So, continuing on from last week, there is a god and its name is Bioware. At least as far the world within Dragon Age: Inquisition (and the other titles made by this particular developer) is concerned. What does this mean?
At a glance, not a lot. On one hand, academically, the idea of audience participation as an act of ritual or faith is not a new one, nor is the idea of art creator as god of that particular work. Just look at the cultural treatment of the Star Wars franchise and George Lucas’ role over it. I once heard the Original Trilogy compared to the Qur’an and the Extended Universe and Sequel Trilogy compared to the Hadiths. Not the best analogy in the world, but not the worst either. On the less academic hand, as I said last week, we tend to spend most of that glance slaying bears, wolves, demons and dragons. ‘Cause slaying dragons is fuckin’ wonderful.
But one of the things I’ve loved about DA:I‘s portrayal of belief has been the subversive* way that it compares the faith of its characters in the guiding hand of “the Maker” with the faith of gamers in the guiding hand of the developers. Let’s think about it this way: there are certain expectations that we as audience and participants have of the media that we consume, and we have faith that these expectations will be met. Within the above mentioned passive media these expectations can be as simple as expecting action in an action movie, singing and dancing in a Bollywood film, and spectacularly shot images meant to convey how depressing and meaningless humanity really is in anything by Lars von Trier. In superhero comics and cartoons we expect the villain to get away at the end of the episode (not least so the series can continue). In detective fiction we expect an answer as to “who’dunnit?” (even if we don’t always expect justice). When watching a horror movie we expect the protagonists (for want of better word) to do stupid things like split up, forget to charge their phones and generally not seek help from anyone useful so that the villain has the opportunity to pick them off in whatever gruesome manner they prefer. Our expectations are used by creators as shorthand to avoid lengthy and unnecessary exposition, and as tropes to drive the narrative forward. Video games have an additional layer of expectations laid on top of them, again often separated by genre and developer, in the form of mechanics.
In RPGs like DA:I (and other games by Bioware for that matter), we have certain expectations about how the mechanics will deliver the narrative. We expect an antagonist with impossible power and dreams of conquering/destroying the world. We expect a number of companion characters and allies who fill out certain archetypes and react accordingly to the story and the player’s decisions. We expect our avatar to either be given some power or weapon that for some reason is the only method of defeating the antagonist, or given the task of achieving/retrieving said weapon or power, through happenstance, destiny or the will of god. But Bioware’s writers were aware of this and used it to further drive the narrative.
Most self aware games, like most self aware media in my experience, tend to be examples of satire, mockery, or (at their artistic best) deconstruction. Horror films have Scream. Video games have the Saints Row franchise, which revels in the inherent ridiculousness inherent in common video game tropes with a straight face and the occasional knowing wink. Or Sunset Overdrive, which openly points out and laughs at the flaws of video game logic. DA:I isn’t satire, and I wouldn’t call it a deconstruction without some serious mental gymnastics, but it is fairly self-aware. Your avatar is given a mark, ‘the anchor’, right at the beginning of the game, that is the only threat to the game’s villain. Even when you learn that the anchor is just old magic, and that the reason it fused with you was simple accident and happenstance, the characters most defined by their faith (such as Cassandra) point out how convenient it was that you just happened to be in the exact right spot at the exact right time to become exactly what was needed. So convenient that it’s not a particularly difficult leap to assume that some divine planning was in play. Because it was.
I know I’m starting to sound repetitive right now, but I can’t stress the fact enough. The writers planned every twist, every coincidence and the consequences of every choice. The lore, the history, the rules, the science of the world. The artists designed and drew, the programmers made it a virtual reality. No matter the details of my character’s history that I’ve ‘headcanoned’ it is still limited by the decisions and narrative given by the game’s designers. Her destiny is still predetermined. We, the players, know that. We have faith in that. So when the characters and story appeals to our character’s faith in a fictional god or religion, they are in fact appealing to the player’s faith in the game. Exhausted and wounded (spoiler alert) after your first encounter with the game’s antagonist, the Elder One, your army defeated and your camp at Haven destroyed, the character Mother Giselle tells your character to have faith that all is not lost, to have faith that things will get better. She is also telling you, the player, to have faith in the game and its designers. Of course they aren’t going to end it there, of course you’re going to get stronger and wiser and ultimately defeat the villain of the piece. That’s how linear video game story mechanics work.
So, again, what does this mean? It makes the game’s narrative more compelling, whether we roleplay a religious character or not, since it compares our faith in the game with the faith of the NPCs driving the narrative. It makes the characters and their struggles more relatable, since their faith in the Maker’s plan is reflected by our own. It makes for a strong, compelling story that explores themes like the place of institutionalised religion in politics and power, race relations, and, of course faith, with confidence that everyone understands exactly what they’re trying to get across.
If I can string together a coherent post on the subject, there might be a part three next week.
*I’ve been trying to cut down on using that word, but I can’t think of a better one at this exact moment.
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