddit posts, and there are even a few really beautiful Dragon Age artworks that depict the idea of the wolves as guides for the Inquisitor at this point in the story, as well. I do think it’s a lovely and subtle idea, and based on what we see and hear, the case can certainly be made that the wolves are helping us in some way.

Either way, we make it to camp, collapsing just steps from the outskirts, and we're rescued with joyful relief by Cass, Cullen, and a third person I can’t quite see (but who is definitely not Solas, and who I think may be Varric). Why isn’t Solas there? I prefer to think he’s off with a magical mirror or minor orb, communing with his wolves as they wrap up their “Finding Inky” mission and report on reconnaissance. And hopefully giving them extra doggy treats for doing so.

Meanwhile, I always think it’s poignant that our companions run out to us so quickly. The implication, if you think about it, is clearly that Cassandra, Cullen and our companions have all been sad and restless, looking back toward Haven from the edge of camp, waiting and pacing and hoping… ready to assist on the slim chance that the Inquisitor survived and found them. And then we do find them, and they are waiting.

The lesson is a vital one: Haven may be gone, but for the villagers, companions and most of all, for our Inquisitor—it's also right here. It cannot be destroyed.

Everything Changes: Examining “In Your Heart Shall Burn”

My poor Inquisitor, way back in more innocent times when
the biggest question on her frazzled mind was to wonder why
Solas and Bull weren't flirting back.
When I first played Dragon Age: Inquisition, way, way back when I was a sweet Summer child who had no idea that she was about to fall into the biggest gaming obsession of her life, I’d spent maybe two dozen hours in the Hinterlands (jaunting occasionally over to the Storm Coast and Val Royeaux), picking elfroot, inadvertently blasting unwary wildlife, flirting with a disapproving Solas and an absolutely unimpressed Bull (thus far), and running screaming from a variety of bears. And I'd been having a blast. Life was good.

However, my advisers kept wanting me to move forward. They kept hinting that I really should take on that next quest, "In Your Heart Shall Burn."

I was skeptical. Was my game already drawing to a conclusion? What if I didn't want to end the game? What if I wanted to keep running around the Storm Coast and the Hinterlands? What if I liked running from bears, Templars, and rude apostates? So my Inky kept putting off “In Your Heart Shall Burn” until even sweet Josie was basically sending daily memos, Leliana was bombarding her with Raven-mail (even though her tent was just steps away from the Chantry), and poor Cullen just looked more clenched than usual. Even his hair.

Now, yes, I could have simply found a walkthrough that would have told me my game was nowhere near ending, but I don't like looking for help on new playthroughs, and was determined to muddle through alone (this is also why I emerged from "Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts" later on with the worst approval rating Orlais had ever seen). 

"Well... shit."
But in my defense, I could tell the quest was a big one, and I wasn’t ready to leave Thedas yet. Silly rabbit. (This is a great example, by the way, of how dim I can be for a relatively smart person.)

However, finally, after more horrible fruitless attempts to flirt with Bull (and Solas, ahem), after I’d exhausted all my conversations at Haven, I had to admit defeat. It was time to close the Breach. 

It was all so easy at first. Too easy. I closed the Breach, my Inquisitor survived, and she had her first nice bonding moment of friendship on the rooftop with Cassandra, as they watched their happy little Havenite friends dancing around like Ewoks. All was right with the world.

Then the darkness descended down from the mountains, the sky went black, and Corypheus showed up with a cast of thousands.

Losing Haven

Speaking from the big-picture, gaming perspective, right here is where everything in Dragon Age; Inquisition changes. 

We don’t really need Cole’s warning (although I always love it when he arrives here, since I usually play as a mage supporter)—we can see it for ourselves. Whatever happens after this, things will be different. For one thing, it's quickly apparent that Haven cannot possibly survive.

It’s a legitimately terrifying milestone in the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition, because the situation is visibly, absolutely hopeless. The Inquisition cannot hope to match the forces arrayed against it here. They can only hope to stand as long as possible—and that’s before the freaking dragon shows up.

Cullen at his most courageous and adorable. This scene
immediately caused me to add him to my "People I Must
Romance" list. With little hearts and sparkles.
With this in mind, watching the reactions of our trusted friends and companions in this terrible moment is poignant and touching—Cass is outraged and ready to fight; Bull makes light of a heavy situation (“I guess celebratory drinks are on hold?”), as do Sera and Dorian; Solas is predictably quiet and calm, Josie’s visibly rattled but determined to stay composed. Cullen, however, is at his best—cool, capable and in control. He assesses the situation, tells us the best strategy for fighting the first wave, and rallies the troops and mages to fight (“For the Herald!" he cries. "For your lives!”). It’s a gorgeous and downright cinematic moment that also undoubtedly fluttered the hearts of Cullen-shippers all over the world. I mean, I was dead-set on romancing Solas or Bull, and I wasn't a Cullen-shipper. But, darn it, my heart fluttered too.

The next events happen fast. We fight through several waves of bad guys and use our trebuchets, and thing are almost looking up. Until Corypheus’s dragon arrives (“Aw, that’s just messed up!” cries Bull, and I almost feel for him, because nobody loves dragons more than Bull, and now he can’t even enjoy this one). Then Cullen pulls everyone back behind the exterior gate. 

“Just make them work for it,” he says intensely, and our brave band proceeds to deal out damage and save as many beleaguered villagers as possible.

Saving the Villagers

I love this part where we save the villagers because it's a moment that echoes one of Solas's first comments to us, where he wonders "what kind of hero we'll be." This is one of those instances where you get to paint your Inquisitor's portrait in bold strokes. Do you save all of the villagers, just some of them, or do you leave them all behind and run for the gates? It's all up to you.

Me, I love saving the villagers, although in my first few playthroughs not everyone made it, and I was surprised at my own sadness at discovering (after his death at Haven), for instance, that grumpy apothecary master Adan had actually liked my Inquisitor after all. Evidently his grumpiness was reserved only for those he actually cared about. Which reminded me of myself, and then I was sad all over again.

Back to saving the villagers: I’m not really doing a strategy guide here, since my focus is always more on character, story and analysis, however I will point out that it’s much easier to save the villagers if we start with Harritt on the way back to the gates (mind blast, explosive shot or warrior smash to help him get his hammer back). Then SAVE (and save after each ensuing rescue), go up the stairs to the right and rescue Lysette, then run back left to the burning building to save Seggrit (the easiest way is to go up the ladder, over on the beam to the roof, then down, saving him and then bashing/blasting the door open from the inside).

After that, a lot of guides tell you to go help Flissa at the tavern – DON’T. Instead go forward, up, and to the right, accessing Solas's area from above, and rescue Adan and Minaeve as fast as possible. This is much easier to do this way (you get more time before their area goes up in flames), and it ensures that wonderful Minaeve survives the ordeal, along with her beautiful Irish accent. 

THEN you can run straight forward to the Tavern to trigger and rescue Flissa, and after that, your party can return to the front of the Chantry to rescue Threnn, and you’re ready to move on in the story.

If your rescues are successful, by the way, you get a ton of XP per villager. And if you rescue all six, you’ll get a big “Greatly Approves” (+20) approval boost from Varric if he’s with you, as well as solid Approval (+10) from Viv, if she’s in your party, as well. (And how interesting is it, by the way, that the fearsome Madame de Fer cares so much that we saved those lives? It’s a subtle character detail and a welcome reminder that Viv, too, has a heart. It's chilly. But it's there.)

Roderick’s Redemption

Chancellor Roderick ends up not only redeeming himself
and saving the village, but he actually demonstrates a
sense of humor even on his deathbed. That's hardcore.
Once back in the Chantry for another meeting, Chancellor Roderick Asignon arrives, mortally wounded (as Cole helpfully points out, "HE'S GOING TO DIE"), and winning back my heart already when he snarks back, “What a charming boy,” in response. 

But seriously – this is a great character note. Roderick has been a puffed-up, annoying antagonist so far, a zealot who was all too willing to send the Inquisitor to execution or imprisonment. But we also see here that, deep down (way, way deep down, as Sera would say), he’s actually a good man who truly believes. He simply let his arrogance and pettiness get in the way.

I love this kind of character detail, because it’s yet another way I consider Dragon Age: Inquisition to be as much a playable novel as it is a game. Pretty much every character offers at least some shades of grey—even Corypants, once or twice—and Roderick’s unexpected and moving arc here is both believable and complex.

But before that, we get this fabulous little glimmer of sly comedy:

Cole: I’ve seen an archdemon. I was in the Fade, but it looked like that!
Cullen (frustrated): I don’t care what it looks like. It’s cut a path for that army!
Cole: The Elder One doesn’t care about the village. He only wants the Herald. (to us) He wants to kill you. No one else matters, but he’ll crush them, kill them anyway.

A slight pause.

Cole: I don’t like him.

Cullen’s face is just hilarious here.

Cullen (bewildered): You don’t like – what?

Then of course things get serious again, as Cullen tells us point-blank that the situation is not survivable, but that suicide-by-trebuchet might at least deal a significant blow against Coryphennnus’s forces.

"If This Simple Memory Can Save Us..."

“We’re dying,” says Cullen flatly. “But we can decide how. Many don’t get that choice.”

At this point, Roderick tries to speak, and it’s very poignant that he can’t do so – he’s fading fast (and kudos to the art and animation team here, because poor Roderick’s bruised, drawn expression just kills me in this scene). He simply raises his eyes weakly, then looks to Cole, and Cole, reading his thoughts, speaks effortlessly for him.

Cole: Chancellor Roderick can help. He wants to say it before he dies.
Roderick (rallying): There is a path. You wouldn’t know it, unless you’d made the Summer Pilgrimage, as I have. The people can escape. She must have shown me. Andraste must have shown me, so I could… tell you. It was whim that I walked the path. I did not mean to start; it was overgrown. Now with so many in the Conclave dead, to be the only one who remembers… I don’t know. If this simple memory can save us, this could be more than mere accident. You could be more.

It's a quietly moving, wonderfully performed moment by Roderick's voice actor Christopher Godwin. Even if the Inquisitor responds a little less sympathetically than I would have liked (her “What are you on about, Roderick?” is pretty funny), but she can be forgiven considering the massive force that is about to crush her and all of her companions. Either way, she checks the idea with Cullen, who suddenly looks a lot less depressed as he agrees that they can definitely get the villagers to the path.

“But what about your escape?” he asks. The Inquisitor, being the honorable and brave (if clumsy, in my own Inky’s case) person that she is, valiantly doesn’t reply, and Cullen’s expression is immediately regretful and sad. He pauses for a moment in acceptance, not knowing how to respond. This entire conversation features just lovely pixellated acting, as well as voice acting (Jonny Rees is terrific as Cullen throughout the entire game, and this is definitely one of his most nuanced and layered moments). It’s even more moving if you’re playing the beginnings of a Cullenmance and he's realizing he's about to lose you before anything even started (which means you’ve also survived all of Cullen’s staggeringly awkward responses to your flirtations and have my sympathy). 

“Perhaps you will surprise it… find a way,” he says. Silence. Then Cullen moves on like the terrific commander he is, organizing the evacuation of the villagers behind Cole, who helps Roderick slowly lead the way. 

A giant army. Aaand... now there's a dragon. That's great.
That's just great. Game over, man, game over!
As he leaves, Roderick turns to the Inquisitor, and it’s a lovely final note that ends any hint of antagonism between them. “Herald, if you are meant for this… If the Inquisition is meant for this, I pray for you.” And off goes poor Roderick to his lovely and surprising redemption (with Cole almost certainly reminding him every few steps that he’s Going To Be Dead Soon).

Then Cullen turns back to the Inquisitor and details that the trebuchet will need to be ready on their signal. Then he looks both heroic and determined as he says, “If we are to have a chance – if you are to have a chance – let that thing hear you.”

(And yeah, okay, I admit it, this was definitely the scene in which I immediately added Cullen to my to-romance list, and yes, I may have mentally doodled "Mr. and Mrs. Cullen Rutherford" on my mental spiral notebook for 30 seconds and then decorated it with little hearts and glitter. Because, woof. I mean, I’m only human.)

But then Corypheus enters, pursued by a dragon, and everything changes yet again.

(Please check out part two of this post here. Thanks as always for checking it out!)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Solas, Bull and the King's Gambit: A Little Game of Mind-Chess

"I've got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you're moving a pawn? Are you even trying anymore?"
"Think about it, my friend."

Note: As always, massive spoilers will occur here—read at your own risk!

Following the completion of his crucial loyalty quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition ("The Demands of the Qun"), if Bull rebels against the Qun and goes Tal-Vashoth (rogue), he's done so in order to save Krem and the Chargers, the family of lovable rogues and misfits he has assembled over the past ten years. Bull is now haunted—unmoored and uncertain, filled with fear and anxiety that he'll lose control and go "savage," which is something that actually happens sometimes to Qunari who escape the shackles of life under the Qun.

However, when Bull turns away from the Qun, one of the first companions to react with comfort (after a sympathetic Inquisitor) is, somewhat surprisingly, Solas, who shows real warmth, caring and support in the aftermath. Previously critical and disapproving of Bull's loyalty to the repressive Qunari regime, Solas appears genuinely moved and impressed when Bull leaves for the sake of the Chargers. It's not exactly surprising that the ancient trickster god of elven rebellion should heartily approve Bull's actions, but it is a warm and believable character note, and it's another example of the way the game's banters show us real relationship progression between our companions depending on our choices.

Bull (true to form as a lifelong spy) is subtle and cautious,
protecting his pieces as he lays his traps.
Bull himself is now nervous, defensive and on edge after the decision, terrified of what he's done and of what he may become. There's also an element of guilt here for Bull—how many Tal-Vashoth did Bull himself hunt, kill, or capture in years past on behalf of the Qun? Were all of them savage, as he had believed? Or were any of them like him—sane and fully cognizant, and simply unwilling to sacrifice all they loved in order to live under a repressive yoke any longer?

While Bull is wrestling with this issue, Solas speaks up, and in their first moment of real warmth together, the following conversation takes place:

Solas: You are not Tal-Vashoth, Iron Bull, not really.
Iron Bull: Well that's a fuckin' relief.
Solas: You are no beast, snapping under the stress of the Qun's harsh discipline. You are a man who made a choice... possibly the first of your life.
Iron Bull: I've always liked fighting. What if I turn savage, like the other Tal-Vashoth?
Solas (firmly): You have the Inquisition, you have the Inquisitor... and you have me.
Iron Bull (quietly): Thanks, Solas.

I love this conversation for so many reasons. It's an important moment for both characters: Bull, no longer operating under his previous, smooth-talking secrecy, is now actively admitting doubt and fear. Meanwhile, Solas is no longer detached and cold. He not only offers support and friendship, he is telling Bull directly, "If you need me, I'm here." 

It's a pretty huge moment for the quiet elven mage, whose previous impulses were typically to stay silent versus to speak, to observe but not to act, and to disengage, not to engage. It's one more moment that shows us Solas's journey on his way to falling in love with the modern world in which he's found himself... even the muted, corrupted version that now exists under the presence of the Breach and the Veil. 

It's interesting to observe Solas's situation in counterpoint to Bull's—Bull may have just passed his own crisis of faith, but Solas's is just beginning.

The King's Gambit

Not long after this moment of encouragement, in a genuinely compassionate gesture, Solas tries to distract Bull from his pain and anxiety by suggesting (with a slight glint of mischief) a nice game of chess... and not just any chess... MIND-CHESS. As in, no board. Just the two of them, playing mental chess as they walk and fight their way through the countryside.

Of course... as you do.

Solas is bold, reckless, sacrificing his rooks, a bishop, and
ultimately his queen, achieving checkmate with (fittingly)
his Bishop (or "Mage").
What's fun here (and impressive) is that Bull makes noises about the inconvenience of playing the game that way, but he's actually more than willing, and pretty soon the two men are off on their game. And when they do, I geek out the entire time, first off, because, MIND-CHESS (and why, yes, I do have to keep referring to it in all-caps), and secondly, because it's such another great way to show how brilliant Bull actually is under all the deflective tough-guy bluster, acquitting himself impressively even in a MIND-CHESS game against the freaking elven god of mischief himself.

Basically, everything about this situation is fantastically cool. The only way it could have possibly been cooler is if a glitter-covered unicorn riding a dragon had landed in the middle of a nearby field and sung an impromptu rendition of "Try a Little Tenderness." Maybe with Corypants doing a little soft-shoe nearby. (Too much?)

But we don't really need anything else. Not even visuals. The fact remains that just listening to these two men play chess in their minds is a terrific high point in the game, and would be equally so in any film or novel.

Meanwhile, even though I'm a pretty mediocre and erratic chess player myself, I love the game, and found the entire sequence absorbing and beautifully written (I know I say this in every post, but it's really true), and kudos to Patrick Weekes, David Gaider and the writing team yet again because—as usual with Dragon Age: Inquisition—the scene is successful on many levels at once.

The Immortal Game

First off, a little history. The game played by Bull and Solas here is actually a reenactment of one of the most famous chess matches ever played, referred to as "The Immortal Game" or "King's Gambit." The original game took place informally between Adolf Anderssen and Lionel Kieseritzky on June 21, 1851 in London (according to Wikipedia, on a break of the first international tournament), and it quickly achieved fame for its daring, creativity, and for the showstopping drama and brilliance of its final moves. It is considered to be the epitome of the dashing, "romantic" chess of the time.

The game created an electrifying sense of drama and suspense, and was so impressive at the time that when the game was over, and he had lost the match to Anderssen, Kieseritzky himself actually telegraphed a recap of the entire game to his Parisian chess club, just to share the experience. From there, it quickly became a sensation in chess history, with the French chess magazine La RĂ©gence publishing the entire game in July 1851. As its fame grew, it was eventually nicknamed "The Immortal Game" by the Austrian Ernst Falkbeer in 1855.

Chess as Personality

What's fantastic about this particular game as the match between Solas and The Iron Bull is that it's a gorgeous encapsulation of both men and their personalities, with Solas developing his pieces early and making moves that are dramatic and aggressive, while Bull responds more circuitously, warily hunting for weak spots. While some might assume that Bull would be the aggressor and Solas the cautious one, for me it's actually very true to form that Bull, as a lifelong spy, would be more subtle and careful in his approach, protecting his pieces as he lays his traps. Solas, on the other hand, is bold, almost reckless, sacrificing his Rooks, a Bishop, and his Queen, while laying the final trap for checkmate with his Bishop ("Mage"), and two Knights.

It's a superb and beautifully layered scene that recreates one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of chess... and yet manages to use that existing chess match to tell us everything we need to know about these two characters. There's even a sly elegance to the dialogue that communicates just a hint of its 19th century origins, with Solas for instance naming the King's Gambit and Bull accepting in gentlemanly fashion. Adding an additional layer to the action is the fact that the two are literally translating the game into and out of their own cultures for one another, with Solas fascinated by Bull's Qunari names for his pieces, even as Solas himself also does a bit of this, in calling his Bishops "Mages."

I've played DAI several times now, and I'm always delighted that these particular two men, both so well matched in subtlety, intelligence, and their capacity for deceit, are the ones playing this game. That, and the fact that they're both former antagonists who are now on their cautious way to a friendship, one chess move at a time. 

Most of all, I love the fact they're both palpably having so damn much fun. The prospect of quiet, reserved Solas having fun is not exactly a frequent sight within the game (unless you romance him, which I highly recommend, as it's by far the most complex portrait of Solas, and is so intrinsically tied to the main story). But he is—Solas is having a blast, and it's even more fun to realize that he's even enjoying the fact that he might just have underestimated Bull, the tiniest bit. In return, Bull's having just as much fun while being distracted for a little while from his inner fears, worries and guilt. The voice performances of course are crucial for conveying all of these emotions, and Freddie Prinze, Jr. (The Iron Bull) and Gareth David-Lloyd (Solas) do a wonderful job here, as they do throughout the entire game. I especially love the way their voices contrast—Bull's rich, deep voice against Solas's lighter one with its beautiful slight Welshness.

And then, the final move: "You sneaky son of a bitch," growls Bull cheerfully, as he realizes what Solas has managed to do. At that moment, he's probably remembering what he himself had said about Solas not too long before—"Half our targets never even see you coming." And Solas just proved him right, yet again. A great example of how I don't think there's any small detail to this game that is inconsequential.

When Bull concedes, he says "Nice game... mage," and the title is one of respect—as is Solas's subtle reply of, "And you as well... Tal-Vashoth." It's Solas capping the moment, bringing it full circle, and noting for Bull's benefit, yet again, "You are Tal-Vashoth. And you are still yourself."

The Bigger Picture

Upon analysis, the big-picture symbolism of Solas's strategy here is almost painful, by the way, if you're playing a romanced Inquisitor: He sacrifices several major pieces, and then, decisively, his QUEEN, in order to win. This can be seen as foreshadowing of both Solas's breakup with (and betrayal of) a romanced Inquisitor... as well as the future sacrifice of Flemeth (Mythal). And let's not forget that it's the MAGE that takes down Bull's King. The symbolism is all just perfect. 

My own question is: Does it also foreshadow Solas's future plans post-Trespasser? It just might. Look at the game from a big-picture perspective:

  • Develop a multitude of pieces as early as possible
  • Place key pieces in strategic and useful locations
  • Sacrifice those necessary (no matter how powerful... or loved)
  • Create compelling distractions to pull focus
  • Hide in plain sight
  • Pounce, kill, and win
  • Sit amongst the wreckage of the world and weep for what you've lost

Okay, fine, that last one was added by me. 

Meanwhile, now's a great time to take a look at the dialogue for the entire game, so I've included it below, and have also joined all the separate banters into one, single conversation.

The Mind-Chess Banters (Complete):

Solas: How do you feel, Iron Bull? Do you need a distraction to focus your mind?
Iron Bull: Well, this area's low on dancing girls. Sadly.
Solas: King's pawn to E4.
Iron Bull: You're shitting me. We don't even have a board!
Solas (amused): Too complicated for a savage Tal-Vashoth?
Iron Bull (grumbling): Smug little asshole. Pawn to E5.
Solas: Pawn to F4. King's Gambit.
Iron Bull: Accepted. Pawn takes pawn. Give me a bit to get the pieces set in my head. Then we'll see what you've got.
Solas: So, where were we? Ah, yes. Mage to C4.
Iron Bull: Little aggressive. Arishok to H4. Check.
Solas: Speaking of aggressive. I assume Arishok is your term for the Queen? King to F1.
Iron Bull: Pawn to B5.
Solas: All right. You have my curiosity. Mage takes Pawn.
Iron Bull: You call your Tamassrans Mages? Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: You call your Knights Ben-Hassrath? Incidentally, Knight to F3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath makes more sense than horses. They're sneaky, and they can move through enemy lines. Arishok to H6.
Solas: Pawn to D3.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to H5. Ha! All right, take some time. Think about your life choices.
Solas: All right, Bull. If you are prepared: Knight to H4.
Iron Bull: Arishok to G5. So, you giving up the Tamassran at B5 or the Ben-Hassrath at H4?
Solas: Neither. Knight to F5.
Iron Bull: Pawn to C6. Left your Tamassran hanging out.
Solas: And you, your Knight. Or Ben-Hassrath, if you will. Pawn to G4.
Iron Bull: Ben-Hassrath to F6.
Solas: Hmm. Tower to G1.
Iron Bull: Ha! Pawn takes your Tamassran - or Mage, or whatever it is.
Solas: I get the idea.
Iron Bull: Too much time playing with spirits, Fade Walker.
Solas: We shall see.
Solas: If you have a moment, Bull: Pawn to H4
Iron Bull: Arishok to G6.
Solas: Pawn to H5. Careful.
Iron Bull: You're the one who lost his Mage. (Chuckling) Arishok to G5.
Solas: Queen to F3.
Iron Bull: Oh, clever. Almost trapped my Arishok. Ben-Hassrath to G8.
Solas: Mage takes Pawn, threatens Queen.
Iron Bull: Ugh! Arishok to F6.
Solas: Knight to C3. You've developed nothing but your Queen.
Iron Bull: Don't get cocky, you're still one Tamassran down. Tamassran to C5, by the way.
Solas: Hmm. I will need to consider. (Pause) After careful consideration: Knight to D5.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Pawn at B2.
Solas: Mage to D6.
Iron Bull: Arishok takes Tower. Check. (Pause) What are you doing, Solas?
Solas: King to E2.
Iron Bull: All right, Tamassran takes Tower. Your last Tower, by the way.
Solas: Pawn to E5.
Iron Bull: Really. I've got my whole army bearing down on your King, and you're moving a Pawn? Are you even trying anymore?
Solas: Think about it, my friend.
Iron Bull: All right, Solas. I've thought about it. Ready to finish this? Ben-Hassrath to A6.
Solas: Knight takes Pawn at G7. Check.
Iron Bull: Mmmhmm. King to D8.
Solas: Queen to F6, Check.
Iron Bull: And now my Ben-Hassrath takes your Queen. You've got no Towers. You're down to a single Mage. Too bad you wasted time moving that Pawn to... to... (Pause) You sneaky son of a bitch.
Solas: Mage to E7. Checkmate.
Iron Bull growls.
Iron Bull: Nice game... mage.
Solas: And you as well... Tal-Vashoth.
Sera (if present): Uhhhh... KING me!

If you have Sera along for the final banter, her presence, and that very funny line at the end, is the perfect capper on the game (and emphasizes what a feat it actually was, and how far beyond most people it would be). 

Watching the Game on a Traditional Chessboard

Do you want a visual representation of the moves while you listen to the conversation from the game? Take a look at the video below, which is a beautiful recreation of the game for easy visual reference by YouTube user Huevos Rancheros

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Meaningful Banters (DAO): Sten of the Beresaad

"Happiness is fragile. Nothing can be built upon it that will last. Only duty endures."

NOTE: This post is part of a continuing series ("Meaningful Banters"), in which I'll shine a spotlight on especially meaningful moments that occur between companions in banter, during the course of the game (from DAO to DAI). These banter conversations are sequential, so they evolve as relationships between characters grow and change. Many specific moments occur within banters that are pivotal to illustrating character growth, awareness, and other changing relationships with the Inquisitor or their companions in the game. Read on!

Next to Gareth David-Lloyd as Solas in Dragon Age: Inquisition, my favorite male voice of any of the Dragon Age games (among the many beautiful voices they feature) is Sten's, in Dragon Age: Origins. With a deep, resonant voice just begging to recite Shakespeare, Mark Hildreth, Sten’s voice actor, could read the freaking phone book and I'd listen raptly for as long as he kept speaking, straight through from AAA Towing to Zippity Cleaners.

As with all Qunari, Sten's name is just a reference to his role, and there are in fact many ‘Stens’ in the armies of the Qun. But my favorite thing about our Sten is that while he is very much a rather terse, rigid, deeply unbending Qunari soldier, he is also (as almost always with Bioware) much more complicated underneath.

In some curious ways, Sten’s journey mirrors that of Solas a decade later (in Dragon Age time). While the two characters are very different (Solas’s elegant urbanity, sophistication and intelligence are miles away from Sten’s unbending simplicity and narrow worldview), their journeys include some interesting parallels.

Wasting Away in Lothering

As we later discover, Sten finds himself in Ferelden on a mission to stop the Blight, but he’s separated from his brother soldiers in a darkspawn battle, loses everything, commits an act he deeply regrets, and then finds himself in an unfamiliar and hostile world. After Sten is robbed of the sword that is central to his identity as a Qunari, in a moment of sleepy confusion and PTSD, believing himself to be under attack, he slaughters the innocent family that had actually discovered and rescued him. Realizing his terrible mistake, Sten gives himself up to the authorities and voluntarily submits to a sentence of a long, slow death by starvation and exposure, confined to a narrow cage in the village street.

For this reason, when we meet Sten in the village of Lothering, he’s dour, depressed, hopeless, and not all that thrilled to be rescued. He’s perfectly willing to linger in the cage, playing “I Spy” with himself while waiting for the death he knows he deserves.

However, if our Warden manages to persuade their way to the key to his escape, eventually Sten agrees to let us rescue him, admitting that his skills can be useful against the Blight and may perhaps allow him to find a measure of atonement.

As with Solas, Sten’s reentry into this new world is often stressful, mystifying and unpleasant. However, where Solas was horrified by his awakening in what seemed to be a colorless, muted world, Sten’s experiences are the reverse—to him, Ferelden is instead an onslaught of sensation and emotion he doesn’t understand. He’s deeply confused by the unfamiliar and rather decadent culture outside of the Qun that he witnesses in his travels with our Warden and companions, and his initial response is to curl up inside himself and to distrust the companionship he’s so freely offered. Sten is not handsome—he's a big, plain, stoic man with a grim face and with a warrior's formidable, powerful build. (I love this about his character design, by the way—it would have been so easy to make him handsome, and he's so much more interesting because he's not.)

Meanwhile, Sten is openly puzzled at the dreams of those he meets. "No one has a place here," he says. "Your farmers wish to be merchants. The merchants dream of being nobles, and the nobles become warriors. No one is content to be who they are."

Cookies and Conversations

However, as with Solas, it’s inevitable that Sten’s armor will weaken in the face of warmth, acceptance, companionship and courage, and sure enough, we get to watch Sten quietly fall in love with the idea of that world—with friendship and companionship, with cookies, flowers and kittens, with the concept of women who are also fearsome warriors, and more. A dialogue with the Warden shows that he’s becoming more affected than he expected to be:

Warden: Is there anything you like about Ferelden?
Sten: There is… interesting food here. You have a thing… it doesn't have a word in the Qunari tongue. Little baked things, like bread, but sweet, and crumbly.
Warden: Cookies?
Sten: Yes! We have no such things in our lands. This should be remedied.

Sten’s evolution as a character is most visible in his conversations with the Warden throughout the story, and in his banters with his companions. With a high-approval Warden, Sten noticeably softens ("You are not quite as callow as I thought. That is... unexpected"), saluting their courage and, when his beloved sword is returned to him and we ask if he will continue as a companion to our party, he pays the highest compliment he can possibly offer—a rare smile, then, "Lead the way."

My favorite thing about Sten with higher friendship and loyalty is the way he begins to demonstrate that, while it may be desert-dry, he actually has a fantastic sense of humor, and the absolute best banters for Sten are those with Morrigan, Leliana and Shale. My favorite is Sten’s conversation with the apostate mage Morrigan, who has been openly flirting with him, when he magnificently calls her bluff:

Morrigan: You seem so deep in thought, my dear Sten. Thinking of me, perhaps? The two of us, together at last?
Sten: Yes.
Morrigan: I... what did you say?
Sten: You will need armor, I think. And a helmet. And something to bite down on. How strong are human teeth?
Morrigan: How strong are my teeth?
Sten: Qunari teeth can bite through leather, wood, even metal given time. Which reminds me, I may try to nuzzle.
Morrigan: Nuzzle?
Sten: If that happens, you'll need an iron pry bar. Heat it in a fire, first, or it may not get my attention.
Morrigan: Perhaps it would be better if we did not proceed.
Sten: Are you certain? If it will satisfy your curiosity...
Morrigan: Yes. Yes, I think it is best.

Now, it's pretty obvious that Sten is messing with Morrigan here, and she deserves it, since there's more than a little malice to her flirtation—she's intentionally trying to discomfit Sten and throw him off balance. Meanwhile, as we later discover from romancing The Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Qunari are of course perfectly capable of traditionally satisfying sex lives on a physical level, and in ways that do not involve helmets or pry bars (although, in Bull's case, a little leather is probably welcome). So: Yeah. This is one of the first signs that, yes, Sten has a genuine and significant, if cutting, sense of humor.

The Softer Side of Sten

Even as Sten mellows, I also love the series of conversations in which Leliana realizes that Sten has a hidden softer side. This Leliana is much younger and sweeter than the formidable woman who serves as our advisor later in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and she is charmed when she witnesses something truly unexpected:

Leliana: I saw what you were doing back there.
Sten: Oh?
Leliana: Don't play innocent with me.
Sten: What are you talking about?
Leliana: You. Playing with that kitten.
Sten: ...There was no kitten.
Leliana: Sten, I saw you. You were dangling a piece of twine for it.
Sten: I was helping it train.
Leliana: You're a big softie!
Sten: We will never speak of this again.
Leliana: Softie!

In another version of this conversation, Leliana catches him picking flowers instead. (In my personal headcanon, she catches him doing both):

Leliana: I saw what you were doing back there.
Sten: Oh?
Leliana: Don't play innocent with me.
Sten: What are you talking about?
Leliana: Outside, you were picking flowers!
Sten: ...No, I wasn't.
Leliana: You were!
Sten: ...They were medicinal!
Leliana: You're a big softie!
Sten: We will never speak of this again.
Leliana: Softie!

Now that his secret’s out, Sten goes forward in a constant state of mild terror that Leliana will continue to mock this newly discovered vulnerability:

Sten: Stop that.
Leliana (giggling): Stop what?
Sten: That. Looking at me and giggling.
Leliana: I can't help it! You are so big and stoic! Who would have thought you'd be a big softie?
Sten: Stop saying that! I am a soldier of the Beresaad! I am not a softie!
Leliana (giggling again): Softie!
Sten: ...I hate humans.

"We'll Do Better Next Time"

Later on, Leliana teases Sten once more for his secret vulnerability, but this time, the conversation ends on a slightly darker, regretful note:

Sten (sighing): Leliana, what do you want from me?
Leliana: Nothing! I'm just curious. There's a lot we don't know about you, Sten. ...Except that you're a big softie.
Sten: Please stop saying that.
Leliana: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make fun of you. There's nothing wrong with having a heart, Sten. It's just not what I expected.
Sten: Why?
Leliana: You're so Qunari! All the stories speak as if you were a hurricane or an earthquake rather than people.
Sten: Qunari are most dangerous because we are thinking men and not an unthinking force.
Leliana: I don't understand. What do you mean?
Sten (heavily): For your sake, I hope you never find out.

Sten’s warning to Leliana carries real weight, as the Qunari have already come dangerously close to conquering half of Thedas in their previous attempts—and they have most certainly not given up on that dream, a fact Sten acknowledges with chilling matter-of-factness in his next conversation with Leliana:

Leliana: I've heard stories about the Qunari, you know.
Sten: Oh?
Leliana: They conquered nearly all of the north. Tevinter, Rivain, Antiva... Much of the land was laid waste. In the northern kingdoms, they say the Qunari are implacable. Relentless. More like a landslide than an invasion. It took three Exalted Marches to drive them back to the sea.
Sten (matter-of-factly): We'll do better next time.

Leliana is markedly silent.

Sten paints this even more starkly for Alistair later on, in a rarer in-game conversation that only takes place if Alistair has been “hardened” (made to be more cynical) and has accepted his potential kingship:

Alistair: So I suppose once I'm actually king I could end up in negotiations with the Qunari one day.
Sten: My people do not negotiate.
Alistair: What do you mean? They negotiated a peace treaty after the war, and as far as I know they've kept to its terms.
Sten: They signed a piece of paper. But only because they knew that you believed in it.
Alistair: And what is the difference between that and negotiating?
Sten: They stopped fighting for their own reasons. And they will resume it again, one day. The agreement means nothing to them.
Alistair: But I thought you said your people believed in honor.
Sten: They do. The honor of the Qunari is what will bring our warships back to your shores.

This conversation, right here, was why I never hesitated to choose the Chargers over the Qun much later in Bull’s loyalty quest ("The Demands of the Qun") in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

All the information we need about agreements with the Qunari? It's right here, in this short conversation in the very first game. And the truth is startling: Nothing the Qunari accomplish from a big-picture standpoint will ever benefit anyone but the Qunari.

Terms of Endearment

As Dragon Age: Origins' story nears its conclusion, at a certain point in our Warden's final conversations with Sten, if they have very high approval and friendship, he will refer to the Warden with the endearment, "Kadan." In Qunlat, this means "Where the heart lies," and it can absolutely have both platonic as well as romantic connotations among the Qunari.

However, speaking for myself, in part because I find Sten so curiously moving and beautifully played, I always headcanon that Sten and my female Warden are in love, but they also know that it's an attachment that they cannot act upon, one that is hopeless and even potentially harmful. So they look, they talk, they joke with one another, and the one outlet they allow themselves is that one single word from Sten, the endearment "Kadan." (Which is why I may have actually let out a screechy joyful pterodactyl noise when Bull called my romanced Inquisitor by the term in a certain scene in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Followed immediately by my scream of "I KNEW IT!")

However, as quietly loyal, caring and funny as Sten turns out to be, the fact remains that his love for his companions does not sway him for even a moment from his conviction that they will one day be conquered by his people. In one of his last conversations with our Warden (if they are at highest approval and friendship), Sten pays them a compliment that is both bittersweet, and chilling:

"The day will come when the Arishok sends us here," he says quietly and with emotion. "On that day I will not look to find you on the battlefield."

Sten says this to us with warmth, with love, with palpable regret. And this sentence ultimately encapsulates everything that is most terrifying about the Qunari and their absolute fanaticism. Sten likes or even loves the Warden, is loyal to the Warden, and would even die for them. But if the Qunari order him to conquer those companions one day, he will kill them without hesitation... he'll just do it with regret. So the highest compliment he can pay is... he will not seek them out when that day comes, hoping to be spared that final and tragic confrontation.

I actually shivered when he said that, even as it broke (and warmed) my heart.

I hate the Qun. I really, really hate the Qun. But I love Sten.

"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...