Dragon Age doesn’t know what century it’s in




So, what I think I miss most about Dragon Age: Origins is the way it felt consistently medieval.  Not completely, they brought in things from a lot of different cultures, and in fact, even managed to make up some of their own, but it was all woven into this framework of a series of different civilizations where the cultural fabric in all communities was membership to the same religion.  You had your outliers, to be certain–your pagan Dalish, your isolated dwarves, your foreign Qunari, but if you were part of what the Chantry would deem “civilization,” you probably went to your Chantry on a regular basis, even if you didn’t believe what they taught, because that’s where you got your news.  They even reinforce this mechanically with the Chanters’ boards.  (Something that notably disappears in Inquisition, when they really move away from this idea.)

In other words, it looks a lot like the actual Middle Ages, a lot more than “medieval fantasy” normally does, because it actually recognizes the role of religion as a keeper and transmitter of consistent culture.  More amazingly, its analog of the Roman Catholic Church isn’t automatically demonized… in a 21st century video game.  I was gobsmacked.  Sure, they definitely were much more of the “we must do this this and this to get the Maker to love us,” but that’s about what I expect from a religion that doesn’t teach that its slain founder was resurrected.

And even then, we get people like Leliana, who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believe the Maker is still working and still loving people.  (“Cool,” I immediately think.  "When this is over, can I have Leliana start a Reformation?“)

The problem is, in subsequent games Bioware started playing around a lot more with different cultures in space and time, which is completely fine.  But in later games, they didn’t make the same efforts to fit them in together with everything else.  Which is why I say Dragon Age doesn’t know what century it’s in.

So I finish Origins completely in love with Thedas and its culture.  It feels like a fully realized world, and if it draws heavily from fantasy tropes, that’s perfectly fine.  They’re still putting their own twist on them.

Then I start playing 2, and I run into this guy:

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The fact that the masses are not illiterate has always puzzled me a little too. In Origins I assumed they were–I could see nobles being educated, but every one else? I mean, I think it’s made pretty evident in the first game that the education Alistair receives as part of templar training or the education that a mage receives are not the standard that every citizen of Ferelden can expect. Even Leliana kind of justifies her education when she talks about being raised by Lady Cecilie. And then along comes Dragon Age 2, and, no, apparently everyone but Fenris can read.

I really love your hypothetical situation with Varric. It’s 9/10s of the way to actually being a fic. It wants to be a fic. I want it to be a fic. It’s a beautiful explanation of how to reconcile the existence of fiction in Thedas.

Oh, this is fascinating and so clever.

So Varric blurs the lines, but rather than in the sublime way that you expect from high fantasy, it’s very mundane.  It almost invites skepticism, rather than wonder […] the cynical, bitter darkness of 2 is so different from the bleak, elegaic darkness of Origins and Trespasser.  It feels almost painfully modern.  (And I’m still not really sure how “dark” vanilla Inquisition ever got, when the worst things that happened were either inside your own head thanks to a demon or got erased thanks to, “magical time travel, go with it.”)

Yes. That is exactly why DA2 didn’t work that well for me, and I’m so glad someone put it better than I could have. I enjoy things like Hard in Hightown and the genre-blending metacommentary – they’re a major part of my love for Dragon Age – but you’ve got to play to some of the rules to bend them. (I actually love the “reading peasantry” thing and find it a welcome change, but it’s certainly not historically accurate.) DA plays with things like the nature of mythology, grand themes…. the human characters work because they’re placed against such an epic, unknowable background.

And the theory of how novels got off the ground is fantastic.

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