Andraste’s Knicker Weasels, Part II: Dragon Age Politics

I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.


It’s a bit difficult to work out whether the tensions and complexities I detect in Dragon Age: Origins are the result of actual sophisticated world-building, or, instead, of a giant, unwieldy design system imperfectly guided in its juggernaut path, so that the edges ramify out of control. However, I’m inclining to the charitable interpretation – I darkly suspect this game of interrogating its own geo-political ramifications with absolute self-consciousness. Its basis is really very stereotypically High To Middle Fantasy with unabashed Tolkien overtones, up to and including the slightly elegiac tone and the tendency for the landscape to be littered with the remnants of vast, sophisticated, sometimes Elven empires who have brought about their own downfall owing to religion, corruption, racism, bigotry, or simply becoming drunk on their own magical power and self-destructing. (Numenor, anyone?). But it’s also quite ridiculous how much those stereotypes are subverted.

To a surprisingly upfront extent the world-building effectively externalises the subtext to all classic fantasy, which is that all this is simply about power. The need to reign in power, to control and limit and punish, is inscribed on the world-building landscape – Ferelden political jockeying, the dwarven caste system, the Templars who hunt down apostate mages but are themselves deliberately addicted to lyrium, the nasty and all too realistic racial tensions between Elves and humans. And don’t get me started on Grey Wardens – proficient heroes and protectors, given power and status, but limited and focused and ultimately controlled by their darkspawn taint. The world presents systems, often extremely repressive systems, which the setting tries to naturalise but in which it dismally and I think deliberately fails.

In particular, magic in this system is extremely problematised, prone to corruption and power-grabbing, in a way that I find all too real. The world has its own Garden of Eden mythology, a transgression and Fall specifically about the profoundly arrogant and rather stupid ambition of mages. They screwed up badly enough that, effectively, God left in a huff; the whole religious structure has this slightly desperate edge of “noooo! come back! we’ll be good, promise!”. The mystical histories of the Fade aside, in the game’s day-to-day reality any mage figure is a locus of temptation and threat, prone to succumb to demons or blood-magic at any moment. You are invited and encouraged at every step to think about whether the dangers of mages are about the corruptions of power, or the desperations of over-control.

I also find the world’s gender politics interesting. There is the usual computer-game preponderance of scantily-clad, big-busted women in the graphics – Morrigan’s revealing robes, in particular, make me grind my teeth, and I’ve been steadfastly putting her in high-necked enchanter garb at the first opportunity, and regardless of actual statistical advantage. (Also, ye gods, somebody give me a computer game in which I can set my character’s bust size as well as her gosh-darned hairstyle. I swear her breasts make it downright impossible to use a bow.) Nonetheless, quietly and in the background, Ferelden’s society presents on many levels a gender equality which is largely taken for granted. Women fight quite routinely in armies; they appear to be able to inherit titles, and fulfil them in a strategic and military role, even if they have brothers littering the place. Inheritance is clearly by age alone, not sex, and bugger Salic law, anyway. Likewise, dwarven women pass their caste on to their daughters, where dwarven men pass it on to their sons. The refusal to participate in the Judeo-Christian insistence on women as fallen and second class with a purely reproductive purpose is echoed in the religion, which revolves around the Prophetess Andraste, conqueror and head of armies and also Bride of the Maker, a lovely antidote both to desexualised Christ figures and passive virgin/mother contradictions. Even the priesthood is female, and male priests are Clearly Bad. It’s refreshing.

But above all, I thoroughly enjoy the game’s huge, incredibly interesting, rather subtextual interrogation of the nature of inherited monarchy. One example is the Dwarves, whose sub-quest setting offers you, as I said in my earlier post, a choice between the thoroughly nasty son of the previous king or the king’s morally upright chief councillor. You get to choose who you support, but you have to be aware that the morally upright councillor is also a die-hard conservative and has every intention of closing his nation to outside contact, including Ferelden and you, and propagating the incredibly rigid unpleasant dwarven caste system, with all its implications of starving casteless, slums full of outcasts and beggars, and the need for dwarven women to abandon their lower-caste children in the Deep Roads. The bad guy, on the other hand, will abolish it, thus bringing Orzammar kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat. There is no right answer. It’s all about power, and politics, and expediency, and far too often you can screw the greater good completely by sticking to principle.

Ferelden itself is less rigid a caste system: it apparently functions as a collection of bloody-minded individualists loosely held together by mostly hereditary lords who nonetheless need to politic for their adherents, but the monarchy apparently has no problem at all with removing lords and replacing them with meritorious base-born individuals at the drop of a veridium helm. (If you take the Human Noble background, you face the death of your entire family in a political side-plot to the main quest and the subsequent extinction of your line, as you can’t hold the title as a Grey Warden, which has completely driven me crazy as a player. I like that family. I’m invested in them). Even more importantly, the whole meta-plot for the game revolves around the death of the King in rather stupidly heroic battle against the darkspawn, and the lack of an heir to replace him. This leaves you with the following quite bizarrely non-ideal options for a ruler to unite Ferelden against the darkspawn threat:

  • The dead king’s widow, Anora, not from the royal line, and backed by her father Loghain, who’s a war hero who also engineered the death of the king. Even if you can turn a blind eye to her association with Loghain’s regicide and paranoia to focus on the fact that Anora seems to be quite a competent ruler (if a bit arrogantly sanctimonious), she’s also barren – hasn’t produced an heir despite five years of marriage to a husband she apparently loved. If you choose her as ruler, the epilogue makes it quite clear that she doesn’t ever remarry and doesn’t seem to see the heir thing as a priority. Everything you do to unite Ferelden thus comes to nothing with the end of her life – presumably it’s back to no heir and the nobles tussling for power.
  • The dead king’s illegitimate half-brother, Alistair, who is a Grey Warden and doesn’t want to be king. He’s a decent sort who’d probably make a good king, but Grey Wardens aren’t supposed to hold titles, and are also not good in the reproduction department owing to the darkspawn taint. This is complicated if you’re playing a female human noble who’s in a relationship with Alistair, as you also have the option of marrying him if he becomes king, and thus becoming a tainted Grey Warden queen to make an heir highly unlikely from two directions rather than one. And take it from me, it’s a fairly compelling romance, and you don’t want to give him up.

The upshot of the above is that, regardless of which option you choose, the whole edifice of inherited rule, for which you have fought through most of the game, is pretty much doomed. China Miéville would be proud. You have to interrogate, to question, to fundamentally worry about whether or not it’s either possible or desirable to save the royal line for its own sake, or even for the sake of political stability. It ends up not just being about whether you’re invested in hereditary monarchy, it’s whether the rest of the country is to the extent where the hierarchy will rip itself apart if you try and do away with it. Once again, it’s about how you control people, how you use power to limit power. It doesn’t make you a very nice person; it is, in fact, profoundly anti-heroic. Given how much I hate politics and how much I retreat into lovely clear-cut genre narratives, it’s astounding how much I continue to enjoy the game.

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