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Mass Effect Andromeda is Just What We Know and Love

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It seemed hard to imagine immersing myself back into the Mass Effect universe without the heroic presence of Commander Shepard, but Andromeda has put all my fears to rest. Fair warning, this review for will contain a few setup/early game spoilers, but I’ll keep major priority mission details and game-affecting decisions under wraps.

I admit it me a little adjusting time to get used to the new protagonist. They don’t exactly fill Shepard’s shoes, but Pathfinder Ryder does indeed live up to expectations and is more than worthy of standing alongside our favorite space explorer. Bioware, you did good.

That said, Andromeda is not without its ups and downs. I’ve spent the last week wavering back and forth between high highs of tugged heartstrings and trigger-happy excitement, and low lows of some hellishly boring space travel and glitchy game mechanics.

It all starts with the character creation section. In all honesty, this has been the most uninspired and disappointing aspect of the entire game. It’s not fully customizable; you basically have to choose a template face and make only minor adjustments. It leaves out the ability to drastically alter your character’s mouth, nose and eye shape beyond whatever shape they come in from your chosen template. The only options for extra additions are scars, makeup and tattoos (plus facial hair for maleRyder). No freckles, moles, or age lines here. And also no fucking eyebrow color changer.

I opted for femRyder with a hairstyle similar to my original femShep. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the final product, but she grew on me as the game progressed. If there’s one piece of advice I can give, it’s make your hair color darker than you think. I thought I was going for an auburn, red-brown, and it looks okay indoors, but in broad daylight my Ryder’s hair is BEACON ORANGE. You have been warned.

The face of eyebrow dye regret.

The story sets up fast — possibly too fast. There’s a lot of information thrown at you in the first dozen cutscenes, but it does slow down to a more even pace as things go on. The short of it is this, the Andromeda Initiative has sent four arks full of humans, Turians, Asari and Salarians respectively off into space to seek out a new home. In case you forgot that this was Mass Effect, things do not go to plan. The arks got separated and lost off course. The planet destined for the human population turns out to be not even slightly inhabitable. And just when you thought things couldn’t get worse, the human leader, the Pathfinder, dies in the heat of an ambush. Ryder happens to be the child of that Pathfinder, and in a further unexpected twist of events, they wind up his successor. Ryder is now the Human Pathfinder, suddenly destined to lead their people through the galaxy in search of a new home.

Understandably, it’s not so easy for Ryder to step into the role. Not everyone trusts them to handle the burden. And it really is a burden when you’re left alone trying to pick up the pieces scattered in the wake of your father’s death.

Pathfinder Ryder is quite a bit younger than Commander Shepard, and it’s hard not to notice the youthful naivety in their mannerisms and dialogue. It definitely gives the game, especially the early game, a completely different feel to the original trilogy, almost prequel-like.

The crew of the Tempest also feels more youthful and inexperienced than Shepard’s on the Normandy. But this is an important part of the story. These are the people who have left Earth and everything they know far behind for a new start at life. They left behind parents, siblings, and important memories. Much of the crew will tell you about these things as you get to know them. All of them are grieving something, but Ryder, one of the only people to actually come with family only to lose them right away, is able to find comfort in the shared stories of the team. This fits well with the nostalgic vibe of the entire game, as those of us who spent hours upon hours in the original trilogy have waited 5+ years for this next-gen experience.

This is the meeting for #MakeJaalBi right Bioware?

And holy heck, is it good to play Mass Effect on the newer generation console. Elizabeth gave us an early-game PC review and raved about the smooth combat mechanics. Playing on PS4, I found that she was exactly right. This is the smoothest and sleekest Mass Effect combat has ever been. As a result, it’s absolutely the most fun. As an infiltrator, I’ve never enjoyed testing out various assault rifles and upgrading my tech powers more than I have in this game. The tech and biotic powers are pretty brilliant, a fantastic counterpart to your physical weapons. It’s extremely satisfying to seamlessly stun an enemy with electricity and then blast them to smithereens while their shields are down. And that’s just one of many possible combinations.

The cutscenes are also relatively smooth. I appreciated the way the story dialogue and background atmosphere, including radio announcements, sometimes continues between travel points to make your journey between load screen as invisible as possible. I could go into nitpicky details about the sheer amount of load times, but considering how fucking huge this open-world RPG is, I have no grounds to complain at all. After 40+ hours of gameplay I’m only just making a dent in the realm of possibilities for exploration.

The exploration and missions revolve primarily around traversing the galaxy in search of a new place to live as well as finding viable places to make outposts for the 20,000 people you have waiting on the ark. Luckily, a mysterious alien race known as Remnants have left wildly advanced technology that, if logged into correctly, can help out with some of the planets’ more dangerous environmental problems. This sounds weird but trust me, it makes a lot more sense and is definitely more interesting in-game than on paper. To get across the planets you get to drive the Nomad, a slightly better version of the infamous Mako.

What makes the Nomad so much more driveable is that it actually has a gear change, so you can go at a nice even speed across flat road and then roll your way carefully up rocky hillsides. This isn’t without hazards, of course. The roads have tire tracks already present to mark out the path you’re meant to take, but sticking to those tire tracks is occasionally impossible and makes you look like a pretty terrible driver. But I guess that’s inevitable, after all what did we say about Ryder following in Shepard’s footsteps?

It’s best not to ask how that happened.

Along the way you’re meeting new alien races, old alien races (hello Krogans), and trying really damn hard not to fuck up. Like Ryder, you feel pretty in the dark, and it’s difficult to tell what choices you’re making are having what kind of affect on your endgame, or potential future games. This is because Andromeda ditches the beloved (by some) paragon/renegade scale of the original trilogy and opts for the four-category dialogue wheel familiar to those of us who played Dragon Age Inquisition. Your Ryder can respond to a given situation either emotionally, logically, casually, or professionally. At minimum you’re going to rack up dialogue points in at least two categories, as every option isn’t available in every single conversation.

I chose to characterize my Ryder with the emotional and professional dialogue choices, an interesting mix that means she comes across extremely capable in the Pathfinder role, but obviously cares a whole damn lot, and possibly too much, about everyone she meets. My Ryder is extremely trusting and basically tries to make friends with everyone, which may or not actually work out in her favor. Who you side with — or more importantly, who sides with you — obviously affects what happens in the endgame, but I’ll leave that for you to discover yourself.

The further I got into Mass Effect Andromeda, the more I felt like I was at home. There was definitely a warm-up period but after a while Andromeda really does feel exactly like any other Mass Effect game. My only qualm with the new story is that your main enemy, the Kett, are frankly just not as scary as the Reapers. But Bioware does know just how to play into its original emotional beats. Not knowing where the other missing arks are or if they’re even alive is heart-wrenching when you know they’re full of Turians and Asari. I dare you to get through this game without thinking fondly of your original favs.

But even better is that I didn’t miss Garrus and Liara so much when the new Turian and Asari crew members, Vetra and Peebee, were around. I absolutely love the Tempest crew. Each character has their own well-developed personality and backstory that floods the game with colorful dialogue and interesting interactions, a surprising number of which can turn romantic. Andromeda eases off on previously limited relationship rules and actually allows you to get seriously flirty (and possibly more) with basically as many people as your Ryder is interested in. The commitment part doesn’t come until much later, so any time that love-heart option pops up in your dialogue wheel don’t feel like you have to hold back and save yourself for that one special someone.

If I’m being honest, it wouldn’t be a Bioware game without a few annoying game glitches. Mine have been relatively minor compared to a few complaints I’ve seen. But, in my 40+ hours of gameplay so far I have experienced occasional frame rate issues, characters and scenery failing to load on time, camera angles missing the speaking characters completely, team members appearing in odd places during combat, NPCs randomly walking way too fast, and interaction buttons only showing up when you’re on the exact right angle. None of these glitches really affected my overall experience, bar the interaction button issues. Sometimes they take too long to load and you’re left standing at a door you know is supposed to be openable just waiting for the interaction to show up.

Once, and thankfully only once, the interaction didn’t show up at all, and I was forced to reload a mission (this was during the Firefighters mission when I went back to speak with SAM on the Nexus, so keep an eye out and hopefully it doesn’t happen to you). This seems like something that will get fixed in a future patch. Other than that, there’s really nothing that ruined the experience. So are there bugs? Yes, but minor bugs given just how freaking huge the Andromeda game world is. On a developer level these are, in my eyes and for the most part, forgivable and fixable offenses.

All offences forgiven thanks to the existence of Vetra.

More frustrating than the glitches is the space travel required to get through all the missions. There’s an absolute ton of missions to play through, and many of them require you to visit at least two or three planets. Annoyingly, the navpoint only allows you to track one mission at a time. A few other nearby missions will show up on the map when you’re on a planet, but if you’re trying to do things in the most time efficient way and with the fewest planet visits possible, you can forget about it.

The missions centered around your friends and allies are the worst offenders. Sometimes you have to go meet one of your Tempest crew members on a planet despite them normally being in the next room, only to get to said planet and discover that the next point in the mission is on a whole other planet entirely. There’s just too much back and forth traveling and much of it feels wasteful. It’s easy to spend half the day playing the game only to feel like you’ve barely accomplished anything in the time spent. Towards the end, I flicked on subtitles and started skipping through cutscenes just to save myself some time.

That said, the planets are gorgeous and the exploration is worth it when you have the time and patience. The best thing about open world RPGs is knowing that you don’t actually have to rush. With no linear level system to worry about, you can spend as much time anywhere as you want. When the gameplay is at its best, Mass Effect Andromeda is actually a very relaxing play. It’s very satisfying to work through all the missions on a single planet to get that planet to 100% viability and start a settlement there. The visual changes that happen to the planet after you do so make your work worth the effort. The designs are truly very beautiful.

Mass Effect Andromeda is worthwhile. It may not be the sleekest open world game out there, nor the most challenging, but it has heart, just like its predecessors. If you enjoy spending time getting highly invested in characters, cruising beautiful planets and blasting aliens, this game is for you.


Images courtesy of Bioware

Erin Latimer is writer whose specialties include film analysis, television and gaming reviews, and re-examining movies from her childhood through a lens of feminist fan practices and queer theory.

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Morty
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Morty

You’ve got a better opinion about the Tempest crew than I do… then again, Vetra and Peebee are actually pretty good. The others… don’t quite click with me the way companions in the old games did.

Still, though, the main barrier to enjoying this game for me is the horrid UI. The inventory is awful, the crafting is even worse, and everything is buried in a dozen or so submenus.

Mark
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Mark

I absolutely adore the Tempest’s crew. It’s far and above better than the crew from the original game(which I think is the only fair comparison, imo). My favorite way of differentiating it with the excellent crews of 2 and 3 is that the latter are all comrades, those who have forged relationships and friendships in the fire of war against an unstoppable force, coming together as a team willing to do what they can for each other, whereas the Tempest’s crew is like a family. This makes the relationships almost even more intimate – and that makes sense, given that… Read more »

Jorge
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Cora and Vetra have stolen my heart. Drax is pretty awesome too

Mark
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Mark

One thing I’ve noticed about the criticisms of the squad/crew compared to the OT’s squad/crew is that people aren’t comparing apples to apples – they are focused on the entire trilogy of development versus one game of development. The Tempest’s crew after one game is so so so much better than the Normandy’s crew in game 1 – people forget that most of the aliens were just walking, talking codexes in the original game. I will say that this game reminds me the most of the first Mass Effect, for better or for worse. As I play through it, I’m… Read more »

XanDany
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XanDany

That’s super interesting that you went with emotional/professional responses- I never would have paired those two together. I’m on my 2nd playthrough- and the first time I did mostly emotional/casual responses (which made people think I was a tad immature at times) and now I’m going mostly logical/professional responses. One of things I discovered is that in the original ME games, it usually didn’t matter what conversation option I picked, the response i got from the NPC was almost nearly identical. I found in my 2nd playthrough that is not the case- the NPCs are DEFINITELY responding differently depending on… Read more »

Drowmonk
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Drowmonk

I agree with almost all of this article! 🙂 However I will point out that having the more limited customization options for Ryder actually has some benefits. For one thing, your father Alec shares your ethnic traits with you, that’s why the nose and mouth options are so limited. It’s a small thing and only really effects the start of the game, but I enjoyed having my Polynesian descended character have a father to match. Instead of having siblings/parents that look nothing like you (Dragon Age 2 I’m looking at you, love ya, but that was weird). I’m still going… Read more »

Analysis

Waiting for Katoh: Romancing the Iron Bull in Dragon Age

Angela D. Mitchell

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When it comes to romance and Dragon Age, The Iron Bull's in a league of his own.

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.

“Last Chance”

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.

Bull’s got a proposition for you. And it’s a doozy.

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.

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.

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’…)

Power Plays

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.

And yet.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Responsible Representation

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

I think this is a key point many people don’t get. It’s not abuse for Bull to request a specific kind of relationship while giving us the choice to accept or refuse. It would be abuse if we had no choice, or if he changed those dynamics without warning. But here, he’s being absolutely forthcoming about what will take place if we agree, and we therefore have the power to respond with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ It’s really that simple.
Does Bull insist on a specific sexual preference or dynamic to his relationship going forward? Yes. Yes, he does. And he’s clear about that.
I have no problem with this. I’d further argue that Bull has every right to set forth what he wants from a sexual relationship, and so does anyone else. Our Inquisitors can at that point either agree to his terms and proceed, or turn him down. Again, it’s not rocket science. And there are zero actual problems in how he presents the choice (again, Bull asks for consent and checks in with the Inquisitor on her feelings multiple times, both here and as the romance progresses). The Inquisitor is further given full agency over her relationship and her decisions at every single conversational moment with Bull that follows. She can reject him at any time.
I mean, what more could Bioware have done?
Some people have argued, however, that because the Inquisitor can’t change the terms of the relationship, that this is somehow abusive. Nope. Those who like what Bull’s proposing can take him up on it. Those who want something different, or that he’s not willing to give? You’re simply out of luck. That’s not how people work. Or sex. Or relationships. Everyone has preferences, and difference is the spice of life.
Anyway.

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:

Inquisitor: Katoh.

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”

So the romance progresses, we can ask Bull for kisses outside the tavern (complete with a casual smack on the Inky’s rear that is slyly funny and well animated), and all is right with Thedas. Everyone’s having a great time, apparently.

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).

Josie’s “I just had three shots of Novocaine” face is seriously the best thing ever (“I cannot move my legs…”)

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. 

Inquisitor: Right.

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.

Inquisitor: Bull…

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.

Inquisitor: 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.

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Things that Make a Good Video Game Great

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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.

Photo Mode

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.

Joke Weapons

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.

Deep Lore

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.

Customization

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

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Celeste is Everything About Anxiety

Griffin

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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.  


 

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