Dragon Age’s Cole: Human or Spirit?

Image: Bioware

This post will probably reveal a lot about my notions of morality and making decisions for other people, through the lens of a choice given to players in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’ve already brought up my love of the characters in this game, my opinions on other aspects of the game, and the absolutely amazing concluding DLC. Now I’d like to address one specific decision that the player influences a character towards, through the course of the game.

Cole is one of the companions that can accompany the player on their journey. His very existence messes with everything your character has been taught by your world to believe. He’s a spirit, in the human world, fully in control of himself and not on a murderous rampage–well, I suppose that last part is debatable. But there is something different about him now. He’s changed from what he was before he entered the human world. And you have to decide whether to push him towards becoming more like a human, or going back to being like a spirit.

No other decision in the game–and there are many–trips me up the way that this one does, every time. I’m still not entirely sure which is right for Cole.

Patrick Weekes (the writer for Cole in the game) said, during an interview, that he frequently went back and forth between thinking that this was about a spirit who wanted to be a human or that that making him human was forcing him to be something that he’s not (paraphrased). 

Well, I totally see that playing itself out in the game. There are different ways to interpret where his character goes, and different emotional pay-offs for each path. 

Reasons to make him more human-like:

  • He learns from his mistakes
  • He comes to understand the people he’s trying to help
  • He makes more connections with other people

Reasons to make him more spirit-like:

  • He’s happier
  • He thanks you so many damn times. He thanks you for accepting him as he is, without needing him to change.

I’m left wondering if I’m emotionally more comfortable with how he progresses when he becomes more human because I’m human, and it’s easier for me to imagine how it would be better for a person to progress. If I’m projecting my own reality on his, when it might not fit. And that’s something that bothers me, as I’ve had others project their reality on mine, and refuse to believe that I could be who I am. Or that I could be happy as I am, because it’s not what would work for them.

It does bother me that, if he’s more like a spirit, he makes himself forget his pain. And that he feels more distant from you. But again, I’m not sure that I’m not more bothered on my own behalf, rather than because it isn’t right for him. As a spirit, that’s the nature of how he deals with things. Just because it’s less palatable to me doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid way to exist, or the right one for him.

Then I wonder if I’m overcompensating for the desire to not be prejudiced against a spirit’s nature. Because it really comes down to whether or not Cole wanted to change, right? He did choose to cross the Veil and come here. The question becomes whether or not he understood the consequences, whether or not he meant to change. He came because he wanted to help someone, and it’s unclear from what I know if he meant to become more human and thus evolve…or if his nature was corrupted against his will.

Cole does seem happier as a spirit, but that happiness might be in part based on ignorance. As a spirit of compassion, it’s plausible that he might choose the harder path because he cared more about actually being effective than imagining himself as effective. Then again, it might not be based on ignorance–that’s Cole’s interpretation after he changes, but it might just be a different perspective. 

In a similar vein, it can be argued that the ‘compassion’ part of Cole’s nature is more important than the ‘spirit’ part. In that case, nothing you do actually changes his nature, because you don’t change the nature of others. That would explain why he approves of either decision you make–all you’re really doing is guiding him onto one path or another of expressing himself. Cole is the personification of compassion, and human or spirit, that stays true about him. (And it’s a relief that whether he goes back to being a full spirit, or becomes more human-like, his core aspects and even many of his mannerisms don’t change.)

So maybe the most important thing to consider is his own priorities: helping people and easing their pain. Perhaps he would want to be whatever allows him to help the most–especially since he’s flat out stated on at least one occasion that he’d be okay with everything that he is being obliterated as long as that kept him from ever hurting someone.

But even using that criteria doesn’t lead to a clear choice. If he becomes human, he states that he previously only understood enough to help people in the simplest ways. But he also states that helping people is harder now that they remember him. So which is ultimately more effective?

I waffle a lot about this choice, pretty much changing it with every playthrough. Sometimes I lean towards spirit, because he’s flat out grateful if you don’t try to change him to make people (and yourself) more comfortable with him. That you accept him as he is, without needing him to be more human and therefore understandable to you. And sometimes I lean human, because he’s already chosen to prioritize helping someone in pain over his place in the world–that’s how we got here in the first place. I’m not certain he wouldn’t choose the harder path if it meant helping more people.

But I have to make a bunch of assumptions either way, and so I change my mind all the time. And I’m definitely uncomfortable having to make this decision for him, though I see how the player’s opinion would hold a lot of weight with him at this point–he’s about to embark on a terrible idea, and the player has to talk him out of it by suggesting one of two options. That suggestion ends up taking on a lot of power.

In a way, that’s also a relief. Because as much as the gameplay stresses the power of the player in this decision, Cole is the one who puts in the work to become who he’s going to be. If he couldn’t be that person (or spirit), if he didn’t want to follow that path, he wouldn’t have to. But there’s still a lot of pressure in having this much influence with a character at such a critical part of his life.

It’s like, gah. What’s truer to his nature? Being a spirit, or being compassionate? Am I forcing him to change just to make myself more comfortable with the way he expresses himself? Am I keeping him from growing into the person he wants to be by trying to make his life easier? Or am I overstating my own importance by imagining my opinion could change who Cole is, instead of just changing how he chooses to express who he is? I want to settle on an answer, but the truth is that I just don’t know.

Whatever else is true, this is a brilliant character arc, in how deeply it made me think about what this character would choose for himself.