‘Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts’ is the best quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it makes me feel like shit.
If there’s one thing you’ll learn about Orlais before ‘Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts,’ it’s what they call The Grand Game. Orlais is a wealthy country that prides itself on its complex codes of honor and social contracts, as well as seduction and intrigue. Most of the political maneuvering is done at parties and over dinner, although it’s just as deadly as any war. If you want a sense of how up their own ass most Orlesians seem, all of them make a habit of wearing masks in public. In previous Dragon Age games, this was something people told you about, but not something you got to witness in person. In ‘Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts,’ not only are you interacting with Orlesian royalty, but having to quickly master The Game in order to survive the night.
At this point in the game, Orlais is gripped in a civil war. Orlais’ empress, Celene, is being challenged by the Grand Duke Gaspard, who claims he is the rightful heir to the throne. Complicating matters is Ambassador Briala, who was once the Empress’s lover and now acts as a representative of the elven diaspora. These are three characters who represent distinct factions in Orlais. Celene stands for the country’s stability and tradition, but her policies hold the country back. Gaspard is more progressive but also hawkish, believing war will unite Orlais. Briala speaks for the country’s subjugated underclass, walking the line between fighting for their rights and inciting a rebellion. They’re all trapped in a web of backstabbing and intrigue, and on top of all of that, we also know that Corypheus, the game’s big bad, wants to assassinate Celene. By the end of the night, someone’s going to be ruler and someone might be dead. It’s up to the Inquisition to find Corypheus’s mole and also guide Orlais into peace.
‘Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts’ takes place at an Orlesian ball in the Winter Palace. While it’s not entirely devoid of combat, it’s less about the monsters you fight than what you say and how you say it. While other quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition change the political situations in Thedas, the political situation in ‘Wicked Eyes’ feels the most tense. There’s hardly ever a “right” or “wrong” choice in Inquisition, but there are choices that are more selfish than others. At the end of this ball, you’re going to be very aware that you’ve let some portion of the population of Orlais down, prioritized one group’s needs over others. Even if you get the outcome you wanted, you may still be unhappy with your choices.
There’s a satisfying Upstairs, Downstairs tone to the writing of this quest. In between dancing with nobles and trying gain approval of the court, you’re also eavesdropping on the elven servants and snooping in their quarters. It’s remarkable what the nobles miss that’s happening right under their noses. Playing as an elven Inquisitor, the gossiping elves just talked to me, warning me not to go into the kitchens because not a single elf that went down there had come out. When you gain access to the entire Winter Palace, you’ll see how true that is. The bodies of elves litter the corridors of the private wings of the palace, while the Orlesian nobles talk loudly about their missing maids, lamenting that elves are just so lazy.
Those asides kept me grounded in this playthrough. It’s so easy to think of the the larger, macro politics of Orlais and forget that it’s also a country made up of individual people. To people like Gaspard, Celene, and even Briala, those dead elves are just pawns in a larger story. Each time I walked past a corpse of a servant and remembered how the Orelesian nobles referred to them with in-game slurs like “knife-ear,” it was clear that there’s more than one Orlais. There’s the Orlais that’s concerned with balls and jewelry, and then there’s the Orlais that deals with the fallout of political betrayals. A large population of the country is under the throes of a very small amount of people. In ‘Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts’ there are only a handful of players with the power to see their goals through, but there are dozens of bodies that pay the price for their scheming.
Yet, that scheming is fun. One of my favorite sequences is where you dance with Grand Enchantress Florianne. You have a short conversation that can radically change your approval with the rest of the court. Some of your choices depend on having high court approval, and you won’t be able to get certain endings if the ball’s attendees don’t like you. Having played Inquisition two other times, this time I aced this sequence, delivering bon mots to Florianne as if I were born with a silver spoon in my mouth. By the end of ‘Wicked Hearts’ I had a court approval of 99 out of 100, my highest ever. I felt pretty proud at the time, but after sleeping on it, I feel a bit guilty. It is definitely important to do well at this quest and to prevent Celene’s assassination and bring peace to Orlais. In doing that, you have to suck up to some frankly awful people, people who are both directly and indirectly responsible for murder. I made those people like me, and in doing so, bought into their awful system of politics.
It’s abundantly clear that the decadence of Orlais is entirely frivolous. The one character who understands the machinations of Orlesian politics the most is Leliana, your spymaster. She enjoys the gossip, explaining to you how a noble’s taste in shoes can say something significant about their social and financial situation. She’s also the first person to point out that it doesn’t actually matter who rules Orlais by the end of the night, just that there is a ruler. Corypheus’s goal is to cause enough chaos in Orlais by assassinating its empress that he and his army can take it over. As long as someone is overseeing the country infrastructurally then the Inquisition has thwarted Corypheus. Who that person is ultimately doesn’t matter.
Weighing these options is enough to make your head spin, and I tried to do what felt right. Gaspard always seem like a dick to me, and had the most hands on approach to murder that night, so I had him locked up. I reunited Celene and Briala, hoping their joint union would give leverage to the elves. Still, when I discussed my choices with other companions after the quest was over, I had my doubts. Sera, who delights in sticking a thorn in nobles’ sides, hated all of them without question, saying that all the Inquisition has done is clean up after their mistakes. Iron Bull, who comes from a rigid society where social roles are chosen for you, said that where he comes from, at least people wouldn’t be “tripping over each others’ dicks while the country falls apart.”
Leaving the Winter Palace, I felt as though I had done some good. Briala was no longer just an ambassador, but a full member of court representing the elves. It was a win for the elves, but I’d also found evidence that she’d tried to kill one of her own to keep her former romance with Celene a secret. Briala, like the rest, was hardly altruistic. Maybe if I had backed the more radical Gaspard, Orlais would be thrust into modernity faster. More likely, I still would have had regrets. The brilliance of ‘Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts’ comes is that there’s no right answer here. You’re just trying to do the least harm, and then live with what you’ve wrought.