Theological Debates in the Dragon Age

Often our complete understanding of narratives in popular culture can be foggy due to our social contexts influencing the way we interpret and experience these narratives. One example of this can be found in Dragon Age, and the theological debates which occur within. BioWare’s Dragon Age series takes place in a world with magic, elves, dwarves, and, of course, dragons. These games are open-world RPGs, and the player creates a character they can fully control, even in how they respond in dialogue to the other characters around them. These choices are often met with repercussions of approval or disapproval by these allies. The games also involve a lot of time to complete. And I mean a lot of time. Often it takes over 60 hours just to finish the main story, and even more time to do any and all side quests involved. I’m currently in the middle of playing Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third in the series, but will not disclose the number of hours currently played for fear of my supervisor reading this. Safe to say, I’ve put in more than enough hours to write a short post about it.

Quite a large percentage of the gameplay in Inquisition, and the other Dragon Age games, is player interaction and conversation with non-playable characters (NPCs). The player can choose from a wheel of dialogue choices, and each choice impacts the way these NPCs accept your character. Some may approve of the way you responded to a question, or choices you made, while others disapprove of the same action. These conversations involve more than simple commentary on how badly you kicked that dragon’s ass. In fact, many of the social issues addressed in these conversations are ones frequently debated outside of gameworlds as well: questions of terrorism, the culturally oppressed, poverty, war, and even theological concerns.

There are multiple forms of religiosity which can be found in this world, and often they are designated by race, though not always limited to racial boundaries as conversion occurs. Many of the elves, which are also the culturally oppressed peoples, attempt to keep to their older polytheistic religion. The dwarves are ancestor worshipers. The Qunari, a tall and physically robust peoples with horns, have a very politically and philosophically based religion involving the Qun (of which could be entire discussion itself). And humans tend to be monotheistic.

The monotheism of humans, which has also spread to some of other races, is remarkably similar to Christianity. There is only one god, called The Maker, regarded as the one who created the world and all in it. But, The Maker has turned away from his creations due to their great many sins and mistakes. This religion also has a messianic figure in Andraste, a woman who attempted to give Earthly creations another chance to prove their love and worth to The Maker, but was ultimately betrayed and killed.

Dialogue wheel choice when questioned whether a particular elvish temple was "filled with lies" or not.

Dialogue wheel choice when questioned whether a particular elvish temple was "filled with lies" or not.

But this post isn’t just about this resemblance – mostly because anyone who’s played the game can acknowledge these similarities. What makes this connection significant is that the player often engages in theological discussions. The theological debates which occur are not wholly dependent on just choosing one of the many options of religion available – nor are these options limited to which race you have chosen for your character. Let’s say, for example, I was given the question of whether or not I (as a character) believe in The Maker. My options are not set due to my character choice of dwarf. My options are not just yes or no. Or not only yes, no, or maybe. I am given the choice to believe, but not to worship. I am given the ability to see someone who believes in the power, divinity, and presence of the Maker, and use this power to raise another character from the dead during combat, and still question.

So how? And why?

Our character, or other characters in the realm, can have one of the two somewhat related forms of theistic belief: dystheism or misotheism. Dystheists believe in the divine’s (God, goddess, or multiple gods) existence, but that this god is not wholly good, as is often believed by the Abrahamic faiths. Misotheists have a “hatred of God” or “hatred of the gods”, and they do not worship God regardless of their belief in His/Her existence. In fact, it’s rather difficult to hold a hatred for something you don’t believe exists (though that’s more of a personal opinion than the result of any outstanding research).

So now there are more detailed theological questions to ask yourself of the Dragon Age world – as well as the non-gaming world: do you believe in the existence of a god? And is that God you believe exists worthy of worship? This second question may seem blasphemous to some, but is a valid question, and can be found in multiple places in popular culture.

The famous Warriors of Sunlight in the Dark Souls series, as one such example, are followers of Lord Gwyn’s firstborn, and is the former god of war. He’s a former god, because due to questionable actions (of which, I admit, I am unclear) he was punished and stripped of his deification. Thus, lore-wise, it seems the question of whether or not this god of war deserves to be worshiped was regarded as a whole-hearted no. The Warriors of Sunlight, however, disagree and still worship and follow him. In the case of the Warriors of Sunlight, then, the overall theological stance is that this god of war is in dystheism; he is not wholly good and thus does not deserve worship, while the Warriors of Sunlight do not have such a stance.

A Warrior of Sunlight praising the sun

A Warrior of Sunlight praising the sun

For Dragon Age, this theological quandary does not rest in the atmosphere or embedded lore, like Dark Souls. Nor is it in who you do or do not encounter or choose as your character. The question of a god’s existence is not always wholly answered in the power one wields, as magic is found in many areas of this world. Theological answers are found solely in how characters interpret the events unfolding in the game and the world around them. When your character miraculously survives a cataclysmic event, or a physical trip through the spirit world, it may not be due to divine intervention. Or maybe it was divine intervention, but for a nefarious reason. These answers must be sought in only your character’s own questioning and interpretation of the world around them, and in their experiences of them, in much the same way we, as humans in a non-magical world sadly devoid of dragons, must also do.

But the character does not do so autonomously. We as players do, acting through our character. We are not just playing at magic and dragon slaying, but also playing with various theological stances which would have large and more permanent effects if played with outside of the game world. Although multiple choices are present, it is still limited by a dialogue wheel. We are also alerted of various NPCs reaction to our choices, based on their own beliefs and personalities. Dragon Age allows us to play with these decisions and consequences without repercussions from those around us in the non-virtual world, while still impacting us in a very real sense. Its play which engages us, and demands us to think critically about the world around us, and how we interpret it.

Images from Dragon Age Inquisition taken from my own playthrough. Dark Souls 2 image of Praise the sun can be found here