Making the case why Solas is among the best game villains yet.
Actually it could be argued that Kratos, in all his cold blooded toxicity, is even better but Kratos is not commonly seen as a villain.
Solas on the other hand can be regarded as an antagonist without too much trouble, especially since he’s not a player character. 1
Let’s start from the beginning. BioWare has a long and varied history of tricky and sometimes impossible choices to make, including the protagonist in Star Wars: The Old Republic, where the player is SPOILER! revealed to be Revan, a former Sith with amnesia.
Grey areas are common. Liara in Mass Effect 2 has become an information broker, eerily mimicking her mother Benezia who was brainwashed in the first Mass Effect game to do the Reapers’ bidding.
In Dragon Age II, Anders comes close to being a true antagonist while blowing up the Chantry, but Anders is not the focus for the final scenes where Grand Enchanter Orsino and Knight Commander Meredith finally fall victim to their inner urges, Orsino to his paranoia and Meredith to the insanity brought on by Red Lyrium.
A case could even be made for Teyrn Loghain and his callous abandonment of his son in law Cailan in the fields of Ostagar, but Loghain is too much of a cookie cutter evil. He has very few qualities to redeem him, and even if I as a player choose to keep him alive, the time spent with him is too short to get to know him.
Thus Solas, who is every conceivable shade of grey, who dreams and feels deeply, and most significantly, whose mind can be changed.
Because Solas is a member of my party in Dragon Age Inquisition, I can talk to him, get to know him and even romance him.
He is obviously an intelligent and thinking man. He’s considerate, a bit of a snob, refined in his tastes and obviously very well read.
He is also an elven god, guilty of locking his fellow gods into a prison behind the Veil from where they cannot escape. All of this as a punishment for murdering Mythal. In the DLC Trespasser Solas’ backstory is explored and although he is not present until the very last of the DLC, his presence is deeply felt. The qunari suspect him merely to be an agent of the Dread Wolf, but the truth is of course that he is Fen’Harel, the Dread Wolf.
Upon waking up in the world he created, Solas realised that the prison he made for his fellow gods also distorted the nature of the elvhen, and by avenging the death of Mythal, they lost most of what it was to be elvhen.
During the game’s progress, Solas often laments how ignorant the elves are, and he honestly tries to understand if the Inquisitor (if an elf) is typical for an elf or special in more ways than the fact that they are in possession of the anchor.
At the same time, telling Solas that elves, humans, dwarves and qunari are all capable of thought and most significantly change, will actually garner disapproval from him. In this, and in his dialogue, it’s obvious that he enjoys aspects of this world and the most surprising thing about it are the specific aspects he enjoys. Power, intrigue, danger, and sex. This opens up another aspect of Solas’ personality that gives him depth and to be honest, a bit of humanity.
If the player romances Solas, its always with reluctance that he admits his emotions, which gives the impression that even the idea of sex is beneath him. This impression is reinforced by his relative lack of emotions when dealing with the romance between him and the inquisitor. The fact that Solas admits to enjoying all of these aspects in the Orlesian political game creates a new perspective on the interactions previously had with Solas. An understanding for the distance he must keep to this world in order to bring back what was, and how difficult that distance is for him to maintain with the Inquisitor is established.
If I wanted to make things easy, I’d argue that this is the dichotomy that creates the interesting aspect of Solas, but I honestly think that the most interesting aspect of him becomes clear when he’s about to leave the inquisitor.
He has progressed from someone who believes 100% that what he’s about to do (tear down the Veil and restore the elvhen) is the right thing to do, to someone who’s not entirely certain anymore. Yes, it’s a blip, because he’s still determined, he’s just not as determined and the best part is of course that he’s ready to be convinced otherwise.
At the start of Inquisition, Solas is more of a villain than at the end. Hearing him talk he is arrogant (although with an underlying sorrow), inflexible and convinced that the world doesn’t deserve even the smallest bit of consideration. He’s ready to burn it down. At the end of Trespasser, he’s showing the beginnings of doubt. He’s not sure he’s doing the right thing. He’s still arrogant, but his arrogance is blunted by the emotional connections he’s made.
Another aspect of Solas is his curiosity. Granted, he’s been sleeping for I don’t know how long, but as a contrast to Corypheus, who just want things to return to what they were without any exceptions, Solas’ desire to restore the elves is tempered by a curiosity to know and to understand. He might despise what the elves are now, but because of Solas’ thirst for knowledge, he’s willing to be wrong. He also encourages others to question, and even though that comes across as somewhat patronising at the start of Inquisition, by the end, it’s clear that Solas respects the Inquisitor.
In a way, Solas and Corypheus are much the same. Corypheus wanted to change the world by entering the Golden City. It was already destroyed according to him, so his desire became more worldly. He wanted to rule the kingdoms of Thedas by subjecting them to Dumat and Tevinter rule.
Solas, in his thirst for revenge, tore down everything he knew by raising the Veil.
Where they differ is motivation. Solas was driven by what I assume was his love and respect for Mythal. Corypheus wanted power for himself. The interesting aspects of both of them is of course that despite both of them possessing what I would imagine is a considerable intellect, they are also surprisingly stupid. They’ve both created the situation they’re in, facing devastating consequences, and yet, there they are ready to do it all over again, knowing the mayhem they have and will continue to cause.
Both Solas and Corypheus are fascinating in that aspect. They’re trainwrecks in progress. Corypheus is however ultimately the lesser of the two, primarily because of his lack of interest in the world around him.
In retrospect, Solas’ connection to Mythal also explains his aloofness and apparent disinterest even in a romanced inquisitor. He’s been down that road. He knows where it might take him, so his arrogance – although still formidable – is at least mildly tempered by an increased self-awareness. For me, Solas becomes a full person. Okay, mildly flattened here and there, and on occasion a bit predictable, but I attribute that to the nature of games and our innate longing to decode and understand the game world around us.
Just as Anders elicited a deep sympathy in me, Solas does as well. I don’t agree with either of their methods, but who’s to say that I wouldn’t resort to violence if the cause was emotionally and (in my opinion) societally important enough, and that “normal” modes of protest weren’t quick or efficient enough to cause any change? 2The answer is of course that I well might, but I can’t know. None of us can. I can certainly understand why both Solas and Anders were driven to the lengths they went to. Anders in blowing up the Chantry and Solas in raising the Veil and thus imprisoning the wilful and not so benevolent Evanuris.
In the end, Inquisition and Solas leaves me with an interesting (to me) reflection. Corypheus ultimately fails in his ambitions to re-create a Tevinter at the height of its powers because he is unwilling to change, both himself and his methods.
The niggling thought that hasn’t left me since I played Trespasser the first time is that Solas may well succeed because he is.
If I was a petty person I could also argue that Corypheus failed because he is in service to a god, while Solas might succeed because he is a god, but considering how much time I’ve already spent discussing how Corypheus is inferior that’s just one step too far.
Looking at game villains and how player motivation is elicited from the players, I’d say that Solas’ transformation throughout Inquisition and in Trespasser puts him way above most other attempts. We build an emotional relationship with him. It’s part of the theory of self determination and it’s also part of why we care about games. I think the closest I’ve gotten to an emotional relationship with a villain in another game is the head of the Cult of Kosmos in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, or possibly with myself as Revan in Knights of the Old Republic. In both of those instances there is an emotional connection. The only situation that makes me feel more is Shadow of the Colossus, and the sense of loss I feel when defeating those lumbering giants.
The ultimate takeaway is that villains need to have a relationship to you as a player. It’s not enough to give the player character a wife and kid and kill them off before you even get to know them, like Shadows of Mordor and countless other games.
For death to have an emotional impact it has to mean something. For it to mean something you have to build a relationship. Too many games rely on societal norms. “Because my wife and child was murdered, I’m supposed to avenge them”. Although most likely, I don’t care because I met them for three minutes in a cutscene.
This to my mind is the primary reason why Solas establishes himself as an excellent villain. He’s not only someone with a strong, if misguided, motivation. He’s my friend and in some playthroughs my lover (well, almost). How can I keep my distance from that?
- I want to point out that although I work at BioWare currently, I haven’t worked at any Dragon Age games published, and none of this blog post is derived from information outside of the published works both games and books.
- Believe it or not, I wrote this before the #BlackLivesMatter protests in the US. I absolutely sympathise with the civil rights movement and anti-Black racism movement. This is one of the causes I’m talking about.