Video Games

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.

NEXT: Hollywood (and Its Lawyers) Terrified of North Korea, Amash on Cuba, European Court Calls Obesity a Disability: P.M. Links

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  1. NO SPOILERS!

    Bookmarked for a few months from now when I finally get fed up playing 60+ hours of this game, which will be delivered to my doorstep today or tomorrow.

    1. I, too, shall return.

    2. What, you haven’t already? I passed 70 hours already. Lazy Bastard!

      1. which will be delivered to my doorstep today or tomorrow

        Once I get it, I’ll have it hitch a ride with Warty Hugeman next time he goes to the past and get it when it first came out. Then I’ll be dozens of hours deep by now.

    3. Peoople still get physical copies of games? What is this, the Dark Ages?

      1. It’s called smart money. You know how much I save on used physical games from Gamespot?

      2. The disc was on sale for $20 cheaper than the digital download. I can wait two days to get it.

        I’m cautiously optimistic, I tend to like smaller games with fewer of the “Bake 10 cookies for the witch that lives on the other side of the map, moonwalk them over to her stopping at every dogwood tree with a yellow ribbon tied on it, and then come back to me, only doing the breast stroke up a river for your prize” kinds of missions than DA:I apparently has.

        1. I’ve always hated that quest style. If I wanted to do chores, I’d do ones around the house.

  2. I’m not touching the Dragon Age series after Bioware’s recent disasters, no way no how. Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 sealed the deal for me. Also, Origin only, not interested. I’ll just be over here waiting for The Witcher 3 to finally come out. And I’m sure that game’s storyline will just continue the theme of ‘everyone in a position of power is a corrupt, repressive bastard’.

    1. I’ve yet to finish the original Witcher. I heard two was much better.

      1. I played two first and went back to try and play the first one…couldn’t do it, the massive improvement in quality is just too noticeable. Fortunately almost all the relevant story stuff happens in the second one for some reason.

      2. The combat system is overcomplicated and tedious. I can see where it would get fun but man they want you to sink a lot of time into getting there. The game is overcomplicated in general, but I guess some people like that.

        1. Obviously, you’re not a golfer.

        2. “Yeah but Demon’s Souls is for crazy people…”

          1. Is that a real quote from Epi?

            If so:

            Fuck you Epi!!!

            Note: never played Demon Souls only played Dark Souls but my understanding is they are pretty much the same.

            1. Dark Souls is a great game. I need to buy the sequel.

            2. : never played Demon Souls only played Dark Souls but my understanding is they are pretty much the same.

              They are.

              It was a quote from a gaming industry guy in a roundtable discussion about the gaming industry. As a major (and I mean major) Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls fan, I had to agree with him.

              The games are kind of like crazy hot chicks. They’re not for everyone, and they will lead some to near suicidal fits of rage.

    2. The worst thing about ME3 was the ending. The game play was much improved, especially the combat. I was impressed that they were able to design a multiplayer that was actually pretty fun. And because it was co-op, there weren’t as many kids tea bagging each other and exploring their new found ability to use curses and racial slurs.

      The plot was excellent for ME2, and the game play was much improved from 1.

      I’ve heard that the next Mass Effect game will use the Frostbite 3 engine that BF4 uses. Looking forward to seeing what that looks like.

      1. Eh, ignoring the metric fuckton of stupidity that was the ending, I have problems with a lot of the plot and writing. Scenes like this are really, really stupid. “We fight or we die”? Yeah, brilliant strategy there Patton. Hey, let’s fire mass drives directly at the fleet in front of the Earth, hope you don’t miss! Also, the Bioware snarky writing is kind of a bad tone to set when millions of people are apparently dying while you make jokes.

        It’s like a weird universe where everyone talks like Zapp Brannigan and takes it seriously.

        1. Haha, I would probably be very interested in a game featuring Zapp Brannigan.

        2. I’ve had an idea lurking in the darker recesses of my brain for a while now:

          Space Quest XIII, in the Mass Effect engine.

      2. ME3 was an RPG with all RPG elements removed. I got bored with it halfway through, if I want to play a shooter there are much better ones.

    3. And I’m sure that game’s storyline will just continue the theme of ‘everyone in a position of power is a corrupt, repressive bastard’.

      Go on…

  3. OT

    I’m just waiting for a Jedi to show up on the separatist side who wasn’t corrupted by the dark side. That would be the libertarian view.

    1. Little known fact: Malcolm Reynolds can be seen flying around in the background of the Star Wars prequels fighting for the separatists.

      1. According to Joss Whedon, the Alliance are the good guys. Yeah.

        1. Yeah, wasn’t there some interview where Whedon basically admitted that all of his heroes just happen to turn out to be libertarians.

          I just got done watching the Agent of SHIELD series that he directed, which was pretty decent once you get a few episodes in. And there’s a character that basically all anarchist about freedom of information.

          He touched on a lot of really good topics, but completely swung and missed. Joss, if you’re listening, you should hire a libertarian consultant to help you sort through all these issues. I’ll be happy to send you my info.

            1. It’d be cool to see The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in movie form.

              Though since a lot of the Heinlein story lines are connected, it’d be neat if they could do a TV series and make each story arc a season.

              1. Though since a lot of the Heinlein story lines are connected

                Pretty sure Job and a stranger in a strange land does not fit in at all…also i can’t see how starship troopers and moon is a harsh mistress can be in the same universe.

                You cannot see how any of his books are conected really.

                Maybe Moon is a Harsh Mistress and The Cat who could walk through walls could be.

                1. Yeah, there are several stories – Harsh Mistress and Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls are two of them – that have characters in the same bloodlines.

                  If I remember correctly, Mike and/or Jubal Harshaw are supposed to be the patriarchs of the family – they start establishing the line marriages. In other books people can be rejuvenated, they’re growing clones for spare parts, and the whole time travel, going between dimensions thing starts.

                  I just started Time Enough for Love, and it’s about a family that has members go through several rejuvenations.

              2. Unless the people making it pulled a “Starship Troopers” and totally bastardized the plot.

                Having recently groaned through Noah, I’m not optimistic about anyone in Hollywood.

          1. He can say whatever he likes, but even *cabin in the woods* was anti *top men*.

      2. JEP +1 Firefly

    2. “I’m just waiting for a Jedi to show up on the separatist side who wasn’t corrupted by the dark side. That would be the libertarian view.”

      Good Dr. In the Star Wars Universe, the Libertarians, are all the Independent Smugglers. =)

  4. A group of heroes racist Tebaggers bands together to battle an evil wizard Obama who seeks godlike power and world domination to break the impasse of a do-nothing congress through executive order and presidential memorandum.

    This is a fun game!

  5. Started playing Assassin’s Creed III finally and it seemed like a really libertarian game for a while. Redcoats would ignore me for trampling random citizens with my horse, and (seemingly) randomly turn aggressive towards me and try and hunt me to my death for no offense whatsoever.
    Just like cops in real-life modern America!
    After a while, I figured out the game mechanics in play. But it still kinda sucks.
    Just like life (the portion of which is DICTATED by outside actors, anyway)in modern America!
    Guess it still works.
    Sorry if this wasn’t the random vidja game thread.

    1. -1 American History

      1. Yeah, there’s a whole fuckton of politicizing that I’m just encountering (nowhere near as blatant as ACII, or ACBro’s “this was the case in America before healthcare reform” {or however it was similarly phrased}, but still ignoring the principles of sovereign states forming a coalition), but still enough to be off-putting. Plus, who still thinks that the British spoke “like Brits” in that day and age?

  6. After the visceral combat of single player open world games like Skyrim, Dragon’s Dogma and Dark Souls (and even GTA4 & 5 for that matter) i really do not want a single player game that plays like an MMO.

    For me this seems like a step back fro these kinds of games.

    Honestly I would love a game as open as skyrim but with the high fantasy monster climbing combat of Dragon’s Dogma or even the more intimate and plodding combat of Dark Souls.

    Fuck point and click combat…and fuck it harder when the damn game is designed with a console controller in mind.

  7. Bioware needs to die for the crap they pulled with Mass Effect 3. Where the hell did choices matter?

    Also fuck the game press for covering for Bioware over this. No, gamers are not babies. A company made a promise in order to sell copies of their games…then promptly broke said promise. That is fraud in my book.

  8. Mass Effect 3. They had to end that franchise, like they did. The law of diminishing returns.

    Misery.

    1. Just play Borderlands 2 with Epi until the next good thing comes out. =)

  9. OTOH, EA is apparently using that Anita Sorenson lady as a consultant on future games, to make sure they are Social Justice Warrior approved.

  10. The game I’m most looking forward to is Naval Action: Age of Sail. The Beta is pretty impressive and they are going to make it open world. The possibilities are pretty intriguing; people are already discussing trade syndicates and cooperative port building.

    The game, if the open world prototype promised comes to fruition, promises to be one of the most explicitly libertarian games I’ve ever played.

    1. I’m looking forward to Tom Clancy’s The Division. If that game is 80% of what the reveal trailer makes it to be, it’ll be a major hit.

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