One of the things I find fascinating in games is how they deal with social interactions. Building encounters that are relatable and believable — for collections of polygons bumping into each other, at least — is a hard ask, so it’s interesting seeing how different games do it. It’s a big part of why I like the romances in BioWare games. (It is definitely not also because the mind boggles at the possibilities of a giant half-cow, half-Freddie Prinze Jr. boyfriend. I don’t know where you got that idea.)
Relationships can be used as subtle set dressing, where you find strings of emails between work colleagues in an office, or be the central dynamic of the game in AI-themed joints like Event. Or they can be actual romances, with awkward flirting and even more awkward sex scenes. Dragon Age: Inquisition has the best and worst romance that the medium of games has ever produced. And if you have more than a passing interest to DA:I then you probably already know where I’m going with this. This is basically a thousand word-long break up letter, and I do not apologise.
If you read the rest of this you’re going to encounter end game spoilers
The first time I played the game I romanced Cullen. Cullen’s key moment is sweeping stuff off his desk to get busy with you, because not caring that he knocked paperwork on the floor is a big deal for him. In the final DLC he asks you to get married, and get a pet dog. With Cullen you get a happy ending; Cullen is the continental breakfast of romance options. The orange juice wouldn’t have bits in, because Cullen Rutherford isn’t a pervert. No disrespect to Cullen fans.
But the first time I finished Inquisition, before any of the end-game DLC came out, there was a final scene that hinted Solas, previously an annoying know-it-all member of your party, was quite probably an ancient elven god. I am not exaggerating here: I immediately, immediately started a new game, not because I was at all attracted to Solas, who is nicknamed ‘Egg’ by fans because his head is exactly the same shape as an egg, but because I anticipated becoming the god queen of all the elves. It is, frankly, the part I consider myself born to play.
This did not happen. Romancing Solas is like being the love interest in a Shakespearean tragedy: histrionic, ruinous, and, in the long term, one or both of you is probably going to die.
And yet I still believe it’s the best romance in a game so far. My reaction to it has been akin to how I react to a relationship IRL (albeit on a smaller scale, because I am aware he is not a real person), which is also why it’s the worst. Much of all of this is down to the writing. Characters in Dragon Age have hidden depths if you get to know them: Zevran uses humour and detachment as a coping mechanism; Morrigan secretly does want a best friend; Vivienne isn’t the ice cold bitch she first seems. People connect to them because they’re very well crafted.
There is an extremely interesting blog post from the Inquisition writers that I often go back to. They describe the different music playlists they had for writing different characters, and Patrick Weekes, who was the lead on Solas, reveals that some of Solas’ dialogue has the same metre as the song ‘Hallelujah’ (I put this to the test once by making a pub full of people sing some of his lines). Solas is polite to the point of being stand-offish, and walks around like he does a lot of yoga. A modern day Solas would own a typewriter, but not a TV, and would mention this to everyone he met in a way he imagined to be casual. But he has also been described by Mary Kirby, another BioWare writer, as being like scotch bonnet candies. This is particularly apt, in my opinion.
The first stage is the sweet part. You approach Solas with the assumption that he’s a stuffed shirt, a hard candy such as one that might be deployed by a friendly old person — but he’s the means to a god queen end, so who cares? Then he immediately reveals himself to be incredibly smooth. He’s smooth as heck, smoother than the freshly zambonied ice rink that I assume BioWare Edmonton employees are all contractually obliged to play ice hockey on. He flirts confidently, and confidence is attractive. Solas pads up to your Inquisitorial bedroom in bare feet to make out, and you bend like a willow branch before him. If he’s a know-it-all then perhaps you know nothing.
The burning starts in the second stage. Solas breaks up with you in the most ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ moment of all time. He is sad, and conflicted, and paints his feelings on the walls of a circular room in the Skyhold Castle. You don’t disappear with him after the final battle, he leaves by himself, and possibly wearing extremely valuable equipment you gave him. In the Trespasser DLC you discover he’s not just any god, he’s Fen’Harel. He’s the wolf, the trickster, and he was secretly the real antagonist the whole time. He’s basically fucking Loki. Oh, the anguish! The violins! The pain of your Inquisitor as she confronts him and he walks away. How can she still be a leader when a structural pole has been removed from the tent of her confidence? Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. Tear out my hair, rip my clothes, throw me on the pyre, for there is no end to my grief!
Then, after a while, I had a revelatory moment. Hang on a minute, I thought. Solas was a douche. Sure, he’s conflicted about it, but he’s still planning global genocide to try and make elves more elfy, so screw him, right? Right ladies? Yeah, pour me some more wine. He talks in poetic metre and paints pictures of me, what is he, sixteen? What kind of person tells you they love you after your second kiss? And lies about almost everything about themselves? It’s like the moments on extremely exploitative television show Catfish, where the Catfish goes ‘Everything I told you about me was real, I swear, except for the literally all of it part.’ This is the final stage of the scotch bonnet candy, when you are spitting fire and venom at anyone who comes near you. Solas occupies the same space for me now as other exes I hate: ‘I don’t even care but let me tell you about this motherfucker.’
I am clearly not the only one who experienced this barrage of different emotions. The fan groups for other Dragon Age love interests have kind of cutesy names (the aforementioned Cullen has Cullenites) and make fan art involving puppies and muffins, and about how much of a sweetheart the object of their affection is. The Solas group is collectively known as the Solasmancers, notionally a smashing together of ‘Solas’ and ‘romancers’ but in actuality a delicious hop and a skip from ‘necromancers’, the bad magic people. And a significant number of us hate him, we just hate him so much. Solas isn’t a precious lost puppy, he is the Bad Egg, he is the Bitch King, he is the liar who broke my heart and deserves punishment. It wasn’t even a little lie either, but a lie large enough to destabilise entire worlds; my Inquisitor choked on that lie and Solas can go choke on a dick.
Never before have I seen a character become the focus of such a muddled outpouring of affection and hatred. It’s the only time I’ve experienced a break up in a game as a microcosm of an actual break up. That is why Solas occupies the unique space of being the best and the worst. He is the worst because it was agony, and the best because I felt it. I hope in the next game I can crush his heart in my digital hands.
No one ever said ‘good character’ is synonymous with ‘nice person’.