Sunday, December 10, 2017

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?


  1. Ooh, can't wait for your next one! I never thought about the romances in these terms, but it explains a lot. I love the characters on the fairytale list, but I never really got hyped about their romance arcs—with the exception of Alistair, except my Alistair surprised the crap out of me by diving to kill the Archdemon at the last second, leaving my Warden utterly shellshocked and heartbroken. I was completely ready to give my life for him, but he refused to let me, and died for me instead. That was an incredible gaming experience. I can't wait to hear your thoughts on Dorian, Fenris, Blackwall, and Zevran, the four Dragon Age romances that make my heart flutter wildly in my chest, and which are all conspicuously absent from the fairytale list...!!

    1. Thanks so much! That's amazing about Alistair -- I would definitely have been incredibly shocked by that too. My Warden talked him into the Dark Ritual, so he lived (even if I was convinced their romance wouldn't last, LOL).

      I definitely felt that Dorian, Fenris, Blackwall and Zev were not fairytales, so did try to address them in my follow-up post to this one. I especially loved Dorian's and Zev's out of your list -- they're beautifully written characters who are more complex than they seem.

      I'll be posting more thoughts on some of the DA2 romances in the future, as well as eventually analyzing everyone's romances in DAI, too (or as many as I can)!

  2. When I play Dragon Age, I always play "elfy" elves, and none of them want a fairy tale prince or princess. Far from it, they'd prefer the elven servant scrubbing the courtyard steps. But since that's never an option, they just want someone who understands and sympathizes with what they're going through.

    My "canon" Warden is a Tabris who quickly fell for Alistair, partly because he's so sweet and funny, partly because he was the first human she ever met who didn't look down on her for being elven, but mostly because his background resonated with her. Growing up, he was forced to sleep in the stables like an animal just as she had to sleep in a crumbling shack in a ghetto. He was treated like an unwanted burden by his noble family, just as she was treated like vermin by Vaughan's family. She also suspected his mother was an elf (I only later learned Alistair's mother was Fiona; HA! Who was right?!), so she saw him as a half-elf who needed to be accepted

    My "co-canon" (almost canon but not quite) Warden Surana fell for Zevran because he was another elf taken young and raised in a multi-racial gilded cage (she, the Circle, he, the Crows) where love and sentimentality are forbidden at best, weaknesses to be used against you at worst (since Templars separate mages who fall in love, and Crows kill love birds). They're two elves tasting freedom for the first time and allowing themselves to fall in love (and try to reconnect with their people) together.

    Solas... need I say more? An "Elfy" Lavellan is separated from her Clan, named the Herald of a human god, named the head of a religious organization whose religion has been used to justify centuries of subjugation and genocide of her people, and is surrounded by Chantry fanatics who expect her to instantly drop her previous beliefs and join the adamant faithful. (This INCLUDES Sera, Varric, and even Bull--who might not be Andrastian himself, but expects you to play the role since that's your job, in his Ben'Hassrath mind.) Only Solas comes close to understanding what she's going through, being a fellow "heathen" "apostate" elf whose interests lie outside Chantry dogma; in ancient elven history and obscure magics. And in the end, he's one of only two love interests to explicitly accept and respect your Dalish culture/beliefs (Cullen being the other, since he lets you recite Dalish vows at your Trespasser wedding).

    To me, there's no comparison.

    (P.S. If DA2 LET US play as an elf, then Merrill. Sometimes Fenris. But mostly Merrill.)

    1. Thank you for this wonderful and thoughtful reply! So much good stuff to discuss here...

      I definitely share your preference to play elves (and "elfy elves") -- it just always felt right to me, and closest to the story I was interested in exploring. I do play different characters and personalities in various playthroughs, but elves are my default setting. (Probably my least favorite, in DAI at least, was human noble -- it was a much less interesting story to me because it removed the Inquisitor's huge journey from pauper to ruler if elven.)

      I love that you connect with Alistair through his half-elvenness. That's something I think too many people miss. He's definitely a very funny and charming character -- for me, he was too vulnerable and immature ultimately to be canon for me in DAO, although I love seeing him again in DAI. There's a maturity and weariness to him in DAI (if he returns as a warden) that I really liked.

      Meanwhile, I adored Zevran and found him a beautifully written character. The fact that he's suffered so much yet is still capable of joy and hope always delights me.

      On DAI -- you just described everything that makes that story so wonderful and rich for me when playing as an elven Inky. Although I do think Bull is capable of being far more empathetic about her situation, race and beliefs than might be immediately apparent.

      But yeah, Solas is a rich and fascinating romance and I love the way the elven identity really resonates throughout the entire story of DAI if you romance him. For me, the true story of DAI can only really be experienced fully in a romance with Solas, because he himself is so tied to the main story (and holds so many of its secrets).

      What's interesting is that I find a lot of subtle parallels between Zevran's romance, Bull's, and Solas's. None of them expects or seeks to fall in love, and both Zev and Bull have actually been indoctrinated with the idea that sex is something wholly divorced from emotion, and that romantic love is not possible or even allowable. Meanwhile, Solas, in his own way, is actively fighting his feelings even as he loses that battle (and I think falls in love with Thedas at the same time).

      As far as DA2, I still really enjoyed the game, but I agree that being forced to play a human was an odd sensation for me. My favorite romances there were Anders and Isabela, although I liked Fenris's (and still wish my FemHawke could have dated the Arishok, dammit -- Kirkwall would have been a much happier place).

      I adore Merrill, but she's so fragile! Still... I secretly hope we'll see Merrill again in DA4. (I just adore the idea of a conversation between Merrill and Solas. It would make me ridiculously happy.)

  3. I always loved Cassandra’s character, I like how she learns to let herself be MORE. She’s a warrior, a warrior for the good guys and always a fighter for the good fight. But she became exactly who she wanted to be for so long I think she let it sink in too deeply. She seldom gave herself room to be friend, or a lover even, she never looks beneath herself to see if maybe there could be more for her.

    Atop the fact Cassandra is an extension of why I love Bioware’s world building, considering I grew up in a religious family however me being an atheist. I’ve always respected the church’s beliefs even though severely disagree with them in numerous things(well,duh but I have a point). I like how Bioware doesn’t make the religious evil or innately corrupted fanatics. The idea of god can make people the most selfless and eager to do good, however it can also be perverted and twisted into hypocrisy and horror.

    Since I’m an atheist, by extension I play all my RPG protagonists in that way, because It’s my means of inserting myself into the world. But also curious to how characters would react to it and treat me. Though Cassandra did greatly disapprove more and more I was frank on the fact that even with me being a Daliah Huntress with a Vallaslin on my face. That Vallaslin was my means of respecting my family and my culture(just like I pray at family gatherings just to respect my heritage and the people who raised me), so I don’t believe in any gods or Maker. But I was honestly touched at the Tresspasser DLC how she called me her friend.

    I lost friends and many relatives were bitter over that particular life choice, But it just made me feel good to be told that- I have such a deep respect for Cassandra and her Arc made her more open minded as well as emotionally aware. I garnered a deep respect for Cassandra’s faith after learning more about her, because it wasn’t a justification to her. It was her motive, HER REASON, to do good in a world that doesn’t make sense to her most of the time.

  4. I had NO idea about the depressing angles of Alistair/Cullen/etc romances until others mentioned them - I didn't even know there was a heartbreaking scene with Cullen in trespasser (?!) Then again, Bioware strikes again...


"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...