Since I’m on a bit of a Dragon Age mood right now, having just beat the third game (not Game of the Year material in my view, but good characters nonetheless), I figured I’d have a look at the design of one of its poster children: Cassandra Pentaghast.
Of all companions, Cassandra may be the one most heavily featured in the media, pre-release. She and Varric adorned pages, the first revealed companions, and while Varric was popular enough I imagine he was somewhat sidelined as “the returning companion”. Cassandra, for all her earlier appearances, was free to be its face. It may also be worth noting she is one of three companions (the others being Varric Tethras and Solas) you have to recruit.
And, yes, she owes this somewhat for being the first face you’ll see in the game, as well as how she’s probably the most obviously related to Inquisition‘s theme of faith (not a theme I find always done well, not even in the game). But likely it is due in part to her striking design. Sharp, powerful, and, to be blunt, unlike the stereotypical depiction of a fantasy woman she’s not running around in the nud.
I’ve seen some criticise her for not being “attractive” (she is an optional romance in the game, after all), though that seems to completely miss the point of her design. For what it’s worth, she is to me a fairly attractive figure, but that’s not the point of her design (cynically: it may be a sidegoal, however). What is? “Authority”, mainly.
Previously on Dragon Age…
In order to get a good grasp of Cass’s visual design in the third game, it is worth looking at her previous appearances, and seeing how design changed to match her, if not developing, solidifying character.
Dragon Age II…
Trivia: Engine limitations prevented long dark hair from working for Cassandra in Dragon Age II. In many ways, her appearance here seems a stepping block between Dawn‘s Cassandra and Inquisition‘s. Where her original appearance is first translated into the engine, where the team adapts to her changed character over the years.
In Dawn of the Seeker
Generally I’m not a fan of scare-quoted “empowered” characters, which partly speaks to my inner cynic: everyone kinda sucking is equality of a sort, though not the kind you read in most children’s books. But I’ve also never believed people should have to be pretty, or sexy, to be empowered. Cassandra can break down doors with her strength, is determined as the fates themselves. She’s a human figure, true, headstrong as hell, but her faults serve to make her relatable, to make her a figure we can understand and ourselves attain. Why should being beautiful matter? She’s rolemodel enough. And there’s my idealist.
And then, obviously, we wanted to make sure she was hot. To dial her to eleven, to make her absolutely gorgeous, really enticing — yet at the same time, she’s powerful, she’s strong, she’s wearing platemail.1
In Dawn of the Seeker, Cassandra is “empowered”. For Cassandra was deliberately made hot, and enticing, while trying to ensure she was strong and powerful. Or at least, that’s how she was described by the designers.1 I’m not good at analysing such things, but hopefully an image loaded to the left of the text, so there’s that. Your attention may have been drawn to her legs, though I’ll note that the film does have her “suit up” in proper full-plated armour, and that is how she is featured on the DVD cover (sans helmet).
Now, Cassandra was always meant to look “severe and dramatic”, in the words of Matt Rhodes. Also “queen of the vampires”. And, to a large degree this is successful. Her face is very harsh, with those arching eyebrows and that expression that she basically carries throughout the film. And, of course, her armour has an all-black colour scheme, distinctive and adding to that severity.
If you’re ever planning on going around getting into random fights, shorter hair is probably the wiser option, but it would be a mistake to assume that warriors are solely associated with that kind. That pony-tail is almost reminiscent of samurai, traditionally reserved and noble in status (much like Cassandra). It’s not exactly a samurai ponytail, of course, but it’s similar. The longer hair also ties in with her more “young” personality.
Faces, hair, and heads in general
So maybe it’s cheating to just quote the intentions of an artist, but nonetheless. Cassandra’s face is all about angles. Even her make-up plays into it, as seen in the image. That said, there are other things to say about her face. Most obviously, there are the scars used to establish combat experience, a trick also used with Mass Effect‘s Urdnot Wrex and KotOR‘s Canderous Ordo. It’s not the most original addition, but they do their job finely. Cassandra’s scars are never explained in dialogue, I do not believe, leaving them as that all-purpose experience rather than, say, a dreaded mark of a specific battle never forgotten.
I am no expert in physiognomy, it is true. Still, a lot of imagery goes into Inquisition, so I’ll take a shot at the use of hazel eyes. Eyes, traditionally viewed as the window to the soul, can say a lot about a fictional character. Hazel is, I believe, occasionally taken as a sign of a sensitive soul, which Cassandra basically is. A subtle hint to her true character, also shown through her armour (onto that later). They’re also known as spontaneous and “won’t back down from a challenge”, which would fit Cassandra very well, especially that latter part. Again, I may be a bit off-base here, since eye colours are not my area of expertise and can be chosen arbitrarily.
One of the things most recognisable about Cassandra, and this was true in earlier works but seems especially clear in Inquisition, is her heavy jawline. A heavy jawline is something that makes her more masculine. I’ve mentioned before her sensitivity, but she’s also an aggressive (one of the key points of her design) human battering ram. Cassandra, like any good complex character, has both masculine and feminine traits, for all the worth those vague terms have. They both exist in synergy, helping to visually define her character. Likely, it also plays into the angular angles of her design.
Cassandra’s hair has changed once again, and it remains short but it is nonetheless very different, and I believe unique to the character. I do not know the practicalities of actually making a halo braid like that, but it does say something about the character. You could take this as a sign of her sensitivity again, but also of her warrior nature (you could also do both, they’re not exclusive). I’ll note we also saw braided hair in the character of Loghain, Ferelden’s warrior general. It’s sort of a Celtic warrior thing (not to say only Celtic warriors braided their hair, of course, don’t mistake me).
Forging an armour
I’ve already mentioned how Seeker armour was intended to be distinctive and how it fits into Cassandra’s character, something that’s been an element of her character since Dawn. Still, there is more that can be said about it’s appearance in Inquisition, where is expanded beyond the generic “armour” template it was using previously.
Much like her face, Cassandra’s armour is distinct, has hard edges around her shoulders. Together, they create an impressively fierce silhouette. Now that I think about it, this does go a long way in harshening her appearance since her rookie days in her first appearance.
Something I would have expected more people to comment on, Cassandra’s armour is adorned with hearts (the luvey duvey kind, not the actual organ). It’s not something we would associate with a battle-hardened warrior, even one working for a religious organization. It makes sense for Cassandra, however, once you get to know her. Alluded to in Dragon Age II, Inquisition makes it clear that Cassandra is a romantic… and also a fan of Varric’s smutty novels, against her will in that case. She may hide it, but it makes sense this is subtly represented in her armour.
You may notice the leather straps in her armour. This is something common to Dragon Age armour, actually. Thedas is a far deadlier world than ours, and designers have gone for a look for armour that can be put on in a hurry. I believe this intention is directly stated in The Art of Dragon Age: Inquisition, though I do not remember the exact page number or sentence. In Cassandra’s case specifically, it could show her own constant awareness, Right Hand of the Divine, all that, but I don’t want to draw on something too common to the series. This intention started being made clear more in later Dragon Age games, as opposed to Origins where a lot of armour seems fairly standard.
As a sidenote, not directly “character design” as I am referring to it, I’d like to draw attention to this pose, seen also in the concept art. Sword’s being drawn, ready for action, though not outright pulled out and pointed at the camera or anything. I won’t go into detail, however.
Thank you for reading, assuming you haven’t skipped to the end here. Wouldn’t be surprised if I missed some details, characters go through lots of drafts and I, in all honesty, got a bit carried away examining her earlier appearances to the detriment of her actual current design. Next post should likely be back to Sam Vimes.
- “Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker – Designing Cassandra“, IGN. Some of the writers/designers discuss the creation and design of Cassandra’s Dawn appearance.
- “Beauty“, a post by Casper Konefal in which he discusses creating a character’s “hook”. It’s an interesting read, if you’re looking for my opinion.
- “Cassandra Pentaghast: Character Profile“. Character kit provided by BioWare for cosplayers.
I briefly mentioned Loghain, so if you want to start a fierce debate about whether to spare or kill him that is… certainly something you could do.