The Hurricane Inside the Stoic – Analysing Sten From Dragon Age Origins

 

One of the most interesting things about the Dragon Age video game series is that the writers just love laying things out in the open from the start. It’s not just foreshadowing, it’s laying all of their cards on the table immediately because they know that they can make a royal flush. But because the gamer lacks all of necessary information they don’t know it yet. It’s only after replaying the game a second time that the puzzle pieces fall together and we all go “oooooh” in unison. The most infamous example is Solas, but another interesting example can be found with Sten.

Who is the alpha in this pair?

These two communicating the only way they know: growling!

There’s a very special interaction early on between Sten and your most emotionally complex of companions: Dog. Their first cutscene together has Sten growling at Dog, Dog growling back. Another round of growling from both. Then Sten growls again and Dog snaps and barks; lunging forward in an aggressive position. Sten smiles and says “you are a true warrior, and worthy of respect”, to the approval of dog. A weird chain of events, but also very telling. Because Sten deals with the Warden in pretty much the same way.

Sten essentially wants you to tell him to shut up. He’s that type of girlfriend, the one who challenges your authority at every point and delights with absolute glee when you stand your ground and respectfully tell him to go to hell. This sets him apart from all the other companions, all of whom essentially want you to agree 100% with their core beliefs. Sten expects, and wants, you to disagree, because that fits with your role in the Qun.

All is Fair in War and Qun

I owned him so badly that he'll be covered in cuts for the next few weeks! >:D

My Warden and Sten having a little spat. Apparently he dislikes me climbing a mountain and looking for the Urn of Sacred Ashes instead of immediately running to the Archdemon.

You are the Grey Warden. “Great warriors and peerless strategists, that is what we hear of the Grey Wardens”, as Sten himself says after you finish one of the main questlines. That means Sten expects you to be a great warrior. Or rogue or mage. He’s not very picky about that. He just wants you to be good at wanton slaughter. But he also expects you to be a confident and intelligent leader. Someone capable of leading a line of soldiers into the gaping maw of the Archdemon. That’s why he always questions your decisions. It’s not just a case of the older soldier being bitter about the new kid being his commander. He expects you to act like a commander would: tell him to shut the hell up and get back in line. Because that way you conform to what he thinks a Grey Warden ought to be: a great warrior and peerless strategist.

And it’s not just you that he does this stuff to. Alistair is also a Grey Warden and if you pay attention to their interactions during those many lovely checkpoints you will find that Sten challenges him too. At first Alistair brushes it off with humour, which Sten does not enjoy at all, but it does come to a point where Alistair tells Sten to fuck off when Sten challenges Alistair to a duel. And how does Sten respond? “So you do have a spine. Pity you don’t use it.” True qunari respect, that is.

Sten approves of wanton Darkspawn slaughter!

All of this is influenced by the ideology that he follows: the Qun. Sten is the first Qunari you meet in the game and he is pretty much the Qun personified. He believes in efficiency and destiny, that everyone has a role to play that best suits their talents. If you’re a soldier, you’re a soldier. If you’re a cook, you’re a cook. Good at talking to others? A diplomat’s life for you. He believes it’s silly to try and escape your assigned role. Because as he says: “one life, one purpose.” Therefore a Warden embracing that he or she is a vile killer of Darkspawn confirms to his world view and he absolutely loves that, especially since he’s a person in an alien culture looking for the tiniest scrap of something even resembling his life back home.

A Stranger in a Strange Land Strangely Confused By Strangers

Now, from a literary point of view Sten has to be a walking, talking text book of the Qun. He’s the first qunari we meet. As a result he will most definitely influence the player on what the Qun is all about. It’s through his words and actions that we get a view of what this strange ideology is about. The good and the bad of an ideology choosing your entire life for you. Why so many people would find peace in their roles, much as Sten has. He’s a soldier and he’s at peace with being a soldier. Hell, he even needs the Qun to some extent, as without it he freaks out and kills innocent farmers when he loses his sword.

Poor guy needs a therapy. And not the Ben-Hassrath!

A big part of Sten’s characterisation is his struggling with the fact that he represented the Qun in a negative light after massacring innocent farmers. That’s why he wants to cage himself, both in Lothering and the Fade.

That’s right, Sten may absolutely never admit to it, similar to how he’ll never admit to Leliana that he likes kitties and pwetty flowers, but in essence the Warden conforming to his role of the Qun gives Sten stability in this strange land called Ferelden. In the end, Sten is a follower, not a leader. A sten of the Beresaad. And this is most easily demonstrated in the fact that the one sentence he approves of the most is: “Well, you can stay with us.” Saying that to gives him a +12 approval. It’s not because he’s feeling all fuzzy inside because the warden is saying he’s a member of the group. It’s also because the Warden is giving Sten stability in this strange land where everyone wants to be something else than what they are.

The Soldier with the Psychology Degree

But we the players aren’t the only ones to know that this is Sten’s literary goal. Sten himself knows it as well. Sten, despite saying that he is a simple creature that likes swords and following orders, is easily the most intelligent of all your companions. This isn’t just shown by the fact that pretty much every conversation you have with the man turns into a deeply philosophical debate, but also in the fact that Sten knows people and has a surprisingly deep grasp of human psychology. Despite… not being human.

Seriously though, why wouldn't the Revered Mother accept that he killed Fereldens because he lost his sword? It's a perfectly valid excuse!

The Revered Mother of the chantry in Lothering ordered him to starve to death. Sten immediately accepts this, rather than explain just why he killed a bunch of farmers in cold blood. Better to be seen as a fiend immediately disposed of than as a bad example of the Qun.

And his knowledge of people doesn’t just translate into witty one-liners like: “people are not simple. They cannot be summarised for easy reference in the manner of: the elves are a lithe, pointy-eared people who excel at poverty.” It also translates in how he acts around others. Sten is a quiet boy. And while this can easily be mistaken for him being a shy, gentle giant, it’s actually something much more complex. Qunari are noted to be perfectionists. Qunari society forces them to be their very best all the time. As Sten himself admits to,  the qunari don’t speak the English (or Fereldan) language that well. His interaction with Leliana confirms it: she’s singing a tale of two lovers and he thinks she’s singing about vegetables. But Sten doesn’t want people to know he’s not good in the language, because he knows that he is most likely the first and only source of interaction most Fereldans will have with a member of the Qun. He knows that he will influence the view of these people, so he’d rather they think Qunari are a distant, cold people than linguistically inept. All the easier to sell the idea that they’re a living, thinking force of nature ready to conquer their lands in the future.

And it isn’t just the language. It’s also the fact that he murdered innocent farmers. Now he might have a perfectly valid qunari justification for it. Losing his sword means losing his life in the eyes of the Qun. He panicked and in a rage killed Fereldans who showed him kindness. Any qunari he’d tell that tale to would be give him a respectable nod. But of course, he’s not in Par Vollen. He’s in Ferelden. He’s smart enough to know that people like the Revered Mother aren’t going to accept the fact that he lost his sword, so he doesn’t offer an explanation at all as to why he did it. He readily accepts his punishment, because he feels he failed as a qunari. He failed his mission (well, not really and he immediately takes the chance to continue it under the Warden), but he also failed to show the Qunari in a positive light. The majority of people in Lothering see him, and the qunari, as savage murderous beasts. All because of him. And that will make it more difficult to subjugate them under the Qun if the qunari ever conquer Thedas, which is such a big no-no.

Scratching Beneath the Surface

Also by giving him a kitten. :D

The best way to get to know this character is by forcing him to have deep philosophical conversations with you.

And this is why Sten is such a complex character. Originally presented as a stoic giant who is only grumpy and difficult, but once you dig beneath the surface and actually spend time talking to him, listening to him and questioning him you find out he’s so much more than that. And he loves that, as evidenced by the fact that he approves if you ever say “I don’t think you’re that simple” when he makes the aforementioned “I’m a simple man” line. And he is unique in that he’s the only character where you really need to take your time with him. All your other companions pretty much lay out their life philosphies if you ask them, begging for the tiniest scrap of approval from a random stranger they’re forced to work with to stop the ultimate evil from winning. But Sten is quiet and feels he’s not the perfect source to talk about what the qunari are all about. Both because he is only a warrior (and not a Ben Hasraad), but also because he failed as a qunari before you even meet him. It’s pretty deep psychological reasoning and it’s why I enjoy having him in my party.

Well, that and the sick burns he can dish out on a regular basis. It’s just a pity that from a gameplay point of view he’s your weakest character. Goddamn Qun philosophy only giving him one specialisation cuz of bullshit reasons of one bullshit goal in one bullshit life!

A big thanks to the modders of the Dragon Age community for developing graphical mods that make our beloved Sten even prettier. Shoutout to two mods in particular: Retexturing DAO at Dragon Age and Unique Face Textures for Companions DAO Edition.

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Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the video games “Dragon Age: inquisition” and “Dragon Age: Origins.” We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. “Dragon Age: Origins” and “Dragon Age: Origins” were created by Bioware.

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