Whenever Dragon Age Inquisition has been praised by bloggers for their content, it has usually focused on women, race, sexuality, or gender in general. It has also been praised for its massive world, mechanics, and writing.
There is one thing they seldom receive praise for but should.
Dragon Age Inquisition is one of the only games to include a nuanced portrayal of a character with mental illness. Ever.
Western narratives leave little room for “weakness”. Our heroes shake it off, no matter if they’ve just lost a loved one, witnessed a massacre, or have faced torture. What makes them heroic in western stories is that they don’t let it get to them. Like water on a goose is blood on our heroes.
Sure, they sometimes do the “sexy brood” when we want to show that they aren’t robots.
In JRPGs, mental illness is either highly stylised like in FFVII where we know the protagonist’s mind has been broken but we never deal with it as an illness. More like a broken amulet where you get all the pieces, put them together, and then it magically heals itself. It’s never realistic. It’s never… mental. It’s usually some sort of magic or something along those lines. Most games don’t mention it either.
Naturally, not all games need to contain mental illness. Just like with religion, politics, or anything else, there’s a time and a place. This is one of those things where you should either aim to do it right or not at all. I’d say portrayals of mental illness in RPGs do well in games where there’s a significant focus on character development, realism, and storytelling. You also need a bit of humour to keep things varied.
Dragon Age Inquisition gets it right. They don’t put a sign around the character’s neck, they don’t turn it into a parody, and they don’t forget to make the character human. At no point does he become his illness.
The character in question is Commander Cullen Rutherford, one of your advisors in the game and a potential romance option for female characters. Cullen has appeared in all three Dragon Age games as a minor character and we have had a chance to see his backstory.
They reveal his illness gradually. The clues are there. The survivor’s guilt and seeing potential threats in places other people don’t always see them. The latter a very valuable quality in a military advisor. He’s professional, gives people the benefit of doubt but doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and doesn’t mind joking with his colleagues. He seems to isolate himself to some degree, a classic sign of this condition. Then as we get to know him, we learn that he’s a workaholic, avoids romantic interactions and other close relationships, has an addiction problem to lyrium (briefly explained a substance that gives this kind of soldier special abilities to fight mages – it’s also extremely addictive and used to control them), and has nightmares every single night.
Cullen has PTSD. No doubt about it. The game never says it out loud, but it is very obvious.
We see him losing control when he tries to break his lyrium addiction and it’s not pretty. It is anger, anxiety, and guilt. Cullen is otherwise a rather gentle person. Strict, but gentle. This is not typical behaviour for him.
If your character romances Cullen, you see him dealing with nightmares. Nightmares he apparently has every night. Nightmares that are directly related to the trauma that started it all.
He saw an entire group of fellow soldiers slaughtered and tortured. Ripped apart by mages and demons. He himself was tortured as they attempted to break his mind. The scene is in the first Dragon Age game. You find Cullen, broken. Interestingly enough, it’s the psychological torture that seems to be the primary component of PTSD.
You know what the best part about Cullen is? You don’t fix him.
It doesn’t matter if you do all his personal quests, romance him, and complete the game. Cullen still has PTSD, he’s just in a better position to deal with it if you support him. It doesn’t matter if you sleep with him, he’ll still have nightmares. It’s simply just there.
At no part does Cullen become his PTSD. He’s still a competent commander, skilled soldier, and valued advisor. He is horrible at card games but good at chess, doesn’t write to his family as often as he should, he has a soft spot for dogs, and hates interacting with nobles. He’s caring, amusing, and competent. You have no idea how rare it is to see a character with PTSD being portrayed as an actual person. He’s not the character who has PTSD, he’s a character who happens to have PTSD.
Bioware nailed it with Cullen.
They handled it perfectly and they deserve some praise for it.