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


  1. This is so cool!! Chess goes way above my head (didn't stop me from geeking out over the banter though), but this is really fascinating to read.

    1. Thanks so much for checking it out! It's easily one of my favorite banters from the entire game. There's so much happening under the surface there.

  2. Excellent Article. I love your insights.

    1. Thanks Carmen! I appreciate you checking this out, and will look forward to your thoughts on other posts, too. Thanks for reading!

  3. So many layers of fantastic awesomeness abound in the writing of these scenes. First of all... MIND-CHESS! I can't follow a damn thing they're doing, but I could listen to these two nerd-out all day. Secondly, The IMMORTAL Game....?! Omg, I just about can't even. Having already played through the game before hearing the chess match and knowing the ending, I chuckled a good bit when I heard Bull say "All right, take some time. Think about your life choices." But... but... you had me nearly in tears at "sacrificing his queen"... I can't thank you enough for your brilliant in-depth guide through this seemingly insignificant scene.

    1. Stephanie, thanks for the wonderful compliment. I love these two characters, so this game was a really pivotal moment for me -- one that I thought deserved a second look. I love the use of "The Immortal Game" and how it shows us who these men are -- that seemingly calm, cautious Solas is the one willing to sacrifice and risk all, while Bull is the one who protects his pieces, etc.

      Meanwhile, thanks so much for checking it out, and I hope you'll check out the rest of the blog as well! I'd love your feedback and additional insights.

  4. Solas comforting The Iron Bull does also nicely resonate with his role back in the days - it was him who turned elves away from their Gods, their belief and it was him who reassured them that it was the right thing to do. I assume he had his share of people doubting themselves, being afraid of what would become of them and who they'd become now that they had turned away from their masters. In that light (and considering that he abhors nothing as much as slavery and unquestioning belief and that the Qun is even more strict here than the Chantry) it would only be natural that he'd assure Bull, more than only respecting his choice but approving of it deeply - and finding in his (Bull's) choice the first *personal* connection apart from their shared skills like insights, observance and intelligence. And only then they can actually use their shared skills as basis for a blooming respect if not friendship.

    Beautiful article, really! I love your analyses.


    1. I can't believe I missed this lovely reply somehow for an entire YEAR. Thank you so much for reading, and for the compliments!

      You make a great point that Solas has practice in this -- that he's seen people lose their faith firsthand, and he helped them to move past that and to embrace their newfound if terrifying freedom.

      I've always found the parallels between the two genuinely fascinating.

  5. Oh wow...this analysis just blew me away on two different levels. One is that you are THIS smart to figure out all these meanings, the other is that i think you are probably right about them all which really shows the awesomeness of our lovely DA writters. All these careful considerations and efforts putting in some random party banter alone is more than enough to give me a ton of goosebumps!
    I just fell into the solamance abyss recently, spent 16 hours last night(yep i did't sleep at all) just to get to the end of tresspasser and have the wolf eat my heart......Watching him turning away pains me so much to the point that i can't sleep or eat at all(it's crazy how PHYSICALLY real this break-up feels to me, all these body symptoms). And the worst part wasn't even they couldn't be together when they clearly loved each other deeply, but the thought of him going on a difficult path just to die alone.....his biggest fear......All i know is, my inquisitor would willingly throw away all she has built and gladly kill herself just to keep solas company. If Bioware doesn't give me the option to suicide with solas(as the chance of him succeed and survive is pretty slim i think), i am quitting DA4 for real. There is no way i am letting him die alone, even if he is not that easily killed. I just won't let that happen, my inquisitor is THAT protective of her lone wolf lover, especially knowing him still sadly watches her in dreams.
    Anyway what was i rambling about LOL. SO yeah....driven mad by this great pain, i started googleing solas to read about other people's feelings and interpretations, and thus stumbled upon your excellent work! When i am reading your articles, my aching heart and belly(yes it hurst my stomach too) can find a moment of relative relief. Thank you!
    (English is not my fist language so maybe some of what i typed above might look weird....i swear they were making perfect sense in my

  6. I enjoy playing chess, but always hated watching it. With the banter, this was so entertaining. Bull, the general playing this like a battle. Keeping his strongest troops and controlling the battle field. And Solas, sacrificing any and anything in order to surprisingly come out victorious without the general ever noticing. Solas planner, puppet master. This is lovely. I heard this banter many times before but never ever did I pick up how this related so well to the overall story.

    Thanks for sharing this!!


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