The View From Thedas: On Preferring Kirkwall

Okay, so I’ve been replaying Dragon Age 2, and I’ve played Inquisition through a couple of times, and I need to get something off my chest: Dragon Age 2 was more fun than Inquisition.

By most gaming standards, Inquisition is a better game. Its fights are more strategically interesting and its battle system is at least original by Western RPG standards, its world is huge and ambitious, and its characters are quite pretty. Your Keep, Skyhold, is marginally customizable, huge, and changes over time in a way that reflects the story’s progress. Etc, etc– there’s been enormous amounts of e-ink spilled on Inquisition already, and I don’t think I need to beat that dead horse.

Dragon Age 2, on the other hand, repeatedly uses the same dungeon layouts. The manor layouts are so repetitive that one assumes the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild must own Kirkwall’s equivalent of KB Homes. The whole game rarely leaves Kirkwall and the Greater Kirkwall Metropolitan Area, and you could probably fit all of its settings within any of Inquisition’s 10 or so explorable areas 4 or 5 times over.

Dragon Age 2, though, for all of its flaws, told a story that dealt with topics I’m deeply interested in and did it well. Everyone in DA2 had an established relationship with everyone else, and that story was told through cutscenes and banter both. It was likely that a visit to Isabella would show her talking with another party member; they all seemed to drop in on each other fairly regularly. More than that, they all seemed to hang around Hawke for little reason other than friendship after the first act, and because of the 3-year gaps between Acts 1 and 2 and again between 2 and 3, they all have between 6 and 7 years to get to know each other.

In Inquisition, though, most of the conversations between party members seems to just be them feeling each other out, figuring out how to get to know each other. Part of this is because the banter system isn’t very good and doesn’t fire often enough, so players don’t always get all the banter that the game actually provides. But the cutscene part that you get in Dragon Age 2 just isn’t there. Sure, there are a few times where you walk in and the advisers are talking to each other, and there’s that time Dorian plays chess with Cullen, but it’s clear that their relationship is mostly one of coworkers.

I think the most telling place where the differences between the characterization, storytelling and interpersonal relationships in DA2 and Inquisition is shown is with Varric. In DA2, we have Varric as the somewhat unreliable narrator of the whole game, and no matter who you romance, his relationship with the protagonist, Hawke, is the beating heart of the narrative. Varric’s exaggerations, his jokes, and his affection and love for Hawke shows through every time the game breaks away from the main narrative to show him telling the story.

His relationship to the Inquisitor is never really that well-defined, nor is his relationship to the rest of the Inquisition. The main person we see him interacting much with is Cassandra, and generally they just fight; the only relationship that his personality really shows through in is with the human-formed spirit Cole, who he sort of adopts.

The moments we get to see in Inquisition are spaced far apart, because the game is paced so slowly compared to Dragon Age 2, and though many of them are fun, they don’t have the richness that the interpersonal relationships in the previous two games had.

It almost seems like the scope of Inquisition means that there’s less room in it for what really made the Dragon Age series feel, well, like a Bioware game. Maybe there is as much of the interpersonal writing in it as there is in other games, but if there is, it’s stretched thin. A lot of the game content is in the kind of boring sidequests that I expect more of an Elder Scrolls game, and while some of those have the kind of interesting worldbuilding reveals that nerds like me adore, few of them were all that interesting ways to get to know the NPCs better. Even many of the quests done for the party members and advisers were just fetch quests.

I think one of the major problems with Inquisition is that it’s trying to be too many things at once. It adds in a totally new fighting system, horseback riding (and a full mount system that includes a few dozen different critters you can ride), the entire War Table mechanic, the entire system for customizing the base, and a really ambitious set of places to explore. It really feels like it’s trying to be a regular RPG that gets sold to people who like to play regular RPGs and not just the kind of weird character-loving romance-drooling-over fan-nerds who are so into the first two games, and I think maybe they’re trying so hard to figure out how to do all of this new stuff that they’re letting themselves slide on what makes their games so much fun.

Every time I step back into Kirkwall and am greeted by Varric’s sarcasm, Merrill’s wide-eyed amazement and Isabella fighting with Aveline I remember why I love these games: they’re stories about a bunch of dorks who love each other and sometimes help fight evil or whatever. In the end, I’ll take that over customizable castles and dracolisk mounts any day.

The View From Thedas: “Find a way forward.”

The following post has spoilers for the ending of the quest “In Your Heart Shall Burn”, which ends the first act of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I’ve been thinking a lot for a while about how the gaming medium can do things that other formats can’t, and one of the major ones is by making things in-game react differently than you expect them to. This is something we see in a big way in Depression Quest, which does a good job of using the UI that we’re used to seeing in games and other programs, to choose what is and isn’t clickable; when the protagonist doesn’t have the mental energy to do some of the things that depressed people are told that they “should” do, those options still show up, but you’re taunted by your inability to actually do them. It’s a really smart way of showing something using gameplay that you wouldn’t be able to just explain.

I’ve been thinking a lot about running in games for several years, because when I was growing up and I played games on the living room TV, my mom always commented on the fact that the game protagonists always ran everywhere. I usually showed her that I could walk, but except in rare games such as Morrowind where the protagonist gets “tired” in a way that makes them less able to cast spells or attack, there isn’t much reason to walk instead of run.

Dragon Age: Inquisition does a good job of using this always-running expectation, plus the way you get used to running animations, to effect your sense of story.

For those who haven’t played it, Dragon Age: Inquisition starts out with the protagonist and their friends/colleagues working out of the poorly fortified mountain village of Haven. The first part of the game ends dramatically with an assault on the village and the council of advisers leading the village’s inhabitants and what is left of the military forces that the protagonist has spent most of the game gathering out of Haven through a series of secret hidden tunnels. Meanwhile, the protagonist and three friends use the one trebuchet that has not been (dramatically) destroyed to collapse the mountain on the invading army, which destroys the village in the process.

Since there wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise, the protagonist miraculously survives by falling into some of Haven’s tunnels, but this is where the game designers made some interesting choices.

For one, you aren’t able to run at first. You’re injured and tired, and so the protagonist sort of stumbles along and is only able to get up to a light jog as their top speed. There are several stretches of tunnel that you run through doing this, and then you’re thrown outside, where it is obvious that the wind is keeping you from even walking very quickly. The animations change several more times, and the protagonist has to shield their eyes from the wind and snow. There are several scenes of struggling through the snow, and except when you stop to inspect a campsite, you never actually say anything, but there are audible gasps and struggling noises as you attempt to make your way through it.

the Herald struggles through the snow

In games, you’re used to your onscreen character responding in certain ways, and there’s a very visceral component to that. It’s the reason a lot of us end up leaning in the direction we want our character to go in addition to the standard “edge of your seat” type reactions many people experience while watching movies; even though we don’t expect our characters to respond to our movements, we still make them, often without thinking.

That visceral sympathy ends up being why we react badly to characters behaving in ways we don’t expect, particularly in the case of bugs and glitches. But there are ways to subvert our expectations of how our onscreen avatar would respond to certain things, and it’s hard not to feel a little bit of how the protagonist feels when they’re struggling through that snowstorm, since you are used to commanding your character to move forward and having them do so at a run with the same running animations you’ve seen for the past 15-20 hours of gameplay. Of course, the whiteout of the blizzard, the occasional completely black screens accompanied by the barely audible struggle-sounds of the voice actor that you’ve grown used to being your voice are part of it. But it’s almost all in the deliberate slowness of the movement and the walking/jogging animation changes.

The part of the game that comes right after this is basically a series of dramatic cutscenes, and though they’re absolutely beautiful– the cinematography of DA:I is probably the best I’ve seen in any game I’ve ever played– they didn’t give me anywhere near the connection to my character that I got from watching the mighty Herald of Andraste struggle to walk through a blizzard.

The View From Thedas: the Relative Unimportance of the Warden

“The View from Thedas” is a series of shorter posts about Bioware’s series of Dragon Age video games; the rest of my Dragon Age posts can be found here. This post contains spoilers for Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II and some small ones about Inquisition.

My favorite detail about the Dragon Age universe right now is that by the time Inquisition rolls around, the hero of the first game (the Warden/Hero of Ferelden) is pretty unimportant.

Almost every mainstream RPG makes it feel like the protagonist’s actions will save the world and without them everyone is doomed. It certainly feels, in Dragon Age: Origins, like your actions matter. But I really enjoy how small-time the Warden seems by the time you get to the end of the series. Being the Hero of Ferelden is a big deal in Ferelden itself, but once you’re seeing the world through the eyes of Inquisition’s Herald, it feels a bit like the protagonist of Origins is the hero of some backwater. It’s like being the Hero of Southeast Iowa or something, except it has a global reputation for being dirty and smelling like wet dog.

I love this. I love that the character you spent hours in the shoes of is, several games later, a historical side note; they’re likely just well-connected footnotes in the stories of Leliana and Flemeth.

It’s an interesting comparison to Hawke, who ends up being a lot more notable because they end up basically failing to stop all of the disasters that happen throughout Dragon Age II; they’re important because they’re Varric’s companion and he’s the one writing everything down, because they were there when Anders managed to set off the mage rebellion that sets the events of Inquisition in motion, and because they end up being improbably well-connected, which is sort of a side effect of the narrative style in which you have to do a lot of worldbuilding and narrative setup through the eyes of a single first-person protagonist. Hawke is, arguably, more historically important to Thedas because they failed to stop all of these problems, so their story gets to continue.

The Warden managed to stop the Blight before it managed to get out of the borders of the dog-smelling country people don’t really care a lot about internationally. That’s a lot less historically relevant than the combination of failing to stop a rebellion, letting the chaos-causing red lyrium out of the Deep Roads to fuck everything up on the surface, befriending Prince Sebastian before he got all weird about conquering Kirkwall*, and everything else that Hawke accidentally set in motion or was present for. It’s also been really fun putting together everything that was happening during Origins, since you see some of that in DA2 but they really have to flesh out what was happening in the rest of the world during that time.

*apparently this is different depending on what you did to Anders in DAII, but I can’t bring myself to kill him

Mages, social justice, and morality in the Dragon Age series

It’s obligatory, I think, for any fantasy fan who plays video games to do a post about the mages in the Dragon Age series. This post has major spoilers for the story of the first two games, Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O) and Dragon Age 2 (DA2), and some minor ones for the world building revealed in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dragon Age, it’s a series of roleplaying games (RPGs) in a high fantasy setting. It’s put out by Bioware, a game studio also known for its shooter/RPG space opera series Mass Effect. Bioware games are famous for good writing (most of its dialog and plot would make a totally fun and watchable TV show)  their good characterization, and their embracing of social justice related themes, particularly in their attempts to include people of color and gay/bisexual characters. This hasn’t always been popular, and they don’t always manage to do a good job, but they seem to get a little better in every game.

Though the series’ stories deal with marginalization in a lot of ways (including institutionalized oppression of elves, the plight of refugees fleeing something between a war and a natural disaster, and the split between aristocracy and commoners), the biggest issue that we see is the issue of what to do with mages. In the world of Dragon Age, mages are born with magical power; mages tend to have mage children but they can appear in any bloodline, and they can be extremely dangerous if they aren’t trained. “Mage” is the game’s stand-in for what would be called witches or wizards in stories like Harry Potter; they possess the unique ability to cast magical spells, which are generally used for healing and combat.

A big spiky monster.

A mage that has been possessed by a demon and turned into an abomination; this one is being possessed by a demon of Pride.

Mages have a marginalized status because there are significant institutions in place to impose control on their magic and because they can be a danger to the public if they lose control of their magic. From the way the characters talk about it, mages have to practice serious self-discipline in order to keep themselves from becoming possessed by demons or turning into “abominations”, where a demon takes them over and turns them into rampaging monsters.

The institutions that keep mages “under control” are called Circles of Magi and they seem to vary in the levels of freedom given to the mages in their care. Some act as a sort of magic school that it’s illegal to leave, others are more like prisons. The fact that they’re under the purview of the church, with a sort of order of religious knights (called templars) who act as guards and hunt down all mages outside the Circles, just complicates matters and makes them more problematic. Over the course of the game series you find similar atrocities committed by the templars on their mage charges/prisoners to the ones you see in real world prisons, including physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

There aren’t really any game mechanics that show that mage player characters have many issues with self control; almost all of the “bad guy” options where you can perform various acts of cruelty and human sacrifice in order to get more powers in the in-game combat system are available to all character classes. This might be an issue of game/story segregation, but it does call into question how easy it is to be possessed; it is entirely possible, given the information you get in the games and the experience of playing them as a mage character, that demon summoning and possession are less a common danger faced by mages and more a last-resort lashing out of an oppressed group without other options, and that the in-game characterization of it is similar to the real-world characterization of rioting by the media and pop culture.

Obviously, mages have unique magical talents available to use when they’re pushed to their limits, but we often see other groups getting access to other, related magical resources. However, the way the game treats mages acts as if they are the only people who have magic available to them. They are the only people with an inborn ability to cast spells, but again and again we see characters who are not mages but who tamper with magic anyway and end up summoning demons, going mad, getting possessed and/or gaining abnormal and uncontrollable magical powers:

  • A warrior protagonist of DA:O is able to desecrate a sacred religious artifact in a way that allows them to draw upon their own life force to damage their enemies, similarly to how mages using forbidden “blood magic” are able to draw from the life of themselves and others
  • Sandal, a savant enchanter of magical items, is a dwarf; dwarves are supposedly resistant to magic and cannot be mages, but exposure to the magical rocks known as lyrium seems to have taken some of his mind and given him the ability to make both items that help the main character and the magical equivalent of small bombs
  • The templars themselves eat lyrium and in using it get special magical powers that allow them to more efficiently hunt rogue mages; this actually induces a lifelong addiction that guarantees that they are unable to leave the order unless they can find a supply of the stuff on the black market, making it a sort of combination of magical amphetamines and the Spice in Frank Herbert’s Dune 
  • Anyone who messes with red lyrium (a corrupt form regular lyrium) gains magical powers and usually goes mad; the main villain of DA2 loses her mind, becomes enraged and starts bringing statues to life for the final battle of the game
  • The heroic warrior order that the protagonist of DA:O belongs to, the Grey Wardens, gain their special powers by drinking the blood of the darkspawn, the monsters whom they are sworn to fight. This is not commonly known by characters in the game because it would likely cause controversy and because it kills a large quantity of the recruits upon ingestion; characters who survive this ritual are generally rendered sterile and have their lifespans significantly reduced. In fact, Wardens generally only live about thirty years after this, and they usually commit suicide by entering darkspawn-infested caverns, choosing to die in combat instead of succumbing to a slow and painful death
  • Protagonist characters of all classes (that is, both combat and magic based characters) playing an optional quest in DA:O are able to “enhance” the powers they received from the blood-drinking ritual; it is clearly stated that the magical research that came up with this ritual was incredibly unethical
  • Probably a lot more I can’t think of right now.

So we have people born with the ability to use and control magic as a subjugated class, but it’s entirely possible for non-mages to seek out and use magical power, and when they do, they seem to lose control of it more often than not.

Additionally, we have the issue of other mages: the nomadic Dalish elves teach their mages through an apprenticeship model, which seems to work most of the time (though the major exception to this did unnaturally extend his lifespan and create werewolves, so the consequences are fairly dire when it fails).

The methods for controlling mages can be particularly horrible: when a Circle mage is deemed unable to control their magic, they can be made Tranquil, which basically makes them soulless automatons with little free will or feeling. The Tranquil make excellent researchers and servants and are used as such; there also has been at least one Templar who uses the fact that they cannot fight back to sexually abuse them. They are basically made into the perfect slaves, and generally end up working for the Circles, so there’s a heavy incentive to create more of them, since they not only reduce the mage-watching workload of the templars but also are free, uncomplaining labor.

There’s an interesting contrast between the Circles and the way the Qunari, a group of giant horned humanoids who mostly follow a highly strict religious code, treat their mages. The Qunari actually sew their mages’ lips together and force them to walk around in a sort of armored cage; they are kept from rebelling or acting against any religious tenants with the use of what looks to be a magic torture wand.

a humanoid grey creature in chains casting a spell

A qunari mage. Note the chains and sewn shut mouth.

Additionally, we hear a lot in the story about Tevinter, where mages rule, strange and horrific experiments give non-mages awful powers, and slavery is commonplace. I don’t doubt that it’s an oppressive, horrible place, and the fact that there’s one major country where slavery is legal creates a huge human (and elf) trafficking problem worldwide. But we don’t know that this is because it’s a magocracy, and both of the main alternatives given– physically restraining and torturing mages or putting them in Circles and turning the dangerous ones (including, often, ones who are merely politically dangerous) into Tranquil slaves– are ugly enough that it seems risking another Tevinter might actually be worth it in order to break that kind of power structure. (The Dalish method is never seriously offered as a mainstream solution; one assumes that no one believes it would scale.)

There’s a couple of ways this seems to relate to the real world, and it asks a lot of questions based on actual social justice issues. First of all, the comparison of the two main ways of “controlling” mages is an interesting one, because it’s clear that no one outside the Qunari would accept the way that they treat their mages. However, they mostly seem fine with the Circles and with Tranquility; Tranquil mages often run public-facing shops, so they aren’t unknown to the general population, and the tight connection between the Circles and religion means that accepting it is a part of their faith. Tranquility– a sort of spiritual lobotomy– unlike the Qunari cage-and-torture method– is sanitary, and the Circles are respectable; the propaganda issued that says that they are necessary is powerful.

I made the connection to riots earlier, but I want to make it clear what exactly I was invoking: in the real world, what is and isn’t called a riot is political and definitively racist; the reactions to Ferguson were characterized as a riot and many people in the media used that as an attempt to add to the racist characterization of Black people as aggressive and out of control. When a mostly white group does the same thing– generally for much more trivial reasons, including sports and pumpkins— it’s not characterized the same way, and it’s not used to make the same assumptions about that group of people.

This is, of course, a part of the narrative in which the actions of individuals who are part of a minority group are taken as representative of the group as a whole, often in a way that misses significant context; it also manages the marginalizing double-whammy of characterizing a group with perfectly justified anger as threateningly angry or aggressive and adds to negative stereotypes about that group as a whole.

I’m not equating these two situations, obviously. Mages aren’t real, Dragon Age is a fantasy video game, and the actual struggles that the definitional issues of what constitutes rioting are not something that those effected by it can make go away by turning their game off. Also, I’m only speaking to the power of these narratives from an outside perspective– I’m white and can’t speak to the experiences of Black people with racism. But these are common narratives in marginalization, and video games are a part of a pop culture narrative that effects how we see them.

There are some pretty clear ways that Bioware is invoking political issues in the Dragon Age series, particularly with its use of terrorism in DA2 and the obvious questions about religion it poses in regards to pretty much every fictional religion in the game. But it’s also bringing up some serious moral issues, and the fact that over the course of the series we find that many of the set-in-stone ideas about history are wrong or misleading makes readings that question the accuracy of the in-game lore potentially quite valid. I’m also hoping that looking critically at the way these stories are shown in the media that we consume might tell us something useful about the culture that produced and consumes these games.

SIDE NOTE: I want to provide some context for what I’m talking about regarding rioting and social narratives, but I’m not qualified to do so (both because it’s not something I feel like I’ve studied enough and because I’m white and so don’t have the specific experience to speak usefully on it anyway). If you want pieces on the subject by people who are way smarter than me, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jay Smooth, Austin C. McCoy and Juan Thompson.

this is a silly aside about Dragon Age that you can skip if you do not care about Dragon Age

I have a big post on Dragon Age and social justice coming up, but I have a theory on that game that’s been bugging me and I want to share it with you all in the meantime.

What if the real reason that blood magic tends to lead to demon summoning isn’t because of any evil or moral corruption but just is because of the blood loss? Like, if you just cast some blood spell and you have way less blood in your body and a demon is like “hey, friend, do this thing”, I bet you’d be way more likely to do it, right?

What if the way to prevent mages from losing their shit and summoning a bunch of demons is to make them sit down and eat a fucking granola bar?

They know so little about science that I bet introducing this would be super controversial, and they’d get the kind of shit about how Gardasil is gonna make kids go have sex because it’s slightly safer, except about how giving out granola bars makes people do more blood magic, but the Inquisition could handle that PR battle. Maybe the Templars and Keepers could help pass them out.