Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Age of the Dragons, Part III: The Epic of Ser Cullen

I said on Twitter, as I played through Dragon Age: Inquisition, that I was developing a theory.

The best representative of the player, I mused, isn't actually the Inquisitor, the player character. The best representative of the player is, in fact, their advisor Cullen.

And now I will try to explain.

The rest of this post contains big fat unmarked spoilers about basically every game BioWare has released since 2007. You have been warned.

Three Commanders Shepard, one character.
The same Commander K. Shepard, as seen in ME1, 2, and 3.
So, my first thought* about Dragon Age: Inquisition actually begins with a thought about its sci-fi sibling, Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is one story, in three big acts. As you import your story from game to game, your future choices depend on your past choices. Your reality is shaped, and your options constrained or opened, based on things you did so long ago you have forgotten actions had consequences. You thought, for good or for ill, that you had escaped the weight of your own choices, or didn't realize which ones had weight at all.

But there is a through-line, and you and your player character are it. You are consistently playing Commander Shepard, from game to game to game.

Those three women, above... these three women were all my Commander Shepard, and by extension they were all me -- an avatar of me, my projection and representation -- inside the game.

They all saved Wrex and sacrificed Kaidan, loved Garrus and lost Thane. They all bore the weight of their actions from game to game, but because they were all her and all me, she and I carried the same memories.

Even when I play different Commanders Shepard (as I have done), from act to act and game to game they are the same person throughout. The Shepard who makes a choice about Ashley and Kaidan in Act I is always the same Shepard who later makes a choice about the Crucible in the grand finale.

Commander Shepard remembers Virmire, even as she escapes Vancouver. She feels the weight of Saren behind her as she fights in London. She and I are of one mind about these things. What I remember, she remembers. Because we were both there.

But Dragon Age is, well, a different story.

Three games' heroes, one face. Wonder if anyone in Thedas noticed?

Dragon Age is many connected stories, told (so far) in three big acts. You can import the sum weight of your previous decisions from game to game. Your future choices depend on your past choices. Your reality is shaped, and your options constrained or open, based on things you worked your way through externally, perhaps for a second time, and deliberately, openly chose in the Keep right before you launched Inquisition.

You know the actions you told the computer had taken place had consequences. You know you were shaping the world state for a reason. And you did it outside of the game because you can't do it inside of the game.

I have played through these games several times, wearing different characters with different faces, but these three women above are "mine." Different women, all, though they share a similar (admittedly egotistical) aspect.**

They are Amelle Cousland, a naive noble rogue who went slumming it for a while in the woods but got her fairy tale ending. They are Carias Hawke, the rags-to-riches star on stage in Varric's tale of the Tragedy of Kirkwall. And they are Marion Trevelyan, champion herb-picker and leader of the Inquisition.

They are the Grey Warden who became Hero of Ferelden and queen to that nation's king; the smuggler who rose to Champion of Kirkwall and witnessed the start of a civil war; the Herald of Andraste whose life became intertwined forever with both the sacred and secular powers of the land.

You and I, the players, have memories. If we played DAO or DA2, we have past decisions piling up before us. When we have to choose once again between mages and templars, when we make a decision about who to send to their death at the fortress of Adamant, when we have to watch Morrigan search in frantic fear for her son: we remember our past choices, and our past feelings, and we act accordingly.

But our character has no such memories. He or she is someone new, with a new background and a tabula rasa brain. The player may have continuity, but the character does not.

She is no Commander Shepard.

But this guy kind of is:

Definitely better-looking by Inquisition.

Enter Ser Cullen Stanton Rutherford: onetime templar, late of Kirkwall, risen to command all the military strength of the Inquisition's forces.

Cullen was forgettable in DAO and more-or-less unlikable in DA2. I didn't really understand what he was doing in Inquisition at first. He seemed redundant, filling a role that could have been taken by basically anyone.

In Leliana and in Varric, we already had the familiar around, both at our war table in our base and watching our backs on the field. Cameos and major guest-starring roles from characters of both previous games abound, up to and including a major plot arc starring our own customized Hawke.

So we didn't really need Cullen for his military prowess, because basically everyone in Thedas can stab things, and we didn't really need him to fill the role of fanservice callback, because we had so many others.

Given that, I wondered... why is this man here?

And then I spoke with him. At length.***

The companions and advisors in Skyhold all remember little pieces of the player's puzzle-past. Sera has childhood memories of the ten-year-gone Blight, and Leliana fought with the Warden. Varric was there with Anders and Hawke in Kirkwall, and Cassandra chased their shadows through him.

But only one person in the entire fortress was actually there, everywhere you were, during the previous decade of strife in Thedas. And that person is Cullen.

He remembers everything that happened when the Hero of Ferelden came to the Circle of Magi to seek help ending the Fifth Blight. He was a smaller, crueler, pettier man and he was the kind of problem a mage-sympathetic Warden tried to solve, but he was there. He saw it, and the weight of his choices and actions back then stick with him.

He remembers everything that happened when Kirkwall fell apart, its Chantry in literal ruins, and the city's Knight-Commander, Meredith, gone mad with the song of red lyrium. A bolder man by then, he took up arms alongside Hawke, against Meredith, and tried (and failed) to salvage the city. He saw that, too, and the weight of those choices and actions also stick with him.

The Inquisitor does not -- cannot -- remember what the player remembers. She was not there, never could have been there. She sprang into being fully-formed exactly when the Conclave did, an empty vessel for the player to define as best they can.

But Cullen was. He, not the Inquisitor, is the voice of the player's memory even if the Inquisitor is the voice of the player's present and conscience. And he is arguably a solid stand-in romantic hero: the knight-errant, on a Maker-given mission -- of atonement, of justice, of victory.

Cullen is, basically, the Neville Longbottom of Thedas. Like Neville to his monomythic classmate Harry Potter, Cullen was there at the same places and the same times, along for the whole ride. But for a twist of fate -- the grace of the Maker, you might say -- he could have been our series hero.

Though, as he would be the first to tell you, he would not necessarily have been a worthy (or indeed, particularly interesting) one.

*  *  *  *  *

Next up in Dragon Age posts: the metaphor of Skyhold, coming sometime this year to a blog near you.

Also you can hear me discussing my earlier impressions of Dragon Age: Inquisition in the GameCritics podcast.

* There will be more thoughts. So many more thoughts.
** The lack of character continuity is definitely more obvious if your player characters are of different genders, races, and/or species from each other. That I happen to do my personal preference playthroughs with ego-insert lookalikes is on me, not the game. But my make Hawke and elf Inquisitor aren't my personal canon... yet, anyway.
*** And occasionally without clothes. "Romance" kind of applies in more than one sense here. Such as. Ahem.

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