I like the Iron Bull a lot. I’d get a drink with a guy like him in real life. We’d get each others’ backs if anyone was giving shit to either of us. Which is why I can’t stop thinking about how badly his story arc concluded in the action RPG Dragon Age: Inquisition, and why I’ve been revisiting the ways it lines up with how poorly marginalized cultures are treated in BioWare’s sprawling series.
The Iron Bull is a companion who shows up to offer aid to your character’s army back when it was a small peacekeeping force before it became a robust geopolitical entity. He immediately explains that he’s a spy from the hostile nation of Par Vollen (based on the Mongol horde) and that his bosses have mutual interests with you.
See, there’s a fucked up hole in the sky. Nobody knows how it happened, but it’s spawning monsters and spewing green lightning. The religious people are freaking out, nobody seems to be in charge of fixing the thing, and the only way to seal it is by using a glowing seal on your hand. That’s how you end up in charge of a paramilitary force sponsored by the Andrastian church. Because of your ongoing heroics against the biggest natural disaster this world has ever faced, potential allies from other countries roll up to see how they can help. That includes the normally hostile Qunari, who are a religious group that I’ve been feuding with for most of Dragon Age 2. They value conformity at all costs, host a powerful military, and have expansionist tendencies. Most residents of the Thedas continent don’t appreciate being invaded—or horned beings who don’t worship their lord and savior.. So for the first time in Dragon Age history, the player gets to work with the mysterious, dogmatic Qunari as equals.
Iron Bull’s complicated situation is incredibly relatable
I was excited for Iron Bull to pave the way for international friendship, even if it was by way of a military alliance. See, his story reminds me a lot of my own. Growing up Chinese in the U.S. was a fraught ordeal. Kids would assume that your people were the reason why all the American jobs were disappearing. White people would freak out if our national government sneezed in any direction. And I get it. People feel small and impotent in the face of geopolitical forces beyond their control. It’s easier to project that nasty shit onto a human being, and they do—both in Thedas and in real life.
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Iron Bull isn’t just an active adherent to the Qun. He’s a secret policeman for the Qunari nation of Par Vollen. Despite his membership in a police force that engages in assassination and religious re-education, Iron Bull tries to carve out a life outside of fulfilling his duties. He believes that the Qun is the best political system, but he doesn’t want holy war. He also enjoys drinking and having sex despite the religious stigma against hedonism. I feel kinship with him for this, as I, too, cherry pick what I like about being Chinese. I’d also rather talk about anime than the communist party. But most strangers don’t care what I believe. Like Bull, I have to be armed with an icebreaker for every conversation. We are considered threats until proven otherwise.
Despite the stigma, I like that Bull sticks to his religion and that he’s willing to risk his life for it. Why shouldn’t he? Human templars fight and die for Andrastianism all the time, and it doesn’t mean that they are evil zealots. My friendship with him on my first run was special because I was playing as a member of his race, albeit one who had never been born into the culture (Vashoth). Our lives were different, but we both knew what it was like to be assumed to be a monster before man.
The “Demands of the Qun” quest soured me on the Iron Bull’s arc
Midway through my first campaign playthrough, Par Vollen tries to extend an olive branch, and I find myself extremely invested in this storyline. When a group is heavily associated with a hostile nation, warming relations result in less racial discrimination against that group. My character agrees to the joint military operation out of pragmatism. On a more personal level, he wants to live in a world where people didn’t assume that he was a threat.
My character would have to learn to live with disappointment. The military operation goes horribly wrong, and the party is presented with a decision: Either they sacrifice the Iron Bull’s mercenaries to save the Qunari ship, or they sacrifice the mercenaries to preserve the ship (and therefore the Qunari alliance). His mercenary kiddos are basically his found family who exist outside of religious culture. If you choose to save Iron Bull’s mercenaries, then the alliance offer collapses. Iron Bull will be exiled from his homeland. His homeland will send assassins after him after he had served them loyally for his entire life. Damn.
Now, I understand that all-or-nothing player choices are a hallmark of BioWare games. Someone always has to be screwed over. But this choice in “Demands of the Qun” feels especially forced and… bad? Surely Par Vollen would respect the military acumen of one of their most talented officers. If the Iron Bull thinks that his mercenary group was worth more than a ship, surely there is some room for negotiation. Especially when an alliance with the most powerful military force on the continent is at stake. What happened to the Qunari’s famous pragmatism?
It gets better. If you don’t forcibly sever his relationship with his homeland—if you don’t give up on the continent’s first chance at international peace in centuries—then the Iron Bull will turn on you in the Trespasser DLC, which is a story-focused epilogue that takes place after you’ve saved the world from the evil zombie mage Corypheus. You’re forced to kill him in combat, making it clear which choice was the most “canon” for him. I hate this outcome because Dragon Age has always made a pathway for players to sacrifice the few to save the many. Now how many Andrastians and Qunari have to murder each other because we couldn’t figure out an alliance? The post-game DLC even makes this sacrifice worthless, since the Qunari end up turning on you anyway. Sometimes life bites you in the ass even when you make all the right decisions. That’s something that I always respected about BioWare games. But what annoys me is that BioWare has this unfortunate pattern of dehumanizing its in-universe marginalized cultures.
But the quest isn’t about big important questions like peace or sacrifice. It’s about a smaller, more personal one. Could Iron Bull prioritize his personal feelings over his loyalty to a dogmatic culture? One of my companions, Solas, makes this point even more explicit: Either Iron Bull is an independent being, or he isn’t. But I don’t care what Solas thinks about the Qunari. He’s a racist to everyone. I care about what BioWare has to say about this fictional race, which they’ve made into a stand-in for non-European forces that threatened Christian Europe. Dragon Age has never had any respect for non-humans who think that their culture is worth protecting. The quest “Demands of the Qun” is an extension of this ongoing disdain for non-hegemonic diasporas.
Dragon Age’s ongoing problem with non-human characters
Take Varric, for example. He’s been a companion in two whole Dragon Age games, and his character revolves around how much better off he is for never having experienced proper dwarven culture like his brother did. Come on, dude. Aren’t you even the slightest bit curious about the intergenerational trauma that shaped your entire family? Apparently not. Making peace with family history and letting go of it is one thing, but Varric doesn’t even care to interrogate his non-human background. I always feel conflicted when I see fans fawning over him. He’s not a “dwarfy” character. He’s successful because his rejection of his heritage makes him nonthreatening, like a fantasy model minority. Would he still be so beloved if he held strong opinions about the dwarven caste system, or if he cared for the sprawling spires where his family resided for generations?
And don’t even get me started about Solas, an ancient elven god who wants to bring back his lost civilization by committing genocide against the entire world. Why are those the stakes, BioWare? And why did you make the representative of this incredibly important civilization a total dickbag who clearly doesn’t care about lives other than his chosen few? Maybe we should bring Arlathan back. Just not on his terms. And the prankster elf Sera? She can’t go five minutes in my party without reminding everyone that she’s not like other elves.
On the other hand, the human Cassandra Pentaghast (who is also a member of the secret police) is narratively rewarded for holding fast to her Christian-coded faith. When she discovers that her religious organization is corrupt, she has an opportunity to reform it. There is no reform for extremists like Solas or the Iron Bull—not unless they’re willing to leave a crucial piece of their personhood behind.
I wouldn’t care so much about everyone being a perfect saint if we had some good-aligned characters who held traditional, non-human values. But unless you’re culturally-coded as Christian in the Dragon Age universe, being attached to your heritage makes you a heretic. And just like the kingdoms of medieval Europe, the only cure for heretics is conversion, exile, or death.