Videogames Could Learn A Lot From Dragon Age’s Multifaceted Universe
By far one of the biggest attractions for me when I play role-playing games is a deep and immersive world. To go with that, the world has to be believable. Not insofar as replicable or rooted in realism, no, I like my digital worlds with a healthy mix of fictional nonsense. Rather, a massive boon for me is that of a rational world; one in which certain things just make sense. Regardless of what they are.
After all, what’s the point of a world that is at war just because some arbitrary evil exists to wage that war, for example?
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I do of course realise that the Mass Effect series is such a world, I never said I was perfect.
Oddly enough, my first flirtation with a truly engaging world came not in anything to be discussed here but rather in Dungeon Siege II. It was the idea of warring factions and a bunch of people who just didn’t get on, topped off with a story that flips itself on its head more than once. I had played a few other less inspiring RPGs, story-wise, until I finally discovered Dragon Age: Origins. My first foray into BioWare’s world was not a pleasant one; I very quickly got over the game. But the second time, when I finally gave it a proper chance…
Now say what you will about the second Dragon Age game, it might have had its shortcomings but one of its strongest assets was the world that it created. Not necessarily rooted in realism, but like I said, absolutely rational. In it, there were a whole bunch of faction, at war at different times with this, that or the other conflicting faction. I’d like to list them for you, very quickly.
The Chantry which is basically the religious sect that we are familiar with in modern culture, but turned into something that has legitimate ruling authority across the nation. They govern the world of Dragon Age and that effectively makes the priests and priestesses the highest form of power in most countries in Dragon Age. Yeah, that happened. Andraste’s ass! The Chantry is led by The Divine.
The Order of the Templar
The Order of the Templar basically works for the Chantry and forms their peace-keeping force (ideally) by policing the use of magic, in order to keep it under control and basically keep the Chantry in power. More than glorified bodyguards, they also hunt down and recover missing magi (more on this, next) and are called in to perform clean-up whenever an abundance of magic usage occurs. They are also addicted to the game’s version of mana potions, which the Chantry just happens to have in abundant supply. The Order is led by the Knight-Divine, although subsections of the Order typically have Knight-Commanders.
The Circle of Magi
Then comes the Magi, the users of magic, who were confided to these massive towers per country that were called circles. Magi (apparently the plural of mage in Dragon Age) practiced magic and did so in a controlled environment under strict supervision. Why? Well besides the obvious access to practically infinite amounts of power that would make them gods amongst men, there’s also the fact that every mage dreams of the ‘Fade’ (we’ll come back to this one) and so need to be taught to not succumb to the temptations of demons (explaining soon, promise) because obviously that would be a very bad idea. Some mages run away, and are called apostates; basically magic-wielding fugitives. The Circle is led by the Grand Enchanter, although subsections of the Circle typically have First Enchanters.
The Fade is basically hell as imagined by Dante. It’s an alternate world of sorts, kind of like a limbo, that you can enter as a human if you are a mage or a spell is cast on you in cases when you’re not. It appears to be dreamlike and can be manipulated, much like the dream-worlds of Inception. It also happens to contain all kinds of demons, based on the various sins of humanity. So that’s kinda shit.
Also known as blood mages. These are magi who simply wished to practice magic free from the ties that bind Circle mages, and so they accept the gifts of Fade demons, in exchange for more power they sacrifice their souls. Others simply sacrifice their own lifeblood in order to gain further power. It’s almost universally agreed that the maleficarum is a group of evil mages, however there have been exceptions and players may create blood mages out of their own party characters, where applicable.
Quite possibly the only one-dimensional race, they simply exist to kill everything and are a combination of abominations and reanimated zombies, comprised of dead inhabitants of the Dragon Age world. The Darkspawn were fought off by the Grey Wardens (up next!) in the first Dragon Age game and are now reduced to a bunch of stragglers still living in denial about whether or not they’ve won the war they call The Blight. The Darkspawn are led by the Archdemon, a massive flame-infused dragon creature that is weak to ballista bolts and paralysis. *cough*
The Grey Wardens
The feature focus of the first game since your playable character was one, the Grey Wardens are an ancient guild of protectors who exist for one purpose and one purpose only: Waging war against, and defeating the darkspawn. To that effect, the extent of Dragon Age: Origins has you attempting to achieve exactly this goal, and while rather one-dimensional in purpose, it is quite interesting that the Grey Wardens possess a certain level of power that is above that of the Chantry that effectively presides over everything. The Grey Wardens are led by the First Warden, although subsections of the Grey Wardens typically have Commanders of the Grey.
Technically actually a race, the Qunari bear mention because they possess their own set of beliefs and rules entirely different to that of the rest of the Dragon Age world. To some of the more civilised (pretentious) highborn nobles of Dragon Age this makes them seem barbaric but the Qunari are actually a very noble and respectable bunch of people. Retconned in Dragon Age II to look more sinister and demonic, they are a force to be reckoned with and quick to anger if disrespected, forcing the highest form of diplomacy at all times. The Qunari are led by the Arishok.
My favourite faction in Dragon Age, the elves actually consist of more than one faction in and of themselves — much in the same way humanity comprises nobles, Chantry members, Templars and even Magi — but I’m going to keep it to one because this is getting a little long now, and I think we all get the point. What’s a unique twist here is that the elves have become so old and lost so much of their past that they are either nomads, moving from one settlement to the next, or they are impoverished city-dwellers, in either case almost entirely out of touch with their ancestry and a mere shadow of what they once were. Truly morbid to experience, in-game.
Most recently, we were shown the multi-dimensional, deep and engaging world of A Song of Ice and Fire, through the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, and the book for those like me who read them. In it, while there are clear-cut evils and a few obvious pure goods, a lot of it is murky middle, with various Houses showing that they are mostly just in it for themselves, and seen from their perspective, a lot of their actions are completely justifiable.
Dragon Age takes that sort of thing just a step further. In Dragon Age II specifically, the Qunari and the highborn of Kirkwall must learn to cooperate. The Chantry and Templars are fighting in a battle for control with the Circle. Templars are getting greedy with their addiction, while mages are effectively being enslaved. Meanwhile, the Maleficarum is making a play for power as well. The resulting chaos is a smorgasbord of fuckery and we are left with the cliffhanger ending of all cliffhanger endings; basically, the world is gone to shit. Now what?
Unfortunately, we might never get to see that play out with Dragon Age: Inquisition seeming to go in a slightly different direction, but with all these factions still more or less in existence, plus the possibility of more, it could lead for some very interesting situations in Inquisition. I can at least say that not even the almighty Warcraft and The Elder Scrolls franchises boast this level of intricacy with its various factions and races. Who is right and who is wrong, and who are you siding with?
It’s all quite fascinating, really.