Keeping Faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part Three: So what’s it all about then?

Sorry this took so long folks, but here is Part Three. Part One can be read here, Part Two here.

So, we’ve established that the developer of DA:I is the ‘god’ of the game and that appeals to the player character’s faith in-game are also appeals to the player’s faith in the game. How does this relate to the story, politics and lore of the game and the world within? Well, let’s talk a bit about faith first more generally, in real life and in the game.

A few years ago, back at university, I found myself doing a course with the rather self-explanatory title ‘Christianity in Medieval Europe.’ It was a good course that covered everything from the iconoclastic debate, various heretical movements, the inquisition, Christianity’s evolving relationship with Islam, academia and scholarship, and of course the history of the saints. By the end of the course there were two things that really struck me, however. First was how fun it was to be able to use the word ‘flagellate’ in casual discussions (and I got to use it a lot). Say it with me, flaj-ell-ate. Fantastic. Second was that we still have a very low opinion of medieval Christians, one that comes from some very modern yet very old-fashioned misinterpretations of the reasons for faith, ritual and religious institutions in the Middle Ages. The assumption tends to be that Medieval Europeans were a bunch of ignorant flat-earthers who answered every question with “God did it!” or “because the local priest told me that’s what the scriptures said happened!” and whose lives were, as a result of this stupidity and blind piety, “violent brutish and short” (to use an overused quote). The reality was that this, for the most part, was simply not the case. Unless of course you were a Viking. Then it was a life goal.

The reality was that they either knew the world was round or would have responded to an explanation as to how we knew with the tenth century equivalent of “Well, that makes sense.” The reality was that for those Medieval Europeans the church and religion had less to do with answering how the world works in what we’d now define as a scientific sense and more to do with where their place in the world was. Categorisation instead of explanation. This is us (because we hold these beliefs to be true and perform these rituals), that is them (because they hold those beliefs to be true and perform those rituals). Social cohesion through the creation and/or enforcement of social norms. This behaviour is correct and righteous, that behaviour is wrong and sinful. The power of the church came in its power to codify or legislate the social norms affected by the belief and faith of the populace, because it controlled the rituals and ritualised elements of that faith. To take a quote from Mary Douglas’ classic book Purity and Danger (which I’ve been messily paraphrasing), “As with society, so with religion, external form is the condition of its existence… As a social animal, man is a ritual animal… Social rituals create a reality that would be nothing without them. It is not too much to say that ritual is more to society than words are to thought.” The religious institutions established a particular world view, a particular reality, and our divinely ordained place within it. This did not make Medieval Europeans stupid, it made them human.

That is what the folk over at Bioware seem to understand, so when they cribbed heavily off of Medieval European history (and they did crib heavily) they were able to do so at a very deep, conceptual level. The Qunari, for instance, may not seem superficially similar to the Islamic world in the Middle Ages (there certainly aren’t any Arishoks running about saying “there is but one God and Koslun is his prophet”), usually seeming more Asian in influence (pulling from Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism etc), but the Qun guides all parts of life and government in a way that would have impressed Muhammad (peace be upon him). The apparent stagnation of the Qunari  (they have gunpowder, but don’t seem to have advanced beyond basic artillery and bombs for centuries) is similar to the stagnation that eventually brought down the Ottomans. Similarly, the endless war between Tevinter and the Qunari is reminiscent of the Byzantine Empire’s piecemeal conquest by the technologically superior Muslims (their frequent battles for control of Seheron remind me of the various battles for Crete). The division of the Chantry between the Tevinter Imperium’s Black Divine and the rest of Thedas’ White Divine (based in Orlais) based on different interpretations of a specific passage (regarding magic), just how divine the prophet Andraste was, and a refusal to accept each other’s authority resembles the divisions between the Eastern Orthodox Church (and the Patriarch of Constantinople) and the Western Catholic Church (and the Bishop – Pope – of Rome). And of course Fereldan and Orlais are very obvious analogies of England and France (and their respective relationship with each other). Antiva is Italy, Nevarra is Spain, the Anderfels are Germany or Switzerland.

But all this is on a Macro level. On a micro level, they understand how people’s faith in god or the institutions that call upon his/her authority can be harnessed for good or ill. A lack of faith in the Chantry to protect them from the abuses of the Templars led to the Mage Rebellion. A feeling that the Chantry was taking them for granted led to the Templar Order also rebelling. Disillusionment amongst the soldiers fighting for the Empress or Duke in the Orlesian Civil War led to the rebellious ‘Freemen of the Dales’. The game’s main villain is able to gain so much support from Tevinter’s fringe nobility because he promised to halt centuries of decline and return the Imperium to its glorious and glorified past. It is understandable for Iron Bull to be a little disillusioned with the certainty of the Qun, even at one point joking about their religious leaders had been trying to explain why the Qunari hadn’t been able to conquer Thedas for centuries. Sera despises the institutions of the nobility and priests, and acts to get even with those who step on the little people, but recognises the futility of some grand revolution. Cassandra’s discovery of the Seekers’ secret history rocks her world view so severely because it disrupts her faith in the institution she’d pledged her life to. History is full of the disenfranchised striking out against the forces that had previously controlled their faith, and almost by default their lives.

The power given to the player in DA:I, the core story mechanic for much of the game, is not the magical Anchor on their hand but their control of the titular Inquisition. The Inquisition fills a vacuum of power, seeks to actually re-establish order and stability, and fix apocalyptic hole in the sky. It provides a new institution into which people are able to place their severely shaken faith. The player is able to then influence how that faith is harnessed, and shift the order of the world.

How this works in the story and why it all matters will be explained in Part IV. Just one more, than I’ll talk about a different game guys. Promise it won’t be as long coming.

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