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.


  1. Of COURSE you romanced Thane!! He is my favourite boyfriend across all of Bioware. I wrote 62,000 words on that romance. A thoughtful and refined soul such as yours would of course go for the deadly noir inner-conflict daddy with the inky voice. hnnnng

    1. Aw, thank you for the comment (and the compliment -- that made my day)!

      I loved Thane. I still find it hard to romance anyone else in ME2. I also play ME3 with the ThaneMod (which is so much better and a much happier ending for Thane as a character).

  2. "The last thing Solas should do is fall in love... so of course he
    does exactly that."

    I think that says a lot about Solas as a character right there. He's this crazy old, mythic figure that's done these remarkable things and made incredibly tragic choices, but he's also a dude that likes a thicc booty. His every response is measured, and he STILL can't reign in that passionate side in his weakest/most romantic moments.

  3. Lemme just say now that I love the Adoribull romance, maybe even more than Inky's romance with either of them (maybe). Opposites-attract relationships where those "opposites" are more like complements are my weakness. Plus, they feel real. It's rocky at first but they figure it out by Trespasser.

    I like your interpretation of how Bull was only so forthcoming with Dorian because he NEEDED someone to be confident for him, to show him that this is a thing that is happening and it's okay (though I also headcanon that Bull thoroughly enjoys watching the Vint scrunch his nose up at him whenever he gets flustered). I'm curious about your take on their first night, though. A lot of people were really upset with how the Bullmance was all about consent... and then Dorian claims he was drunk and not thinking clearly his first time with Bull.

    My guess is that the two were maybe drinking together while chatting and flirting, and considering that Bull later mentions Dorian was wearing lingerie (and left it behind), the night might've been less "ill-considered" than Dorian would like us to believe. AND considering Dorian is bordering on alcoholism ("please don't get shitfaced before we stop an assassination plot against the empress" "no promises ;)") I presume this isn't the first time Dori's made an important life decision under the influence.

    I don't know if any of that makes sleeping with someone who's drunk (even if that person's a regular drunkard) "okay," but either way, Bull can tell when he's making someone uncomfortable, and Dorian's not just some vulnerable, damaged boy; he grew up in the Tevinter court and has recently learned the hard way that even those he loves most can hurt him. He's smart, he knows when he's being manipulated, and right now he's more guarded than ever with a stone wall of mustache-twirling and snarkiness surrounding his weak spots. I think all that cancels out the iffy-ness of that first night. Again, though, I'm curious what you think!


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