I may be known here on Fandom Following for my reviews of The 100 and my article about acedia in Game of Thrones, but long, long before I started watching these shows, I played computer games. We’re talking decades. I cut my gamer girl eye teeth on Warcraft 2 and the original Starcraft. I’ve played my way through Warcraft 3 (and expansions), Starcraft: Brood War, and am currently playing Starcraft 2 and Heroes of the Storm (HotS). Yeah, I play a lot of Blizzard games, all but World of Warcraft (WoW) and Diablo; I’m not a (MMO)RPG-er.
Needless to say, when they announced the first new property in over a decade1, I was intrigued. Fine, I squealed in delight then immediately read everything they had online—backstory, all the player bios, the timeline for production, everything. The only reason I’m not in beta testing is because I don’t have time.
Overwatch—a 1st person shooter style multi-player online battle arena or MOBA (think League of Legends—is still in beta testing, but it’s awesome. The backstory is fairly generic but still interesting: a futuristic world where Overwatch was a team of heroes that saved the world, but they’ve disbanded and now trouble is brewing again. The animation is stunningly gorgeous, even for Blizzard, which has a history of well animated games. Most importantly to me, they have a cast of diverse characters with skills that I am drooling to try out.
Its poster child is Tracer, a “time jumping adventurer and an irrepressible force for good.” She’s like the Flash and Indiana Jones had a baby, but with Rey’s indomitable optimism and spunk. She controls her own time and pairs a bomber jacket with running shoes for a lighthearted yet casual vibe. Did I mention she’s got a Cockney accent that’s super adorable? I love her already.
She’s also caused a bit of a stir in recent weeks. It all started with a forum post from one of the beta testers regarding Tracer’s ‘victory pose’, the pose shown on screen when a player wins. It’s meant to convey how that particular character responds to success. Are they ecstatic? Cool and aloof? Goofy? Self-confident? The physicality of the pose should convey the character’s reaction and be consistent with their overall personality.
The original forum post by “Fipps” is no longer available (that I can find), but large sections of it have been transcribed in a post on Polygon. It is clear from the transcription that Fipps’ primary concern is that, from a Watsonian perspective, the pose isn’t consistent with Tracer’s character.
“What about this pose has anything to do with the character you’re building in [Tracer]? It’s not fun, its not silly, it has nothing to do with being a fast elite killer. It just reduces [Tracer] to another bland female sex symbol.”—Fipps, Overwatch Forum via Polygon
As Fipps argues in the post, Tracer’s pose is more consistent with Blizzard’s sultry French assassin character, Widowmaker, who embodies the femme fatale archetype.
While I’m not a huge fan of this kind of character design given how common sexualization of female characters is in gaming, Fipps has a point. All you have to do is look at Widowmaker and you know that she’d totally do an over the shoulder T&A (tits and ass) shot on her victory screen. That kind of sultry attitude is part of how she was designed as a character, as well as how she’s being marketed. Tracer, on the other hand, is primarily fun, spunky, kind, and fast. I think of her as a personified squirrel with the 10th Doctor’s hair.
Thus, Fipps asked that the developers to consider changing the pose to something more appropriate to Tracer’s character. Other Overwatch players responded instantaneously on the forum. Some agreed with Fipps, others defended the pose. However, the opinion that mattered most was that of the developers, who apologized and eventually chose to replace the pose with one they thought more appropriate.
Needless to say, not everyone was happy with the choice to replace the pose. Some framed it as a censorship issue: Fipps feedback impinged upon the developers’ freedom to create whatever media they wanted. Not only does this argument lack rational sense—the developers apparently agreed with the criticism, otherwise they would not have changed the design—it fails to understand the context in which the feedback was given.
Remember, Overwatch is still in beta testing. For those of you who don’t know, beta testing is a period prior to release when a limited number of people can play the game. These players provide feedback regarding game play, glitches, balance in character skills, and in Blizzard’s case, how well the game holds up the values they as a company laid out for the game, one of which was to create a diverse cast of male and female characters. Another was to not overly sexualize the female characters as they had in World of Warcraft.
“We want girls to feel kick-butt, equally represented.” Chris Metzen, BlizzCon 2014
To what degree they were successful in not overly sexualizing their characters is debatable. You still have the femme fatale Widowmaker and her skin-tight catsuit that is in no way something any woman would wear into battle. She’s an assassin, so they could have gone with a Black Widow a la MCU style outfit and still been sexy.
Other problematic choices include boob cup armor (though not bikini style), lack of pants on female characters, Pharah’s battle thong, visible and prominent butt cleavage, and a stereotypically blonde angel. All of these could have been fixed fairly easily to line up with their stated goal of not overly sexualizing their female characters, but I digress.
Fipps was specifically referencing Blizzard’s stated values regarding Overwatch when they posted in the forum. They did not go out of their way to post a hateful or even recriminatory comments. They submitted feedback that was requested by Blizzard, and Blizzard responded by changing the game. This is how beta testing works. It isn’t censorship nor did Fipps impinge on the developers’ freedom.
Feedback from outside of the beta testing community regarding Blizzard’s choice was harsher, more virulent. The game’s subreddit is flooded with outrage against Blizzard for changing the pose. Where Fipps’ feedback was reasonable, measured, and calm, the response to the change has been hyperbolic and angry.
Statements like “nothing says fun like pretending we’re not human” and “the entire sjw hatred of ‘sexualization’ stems from mediocre women feeling like they’re being replaced by art” are mild. I won’t sear your eyes with some of the more hateful and ridiculous comments. You can read those on your own time. I even heard some of it while playing HotS a few days after it happened. I asked a fellow gamer what Tracer was like (she’s available to play on that platform), and the response I got was, “All I know is people are mad she has a butt.”
The argument that this is all a plot by social justice warriors (SJWs) who hate attractive women is ridiculous, but not surprising. The gaming community has a deep-seated attachment to the objectification of female bodies. So much so that they seem to have forgotten that Fipps only objected to this kind of pose with Tracer, as they did not believe it accurately represented her character. If Fipps had truly objected to all sexualization, they would have at least mentioned Widowmaker who, as I mentioned above, is highly sexualized both in concept art and in personality.
Now, the objectification of female bodies in gaming is a huge issue, one that I don’t have the space to discuss fully in this article and that others have covered quite well already, though your mileage may vary of course (see, for example Bikini Armor Battle Damage’s tumblr and FemFreq’s series). However, it is worth briefly addressing posing choices and costume design, specifically as regards Fipps’ complaint.
Dan over at Extra Credits does a great job breaking down her pose from a professional animators perspective, and I suggest watching the entire video if you’re really interested. He starts by listing four important criteria for making a good animated pose: readability, a sense of physicality, visual interest, and communication of character.
Breaking down Tracer’s original pose, he shows that while it fits the first three of these criteria, it doesn’t communicate much of her personality beyond posing for the camera in a sexy way. In fact, her posture, limb and eye position, and line of action are designed to draw attention to her ass and its very visible cleavage (see 15:13 in his video and onward).
This simply isn’t the same for the male characters who also have over the shoulder victory poses in the game (Hanzo, Soldier: 76, and McCree). The male characters shots are far more relaxed with a less arched back and a distinct lack of hip sway, contributing to the overall sexualized feel of Tracer’s and Widowmaker’s poses. As Fipps’ points out, this is inconsistent with Tracer’s character.
“[Tracer] isn’t a character who is in part defined by flaunting her sexuality. This pose says to the player base, oh we’ve got all these cool diverse characters, but at any moment we are willing to reduce them to sex symbols to help boost our investment game…”—Fipps, Overwatch forum via Polygon
Choosing this kind of pose implies that Tracer being awesome character with a cool backstory, fun personality, and badass skills isn’t enough to sell the franchise, as she is the face of the game. She must also be a sexual object and obviously so. As Dan points out in his video, humans are sexual beings, so sexuality can be a part of characterization. However, sexualized poses that contradict established personality, as with Tracer, are obviously pandering and actively harm the character being portrayed by reducing her to nothing more than a sexual object.
So what did Blizzard replace Tracer’s original pose with and how does it line up with Dan’s criteria?
As others have pointed out, this new pose looks remarkably similar to a classic pin-up illustration by Alberto Vargas, which was likely the inspiration.
At first blush, it doesn’t feel like they tried very hard. On the one hand, the replacement pose is more playful and fun, which is more in line with Tracer’s personality. Game Director Jeff Kaplan has actually been recorded as saying that he and the team believe this pose to be more in accord with Tracer’s personality.
“We actually already have an alternate pose that we love and we feel speaks more to the character of Tracer. We weren’t entirely happy with the original pose, it was always one that we wrestled with creatively. That the pose had been called into question from an appropriateness standpoint by players in our community did help influence our decision—getting that kind of feedback is part of the reason we’re holding a closed beta test—but it wasn’t the only factor. We made the decision to go with a different pose in part because we shared some of the same concerns, but also because we wanted to create something better.” —Jeff Kaplan via Polygon
Some might be turned off by the reference art being a pinup, as I was at first. However, Dan points out that Tracer is a pilot, making the reference to a pinup similar to what would have graced the noses of WWII era fighters rather whimsical, and I can see his point. It does actually seem like the kind of thing Tracer would lightheartedly reference and slightly mock in a moment of victory. She’s turning a past symbol of sexualization into a badge of victory for her as a woman: she’s the victor rather than the sexy symbol painted on his plane.
On the other hand, while the new pose is more in line with the personality a la Fipps’ original argument, it still ‘feels’ sexualized. Why? Three words: visible butt cleavage. This is not a result of posing, but rather of costuming choices.
Ultimately, characters are sexually appealing (or not) regardless of developer intention. This does not mean, however, that costuming choices don’t matter.
“ ‘[S]exy’ costumes are more likely to only be subjectively appealing. Flattering (meaning: well designed, fits correctly, highlights attractive parts of the character) costumes that make contextual sense are more likely to be universally appealing, or at the very least, not be offensive or confusing.” (source)
I take “well designed” to mean unique, functional, and suitable for its purpose. This is an area that Blizzard has done well for all of Overwatch, though as I stated above, could do better. Gaming these days is swamped with bikini armor: skin baring, skin tight, overly cleavage and butt focused ‘armor’ that exists more to titillate a presumably straight male audience than to imply any actual protective function.
Overwatch manages to avoid some of the more common tropes of the objectification of its female characters: bare midrifs and crotch armor that’s no larger than a g-string, but it’s not free of objectifying costume choices. Symmetra has stripper boots, thigh dress slits and no pants, Mercy and Zarya have chest plates with individual boob compartments, Pharah has a battle thong, and the three female characters in catsuits (Tracer, Widowmaker, and D.Va) all have highly prominent butt cleavage.
The designs are unique-ish for some characters, beautiful and compelling for others. The armor is functional and suitable for most of the characters except for the above exceptions. It’s definitely better than WoW, and at the same time, it could be better and without much effort on the designers part. At times it feels kind of like Ricky Gervais’ TV commercial for Verizon. At the same time, it is a significant step forward.
Overall, I’d say Tracer’s costume is well-designed. The bomber jacket/sneaker combo is unique, functional, and suitable given that she was a pilot prior to becoming the speedy, time-traveling fighter she is in the game. The catsuit might not be as breathable as other options, but other than that, I like her design. It’s colorful, spunky, and reasonably appropriate for role in gameplay.
Speaking of the catsuit. Catsuits are popular for female characters in gaming, as they provide the illusion of protection while also being form-fitting. With Tracer’s lean, athletic long distance runner build, a catsuit does actually flatter her body by being so form fitting. It highlights one of the best features of her body—her legs—which also underscores a part of her personality, her speed. You could therefore argue that a form-fitting catsuit is a flattering design choice.
The problem with ‘form-fitting’ is that catsuits as depicted in video games never actually fit a female character the way they would fit a real human being. For one, catsuits don’t create a visible butt-crack. It doesn’t matter how tight that suit is, there is no crack. Visible butt-cracks = major wedgie. I mean, look at the pose,
That suit is wedged so far up her ass that it makes me wince, and probably gives her yeast infections on a regular basis. Same with Widowmaker and D.Va. Seriously. I know that male gamers probably don’t think or want to think about that, but I do because I’m a woman who has gotten yeast infections from tight fitting clothes. These ladies must drink gallons of cranberry juice offscreen.
More to the point, this is not a properly fitting costume. It’s my quibble with Tracer (and Widowmaker’s and D.Va’s) design. It’s ‘sexy’ rather than flattering, to use the definition above, because Spandex doesn’t actually fit that way. Sure, she has a nice ass and maybe you want to highlight that for some reason, but I would argue its possible to highlight an attractive lady ass with a spandex catsuit that actually fits correctly.
The costume not fitting accurately contributes to the sense of sexualization. None of the male characters have visible ass cracks, nor do any of them wear catsuits. Were the female characters catsuits actually designed to fit as they do on real female bodies, they wouldn’t either. Or they could have given them, you know, not a catsuit, as they did with the males.
Overall then, the problem is one of modeling/design/costume more than a specific pose. Yes, the first pose drew specific attention to her ass and was specifically designed to do so. At the same time, the new pose still feels sexualized primarily due to the costuming decision of giving Tracer a catsuit designed with highly prominent ass cleavage. The downplaying of said ass cleavage in promo videos makes the victory pose decision even more baffling.
Whether in its first or second iterations, Tracer’s victory pose doesn’t match with the screenshot. Why give her a prominent crack, but only in still shots for the player to linger on if not for objectification purposes? The lack of consistency even within the way that Tracer is depicted in their own game just highlights the fact that the replacement pose is still supposed to be sexually appealing to the audience.
What, Gretchen, are you saying that female characters can’t be sexy? Do you want them all to wear burlap sacks?
No, absolutely not. Like I said earlier, the objectification of female bodies is complicated when it comes to gaming; there’s a long history of objectification that I don’t have time to discuss. Not to mention that one can be just as, if not more sexy with flattering clothing and consistent posing than with overt displays of objectification. I find a consistent, well thought out character more sexually appealing than random boobs in my face, but then again, that’s just me. For game developers wishing to create what I think are truly sexy characters, I advocate starting with the criteria for posing mentioned above.
If a pose hits these four criteria well, including character consistency—the main problem with Tracer’s original pose design—move on to costumes. Does it fit the human body appropriately? Does it highlight the attractive features of the specific character rather than a generic set of criteria like big boobs or always show an ass crack? Is it contextually appropriate to the role the character plays in the game and their personality? If you can answer yes to all these things, I think that’s a good start.
However, if you, as a game developer, continue to create female characters that just so happen to have a personality for which revealing armor/clothing is ‘in character’, I call shenanigans. Also, if you only have female characters whose personality expresses itself in revealing clothing, you have a problem. Costume design needs to be equal opportunity. Five (now four) Overwatch characters have over the shoulder victory poses, three male two female. Only the two female characters had visible ass crack. Give me male characters with revealing/overtly sexualized clothing in equal numbers and I’ll be more willing to allow it for women. Better yet, give me sexualization of characters that isn’t catered specifically to the straight male gaze. Don’t know what that looks like? That’s part of the problem.
I would be remiss if I neglected to also point out how important diversity is, both in demographic makeup and gaming position. The former is something Overwatch actually does quite well. 8 of the 21 characters are female presenting (10 male presenting, 2 robotic, 1 animal). There are 7 people of color, 4 of which are female presenting, (10 white, 3 non-human, 1 unknown). They have two disabled characters and three female characters that fall outside of the ‘conventionally attractive’ framework.
Yes they could do better. The inhuman characters are all coded male for some reason, so the ratio of males to females is still not 50/50, which I would prefer if they are really committed to representing men and women equally. I would prefer more male characters of color given that 50% of the female characters are non-white but only 30% of male characters are, not including inhuman characters.
Diversity in gaming position is important as well, given that traditionally female characters have been relegated primarily to support positions (healers), with a few rogue assassins thrown in. They’re “squishier” positions—meaning you have less hit points and are more easy to kill—which reflects our society’s tendency to view women as weaker.
Overwatch has four main positions: offense, defense, tank (damage absorbers), and support. Offense, and defense positions each have 2 women out of 6, tank has 2 out of 5, which is pretty good, though, again, I’d prefer it to be 50/50. It would require more female characters overall and so much the better. However, with 2/4 support positions given to females, I’m less than thrilled. Because of course you get a 50/50 ratio in the position traditionally given to female characters. The third is a male coded robot and the fourth an actual human male. Maybe they’ll add more male characters later. It would be nice to have more male support than female just to be different.
The previous two points may seem off-topic, but the handling of diverse female characters actually provides a great context for Tracer. She’s one of the two offensive female characters, so she’s both prominent in the lineup and likely a character a lot of players will want to try out and play consistently, at least if they have anything like my play style (high damage, ftw, I like killing things). It also lets you see that they’ve done so many things well with the cast of characters.
On the one hand, this diversity fosters the impression that Fipps’ feedback is a nitpick that got blown way out of proportion (though, not by Fipps themselves). On the other hand, we know Blizzard can do better because they’ve already done so. These ‘nitpicks’ are the cries of an audience who sees what they’ve done to improve, knows they can do better, and is disappointed that there are still issues that can be fixed without too much work on the developers’ part. Don’t tell me they couldn’t have spent another couple days fixing issues like erasing Pharah’s battle thong or Zarya’s boob cup breast plate, both of which are cosmetic rather than integral to character mechanics or playstyle.
Based on the game director’s response and their earlier statements at Blizzcon, this is something they want to get right. They’ve worked hard to create a diverse cast of female characters with different personalities. That only one of them is being primarily marketed as a sexy femme-fatale with skintight, revealing clothing (Widowmaker) is huge. I won’t denigrate that by generalizing from the Tracer pose to a pattern of sexualization for all the female characters in this game that simply isn’t there to the same degree it is in their other games (like WoW).
However, it is there with Tracer. Like I said, it’s about diversity, equal opportunity, and character consistency. Diverse group of female characters with different costuming choices that aren’t all centered around overt sexualization? Check (with the above qualifications). Equal opportunity for sexualized male and female characters? No. Male characters with the same pose are not overtly sexualized in the same way nor is their a male character equivalent to Widowmaker. Is the pose and costume consistent with the character? Ish. Neither in the original. I think the replacement is more consistent with her character and would be happy with it were the problems with the costume (ill fit) not still framed and visible for ogling by the audience.
Make her butt look like it does in the promo videos and I’ll be completely happy with Tracer. I mean, I’m 99% of the way in love with her already, so it really isn’t that far to go.
Images courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.
1. While they have created sequel content, i.e., Starcract 2, Diablo 3, and WoW expansions, as well as new platforms that utilize existing characters (Hearthstone and HotS), this is the first completely new game universe they’ve created since WoW, which itself was an expansion of the Warcraft games. It’s been 17 years since they’ve created an entirely new game platform.↩
Oh, EW! The Grossest Video Game Villains
There’s nothing like a good villain to get your blood going and your buttons mashing. A challenging fight can have it all: mechanics, plot, feels, and oh, yeah, the utter disgust at having bodily fluids hurled at you by one of the grossest looking things you’ve ever set eyes on. Here are some of the most disgusting bosses and mobs in video games to help you work on that gag reflex.
Dragon Age: Origins – The Broodmother
Dragon Age is home to tons of creepy, twisted and disfigured monsters that all belong to a group called the Darkspawn. They come from underground, and in DA:O if you go fishing for darkspawn in a dwarven maze of caves you will come across none other than the Broodmother. Broodmothers are exactly what they sound like: women who are force-fed the flesh of darkspawn who then morph into a darkspawn birthing factory. I’d say they look like a cross between a tentacled Jabba the Hutt and an insect queen (and oh god, are those varicose veins?) but that doesn’t adequately convey their grossness. If her tentacles don’t get you, her freshly-birthed babies will.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day – The Great Mighty Poo
Conker’s Bad Fur Day was a treasure trove of all things your parents never needed to know existed in video games, and that’s why it was brilliant. Of all the difficulties Conker faced, the Great Mighty Poo was the grossest. He was made of poop, he sang about poop, he throws poop at you. And did I mention the teeth made out of corn (because it’s indigestible, of course). This fight has every poop joke guaranteed to make a ten-year-old giggle, including those of us who might have jobs and a 401k but still have a 10 year old’s sense of humor.
Dante’s Inferno – Greed
Look, Dante’s Inferno was a messed up game. It’s literally about the worst things you could imagine, and even amidst all of that, Greed stands out from the pack. He jiggles! He has open gut sores! He screams at you! He’s just disgusting. There’s a lot of scary and screwed up in that game, but for pure gross nothing beats those flopping, greasy, bleeding, fat rolls.
PT – The Fetus in the Sink
Okay, so you don’t fight this one. But in a game where making it through all the psychological horror is the only way to survive, listening to a fetus talk to you while it pulsates in a dirty sink counts. The greatest tragedy of Silent Hill’s PT is that the full game was never made. My PT PTSD is two pronged: the fetus, and the fact that I’ll never be scared by the fetus again.
In a series that is based on scaring the hell out of you with all manner of undead things, the fact that a playable teaser with no combat managed to be the most infamous installment says a lot. Thanks, fetus.
FFXIV – Cuchulainn
A Boss so gnarly it takes 24 players to knock her out, Cuchulainn appears in FFXIV’s raid Void Ark. She is a little bit octopus, and a lot of bodily functions. This classy lady will barf on you, eat you and poop you out, pass gas all around the fighting arena and generally do every gastrointestinal thing you should never do around 24 strangers.
Oh, and did I mention the undulating? Oh yeah, she undulates.
Last of Us – Bloater
Clickers are some of the creepiest entries into the zombie menagerie, but their big brothers, the bloaters, take the cake for outright disgusting. Swollen, pustule-covered monsters who are more than happy to rip off chunky sacks of poison just to throw them at you? And those fungus blossom heads makes the demogorgon go woah, step back. Who thinks this stuff up?
Bloodborne – The One Reborn
Do you like endless piles of decaying body parts held together by some kind of sticky gloop and a demonic presence in the form of one giant pile of body horror? The One Reborn is the boss for you! It might not be the most challenging boss in the Soulsborne games but that’s probably because From Software knew you were trying not to look directly at it as much as possible.
Images Courtesy of Bioware, Rare, Visceral Games, Konami, Square Enix, Naughty Dog, and FromSoftware
The Spy Who Never Loved Me: The Dark Side of The Iron Bull’s Romance
The Iron Bull: You helped me remember who I really am, kadan. I won’t forget that.
Spoiler Warning for Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI) and its DLC “Trespasser!”
NOTE—CONTENT AND POTENTIAL TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes some respectful yet candid, open, and potentially NSFW discussion of The Iron Bull’s Dragon Age romance (and its BDSM elements). Please proceed with caution and full awareness.
This is the final part of my analysis of The Iron Bull’s romance in Dragon Age: Inquisition, as I take a look at the romance if Bull remains loyal to the Qun. If you’re just arriving, please do check out that first article here.
And apologies, this is gonna get grim. Because this is where we talk about how Bull’s romance can go wrong… in that dark and terrible alternate timeline in which the Chargers die, and in which Bull forgets that he ever had a chance away from the repressive collective mindset and worldview of the Qun. (I only survived writing it with a decent amount of wine, cat-cuddles, and breaks for soothing meditation. Okay, and yes, there might have been chocolate… So you might want to break out the wine and chocolate yourself…)
Love and Death Under the Qun
Although it’s not obviously central to his romance at first, Bull’s loyalty quest “The Demands of the Qun” is vital to understanding both Bull’s romance storyline and its effect on the Inquisitor, and of course it has a huge effect on the DAI DLC “Trespasser.” In that quest, we (and he) make a simple, significant choice: Sacrifice the Chargers, the family of lovable and skilled mercenary misfits he assembled, one companion at a time, over a period of a decade… or save the Qunari Dreadnought imperiled by the oncoming force (salvaging our potential political alliance). There is no way to cheat this quest, no way to save both.
Just to note: If you avoid Bull’s quest altogether, you’ll still end up with the same result, and justifiably so. A Bull whose loyalty you did not earn still serves the Qun as a result. It’s not an outcome that can be avoided or slid past. You’re gonna have to make the hard choices.
I’ve seen criticisms that choosing the Qun alliance isn’t actually a betrayal, that it’s tactical, and that it’s a purely intellectual decision. I do understand. And I would agree with that, to an extent, if what we were playing in Dragon Age: Inquisition was at heart a story of cold war strategy or intellectualism over emotion. But it’s not. That’s the secret, and the genius, of the choice presented to us in Bull’s loyalty quest. If we haven’t been paying attention, we might very well choose the Dreadnought, thinking, “Well, but it’s the Qunari! Troops! Ships! I’m sure they’ll be useful!”
And to this I simply reply, “Oh, you sweet Summer Child…”
Meaning… Even if you’re new to Dragon Age, and only have Dragon Age: Inquisition to refer to, it’s still possible to note the details that Bull has provided multiple times now, in direct conversation with you, as well as in banters with Solas. These are the same people who sent a self-proclaimed spy to infiltrate your ranks and feed them information. These are the same people who proudly do not value the individual (the collective is all that matters), and who openly admit that they are intent upon world domination and will sacrifice whoever is needed at any time.
A point of view further reinforced by Gatt in the very moment you are asked to make your decision.
The Dreadnought Survives
And look, I’m not judging you if you chose the Dreadnought. Seriously. It’s a viable game choice. I’m just explaining why I think the decision is subtly set forth as an emotional puzzle all dressed up as a coldly strategic one. Either way, I’ll add that I think this choice is essential to the story. We must encounter this possibility of terrible outright loss.
And even beyond that, look, it sucks, but I’m so glad I played it through at least once. There’s no other way to get a true and complete glimpse of just how absolutely terrifying the deceptively likable, funny Iron Bull can actually be on the inside, where he has spaces that echo as dark and vast as the Void. I mean, he’s markedly different instantly after that devastating punch when the Chargers die. He’s creepy. He’s empty and checked-out. He’s cold. And then he gradually became genuinely scary to me a few times in that playthrough, even way before “Trespasser.”
And as a storyteller, I love that. Even if I cried at his Hissrad-loyal storyline repeatedly, because I am a wimp, and because I react emotionally to ferrets, kittens, rainbows, and big, burly Qunari guys who lose their souls just when they could have found true love (cries).
Meanwhile, I will be analyzing Bull’s “Hissrad” persona in its entirety in a separate future post, but for now I’ll just note that Bull’s entire story arc up to that decision in “Demands” has been about the disparity in his soul, about his yearning for freedom, individuality, intimacy, family, and affection, all of which is directly opposed to his loyalty to the Qun. That yearning of his is also set against his fear, over and over again, of going Tal-Vashoth, of going savage, wild, untamed. It’s one of my favorite character notes that Bull, who is all about control, fears losing it more than anything else.
Bull’s dilemma is a simple one, on the surface: should he be who he really is or be who the Qun created him to be? And I’d argue that the answer is obvious… if we’ve been paying attention to the story around us, and to Bull’s own narrative.
However, if we save the Dreadnought, prioritizing our potential alliance with the Qun, it’s pretty tragic and dark. (Meanwhile, if we do this, after all the revelations of Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2, I can comfort myself that I’m not the only one rolling my eyes—somewhere, somewhere, I swear to all the gods of Arlathan, so is Sten, who told Leliana and Alistair point-blank that agreements and alliances mean nothing to the Qun.) Either way, if we do it… everyone Bull loves will die right here, right now. Right in front of him.
But first, let’s look back a bit.
A History of Loss
Keep in mind that Bull had already lost everyone once, way back in Seheron. The list includes his best friend, his squadron, and legions of other soldiers during a tour of duty that was supposed to cap out at two years because of the high instances of PTSD. But Bull kept on proving himself smart and superhuman, and he lasted nearly ten—an impressive feat that was almost unheard-of. A decade in hell, lying glibly, chatting daily with the townspeople he was trying to protect (and who died pretty continuously, like mayflies), watching for trouble, spying for information, and chasing rebels who relinquished all civility and went as savage as animals (terrifying Bull with glimpses of his own inner violent impulses). Bull did all of these things while fighting antagonists who crept in on the fog like twisted somethings out of a poem by Sandburg, but this time, not so much on little cat-feet, but on the feet of silent assassins that moved like ghosts.
And to put it simply, in the end, it broke him. Everything breaks eventually, after all, as Bull would be the first to admit. Everything and everyone—no matter how strong. So, like a rock battered by the waves, eventually Bull capitulated in Seheron, after a devastating attack that killed scores of defenseless children, as well as every one of his friends and compatriots, and he, well… he just shut down. Gave up. Sat down on a pile of dead and waited for judgment.
It’s heartbreaking to realize that Bull would have only been in his late twenties at this point, but he was already prematurely old inside, having conscientiously served the Ben-Hassrath for a decade, and having been trained since literal childhood to assimilate, report, and to observe others for every single sign of how to best manipulate them to his own advantage.
And in the end, it didn’t matter. After Seheron, the formerly decorated Hissrad had been proven unworthy simply for being flesh and blood, handing over his battered mind and soul to people who would have gladly removed everything that made him an individual, pithing him like a reed and leaving him blank and cold (hmmm… sounds a bit Tranquil, doesn’t it?) so that all that was left was a willing and soulless tool.
The Qun didn’t care that even stone breaks if you hit it in just the right way, or for long enough. To them, Bull cracked. And from that moment on, he was simply defective. A nuisance. They needed to send their resident liar somewhere else, out of sight, if not out of mind. They gave up on Bull and moved on.
Stupid Qunari. To quote the late, great Leonard Cohen:
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Hissrad in Orlais
When he recovered, a quieter, more vulnerable Bull was sent back out into the world. I have wondered so often about what he was like after the re-educators had hold of him. Did they torture him? Reprogram him? Mindwipe him? Or did they just remind him of his loyalties, pat him a few times, and send him back out there?
My guess is that since Bull surrendered himself voluntarily, that the last choice is the most likely—that the re-educators did a little light reprogramming, reminded him of his glorious allegiance to the Qun, and Bull rallied enough from his inner despair (given a little time and space) to convince them they were right and then he was released. Then the Qun would have sent him as far away as possible (hence, his undercover work in Orlais) to finish out a flawed service in whatever way would still benefit the Qun.
But Bull rallied. He surprised them, I think. He rebuilt his mind, his life, and his body. He assembled a small and fractious, fiercely loyal mercenary fighting force in his Chargers, and it’s no accident that (as the story implies, at least) each and every addition to his group was a rescue of sorts, starting with his second in command, beautiful and brave Krem, for whom he lost an eye.
So Bull moved forward through sheer force of will. He assembled a family. He gave himself a name, a pretty glorious title worthy of conquerers (a moment I find significant since Bull comes from a culture where people aren’t allowed actual names), then used the next decade to drink, play, fight, fuck, and find himself.
The Iron Bull Abroad
It’s fun to picture Bull striding into the midst of Orlesian politics and great Gamesmanship, isn’t it? I suspect that the Orlesians probably reacted to Bull in pretty much the way I once had initially (before I knew how amazing he was)—with ambivalence, amusement, and slight condescension. Until they’d learned their lessons and fallen just as flat as I had done, realizing that the big horned buffoon they were laughing at behind their frozen masks could be imposing and smart, strategic and as polished as any diplomat… when he needed to be. I also think they’d have been charmed by that added spice of sheer wild humor, aliveness, joy, fun, danger, and force of personality that Bull provided simply through being who he was. (I also think this is why even chilly, reserved, Vivienne so patently adores Bull in their banters in DAI; she doesn’t need to be convinced of his brains and would already have been very well aware of how much more there was to the seemingly simple mercenary captain.)
But even while he was roaring and rollicking, conquering ballrooms and bedrooms and living as close to the edge of chaos as he was allowed to, Bull also couldn’t stop being a superb spy and soldier. His loyalties were still, at least superficially, where they needed to be. And I think there was at least a part of him that was keeping his options open, waiting for his chance to reenter the inner circle and return to his former ascendance under the Qun, and to regain a few laurel leaves and hero’s benefits. They were deserved, after all, and he was still relatively young.
For Bull’s final years in Orlais, I picture the Qunari back in Par Vollen getting his missives, seeing his blunt, linear, and elegant reports (and achievements) on the varying situations there, and going, “Huh. Well, okay. He’s still valuable. Let’s use whatever is left.”
Then came the Inquisition, a new assignment, and (I believe) a glimmer of hope—and the chance to prove his loyalty on the grandest scale.
The Light at the End of the Rift
When Bull joined the Inquisition, I personally headcanon that to some degree, he fell pretty fast for the Inky and his companions emotionally. It’s why I think his approvals (from “slightly” to “greatly”) can be taken as absolutely genuine, as wordless clues to who Bull really is. He cares about the poor people we help across Thedas. He cares about structure, about order, about justice. Bull tends to like the brutal choices, but he also likes the soft little luxuries so often denied under the Qun, and sometimes he’s simply happy to see a pretty person ride a pretty horse.
I think the Inquisition inspires and moves Bull, but I also think that Bull is so adept at compartmentalization that those emotions he encountered would have been shoved slightly out of the way. When he joins us, he’s strong on every level, healthier than he’s been for years. At the same time, I think, almost imperceptibly, even as Bull’s been rebuilding himself psychologically over the past decade, he’s still unable to stop being the superb Ben-Hassrath he’d identified as for so long. So he watches, spies, acts, observes, and reports just as he’s always done.
And then Bull begins his waltz with the potential of a relationship with the Inquisitor herself (as before, just a reminder that I’m referring to the Inky by the gender of my own Bullmancer, but that of course your Bull-romanced Inquisitor can be any gender you prefer). As I’ve already described, he then sits back and waits as the Inquisitor attempts connection, and it’s all part of Bull’s brilliant strategy—to pull her to him rather than seeking her out.
And that’s all well and good… until he’s standing on a cliff on the Storm Coast and everything he’s built is balanced on the edge of a blade. Then it happens, the nightmare he doesn’t admit to, when the Inquisitor takes him at his word, and thinks, “The alliance with the Qun is more important…” and just like that, Bull’s alone again and back where he was on a similarly misty coast in Seheron over a decade ago.
But there’s no rebuilding this Bull. With the loss of Krem and the Chargers, Hissrad is back, and he’s here to stay. Bull’s struggle against his inner potential darkness, always a part of himself, is over.
“Nice Talking with You, Boss…”
One of my favorite things about the quest title “The Demands of the Qun” is that it can be perceived as both a direct callback to the Qun tenets so often recited throughout the Dragon Age trilogy, as well as, more ironically and bitterly, to the subtle unreasonableness that anyone can or should live up to those demands that so subvert the individual and glorify the collective. That put the good of country and conquest above all else. In Bull’s case, the demands of the Qun are devastatingly personal (to be fair, I really like that Gatt, Bull’s elven Viddathari colleague, appears to truly care for Bull and that he is distressed and sympathetic to Bull’s plight in the moment… even if he cannot seem to really get the consequences for Bull of the terrible choice at play there).
But he makes that choice, with the Inquisitor’s help. The Qun is upheld. And the mist swirls on that distant hilltop and we have our last tragic, bloody glimpses of our funny, sweet Chargers—Krem (KREM!), Dalish, Grim, Rocky, Skinner, and Stitches—their bodies strewn across the green grass as the Venatori take possession and the Qunari Dreadnought safely retreats.
Then everything’s quiet, the deed is done, and everyone’s back at Skyhold. Bull seems okay (although we’re given that one devastated, searing glimpse as he punches a tree an anguish), but he’s back to his impassive self. If a little colder now and quieter. His one moment of grief went unwitnessed. He had a slightly strange memorial for the Chargers in the battlements, admitted he’d been playing a role (as if he was awakening from a dream to a harsher reality, Bull commented, “Krem, Rocky, Dalish, all of ’em. Dead for the Iron Bull, a man who never really existed,” while I reacted with a serious full-body shudder).
From there, everything… just… continued. We could still go to the tavern and there he was, as always, apparently whole. Bull didn’t seem to talk as much as before, and the one constant to his dialogue was that we could always ask about the status of our Qun alliance (ugh).
Life went on. Bull was polite, accessible. Maybe a bit cooler, but there he was, right where we needed him to be. No need to mention how lonely he must be. No need to bring up the darkened corner to his left.
A Shift in Focus
Apologies for waxing rhapsodic, but I’m pointing out all of this to show how far-reaching and important Bull’s loyalty quest is and how much it affects his romance. That choice doesn’t just affect one interaction with Bull, but all interactions. And even though it seems to affect the romance only glancingly, upon closer inspection the differences are pretty devastating. And if you’re like most people, you did the loyalty quest before the romance triggered. Which means, for good or ill, your romantic course with Bull is already set once you’ve done so.
It’s deceptive at first, because no matter what we do (save or damn the Chargers), Bull gives us a huge hit of approval. Which again, is perfect; he’s a creature of loyalty. Challenge him and he grins. Hit him and he’ll thank you. Fight him and he’ll smile with visible delight. Everything becomes clear.
Either way, he seems to say, “Hey Boss, thanks for trying.”
But it’s not that simple.
Gone, Baby, Gone
The fact is, if you didn’t save Bull’s makeshift family on his loyalty quest when you had the chance… you’re romancing an empty shell, and he’s lying to you now pretty much twenty-four-seven.
Sorry to break this to you, but Bull’s gone. And I believe that further, whatever’s left of Bull, however masterful he is at compartmentalization, that there is nevertheless a surviving part that deeply resents us for our choice, and that he even enjoys his power over the Inquisitor for that reason. The romance in this case is, palpably, colder around the edges.
My favorite thing about the Qun-Loyal Bull is the way Bull’s character design and presentation by Casper Konefal and the talented Bioware team so seamlessly encompasses his colder, darker side. Bull’s such a big and intimidating guy, but there’s something open and sunny about his face a lot of the time, emphasized even more when he goes Tal-Vashoth. But when he goes Qun-Loyal, there’s a real darkness there every once in awhile, a subtle sense of potential malevolence. In “Trespasser,” for instance, Bull looks downright villainous in a few early scenes when we talk to him at the tavern in Halamshiral, and that’s not an accident.
A Qun-loyal Bull admits to several things at different moments, and almost all of these factual assertions are seriously unsettling if we’re paying attention:
- That The Iron Bull was just a role he was playing.
- That he’d almost forgotten himself in that role as he enjoyed being The Iron Bull.
- That we ourselves reminded him of his true purpose (loyalty to the Qun) when we sacrificed his people.
- That he’s always going to be okay because he’ll always have the Qun. (And it’s such a relief! He feels great! Everything is great!)
Okay, give me a second… (bursts into tears, rallies, continues…)
Don’t ask “Where’s Krem?” if you chose the Qun. Just… don’t.
The Lonely Captain
It’s telling that, forever after in the DAI story, Bull is alone. Alone in most of his scenes and stagings. Alone in the Tavern, no nearby Krem loyally watching his blind spot. And alone metaphorically as well.
This adds to the potential tragedy of his romance with the Inquisitor, since it’s basically all he has left, and even that’s simply a lie he’s living under orders. It’s all sort of horribly Shakespearean and complex and tragic…
In other words, if you sacrificed the Chargers? Solas isn’t the only one with a DAI romance that breaks your heart.
With a Qun-loyal Bull, your romance with Bull is like a slow-motion bullet. It’s already been fired, you just won’t feel it hit you in the heart for another two years.
A Colder Climate
And now here we are, and those invisible choices earlier with Bull have begun to shape our world in Thedas. We chose the Qun. And now we see what that has created in earnest.
The most noticeable change in the Inquisitor’s romance with a Qun-loyal Bull occurs in the scene late in the romantic story progression, when Bull and the Inquisitor playfully exchange a little post-coital pillow-talk. They discuss each other’s limits, with Bull teasing the Inquisitor about never using the safe word “katoh.”
And this is where the main romance timeline diverges in a way that’s visible and dark… and if you’re paying attention, the sting of those changes is palpable.
In the original romance (and with a Tal-Vashoth Bull), Bull’s far more emotional and accessible in this scene than here in the Qun-loyal Bull storyline. And full props to Bioware and to Bull voice actor Freddie Prinze Jr. here, because the takes are palpably different, even where specific lines of Bull’s dialogue are still the same. In the Tal-Vashoth versions, his voice is more changeable and animated, more humorous, more emotional. In the Qun-Loyal versions, he’s muted, more monotone, drier and quieter, and (I believe, deliberately) occasionally downright freaking creepy.
“You Helped Me Remember…”
There are also some notable scripted dialogue differences.
If Bull is Tal-Vashoth, he will tease the Inquisitor about her boundaries, then tell the Inquisitor he’s a better man for knowing her, and that he hopes he has eased her burdens. There is, here, the option to proceed to deep emotion, either through a declaration of love, or through the vulnerable admission of fear that you will die and lose each other (and I’ve already written about how beautifully performed that moment is, as Bull is the most open and vulnerable we ever see him when he responds with “Katoh… I can’t.”).
If Bull’s Qun-loyal, however, those conversation tree options become simplified. And very quietly, almost invisibly, there’s no longer the option to declare your love. If you sacrificed Bull’s people? You can never, ever say “I love you” to Bull, even if your Inquisitor genuinely means it. And while the alternate declaration speech he makes may seem just as sincere (and ends the same way as the Tal-Vashoth version), it’s pretty grim stuff if you really think about what he’s revealing here:
The Iron Bull: You helped me remember who I really am, kadan.
(A slight pause, in which worlds collide and my heart breaks so hard you can hear the sound three counties away.)
I won’t forget that. No matter what happens.
He then ends, as in the other versions, with a compliment for the Inquisitor and the hope that “this made it a little easier for you.” But that key bit of dialogue beforehand changes everything. Later on, when you experience the final moments of “Trespasser,” and flash back to this speech, it’s pretty brutal, awful and heartbreaking. (I mean, I just did it in my head and looked around frantically for the nearest Xanax.)
Because. Right here, right when it seemed like Bull was thanking you, giving you a gift, a compliment?
He wasn’t thanking you. Or appreciating your time together. He was warning you. He was telling you he would never forget having to sacrifice his men. And that he wouldn’t forgive it, either.
And he doesn’t. He may cool to a glacial temperature. He may stomp his feelings into dust. He may feel nothing, no pain at all (as a surprised Cole realizes in “Trespasser”). But I do not think he forgets. And I do not think that Bull forgives the loss of his family. The loss of the son of his heart, Krem.
Embers, even the smallest ones, can burn with surprising heat for the longest time.
Just Part of the Job
Meanwhile. This romance moment has another notable difference with a Qun-Loyal Bull, as (replacing the “I love you” declaration) it can end with Bull’s comment about hoping he made things easier (and in a drier take on the line there by FPJ), followed by a slight and perhaps uncomfortable dawning revelation by the Inquisitor.
NOTE: Writer Patrick Weekes was also nice enough to alert me that the talented John Epler “is also responsible for some of those terrifying moments of silent coldness in the afterglow talks, if you made Bad Choices,” so huge credit to him here, as well! The entire scene is gorgeously staged and presented, and every movement, expression, and reaction is meaningful.
The following dialogue then occurs if the Inquisitor asks Bull the question that’s only accessible in this alternate, Qun-loyal, timeline: “Was this just a job to you?”. And as I’ve noted previously, the animation and writing in this entire scene is brilliantly handled; it has to encompass so many variations and yet each disparate character and plot beat means something specific and (yet) still believable.
For instance, here, depending on all story choices for Bull, the Inquisitor’s pensive face at the final revelation can mean a variety of things:
- Sadness at the fear that her love isn’t requited.
- Deep emotion in the aftermath of connection and potential loss.
- Embarrassment at potentially being taken for granted.
- Dawning awareness and shame at being used.
It’s beautifully managed, just as with that closing scene, where as I’ve noted previously, Bull will always gently pull the Inquisitor back into the bed, but in each case, depending on your actions (Tal-Vashoth Bull or Qun-loyal Bull), the moment means something palpably different:
- He’s responding to her declaration by admitting his own love in return.
- He’s emotionally connecting on a truly vulnerable level after allowing his fear and loss to show.
- He’s playfully turning back for another casual sexual encounter.
- He’s placating the Inquisitor with sex to cover her dawning revelation about his lack of feeling.
And it all works because Weekes’s writing covers those character beats so gorgeously. And not just the writing; I suspect that this entire alternate-universe storyline must have required some incredibly fine tinkering and editing, so it’s a good place to send further kudos to Ben Gelinas, Karin Weekes, and the rest of the editing team on that aspect. Great editors make great writing seem even more liquid and effortless, and that’s very much the case here to me (and it’s even more impressive when you consider how many story variations had to be balanced and managed).
Meanwhile, let’s move on to a detailed, depressing, and scripted quote of that moment when the Inquisitor realizes, tellingly, that everything has gone irrevocably wrong:
Inquisitor (finally realizing she may have made a terrible, horrible, stupid, awful, no-good, very bad mistake): What do you mean? You make it sound like you don’t actually… Was this just part of your job? Helping the Inquisitor relax?
The Iron Bull (chuckles coolly): You look pretty relaxed to me.
The Inquisitor’s face falls. After a moment, Bull relents, and he pulls her back into the bed with him.
The Iron Bull: It wasn’t just a job. Come here.
The worst part of this, of course… is that it was.
If we didn’t save the Chargers, then Bull’s romance was, unfortunately, just all in a day’s work.
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.
No, You’re [Probably] Not Addicted to Video Games
If you listen to the media, video game fans are addicts who have no attention span to speak of and are so prone to violence that any of us are capable of shooting up a school at the drop of a hat. Now, on top of that, the World Health Organization has declared that video game addiction is a thing, and it is a public health crisis.
I can practically hear the hand wringing and pearl clutching from here.
Anyone who plays video games regularly has endured being accused of having an addiction. In our dumb, hyperbolic society (where literally also means figuratively) we like to toss around diagnoses like they’re meaningless. “I alphabetized my games today because I have OCD!” “Sometimes I make dumb social faux pas, I have such social anxiety!” When season two of Stranger Things premiered on Netflix, I marathoned the whole thing in one sitting, and no one called me a Netflix addict. That was 13 hours of TV in one day, certainly not the healthiest day I’ve ever had.
Addiction is a serious thing, and while some people absolutely are addicted to video games, they’re pretty rare — so says our good friends at WHO. This is the important part of their declaration:
“People who partake in gaming should be alert to the amount of time they spend on gaming activities, particularly when it is to the exclusion of other daily activities, as well as to any changes in their physical or psychological health and social functioning that could be attributed to their pattern of gaming behaviour.”
So what does it mean? If you skip work to play Fortnite, lose your job, do coke to stay awake for days to keep playing, and then have your kids taken away, you have an addiction (true story). If you’re playing Fortnite and you can’t be bothered to go to the bathroom and just, you know, go right there, and then punch people in the face when they try to get you away from the game, you probably have an addiction (again, true story).
But those stories — stories of solidly diagnosable video game addiction — are outliers. For most people, video games are a passion that consumes a lot of time, and not at the detriment of our lives.
If it seems like I’m picking on Fortnite, it’s because the media is having a field day with the free-to-play game right now. If you Google “Fortnite Addiction,” you get all kinds of hysteria. The Chicago Tribune ran a story about a concerned father “losing his kids” to Fortnite. He includes damning evidence like not knowing what his kids are talking about anymore, and they get out of bed in the morning all by themselves to play the game. He even throws in a great “fellow kids” reference to Pac-Man fever. The New York Times has a handy guide for parenting a Fortnite addict.
Fortnite is hardly the first game to be accused of ruining people’s lives — MMOs have always been a handy target, including World of Warcraft. Tales of WoW taking over people’s lives and running them into the ground have been around forever (same with EverQuest). Minecraft gets accused of destroying children as well.
Video games are increasingly popular and accessible (especially with the glut of free to play games on mobile devices). In a way, though, they are still very niche in that the people who don’t understand gaming culture really don’t understand gaming culture. It’s easier to blame something for ruining lives and making children violent when they don’t understand it at all.
Most of the people screaming “What about the children!” Tipper Gore-style are forgetting a very simple thing: parenting. As for the rest of us, gaming is an expensive hobby. We require these wacky things called jobs to keep playing. And that’s an important part of the equation — it doesn’t matter if you spend 90 percent of your free time playing games, as long as you’re employed, eating, showering, and not suffering from crippling depression or thinking about hanging yourself with an ethernet cable.
While excessive gaming can be a sign of a problem, it doesn’t mean that gaming itself is addictive and dangerous. Plenty of people gamble or drink alcohol without becoming addicted; the addition of underlying, untreated mental health issues is often what takes a glass of wine at dinner to drinking as a way of (poorly) coping with stressors, which can result in addiction. Not everyone who takes pain medication is addicted to opiates, but there are a lot of people who are.
Bottom line? Yes, video game addiction is real but you’re probably just fine. So try not to get too anxious about it, and don’t leave your buddies in Fortnite hanging.