Spoilers for Dragon Age (computer game series and possibly other media).
In 2009, RPG giant BioWare and monstrous, customer-hating murder-bot EA released Dragon Age: Origins, a game about hilarious, deformed plasticine dolls given life and sent on a drug-fuelled trip through some of the brownest environments in the universe.
It was a great success and, despite not dealing with the origins of dragons or indeed having very many dragons in it, spawned two sequels, with a fourth on its way: Dragon Age II, which decided it was going to dispense with colonic subtitles; Dragon Age: Inquisition which did not have enough of an actual inquisition in it to warrant any Monty Python references; and the upcoming Dragon Age 4: The Dread Wolf Rises, which has a different style of numbering and subtitle from all three games so far, so I assume it will be about one part Dread Wolf to twenty parts management-induced multiple personality disorder.
Indeed, the overall problem with the writing in Dragon Age is that it is not quite as clever as it thinks it is, resulting in various peculiarities which detract from the whole, and occasionally veer into patronizing nonsense. In today’s blog, I shall explain why.
Thus far, the reader might be inclined to think I dislike Dragon Age. This is untrue: much like Baldur’s Gate 2 (another BioWare game) the writing manages to keep multiple plates spinning at all times, juggling characters and tone surprisingly well, given that at any point the party could consist of a renegade wizard, a leather-obsessed elf, a sapient pile of ambulatory granite, and a dog.
The games also strike a good balance in how the story informs players about the world of Thedas: key information tends to be presented in conversation or as discoverable documents, and there is an option to seek out more as the player desires. There is a tendency, especially early in the games, for characters to speak at length about things which the PC should already know, but this is a necessary evil.
The story is, at its core, fairly standard: ancient forces of evil threaten all sapient life and only
the King of Gondor and a band of unlikely heroes the King of Ferelden and the infamous but fading Grey Wardens stand in their way. So far so predictable. However, the story is still told well and there are enough twists and turns in other aspects to keep the player’s attention. For example, the grand military alliance that gathers to defeat the darkspawn is ultimately so much chaff in the wind and the hero is not only not the Chosen One ™ but the inevitable heroic sacrifice is baked into the system: a Grey Warden’s powers are gained from drinking darkspawn blood in a special ritual which may kill him immediately. If it does not, he will eventually go mad and die anyway, unless he is lucky enough to kill the darkspawn leader, the archdemon, in which case his essence is obliterated, a necessary sacrifice to prevent the creature from finding a new body. This, in turn, explains why Grey Wardens are always stretched thin.
The writing is not without its problems: most of the characters have English accents, as part of the prerequisite medieval fantasy. However, many use strangely modern turns of phrase, which is bad enough, but then also sprinkle their speech with Americanisms, which is intensely jarring. This lack of attention to nuance is rife in media of all sorts, and tends to be part of what sabotages potentially great writing. It would have been much better had the writers used English terms or gone with American actors, which would have made terms like ‘pants’ for ‘trousers’ and ‘candy’ for ‘sweets’ innocuous, but this is nothing new; it stems back at least as far as Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
The script of the first game is fairly good and the narrative focuses enough to tell the story well, yet with enough freedom of choice to grant the illusion of agency, generally speaking. It is clear, however, that the series’ pretensions to ‘dark fantasy’ are rather inadequate. What this tends to mean in practice is that, frequently, an arc of the story will end with a contrived lose-lose situation, the emotional impact of which is already waning by the second time this happens.
This is particularly irritating given the increasing emphasis on skills and abilities in RPGs generally. Perhaps this is a gameplay issue rather than a writing issue, but on the assumption that it is the latter, I found it galling that on several occasions my mage had a spell which could deal with a situation but was required to attempt Coercion checks instead and, moreover, none of the options was actually one I wanted to attempt. Why all the convoluted quests to set things on fire when I can shoot fire out of my hands? Why all the wounded people who cannot be healed by my healing magic?
It is all very well to give us lots of dialogue options, but when the writing of the script exists in a universe adjacent to the writing of the code, it can be very frustrating and/or outright farcical. This also applies to the characters’ habit of eating poultices, an error so daft there was even a reference to it in Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Dragon Age II takes this further, in that lines of dialogue are not given; rather, a snippet that, allegedly, gives the tone of the desired response is displayed instead. I very rarely got what I hoped for, which meant that Hawke, the protagonist, came across as intensely awkward. Indeed, the second instalment’s writing is weaker generally due to its lack of narrative focus and clunky characterization. It also recycles two of the more uncomfortable sub-plots from Baldur’s Gate II; making a move on a recently widowed woman and/or an even-more-recently liberated slave. Fortunately, unlike with Jaheira, Aveline makes it clear that, whatever the player’s relationship with her might be, it will not be romantic. With Fenris, however, the writers are faced with an impossible task: it was just a bad idea in general to allow, perhaps even laud, a protagonist for making an advance on a vulnerable individual after trauma which left him both physically and emotionally scarred.
One clever spin that Dragon Age II puts on the proceedings, especially the tutorial, is the idea that this is all a story being told by the character Varric, a sort of Tom Bombadil if he had been written by Quentin Tarantino. The game does a fairly good job of telling a story which has large elements of non-linearity, but the characters often seem to be reacting to events before they have actually happened, or failing to react to things which occurred only moments ago. Otherwise, however, Dragon Age II does not bring much noteworthy to the franchise, apart from the lamentable decision to put key plot elements, the effective prelude to the third instalment, in paid DLC.
Dragon Age: Inquisition is, in terms of writing, largely a return to form with some inspired twists and turns, including revelations about elven civilization and religion. It suffers more from pacing in gameplay – which is somewhat protracted and inflated in the manner of MMORPGs – than anything else, although there are one or two issues which are explored below.
Despite all this emphasis on character, however, Thedas’ backstory is also deep without being cluttered and directly informs the characters: the places of magic and religion are, if again somewhat predictable, well formed, and characters speak about their beliefs and show their prejudices in their interactions. Thedas is, therefore, a well-constructed take on fairly pedestrian ideas but, where it falls down, it falls quite far. Sometimes, this is specific, such as the constant appearance of the lays/lies confusion, and also in the following examples where words and concepts do not seem to match up with the internal consistency of the world at all:
Enchanter: One who works lyrium into items, giving them magical properties. Lyrium is dangerous so only those with natural resistance to magic, such as dwarves or the Tranquil can work with it. Mages are particularly at risk and so are reliant upon the Tranquil especially.
First Enchanter: Leader of a Circle of Mages. Does no enchanting.
Demon: A malevolent creature from the Fade, formed from and in turn influencing the evil impulses of the living.
Archdemon: A dragon corrupted by darkspawn. Not a demon.
Would it really have been so difficult to come up with different words? I think not. Certainly not when a salary is at stake. There are some other terms which, arguably, fall into the above category, but most are less egregious: to what extent can a given mage be an apostate if he was never a believer in the faith in the first place, for example?
Dragon Age’s other failures are more deeply entrenched, however.
One of the areas where the writing is rather shaky in terms of the big picture is its attitude to relationships. The possibility for in-game sexual encounters (which amount to two Claymation horrors in underwear kissing before the screen fades to black) created some marketable controversy, and some (male) fans’ outrage that a male character would make a mildly flirtatious comment to a male protagonist – which can be politely declined and then never mentioned again – generated even more as “moral guardians” and homophobes worked themselves up into a frothing rage about the imagined sex lives of pixelated plasticine people.
In amongst all this filth and depravity, however, BioWare tried to declare itself a champion of diversity and inclusivity, apparently unaware that this was, at best, a brass-necked exaggeration.
Racial diversity is handled poorly for a start: the Tevinter Imperium is a slave-owning empire, and transport and immigration between other nations and Ferelden is acknowledged repeatedly within the story. Despite that, in Dragon Age: Origins, the potential companions consist of about six very white people, a morally dubious and sex-crazed swarthy man, a very strong and dangerous
black man NON-HUMAN HUMANOID who just does not understand our Ferelden values, a golem, and the aforementioned dog.
Now, we can rationalize or excuse as many of these as we like but, at the very least, we must concede that it was rather crass to have the token “other” characters embody real-world prejudices, even superficially. Sten and Zevran are, in fact, well-written characters but, like the drow of Forgotten Realms, could have benefited from a touch more nuance. Alternatively, had there been another Qunari or Antivan with a different story to tell, the sociological burden on Sten and Zevran would have been much less.
Dragon Age II brings us another half-dozen white companions and Isabela, a swarthy pirate and nymphomaniac, thus continuing a worrying theme. Likewise, Dragon Age: Inquisition presents seven white characters, one black woman, and another Qunari, who unlike Sten, is not only a dangerous killer but also a sexualized foreigner with satyriasis.
The problem here is not that there are too many white characters. It is that the non-white characters are made to carry too many of the real-world prejudices, under which people resembling them labour, to be entirely comfortable. Relying on such stereotypes is also bad writing, not only in itself, but for the narrative contortions which can later develop (yes, I am foreshadowing in my blog now). This is also fundamentally different from what authors like George R.R. Martin do; A Song of Ice and Fire holds up a mirror to our medieval fantasies and tells us how awful they could actually be, especially for oppressed parts of society. Dragon Age, almost certainly accidentally, wants us to champion the oppressed whilst simultaneously implying that there is a justification for the way they are treated: Zevran is loveable, he just has a liberated/degenerated sexual ethic, like all swarthy foreigners; Sten is honourable, he is just a follower of a totalitarian military theocracy that wants to destroy our way of life, like all Qunari. This weakens the writing considerably.
Vivienne, by contrast, is presented as a black aristocrat in a white nation, although her supposed nobility is just her way of playing the political game. She is well written in many respects, but she keeps her cards close to her chest despite her occasional flirtations and courtly poise, implying that there is much more going on under the surface which is, alas, never revealed. On the other hand, perhaps that is the inspired part: as a politically savvy creature, she would only ever reveal what she wants to reveal, and never on a whim. Vivienne manages to avoid going on the list of writing mistakes: she does not seem to exist to subvert expectations clumsily or justify flagging narrative. She is her own person, however enigmatic that might be.
Perhaps the only place where Dragon Age is consistent in its presentation of the issue is the plight of the elves. Unlike the mages, who are demonstrably a danger to themselves and others thus requiring some stewardship, even if the Chantry’s solution might be far from a good one, the elves are shown to suffer as a result of the prejudices that humans have towards them and react in a variety of ways ranging from miserable acceptance to murderous vigilantism, thus showing in a believable pattern of interweaving narratives the various and sometimes tragic ways in which people react to oppressive social structures. When writing your own worlds, be attentive to the real-world ramifications of what you depict.
Wild, Wild Witches
Returning to the issue of more romantic relationships, BioWare does not do itself many favours here either. In Dragon Age: Origins, the potential partners are a mixed bag. Alistair, as far as I can tell, is there to cater to the presumed tastes of women playing the game: a riff on the Prince Charming archetype, he is handsome, affable, virtuous, a bit goofy, and a virgin. I am not a woman but the women I know who play this game all seem to favour a relationship with Alistair, so there must be some success there. Stepping away from the James Bond archetype – a serial womanizer/rapist depending upon which films one has seen – was a good idea and it is well executed, whether or not it is a little cynical. Leliana, too, has hidden depths, which have complicated her attitude towards relationships, beyond her faith and her vows.
On the other hand, we have Zevran, a self-confessed omni-sexual lecher with a leather fixation who can be plied with gifts of precious metals and who does not necessarily expect the relationship to flourish beyond the tent. Whatever kudos Leliana might have won with the nuances of her bisexuality, Zevran tosses away like… a hastily abandoned simile.
Again, Zevran is written well and his story is rounded and qualified, so it is not quite like dropping Iceland’s 2019 Eurovision entry into the story by parachute, but surely there was a less crass way to present an alternative take on sexuality, rather than the dubious assertion that being an orphan in a tannery led him to licentious queerness and a leather fetish?
Morrigan, in some ways, suffers even more. In addition to having dialogue plagued with oddities and inconsistencies, to the extent that I still remember the fact of their existence, if not their substance, years after playing the game, Morrigan plays into a harmful stereotype – that women are calculating witches, just out to rob men of their status, wealth, and fertility before absconding with any children – by, er, being an actual calculating witch who follows the protagonist around for her own inscrutable motives before absconding with her loot and, potentially, the protagonist’s unborn child who could be a corrupted god incarnate and whom, in a moment of cloth-eared daftness, the writers named ‘Kieran’. The fact that Morrigan can also transform into a giant spider ends up being almost a footnote.
I have already mentioned Fenris’ storyline for the way it raises troubling questions of vulnerable people and those who have power over them, so I shall not return to it because I need to talk about the Iron Bull from Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Hailed by gamers as an example of progressive attitudes towards sex and gender, the Iron Bull will do anything to anyone with any implement, and then let them return the favour, as long as he has informed consent. He also has a loyal lieutenant, Krem, a trans-man, of whom the Iron Bull is protective, in his own macho way, without being patronizing, stating that Krem’s identity, not outsiders’ perceptions of him, is what counts. The dialogue is presented in a reasonable if not especially subtle way, and the Iron Bull’s laudable liberalism is given a positive light.
The Iron Bull is also the product of generations of coercive indoctrination, a religious fanatic, and a self-acclaimed liar, which rather seem to be at odds with the entire premise of his liberalism. Was it all a lie? Then Krem’s sub-plot is completely undermined. Was it not a lie, but a product of his rigid spiritual formation? In which case, how is it any more or less laudable or oppressive than Puritan abstention? Is the Krem sub-plot entirely separate from the Iron Bull’s? Then it is clumsy tokenism. Perhaps the writers of the third instalment had a surprisingly conservative streak, but I doubt it. I honestly believe we are supposed to praise the (possibly invented in-story) sexual ethics of a brainwashed maniac.
I expect that the problem stems from Shale from Dragon Age: Origins; in my opinion one of the best-written characters, especially non-human characters, in gaming fiction. Shale is a sapient golem and is generally given male pronouns or referred to as an ‘it’. Following the story, however, it is revealed that Shale’s animating force is that of a dwarf woman. Superficially, this is an interesting story about questions of identity and memory, combined with the obvious parallels with transsexuality. However, as with BioWare’s other attempts to be progressive above, it becomes clear that there are unresolved undertones: the closest thing to a transsexual the game has is an artificial object, made not born. For those people of any persuasion who believe that self-identity is created, this may ring true, but for those who believe that it is discovered or that identity is more complex than that, it is at least unsatisfying and could even be insulting.
Tokenism is a dangerous thing and, by and large, Dragon Age does not seem to have created a world which needs it due to the diverse and quirky societies therein, particularly in terms of relationships: the infertility of the dwarves and its effect on society are explored and expanded upon convincingly, and for all his faults, the Iron Bull
fills in a lot of gaps provides a window into the mysterious social dynamic demanded by the Qun. It is a shame that the writers fell into a trap of their own making: instead of challenging the stereotypes, they made the stereotypes sympathetic. An accomplishment, to be sure, but not necessarily a helpful one.
And so, at last, to religion which, you will notice, is a regular bugbear of mine, partly because it is an area of particular interest to me but, also, of disinterest to most fantasy writers. Many, as we have seen and will continue to see, go into incredible detail for societies and governments and so on and then either paint religion in broad strokes or just seem to stick it on later.
Dragon Age passes the first test by making religion a significant part of people’s lives, the history of the world, and rounding it out with clergy. Religions include the Qun, the quasi-Buddhist philosophy of the Qunari – the term ‘Qunari’ refers primarily to the humanoid peoples as far as most of Thedas is concerned, but those ‘Qunari’ are simply the largest ethnic group comprising the faith whose followers are called Qunari – the quasi-Christian Chantry, and two very different forms of ancestor-worship-cum-animism for the dwarves and elves.
Because day-to-day life for most people intersects naturally with religion, the writing is able to introduce elements of it gradually. The player is most exposed to the Chantry and its clergy due to how entrenched it is in the societies where it exists. Much of the history of Thedas concerns a quasi-Abrahamic deity, the Maker, who makes everything, abandons it when blood-mages sin, leading to darkspawn, and eventually sending his prophetess Andraste, leading to the Christian-esque institutions dotted throughout the game, complete with factions, a schism, a clerical caste, a semi-monastic caste, and so on.
Unlike the elven pantheon, whose true nature is eventually revealed, writers for Dragon Age have stated that they do not plan to disclose whether the Maker actually exists. His function in the story is to provide impetus to questions such as, ‘What does it mean to have faith in the absence of proof?’ and the premise is all the stronger for that. Gods in fiction should not be excuses to get the plot rolling but rather, whether or not they exist, preoccupations of the people occupying the fictional world.
There remain some unanswered questions, however. The Divines each essentially claim a papal supremacy. Historically speaking, Christian clergy, and popes especially, were able to wield power over secular institutions by giving or withholding their – and by proxy, God’s – approval. People were afraid of being excommunicated because it meant they would go to Hell. It is not clear what the Chantry’s powers are; perhaps it maintains its position because of the fear of mages and the strictures surrounding a good life, one worthy of the Maker, but this is never made clear. The player also never sees any Chantry rituals save a funeral or two, so for what purpose are the Chantry’s buildings? It would have been better to show some charismatic preaching or gnostic teaching happening, rather than just some atmospheric candles and the occasional gruesome murder. Despite writing the Chantry into the heart of Thedas’ history, like Martin and the Septs, the writers back out at the crucial stage of showing the ordinary worship of the story’s main religion.
In addition, about what is the Inquisition in Dragon Age: Inquisition so inquisitive? Historical inquisitions rooted out heresy through questioning and a complicated relationship between ecclesiastical and secular authority. This Inquisition does little theological wrangling, only slightly more detective work, and is mostly a barely-justified military enterprise operating within multiple sovereign states, exercising its own laws and, for the most part, going to the place and killing the dudes. ‘Crusade’ would clearly have been inaccurate and ‘jihad’ very unwise in the current political climate, but what about ‘Exalted Host’ to reference the in-universe Exalted Marches? We could have had Dragon Age: Incursion with the Chantry Militant or the Divine Justicars. Even the Seekers, who are explicitly not inquisitors, seem to behave like more of a proper inquisition, questioning the authority and theological basis for all of the player’s shenanigans. A foolish choice of words, again, undermines the writing’s cohesion and highlights the weaknesses.
Religiosity is portrayed in different ways by specific characters: Cassandra, Leliana, Vivienne, the Iron Bull, and Merrill are probably the most obvious examples of spiritual narratives and the place of religion in society, but almost every character has something to say on these matters. Antagonists, too, display the spectrum of spirituality, which is refreshing: reluctant Templars, crazed fanatics, earnest fundamentalists, doubters, and outright atheists are all there.
There is one stand-out moment for me, however, which seemed to show the sloppiness of the writers’ biases. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the character Mother Giselle, a spiritual authority in the Chantry, takes some time to comfort the player. This was the moment for the writers to shine, to show their chops, and make this fictional religion sophisticated and compelling. Instead, what they wrote was a humanist tract with vaguely spiritual undertones. This was intensely patronizing because it implicitly assumed that religious values boil down to universal niceness and hope. Perhaps that is what the writers truly believe about religion, but a word of advice: when characters in one’s fiction are about to speak about what they perceive as fundamental truths, if one is moved to insert one’s own voice for the voice of a deity or a deity’s representative, that is writing of the worst sort. Not only does it come across as arrogant and ignorant to everyone except that section of the population which already agrees, but it destroys a character to do so. If Mother Giselle’s faith is not in the Maker but in a vague “niceness of people”, what has she been doing with her life up until this point? And then everyone broke into song and I wanted to chew off my own face it was so cringe-inducing. This should never happen anywhere except on stage.
Note that this is distinct from a story in which a character’s crisis of faith or generally agnostic outlook is the focus. Had Giselle been established in a different way, the scene could have worked. Had the Inquisitor said, ‘Spare me your religious platitudes!’ and had she shifted to a new tack, the scene could have worked. Perhaps the writers simply did not have the confidence to write a spiritual tract, in which case it is better that they did not try, but the author tract that appeared in its place is no consolation.
The Dragon Age franchise is fun and fairly immersive, and certainly the strong dialogue and setting draw us in, yet the weaknesses run through the whole story; linguistic errors, confused narrative priorities, characters with mono-dimensional bases, systems of morality with huge gaps, and more. It wants to explore complex themes but manages to bungle them time and time again. With a fourth game on the way, we may yet get some answers to the bigger questions, and I certainly intend to play it, but ultimately, for all its strengths and the many hours of entertainment Dragon Age has brought me and many others, it was never the ground-breaking, epic, dark-fantasy narrative it was said to be.