Inquisition’s Iron Bull Shows BioWare’s Limitations

Inquisition's Iron Bull Shows BioWare's Limitations

Screenshot: Electronic Arts / Kotaku

I really like the Iron Bull. I would have a drink with a guy like him in real life. We would defend each other if someone laughed at us. That’s why I can’t help but think about how badly her story ended in the action-RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition, and why I revisited how it aligns with how whose poorly marginalized cultures are dealt with in BioWare’s sprawling series.

The Iron Bull is a companion that shows up to offer aid to your character’s army when it was a small peacekeeping force before it became an entity robust geopolitics. He immediately explains that he is a spy for the hostile nation of Par Vollen (based on the Mongol Horde) and that his bosses have common interests with you.

See, there’s a fucking hole in the sky. No one knows how it happened, but it spawns monsters and spews green lightning. The clerics are freaking out, no one seems to be in charge of fixing the thing, and the only way to seal it is to use a glowing seal on your hand. This is how you find yourself at the head of a paramilitary force sponsored by the Andrastian Church. Due to your continued heroism against the greatest natural disaster this world has ever seen, potential allies from other countries are gathering to see how they can help. This includes the normally hostile Qunari, which is a religious group I’ve feuded with for most of Dragon Age 2. They value conformity at all costs, harbor a powerful army, and have expansionist tendencies. Most of the inhabitants of the continent Thedas do not appreciate being invaded or horned beings who do not worship their lord and savior. Thus, for the first time in the history of Dragon Age, the player works with the mysterious and dogmatic Qunari as an equal. .

Iron Bull’s complicated situation is incredibly relatable

I was thrilled that Iron Bull was paving the way for international friendship, even if it was through a military alliance. You see, his story reminds me a lot of mine. Growing up as a Chinese in the United States was tough. Kids would assume your people were the reason all American jobs were going away. White people would panic if our national government sneezed in any direction. And I understand. People feel small and powerless in the face of geopolitical forces beyond their control. It’s easier to project that nasty shit onto a human being, and they do, both in Thedas and in real life.

The Iron Bull looks through its only good eye.

Screenshot: Electronic Arts / Kotaku

Iron Bull is not just an active follower of Qun. He is a secret policeman for the Qunari nation of Par Vollen. Despite being part of a police force that engages in assassination and religious re-education, Iron Bull attempts to carve out a life outside of the line of duty. He believes the Qun is the best political system, but he doesn’t want a holy war. He also enjoys drinking and having sex despite the religious stigma against hedonism. I feel close to him for that, because I too choose what I like about being Chinese. I also prefer to talk about anime than the communist party. But most foreigners don’t care what I believe. Like Bull, I have to be armed with an icebreaker for every conversation. We are considered threats until proven otherwise.

Despite the stigma, I love that Bull remains true to his religion and is willing to risk his life for it. Why shouldn’t he? Human Templars fight and die for Andrastianism all the time, and that doesn’t mean they’re bad fanatics. My friendship with him in my first race was special because I was playing as a member of his race, albeit one who was never born into the culture (Vashoth). Our lives were different, but we both knew what it was like to be assumed to be a freak in front of the man.

The quest “Requests of the Qun” soured me on the Iron Bull arc

Midway through my first campaign run, Par Vollen tries to extend an olive branch, and I find myself extremely invested in that scenario. When a group is strongly associated with a hostile nation, warming relations result in less racial discrimination against that group. My character accepts the joint military operation out of pragmatism. On a more personal level, he wants to live in a world where people wouldn’t assume he was a threat.

This game was last updated seven years ago and the post contains spoilers.

My character should learn to live with disappointment. The military operation goes terribly wrong and the group is faced with a decision: either they sacrifice the Iron Bull mercenaries to save the Qunari ship, or they sacrifice the mercenaries to preserve the ship (and thus the Qunari alliance). His mercenary children are essentially his found family that exists outside of religious culture. If you choose to save the Iron Bull mercenaries, the alliance offer collapses. Iron Bull will be exiled from his homeland. His homeland will send assassins after him after he has served them loyally all his life. Damn.

Now, I understand that all-or-nothing player choices are a hallmark of BioWare games. Someone always has to get screwed. But this choice in “Demands of the Qun” seems particularly forced and… bad? Par Vollen would surely respect the military acumen of one of their most talented officers. If the Iron Bull thinks its group of mercenaries was worth more than a ship, there’s surely room for negotiation. Especially when an alliance with the most powerful military force on the continent is at stake. What has become of the famous pragmatism of the Qunari?

The Iron Bull clashes with enemy mages.

Screenshot: Electronic Arts / Kotaku

It’s getting better. If you don’t forcibly sever its relationship with its homeland – if you don’t give up the continent’s first chance at international peace in centuries – then the Iron Bull will turn against you in the Trespasser DLC, which is focused on the story. epilogue that takes place after saving the world from the evil zombie mage Corypheus. You are forced to kill him in battle, specifying which choice was the most “canon” for him. I hate this outcome because Dragon Age has always had players sacrificing a few to save the many. Now, how many Andrastians and Qunari have to kill each other because we haven’t found an alliance? The post-game DLC makes even that sacrifice worthless, since the Qunari end up turning on you anyway. Sometimes life bites you in the ass even when you make all the right decisions. It’s something I’ve always respected in BioWare games. But what bothers me is that BioWare has this unfortunate tendency to dehumanize its marginalized cultures in the universe.

But the quest is not about big, important issues like peace or sacrifice. This is a smaller, more personal. Could Iron Bull prioritize his personal feelings over his loyalty to a dogmatic culture? A companion of mine, Solas, makes this point even more explicit: Either Iron Bull is an independent being or he is not. But I don’t care what Solas thinks of the Qunari. He is a racist towards everyone. I care what BioWare has to say about this fictional race, which they made a replacement for non-European forces This threat Christian Europe. Dragon Age has never had any respect for non-humans who think their culture is worth protecting. The “Demands of the Qun” quest is an extension of this continued disregard for non-hegemonic diasporas.

Dragon Age’s persistent issue with non-human characters

Take Varric, for example. He’s been a companion in two full Dragon Age games, and his character revolves around the fact that he’s far better off never having experienced proper dwarf culture like his brother did. Come on man. Aren’t you the least bit curious about the intergenerational trauma that has shaped your entire family? Apparently not. Making peace with family history and letting it go is one thing, but Varric doesn’t even bother to question his non-human past. I always feel conflicted when I see fans flattering him. He’s not a “dwarf” character. He succeeds because his rejection of his heritage renders him harmless, like a fantasy model minority. Would he still be so beloved if he had strong opinions about the dwarven caste system, or cared about the sprawling spires where his family had resided for generations?

And don’t even tell me about Solas, an ancient elven god who wants to bring back his lost civilization by committing genocide against the entire world. Why are these the issues, BioWare? And why did you make the representative of this incredibly important civilization a total dick bag who clearly doesn’t care about lives other than their chosen few? Maybe we should bring Arlathan back. But not on his terms. And the prankster elf Sera? She can’t spend five minutes in my party without reminding everyone that she’s not like the other elves.

On the other hand, the human Cassandra Pentaghast (who is also a member of the secret police) is narratively rewarded for clinging to her coded Christian faith. When she discovers that her religious organization is corrupt, she has the opportunity to reform it. There is no reform for extremists like Solas or the Iron Bull, unless they are willing to leave behind a crucial part of their personality.

I wouldn’t care so much about everyone being a perfect saint if we had well-aligned characters who held traditional, non-human values. But unless you’re culturally coded as a Christian in the Dragon Age universe, being attached to your heritage makes you a heretic. And just like the kingdoms of medieval Europe, the only cure for heretics is conversion, exileOr death.


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