I am, I realize, as predictable as any swooning maiden with a crush, now that I admit my unfailing attraction to the stately ex-Templar. Being (among other things) a game designer, I thought I’d try to explain the mechanics of the attraction. In between bouts of drooling and fawning.
Cullen Stanton Rutherford, Commander of the Inquisition’s forces, first caught my attention when an attempt at flirting with him in Dragon Age Origins had him heading for the hills, running away from my Circle Mage in pure, innocent, panic. At least he didn’t pull my pigtails.
Cullen has seen the worst that magic and corruption can do to innocent people. Trained from a young age, he has devoted more than half his life in service to the Templar Order. He saw the Ferelden Circle fall during the Blight and was witness to the mage-templar conflict that tore Kirkwall apart. In the aftermath, it was Cullen who rallied what remained of Kirkwall’s templars to restore order to the devastated city. His leadership and integrity caught the attention of Cassandra Pentaghast, who recognized in him a vital component in forming the Inquisition. Now the world is falling into chaos. Cullen is through waiting for others to act, and he’s determined that the Inquisition will make a difference for the people of Thedas.
A later encounter in the same game saw him ruthlessly tortured with the semblance of my character as the torture device. Cullen had ended up in the clutches of a desire demon, putting him through what I can only imagine being sexual assault¹ and temptation, using the Hero of Ferelden to break him. It made it pretty obvious that Cullen had a thing for me. Ehm. My character.
Cullen is voiced by Greg Ellis, who later lent his voice talents to Anders in Dragon Age: Awakening. I think that is one of the reasons why I ended up romancing Anders in Dragon Age II, despite the fact that by then, Anders had changed voice actor to Adam Howden. But it was Greg Ellis’ Anders that made me fall in love². In Dragon Age II, Cullen is working with Knight-Commander Meredith, but he is at least slightly more tolerant toward mages by then. As a testament to his personal growth, he actually sides with Hawke against Meredith at the end of the game.
During Dragon Age II I desperately tried every permutation of every dialogue to at least get Cullen to pay attention to Hawke, but no. His love was unattainable. Instead I ended up mainly with Anders, but also Fenris, Isabela and Merrill. The last of the four by accident. Still my heart was set on Cullen, perhaps because he – like so many of my real life entanglements – ran away when I tried telling him how I felt.
When BioWare announced Inquisition and later the possible love interests, my excitement over Cullen guaranteed that he would be my first romance.
Annika Waern writes in Playground Issue #1 (I don’t think there were that many additional issues of the magazine) from 2011 about Dragon Age Origins and her crush on Alistair. She is also attempting to explain this unexplainable attraction to people who do not exist. Before I quote her, however, I’d like to explain a concept called bleed. It’s a concept mainly used within role-playing games and live action role-playing. Bleed is explained as the experience of having your character’s emotions and thoughts influence your own. The border between player and character becomes fluid, not so strict³.
So when we are given a virtual body and meet with other virtual bodies, and we can converse and joke with them, we are bound not to view them altogether as tools.
So, fundamental psychology offers the first clue as to why bleed is possible in a computer game. The virtual body of the avatar transports us into the virtual world, and our built-in model for interacting with characters in this world is as if they were human.”
Ironically, this is something clearly expressed by another one of my digital romances. Kaidan in Mass Effect tells Shepard, the player character, that she makes him feel human. In a strange twist, this is absolutely true. As a player I can make my non-player characters feel human, although I doubt that they know it.
We do this all the time, anthropomorphize objects, technological or otherwise. As human beings we seek a relatedness to the world around us. Our ancestors saw spirits in everything. We speak to our mobile phones and computers. We relate to them.
It reminds me of a book by Fiona Raby and Anthony Dunne, called Design Noir: The Secret Life of Electronic Objects. In the book they describe a table constructed by them. The table has a GPS transmitter embedded in it. If the GPS is connected to a satellite, the light is green. If the table loses the satellite link up, it says it’s lost.
The word ‘lost’ was ever so clever – I don’t know whether it is being parents but you think, ‘Ah, it’s lost’. You get a bit worried really.
The concept of bleed and our own inherent need to relate to the world, and out ability to anthropomorphize objects with the slightest indications of emotions on the object’s part goes a long way to explain why we fall in love with people that don’t exist. When the objects not only express emotions, but reciprocate emotions, we’re pretty much screwed. In other words, since the people in the game are scripted to respond to us and our actions, it’s even more likely that they will elicit an emotional response.
So we experience bleed by virtue of our avatar. We anthropomorphize things that are as lifeless as rocks and we try to relate to characters in games. Is it any wonder that we’re all set up to fall in love?
¹ It’s kind of horrific, really, the subject of sexual assault. I’m surprised it doesn’t affect Cullen more than it does. On the other hand, it did affect him, although not to define him.
² Not in the least because of his love for cats. Ser Pounce-a-lot came close to giving my kitten a name.
³ The impact of having to watch yourself die on the game board was actually one of the reasons why player characters were invented. While playing Blackmoor, Dave Arneson noticed that the players became uneasy at having to watch representations of themselves die on the gaming table. To create distance between the character and the player, the player character was invented as a representation, but not an exact copy, of the player. Thus appeared the idealized versions of the player. Bleed is sort of a reversal of this separation.