Religion in the Dragon Age: what a fantasy RPG tell us about religion

I started playing Dragon Age: Origins recently, and am currently about two thirds through the game. I’m surprised I didn’t get around to playing it earlier considering that Mass Effect, created by the same developer, is one of my all time favorite games. It’s a really great game so far. Excellent story and characters, satisfying gameplay, etc. For those that aren’t familiar with DAO, it’s a single player Role-Playing Game (RPG); think World of Warcraft but single player and with a deep story. Religion plays a fairly important role in Dragon Age: Origins (heretofore referred to as DAO), and your character can respond to it in a variety of ways. I have found it endlessly fascinating, and it’s interesting to analyze it from various perspectives.

The Maker's Symbol

The Maker's Symbol (1)

So first, an introduction to religion in DAO (*SPOILERS AHEAD*). DAO takes place in a Tolken-esque world (medieval times, elves, dwarves, dragons, witches and wizards, etc). In this world, there are a variety of religions (all made up), but there is one dominant religion that, interestingly enough, doesn’t have a name. In this religion, practitioner’s worship a single deity that they call “The Maker.” Like most religions, this one has a creation story. According to the background, the Maker first create a world called the Fade, which is a metaphysical world populated by all kinds of spirits and demons. Unsatisfied with this world, he created a second world called Thedas, which is the “normal” world where the player spends their time. The Maker separated these two worlds with a veil, to prevent either side from crossing to the other.

What the Maker didn’t realize is that the beings in the Fade could see across the veil and observe those in Thedas. Those in the veil lacked the ability to imagine and dream, and became envious of those on the other side. They convinced some of the mages on the other side to worship the old gods, and thus the “first sin” was created (sound familiar?). A prophetess named Andraste convinced the Maker to forgive mankind. Andraste was the Maker’s “spiritual wife,” and played a pivotal role in the founding of the Chantry (church organization). Her mortal husband, Maferath, became jealous of Andraste’s spiritual marriage with the Maker and had her burned at the stake (also sound familiar?). As a result, the Maker turned away from mankind and hasn’t returned since.  There are a lot more details to the story, which can be read here (1).

Statue of Andraste

Statue of Andraste (1)

One of the hallmarks of RPGs such as this one is that the player gets to decide how to interact with other characters, including the religious. Players can choose how to respond to another character by selecting from 4 or so response options. When dealing with religious responses, BioWare typically includes a response from the perspective of 1) devout believer,  2) lax believer, 3) apologist/agnostic, 4) atheist. I was kinda surprised to see that the game includes the option to be a flat out atheist, and a rather strident one at that. The typical responses aren’t that of “you’re wrong because my religion/views are better,” but actually “you know this stuff is just a myth, right?” I take this as a very good sign that atheism is becoming more and more widespread, even if the audience is somewhat self-selective. I especially think this is important because of the rather obvious connection between this religion and Christianity, specifically Catholicism.

As with most RPGs, you have a team of people, and, as with most BioWare RPGs, each character has a unique history and personality. One such character is named Leliana, a rogue character. We first meet Leliana in a refugee town called Lotharen, where she is a sister in the local Chantry. Leliana is devout in her belief, but is not afraid to go against the Chantry if she believes they are wrong. Leliana believes that the Maker speaks directly to her, although she doesn’t see herself as a prophet and is rather humble about it. This stance frequently puts her at odds with other believers, since everyone else believes that the Maker has stopped engaging humans. Some people, including a few other party members, believes that Leliana must be mentally unstable because she thinks the Maker talks to her. Definitely a not-so-subtle jab at people who believe their god talks to them.

In contrast, there is a character named Morrigan, a mage (e.g. witch), who is completely atheistic. She believes there is a natural reason for everything that happens. Her views on the Maker, the chantry, and in general on why people believe are spot on. Just watch the dialogue below starting at the 2:50 mark between Morrigan and Leliana on religion. (3) Only a few words need to be replaced to make it a solid critique of Christianity, and to think that this is part of a game is just astounding. The discussion towards the end on why Morrigan believes in magic but not the Maker is really great too. It might as well be a discussion on why we “believe” in evolution but not religion. It all comes down to evidence…it just so happens that there is evidence for magic in the world of Thedas.

As I have played the game, a funny thing happened. I stopped responding with the hard-lined atheist responses and started leaning more agnostic. Partly this was for pragmatic reasons (important characters don’t respond well to these responses and may not tell you important information if you’re mean to them), but I think there is another reason. One of the missions I was on, some events occurred that put my characters disbelief into doubt. My character even started pursuing a romantic relationship with Leliana, not Morrigan, even though Morrigan is still my favorite teammate. I didn’t even realize it was happening at first, but once I recognized this transition, I thought about why that was and have had some very interesting thoughts.

Leliana

Leliana (1)

First, it’s important to note that at this point in time my character is no longer a personification of me. She is now a distinct entity, with her own motivations, desires, and beliefs. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me in an RPG. In Mass Effect 2 (*SPOILER WARNING*), a similar differentiation occurred. In Mass Effect 1, I played Shepard as pretty straight-laced do-gooder, who tried to do the right thing, was caring and considerate of team-members, etc (I tend to be a nice-guy myself). After Shepard is killed and then reconstituted at the beginning of Mass Effect 2, she finds that most of her old comrades, including her romantic partner from the first game, have forgotten about her and cast her aside. At this point I played Shepard quite differently. There is no way something like that wouldn’t have effected her emotionally, and the biggest area I saw this was in relationships. My character only entered one relationship, and it was very much just a fling about sex and nothing more. She had become cynical and was kind of angry at the world. She no longer acted like me, and was a separate character. I find the role of the player as simultaneous creator and observer in games endlessly fascinating, as I discussed in my previous post “Alice and Kev, and the role of the player” (2).

So why did my character’s beliefs start shifting? Simple, there was evidence that the Maker existed. More specifically, there was a quest in which my character needed to cure a nobleman who was deathly ill and there was no medicine or magic that could cure him. In the end, my character took a pinch of the ashes of the prophetess Andraste, which instantly cured the nobleman. This is just circumstantial evidence, of course, but my character is beginning to concede that maybe there is something to it…agnostic in the modern sense of the word.

Morrigan

Morrigan (1)

Assuming that the Maker is real, is Leliana crazy, or is the Maker really speaking to her? I’m not sure at this point. Maybe I will find out a specific answer, but I kinda hope not. I think it makes the story more interesting. Besides, it’s still not certain that the religion is actually true, much less who’s interpretation is accurate. Seeing everyone debating about it in the game is definitely interesting…reminds me a lot of the “who are the True Christians” that some Christians argue about. I tend to like open-ended stories, and this particular story arc would loose some of it’s magic (no pun intended) if a definitive answer were given.

What is the greater significance of this story? I didn’t write this post just talk about a game I love (err…right?). One of the biggest things that has stuck out to me, is that we have this relatively Christian-like religion that actually fits in with and seems plausible, but is still not a given in a fantasy world. A world filled with witches and wizards, ogres, elves, zombies, and an alternate spirit world. Religion makes far more sense in this fictional fantasy world than in the real world, and we’re still not sure if it’s real. Limited as it is, there is still far more evidence for religion in this fictional game, with its limited mechanisms for conveying information, than in the real world. It’s sad and funny all at the same time.

In modern times, we know that dragons, magic, elves, etc are merely legends from the medieval times. We take them as seriously as we do the stories of Zeus and the Greek gods. Most religions came into being in a time when people really believed these things existed, and science as we know it just didn’t exist. Within this context, religion seems perfectly plausible. If you believe in all sorts of other fantastical ideas, then religion is just one more on the pile. It’s telling, though, that we have managed see these myths for what they are, just myths, except when it comes to religion. I hope that one day we will look back on religion the same way we look back on witchcraft, just another silly idea that people who didn’t know any better believed.

(1) “Dragon Age Wiki.” Dragon Age Wiki. Available: http://dragonage.wikia.com/wiki/Dragon_Age_Wiki
(2) Salo. “Alice and Kev, and the role of the player.” Chrono-Synclastic Infundibulum. 23rd June, 2011. Available: https://chronosynclasticinfundibulum.wordpress.com/2011/06/23/alice-and-kev-and-the-role-of-the-player/
(3) Galagraphia. “Dragon Age Origins: Morrigan vs. Leliana.” YouTube. 7th Devember, 2009. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IkbJVNaa_DA

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3 thoughts on “Religion in the Dragon Age: what a fantasy RPG tell us about religion

  1. You know, I have the issue quite often. One where I play as myself, but the character become quite different. It is actually due to an evolutionary trait agianst trauma. It is called Dissasiciative Identity Disorder.

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