Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Love, Lies and Lyrium: Speculations on Varric's Role in Dragon Age 4


VARRIC: There's always someone bent on breaking the world...

You know that third Dragon Age 4 trailer that I took forever to analyze, and that I just posted about last week?

Well, going through and updating it over the past few weeks made me do some thinking. And a lot of that thinking was about our storyteller dwarf Master Tethras, whose character analysis I just posted a few weeks back before the latest big teaser trailer run-through.

For me, as for many, one of the most exciting things about that new teaser trailer for Dragon Age 4 was the immediate revelation that it was narrated by none other than Varric Tethras himself—which is a pretty good indication that Thedas's bestselling novelist is going to be returning for our next adventure. Especially as he even specifies, "I've got your back" as the trailer winds down.

As I mentioned, I feel like this is a clear indication that Varric will most likely serve as an advisor to our next hero in Dragon Age 4—he may even be our main point of contact, although I believe Dorian and hopefully Maevaris will also be present. As I also mentioned, I don't think Varric's going to be a Companion, although he may very well have a special guest "tag-along" quest, as Cullen did in Dragon Age Inquisition.

But I think there are some other exciting big-picture conclusions to be drawn from Varric's presence, as well.

Varric's Nemesis

Varric's narration in that latest trailer isn't just important because it lets us know that Varric will be back—there's another really deep, almost mythic aspect I want to bring up here, which is that, for Varric, more than for any other character in Dragon Age, red lyrium is his nemesis.

Varric was there when that very first red lyrium idol was found in the remains of the ancient thaig in the Deep Roads in Dragon Age II -- the lyrium idol that seemed to start red lyrium's deadly growth across Thedas. That red lyrium idol first destroyed his brother Bartram and then maddened and destroyed Meredith. This in turn led to widescale death and carnage across Kirkwall, and which endangered Thedas beyond.

Then Corypheus's rise to power in Dragon Age Inquisition took the effects even further, and through a corrupt network, evil army, and demented mining strategy, red lyrium began to show up in almost all corners of Southern Thedas as the Inquisition waged its battles. Varric then discovered the devastating truth that Bianca had unknowingly facilitated a secret red lyrium mining operation in order to maintain access to her study of the red lyrium. Even as Varric worked do destroy as much red lyrium as possible across Thedas, Bianca's brilliant scientific mind had discovered the truth -- that the substance is what happens when regular lyrium becomes infected with the Blight—and that red lyrium is, in ways she can't quite understand, actually alive.

While Bianca hadn't meant to doom the world or contribute to the rise of Corypants, it's still undeniable that she knew she was doing some pretty shady stuff, and that the red lyrium was incredibly dangerous.

Varric knew it too. Which was why he sighed his usual catchphrase, which also held a world of hurt behind it: "Well, shit."

The Infection Spreads

Because red lyrium is somehow alive, this seems to make it easy to use to "infect" a landscape, and in Dragon Age Inquisition, Corypheus made sure it was sown across Thedas. The deposits grew and multiplied quickly, and were easy to mine and transport, since red lyrium (unlike regular lyrium) can be mined by anyone, not just dwarves. Red lyrium was also shown to be insidious and easy to use to corrupt and infect people, since it didn't even require ingestion, and people could be infected simply through close proximity (which is what appeared to happen to our imprisoned companions in the alternate future of "In Hushed Whispers.")

Varric never forgot his brother Bartram's poisoning and destruction from red lyrium (either mentally or physically, depending on our choices in Dragon Age II), and that chapter of his life

In Knight Errant, upon finishing his trip to Starkhaven (attending Sebastian's birthday celebration in order to help Vaea get Marius and Tessa out of prison), Varric discovers upon departure that red lyrium may have now spread to Tevinter.

Tevinter Nights, meanwhile, shows that Varric has continued to work actively for the Inquisition despite his day job as Viscount. He's the one who oversees the investigation on Genitivi and friends' research into the nature of the ancient elven pantheon, according to "Genitivi Dies in the End," and who receives the report (a nice detail to look back on as Varric is obviously very much aware of "The Dread Wolf" and his identity as of the new Dragon Age 4 trailer). It's also Varric who calls in a favor to get the Carta Assassin to attend the meeting with Charter in "The Dread Wolf Take You." The Assassin's tale is also directly tied to the danger of red lyrium, and he starts by referencing Bartrand and Meredith, then talks obliquely about Bianca's research and revelations, and that Varric was responsible for the Carta-approved quarantine to try to keep it contained.

Then he gets specific: A Dalish elf contacted them who wanted the red lyrium idol from the heart of Meredith's fossilized red lyrium form (for Solas), and here's where Varric and Solas's stories and agendas converge:

...But the elf keeps at it. He’s learned it from a dream. Some old legend of his people says the idol is in her body, and if he gets it out, he can free his gods or something like that...

...We’re about to kill him, not because we’re cruel, you understand, but anybody who is that determined to dig around in a statue made of lyrium needs to be put down before they get a bunch of people hurt, and then the elf pulls out a potion and says it will soften the raw lyrium and weaken its magic for a bit, so we can get to the idol inside safely. We pour a little of that potion on some lyrium for a laugh, and damned if it doesn’t work just like he says.

In hindsight, what's really interesting about this beyond the fact that Solas and Varric's stories have just converged again in the unlikeliest of ways, is that Solas has very little dialogue about red lyrium in Dragon Age Inquisition, period. Beyond expressing a healthy caution for being in its proximity, he says few words about it and expresses no curiosity at all. 

However. He does have the following extremely telling conversation with Cassandra about Corypants:

Cassandra: Solas, what do you think this Corypheus actually is?
Solas: A darkspawn, as he appears.
Cassandra: But what of the orb he wields and the dragon he commands? This is no ordinary darkspawn.
Solas: His true advantage is the red lyrium. It is corrupted by the Blight as he is, thus taps into its power twofold. Whatever he was before, that is what makes him dangerous now.

Uh-oh. 

And this ties directly in with the stories of the Carta Assassin and all of the others at Charter's table in Tevinter Nights as they converge to provide us with the revelation that Solas desperately needed the red lyrium idol, and that he's going to use it in his ritual or enchantment to tear down the Veil and restore the ancient empire of his people. The idol—and the red lyrium—are going to provide him with that "true advantage" and of course, just as he said, make him more dangerous than ever.

The fact that Solas ends the story as resolute and sorrowful as ever to move forward with his plans doesn't bode well for Thedas in Dragon Age 4... or Varric in his determination to contain the threat of red lyrium once and for all.

A Sorrowful Dwarf in a Lyrium-Blighted World

It's exciting and surprising that Solas's biggest strategic antagonist in Dragon Age 4 may just be our own Master Tethras, once again waging a war against a toxic red crystal that harkens all the way back to the days of Mythal and the Evanuris and Solas, back to dwarves and titans, back to stolen titan's-blood and the beginnings of the Blight... (No wonder the Blighted red lyrium is confirmed by Bianca to be alive... isn't lyrium already alive, if we think about it? The titans lived, even if they may have been monolithic, biologically exotic creatures of mountain and stone... they were alive, and it certainly looks like we may be in for a reckoning in Dragon Age 4.)

And it all makes perfect sense, if so. As we get those additional glimpses of the next chapter in Dragon Age, it's obvious that red lyrium is back again, and worse than ever, in Dragon Age 4. For this reason, Varric's presence in the trailer is not only exciting, it's also potentially tragic. 

As of the end of "Trespasser," Varric was uncomfortably ensconced as the lovably irascible Viscount of Kirkwall, grudgingly ruling the city where he was born—the city he loved, even when he didn't want to. He felt a responsibility to the city and its people, and demonstrated in his conversations with the Inquisitor that, like it or not, he was a pretty damn good ruler, and he was keeping his city safe. He seemed pretty set where he was—even inviting the Inquisitor to come out and live there if they have a yearning to (an offer that warmed my heart, because Varric can't help turning friends into family everywhere he goes). He doesn't seem like someone who's going to go on extended adventuring again anytime soon.

But now I think everything's changed. 

Thanks to the teasers and trailers, the red lyrium we glimpse in Dragon Age 4 doesn't just look like a creepy malignancy to be wiped out here and there—it looks like a plague, a crimson cancer that's overrunning Thedas, destroying fields, forests, and even perhaps cities.

Which means that for Varric, Dragon Age 4 is going to be more personal than ever. I suspect he'll be more invested and passionate than we've seen him so far, for that reason. No more attempts to be neutral. No more reluctance to choose a side, to be the storyteller and not the hero. As I've mentioned before, this is something that writer Mary Kirby has always navigated skillfully when it comes to Varric, balancing that sense of charm and intimacy, that Varric is our friend, with that equal truth that he's just as cool and calculating as Leliana and Bull in some ways, and far more similar to them in his abilities to compartmentalize than people may be aware of.

It's personal. And if it's personal for Varric, that means he has more to lose than ever. But those moments also can come with a curious sense of freedom, which is why I want to bring up my other theory for the next game: when it comes to love, I think Varric may finally have let go of the past.

Closing a Door on the Past...

The revelation that Bianca was aware of the red lyrium operation in Dragon Age Inquisition, and keeping vital information about that fact from Varric, ends her visit to Skyhold with a tense confrontation between the two in which Bianca both apologizes and justifies her actions, and in which Varric seems both deeply disappointed and tired. The Inquisitor can step in, choose a side, or ask them both to step back. 

Bianca plays it cool as always, although we can see how much Varric still means to her. She threatens the Inquisitor if Varric comes to harm, and even during the mission to the Deep Roads, she invites Varric to stop by for another tryst—another few stolen moments for the lovers among dozens over the years.

Still, he's unhappy as she departs, and from the conversation that ensues with the Inquisitor, it's apparent that this is a big moment for Varric, and I think it's about more than just choosing a side or seeing the big picture here.

I think it's also about his heart. 

Right here is when I think Varric starts to let go of Bianca permanently. At long last.

Hearts and High Stakes

My bet is that Varric's discovery of Bianca's role in Dragon Age Inquisition finally caused him to break free from her, and that—at last—all those people who wanted their chance at romancing the guy with the best chest hair in Thedas may finally get their chance.

This is why I don't just think he'll be an advisor in the next game, following the tried and true "Cullen" Dragon Age path from soldier to commander—I also think, as with Cullen, that finally Varric may in fact... wait for it... be available.

After all, this is a formula that's worked for BioWare in the games in the past—popular game characters evolve from romanced companions to advisors or compatriots, or vice versa, as we've seen in the case of Leliana, Cassandra, and Cullen, and that we'll witness again next, I suspect, with Dorian (who I'm betting will be an unromanceable advisor), and Varric. If I'm right, Varric won't just be laying his traps and pulling on those spiderwebs, he'll also—I swear to Andruil—be available for those patient Varric thirsters wanting to finally swipe right.

It makes narrative sense to me, as well. The next game is going to hold the highest stakes for Varric in many ways since it all began back in Kirkwall. And yet we'll be dealing with a new protagonist and a new cast of Companion followers, which might daunt some players missing the camaraderie of their old friends at Skyhold. So if it does happen as I expect, Varric will be one of those returning characters who would provide an anchor, a sense of continuity and family for returning players, and his romance would further add a natural yet necessary element of emotion and high stakes very quickly into the equation, as well.

This scenario also worries me as someone who adores Varric and doesn't want anything to happen to him. Let's face it, if Varric were Ahab, then red lyrium would be his white whale. It's literally touched, altered or destroyed almost everything he loved. Will he defeat it? Or will it sink him at last? If it does, I can almost guarantee you that he'd simply die with a wry smile and an appropriately literary and witty observation as his last words. 

The sad part is, Varric will have had years in which to compose those words, because I think some part of him always knew that the fight wasn't over, and that because he was there for the discovery of red lyrium in the beginning, he would have an additional part to play in the end, as well.

That's why Dragon Age 4 may very well hold the highest danger for Thedas's most popular novelist yet—and the biggest threat not just to his life, but to his heart.

Will Varric make it through? Time will tell.

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