Before I started playing Dragon Age Inquisition, I made one firm declaration to a friend. “I don’t care what our friends say but I am NOT romancing Cullen in this game. I’ve already romanced two blond white guys in this series and this one is a Templar and I STILL haven’t forgiven him for what he did in Origins. Jerk.” Romance aside, I was dead set on continuing to not like him even though the game clearly wanted me to. My Inquisitor may have been meeting him for the first time but I wasn’t and I was not about to forget his whole “kill all of the mages!” request to the Warden or his “Mages cannot be treated like people. They are not like you and I” line to Hawke because HOW DARE–
*takes a deep breath* *sets down the homemade FUCK THE TEMPLARS sign*
The point is… I did not like Cullen. I was not going to like Cullen. I certainly wasn’t going to romance Cullen. By the time I finished the Trespasser DLC, I had stuck to precisely one of those. (Romancing Josephine was the BEST decision I’ve ever made and I will fight a duel for her honor and dramatically declare my love for her any day of the week.) The Mabari puppy was absolutely the last straw because Cullen was just so gosh darn delighted by that dog and I love dogs (I’ve always loved dogs). “I give up!” I declared to the same friend the next day after an hour of screaming about how I wanted to stab the heck out of Solas the Egg. “I like Cullen now. I GUESS.”
(That meme you’re thinking about? Yeah. That was me.)
Dragon Age is not wanting for engaging, interesting characters who will worm their way into your mind and heart and stay there. Many of them, depending on your choices, even appear again in other games. They provide a sense of continuity in a series where your player character changes from game to game. Cullen Stanton Rutherford and his stupid hair might be the only character to always appear in all three games and to have the size of his role increase in each one. When we meet him ever so briefly in Dragon Age Origins, he’s not exactly at his best and, to an extent, it’s understandable. After all, he’s just been tortured for days by demons and mages who have completely lost their minds. However, that doesn’t excuse his frantic request that the future Hero of Ferelden murder all of the mages left in the tower, including the innocent. In Dragon Age 2, we meet Cullen again. He’s been promoted to Knight-Captain for the Kirkwall Circle and reports to a Knight-Commander who seems to hate mages and magic more than anyone else in Thedas. He’s somewhat recovered from his trials at Kinloch Hold but thoroughly believes in the Templar Order’s purpose. Mages need to be watched carefully but also protected. Over the course of the decade the game covers, Cullen evolves as much as any other important character in the game which admittedly isn’t a ton but just enough that he recognizes the path Knight-Commander Meredith is leading them down and eventually turns against her, helping Hawke stop her.
And then we get to Dragon Age Inquisition and he’s… not a Templar anymore? My immediate reaction? “Oh COME ON. Not you again. Also I don’t think that’s how hammers work.” I’ll admit, a lot of the early parts of Dragon Age Inquisition were supremely uncomfortable for me. My character was proclaimed the Herald of Andraste with all the uncomfortable religious baggage that goes along with it and then there’s Cullen who I definitely still did not trust even if he made the right decision in the end. Sure, he seems devoted to the Inquisition’s cause and is firm about the fact that he’s not a Templar anymore but he also advocated for recruiting the Templars to our cause as opposed to the mages. So I continued to keep him at arms length but talked to him when I made the rounds because this is a BioWare game and that’s what you do.
Skyhold is where I finally saw the change because it turns out that Cullen didn’t just leave the Templars, he also stopped taking lyrium. If I’m honest, this was probably where I first started liking him because it was the first thing that truly made me think that Cullen Rutherford had, in fact, changed and wasn’t all talk. One doesn’t just quit lyrium. It gives Templars their powers but it’s also addictive to the point where quitting it had noticeable effects on Cullen’s health. My Inquisitor encouraged him to stick with leaving lyrium behind instead of telling him to take it again once she found out what it did to him. Add this to his reaction to Samson leading the Templars who’ve come under the thrall of red lyrium, the relative ease of his war table banter with Leliana and Josephine, and his habitual chess games in Skyhold with a mage from Tevinter, and yeah, this is not the same man who begged the Warden to kill all the mages in the Kinloch Hold.
Except it is and that’s what makes his story arc so damn good. Unless you’re playing the series as pro-Templar/anti-mage, it’s so easy to hate Cullen at the start. By the end of Dragon Age Inquisition, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat fond of him because you can see how far he’s come. The person we are is partially informed by our experiences and the people around us. A Cullen without his decade in Kirkwall might not be the sort of person willing to join the Inquisition and the sort of person willing to try and quit lyrium. This is the sort of character development I wish I could pull off in my stories but that also needs the time and space that three games that collectively span over a decade can offer. It’s good because it’s subtle. It’s never a question of whether Cullen starts out as a bad man because he’s not. I still hold his words at Kinloch Hold against him but I can understand why he said them. He’s just not the sort of person I like at that point. To me, it’s more a question of what sort of person Cullen became when presented with both different points of view and opportunities and he changed. For the better.
And, well, when Storvacker the Bear likes you, I think you did pretty good.