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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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.

Banning the Burqa? Probably not a good time

It’s been a bad couple of weeks in the news for Australian Muslims, with a long stream of reporting on the terrors of home grown extremism. We had Prime Minister Tony Abbot announcing to the public that the terror alert was being raised from medium to high (meaning attack was “likely” but “not imminent”). Then there were the massive counter-terrorist raids in Sydney and Brisbane, preventing a plan which (according to the police) would have involved kidnapping a random member of the public and broadcasting their beheading. Just a few days ago an 18 year old “person of interest” who’d recently had his passport cancelled was shot and killed after he stabbed two police officers in Melbourne. This comes on top of the occasional reminder that there are 60-odd Australians (or 120-150 depending on who’s doing the counting) fighting with Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) in Iraq and Syria, as well as the government’s attempts to sell and push through a raft of new anti-terror legislation and amendments that have varied from adorably bumbling (y’aaaaw, he doesn’t know how the internet works) to genuinely concerning for a lot of people (like how the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation – ASIO – would be liable if they kill or cripple someone, but hadn’t specifically been told they couldn’t torture people until recently) with the Islamic community feeling noticeably targeted.

Here in the capital of NSW (with a around half of Australia’s Muslim population) it’s been enough to get poor innocent white folk – the kind with only vague notions of a distant, mysterious and dangerous land known as ‘South Western Sydney,’ filled with mosques and kebab shops – quaking in their thongs (flip flops).

And then you had SA Senator Cory ‘If-you-think-I-sound-ignorant-now-just-ask-me-about-gays-and-climate-change’ Bernardi from the Coalition again calling for banning the Burqa, and Tas Senator Jacqui ‘Even-my-own-party-thinks-I’m-dumb’ Lambie both supporting him and possibly setting herself up as the heir-apparent of Pauline Hanson and One Nation‘s dubious crown. She certainly didn’t hurt her growing image as the new face of bigoted Australian politics when she struggled her way through an explanation of what she knew about Sharia Law and when she posted an anti-burqa meme (used first by far right group Britain First) to her Facebook page, which co-opts a photo of one of Afghanistan’s first female police officers, Malalai Kakar, who was murdered by the Taliban in 2008, in a way meant to look aggressive and threatening. The photographer calls it a desecration, though apparently Lambie reckons she’s honouring the fallen policewoman by using her image to try and scare people and dehumanise those who wear it (I don’t see the logic, and I don’t think anybody who thinks about it for more than five seconds does either).

In all honesty I hate the Burqa and the Niqab. They’re oppressive garments that rob the wearer of their face, their identity and their individuality, and that is wrong by my standards. But if they’re going to disappear from Australia it needs to be because the Islamic community agrees (which many of them do) and makes a determined effort to excise it from their faith and community (which many of them are), not because some dumbarse senator is worried that a Burqa-clad assassin is going to try and shoot up her office or some such shit. Certainly not because it conflicts with the western morals of a self-righteous inner-city white male like myself.

The rhetoric being flung at the Muslim community is not good. It doesn’t seem as bad as what was being thrown around right before (and after) the Cronulla Riots in 2005 but I think those very unpleasant days are what a lot of us in Sydney at least are remembering right now, and bizarre claims about the security risks created by a handful (relatively speaking) of Burqa wearers does not help matters. All it does is leave one side feeling even more targeted, victimised and isolated from the rest of the nation and gives the other side another caricature with which to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’.

I’m not saying these are discussions we shouldn’t be having at all. Far from it. I think inclusive debate allows us to hammer out social problems, reaffirms shared values and makes our communities stronger. But we need to pick times and contexts where one sides not pouring gasoline over the issue and daring the other side to strike a match, and ignorant fearmongering should never be used.

Besides it’s distracting us from our true enemies, those bastards in the English cricket and New Zealand rugby teams.