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.

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