My first introduction with Bioware games started with Dragon Age: Origins. I immediately got swept up in the idea of choices, how your choices affect the world around you, and having the ability to build bonds of friendship or romance with key companions in your game. Some characters will have you sit up and take notice, like Alistair of Origins did for me, and other characters will easily have you forgetting them just as soon as you met them. It wasn’t always love at first sight between Cullen and I, but that all changed when he became a key supporting character and romance option for Dragon Age: Inquisition.
It has been about three years since I’ve first played Origins and I honestly barely remember Cullen. If it wasn’t for having played Dragon Age 2 soon after finishing Origins and its expansion game Dragon Age: Awakening, I may have assumed Cullen was a random new character in the world of Dragon Age. I’ve only been able to play the first two games once. When I played Origins for the first time, I’ve only played the human noble origin story and none of the other origin stories. It’s something I hope I can come back to and remedy at some point.
When I encountered Cullen in Origins, my time with him was very brief and I immediately dismissed him after I finished the main story mission you see him in. For those who have played Origins, you may remember Cullen appearing to be the only surviving templar trapped in a magical prison during the attack on Circle Tower. Cullen is seen bent over in pain and clutching his head as he resists the torments and temptations by demons who have infiltrated the tower. While all his friends have either succumbed to the demons’ wicked ways or were brutally slaughtered, Cullen resisted the demons by sheer willpower alone. By the end of the quest, Cullen already has a bad impression of mages. It was only recently, when I did some searching into Cullen’s background story when Inquisition came out, did I find out Cullen actually has more of a role in the Circle of Magi origin story. In fact, if you play as a female mage in this origin story, Cullen is the templar assigned to your mage. It also becomes pretty obvious Cullen has quite the crush on your mage.
While his appearance is very brief in Origins, watching the YouTube video with Cullen flirting with a mage Grey Warden adds context to who he is and where he comes from. Cullen never starts out fearing mages or magic, but because of the events that transpire in the Circle Tower main quest line, his view of them sours greatly. Cullen no longer trusts them and starts believing better control needs to be taken to keep mages in line. This small piece of his background is key to understanding how his character develops and ultimately grows when you progress into Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Doing only one playthrough of Origins and having only completed the human noble storyline, I missed out on a key piece of information to understand Cullen. To me, Cullen was just one of many people I had to save and is just a poor, tortured soul who has seen and been through a lot at the Circle Tower. However, just because I recognized Cullen as someone who was ailing wasn’t enough for me to really take notice of this templar.
I was surprised to encounter Cullen again in Dragon Age 2. In the second game, you find out Cullen has been transferred to the city of Kirkwall and is now in charge of overseeing the mages there. My memory of Dragon Age 2 is fuzzy, but I played Hawke as a female mage and distinctly remember Cullen being less than receptive toward her. My impression of Cullen in this game wasn’t particularly good at all. It also didn’t help that your first introduction to Cullen is when you find him roughing up and yelling at another templar of a lower rank than him. Granted, you later find out it was all an act to scare the truth out of the other guy but I just didn’t really like him. There was a coldness and rigidity in his demeanor during the interactions I had with him. While maybe not as harsh as some of the templars you encounter in this game, it was clear Cullen wasn’t exactly eager to be friends with you either. Honestly, I found Cullen to be a bit of a jerk.
Since Dragon Age 2’s story progresses in acts and years, my Hawke’s interactions with Cullen does get a little better, probably because you become the Champion of Kirkwall later in the game, but his opinions and beliefs about mages are downright offensive. Cullen doesn’t believe in making friends with mages, he thinks any mage can become demons, and he even hints at possibly supporting mages becoming Tranquil. Knowing Cullen was once sympathetic and curious about mages, at least if you play the Circle of Magi origin story, you do understand why his opinions change rather drastically after going through the trauma he goes through during the Circle Tower mission from Origins. Cullen also admits to still having nightmares from his time at the Ferelden Circle. Fear ultimately made him who he is up until this point in the story and it’s difficult to think otherwise about mages when Cullen himself has witnessed the uglier side of their magic and abilities.
Only when you reach the end of Dragon Age 2 and it was time to take a stand between the growing animosity between mages and templars did my impression of Cullen shifted ever so slightly. When Knight Commander Meredith has gone mad due to continuous exposure to red lyrium and is ordering the death of Hawke, Cullen steps in and defies his Commander’s orders. My Hawke being a mage doesn’t help matters either and only fuels the fire further, at least I imagined the story in this context with my own personal playthrough. Despite what Cullen’s feelings and views are of mages at this point in the game, Cullen isn’t so hardened against them to take execution orders from a madwoman. Meredith is overstepping her bounds and while Cullen may be in favor of keeping mages in check, he’s certainly against the kind of control where you’re outright murdering them all. It also goes against what the templars stand for. At the end of Dragon Age 2, I believe Cullen is now more confused and lost in his beliefs than he ever was before, as he helps rebuild Kirkwall. The end of the second game is the perfect set up for his role as one of your main advisors to your Inquisitor in Inquisition.
During the game you find out Cullen was recruited into the Inquisition by Cassandra after noticing his skill and capabilities at Kirkwall. Cullen accepts this offer and leaves the templars to become the Commander of the Inquisition’s army. Meeting Cullen this time around you notice he’s a man who takes his job very seriously, taking on the very definition of a perfectionist and workaholic. He’s tough on his recruits, but you do find out from talking to others, who are familiar with Cullen, that he’s a tough but fair man. Beyond that, you don’t really know who Cullen is until you take the time to talk to him.
Admittedly, I took more notice of Cullen when I saw his character design for Inquisition. I’d say the look of Cullen improved greatly from the first two games. A bit shallow, I know, but I also didn’t expect much from his romance. Being a non-companion character, I thought less care would be taken to give his romance serious depth. I have read about players who romanced non-companion characters in the Mass Effect games and those often fell really short compared to romancing a companion you can take with you on missions. I was relieved to find out Cullen’s romance arc is fully fleshed out.
Over the course of getting to know Cullen, you learn that underneath his tough, confident exterior hides a man who has insecurities, harbors deeply seated pain and traumas from his past, and questions what his beliefs are. Romancing Cullen as a mage makes for some interesting dialogue interactions between him and your Inquisitor. He expresses regret over what he has done as a templar and is making a concerted effort to be a better man.
As the romance progresses between Cullen and a female human mage (or elf), you are given the option to ask if he is bothered by being with her because she’s a mage. Cullen is adamant about his commitment and love for a mage Inquisitor. When the idea of fraternizing with a mage may have been unthinkable, now, it isn’t even an issue. The only thing concerning Cullen was if it’s right or appropriate to pursue a romance with the Inquisitor because of her position and being in the middle of a war. Naturally, his doubts and concerns are melted away with the reassurance your Inquisitor just wants to be with him regardless of the chaos surrounding them. Clearly, when it comes to Bioware romances, the best aphrodisiac for love is an end of the world type of situation. Personally, I like how the writers wrote this scene.
At this point, Cullen’s attitude towards mages has changed and finding himself in love with one has made him realize it doesn’t matter who or what she is. What matters is the person he has gradually come to know and care for. He no longer fears mages, especially a mage Inquisitor who wouldn’t do anything to hurt him. Later romance and dialogue options also has the Inquisitor asking Cullen what he’d do if she were possessed by a demon. His reaction is one of horror and dread, not even wanting to think about the possibility of being put in a position where he has to kill her, the woman he loves more than anything. This also indicates how far Cullen has come as a character. Origins and Dragon Age 2 Cullen wouldn’t for a second hesitate to put down a possessed mage, but in Inquisition, it gives him pause. Being in love with a mage Inquisitor makes it much more difficult to answer that question. I’m sure if Cullen had to, he would put down his lady love, but it wouldn’t be without feeling anguished and having his heart ripped out of his chest to be the one who kills her.
Having romanced both Alistair and Cullen, I can say there are similarities between the two Bioware love interests. They’re almost similar in looks, especially with the vast improvement on Cullen’s features by Inquisition, they’re both adorably awkward in romantic situations, and they struggle with their own set of insecurities. However, I think that’s where the similarities end. I’ve read on forums how some players found Cullen too much like Alistair, but I really disagree with this.
Cullen is much more serious than Alistair and is often teased for his workaholic ways and sometimes having a bit of a stick up his ass, according to Varric’s assessment of “Curly” and a number of people you talk to in the game. Alistair is more capable of making jokes and can kick up his boots in light of a grim situation. Cullen is more about preparation and making sure everything is working like a well oiled machine. Alistair has had a rough childhood, his mother passing away and being the bastard son of a king. He grows up in the Chantry without having a real family to raise him and his sister doesn’t do much to bond with her brother either. Cullen has spent his life growing up with a normal childhood, loving parents, and being immensely close to his siblings. The evidence is there when his sister Mia often writes to her brother wanting to make sure he’s okay. Cullen often fondly remembers what growing up with his siblings was like, such as playing chess with them or his siblings seeking him out after they notice their brother has gone missing when Cullen slips away to have a quiet moment from his loud siblings. Cullen was much more serious about becoming a templar, while Alistair never really cared for it. If anything, Alistair took his training less seriously. Cullen is more religious and Alistair isn’t as religiously devout for someone who has spent most of his childhood being raised in the Chantry.
Alistair doesn’t have to wrestle with the same traumas as Cullen does after witnessing his fellow templars and friends get slaughtered or turned into abominations by mages. Add in the struggle to contain his addiction to lyrium after deciding to leave the templar order for good when he joined the Inquisition, and Cullen has his work cut out for him. The only troubles Alistair has to contend with is his daddy issues. In spite of Cullen’s inner demons and working through his fear of mages, he manages to put them aside to do his job. Cullen has an inner-strength that’s admirable. If you didn’t take the time to get to know the Commander, you probably would never guess that behind all that bravado is a man who suffers silently carrying years of pain and torment since his time at the Circle in Ferelden.
Cullen’s evolution from naive, eager to serve templar to a harsh templar with equally harsher views on mages to Commander of the Inquisition army, who is atoning for all the things he may not be proud of when he was a templar and changing his attitude toward mages, is a believable and natural progression across all three games. What I like about Cullen is he doesn’t try to act like he’s a perfect man nor does he try to hide his less than stellar accomplishments either. He admits to having made mistakes in the past and sincerely wants to make up for them. These desires are part of the human condition and it’s easy to connect to Cullen on this level. We’ve all made mistakes at some point in our lives and we do our best to learn from them and to simply do better next time.
The first two games only give players a snapshot into Cullen’s personality, which for me personally, he didn’t stand out much other than seeing him as an intolerant ass who hated mages. Inquisition gives you the chance to understand him better. The Cullen romance path also let’s players see how much Cullen has changed and grown. He’s a little world wearied by the time you play the third game, a man who has seen and experienced too much to be a burden on his mind and soul, but I’m glad by having the option to romance Cullen, you get to give him a little piece of happiness with your Inquisitor. I think the man deserves it after all he has been through and who better to give him the love and support he needs than by having an equally strong and capable Inquisitor to always remain at his side? A truly epic and heartwarming romance path that’s worth playing through once if you’re a romantic sap like me.