Playing God

dragon age inquisitionReview by Emmet O’Cuana


I did not expect to find myself reflecting on the nature of religion while playing a horned giant ‘Qunari’ using magic spells to fend off attacks from a demon horde. But then Dragon Age: Inquisition is a game full of surprises.

Let’s take a step back for a moment.

Dragon Age is the name of a video game franchise produced by Canadian company Bioware. The series began in 2009 with Dragon Age: Origins. Players were introduced to the world of Thedas, a Medieval setting where humans live alongside more fantastical creatures like elves, dwarves, as well as the aforementioned race of giants the Qunari.

The first game opens with a parable about a group of powerful sorcerors who attempted to invade Heaven, only to be damned, fall back to Earth. This results in the creation of a race of monsters – the ‘Darkspawn’. In Dragon Age: Origins this is presented as a religious creation myth underpinning the civilization the player interacts with. Religiously devout humans belong to a church called The Chantry and worship a martyr known as Andraste, who was betrayed and burnt at the stake. Her story borrows liberally from accounts of Joan of Arc and Jesus Christ, and her followers believe they must plead forgiveness from the Creator – the Maker – for her death. Elves are known to worship a pagan pantheon of their own, dwarves ‘the Stone’ or the Earth itself, and the Qunari are in fact named for their Confucian-philosophy the Qun.

In Dragon Age, religion is twinned with race, much like in Europe during the Middle Ages when Christians, Jews and Muslims were considered separate categories of people. (The game features analogies for the Crusades – here termed Exalted Marches – with familiar incidents such as converts to the Qun being put to the sword by Andrastians).

While this is all interesting background detail for the stories being told in the Dragon Age universe, by the third game the developers decided to make religion a principal concern for the player.

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In Dragon Age: Inquisition you play a character who is discovered at the epicentre of a major explosion. The head of the Chantry was killed in the attack, but you somehow survived. You possess certain miraculous abilities, such as the power to close glowing green rifts in the sky that allow demons to invade. Given the providence of your arrival, many worship you as the Herald of Andraste. You can choose to embrace this title and reform the Chantry to bring stability to Thedas – or abuse your position and concentrate on acquiring power for yourself.

Bioware specialise in games that combine digital violence with dialogue. In titles like Mass Effect, or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, players interact with companions with well-defined personalities of their own. As a player you find yourself interacting with fictional peers of a sort, who may disagree with your decisions, or become loyal followers. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, your Herald is accompanied by devout Andrastians who, because of your actions can either lose their faith or discover a renewed sense of belief in the Maker.

What the game impressed upon me was how the role of the Herald allows the player to bring a divided society together. The game’s writers, David Gaider and Patrick Weekes, use faith to give the people living in this virtual world a sense of hope in the aftermath of a major cataclysm. The Inquisition you lead also establishes order in a world wracked by civil conflict, as well as invading demons.

There is an increasing amount of study in the field of video games as a complementary, or analogue experience, to religious practice. Rachel Wagner’s Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality is widely referenced in academic discussions.

Wagner compares the experience of the gamer, extended into a virtual space while at play, with the medieval devotee’s contemplation of images of Christ. The faithful were transported through such meditation to Jerusalem under Roman occupation, just as the modern gamer finds themselves creating a sense of order in a fictionalised pseudo-Medieval Europe. In her essay The Importance of Playing in Earnest Wagner states:

“[There is] a fundamental similarity between religion and games, generally speaking: both are, at root, order-making activities that offer a mode of escape from the vicissitudes of contemporary life, and both demand, at least temporarily, that practitioners give themselves over to a predetermined set of rules that shape a world view and offer a system of order and structure that is comforting for its very predictability.”

Dragon Age: Inquisition literalises that relationship between gaming and religion. They are both activities designed to create a sense of meaning in the world, providing a sense of relief to those buffeted by the randomness of life.

Now pardon me, I’m off to the Orlesian Court to prevent a plot to assassinate the Empress.

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