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No, You’re [Probably] Not Addicted to Video Games

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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. 


 

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Gaming

Oh, EW! The Grossest Video Game Villains

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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

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Analysis

The Spy Who Never Loved Me: The Dark Side of The Iron Bull’s Romance

Angela D. Mitchell

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If you sacrificed the Chargers? Solas isn't the only one with a DAI romance that will end up breaking your heart.

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…)

Onward!

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.

Iron Bull’s loyalty quest asks us in a clever, heartbreaking way: Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?

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.

Bull turns to us to answer to his best self. If he isn’t asked to do so, is it so surprising that he holds a grudge? He’s lost everything… on our orders.

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.

I understand those who choose to sacrifice Krem and the Chargers. I just also judge them. A lot. And a lot some more.

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.

He lost.

“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.

If you love Bull, but sacrificed the Chargers? Please sit down. Have some maraas-lok. Because I have some really, really sad news for you…

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.

Onward. Dammit.

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.

If you sacrificed Bull’s people? You can never, ever say “I love you” to Bull… even if you headcanon that your Inquisitor genuinely means it.

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.

Katoh.


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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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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