It’s been about a month since I got back to Australia and I’ve been busy. Ish. Busy-ish. Usual stuff, meeting people I haven’t seen in nearly two years, drinking, looking for work (’cause as I’ve established before, cocaine and hookers are expensive), and replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of my favourite games from one of my favourite developers (as I’ve established before, I am a raging Bioware fanboy), I figured that before I settled into a long slog with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Rise of the Tomb Raider I’d start a new playthrough and play through the DLC I’ve missed.
So I’ve immersed myself in the world of Thedas once again, and I gotta say it is great. It’s great to once again explore the expansive universe – the lore, the gossip, the politics – and dive into the intricacies of the main plot and smaller side quests. And of course, it’s great to be back amongst old companions. It’s funny how attached you grow to fictional characters, how invested you get into their interpersonal relationships, and I’ve been loving listening to my party members’ banter with each other as we stab our way across Thedas. But as my elf rogue murdered yet another group of heavily armed strangers (who may or may not have been bandits) and the game decided it had been long enough since the last time any party members had spoken to each other, I came to a startling conclusion. Namely that Varric Tethras is a massive dick towards Cassandra Pentaghast. No, really.
Cassandra was apologising, y’see, about nearly decking Varric earlier that morning after discovering that he had in fact known the whereabouts of Hawke all along. That might count as a spoiler for DA:I (and probably DA2) but honestly you’re probably not reading this if you don’t know the exact moment I’m talking about already, and it’s otherwise not a big enough spoiler to worry about (even the characters point out how telegraphed it is). Anyway, Cassandra tries to apologise (quite sincerely, I might add) for letting her temper get the better of her and almost punching him, and Varric sarcastically remarks that “I’ll mark this on my calendar! Cassandra had a feeling!” I mean, c’mon man, she knows she did wrong and she’s trying to say sorry. Maybe you can cut her a little slack?
This was just the point that I noticed how one-sided much of the animosity was. Earlier in their conversation cycle Varric makes a point of insinuating that Cassandra doesn’t have any friends, and that the only way she was capable of recruiting people for the Inquisition was through kidnapping and threats. While Cassandra is somewhat deserving of these remarks – she certainly comes off as guarded and prickly through most conversations, obviously doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, and did actually ‘arrest’ and threaten both Varric and the player’s Inquisitor – it still feels uncalled for, partly because of all the attempts that Cassandra makes to reach out to Varric; partly because she’s a professional; and partly because she’s a massive fan of his.
On the first point, as I’ve already mentioned, Cassandra makes the point of apologising when she does wrong. She also makes the point of trying to start a conversation about the rebuilding efforts in Kirkwall, a conversation that Varric shuts down pretty harshly. And while admittedly Cassandra doesn’t show a great deal of gratitude to Varric for sticking around to help the Inquisition out shanking demons, it’s not all that surprising that she might be a touch suspicious of Varric’s motivations (he is a somewhat notorious liar and opportunist, even if he is a sentimental one).
The third point, that Cassandra is a massive fan of Varric’s work, I find his behaviour to be most unusual. Varric is protective of much of his work (when the Inquisitor asks questions about his Tale of the Champion, saying the wrong thing can lead to disapproval) even if he feigns nonchalance (I’ve really gotta use that word in more of my writing, sounds so sexy). An entire set of War Table operations is devoted to tracking down some arsehole who wrote an unnofficial and terrible sequel to Varric’s most successful work, Hard in Hightown. And Cassandra is a massive fan of his, reading Tale of the Champion twice, making a comment on the difference in writing style between Hard in Hightown and its atrocious sequel, and reading and rereading her copies of his Swords and Shields romance serial, going giddy with relief and excitement when he presents her with the next issue after a cliffhanger. She even asks him for advice writing, to make her reports more interesting. Quite frankly, while it seems that everyone has read Varric’s work, Cassandra is his only open fan in the Inquisition. Yet it just becomes another point of mockery in his arsenal against her. Writing the next issue to Swords and Shields is just another joke to him and her request for advice is met with a half dozen synonyms calling her boring. I mean, it just feels like a really shitty way to treat someone who respects your abilities and loves the work you produce.
But it’s on the second point, that Cassandra is a professional, that I really want to focus on. Because Varric generally respects professionals, but he tends to hold grudges and perhaps doesn’t fully understand Cassandra or her motivations. Cassandra is a fairly typical strong woman archetype, but not nearly so two-dimensional as to fit any single stereotype. She’s a character defined by a determination forged through faith. She has a job and wants to see it done as best she is able, is an idealist and an optimist, but never strays across that line from professionalism towards fanaticism. Because fuck fanaticism. Seriously that is probably the moral of the whole game, comparing the “at-all-costs” and “any-means-to-an-end” attitudes of the (spoiler alert) Venatori, Templars, Mages and Grey Wardens who at various points oppose the player, with the cool professionalism of the Inquisitor’s advisers and companions. The good guys fight for a cause without sacrificing the world, and are able to distance themselves (with varying levels of success) from the bloody work that needs to be done saving it. Fanatics are the evil bastards who’ll sacrifice everything to get what they think they want, and they need to be stopped.
That’s not to say that there aren’t members of the Inquisition who aren’t fanatics, and that your companions aren’t sociopaths. They absolutely are. There’s a good chance your Inquisitor is as well. But all of them, the ones you see at least, from The Iron Bull to Sera to Cassandra to Cullen, are professionals about it. Maybe not Solas. But fuck Solas. Guy’s a racist arsehole.
So Cassandra is a professional. Just doing her job. Her job is either stabbing people or threatening to stab people. She’s pretty good at it. So why doesn’t Varric respect that? He respects other people for it, as we see time and again. When the Inquisitor asks why Varric isn’t the spymaster instead of Leliana he flat out tells you that it’s because she’s better at the job, because of her ability to distance herself from her agents and informants. She’s more professional about it. Varric’s language about Cullen and Josephine follows a similar bend, with him remarking about how effective at their jobs they are. He talks about his editor – who once murdered someone over incorrect punctuation – quite highly, and while he disparages the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild, Carta and Coterie regularly he still shows genuine respect to their members who know what they’re doing and do it well. I can’t even be bothered to go into the examples from DA2 beyond just pointing at Aveline and Isabela, on opposite ends of the legal spectrum, who Varric simply accepts and befriends, completely understanding and forgiving threats of arrest or the occasional betrayal.
What I’m getting at is that Varric is supposed to be the sort of guy who would accept an excuse of “nothing personal, it’s just business.” So why doesn’t he accept that about Cassandra? She needed information about Hawke, and he was not forthcoming about that information until threats (and actual violence) were used. Well, the easy answer to that is to say that Varric holds grudges. We saw it with his brother, we see it with anyone else that directly harms him or those closest to him. But then why doesn’t he hold the same level of grudge against Leliana (who if not a direct participant, tacitly approved of Cassandra’s interrogation) or against other earlier members of the Inquisition, like Cullen?
My guess is that it’s because he thinks he understands the others’ motivations better than he understands Cassandra’s. By the time we get to DA:I Leliana has gotten dark and violent, ordering executions, assassinations and sacrifices without hesitation in the name of duty (thank god that duty includes saving the world) beyond making sure she’s shanking the right bloke, bird or miscellaneous. But she’s also an incredibly loyal person, and Varric can see that there was something more to her relationship with Divine Justinia, something unquantifiably deep, that was lost when Justinia was assassinated. Varric understands the desire for revenge and the mixed feelings it produces. Cullen is driven by his failures, as a commander and as a person, haunted by failing to prevent the spectacular destruction of the Fereldan and Kirkwall Circles of Magi and blaming perfectly innocent mages in between. Again, Varric understands feeling of failure, personal and professional (yes I know I’ve been using that word way too much in this essay, piss off, you’re not that perceptive… sorry, don’t piss off, I need you).
But Cassandra is driven in her duty not by vengeance and failure, but by her faith in the Maker, his plan and his institutions (even if she believes they needed to be changed). Varric doesn’t understand faith, quite understandably. He has issues with trust, let alone something even more indefinable and intangible like faith. It freaks him out. Cassandra isn’t the only one who suffers from Varric’s incomprehension. In DA2 Prince Sebastien, squeaky clean and fresh back from the priesthood to avenge his murdered family, is a similar subject of mockery for his virtue and righteousness despite never once stabbing a book in Varric’s lap. So because Varric is unable to understand her motivations, he is unable to brush off her actions as just “doing her job.” That makes it a personal attack, even when it shouldn’t, and Varric holds grudges. For most of the game, at least.
Towards the later game the banter between the two shifts, becoming less confrontational and even friendly. They develop a certain intimacy thanks, in no small part, to Cassandra’s own sense of fairness and genuine honesty. They appreciate each other, and become companions even they don’t necessarily become friends, joking about the book stabbing with each other instead of at each other. Attachment and sentimentality and all that. There’s even suggestion that they continue travelling together even after the Inquisition has completed its mission, something which both find crazy but not impossible.
So what’s the point to all this? Just wanted to point out some great writing, basically. I’d call this one of the most interesting and layered relationships in the game, and they do it with a couple pages of dialogue and some great voice acting. Not much more to it than that.