Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Inquisitor's Seduction: Romancing The Iron Bull, Part 1

Bull's romance is something completely different from almost any other
RPG romance you'll encounter. In a great (if slightly surprising) way.

Qunari love our friends like anyone does, but we don't have sex with them.

Spoilers for all of Dragon Age: Inquisition, as always!

You never exactly think an RPG game is going to challenge your beliefs, assumptions, or your perceptions of real-world relationships... but then there's Bioware. And Dragon Age. And the somewhat controversial, yet terrifically drawn romance, for instance, between The Iron Bull and the Inquisitor in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

First, a little backstory: Bull's romance was the first one I ever played in DAI, And it certainly offers complexity, maturity and candid sexuality in spades.
I still remember when Bull showed up in his first scene at the Storm Coast. It's still very clear for me, because I looked at him and felt a few conflicting things immediately: Disappointed regret, alongside paradoxical interest. Regret, because I instantly wrote him off as a romance. I'm not into super-muscular guys as a general rule in real life.

And yet I also felt a little fascination too. Because, while Bull was massive and musclebound and slightly loud and disconcerting, he was also so interesting visually, and wonderfully unpretty! He had these strange horns. He was scarred everywhere (seriously: everywhere) and slightly scary, with an eyepatch over a missing eye. His body managed to be powerful but the muscles actually weren't traditionally beautiful, more utilitarian. His face was all angles and edges, like his humor. He just wasn't handsome, and in fact he bordered for me (at the time) on being downright homely.

When it comes to his romance, Bull's entire persona is about drawing
you in. He doesn't pursue you... he gets you to pursue him

Reevaluating Bull
Then my Inky talked to him, and I was tempted again. He had a rich, deep and beautiful voice (thanks to the always talented Freddie Prinze, Jr., who was a total chameleon in this role), and whether I found Bull attractive physically or not, when he spoke I melted a little. And he was smart and seriously funny. And better yet, he also seemed to be charmingly transparent, and (awesomely) like the Worst Spy Ever. All pluses in my book.

(I KNOW, right? I was so, so young.)

Although, in my own defense, not finding Bull handsome was, weirdly a plus for me. I liked it. So I paused and thought about my adorable princessy blonde Inquisitor and went, "Wait, wait, I've got to romance this guy... It's like Beauty and the Beast! He even has horns!" (I write a lot of fantasy novels and stories with fairytale elements, so that was catnip to me... I'm weak that way.)

Besides, I was kind of intrigued. I'd played lots of RPGs and romanced plenty of obviously beautiful people in Bioware games: Alistair, Zevran, Thane, Liara, etc. Maybe it would be fun to romance this big hulk of a guy who wasn't obviously gorgeous. And besides, he was so smart, funny and interesting! Most of all, he seemed like he'd be fun. I was playing a big huge adventure game, and a romance with a little fun sounded just perfect to me.

So within a few hours of gameplay and conversation, I reconsidered my immediate decision not to romance Bull, and flipped back just as fast to "Huh. Wait. I totally need to do this."

With this thought, I dismissed my earlier flirtations with Solas (who'd been an unexpected and genuine temptation because of his smarts and smoothness) as well as with Cullen (who's luckily gorgeous because his flirts made my own real-life disasters look positively elegant and Clooney-esque in comparison), and off I went.

I'd decided.

I was going to win the heart of The Iron Bull.

Since my very first Inky was an ice princess outside and a jokester inside,
I adored her pairing with Bull. And visually, it was the perfect fairytale
Second Impressions

When I began to romance Bull in DAI, however, one thing that I discovered fairly quickly is that I got taken, my friends. Because once you get talking to Bull, he's not at all the simple, slightly silly, open-book guy you thought you were recruiting. He's quiet, genial but cool, he's adept at keeping people at arms' length, and he's a heck of a lot smarter than he first appears.

And while I may have found Bull ugly in my first few meetings with him, I soon realized that I was in a decided minority on that front. Bull offered his own charms (and knew it), and thousands across Thedas were already desperately dialing him up, going, "How YOU doin'?"

In other words, my initial dismissal of Bull's hotness was, frankly, pretty hilarious.

More Than Meets the Eye

The best part of this dawning awareness was that it quickly and completely dismantled my initial take on his romance, which had been (somewhat naively) that Bull would be easy to catch, and that he'd be a rather kooky, funny romantic object who'd be, well, happy to have the attention.

Writing this today, I find the idea that I ever found Bull to be even remotely simple as a character to be pretty laughable. However, it was definitely entertaining to start to realize just how wrong I was, as Bull talked to my Inquisitor and carefully pieced out those tantalizing little bits of information about himself and life under the Qun.

All too quickly, meanwhile, I began to really like the guy. I began to recognize the other aspects to Bull that were so irresistible to others—and believably so. He wasn't just sharp and crudely funny, he was also capable of considerable subtlety and charm. He revealed himself to be downright brilliant when it came to reading people, and he was also possessed of an incredible amount of charisma and self-confidence. Maybe he wasn't conventionally beautiful to me, but I began to find myself looking for his reactions in all our scenes and cutscenes. A few overheard conversations around the Inquisition further communicated that Bull was fabulous in bed, had zero hangups about sex, and was both respectful, discreet and accomplished in that arena.

Hearing the discussions about these dates, this was where my Inquisitor began to evince actual jealousy and soon went from casual interest to basically throwing herself at Bull on a constant basis. I had her take every available chance to talk to Bull, she took him along on missions, and she flirted incessantly with him. I had her do all of this with a yawn, secure in my assumption that eventually he'd respond with a knowing wink or a rascally kiss and off they'd go.

And then I began to realize the horrifying truth: that Bull might flirt with the world (and sleep with a decent contingent as desired), but he was utterly uninterested in my Inquisitor's attempts at flirtation.

Panic ensued.

The Iron Bull Slightly Freaking Approves

As I mentioned here, when you flirt with most characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition, they respond in a variety of ways, and they're almost always interesting, funny and charming. Cullen, Cassandra, and Josie are adorably flustered by the attention (as is Blackwall, albeit more broodingly and beardily), while Solas and Dorian are much smoother and cooler (as, somewhat surprisingly, is Sera). Cole, Viv, and Varric are all unromanceable (especially tragic in Varric's case, given his wit, handsomeness, and that always-fantastic chest hair).

Bull is the only character in the game who doesn't respond when we flirt
with him. I mean, at all. We get a "slightly approves" and that's it.

But the point is, everybody else responds. Everyone. They react visibly to flirtation and attention. Solas parries your flirtations smoothly with a surprising amount of sophistication and sly sexiness, even as you can tell he's totally falling for your Inquisitorial cuteness (if you're elven). Sera is amused but interested (if you're female). Dorian is charmed, yet cautious (if you're male). Cullen looks mortified yet even mysteriously more ridiculously handsome as he tries to disappear into his own armor. Cass makes noises, growls, draws her gorgeous eyebrows and looks suspicious, but eventually she's hilariously flustered at almost Cullen-levels of adorable awkwardness.

Not Bull. He doesn't say a word. Not once. No change in expression beyond, occasionally, the slight smile that goes along with the notification that "The Iron Bull slightly approves."

Slightly approves. And I was using all my best flirts.

The angels wept.

In all seriousness, for me, The Iron Bull's crushing lack of response to our flirtations may be maddening, but's also absolutely true to character. And for me it's one of the smartest, funniest and most perceptive aspects of his romance, for a number of reasons.

This is because Bull's situation is more complex than it appears. He might be the freewheeling pansexual dynamo yearned after across Orlais, Haven and Skyhold, but he's also a man on a mission.

His loyalties, in other words, are complicated, to say the least.

Sex, the Qun, and The Iron Bull

As far as his baseline goes, Bull is certainly uninhibited, famously skilled and casual about sex. He has zero hangups or shame associated with consenting sexual behavior between adults of any gender or race, as, under the Qun, sex for Bull, as for almost all Qunari, is something purely, solely physical—a need to be filled, an itch to be scratched. It's an act, for many Qunari, which is usually accomplished by their Tamassrans, who treat these interludes almost clinically, as sex workers. Beyond that, there's no romantic love or long-term commitment recognized under the Qun, and those under its regime live existences in which their sex lives (and choices) are often, in fact, not their own, as different pairs of men and women are frequently matched up solely for breeding purposes.

It's all just part of accepted life under the Qun, as Bull notes in an early dialogue with a curious Inquisitor:

Bull: Qunari love our friends like anyone does but we don't have sex with them.
Inquisitor: You don't have sex?!
Bull (laughing quietly): Oh, we definitely have sex. There are Tamassrans who pop your cork whenever you need it. It's not a big deal like it is here. It's like, I don't know, going to see a healer. Sometimes it's this long involved thing, it takes all day, leaves you walking funny. Other times you're in and out in 5 minutes—"Thank you, see you next week!"
(Later, after the Inquisitor asks more questions...)
Bull: No drama. (Pause) Still, it's more fun here. Fewer rituals, more making it up as you go along. Plus, you folk have redheads. Redheads.
After childhood, Bull spent years in the Ben-Hassrath, where he would have learned to use sex as both an enjoyable outlet for pleasure and stress relief as well as, of course, as just one more valuable psychological weapon. I then assume that he further honed his skills in the bedroom during his decade in Orlais as an undercover agent, where (according to the DAI Codices), his sexual escapades were the frequent and notorious topics of avid interest, speculation, envy and discussion among the nobles there. As I've noted before, I also think this is where Vivienne would have picked up on him as a player of the Great Game, and become an amused admirer of his subtlety and gamesmanship from afar.

It's no coincidence that Bull (here flanked by his loyal Krem at left) always
positions himself in the best place for picking up news and gossip. In Haven, he's
between the outer gate and stables, able to see and hear pretty much everything
The Quiet Strategist

When Bull joins the Inquisition, he seamlessly installs himself as a fixture near the central areas of gossip and discussion, every time. It's beautifully casual, and such a smart and appropriate character note. At Haven, he's between the main gate and stable at the outer wall, right where he'd be able to observe who's in and out on missions (as well as viewing plainly their moods and reactions), and he'd also be able to overhear plenty of important conversations without alerting suspicion, as well (Note: I previously and incorrectly said he was outside the Chantry—many thanks to Elana for the correction!). He installs himself into an even more ideal spot later on, in the Herald's Rest at Skyhold, where he also becomes an enthusiastic participant in its social life.

But as far as Bull's romance, at Haven, almost immediately we overhear accounts of Bull's casual bedroom encounters in a few funny, eavesdropped conversations, as well as through discussions with Bull himself once we reach Skyhold. He's obviously not lacking for company (and by all accounts he's also, ahem, a pleaser—which certainly fits with his core personality as someone programmed to give people what they need).

Yet here he is, barely responding when the Inquisitor, possibly the hottest, bravest, most fascinating person in Thedas (let's just assume it's a given, right?), flirts with him over the first several months of his time with the organization.


Like I said: He's not looking for a date. He's a man on a mission. And he's playing the long game.

The Devastating Attractiveness of Complete Disinterest

I was, of course, as frustrated as anyone else when I realized that The Iron Bull wasn't going to fall at my Inquisitor's feet. And yet, the fact that he didn't do so quickly became part of the fun. I became increasingly intrigued... then realized that this is exactly the reaction Bull's aiming for. And now here I was, making constant heart-eyes at this big, bluff, funny ox-man and waiting for him to finally notice my protagonist character. To quote "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the subtext was rapidly becoming text. The psychology of Bull's romance—and the accuracy of its eye on human nature—was a lot of fun, even as I found myself amused at my own reactions to it.

Remember—at first, I'd found Bull somewhat ugly—striking and imposing, sure, but not beautiful (aside from that gorgeous deep voice). Then, like I said, I'd started actively pursuing him, and somewhere at about the 30% mark of the game, a number of things had happened:

  • I was no longer remotely interested in romancing anyone else
  • I'd forgotten why I ever found him ugly
  • I was hanging on every conversation with him like a wistful groupie
  • I'd realized he was not just the big lug with the ax and the mug of maraas-lok, but that he was actually one of the smartest, subtlest, and most perceptive characters in the game (rivaled only by Solas and Leliana).
And despite dozens of hours of adventuring by my adorable Inky (several months in Thedas-time), Bull scarcely returned her glances.

It was downright depressing.

But, true to human nature since time immemorial, of course, with every disinterested look or implied shrug, I just fell harder. The result was that my Inquisitor was energetically throwing herself at Bull by the time we got to Skyhold, and—of course—(at least mentally) writing his name in her Inquisitorial parchment-notebook with lots of little hearts and arrows and cute curly initials everywhere.

And the thing is, I loved it. I loved the fact that I was playing for a character who suddenly found herself frustrated and insecure, who wasn't being handed her desired relationship on a silver virtual platter. Suddenly, and gorgeously, Dragon Age: Inquisition was defying my expectations. While I'd loved the other two games, nobody here was handing me roses or making speeches about how hard it was to resist my charms. Instead, its relationships were challenging, complex and frustrating. Just like life.

Playing Hard to Get...

Meanwhile, as my Inquisitor went on casting pining looks in Bull's direction (inciting a few more paltry "The Iron Bull slightly approves" reactions, curses), she did all of the quests that would get her approval as high as possible with him in the meantime. So she helped the poor common folk of the Hinterlands, she did the quests that included valuable soldier's skills (like the horse races at Dennet's farm to demonstrate horsemanship), she decimated the dragon population across Thedas specifically for the additional approval from Bull (and felt more than a little guilty in the process), and waited for him to look her way.

And, bless her little heart, she waited a long time. Here's an approximate rundown of how many flirts Bull required before he made his move:

  • 2 flirts in Haven
  • 2 flirts in Skyhold tavern
  • 1 flirt at the dragon celebration (maraas-lok for everyone!)
  • 2 flirts on the rooftop (after "The Demands of the Qun," either outcome)
Now, these numbers are a bit fluid because Bull's interest is also absolutely predicated on approval numbers (not just flirts), and my Inky #1 didn't always choose outcomes or judgments Bull loved (he tends to approve the more ruthless, soldier-like, solutions). For instance, I know some players who are able to move forward with him almost immediately after arriving at Skyhold, while it took me a few dozen hours further. But I'd say that my experience was pretty common, at least, and I like what it says about Bull as a character, so I'm including the flirt counts here just for fun.

I mean, compared to Bull, most of our other love interests in DAI are pushovers—it takes maybe two or three flirts with Solas to get the Fade kiss (and we make the first move). It takes about the same for Cullen. The only other similar holdout in DAI is actually Sera, who is amused, but also surprisingly reserved, at interest from the Inquisitor, and who takes her own sweet time in deciding whether or not to trust them.

However, there are good reasons for Bull to behave this way that aren't just about playing coy or hard to get.

I mean, again... he's undercover. At least, to start.

And maybe for even longer than that, depending on our own loyalties and choices...

Think about it. If Bull openly sought the Inquisitor's affections, he'd be
met with skepticism or even outright suspicion (he is, after all, a spy). But
if he gets us to pursue him, his agenda is much easier to hide.
Secrets and Lies

As you already know from some of my previous analyses of The Iron Bull, my take is that Bull is reserved and circumspect for most of the game's first 30-40% because he's in a pretty complicated position as a potential sleeper agent. Therefore, it's all to his advantage for the Inquisitor to do the chasing. For him to chase the Inquisitor, he risks either alienating them or alerting suspicion.

Why is Bull so reluctant? Let's take a look at the big-picture possible reasons:

  • He may be understandably skeptical of the Inquisitor, the organization, and Thedas. 
  • He may be waiting you out to see what kind of person you actually are. 
  • He may be reluctant to complicate a professional relationship with a sexual one. 
  • He's cautious and it takes him awhile to become interested. 
Or... my take:
  • He's being strategic, despite being interested from day one (or at least attracted, because, again, see Inquisitor and most gorgeous interesting person ever). 
  • He's also under orders from the Qun to get close to the Inquisitor. 
  • He may even be under direct orders to seduce (or to attempt to seduce) the Inquisitor (and oh, I definitely think he is). 
  • He's got to proceed with caution—each step must be conducted perfectly (after all, we're talking about the Qun's goal of world domination, complicated by the added stress that the Rifts themselves pose a threat to the end of that world). 
For me, it's that second bullet list. It's simply a matter of Bull understanding human nature, and to a scary, almost microscopic degree. In other words, he's slightly cool and unattainable because that just makes him even more desirable to the Inquisitor. He can't exactly pursue the Inquisitor—doing so would be far too obvious, and it would immediately raise a few red flags (with Leliana, certainly, among others).

So Bull spends half his seduction game doing a careful dance—timing every smile, every discussion, every move. Always teasing forward, then edging back, drawing the Inquisitor in. Turning down half a dozen opportunities and simply biding his time.

In a more cliche-ridden story, the next step—Bull's seduction of the Inquisitor—would be a charming or comedic scene as Bull finally makes his move.

So it's interesting, yet again, that what's presented here doesn't fit into any of those categories. It's not charming. It's not light. It's... risky. It's dark. It's disconcerting. It may be hot, yes, but it's also, in fact, pretty cold.

Delicious, but cold. 
But more on that in the next part of my analysis... when Bull finally makes his move.


  1. Hooray!! I love reading your essays and I can't wait for the next one! One little question: you mention that Bull posts up next to the Chantry in Haven, but in fact he stands by his tent next to the stables and smithy, on the outside of Haven's walls. Your argument stays the same—I think people are even more likely to gossip when out of earshot of the Chantry mothers, and there is some interesting ambient dialogue by the horses indeed. Also he is able to watch the soldiers and new recruits being trained by Cullen. So that position gives him a good 'temperature read' of the common people, but perhaps less so on the war table... although Cassandra and Cullen would be walking by him every time they pass through the gates, since they tend to stand by the training soldiers themselves.

    I also had the same reaction to Bull when I first met him. I knew Freddie Prinze Jr. was voicing a romanceable character in this game and I was pining to dance with James Vega after Mass Effect 3, but Iron Bull was too much of what I didn't want (I'm the same as you with overly musclebound guys with very angle-y faces). I didn't end up pursuing him until a much later playthrough—after Blackwall, Dorian, Solas and Cullen...!—and I was playing a qunari Inquisitor at the time, which made for a very complicated dynamic. I'm very much looking forward to hearing more of your take on the Iron Bull experience!!

    1. First off, thanks so much as always for reading, Elana!

      And you're absolutely right-- I goofed on Bull's location. I confused it in my head with Krem standing outside the Chantry when we first encounter him! I fixed that reference (and noted your contribution) ASAP.

      Bull's romance was a milestone for me in RPG gaming, because of all the reasons I list -- I didn't find him pretty, I wasn't sure how I felt about him, and yet it was that much more satisfying to begin to really admire his subtlety and smarts, and to further recognize his beauty (much as we do in life).

      I had a very similar experience with Solas, where one minute I wasn't remotely interested, and the next, I was all, "WHEN DID HE GET HOT?" Bioware is really good at that stuff, at giving us characters who look and seem real, they're not all perfect, yet they're beautiful in their own ways.

  2. You are spot on in this analysis for me! Please do more soon - really enjoyed reading this!

    1. Thank you so much! That's high praise, and I'm so glad you enjoyed the piece. I'll really look forward to your take on the newest analysis of Bull's romance -- Part 2 -- as well!


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