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Dragon Age: High Fantasy Meets the Security State

A video game that shows the corrupting influence of power.

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"Looking at Maps Age" would be a more accurate, but less interesting title.
Dragon Age: Inquisition

The basic plot of Dragon Age: Inquisition sounds terribly conventional to any fantasy video game fan: A group of heroes bands together to battle an evil wizard who seeks godlike power and world domination. It's the plot of dozens of role-playing ventures set in worlds built by game designers who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons.

The recently released Dragon Age: Inquisition is the third game in the series, and Bioware (the company that makes the game) has spent a lot of time crafting the world, Thedas, in which the games (and supplementary books) take place. Though the three games put the player in control of different heroes each time and up against different villains, there's a larger cultural conflict that has built up through the series. The games use the fantasy setting to explore how power is used to control a group of people perceived as a threat to the larger populace, the unintended side effects, and ultimately, how that power becomes corrupted and ultimately ends up serving its own aims. In short, part of the game's identity is about exploring the conflict between liberty and security, using magic as a metaphor.

Gamer warning: This analysis contains spoilers about the games' plots, including Inquisition.

In the first game, Dragon Age: Origins, players are introduced to this world through the eyes of a hero tasked with stopping a corrupt magical plague that has drawn an army of orc-like creatures and their dragon master from the depths of the earth to attack the surface. As the hero gathers an army to take on the enemy, players also learn about the social structures and conflicts that shape human (and dwarven and elven) interactions.

Like any good fantasy setting, Thedas is dotted with mages who are able to fling balls of fire and raise the dead, like any self-respecting wizard is expected to do. But Dragon Age's twist is to take the natural fear that the non-enchanted population would have toward mages and crank it up to paranoid levels. When people use magic on Thedas, they're exposed to potential manipulation and domination by evil demons. Mages, thus, are considered a huge threat to the safety of the world. At the start of the series, many mages are forced to live in towers overseen by Templars, the world's holy knights. There the mages learn to use their skills safely, and the Templars are empowered, like police officers, to stop by force mages who become corrupted or use their abilities for evil. Imagine Hogwarts, but you never graduate and can't really leave. The ultimate, most dire representation of how fear of magic shapes policy is not through execution but rather a rite called "tranquility." If a mage cannot learn to control his or her skills and avoid the temptation of demonic forces, he or she is given a magical lobotomy, stripping the mage of the ability to wield magic and also turning him or her into an emotionless near-automaton servant.

The relationship between mages and the rest of the world is a constant focus in Dragon Age, even when not the primary plot. Many are unhappy with the nature of the relationship between the mages and Templars and want to explore different ways to manage the threat of magical corruption. There are several different factions within the circle of mages—including a self-described "libertarian" component that argues for mages to be free and to police each other in the event of demonic possession.

In the first game, the player experiences exactly why everybody is afraid of mages. The hero finds himself or herself in a tower where some mages have become corrupted, and the tower is now plagued by demons. The hero is tasked to clear out the abominations and save the mages who have not gone mad so that they can assist with the larger war.

But even in this fairly straightforward look at the conflict, the player will see the unintended consequences of this paranoid treatment of magic. Not all mages are willing to join the official circle. They are called "apostates" and risk being hunted down and killed by Templars. They are forced to hide in the wilds or keep secret about their magical abilities. One even joins your group and plays a major role in the series as a whole. In one case, a rich noble family uses their power and connections to keep their son's growing magic powers a secret to avoid losing him to these mage towers. It ends up backfiring, as the boy, lacking good training, becomes possessed. Dragon Age lights a fuse in the first game by showing that this system of managing mages doesn't work all that well and doesn't really make the world safer, despite the claims that surely something must be done to try to fight magical corruption and possession.

The fuse lit in the first game explodes in the second game, quite literally. In Dragon Age II, the conflict between the mages, the Templars, and the church the knights serve takes center stage. Dragon Age II received criticism among gamers for actually being smaller in scope than the first game, taking place primarily in one city and its nearby surroundings, and for a rather meandering plot whose purpose doesn't really gel until the end.

But what the game does accomplish is turning a fantasy setting into a social and political powder keg, showing that when all is said and done, corruption can come from anywhere, and anybody in a position of power over others can be a danger to others, wizard or not. In the second game, the leader of a group of Templars herself becomes corrupted and power-hungry, her paranoia enhanced by the mystical tools the Templars use to fight mages gone bad. She begins to see all mages as threats, including those cooperating with their own imprisonment. Her paranoid oppression leads to disaster when a mage turns terrorist and blows up the local church in response. Everything goes to hell as the Templars go to war with the mages, and the mages turn to the dark magics they've been trying to avoid to protect themselves. It all ends in tragedy with both sides becoming irrevocably mad and corrupt, and the hero ends up killing the leaders of both factions.

The consequences of Dragon Age II blow the world wide open for Dragon Age: Inquisition. The mages vote to declare their independence from the church and the circle and the system that has kept them largely prisoners (though it's far from a unanimous decision). The Templars break away from the church themselves and go off on their own to fight mages without any sort of official sanction. There's open warring now, and the church's efforts to broker peace between the two sides is ruined when another explosion kills everybody (except for the player's character) at the talks.

Dragon Age: Inquisition is a much bigger game, both physically and philosophically. The hero and his allies travel across two separate countries in their fight to try to put a chaotic world back into some semblance of order and stop the villain. Some mages go wild with their new freedom and quickly become corrupted. Other mages are just power-mongers serving the villain in the hopes of earning a piece of the world for their own.

But the big deal about the third game is that pretty much every method used to "protect" the world from magical dangers itself becomes devastatingly corrupted, used by a tool of the main antagonist. The loose Templars suffer the same madness as the antagonist from the second game under exposure to the same mythical substance and essentially become their own type of demons. The Grey Wardens, the band of self-sacrificing warriors who counted the hero of the first Dragon Age game as a member, are also manipulated and corrupted by the villain and essentially self-destruct. Every social structure and governing system meant to keep the populace safe and secure becomes a tool of destruction or abuse.  

But while the game shows us a dire state of a world, it doesn't end up feeling as negative as it might based on just the description. One of the other remarkable things the game does is undercut its own lore about the history of Thedas. Sure, it's a common trope in a fantasy game or story to discover that people's knowledge of ancient history about those old gods or ruins isn't quite accurate. But Dragon Age: Inquisition systematically upends just about everything both the player and the characters understand about this world's past, the nature of their gods (or its maker), and its basic history of war and strife. This matters because it actually calls into question the popular belief that magic is the threat the populace believes it to be. History says the old Elven kingdoms were destroyed by conquering human wizards. Everybody in Thedas knows this. But the hero finds out everybody is wrong. The elves destroyed themselves in civil wars. In another quest, the hero and an ally discover that the rite of tranquility that is supposed to be used as a last resort against mages who can't control their powers has, of course, been used to "punish" mages as well. In one dark choice, the player is given the option to force this rite on an enemy mage who serves the game's antagonist.

Furthermore, the heroes find themselves more than able to take down mages that do succumb to corruption or demonic possession (or are just evil bastards).  On paper and in theory, mages would seem to be a huge threat to any world, but in practical terms, they never really manifested as such in the games, and when magical threats arose, the band of heroes led by your player would help deal with it. The towers used to contain the mages were simply the fantasy version of security theater. Nothing about them actually made the public safer. It simply made them into prisoners who were willing to take drastic measures to live as freely as everybody else. The imprisonment traded one set of problems for another. Arguably, the antagonist of the third game actually took advantage of this paranoia toward mages to put his plan together.

One of the hallmarks of the Dragon Age series is that the choices you make as a hero throughout the game influence what happens at the end as described in each game's epilogue. Dragon Age: Inquisition is no different. The choices you make help determine who takes over leadership of Thedas' church and what policies they put into place. One of the candidates will make the libertarian position of freedom for the mages into policy. I won't spoil what happens, but based on how the series has treated liberty issues so far, you can probably guess.