My “it’s like suuuper complicated” with Solas
In my time as a gamer there have been several key moments where games touched me on a very deep level. Sometimes because I could relate to something incredibly well. Other times because something drove me up the wall and it took analysing a piece of media to realise a general issue I has with something. Sometimes these issues were small thing, categories under “good to know” and other times they were huge, life changing moments that fundamentally altered my perception of something. This is not exclusive to games of course but rather s marker of the impact media itself can have.
It was Star Trek and Xena in my early teens who made me realise that I am not straight. Later it was due to video games that I challenged some issues regarding internalised misogyny that had me judge female characters much harsher than I ever judged male characters for a good time of my life. A book I got lost in challenged my view on gender in general, another tv show and a game made me question how I view my own gender identity in that regard. And most of all: Again and again media makes me self examine my own thoughts and my own behaviour.
And because this article was on my twitter feed last night I am writing this down. Because this is about the lesson I learned from Dragon Age Inquisition and from Solas in particular. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here, I have close friends who perceive this character very differently than I do – and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. In the end I’ve always felt that how I see and interpret a character or a story perhaps is more about me than it is about the actual piece of media.
I am not going into any discussion on how good or not good that game was. Your mileage may vary. Fact is, that for me it led to a moment of self understanding. And it all had to do with Solas. And this is in no way going to be a critique of how he is written – I think he is a brilliant and very well thought through character. This is more an explanation of how I perceived him and how that perception changed several times actually.
When I first played Inquisition my character was a female Elf, a Rogue called Lynn. Lynn was not super fleshed out when I started playing, the game was brand new and I just wanted to let her be shaped by things to come (which I had no clue of at that point of course). So Lynn started flirting with Solas and having read that he is only a romance option for female elves I went ahead with his romance on my first play through because I was quite sure my next character wouldn’t be an elf. (And right I was.) Some flirting happened, some very good voice acting too which made him quite likable. Mainly because I played an elf that a) in my head had absolutely no issues with magic (even though she wasn’t a mage herself) and b) was for my understanding very young.
To me, with an elf who gets along with him there is a very clear mentor-student dynamic developing – regardless of if you are in a romance with him or not. And I noticed quickly that Lynn’s (meaning ultimately mine of course) decisions started to be influenced by the thought “would Solas approve of this?”
Long story short: Romance happened, heartbreak happened – as scripted. But in that moment of heartbreak, that scene where your character just stands there alone in the middle of the night? I was heartbroken too, for about 3 seconds. Then I was furious. I was so god damn angry. At Solas at first. At my choices in this game later. And at myself a good while later. At first I didn’t understand where this incredible anger came from. I chalked it up to feeling betrayed but since I am usually rather fond of such plot twists that didn’t hold up for long.
After Lynn I played a Qunari and a Human. And I slowly got a few clues to what it was that made me so furious. I played a perfectly fine woman who just wanted to help as many people as possible and was very practical about it. And Solas? Was a complete ass to her. With a few saves and reloads I went through basically all his conversation options because I was so confused by it. He had been, up until the big reveal, such a nice guy to my Lavellan?
And there you have it. Nice guy. He was pleasant and borderline sweet – for as long as my character hung on his lips and deferred to him as being superior. My human character, even if she was nice got mostly backhanded compliments that were quite insulting in a very condescending way. So what did I do next? I played Lynn again – this time just a little bit less meek and oh boy… The things he said to my character made me physically turn away from my monitor at some point. “For all the things the Dalish got wrong they did one thing right – they made you.” What I remembered as a sweet confession of love sounded suspiciously like “you are not like other girls.” Some of my friends in this fandom who are women of colour had an even worse association with that sentence as you can guess.
And the more I thought about the things that bothered me the more I realised: Solas is every older, mostly powerful man in my life who whose appreciation was always conditional. From my step father to teachers I looked up to – he was all of them combined. And I realised that my first attempts to please this character, who had impossible standards and never tired of reminding me that everything around him wasn’t good enough were me being 16 again, trying desperately to gain the approval of people who had my future, my education and my well being in their hands – and who never hesitated to tear me down or pull the rug out from under me if I dared to question them or their thought process and methods.
Solas is my 9th grade physics teacher who, after finally writing a test with 0 mistakes told me that it was “quite good, for being a girl and all.” Solas is my step father who, when presented with the most thought through and logical arguments one could come up with answered with “this might seem logical to you, but you couldn’t possibly understand the big picture because you are too *insert young/immature/emotional here*”. Solas is all those people in my life who praised me when I respected them as authority figures and got nasty when I didn’t. That teacher I had in my late teens that was clearly interested in me and kept telling me how mature I am for my age, how much better to talk to I am than my classmates and how ‘grown’ I am – only to infantilise me the second I disagreed on something or tired to establish barriers.
So many of his lines in the game hit one of those marks for me. And it made me sick to my stomach when I finally understood why I was so angry. I was angry at myself because I think of myself as a very self reliant person that gives little thought about approval. And I am not just saying that – I honestly couldn’t care less what most people think. I am perfectly fine with someone disliking me or not wanting to have anything to do with me. Their choice, and I don’t loose any sleep over it. But Solas, with the way he was written, transformed me into the needy 16 year old again that just wanted someone to appreciate her. That had grown up in a very hierarchical community and had to spend almost a decade breaking out of the thought patterns and behaviours that come with that.
Solas is the person who gave Lynn respect and love, but only his terms and never on hers. Whom I experienced as manipulative and in his romance is literally written like an adult man who is actively grooming someone much younger than him into his way of thinking and only backs out at the very end when he (allegedly) finally sees that what he was doing was wrong. It made me so incredibly angry. At myself for reverting back into the thought patterns of a person I’ve tried to distance myself for almost 15 years at that point. I was mad at myself for falling for the same type of asshole that made my life hell so many years before.
Over time? I was also glad. Because I analysed the shit out of my reactions and my thoughts. And the writing. had a lot of discussions with people about it. With people who can’t understand my position at all because they can’t relate and with people who were completely on the same page. There was some form of internal catharsis going on in the aftermath for me. Of realising how far I’ve actually come because even 10 years ago I would have never been able to recognise what I was feeling and why.
I can appreciate his writing, I can appreciate him as a character in a piece of media. I can’t like him. I can’t sympathise with him. On an intellectual level? Sure. I can completely understand his motivations. He is, with a few moments that are questionable, written quite consistently. But as a person? I despise him and everything his story stands for. I can appreciate it, if they keep him as the antagonist. But the last thing I would ever want for him is a redemption arc or really anything that justifies his behaviour even a little bit. Let him be the bad guy. And please, let me burn him into the ground and see him fade into irrelevance – symbolically for all those people that patronised me, held me back and outright abused me in so many ways the he keeps reminding me of.
In my personal canon? He reaches none of his goals – and he doesn’t get beat by someone whom he perceives as his equal. Very Lord Of The Rings like it will be the most unexpected, small person. And he won’t go out with a bang. He will go quietly and will be forgotten. And a while later no one will even remember it because it was so unremarkable. I actually wrote this version of events down. For myself, never being published. You could say it was peak catharsis, a purgatory of thoughts so to speak. And it did wonders for me. All this that I’ve talked about on here took place over a time of perhaps one and a half years and in the end it taught me a lot about myself and even helped me to move past certain things. I went from loving Solas to hating him to appreciating him in a whole different way again. I doubt this was any author’s intention (if so they were remarkably specific 😉 ) but I think it is quite a feat to write something, anything really, that can provoke this much of a reaction in someone. Intentional or not, sometimes the writing just speaks for itself. And speaks to each one of us very differently.