Like fish in an enthusiastic aquarium, fans are gobbling up the small flakes of information on Dragon Age 4 showing up on the surface of the internet. While most things remain, understandably, under metaphorical lock and key, one of these claims disrupted the community more than others. According to Daily Sun Knoxville, one of the most integral playable characters in DA4 would be none other than the templar Cullen. It’s important to note that Daily Sun Knoxville may not be an entirely reputable source—I mean, if this was a typical leak, it’s weird that no other news outlets appear to have the same information, especially big gaming outlets like Polygon or Kotaku. The legitimacy of the rumor aside, it did spark a discussion worth having within the community. From where I stand, it only makes sense that Cullen found his way from minor NPC to party member over the course of the four games. However, like many other fans, I find the emphasis on Cullen to be worrisome, especially given the narrative’s unsympathetic treatment of the fantastical minorities in Inquisition.
For those who haven’t played every game in the Dragon Age series, I’ll give a bit of Cullen history so his evolution is a little more apparent. In Origins (the first game of the series) Cullen is a minor templar set up in the Kinloch Hold, aka the Circle Tower, home of the mages in Ferelden. When playing a mage, you have a sort of relationship with Cullen already—or at least he knows you—but otherwise you meet him when arriving at the Circle Tower in search of mage aid for getting rid of a demon. Whereas Cullen’s opinion on mages and magic wasn’t exactly set beforehand, during this mission (where the tower has been taken over by a demon as well) Cullen becomes terrified of the mages and bitter over the templar friends he has lost. Since I never killed the mages during this mission, I don’t know how he acts afterward, but in saving them, he becomes angry and says that they should have died.
In Dragon Age 2, Cullen has re-located from the Circle Tower to Kirkwall in order to distance himself from the trauma he faced, though he is still a templar. Unfortunately Kirkwall is worse in consideration to the tensions between templars and mages. Cullen is second in command under Commander Meredith, and under her hateful hand, Cullen’s mistrust of mages only grows. It’s only when the local Chantry and its Grand Cleric is brought to ruin by a mage, Meredith completely loses control and tries to slaughter all the mages, and everything in Kirkwall goes to shit, that Cullen starts to re-evaluate his opinions. When you meet him in Inquisition as a combat advisor, he has somewhat separated himself from the templars, seeing how oppressive they’ve become, yet he still has very little love for the mages.
Given this expansive character arc, it seems only right that he take the step from NPC to playable character. So far, he’s been stuck behind a desk, dealing with bureaucrats and whatnot—to have him see things with his own eyes as they happen could only be good for his character. So I’m not worried about this part. What I am worried about is Cullen becoming the poster boy for the game.
Cullen himself can be considered a sympathetic character (though opinions on his character growth differ from person to person), but he’s also the personification of every unquestioned majority in the series. For one, he has every social benefit, which is to say he’s a white, human, non-magical man in a position of power. As far back as Origins, the treatment of mages has been especially heinous. Children with magic are taken away from their families to live in the Circle, and many mages come to view their powers as a blight or a sign that the Maker (God) hates them. Mages in the Circle are under surveillance 24/7 by the templars, and at any possible sign of possession or rumors of a mage looking at blood magic, the mage is made tranquil, which essentially removes their emotions and ability to argue against the templars alongside their magic. (Mages who do not live in a Circle are labeled as apostate and are hunted down by templars, most likely to face the same tranquil fate.) As for the racial side of things, qunari are viewed as heretical brutes, but fine so long as they stay on their side of the ocean; dwarves are accepted for the most part, but are utilized largely for their ability to handle lyrium, which no other race can do; and elves are either discriminated against harshly in Thedas’s cities, doomed to live a life of poverty or as a handmaiden to a rich noble if they’re lucky, or hated simply for refusing to bow to the humans who stole their land during one of the many wars in Thedas’s past. Cullen has nothing to worry about no matter where he goes in Thedas. People may claim that the world of Dragon Age is supposed to be lacking in racism and sexism in theory, but this has already been proven incorrect in practice. Since the writers can’t divorce themselves from writing a fantasy world that doesn’t include the prejudices of the real world, there’s no reason to expect that Cullen won’t benefit from the typical things white dudes always benefit from. So far, there has been very little chance to for other people (even as an elf, qunari, or dwarf Inquisitor) to call him out on these privileges, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.
Also, Cullen’s opinion on mages has roughly stayed the same throughout the three games. In Inquisition he did make a little bit of headway in not thinking the mages are the literal devil come to torture him specifically, and given his trauma it’s understandable that he doesn’t have many fond feelings for magic. Still, it would be annoying to have, after four games, yet another important, never-villainized character technically upholding the status quo of “mages are bad and should be locked up”. Furthermore, since Cullen has never been villainized even once, the game is still implicitly making the claim that both the templars as an order are good and that the Chantry as an organization is good. Though Cullen has stopped considering himself a templar, he still trusts them. At the beginning of Inquisition, he tries to convince the Inquisitor to recruit the templars and not the mages to help their forces. Remember that at this point, the templars you’re potentially recruiting have punched a holy Mother (priestess) in the fucking face, left the Chantry, and basically told everyone in Orlais that they suck and should die. While the mages… existed and have been oppressed by yet another group in the meantime (Tevinter mages, sure, but come on). Nothing about the inherent goodness of templars is ever argued against—only that a certain subset of templars has been corrupted. Likewise, Inquisition goes out of its way to show how non-Andrastian religions, in this case the elven pantheon specifically, are fake and bad, and the main villain of DA4 is even implied to be an elven god. Even though the Chantry and Andrasteism are directly responsible for almost every single conflict in the game, its validity is never questioned, least of all by Cullen, who is still a staunch believer.
All of these things—even all of these things at once—are not bad to have in a character. Cullen is not a bad character. However, the more spotlight he’s given in the new game, the more Bioware is reinforcing the idea that minorities are suffering because they are different, and thus bad; in Bioware’s eyes, they simply don’t seem to be as necessary to the stories that concern them as the humans are. This already happened in Inquisition, albeit with NPCs. In some ways, it made sense for Morrigan, previous party member in Origins, to show up as a magical advisor, but her privilege was clear as day. As a human, despite being an apostate mage, she was able to work her way into the Orlesian court, right next to the empress: she was seen as a novelty and not a danger. Many people took umbrage, and rightly so, with the fact that after joining up with the Inquisition, Morrigan also became the advisor on elven lore. Though the party already had an elf expert, Solas, and the Dragon Age series already had an elven magical expert with a specialty in ancient elven artifacts, Merrill, neither of them got to have input on the elfy parts of the plot. Instead Morrigan got to humansplain about all the elf shit that came up, which was particularly abhorrent when the Inquisitor was actually a dalish elf (the most elf-y of elves in Thedas).
Bioware’s trend of silencing the voices of the oppressed in favor for having them spoken over or spoken for through the mouth of the privileged is one of the many troubling aspects of the series. Inquisition was a sign to many that the company may not actually understand how hard they tipped the scales in favor of one specific group of people, or that they simply didn’t care. While making Cullen a playable character is a sensible and expected move, the question lingering in my mind is, how well will they handle this? Will Cullen continue on his path to learning that all mages aren’t bad and that the templars and the church majorly fucked them over, and have been doing so for a long long time? I have my doubts. As the golden boy of the series, as a character who will probably never be questioned as harshly as the minorities around him nor as much as the player character, it may be a miracle if Cullen is put under any scrutiny by the other characters who interact with him. We won’t know for sure until the game is released, but in the meantime I hope Bioware comes up with some party members that legitimately go against the status quo.