Finding Cullen

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The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Twenty-Three. If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing for a month.


Perhaps the best way I’ve found to tell if a game is going to be worth playing before release is to gauge how confident its developers are, and the best way to do that is to count the number of gameplay videos, streams and trailers they put out. If it’s a trickle, that doesn’t necessarily mean the game is going to be bad, but it should potentially make you wary – the devs are likely nervous that something about the game doesn’t quite measure up. If it’s a torrent, on the other hand, the devs can’t wait to show off the game and believe that even in alpha or beta states the game is strong enough to stand on its own.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is supposedly 200 hours long, but developer BioWare seems to be so sure of its quality that it seems like they’ve shown about a quarter of the entire thing already. Contrast this with the relative paucity of information prior to the release of Dragon Age II – a game which, though not quite deserving of the Worst Game Ever judgment passed on it by thousands of irate gamers, was still a failure of both imagination and execution – and there appears to be reason for at least some optimism in advance of Inquisition’s Nov. 18 release.

The strength of any BioWare game is its characters – generally an array of companions, allies and lovers who comprise the majority of dialogue interactions with the player. You spend a lot of time in a BioWare RPG running around with your party in tow, so making sure said party members are interesting and less-than-annoying is important.

A significant portion of the criticism surrounding Dragon Age II was that the characters were one-note. Take along the mage Anders, for instance, and he’ll be sure to spend seemingly every possible instance lamenting the plight of his fellow mages. There’s a part in Dragon Age II where Fenris, a character critical of mages and a former slave, confronts his former master.

The player can choose to essentially give Fenris up and he’s so gutted by the betrayal that he goes along without a fight. Every other party member expresses extreme disapproval at this course of events – except for Anders, who is happy to see someone who doesn’t agree with him sold back into a life of servitude. He’s a bit of a shit, that Anders, and when he commits an act of terrorism that precipitates the game’s ultimate conflict, my character took the opportunity to stab him in the back of the head.

BioWare seems to be placing a great emphasis on their characters in the leadup to Inquisition’s release, perhaps in part as a reaction to criticism of II. They’ve put out a series of trailers highlighting the main characters’ voice actors, created cosplay guides for several of them, and generally lavished attention on them in previews and interviews.

Inquisition features three advisors to your character in addition to nine party members – characters who don’t fight alongside you but are an important part of the game’s greater political story. There’s a video preview online in which producers Mike Laidlaw and Cameron Lee introduce fans to the advisors for the first time: spymaster Leliana, a party member in Dragon Age: Origins and generally a mover and shaker in the game’s universe; Josephine, a diplomat new to the franchise; and Cullen, the Inquisition’s general and military advisor.

“I don’t know about you, Cam, but I could almost hear the squee when Cullen started talking,” Laidlaw says at one point, the two of them laughing. He’s right to have that reaction. Cullen is one of the most popular characters in the entire Dragon Age fandom.
There’s a subforum on the official BioWare community site for discussing Inquisition’s characters, with many individual threads pushing fifteen to twenty thousand replies. Cullen’s stands at almost ninety thousand and spread over three games, it’s the fourth thread of its kind.

His fans congregate on Twitter and joke back and forth with Greg Ellis, Cullen’s voice actor. All of this would be normal for a well-known character – just look at the response, say, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock gets on Twitter – except that Cullen was, as of the first game in the series, almost a footnote.

A bit of history for you: magic exists in the Dragon Age setting (or “Thedas.” “TheDAs.” Get it?) but it comes at a high cost. Mages wield incredible power, but are at extreme risk of demonic possession. To that end, when children are discovered to have magical ability, they are whisked away to a Hogwarts-esque prison known as a Circle, where they can learn to control their powers and not, say, accidentally burn down entire villages.

They’re accompanied by a religious martial order known as the Templars, who act as both bodyguards and watchdogs. If a mage does happen to succumb to possession, a templar’s duty is to kill that mage before things get hellish.

In the first Dragon Age, the player can encounter Cullen three times. The first time is if the player roleplays a human or elven mage – they run into a nervous Cullen after their Harrowing, in which they’re sent into another realm as a kind of final exam. Cullen is the templar assigned to kill the player if they fail, and if you engage him in conversation, he expresses mixed feelings about that duty. If the player character is female, Cullen can be convinced to reveal – haltingly, like the religious enforcer he is – that he has feelings for her, despite the fact that she’s a mage.

Either way, the conversation is a quick one, and Cullen disappears until much later on, where the player character can encounter him a second time. Several mages have been possessed by particularly powerful demons and the Circle is on lockdown until the player resolves the situation. Cullen is on the next-to-last floor of the tower, trapped in a magical barrier. His formerly ambiguous feelings about mages have morphed into a fear borne of the horrors he’s seen.

The player character, upon defeating the last of the demons, has a choice – either pardon the surviving mages, or kill all of them to prevent the worst from happening yet again. Before the player ascends to the final floor, Cullen implores them to choose the second option.

The third time is immediately after that choice is made, where Cullen expresses his opinion on said choice. He then isn’t seen until the very end of the game, where he may make an appearance in Origins’ epilogue slideshow, which expands on the consequences of some of the player’s actions. In at least one ending, he may go insane, murder several mages, and then go on the run – an extreme result, but one that makes sense given how broken he is by his experiences at the Circle.

And that, with most characters, would be that. Origins is an exceptionally long game – 35 to 50 hours on average, with some playthroughs approaching 100 – and Cullen occupies maybe 15 of those minutes. Something about Cullen, however, captured the attention of a significant number of fans – so much so, in fact, that he appears in Dragon Age II as a much more significant supporting character.

The Cullen of Dragon Age II has moved to the city of Kirkwall to become the second-in-command of its Circle. If he ended Origins as a murderer, that’s handwaved away as merely a rumor. He’s still obviously scarred by his experiences from Origins, but he stands out as a tough but fair arbiter of his duties. This is particularly noteworthy given that a lot of II’s characters on either side of the mage vs. templar conflict tended to lack subtlety, and therefore lacked the sympathetic qualities required to cause the player to question his or her loyalties.

Mages complained about brutal treatment by the templars but seemed to be nearly unanimously involved in dangerous and irresponsible research; templars pointed at this as a reason for caution, but counted among their ranks more hateful fascists and outright genocidal types than anything else. Neither side was worth saving, and whichever leader you decide to support in the endgame turns on you. Cullen, however, is constantly reasonable and ethical, and even ends up standing against the insane Templar commander Meredith when she orders him to kill the player character.

Again, that could have been the end of it, but Cullen is set to show up as an even more important character in Inquisition. He’s been given a lavish redesign, a romance plot (always a sign of significance in a BioWare game), and, perhaps most importantly, a set of shit-hot armor that looks both practical and awesome. That’s a long way from those 15 minutes in Origins, where most players (including me, on my first playthrough) might have barely noticed him.

Just another NPC, existing to further a plot point, then summarily discarded. BioWare obviously didn’t think he’d be much of a factor, or they wouldn’t have made him a potential murderer.

How did we get from where Cullen started to where he is now?

Bit players get promoted into major parts all the time in fiction. There’s even a name for it – the “Ascended Extra”. TVTropes has an entire page chronicling the masses of characters who suddenly found themselves enjoying a huge profile increase. The idea of an Ascended Extra, whether it’s Cullen or Boba Fett or Steve Urkel, is intriguing to me because it suggests that their creators had no idea that they were creating a character people would find interesting.

A lot of effort goes into creating main characters people will identify with. If you’re going to be spending an awful lot of time looking at or listening to a character you don’t want to find that character annoying or boring. Consequently, you’ll want to reserve the good stuff for your most important characters – the most emotional plots, the biggest beats and so on.

Your audience, however, is not always so easily led.

I talked to a number of Cullen fans for some insight. Though many of them first encountered Cullen in II as opposed to Origins, a common thread emerged: Cullen’s small arc in both games was a lot more compelling than one might originally think.

“I love that I can think back to his opinions of mages after the Broken Circle and understand the trauma he went through, and how his reaction is so utterly human,” Mel, a Cullen fan, told me. “Then I see how he drew from that experience and maintained at least a little balance once the end of DAII came around. I think that for a minor character (which is how most people classify him), he has a heck of a lot of thought and development.”

Cullen’s fans didn’t have a lot to go on when deciding that he appealed to them, but what they did have to go on was more than enough.

“When you first met him,” Linda, another Cullen fan, explained to me, “he appears to believe the dogma of the Chantry and the Templar Order to his core. However, if you flirt with him as a mage, you do see he is conflicted between his beliefs and desires. An internal struggle many of us experience.”

Though the hints of a doomed romance were a partial factor, the Cullen fans I talked to simply wanted to know more about him. How would he react to a mage in Inquisition given his past? How had he changed? What kind of man was he? The idea of the character was made real enough for Cullen’s fans that they wanted answers to these questions.

That might be a formula for a breakout extra – take a character with a short, sharp arc that suggests some hidden depth and leave most of the questions surrounding them unanswered. All Boba Fett had was a cool costume, an interesting premise and exactly four lines (plus one scream), but he was easily the breakout star of the original trilogy, with novels and comics and action figures all stemming from that short, memorable appearance.

A character might exist on-screen for only a few minutes, but they can roll around in our heads for years on end. Much of a main character’s existence is already defined (save for what is left out for prequels and sequels) but for someone like Cullen, the fun comes in creating around the existing framework. Less, in more ways than one, turned out to be much more.