Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sex and Romance in Dragon Age: Going Beyond the Fairytale

A tender moment with Solas... right before he stomps all over your heart.
Inquisitor: Nobody has ever done... that... to me before.

I... enjoyed it.

The Iron Bull: Of course you did. Ben-Hassrath training, remember? Grew up learning to manipulate people.

When it's a hostile target, you give them what they want. But when it's someone you care about, you give them what they need.

Two things before I jump in here:

1. Spoilers as always for all of Dragon Age! 
2. This post contains analyses of some pretty adult romances across Dragon Age. Topically, it is both NSFW and appropriate for adults only.

So here we are again on the subject of Dragon Age and romance... 

In this installment, we'll go beyond the fairytale formulas and look at some of the other potential relationships across the games. Here, we're definitely leaving behind the hearts and flowers, and entering a slightly tougher, edgier world, where romance may also include lies, double-crosses, emotional baggage, betrayal, abandonment, and, well... the occasional safe word.

I liked all of the sweeter, more fairytale romances I mentioned in my earlier post on DA romances, and was really charmed by each in different ways. However, my favorites across the series have tended to be the more complex romances and relationships—those that didn't make a beeline for true love, and which in many cases didn't work out at all.

For me, these romances would include those of such characters as:

The Iron Bull

The earliest of these, and one of the best, to me, is definitely Zevran's, as his romance explores a character who seems impossibly sunny (despite surviving terrible abuse), yet as it goes along, we begin to see that no matter how sexually freewheeling he seems, he does fear real intimacy and closeness. This is a theme with several romances across the trilogy, from Zev, Morrigan and Fenris, to Sera, Dorian, and more.

Dorian's fear of intimacy is directly tied to his own shame, but that makes it
all more moving when he actually takes the leap and embarks on a relationship.
Love and Sex in Tevinter

In the above list, most of the complexities arise, as in life, out of the characters' difficult histories, past sins, and their unwillingness to expect or even accept happiness. This is probably most true with Dorian, a ridiculously handsome noble-born mage from hostile Tevinter who has spent most of his life loathing himself and his sexual orientation because his family (and his country's nobility) disapprove of homosexuality except as a dalliance in the shadows. In Dorian's world, a gay man, for instance, would still be expected to marry a woman and father children, and this is so important to the Tevinter nobility that Dorian reveals to us that his own father actually tried to change his sexual orientation with magic (a really grotesque and disturbing idea that's sadly all too relevant to our world, in its own way, as well). 

Dorian's fear of intimacy is directly tied to his own shame and abuse, but that makes it all the more emotional when he stops flirting and actually takes the leap and embarks on a relationship with a male Inquisitor. (It's also easily one of the hottest and loveliest kisses in the entire game, as well.)

Dorian and Bull

Dorian's romance is complex and genuinely interesting if the Inquisitor pursues a relationship with him, but what's possibly even more interesting is the alternate potential storyline (if the Inquisitor doesn't romance either) in which Dorian and The Iron Bull hook up. 

There's been a lot of talk about the fact that Bull comes on pretty strong with Dorian, and in ways that some see as harassment or abuse, but I just don't see it that way—I think it's flirting between two people who know they're attracted, and who even admit it. The problem is that Dorian brings his own class issues to the table, as well as his own ambivalence about his sexuality. I'm even more okay with the fact that Bull comes on as strong as he does because of the way Bull is proven, over and over again, to know with scary accuracy what people want—and to then give it to them. I also think that Dorian only takes Bull up on that offer because of the fact that Bull is so blunt and insightful about acknowledging their attraction.

So it's interesting, if perhaps not entirely healthy at first. For me, their dynamics are uneven at first, most of all, because Dorian fears and half-loathes himself for his sexual impulses while Bull, pansexual and utterly at home with himself, cannot conceive of the concept of shame when it comes to sex between consenting adults in any way. He's completely free of hang-ups. The resulting relationship is messy, it's believable, and it's ultimately a really fascinating and even sweet romance that ends up being good for both men. 

Dorian's damage and his hesitance to accept true love even when it's offered results in a moving story, and it's why his was one of the romances in DAI that unexpectedly moved me the most. I also enjoyed Zevran's assassin with the heart of gold, Isabela's funny, sexy and incorrigible pirate, and the heartbreakingly vulnerable, tragic Anders.

However, for me, probably the end-all, be-all of the non-fairytale romances, and the ones I loved most across the trilogy, would be those of The Iron Bull and Solas, and for vastly different reasons.

Bull is the only character in DAI who does not respond at all to early
flirts—he's absolutely unreadable.
"It's Complicated..."

The Iron Bull was the first character I romanced, on my very first playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition, and he was most certainly the first non-fairytale romance I'd ever played in an RPG (previously, I'd romanced Liara and Thane in Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, and (as I discussed here) Alistair in DAO on my first playthrough).

To say that Bull's romance is unconventional would be the understatement of the year. I mean, I still wish someone'd had a camera on my face when, in answer to my female Inquisitor's fruitless hours of flirtage, Bull finally responded... just not at all how I'd expected. (Note: Bull's the only character in the game who does not respond at all to early flirts—he doesn't get shy or fumbling like Cassandra, Josie or Cullen, and he doesn't give you that wicked hint of sexiness that Solas or Dorian respond with either. Appropriate to a master spy, he's absolutely unreadable—you get a "slightly approves" occasionally for flirtatious moments with Bull, but that's it.)  

Anyway... so Bull finally responded, and I was delighted. Finally, my Beauty and the Beast romance could begin! (I hadn't found Bull hot at first, but of course by the end I thought he was gorgeous.) I hadn't expected, however, for Bull to show up in my Inquisitor's quarters... much less, for him to coolly proposition her with a purely sexual relationship with zero strings (except, cough, for those he provided in the bedchamber). I remember actually dropping my jaw (and my mouse) in shock. (Hey, don't judge me... I'm kind of a human toon.)

Was I a little shocked? Sure, I mean, it was the kind of complex social or sexual scenario I was certainly not expecting to find in a high fantasy videogame that I'd originally played just to let out my inner Eowyn and kick some bad guys.

But that's also exactly why I liked it. Because, as offbeat and slightly edgy as Bull's BDSM romance might be, it's presented with a lot of nuance and care. There are zero issues of consent, for instance—Bull actually asks for consent three different times in the big seduction scene. Then, after a fairly tasteful fade to black, there's a morning-after conversation that's even more interesting than the one the night before, as Bull and the Inquisitor sit down and talk, calmly and respectfully, about the rules of their romance, and it's an extended and beautifully written conversation that remains one of my favorites across the trilogy.

From there, Bull's romance can go a lot of different ways—you can dump him, and he can dump you (if you act ashamed of your dalliance with him in a key scene, for instance, he responds with real dignity and ends the relationship instantly). It can stay a casual friends-with-benefits situation, or evolve into real commitment. 

However, what I like most about Bull's romance is that, unlike almost any other romance in DAI, it starts with sex and goes from there. Sex isn't the rom-com prize at the end of the story; instead, it's just the way things begin. The relationship can actually go on to be either genuinely sweet and surprising (including some of the funniest scenes I have ever seen in a videogame), or it can end on a pretty nihilistic pitch-dark note in Trespasser. Again, it just depends on the choices you make. I will simply note that the happy ending of Bull's romance is delightful and charming, while the darker ending (which I played through a few years later) had me in tears. So: proceed with caution.

The Fallen God

That leaves me with my final favorite unconventional romance from the trilogy, and it's a doozy—that of Solas.

I remember the day when, innocent as a lamb, I finished my first playthrough of DAI, after happily romancing Bull, and the credits rolled, all was right with the world... then Flemeth walked up to Solas and called him The Dread Wolf—while also dropping the bomb that the Orb in question had been Solas's all along.

And once again, I practically fell out of my chair (I know, I do that a lot). And my first immediate clear thought beyond "Holy shit! HE'S A GOD?!" was, "I am romancing the crap out of this guy in my next playthrough!"

Which I immediately did (seriously, I've never restarted a game so fast in my life). I had already been really tempted to romance Solas in my first playthrough—like Bull, he's one of those characters whose hotness kind of sneaks up on you. 

When I first met Solas, for instance, I thought: "Huh. Beautiful voice. Not really into the whole pale bald-guy thing though. But hey, to each their own!" Then I bantered with him at Haven, in a series of conversations that were by turns tense, argumentative, funny, charming, and even slyly sexy. Within minutes, I had fallen flat, and I still remember my confusion when I looked at Solas after that moment and went, "Wait... when did he get hot?"

In other words, I'd definitely been tempted already (although I'd ultimately decided to stick with pursuing Bull), which made romancing Solas in the second playthrough even more fun, because now I was in on the secret, and I could view the entire game story through an entirely different and far more fascinating lens. 

And it was definitely worth it, as Solas revealed himself as an often surprising character whose layers are only really apparent when he's romanced. He's a constant surprise in the romance scenario—defensive, secretive, impulsive and fiery—but also tender, funny, and openly sensual. He's genuinely witty and bold in his responses to your flirtations, and it's one of the many ways in which, again, the character really confounded my expectations. When we'd first met Solas, for instance, my first impression had been that he was rather cold and monkish. And of course, the romance revealed that he's anything but—he's all fire beneath the surface, and is easily one of the most passionate characters in the story (and Solas's kisses are, to me, easily the best in the game).

 For instance, take this wicked little early conversation with a female elven mage:

Solas: You train your will to control magic and withstand possession. Your indomitable focus is an enjoyable side benefit. You have chosen a path whose steps you do not dislike because it leads to a destination you enjoy. As have I.
Inquisitor: Indomitable focus?
Solas: Presumably. I have yet to see it dominated. I imagine that sight would be... fascinating.
Inquisitor: (laughs softly)

Ahem. So... let's just say that I think Solas and Bull have more in common than might be readily apparent... on a number of levels.

The last thing Solas should do is fall in love... so of course he
does exactly that.
May the Dread Wolf Take You

Solas's romance is interesting because he's probably the most loved, hated and hotly contested companion (tied perhaps with Anders) across the entire trilogy. And yet his romance is also easily one of the most popular across the Dragon Age fandom, inspiring an endless number of tributes, memes and fanfictions.

Me, I don't think it's a coincidence that Solas's romance is easily the most tragic of any in the game. I think that's part of the allure. Solas's romance is irresistible, at least to me, because let's face it, the idea of a companion who falls in love with you, knows he shouldn't, and yet cannot resist doing so, is pretty enticing. He carries a dreadful secret, a grief and guilt that Cole calls "vast across the Veil," and he's living a lie for every moment he spends in the Inquisition. The last thing he should do is fall in love... so of course that's what happens.

But what I think is the real key to the popularity of Solas's romance isn't just that an ancient elven god has unwillingly fallen in love with you, but that he ends that romance so coldly and brutally near the end of DAI. It's never fun to get dumped, and I found myself surprised at just how pissed I was that my digital boyfriend had just broken my heart. Yet there is comfort to be bound—there are plenty of subtle signs through the rest of the story that Solas does in fact deeply love the Inquisitor (and in fact he confirms this again, heartbreakingly, as DAI ends).

All of this is enjoyably tragic. But then we get the kicker that is the Trespasser DLC, which is honestly just a great big love letter to Solasmancers, as the entire story revolves around discovering the truths and falsehoods behind the ancient elves (and specifically, about Solas himself), and then ends with a gorgeously rendered final confrontation between Solas and the Inquisitor (whom he has drawn there personally to rescue) that can last anywhere from a few minutes to 15, depending on how involved your character was with him, and depending on how many questions you'd like to ask.

Seriously, it's a great payoff. Trevor Morris's gorgeous music soars, Solas looks absolutely fantastic in his ancient elven armor (no need for him to play the humble apostate now), the Inquisitor can either attack or support him (and can even offer to join him), and it all ends with one final, tragic kiss before Solas walks off into the sunset. It's all ridiculously emotional and fun. 

I'm still not okay about him dumping me, though. And neither was my poor Inquisitor (who's still not over it). But that's part of what I love about it... and I think it's why it lingers on in the memories of so many other Solasmancers. 

Romancing Solas in DAI is all the more painful because it's a story that's not over. We're still invested... we're still in love... and we're still, somehow, waiting for our happy ending.

From Alistair to Cullen: Fairytale Romances and Dragon Age

Cullen: The way that I saw mages... I'm not sure I would have cared about you. And the thought of that sickens me.

Let's talk romance. Emotions! Chocolates! Kisses! Flowers! Not to mention those itty bitty little pieces of stomped hearts and emotional shrapnel!

I heard someone say recently that RPG romances actually elicit the same reactions in the brain that real romances do. I have no idea if that's scientifically true, but when it comes to Dragon Age, it certainly feels true.

For me, as for many, RPGs tap into emotions that can be intriguingly close to real. We play a character for what can be dozens or even hundreds of hours. We flirt with other characters. They flirt back. And eventually declare their love. We love them back. And often, not just via avatar—it's not just my Inquisitor, for instance, who loves Solas, or Bull, or Zevran, or Anders, and all my other romanced characters. I absolutely love them, too. And in a way that's more personal and less remote than, say, my crush on Aragorn when rereading The Lord of the Rings. Because let's face it, Aragorn doesn't look right over at me and proclaim his adoration back. In an RPG romance, however? Yeah, he totally would.

And that's where they get you. 

It's both embarrassing yet visceral, how emotional that can be. And each choice in an RPG like Dragon Age further ensures that our choices will make us unique, make US worth the love and accolades from our chosen objects. No matter that thousands of other people have lived it—you can know this intellectually, yet emotionally, the game relationships still feel all too real, immediate, and personal. It's one of the greatest lures of the gaming world, that sense that YOUR playthrough is the only one that truly matters, and it's intoxicating when accomplished by a team as talented as Bioware, for instance, on the Dragon Age series.

Predictable Patterns

However, when you've played your share of RPGs, as I have, you can also kind of get jaded; lulled into certain patterns. You especially become used to the romances going a certain way—you flirt with your potential love interests, they're charmed, bold or bashful, and they flirt back. If you're playing a good (or "paragon") character, you won't break their hearts and they won't break yours. There's not a ton of suspense—they will love you. It's assured.

You then progress through the game story, and eventually there are heart-eyes and kissage, followed eventually by a scene where you finally spend the night together in pixellated soulmate bliss. Well, hey, for a moment or two.

Aaaand... Fade to black.

And, well, basically, that's it. You got your happy ending, or, alternatively, basically, what I call, the phase that is "Welcome to the End of Your RPG Romance."

Alistair is a funny, sweet guy, he's an exiled prince who gives a female
Warden his inexperienced and vulnerable heart, and it's all seriously adorable.
"Someday My Prince/ss Will Come..."

First off, there can be something really reassuring about the less complicated romances. They can be terrific fun, and a welcome change from real life.

The base template for me on this in Dragon Age, for instance, will probably always be Alistair's romance in Dragon Age: Origins, at least, as I had played it. I'd ended up with a triumphant female elf Warden wandering off hand in hand with a Grey Warden Alistair after defeating the Archdemon and waving goodbye to a pregnant Morrigan. (Note: You can get an even happier ending if you played a female human noble, because then you can marry Alistair, he becomes King, and you ascend the throne alongside him to become his queen.)

I'd liked the Alistair romance, although it hadn't quite been my cup of tea. It had seemed a little vanilla and predictable, to me, even though it was (being Bioware) also indisputably charming. Alistair is a funny, sweet guy, he's an exiled prince who gives a female Warden his inexperienced and vulnerable heart, and it's all seriously adorable. The moment when he gave my poor sweet Warden a rose remains a milestone for me in my memory of my first DAO playthrough.

Or... Not...

Alistair's romance isn't predictable, though. That's where I was wrong. It can end in half a dozen different brutal and tragic ways. So I was truly amused later to realize how many different choices I'd actually happened to luck into that had resulted in that bright and sunny fairytale ending!

I mean, come on, this is Bioware. I was stupid. Sunny endings, I should have remembered, are... rare and precious. Never a given.

But I was careless, and had innocently assumed my Disney outcome was the norm. (Really? Was I ever that young? Evidently I was. Once.)

But my entire awareness of that moment (and happy ending) was actually a lie, and, as I've noted, it wasn't the only possibility at all. Ironically, Alistair's romance most definitely isn't happy-happy. It isn't "someday my prince will come." It can, in fact, end in incredible bleakness—with the Warden dumped, left, abandoned, or dead, and with Alistair despairing and drunk, executed, or heroically dead from his own fatal blow against the Archdemon.

Flipping the Formula

I'd had no idea of this in my first playthrough. I only began to realize its possibilities in discussions with other Dragon Age players I know.

And I'd definitely had no idea that an Alistair playthrough could be so much more complex and dark. The first time I played Dragon Age: Origins, my Warden had encouraged Alistair not to become King because she wasn't a fan of people being pushed into roles they didn't want, so she inadvertently ensured that they got their happy ending out of simple selfishness. Which was even more ironic because, for me, I didn't actually think my Warden protagonist's romance with Alistair would even last. She'd had conflicting feelings for assassin Zevran (then broke it off because poor Alistair was really difficult to break up with, honestly), and had also had a wordless if doomed yearning for Qunari warrior Sten (at least in my own headcanon).

So I got my "Disney Prince" romance even if at the end I kind of went, "Oh, sweeties... it will never, ever last," to the couple I ended up with.

Merrill's one of the sweetest characters across the Dragon
Age series, and so is her romance. Players who dump Merrill
get coal in their stockings at Christmas.
It's All About the Formula

Still, the standard formula's pretty timeless and proven throughout the ages. Flirt, kiss, sex, happy ending, boom. Done.

This fairytale type of formula means that your typical romance often takes up a fraction of the game story, while also hitting those predictable necessary romance points... the courtship, the glances, the kiss, the sex, the aftermath (if there is one). Most formulas in fact eschew the aftermath and just end the relationship there in a haze of assumed present and future bliss. This always disappoints me, because of course, relationships don't end with sex, and they actually get a lot more interesting after that point.

Romances adhering to this formula in Dragon Age might include, depending on story arc, the following characters:


However, of course, this being Bioware, any one of the above romances can end sadly and even tragically as well. It just depends on the choices you make. Alistair, Leliana, and Merrill can all end up abandoned or dead at the hand of the very person who loves them, while Cullen's romance can also end in one of the most heartbreaking revelations in the Trespasser DLC, depending on your choices for him. Josie and Cass survive no matter what, but they may do so with some serious broken hearts.

Thank goodness, though, it doesn't have to go that way. So if you go for the fairytale, and you make the choices that support true love and sweetness, you'll usually get it in the above scenarios. Alistair's, Leliana's and Merrill's romances are more innocent, and Josephine's is positively Disney Princess (and utterly adorable). Cassandra's is lovely, and provides a glimpse of her softer side—my only complaint about hers is that it's a bit light on content, and it's pretty much set forth according to that formula where the story's basically over after the sex.

Cullen may be gorgeous, but he's also a genuinely rich and complex
character, and his romance is surprisingly touching.
Romancing the Templar

Cullen's, meanwhile, is probably my favorite of the fairytale romances in Dragon Age, not least because it doesn't end with the hookup, but instead actually explores Cullen's journey across the entire trilogy. It's especially satisfying if you romance him with a mage, since Cullen's story back in Dragon Age: Origins began with a traumatic experience that left him with a bias that he was still working through even in Dragon Age II and on into Dragon Age: Inquisition

In DAI, Cullen is therefore wrestling with a search for redemption based on over a decade of backstory if we've played the entire trilogy. His emotional inner conflicts result in a romanced relationship with the Inquisitor that can be really rich and poignant, as his feelings for her are depicted in a lovely and often wordless progression of simple, believable little moments (both funny and sexy) that genuinely communicate intimacy. As his romance evolves, we're shown Cullen's more vulnerable side, as well as how deep his sense of religious faith really is. I remember being surprised and moved at a simple scene near the end in which Cullen simply embraced the Inquisitor and held her, expressing for the first time how deeply he feared losing her.

There are plenty of other happy romances in Dragon Age, but they're not as straightforward. These romances, however, meet the basic needs of the formula and provide a general prospect of romantic happiness for those who make the right choices.

If you want hearts and flowers, in other words? These romances are a good place to start.

Meanwhile, next up, I'll take a look at some of the romances that don't really follow that fairytale formula... and which ones in that assortment that I loved most.

What about you? Do you prefer the fairytale romance formula, yourself? Who was your favorite romance, if so?

Saturday, December 9, 2017

It’s Been Three Years, and I Still Love Solas

As always, spoiler warning for all of Dragon Age: Inquisition!

Cole: You didn’t do it to be right. You did it to save them.

There’s no question that Bioware’s Dragon Age universe is popular, in part, because it is so immersive, gorgeously rendered, and inclusive. Most of all, however, I think it inspires so many deep emotions because of the rich, complex characters that fans passionately love and hate—like Anders, Loghain, The Iron Bull, Isabela, Sera, and more. Nowhere is this level of emotional response more visible, however, than with the character of Solas, the Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI) companion who is ultimately revealed to be the elven god Fen’Harel and our unexpected adversary.

I was reminded of this again because of a recent feature written by Gita Jackson for Kotaku. Entitled “It’s Been Three Years and I Still Hate Solas,” it’s presented as a sly tribute to “one of the best-written characters in video games” (which: agreed). Ironically, however, it also devolves immediately into a long list of the emotional reasons Jackson loathes Solas and the ways in which she’d like to kill him.

It’s a fun piece—Jackson’s a vivid, witty writer who obviously loves the DAI world.

She’s just wrong.

Making the Case

I’m not arguing against hating Solas—we all have characters we love and loathe, and Solas’s deeds certainly merit any number of intense reactions. My main problem with Jackson’s piece is rather that she seems to hate him on a purely subjective, emotional level that I believe abandons logic. Her reasons for hating Solas are legion (and entertaining).

She starts with the most fabulous description possibly ever written about him (that he’s an “egg-lookin’ ass motherfucker”) then proceeds through her grievances from there.

(Side note: Given the fact that nobody will ever top Jackson’s description here, can we finally retire the “egg” references? I mean, okay, Solas is bald. But we’re not twelve. Why don’t we, to quote a certain anthem, let it go?)

Meanwhile, Jackson points out that Solas is a reticent, condescending, smug, passive-aggressive, superior, arrogant, racist asshole who is unfairly critical of both the Qun (the repressive pseudo-fascist religious/political system espoused by the Qunari) and The Grey Wardens (the secretive warrior brotherhood that actually ingests darkspawn blood to fight the Blight). But it’s mostly about the fact that he’s a know-it-all ass. Some more.

I think that’s basically it.

The Vicious Circle

For me, what’s frustrating about Jackson’s take isn’t that it boils down to “Solas is an asshole.” Rather, it’s that she praises his complexity, yet the entire essay ignores that complexity and paints him as an egotistical, two-dimensional tool, disregarding the moments in which he actually demonstrates humility, compassion, or self-awareness.

Part of this is due to the self-fulfilling nature of RPG gameplay. I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I don’t like Solas so I leave him alone.” The problem is, if you don’t talk to Solas, interactions are antagonistic, and ultimately garner low approval with him. You’ll not only miss out on the other sides of his character, you’ll also lose access to vital dialogue and information affecting your understanding of the entire game story. Solas himself (when you do talk to him), meanwhile, will retreat into his early guarded superiority without showing any of the growth he demonstrates with a friendly or romanced Inquisitor. (From her essay, it’s apparent that Jackson played a romanced storyline with Solas at least once, but that still leaves room for a lot of missed content depending on choices.)

Pride and Arrogance

Next, let’s look at Solas’s arrogance. Solas’s name literally means “pride” in the elven language, so it’s no wonder that he lives up to his name—especially at the beginning of DAI. However, this pride is also revealed over the eighteen months of in-universe story time to follow as a mask for regret, despair, doubt, and self-recrimination. When we first meet him, Solas is an intensely lonely man who has spent a year trying to come to terms with the waking nightmare he caused. In putting up the Veil, he sealed away the would-be gods who had enslaved his people, filled lakes with the blood of the dead, and sought to conquer the world. It was an undeniably heroic act, but it also directly caused the downfall of the very people Solas was trying to save, and in trying to undo this upon awakening, Solas resorted to his first unequivocally evil deed—manipulating Corypheus into unlocking the Orb (although, to be fair, he thought it would simply kill Corypants, not unleash a rain of demons across Thedas).

Solas’s arrogance was forged across a life that previously spanned centuries, and his pride is both his greatest strength and fatal flaw. That pride allowed him to dare great things: to free the slaves, to rebel against tyrants, and to shake the world of Thedas to its foundations. If you want to get Biblical, Solas’s pride actually enabled him to outdo Lucifer himself: Faced with the wars and corruptions of the Evanuris above and Forgotten ones below, he didn’t choose either heaven or hell, and instead made the wholly breathtaking and original choice to lock BOTH parties away.

At Haven, therefore, Solas is still licking his wounds and recovering from his awakening the year before. At first, he’s cold and dismissive (I personally feel he’s still suffering from PTSD, which I think also directly contributed to his brutal actions in the excellent Patrick Weekes novel The Masked Empire). However, the Inquisition changes him. He calms down, forges friendships, makes jokes, shows vulnerability, and falls in love with the world—even this pale and muted one. As beautifully played by voice actor Gareth David-Lloyd ("Torchwood"), Solas is increasingly moved by the courage of the people he encounters, and although Jackson’s essay is dependent on Solas as a know-it-all, he actually begins to question his assumptions (especially if romanced), openly admitting that he was wrong not once but several times. To me, those moments of genuine humility are essential to understanding his character.

I like that Solas begins in arrogance—it’s appropriate and ironic, especially as his journey—by the time of his final, crucial meeting with Flemeth—ends in penitence, guilt and grief. Yes, he’s smarter than most. But he’s also a prisoner of his own tunnel vision. He can’t think his way out of the problem he helped to create (however good his intentions at the time). He is trapped once again, solitary and without solace. His mistake affected lives uncounted. Undoing that mistake will do the same. So he’s already damned no matter what he does. (It may be tragic, but wow, it’s great drama.)

Solas and Bull eventually become friends if Bull leaves the Qun for
 independence (hence, their fabulous matching outfits here), however, initially
 they spar repeatedly over Bull’s lip service to the Qun’s repressive fascism.

The Rebel God

Another of the key behaviors for which Jackson judges Solas are his debates with The Iron Bull about life under the Qun. As presented by Jackson, Bull is just “a nice guy” trying to defend his way of life, while Solas is being a superior asshole who can’t leave other people’s accepted ideals alone.

Except… (cough), not so fast. Look, I love Bull. He’s my favorite character in all of Dragon Age: Inquisition. But Bull’s not exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, here, or the nice uncomplicated guy Jackson is painting him to be. In actuality, Bull is a deceptively superb spy hiding in plain sight—a guy whose title of “Hissrad” under the Qun literally means “liar.” Until we gain his loyalty mid-story, Bull is present under direct orders from the Qun, with the goal (it’s heavily implied) of infiltrating the Inquisition and placing himself in a position advantageous to the Qunari and their agenda of world domination.

In other words, when Bull debates Solas about life under the Qun (conversations Bull frequently initiates, by the way, not Solas), he is actively speaking pro-Qun propaganda, and he is doing so as a member of the Ben-Hassrath (roughly the Qunari equivalent of the Gestapo), under whose umbrella he has killed and captured many attempting to flee the Qun (and go “Tal-Vashoth”), and submitted still others to forcible brainwashing under the Qunari re-educators. Bull’s such a true believer, in fact, that at one point, he even turned himself over to them for brainwashing after PTSD, willing for them to “fix” him. So no, Bull’s not being genial with Solas here out of niceness (at least, not solely)—he’s doing it because he is cultivating relationships for potential exploitation under the Qun, at least until his loyalty is gained and he’s brave enough to leave for good.

With this in mind, it’s not only appropriate for Solas to question Bull’s casual acceptance of the Qun, it would be grossly out of character for him not to do so. In DAI, even before the “Trespasser” DLC, we are aware that Solas is a champion of free will and a rebel against tyranny or enslavement (and he says as much openly in a speech to Cassandra). So when Jackson says that Bull “goes out of his way” to note that the Qun’s goal of assimilation isn’t worth the carnage, I have to point out that, in fact, Bull only expresses this after Solas pushes him to admit that many of their friends in the Inquisition, in fact, would not survive such a scenario.

Lastly, Solas doesn’t even get credit for being supportive of Bull if he does leave the Qun and go rogue (or “Tal-Vashoth”). When Solas congratulates Bull for the decision and offers friendship later (in a rare moment for Solas), he’s still criticized as “smarmy” and disingenuous. (Jackson then completely omits any mention of the way Solas backs this up with the friendly, extended game of mind-chess to help distract Bull from his pain and self-doubt, and which for me constitutes some of the best and most subtle writing in the game.)

Painting Solas merely as an egotistical, two-dimensional tool lessens his
complexity and disregards the moments in which he actually demonstrates
humility, compassion, or self-awareness.

Yearnings for Forgotten Glories

Similarly, the situations in which Solas talks to Varric about the dwarven people and their fall from grace are again simplistically presented as yet more scenarios in which to paint Solas as dismissive and superior.

However, to me, Jackson is missing a key and tragic aspect here: in calling their remaining people a “severed arm,” Solas isn’t mocking the loss of the dwarves, he is mourning it, seeing it in direct parallel to the fall of his own people. Unlike Solas, Varric is not a survivor who awakened to a shattered vision of the people he loved, and he can dismiss his own lost empire as a faded myth, rather than as the vivid and immediate memory Solas carries with him like a wound:

Varric: All the “fallen empire” crap you go on about. What’s so great about empires anyway? So we lost the Deep Roads, and Orzammar’s too proud to ask for help. So what? We’re not Orzammar and we’re not our empire. There are tens of thousands of us living up here in the sunlight now, and it’s not that bad. Life goes on. It’s just different than it used to be.
Solas: And you have no concept of what that difference cost you.
Varric: I know what it didn’t cost me. I’m still here, even after all those thaigs fell.

After a little thought, however, Solas later apologizes, and Varric even gets him to admit that he may have been wrong about judging a man who gave in to his solitude without fighting it:

Varric: That’s the world. Everything you build, it tears down. Everything you’ve got, it takes. And it’s gone forever. The only choices you get are to lie down and die or keep going. He kept going. That’s as close to beating the world as anyone gets.
Solas: Well said. Perhaps I was mistaken.

Romancing the Moron

Jackson’s final criticism of Solas primarily involves his romance with the Inquisitor, which she basically describes as a reluctant coupling of an arrogant god with the moronic backwoods Dalish twit he barely considers worth the effort.

As before, Solas’s early arrogance and reticence are treated as static elements that do not evolve throughout the romance, along with repeated assertions that Solas constantly thinks he knows everything and is right all the time, and again, this just isn’t the case.

Yes, Solas is prickly in his first few conversations with a Dalish Inquisitor, especially on Dalish culture and customs, for which there is a very specific and hidden reason—the Dalish had previously turned Solas away when he went to them for help after his awakening—a denial that stung him bitterly. However, if the Inquisitor responds with a respectful request for him to use his knowledge to help rectify the ignorance of her Dalish clan, Solas immediately apologizes, offering assistance and support. As the romance proceeds, Solas will go on to repeatedly question his early judgment of the Dalish, expressing doubt and regret for his previous comments depending on your response.

Finally, there’s this key banter dialogue with Cole, with Solas blatantly admitting to his own mistakes and ignorance:

Cole: They are not gone so long as you remember them.
Solas: I know.
Cole: But you could let them go.
Solas: I know that as well.
Cole: You didn’t do it to be right. You did it to save them.
Inquisitor: Solas, what is Cole talking about?
Solas: A mistake. One of many made by a much younger elf who was certain he knew everything.
Cole: You weren’t wrong, though.
Solas: Thank you, Cole.

Solas exists in a torment of guilt and regret—a living fossil cut off from
everyone he ever tried to save. He’s damned for what he did before and
damned for what he intends to do next. It’s tragic, but man, it’s great drama.
A Question of the Spirit

A final, key moment that I believe Jackson misrepresents in her analysis is the conversation where Solas talks to the Inquisitor about the transference of the Anchor from the Orb itself. Jackson sees the moment when Solas asks the Inquisitor if it changed them in any way (“Your mind, your morals, your… spirit?”) as simply yet another sign that Solas thinks the Inquisitor to be so mentally and racially inferior that he’s now wondering if maybe contact with the Orb is what made them special at all.

For me, the obvious answer is much more interesting here: Solas isn’t asking the Inquisitor this question because he’s still amazed she’s able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but rather because he is literally trying to discover if the Orb (the Orb of Fen’Harel, that is tied to his personal magic and spirit, albeit unknown to her) has changed her awareness or even perhaps connected her spirit to his.

For Solas, whose isolation defines him, and who is a lover of all things spiritual and of the Fade, everything comes down to the spirit. He is now faced with the faint prospect, after a thousand-plus years of solitude and slumber, that someone else may share his spirit in even the smallest way. This is why he pauses before saying the word “spirit.” It’s something that matters to him more than anything else—so much so that he can barely bring himself speak the word. It’s a tremendously sad and poignant moment for the character when viewed this way.

Jackson’s essay pretty much ends there, without discussing the “Trespasser” DLC at all beyond a brief comment by the author in the comments (of “don’t even get me STARTED on what happens in [sic] Tresspasser”), which feels like a copout to me, considering that its entire story is about separating the fact from myth in Solas’s backstory, as well as raising the possibility of his redemption. But her thoughts were a fun read, and engaged me enough to write up this wall-of-text rebuttal.

Ultimately, I know many will continue to hate Solas, but I just can’t—he’s too complex, too trapped, and too tragic. He’s walking around in a torment of guilt and regret, a living fossil cut off from everyone he ever tried to save, damned for what he did before and damned for what he intends to do next. Solas knows his path can only end in death and lonely darkness. For me, it’s that much more moving, therefore, to watch him travel the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition as he walks in the sunshine and seeks atonement, bantering with a lover and companions while briefly imagining a world in which he still has a place.

NOTE: This article is a reprint of an article originally published by me on The Fandomentals.

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