Dragon Age has always been on the frontlines when it comes to diverse protagonists, though it is far from the only game to offer this. And giving gamers a chance to play as various genders, races and sexual identities is an awesome thing. But it also makes storytelling more complicated, because if the story doesn’t reflect this diversity, it only makes sense in a world where there is no discrimination based on these things.
Some fantasy universes actually go in that direction. Not always wholly successfully or consistently – frequently the implication is that the universe is all equal, but it just so happens that most people in power are straight white males. This is probably partly a result of lingering prejudices and partly thanks to pseudo-medieval tropes tied to the fantasy genre. It can break the suspension of disbelief just a little, but overly, it’s not such a big deal.
Many other universes, on the other hand, decide to keep some form of systemic injustice, usually in the form of fantastic racism. Dragon Age is just one of them. And this is where the complications come into play. Because ultimately, complete freedom in character creation makes sense only in a world without structural injustice. That means an utopia, and nice as it might be to live in one, they are rather boring as far as narratives go, proving little in the way of tension for the story to use. The most interesting tales usually employ conflict with society in some ways, and that almost always means systemic oppression.
But once you do incorporate structural injustice, can you really afford to give players complete freedom in what character they come up with?
Let me use the three Dragon Age games as an example here, to illustrate the problems inherent in this approach.
As I said, its world is not one where the universe pretends at no prejudices and your character has, in fact, no background, their race and gender influencing nothing at all. No, Dragon Age limits your choice to a few available backstories, and with these backstories go specific dialogue options and even quests in the game. Where games like Elder Scrolls do the equivalent of colourblind casting, with all the problems it entails, Dragon Age theoretically does the equivalent of writing roles for minorities, telling their particular stories.
But. (There is always a but.)
The different games are a very good example of the different ways in which one can deal with such an approach, and different measures of success.
In some ways, the best example of how to do it is Dragon Age: Origins.
There are specific origin quests for different character backgrounds picked, and most of them are even quite well-done. They also have tie-ins later in the game, where you get a chance to meet characters already familiar to you. Mostly, whenever something arises where your origin would likely make you react in a specific way, you actually get the option to do so. There are a few slip-ups, but nothing major. Great job, right?
But the only reason why Origins can be this good at story customization is because, at its core, it is a fairly generic hero story.
A novice comes into a mysterious order, their mentor dies, and the task of saving the world falls to them. Individual subquests then have you circling through all the places your past can tie in to, so that every fantastic race has a chance at their customized experiences. The mysterious order in question gives the hero legitimacy beyond any background they might have. It is a decent formula to make it work, but unfortunately unless you want to make all of your games effectively identical, it can only be used once.
Dragon Age II decided to go a different way and limit the number of background choices. There is, effectively, only one backstory, just slightly tweaked depending on your character’s class. In most ways, they decided to abandon the path of different origins in this installment. I still mention it in this article, though, because in spite of this, they rather ironically managed to mess it up. Because they still let you to pick your character’s class, and it just so happens that the central conflict of the game is all about mages and their discrimination.
The oppression of free mages is supposed to be everywhere. So when you play for one such free mage, publicly casting your free magic everywhere the entire game and the most you get for it is slight lip service…well, that is just a little strange.
The lesson should be pretty obvious here: if you make oppression of a particular group one of the central themes of your story, and yet your hero, belonging to that group, never really experiences it, then you are doing something wrong. It weakens the story by making the odds less, it breaks the suspension of disbelief, and it adds to the feeling that your protagonist is really just a generic stand-in. I really shouldn’t need to spell this out.
Apparently someone should have spelled it out to the game creators, though, because the very same problem appears again in Inquisition. That game returned to more diverse origin stories, but didn’t actually keep the different origin quests, only giving you your character background in a very brief summary. Later, too, the specific quests tied to your origins were just tabletop missions that took two clicks to solve, and some of them with deeply problematic implications to boot. All of that is a pity, but doesn’t touch the main problem, the one carrying over from Dragon Age II. Just as people would not treat a mage and a non-mage the same in a world that hates mages, so, too, the treatment of other oppressed groups would be much different from the privileged ones.
On my first playthrough of Inquisition, I was a free elven mage, an intersection of two despised groups (she was a woman, too, but let’s pretend we buy the fiction that there is hardly any sexism in the world of Dragon Age for now). On the second, I was a human noble, so two privileged groups. The character starts the game in a very vulnerable position, and they were both treated the same.
To put it quite plainly, that is not how it would go.
In fact, given the circumstances of the beginning of the game and if I see the way the noble character is treated as base comparison, I am quite certain the free elven mage would actually be dead. Beaten to death by an angry mob. Because these are things that actually happen in the world, and they would certainly happen in the world Dragon Age is set to take place in.
It is not that you never encounter any racism when playing as an elf in Inquistion – there are a few cases of casual remarks. But nothing near to what would be realistic in the setting we’re meant to believe in. Nothing that would actually influence the story in a meaningful way.
There is one nice case, though, that well-illustrates what this game actually does. When the protagonist encounters her scout in what is essentially an elven mass grave of a genocide, the scout comments that it just seems sad there are so many dead elves. If you play for an elf, you can stare at her incredulously and then quote an ancient oath at her to make her realize that yeah, you have in fact thought about this before and it seems quite sad to you, since it was the genocide of your bloody ancestors she’s talking about. She blushes and apologises to you for not realising it was this personal for you. This kind of casual erasure is brilliantly captured, and it is also what the game does all the time.
It is nice to have this one shout-out, but when you go through the plains where the genocide happened and collect quest points for landmaks commemorating the killings of individual elven heroes, the elven protagonist is allowed no reaction. When you have to listen to one of the companions expound on how your heroic knights were probably just thieves and murderers, you are allowed no reaction. When you come to an elven temple, two of your companions (one of them actually not even an elf) translate the elven writing for you. And, best of all, at one point when you find a crucial piece of elvish history, your own elvish character suggests that you could give it to the Chantry – as in, the religious institution responsible for the genocide. Oh, and also one your character has been kind-of affiliated with from the start of the game, because why not?
You see the problem?
There is a lot of elvish material in the game; it’s one of the cornerstones of the story. But it’s treated in exactly the way all non-Western cultures are treated in the real world. Namely, simply exploited without any regard for the actual people it might tie in to. Much like with romance, though much less amusingly, the creators of the game brilliantly captured the same aspects of racism and orientalism in the structure of their story itself. The elves have always been a stand-in for racial minorities from our world, and here they are, always an object and never truly a subject, even when one of them is the supposed protagonist. The very same thing, to a lesser degree, goes for the mages.
Now the question: is this a problem when the cultures and races in question are not actually real races, but instead Thedas elves or, you know, wizards?
My answer is, yes, absolutely. Less of a problem, but still. Because it still perpetuates the patterns of oppression. It still teaches you, as you play the game, that you can stand in a temple of one culture and speak over a member of the actual culture in question as you explain its meaning. That you can ignore someone’s religious sensibilities completely. It teaches you an outsider can somehow have access to the “true” meaning of a cultural tradition, better than the insiders do. And so on.
Of course, it begs the question of how much of this is actually a product of some kind of racism (given that the groups in question, elves and mages, are not ones actual real world prejudices can be connected to) and how much of it is simply a byproduct of having multiple origins for the story protagonists. The harmful effects I’ve outlined remain whichever the case, but it rather changes the conversation.
It is entirely possible that it is simply a byproduct. But it is curious, is it not, that it just so happens to be the group that is underprivileged in-universe which gets the short end of the stick in the story. When playing for a human, you can waltz through countless elven ruins without giving the religion they tie in to any respect. When you play for an elf, you have to at least pretend to be the herald of a human prophet. Is it something about crafting a narrative of oppression that makes the story itself warp into this sort of shape? Do the writers become so immersed in their own world that they become subject to its prejudices?
But these are fanciful musings. To get back on point, as long as you have diversity both in character backgrounds and in the cultures they encounter, there are going to be differences between the reactions of different characters. Profound ones. Perhaps bigger ones than can ever be covered by a few dialogue changes. As I said, the elven free mage would likely have been dead at the beginning. That rather changes the story, does it not?
Simply said, most stories cannot be crafted without paying mind the the protagonist’s background, because their background shapes who they are and how the world reacts to them, and that is what any good story grows from.
Most games avoid this by having a clearly defined protagonist. Others do so by ignoring any differences in background. Each approach has its own upsides when it comes to diversity. The second frees you from the necessity to constantly play for cis straight white men, which we all know would happen if the protagonist was a fixed choice. It is, of course, merely a visual thing, since the way these games are written normally means the protagonist is treated as a white man would be, no matter what they look like, but that is refreshing and transgressive in its own way too.
The first, on the other hand, can do much good when the creators actually do not make the hero at least one of these categories. Because then, all who play the game go through the experience of being, for a time, someone other than the most common idea of a hero. When the background is well done, it can be very rewarding. But still, the thing is, we do not need games for that. Films and books work in this way, with a clearly defined protagonist who, hopefully, doesn’t always have to be the entitled male. Games have the potential to do something more interesting.
This is why, in spite of all the issues it brings, I much prefer the way Dragon Age decided to go. I much prefer actual diversity in my options regarding the hero. Still, all of the problems mentioned above should not be ignored, and generic stories in the mold of Origins are hardly a general solution.
In fact, I believe the essential direction Dragon Age II went in was a good one. I believe that limiting the diversity somewhat is the only way to have the stories actually be diverse, not just white man tales with different visuals and a bit of lip-service. However, it is telling that when they had to choose one race to concentrate the origin story on, they chose the most privileged one.
The multiple-origins approach is viable if different, but in some essentials similar characters are found. Speaking of the Dragon Age world, an elf from an alienage, from a wandering clan and an ex-slave from Tevinter will have many disparate experiences, but also many shared ones, and the way people will react to their presence will also be similar enough not to tax the storytelling overmuch. A casteless dwarf and an alienage elf have different cultural backgrounds, but the experience of being the poorest and most downtrodden in a city can be enough to build a similar story on. A mage and a rebel Qunari would have dealt with a lot of similar prejudices in their lives, though again their views would be quite opposite to each other. I suppose a human and dwarven merchant, too, would have a lot in common, though telling that story seems much less interesting.
There can be enough diversity left when the choices are curtailed somewhat, and the story this results in would be more faithful to a character’s chosen background. It would look less like people’s stories and cultures were interchangeable and unimportant for who they were. I, for one, hope that this is the way the eventual Dragon Age IV will go.
All images courtesy of BioWare
Waiting for Katoh: Romancing the Iron Bull in Dragon Age
Inquisitor: It’s a little unnerving that you have this down to a system.
The Iron Bull: Systems are comfortable. And my goal is for you to get… very comfortable.
Spoiler Warning for Dragon Age: Inquisition
NOTE—CONTENT AND POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes some respectful yet candid, open and potentially NSFW discussion of The Iron Bull’s DAI romance (and its BDSM elements). Please proceed with caution and full awareness.
Once upon a time, I’d been dreaming of romancing a prince in a videogame. Then I played Dragon Age: Inquisition and stumbled across The Iron Bull.
He was everything I hadn’t wanted. And he was perfect: funny, brilliant, sensual, and caring. I fell flat and (thinking I was on my way to an adorable Beauty and the Beast-style romance for Bull and my little blonde Inquisitor) instantly decided that he would be mine.
Pretty soon I began to realize, however, that this romance was not going to be as easy as I’d expected. Despite his purported availability and enthusiasm, Bull didn’t show much interest in my Inquisitor’s charms at all, and had instead spent dozens of hours in-game smilingly ignoring her efforts. Months, in game-time. Months. My poor Inquisitor was not a happy camper. (Please note that I’ll be generally referring to the Inquisitor as “she” throughout this piece since I’m discussing my own playthrough, but of course as Bull is pansexual, the Inky can be any gender preference the player chooses.)
At first, I hadn’t found Bull attractive—he was intimidating, this big, hulking guy who just wasn’t my type at all. But then, as I described, I started to realize what a fantastic and complex character he was, and soon I was gazing at Bull with glowy pink hearts in my eyes, just like pretty much everyone else in Thedas:
Cole: The Iron Bull, a woman in the last village wanted you to pick her up and take her clothes off.
Iron Bull: Most people do.
Cole: In her mind, you were very big.
Iron Bull: Well, that’s flattering.
But meanwhile, I wasn’t getting anywhere, and my poor Inquisitor’s flirts weren’t seeming to have any effect at all. Then, although I was trying to avoid spoilers, I saw a comment that eventually Bull would show up in the Inquisitor’s quarters when his approval was high enough. So (hilariously) in between flirts, my poor Inquisitor started running back up to her room to see if Bull would show up there. (Just in case you thought this couldn’t get anymore embarrassing…)
But my Inky kept flirting, determined to win Bull’s heart. And then he finally showed up in my Inquisitor’s quarters, and everything changed. And I basically fell out of my chair at the options he presented, because they were a hell of a lot more eyebrow-raising than “So, hey, I got you a rose.”
This was not at all the fairytale I thought I had been pursuing… but it was fantastic writing from Bull’s writer (fantasy novelist Patrick Weekes). And beautifully character-appropriate.
First off, the reality: when it comes to romance, Bull’s in a league of his own. I mean, let’s be honest—a few frilly words with Solas and Cullen and you’re making out on the rooftops.
But as I mentioned, Bull’s different. There’s no reaction at all. (I always picture him reacting with faint amusement, like, “Nice try, Boss…”) Until, one day, finally, there’s a reaction. The day arrives, when you’ve made so many overtures that Bull himself couldn’t fail to acknowledge the signals. Victory is yours, on the night Bull shows up in your quarters out of the blue, and he finally makes his move.
But he’s got a proposition for you. And it’s a doozy. He’s not just propositioning you for sex, he’s asking you to enter a world that may scare or intimidate you just a little.
And just like that, BDSM entered the world of mainstream gaming.
Terms and Conditions
When Bull finally takes action, it’s fascinating, because from a character and story perspective, he’s risking everything on a very specific moment. If Dragon Age: Inquisition were an actual novel (and not the playable novel I believe it actually is), I’d be fascinated to know exactly what caused Bull to go, “Okay. It’s time.” Was there a specific flirtatious moment? Or was there an outside cause? It would be interesting, for instance, to headcanon a message from the Qun, or even a proactive decision when he recognizes interest in the Inquisitor from a potential rival.
Either way, Bull shows up, and makes his play. If he succeeds, everything’s changed. If he fails, it would be interesting to wonder what his backup strategy might be… if he’s Qun-loyal, does he then coldly seek out Dorian, for instance? Or is he content to continue to prove himself simply as a captain and companion?
But… on the other hand, this is Bull we’re talking about. He knows human nature like nobody else (humans, elves, dwarves, everyone, etc.). He reads signals and micro-signals. He understands how people are wired. Then he acts. And it’s interesting that when he does, he’s continuing his previous “playing it cool” approach—he’s still holding himself back a bit, a little removed and detached.
Most of all, he’s still playing games. Only this time, he wants you to play, too.
I mean, let’s face it, Bull could’ve taken my Inquisitor up on her flirtations, offered her a jolly night in the sack, and he’d have probably been pretty safe doing so. She would’ve been perfectly happy with this, too, on some level—we already know, from hearsay, that such nights with Bull are perfectly satisfying and that he certainly appears to make sure everyone goes home happy. But as with most situations for Bull, he’s thought this through, and he’s determined that there’s only one specific outcome that works.
And he’s quite aware that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Perhaps no other character’s romance is as careful about consent as Bull’s, and your character can say no to Bull’s flirtation with zero hard feelings on either side. Spy or not, secret agenda or not, he’s genial and kind in response:
Iron Bull: …I’m not sure you know what you’re asking. Not sure if you’re ready for it.
Inquisitor (refusing): You’re right. Flirting was fun, but it probably wouldn’t work out.
Iron Bull: Exactly. So don’t worry about it. Let’s just keep killing things. We’re really good at that. For what it’s worth, though… you would’ve been walking funny the next day. Anyway, nice talking with you. Have a good one.
I mean, Bull handles rejection like a champ here (and elsewhere, as our Inquisitor can turn him down here, break it off the morning after, or when their romance is discovered, among other occasions). I really like that he’s not kidding about there being zero repercussions or hard feelings.
An Object of Obsession
Meanwhile, let’s get back to motives for a moment. If Bull’s motive was simply to seduce the Inquisitor, he could’ve done this months ago (in-universe), couldn’t he? And if his goal was just sex, again, wasn’t this already within reach for him fairly quickly?
Instead, he’s still playing chess, still being strategic to shore up his position in the long game. From a character standpoint, my impression is that he’s willing to risk losing because he’s confident enough in his own skills, his own abilities at reading and understanding human nature, to do so.
My take here, in fact, is that he’s willing to gamble because if he’s right in his assessment here (whether Qun-loyal or Tal-Vashoth, depending on the outcome of “The Demands of the Qun“), Bull won’t just have the Inquisitor as a casual bedmate, he’ll be providing them with a relationship whose demands satisfy a need previously unrecognized within the Inquisitor herself, and in ways only he can satisfactorily meet. In short, he’s positioning himself fairly coldly to be the object of a sexual obsession. And he’ll gain a potential (and high-ranking) chesspiece in his play to both control or affect the Inquisition as well as for his potential return to the Qun as a power player despite his past sins (at least, as an option).
Which is where the BDSM aspect of Bull’s romantic proposition to the Inquisitor comes into the picture.
It shouldn’t be surprising that, in the bedroom, as elsewhere, Bull’s secretly all about power dynamics and exploiting those for his own benefit.
Waiting for Katoh
It’d be one thing for Bull to make his move as an uncomplicated typical romantic overture. Basically, the kind of scenario where he’d say, “Hey gorgeous, Bull here. If you’re agreeable, let’s finally hook up!”
It’s quite another for him to show up in your quarters unannounced (a great and subtle way to start the scenario with the Inquisitor off-balance), to say, “So… I’ve gotten the messages. I get what you want. And it’s tempting. So let me make you an offer in return: What if I promise to give you everything you want, plus that escape you crave, but only on my terms, and at the sacrifice of full control, in a scenario that demands your absolute trust? While, in addition, possibly changing your entire outlook on who you thought you were?”
Um… No big deal, right? The only problem is, Bull is asking for that absolute trust, that willingness to be completely vulnerable… after he himself has already openly told us, at that point, numerous times, why he himself should not be trusted. If we’re paying attention. So it’s a pretty fascinating and fraught situation from a story standpoint, and one that provides the potential for a surprising amount of tension and drama. And if he’s working an agenda, and we don’t gain his loyalty (in “Demands of the Qun”) the outcome of the story that begins here is truly heartbreaking at the conclusion of “Trespasser.” (People, save the Chargers. Just please, always save the Chargers.)
Meanwhile, no matter what Bull’s agenda here, as I mentioned, Bull makes his move with care, respect, and delicacy. He ensures consent—not once, not twice, but three separate times. The consent aspect is important and even somewhat poignant if you think about it, because Bull himself comes from a culture in which sexual consent, at least in the big-picture sense, is nonexistent. In life under the Qun and elements like the Qunari breeding programs, what or who you want personally doesn’t matter. The Qun is all about the collective good. Individuals either assimilate, do what they’re told (or who they’re told), or they die.
All of this is why, for me, Bull’s emphasis on consent here is a vital and very telling character note. (It’s also why criticisms of that consent scenario drive me batty, but more on that farther down.)
The issue of consent is doubly important in Bull’s scenario from a larger standpoint, I’d further argue, precisely because lack of consent has been such a troubling yet consistent aspect of other BDSM representations in popular entertainment, most notably, in stuff like 50 Shades of Grey. (Full disclosure: I haven’t read it, but in researching this, I became aware of the criticisms of the romance and its issues with consent and abuse.) The emphasis Dragon Age: Inquisition places on an empowered and consenting relationship is therefore, to me, culturally important and responsibly done.
We’re Definitely Not in Hyrule Anymore…
In a big-picture sense, seriously, all of this is pretty complex and surprising stuff for a videogame. Because it puts the player/protagonist into a situation in which they might very well react in any number of ways—with discomfort or outright disgust, with amusement or interest, or with enthusiasm and delighted approval, et cetera. (What’s interesting is that the Bioware team was evidently initially very concerned at the reactions from players and was subsequently pleasantly surprised when Bull’s romance was a non-issue for the vast majority.)
Keep in mind that, strategically (if it occurs before “Demands of the Qun”), Bull has everything to lose here in terms of the political coinage he’s acquired with the Inquisitor over his time with the Inquisition. Yet he’s willing to risk it, because he’s gambling as always on his proven ability to read other people. He’s basically saying, “Okay, I’ll give you what you want… but only on my terms… if you agree.” While pretty much already assuming he knows the choice they’ll make.
Right away, when he shows up in the Inquisitor’s chambers, Bull presents her with a series of choices. The short answer? He’s still making sure we’re chasing him (and his approval). It’s all so smart, and so much fun from a writing standpoint. Sure, he’s there, he’s willing… but there’s also that palpable sense that Bull’s also pretty uninvested in the outcome (at least by all appearances). He’s acknowledging the flirtations, but he’s also halfway out the door. It’s calm and deliberate—a far cry from Solas’s, Cass’s, or Blackwall’s passionate declarations of desire or love even against their better instincts, simply because they cannot help themselves. Instead, with Bull, it’s slightly cold, almost amused.
But either way, he makes his offer, and we can respond. And once the Inquisitor consents the third time (in an agreement that’s either more innocent and romantic or that’s more worldly and experienced), we end on a real smile from Bull, an embrace… and then a quick fade to black.
(Honestly, maybe that fade to black was perhaps a little too quick. I’m just sayin’…)
But we don’t jump to the next morning, as we might expect. Intriguingly, instead, we’re shown a moment when The Iron Bull is leaving the Inquisitor’s chambers, and he’s confronted by Leliana, who is stopping by to ask the Inquisitor for input on an Inquisition matter.
Bull’s response there is to tell her no, point-blank. He sends Leliana away—Leliana, our leader, spymaster, and warrior-nun. The person nobody says no to. And he does so with a shrug. It’s intriguing and textbook Bull: “Let her rest,” he says, coolly meeting the eyes of the most terrifying person in all of Skyhold. He’s at ease. He’s also amused, relaxed, and confident. And Leliana, visibly thoughtful about this unexpected development, departs without further comment. (And I love that she never, ever says a word about what she knows here. Nobody keeps secrets like our Nightingale.)
In an obvious sense, Bull’s just done some oddly positive things here. He’s—it’s certainly implied—provided the Inquisitor with the escape and release she needed. He’s also fended off potential interruptions and made sure she gets some much-needed rest.
He’s also just made a major power move. He just told Leliana, in no uncertain terms, that he’s now a factor in the Inquisitor’s life. It can be taken as selfish (“I’m someone you need to take note of”) or unselfish (“I’m here to make sure you give her the space she needs”). Or a combination of the two.
For me, the headcanon read on this scene depends on what the outcome was to “The Demands of the Qun.” If we saved the Chargers, Bull has no more need to apply ulterior motives, and he’s simply doing what he’s best at—caregiving and protecting. If we chose to sacrifice the Chargers, however, Bull’s motives immediately get a lot murkier. (So much so that it’s going to have to be a whole separate blog post in the future.)
Meanwhile, my Inky got her night with Bull. And I’m assuming it was fabulous and delightful and probably earth-shattering on a number of levels. But she certainly had some questions the morning after (and so did I).
The best part is? He answers them.
Warnings and Watchwords
It’s interesting that Bull’s seduction has a decidedly cool element, a visible detachment, yet he’s so much warmer and kinder the morning after. This could be an expected result of the intimacy of their previous night together. Or it may also simply indicate that he’s more confident and not feeling the need to hold himself at arms’ length anymore.
Regardless, Bull’s actually very approachable the next morning, if we choose to go ask him to talk with us about what happened the night before. He’s genial, friendly, and open—surprisingly so. (My favorite part of this early conversation is when we first try to talk to him about the previous night, Bull assumes we just want some therapeutic advice on physical comfort in the aftermath, responding cheerfully that, “I can show you some stretches…”.)
Then he realizes what the Inquisitor wants to talk about, they sit down together in her quarters, and just… talk. In an extended, smart, literate, and mature dialogue sequence about what they did, how the Inquisitor feels about it, what each wants, what he’s offering, the rules of engagement, what the boundaries are, and where those boundaries end. He also addresses, bluntly, the psychology behind his choices.
And here’s where it gets fascinating. He reveals to you at this point, fairly candidly, how he thinks you’re wired and what he thinks you need. He admits that he’s using his Ben-Hassrath training to intuit this stuff, but also that he’s using those powers for good:
Inquisitor: I’m still not sure how to react to the things we did.
Iron Bull: If you’re limping, I can show you a few stretches that’ll take care of it.
Inquisitor: That’s not what I meant.
Iron Bull (pausing): You don’t say. Found a part of yourself you didn’t know was there before…
The Inquisitor doesn’t answer.
Iron Bull (more gently): 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.
Inquisitor: So if I agree, how does this… work?
Iron Bull: Outside this room, nothing changes. You’re the Inquisitor. You’re the Boss. I will never hurt you without your permission. You will always be safe. If you are ever uncomfortable, if you ever want me to stop, you say “katoh” and it’s over. No questions asked.
Inquisitor (one of several minor varying options): It’s a little unnerving that you have this down to a system.
Iron Bull: Systems are comfortable. And my goal is for you to get… very comfortable.
My favorite part of this exchange is the way Bull is employing his usual talent for lying with the truth and hiding in plain sight.
Just as he told us he was a spy the moment we met, here he points out that his Ben-Hassrath training is enabling him to manipulate the Inquisitor, and that he is blatantly doing so. But he’s doing so (or so he implies) for good, not ill. For our benefit. And if we saved the Chargers in Bull’s personal loyalty quest (turning him into a true rebel by necessity—a Tal-Vashoth), this is true. If we sacrificed the Chargers and he remains loyal to the Qun, things here are, as mentioned, actually pretty dark. But more on that later.
Either way, what Bull doesn’t do, at any point, is compromise. Instead, Bull lays out the scenario for the two of you going forward. The crux of his approach: To put it somewhat demurely, Bull gets to drive. The Inquisitor will have to agree. He will not compromise, as noted in a further conversation and partial negotiation they may have later on (all of these dialogues were written with his usual eloquence and subtlety by Patrick Weekes, who wrote Bull, as well as Solas and Cole, in his Dragon Age: Inquisition appearance).
What You Need
The Inquisitor can then return to Bull for a third conversation, and this was my favorite of the three, because the writing allows the Inquisitor a variety of character options–they can ask a dozen questions, or they can commit right away. They can show confidence, or admit to vulnerability or insecurity for example, asking Bull if the BDSM is an aspect of any of his other relationships, for instance, with the serving girls or others Bull has bedded in the Inquisition. Bull’s answer there is simple: nope. Because that’s not what the serving girls needed. He’s wired to give people what he perceives they need, so each scenario for him is different and unique.
Bull further elaborates below (note that he starts out with a clear statement that he’s committed to you, absolutely, as of this moment—that there’s nobody else, until or unless you end things):
Iron Bull (speaking about his previous dalliances): I mean, I used to. Long as we’re doing this, you’ve got my complete attention.
Inquisitor: You told me that this is what I needed. What did you mean by that?
Iron Bull: You’re the Inquisitor. You didn’t ask for the job, but you’ve taken on the responsibility. You’ve got thousands of lives riding on your decisions. You bear that weight all day. You need a place where you can be safe, knowing someone else is in charge for a bit.
Inquisitor: So if this is a conscious decision for you, could you do something else if I wanted you to?
Iron Bull: No. This is who we are. It’d be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way. If it doesn’t work for you, though, I understand. No hard feelings.
Inquisitor: What about what you need?
Iron Bull: Hey, I’m good. I am better than good. You don’t trouble yourself on that front. Old Iron Bull is just fine.
It’s interesting to me that Bull’s highest allegiance here is to what the Inquisitor needs. It’s the thing he’s most drawn to as a nurturer, spy or no spy, that ability to fulfill that, and it’s something he won’t compromise on. He even calls it out specifically, that “It would be disrespectful to what you need to treat you any other way.” He won’t do otherwise… even if it’s in his best interests politically. And, typical for Bull, he utterly discounts what he himself might need out of the relationship. (I find this weirdly moving, and would certainly of course headcanon that the Inquisitor is generous and attentive regardless of this statement—he deserves it.)
Either way, these conversations while certainly a bit edgy for the mainstream, really shouldn’t be. Speaking as something of a bumbling semi-human toon myself (when it comes to, like, non-pixellated romances), I found them intelligent, insightful, and respectful, and had no issues with Bull’s romantic narrative in any way. Besides, in service to the story, ultimately, to me it’s powerful, it’s emotional, and best of all, it’s also responsibly and affectionately set forth. It’s true to who these characters have been painted to be.
I definitely appreciate that there are (to me, at least) no issues regarding consent, physical or emotional danger, or of power abuse, unlike popular and often irresponsible representations of BDSM across much of entertainment media (cough, 50 Shades of Grey). Ultimately, as someone unfamiliar with that culture, my own reaction to the portrayal of Bull’s romance as a depiction of BDSM, after reading a fair amount of discussion (both pro and con), is that it has been handled here with real responsibility, as well as with sensitivity and a clear understanding of both the characters, the lifestyle, and of human nature by Weekes and the rest of the Dragon Age creative team. I think in that way that the romance storyline is a pretty significant milestone for inclusivity, and should be celebrated as such.
However, not everyone agrees with me. Beyond his romance with Dorian (which as I’ve noted, I don’t think was remotely abusive and will address in more detail in the future), there’s been some heated discussion about Bull and his relationship with the Inquisitor. So it was interesting to wade into that minefield. Some felt there were consent issues (which I cannot understand at all, given what we’re provided here), some had issues with his assumption that the Inquisitor is submissive, while still others felt that Bull’s “take it or leave it” approach to the relationship was somehow triggering.
Again, I don’t get any of these critiques or find them viable.
First off, Bull’s assumption that the Inquisitor is seeking a submissive role in the bedroom is an easy thing to address within the story—you can either headcanon that he’s right, or hey, you turn him down. It’s not difficult. Me, I thought it was a believable character note for a number of reasons. It spotlighted Bull’s insights into human nature in an unexpected way (and keep in mind, Bull is shown to be scarily accurate about reading people in this way); it provided a scenario in which our protagonist is actually challenged about their own perceptions of what they want in the bedroom (and how often does that happen in a game?); and it explored Bull’s caregiver tendencies in ways that were complex and even potentially disquieting… and yet lovely, too.
Because Bull’s immediately all in. If we agree, he’s 100% monogamous and focused only on us, on giving the Inquisitor whatever is needed. And this caregiver aspect isn’t just subtext to me, but actual text. The entire relationship is, in my own view, presented as genuinely healing, and so many people miss that about Bull’s romance. Yes, there are power dynamics at work here, of course, but there’s also something gentle about what Bull’s offering the Inquisitor—it’s not ever presented as harsh or scary; it’s not the cliche of whips and chains (not that there’s anything wrong with that, if that’s what floats your boat), but is instead rather a safe haven. There’s a genuine element of fantasy and play to it, and we see both aspects, the gentleness and the fantasy element, in the scene where Bull and the Inquisitor are interrupted later on.
And while it’s true that Bull may in fact eventually betray you (if you betrayed him), that happens on the battlefield. Never in the bedroom. No matter what you chose when it came to his loyalty mission, by all appearances he keeps his promise and the Inquisitor’s bedroom remains a safe and separate space.
Regardless. Not everyone will be into what Bull proposes, nor will they take him up on it once he sets the stage for what he wants to provide. And in those cases it’s then, luckily, quite easy to say, “Nope” and move on.
Arguing the Dynamics
To Speak or Not to Speak
Meanwhile, to me, Bull’s pretty careful, thoughtful and thorough when discussing exactly what their relationship will be like if the Inquisitor proceeds. He provides the Qunari word “katoh” as the ‘watchword’ (or, ahem, safe word) in case the Inquisitor is uncomfortable at any point, then leaves it up to her whether she wants to continue. Bull may have an agenda, but he is also incredibly sincere on the issue of agency in every way.
And speaking of “katoh,” it’s probably my one area of minor complaint in the romance. Eventually, the ‘watchword’ becomes a kind of badge of honor for the Inquisitor—the fact that she never says it, it’s implied in a lighthearted way, is because she’s adventurous, not afraid of her own limits, and because the two of them are having a terrific time together.
However, the idea that not saying it is somehow a good thing doesn’t work for me. To me, the whole point of “katoh” (especially in the case of a character who is new to these scenarios, I’d imagine) should be that expressing her boundaries or areas of discomfort is not just allowable but is actually healthy for both her as well as for Bull as the relationship begins. (I mean, I’d think for most people, there might be, hilariously, “katohs” all over the place to start, as they got comfortable with each other, or maybe I’m just projecting here.) But from a story standpoint, I can see why the fact that she doesn’t say it (surprising Bull, to say the least) also has an emotional component and says something about her trust in him.
The Offer Beneath the Offer
Regardless, Bull’s setting forth the ground rules. And at this moment, if she says that one word (“katoh”), it’s over, no hard feelings. And please note—potential double agenda or no, Bull means this—I’ve played through all the different variations, and when Bull promises “no strings,” he puts his money where his mouth is. He’s even genial and supportive if the Inquisitor moves on after their night together to romance other companions:
Iron Bull: Understood. I’ll see you later, Boss. (Alternatively: Huh. You got it, Boss.)
But if the Inquisitor questions Bull on his point of view, his reasons, and his goals for the relationship, it’s a fascinating conversation, and one of my favorites with romanced companions across the entire Dragon Age landscape.
This is because Bull’s logic for why he wants the relationship to go this way is pretty irresistible, and it’s seriously the world’s oddest combination of creepy and sweet ever.
Because… what he’s offering your Inquisitor is even more seductive than sex; he’s offering escape. As well as open permission to be vulnerable in ways the Inquisitor is simply not allowed to be in daily life. And, quite possibly, it may be the only true escape they’ve found since becoming Inquisitor. He’s saying, “Come with me, play with me; I’ll take care of you and you can take your mind away from this apocalyptic time, place, and responsibility you never asked for.”
I mean, if you’d been catapulted to a position of leadership you’d never wanted or imagined, were surrounded by strangers (many of whom feared, hated or were initially trying to imprison you), had left or lost everyone you’d loved, were suddenly leading a world political power, were managing a magical mark that was also slowly trying to kill you, and the world was falling to hell around you in a rain of demons from the skies…?
Yeah, I’d think that offer would be pretty damned tempting.
“I Cannot Move My Legs”
Then, not long after Bull and the Inquisitor embark on their escapades, there’s a scene where Cullen, Cass, and Josie happen upon them unexpectedly. It is seriously the funniest scene I’ve ever seen in a game, and I laugh out loud every time I see it. But there’s also more to it than you might expect at second glance—it’s actually a lovely and surprising interlude—funnier than you’d anticipate, but also potentially tender (and really sad, as well, depending on your character’s choices). Either way, it’s a revealing moment in the romance if we look closer.
We open on Bull and the Inquisitor, right after another encounter. Bull’s naked and still relaxed in the bed, the Inquisitor dressing in a matter-of-fact, “we’ve been together awhile now” kind of way. And this is where we catch a glimpse of that gentle hidden aspect to the relationship. Bull’s voice is soft:
Iron Bull: There we go. No Inquisition. No war. Nothing outside this room. Just you, and me. (Pause) So. What’d you want to talk about?
Then Cullen inadvertently walks in. And he realizes what he’s walking in on and his body literally tries to march him backward out the door on its own. It’s fantastic. Then he settles for covering his eyes against the sight of a naked Bull as if he’s a vampire faced with sunlight.
Then Josie comes in. And she freezes in place, mesmerized by the glory that is, evidently, Bull’s junk (amusingly and thankfully hidden by the Inky and various other elements as the scene progresses).
Then comes Cassandra as the capper on the scene, and her patented disgusted noise here is probably the best example of that classic Cass-reaction in the entire game. Because she’s not really disgusted, just exasperated. Like she’s going, “Inquisitor. Bull. The world is falling down and NOW you decide to do this? I am disappointed.” And she’s of course raising one perfect eyebrow in judgment at the same time.
Anyway, it’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever see in a video game, as all three are mortified by the situation and yet cannot look away. Josie’s “I just had three shots of Novocaine” face is seriously the best thing ever (“I cannot move my legs…”), while Cullen’s little snicker adds a much-needed dash of humor to our often stoic Commander’s personality. (Seriously, when he giggled at this, I went, “Okay, fine, Hot Templar Man, I’ll romance you” and added him to my mental list behind Solas.). Cassandra (perhaps funniest of all) is simply irritated at being faced with the entire situation.
She doesn’t give a crap about sex or safe words or orgasms. She’s just wondering why you’re wasting your time when there is WORK to be done. And given that Cass is DAI’s die-hard closet romantic (not to mention there’s the matter of her occasional flirtations with Bull in their banters), it’s kind of weirdly adorable. I almost wonder if there isn’t an element of her protesting a bit too much, but there’s no hint of that, so I think ultimately it’s simply her allegiance to the Inquisition that’s causing her extreme disapproval here. (At least outwardly.)
A Dignified Exit
But it’s not all just fun and games. We can commit to Bull here, proud of our relationship with him and absolutely fine with people knowing. Yet, meanwhile, for the unexpectedly sadder ending—if we express embarrassment at being discovered with Bull, it’s much more bittersweet, as Bull sacrifices his dignity without a qualm—but only to a point:
Cass: I apologize for interrupting what I assume was a momentary diversion.
Cullen (snickers): Nothing wrong with having a bit of fun.
Josie: Who wouldn’t be a little curious?
Inquisitor: Responds either affirmatively (“Bull and I are together”) or ends things, with “This was just a fling” (“Iron Bull and I were just blowing off some steam”).
Iron Bull (if option 2 is taken): Yeah, the Boss wanted to ride the Bull. Nothing for anyone to get excited about.
Josie (flustered): I’ll just…
Iron Bull (after a pause): Hey, Josephine… you busy later?
Josie actually does pause momentarily (and personally, I hope she looked him up), then they all leave.
Iron Bull: Ah, well. Fun while it lasted.
Inquisitor (being a total jerkface): We don’t have to stop.
Iron Bull: Yeah. We do. I was trying to relieve your stress. Not add to it. If you’re ashamed of this, I’m doing a crappy job.
Iron Bull: Don’t worry about it, Boss. I’ll see you later.
I love this moment (well, I hate what the Inquisitor’s done, but I really like Bull’s reaction). I love that Bull will actually turn down the Inquisitor here. So much of Bull’s persona is about his support and willingness to give, but at the same time, there needs to be a limit. And the quiet way he walks away in this moment (as he should) when faced with the Inquisitor’s shame at being with him is a perfect and necessary character note. He may be a caregiver but the guy has the self esteem to expect better of those he sleeps with… and he should.
However, if we do commit to Bull, it ends very sweetly and on a much happier note:
Iron Bull: You okay Boss?
Inquisitor: You know, I believe I am. But since we have a moment…
Iron Bull: What’s that?
Inquisitor: It’s a dragon’s tooth, split in two. So no matter how far apart life takes us, we’re always together.
Iron Bull: Not often people surprise me, kadan.
Iron Bull (pulling her down into the bed): Kadan. My heart.
And as I’ve mentioned, I may have actually let out a cheer at this, because I headcanoned that my original Warden was in love with Sten (and vice versa) even though they both knew it was hopeless. Their only outlet, I believed, was his use of that word, his one way of expressing his hidden feelings. So, in other words, every time Sten called her “kadan,” I plotzed a little.
So this was fabulous. (And yes, yes I know that “kadan” can be used in a nonromantic context. I just can’t hear you over the la-la-la sounds I’m currently making to ignore that.)
Nobody Says I Love You…
Bull’s romance continues to evolve through the DAI story after this point, and again, I found it so refreshing that the game dared to explore the dynamics of a relationship that began with sex and evolved into something more complex. Bull and the Inquisitor are still evidently having sex all over Skyhold, including, evidently, one or two occasions on the War Table itself (Cole informs a delighted party of companions of this fact in one of his highly revealing little banter dialogues about Bull’s romance with the Inquisitor, and Blackwall’s response is especially funny: “I look forward to informing Cullen!”).
But there’s still something that hasn’t been said—those three little words that determine that there’s emotion involved here, and not just sex. And as we know, there’s no room for love and sex to occur at the same time traditionally under the Qun.
Then, however, we get a post-coital conversation between Bull and the Inquisitor about how their relationship is going (everyone’s very happy, let’s just say), and about his surprise that she’s never used the safe word he provided. The two then proceed to banter about the potential safe words of our other companions, and as always, it’s an opportunity for Bull to show how insightful he really is when it comes to reading other people. There’s a brilliant little moment when his use of a particular Orlesian phrase about Blackwall says volumes about how much he’s already figured out about the mysterious Grey Warden and his true backstory, which for most has not yet been revealed at this point in the story.
It’s interesting to note that while Bull and the Inquisitor wonder aloud about the safe words and predilections of many of their companions, a few notable omissions there include Solas (interesting, since I definitely think he’d have one at the ready—as he directly implies in an early flirt scene with a mage Inquisitor), and Dorian.
Side Note: I would have laughed so hard if Solas’s suggested safe word had been “Fade.” Come on. Admit it. It’s funny. He’d never have even made it through the door on your very first date. And it would’ve been hilarious.
I think Dorian’s omission here, meanwhile, occurs for many reasons—first, because it’s another subtle example of Bull judging others and what they need, and I think the implication is pretty clear that Bull doesn’t think a BDSM scenario would be ideal for Dorian (with his history of rejection and betrayal, I’d agree, although it’s also implied that there are elements of kink to the relationship in other ways). I also think Dorian may not be discussed because he’s an alternate-timeline choice for Bull as a romance, and his omission keeps the two stories wholly separate.
This interlude can end on a few different genuinely touching emotional notes. In one, the Inquisitor implies love and thanks Bull for being with her even if they don’t survive.
Bull interrupts this speech, however, and his broken “Katoh. Stop. I can’t… We’re coming out of this together.” is one of Prinze’s most beautiful moments in voice acting the character of Bull. What gets me is that Bull is the first one to use the word in earnest here; he’s giving us the rare glimpse of the guy who survived Seheron… and then broke.
Sex and Love Beyond the Qun
All variations on this scene end with the two falling back into bed together, but the differences in each conversation thread choice are fascinating because the scene can end in exactly the same way each time, yet in one instance it’s slightly emotional and intense (the Inquisitor fearing death and Bull comforting her), in another sweetly affecting (the Inquisitor telling Bull she loves him, and him returning the sentiment after responding teasingly), or even playful (as the Inquisitor ends on a lighter tone, telling him this was fun). And it’s all lovely and moving… as long as he’s Tal-Vashoth.
Because, if he’s not, once again, this is all empty. An act. Depending on whether we saved the Chargers, or doomed them.
If we saved the Chargers, then I think part of the reason Bull genuinely allows himself to love you is because he’s in a freefall of relief at Krem and the Chargers’ survival (his family), secret relief at being free of the Qun, while also still navigating his total fear and despair of what he’s supposed to do now. All combined with the constant fear that he will go “savage” and become Tal-Vashoth.
And of course, add in a healthy amount of guilt because he now must wonder how many Tal-Vashoth he hunted and killed for the Qunari were simply good men like him trying to break free. So to me, it’s natural that Bull is more open to the romance and actually allows himself the possibility for love and even commitment. That is, if you saved the Chargers. And saved the part of himself that had allowed himself to feel and love.
As I’ve written before here, Bull is innately generous, a giver at heart. The Qun, once upon a time, warped that impulse into something darker and more controlling. Then came the Inquisition, and his own “last chance.” Sure, Bull was playing a delicate game at first, and balancing both potential outcomes. But at some point, somewhere along the way, it all became real. He returned to his core self, abandoning power and politics, turning to something he’d never been allowed to imagine existed—real intimacy, commitment and trust.
It’s ironic in the end, that while Bull offered our Inquisitor the possibility of escape both emotionally, psychologically, and sensually, the person who achieved the actual escape in the end was Bull himself. And we’re the ones who gave it to him. By saving his self-built family, we saved Bull and (unknowingly) ourselves. And that’s the opposite of cold; it’s something that goes beyond sex, power, or obsession and is simply about love and trust on truly absolute and unshakable levels.
And that’s always going to be greater and more powerful than any demands of the Qun.
Images Courtesy of BioWare
This article is a reprint (with minor modification and expansion) of an article originally published by Angela D. Mitchell on DumpedDrunkandDalish.com.
Things that Make a Good Video Game Great
E3’s conferences have come and dazzled us with shiny new games, gameplay trailers, and a whole host of hopes and dreams on which to pin our little gamer hearts and budgets. While I try to figure out how I’m going to afford the first few months of 2019, it’s also a good time to keep in mind all of the things that make video games good. There are the obvious things — story, graphics, art, not making us wait a million years in loading scenes, and the ability to hop over a knee-high fence — and then there are the little things that set a game apart and take it from a good use of 60 bucks to Game of the Year material.
If there’s one constant in games, it’s that the art keeps getting prettier and prettier. Whether you’re going for photorealism or a Disney-esque art style (hi, Kingdom Hearts!), we spend a lot of time looking at video games and devs spend a lot of time giving us something good to look at. Whether you’re a sucker for stunning landscapes or like to laugh at the pretzel positions the bodies of your dead enemies land in, sometimes you just have to take a picture so you can remember your journey (or to share and amuse your friends). Photo mode can be simple (removing the HUD) or complicated. Horizon Zero Dawn photo mode not only stripped the HUD, it gave you the ability to change the time of day, move around the camera, remove Aloy or put her in silly poses, and even slap on borders and cheesy postcard greetings. Assassin’s Creed: Origins lets you turn a murder adventure into full-blown tourism.
New Game Plus, and Other Replayability Mechanics
Even if you’re a casual gamer, we all sink a fair amount of cash into games. Some of those games are silly, some are thrilling, and some hit us right in the feels. The good games, the really well-made ones, are experiences that sit with us for a long time and make us yearn to relive them. Of course, you can never really go home but with functions like new game plus, you can certainly try. Whether you’re the kind of person who likes to torture themselves with tragedy, explore every skill and dialogue tree, or go evil overlord instead of virtuous savior, replayability is a huge factor in video games. A good new game plus can add more challenges, higher difficulty, and can help you relive all those moments that made you fall in love in the first place.
Silly Side Quests
Not all games are scripted equally. Some are the height of absurdity, and some are super serious. Whether you’re playing Saint’s Row or Assassin’s Creed, every game needs a side quest that is the best kind of stupid to break up the tension. In The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt Geralt had to get hammered to attract a demon that only goes after drunk people. In Assassin’s Creed: Origins, Bayek rescues a lipstick-covered balding guy, who, totally drunk, fell prey to a scam (and almost got eaten by a pack of crocodiles). The mission in Skyrim that is effectively the plot of The Hangover is much beloved, as are half of the side quests in Borderlands 2. Side quests can be grindy, fetch quests are obnoxious, and escort missions make me want to play something else. But a quest that pays me to kill myself, or murder dwarves in a giant smashing machine in order to steal their beards (or any quest in which I get drunk and then have to do mechanics with drunk camera happening) is a thing of beauty.
Borderlands 2 has a shotgun that shoots swords. Dragon Age: Inquisition has the banana nailed to a stick. Dead Space 2 has a finger gun, and Gears of War 3 has the chicken-firing Cluckshot. Mr. Toots, the rainbow-farting unicorn from Red Faction: Armageddon, is hard to beat. Then there’s The Penetrator from Saints Row 3. Joke weapons might take you out of the seriousness of saving the universe from evil aliens, but by George, it does make for a good time.
Minigames Done Right
I loved Ni No Kuni 2. It’s a happy game, where instead of murdering one bad guy after another you save the day with the power of friendship and forgiveness.
And minigames. Lots of minigames.
For me, Ni No Kuni 2 is the perfect example of minigames done right — and minigames done wrong. The kingdom building stuff was great; the battle system that forced you to listen to Evan shouting the same three phases over and over was not. Good minigames, whether it’s a casino filled with chocobo racing or slot machines that occasionally spit out dynamite, give you a break from the adventuring, murdering, and saving the world. They give you a chance to come up for air, win an elite weapon, earn a trophy, and otherwise have a little fun. Bad minigames force you to learn complicated rules for a card game in order to move the plot forward.
Fast Travel, and Other Reductions in Time Waste
We spend a lot of time in games, and if you play Skyrim you spend a lot of time in load menus. As games get bigger, with more stuff to do and more land to traverse, anything that saves time is an essential mechanic. Fast travel is the most prominent of these time-saving mechanics, while other games give you things to do during your trek across the planet. Assassin’s Creed: Origins lets you scout out the upcoming territory with your bird friend, and Horizon Zero Dawn lets you gather mats while mounted. God of War tries to hide loading screens by having Kratos stroll around in circles getting lessons on Nordic mythology from your handy companion. If the internet is to be believed, we’re all getting a little more ADD. It’s nice to have a game give us something to twiddle away load times, even if it cuts into my Reddit time.
A good game has a story that’s engrossing. A great game delves so far into its own lore that it has us donning tinfoil hats and swearing that Dragon Age’s Flemeth is secretly Andraste. One of God of War’s greatest elements is how deep Mimir takes us into the lives of the gods. A person could spend a lifetime digging through the lore of The Elder Scrolls. Every replay unveils something new, and when you’re between games it gives you something to obsessively Google, or the ability to torture your friends with obscure Mario Bros trivia. Deep lore speaks to good world building, which speaks to immersive gameplay. It’s all about falling down a game’s rabbit hole so deep you never want to come back out.
DLC that Counts
When it comes to video games, there’s so much extra crap to spend your money on that sometimes it’s hard to decide between a season pass and a new Amiibo. There’s nothing quite as annoying as purchasing an add-on only to find out it’s stupid and shallow and a waste of money. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being milked for every dollar they have. An add-on, especially one that costs real money, should add something to the game: a new element of gameplay, more story, more character development. DLC that lets you bond with your team, like Mass Effect’s Citadel DLC, or brings a nice tidy end to the story, like Dragon Age’s Trespasser, or lets you check in on your favorite characters and make sure they’re doing okay after the big events of a game like Borderlands 2’s Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep, is exactly what DLC should be.
The Ability to Destroy Your Friends
Co-op is fun, but sometimes the best time is defeating your friends so badly someone rage quits and swears they’ll never play Mario Kart ever again. You know your friends are good at games — after all, you’ve teamed up for some wholesome player killing in everything from Overwatch to Fortnite’s Battle Royale. But there’s something very sweet about proving you are better than the people you play with the most. Besides, a friendship that can’t survive Mario Party is no friendship at all.
I’m a girl. I like to dress my characters in pink. I also like shotguns and grenades. If I can put my character in a pink outfit, preferably with a unicorn of some sort, while lobbing hand grenades at mobs and running in Leeroy Jenkins style so I can shotgun people in the face, I’m happy. This paragraph might be a complete explanation of why Borderlands 2 is one of my favorite games, but it’s also a good example of why customization is important. Skill trees that play to my strengths, dialogue trees that allow me to make snappy comebacks, renegade interrupts that let me headbutt jerks, outfit choices, weapon types, dodging vs blocking, a character creator that takes hours to get right, these things all let you play games the way you want, in a way that makes you happy.
And that’s what it’s all about, right? Spending your time and your money on the things that make you happy. Playing games that make you laugh, or scream, or wish you could erase your memory of it entirely so you can do the whole thing over again. That’s a great game.
Images Courtesy of Guerrilla Games, Bioware, and Bethesda
Celeste is Everything About Anxiety
Celeste is a phenomenal, and difficult, game. I hadn’t heard of it until about a week ago, when fellow Fandomental Kylie mentioned it off-hand as something the streamers she watched declaring as “the greatest platformer of all time”. Seeing as how it was $20, and on the Switch, I thought why not? Maybe it’ll be like Shovel Knight, or Fez. Well, it wasn’t those things, but the story it tells is something that resonated very powerfully with me.
You play as a young woman named Madeline who sets out to climb the titular Mountain Celeste, somewhere in Canada. Easy enough set-up for a platformer. Except, very early into the game, you find out that Madeline suffers from anxiety and panic attacks (the coping of which is an actual game mechanic). The twist is that she doesn’t have a tragic backstory of any kind. Like, at all. And that kind of shocked me. Protagonists who struggle with mental illness are typically tied to a “root” cause of that illness, most likely some form of trauma.
But Madeline is just woman with some bad anxiety that she doesn’t really know how to cope with super well. That’s it.
In a nightmare, Madeline’s mother calls her on a payphone and speaks in a very guilt-trippy, almost antagonistic style. When Madeline wakes up and properly calls her mom, she’s nothing but supportive and happy to hear from her daughter, asking if she’s having fun on her trip and if she’s doing okay. If she’s struggling with her panic attacks. She’s completely encouraging.
As Madeline climbs the mountain, she encounters a few other wonderful characters, notably fellow mountain climber Theo. From their conversations, we find out that Madeline isn’t trying to climb the mountain as a form of escapism, or to figure out what she wants to do with her life; whatever it is she does for a living seems to make her happy. No, Madeline is trying to climb the mountain because she needs to be able to do something different, and prove it to herself that it’s possible.
And she does that quite literally, proving it to herself. After she breaks a mirror, a “Part Of Her” is set free on the mountain to hunt her down and fight her at every turn. It’s a simple color pallete swap of Madeline’s sprite, but it’s clearly a physical manifestation of her anxiety. The “Part Of Her” only has one goal, which is to help Madeline escape and go home, because she’s infuriated that she could ever be so stupid as to believe that this was a good idea. That she was capable of reaching the peak of the mountain. That she could change.
The harder Madeline rejects that “Part Of Her”, the more aggressive they become. The more often they appear in the game, and the more difficult it is to avoid them. There’s a point where the “Part Of Her” quite literally drags her down off of a cliff and all the way down to the base of the mountain. Eventually, Madeline figures out that everything that this “Part Of Her” does is out of fear for herself, and for Madeline. So she stops trying to fight it, which is ironically when the “boss battle” (if one can really call it that) begins.
After a long chase, Madeline manages to calm the “Part Of Her” down enough so that they agree to work together. Because Madeline just needs to able to try and reach the top of the mountain; it doesn’t matter if she makes it or not. It’s the act of trying, and doing so with self-confidence and self-care, that is important. And, well, she does make it up to the top of the mountain.
Anxiety is, in most instances, your brain’s fight-or-flight instinct going into overdrive. It’s flagging everything as dangerous and trying to protect you when there’s no actual threat to your well-being, be it physical or emotional. You process more information faster, which leads to panic since your brain can’t find the actual threat to you, thus defaulting to the conclusion that “it’s there, but you can’t find it”. This is why so many people who suffer from an anxiety disorder just freeze up or become overwhelmed in certain contexts; they literally can’t do anything else. Especially when they’re actively fighting their anxiety, and that’s the key to Celeste.
You can’t fight your anxiety. That only makes it stronger, just like it did with the “Part Of Me”. Only when Madeline accepted that aspect of herself as, well, part of her, did the “Part Of Me” become willing to cooperate. In the end, Madeline learns to co-exist with her anxiety, not just deal with it or acknowledge it. It’s a very powerful message from a wonderfully designed game.