Keeping faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part Four: Reflecting on the story and why it matters

So the developer is god, the story appeals to the faith of the player in the game itself, when Bioware’s writers cribbed off history they did so with a deeper appreciation for the place of religious institutions within the societies it mimics.

At the end of Part Three I claimed that the most important story mechanic was the player’s control over the Inquisition, over control of the institution into which people are able to place their badly beaten faith. The game says this at times directly (there’s a line from Mother Giselle that “an army needs more than an enemy, it needs a cause”) and at other times with thinly veiled metaphors. The cut scene in which the formation of the Inquisition is announced to the world involves Commander Cullen nailing the proclamation onto the door of Haven’s Chantry in a way that is reminiscent of the popular image of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg (and the popular image of the beginning of the Reformation).

While the Inquisition is initially declared to be a heretical organisation by the surviving Chantry hierarchy, it becomes more or less an institution of change and reform. While the game certainly provides the ‘evil’ option of “doing it for the [personal] power” the Inquisition still tends to provide a net positive to the world’s major institutions by simple involvement in the various conflicts going on. Following in the footsteps of other Bioware RPGs you’re given the opportunity of making decisions big and small, but almost all of the big decisions in DA:I have world shaking consequences because they effect one or more of the major institutions of Thedas. Do you choose to side with the Templars or the Circle of Magi? Whichever one you decide would have far reaching implications for the people of the land. If you choose the Templars, do you disband the centuries old organisation (removing a trusted constant from the continent) or do they become partners in an alliance? If you choose the Circle are they heavily indebted allies or prisoners (continuing the cycle of leashing magic users). Do you choose to allow the Grey Wardens the chance to atone and rebuild, or banish them from southern Thedas? Who will sit on the Orlesian throne? Who will sit beside/behind the Orlesian throne? Who will the Inquisition support as the new Divine? Cassandra the reformer, or perhaps the far more traditional Viviene?

Decisions, decisions... so many exhausting decisions.
Decisions, decisions… so many exhausting decisions.

Our decisions have (as far as the game itself tells us) long-reaching consequences for the lands and people of the Dragon Age world, how we make those decisions depends on how we interpret our characters personality and where their faith lies. My Inquisitor found herself willing to forgive the Templars who had been fooled by a demon doppelganger, but banished the Grey Wardens who had so willingly started using blood magic. She supported Empress Celene in the Orlesian Civil War but installed the elf Briala at the Empress’ right. And she honestly gave no shits about who would become the new Divine of the human Chantry, but was glad for her friend when Cassandra was named (in the epilogue).

So, why does it all matter? Because it allows for better understanding of the past, present and future by providing a reasonably understandable point of reference for people to understand. I’ve already mentioned my belief that video games provide a valuable resource for teaching today’s youth some important ideas and concepts (some educators are already doing exactly that). This falls under the same principle.

Let me use the Crusades as an example. Ask most folk for the causes of the Crusades and they’d probably respond with some combination of religious fanaticism and using religious fanaticism as an excuse for conquest. Recent arguments I’ve heard though was that it was the delayed response to centuries of Muslim conquest all the way up through Spain to the gates of Christian Europe. The release of many decades of anger after watching what had been the Christian Middle East and North Africa conquered by the heathens who were stronger and more advanced, and the feeling of impotence that would have come from being unable to halt Islam’s advance. It was a response by the faithful questioning why God was allowing the unfaithful to inherent the earth and deciding that it must have been because they had to work for it. Now when a lot of scholars talk about the roots of modern Islamic terrorism they say some very similar things, that it is a response by the weak and disempowered faithful who have spent the past four centuries watching the ascent of the Christian West, who have then proceeded to conquer, divide, puppet and generally mistreat the Muslim world which a few hundred years ago dominated the world. And if someone who’d played DA:I asked me explain the situation using a literary example, I’d talk about how easy it was for the Elder One to recruit from the disenfranchised citizens of Tevinter surrounded by decaying symbols of their own lost glory, worn down by centuries of conflict with the technologically advanced Qunari and bad blood with the rest of the continent (and their former possessions), reasonably sure that they’d understand what I’m talking about.

When discussing something as emotionally subjective as faith, being able to understand through experience is key. By appealing to the player’s faith in the game like Bioware does in DA:I, it allows the player to empathise with the character’s crises of faith better, and understand the emotional responses by those characters towards the institutions that held their faith. Understand the emotional responses to our treatment of those institutions. The faith of the player in the game, regardless of how they are playing, is both challenged and reinforced. As I said, it provides a point of reference that reflects the real world. It allows us to better empathise with people around the world and the issues that arise from their faith, treat them with the respect they deserve instead of dismissing them outright for placing that faith in something we disagree with.

Understanding all the issues and views involved in a problem is the first step in solving it. I don’t expect playing Dragon Age: Inquisition will fix the world, but anything that adds positively to the cultural zeitgeist helps. But, shit, I’m an optimist.

Alright folks, I’m gonna end it there. Thanks for reading. I’ll find something else to talk about.

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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.

Keeping Faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part Two: a question raised, perhaps answered.

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.

The Inquisitor did raise her mighty sword, and with a lion-hearted roar did issue her challenge, "Come at me bro!" And lo, the dragon came at her.
The Inquisitor did raise her mighty sword, and with a lion-hearted roar did issue her challenge, “Come at me bro!”
And lo, the dragon came at her.

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.

Keeping faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition, Part one: Let me frame the discussion

How would you react if you knew for certain that god existed? Or destiny? Let’s say a god that doesn’t care whether you’re moral or immoral, faithful or unfaithful, sing its praises or curse its name, you’ve received its mark regardless and you have a destiny in front of you. Would you piously tell anyone who asked or listened about your knowledge and faith? Would you simply shrug your shoulders and give an inconclusive, agnostic non-answer? Or would you loudly tout your ‘atheism’, laughing behind your eyes at those that agree or disagree alike? It’s a question that comes up often in Role Playing Games (RPGs) like Dragon Age: Inquisition. It’s part of the fun though we rarely put it that way, at least partly because over-thinking the philosophical implications of such a decision takes up time that could be better spent slaying cultists, giants and dragons. I do love slaying dragons.

DA-I Lana drawing 1 edited
“Right, who’s next?”

Faith is a key theme running throughout the game, being a major motivating factor for many of the main characters (unsurprising given that the Inquisition of the title is an offshoot of the world’s major religious institution populated primarily by the faithful). Cassandra is a holy warrior whose faith in her god (the Maker) is strong, but her faith in his Chantry is shaken. Leliana struggles to reconcile her belief (so strong in Dragon Age: Origins) in a loving Maker with the fact that he has allowed so much chaos and destruction loose on those loyal to him (including the death of her friend and mentor, the Divine). The Iron Bull’s faith in the Qun is already shaken before he meets the Inquisitor from having lived outside of its teachings for so long, and if certain choices are made he doubts his own ability to keep from becoming a mindless savage without it, losing faith in himself. Sera, Varric and Dorian’s lack of faith in the old institutions of their respective governments, class systems and religions drove them to join and remain with the Inquisition, a catalyst of change, but their views and certainties of the world are rocked by the truths revealed by the identity of the game’s overarching antagonist (effectively a powerful mage who became Satan). The player character him or herself spends what can be defined as the extended prologue with everyone assuming he/she was personally saved from a cataclysmic death by blessed Andraste, god’s missus. Even after we find out that the glowing green mark on our avatar’s hand is due to magic and coincidence rather than overt divine intervention many of our followers make the rather valid point that covert divine intervention is not ruled out, since you just happen to be exactly what is needed when it is needed. Several outright ask the player what they believe is on their hand and what they believe exists in the DA:I equivalent of heaven. How the player responds to this is up to them.

The first thing you do in DA:I is pick your race (elf, human, dwarf, Qunari), your class (warrior, rogue or mage) and your appearance. You are given the barest outline of a personal history to explain how you happen to be at the centre of a magically exploding temple. It is assumed you either know the game world’s law or will be paying close attention to the codex entries you find. After that, it’s up to you to decide the personality of your avatar, your Inquisitor, how they act and react, how they get along with the other characters in the game, and what they believe. The characters are left purposely blank for this exact reason, so that the player can fill in the spaces.

Take my Inquisitor pictured above (badly, I stuffed up the shadowing and drew the eyes too high, but that is why we practice). Lana is a Dalish elf warrior who prefers swords to axes, and axes to hammers or mauls. She has a scar over her left eye from a fight with a Tal-Vashoth bandit in which she almost lost it. She generally tries to get along with people, but her attempts at diplomacy often come off as clumsy or ill-thought, not helped by the fact she has a fierce temper with little mercy for those that cross her. Regardless Lana gets along with her companions well enough. There were a few tensions initially with Dorian, the Tevinter mage, after a few ignorant comments got her Dalish blood boiling. She does her very best to stay on Sera’s good side, seeing the playful city elf as a sort of little sister. She does her very best to try and like Solas with his large head full of dreams, but finds his pseudo-intellectual condescension irritating. She finds some of Cole’s actions worrying, but appreciates good intentions. The two that she understands best however (at least at this point in the game), are Cassandra and Leliana, whose crises of faith perhaps best reflect her own as she struggles to reconcile her proud beliefs in the gods of the Dalish with what she has seen and been told about the circumstances of the mark on her hand (the anchor), which indicates at least some truth to the stories the Chantry tells about the Maker (who is perhaps not so different from the Dalish Creator god).

But that’s me filling in the blanks. Jump onto Tumblr or any other similar website and punch in the right search terms and you’re bound to see stories, comics, other fan-fiction and reviews where people have filled in their own. Some are militantly atheist, some are calmly agnostic, others have declared themselves arbiters of the Maker’s will.

Here’s the thing though: we as players know for a fact that god exists and has a plan for our characters. That god’s name is Bioware.