As these things go, my elf was the kind that took crap from no one. The buzzed head, the facial scars, a tattoo over the brow, and a nose that clearly looked as though it’s seen the business end of plenty of fists, this was the woodland friend that you would never be friends with; the unholy bastard love child of Jason Statham, Danny Trejo, and Doug from House of Cards.
I built him to be a Dalish storm trooper, really, and one that had seen enough trouble in his time that he didn’t need any flak from humankind and their godly Maker. And, knowing that he would be meeting and befriending a diverse set of peers to do battle with over the course of Dragon Age: Inquisition, he would prove, once and for all, that James Brown was straight up wrong: This isn't a man's world.
I play a lot of roleplaying games, but I very rarely actually roleplay. By that, I mean that I typically like to just enjoy what’s going on in front of me and maybe just let the story take its course, but not specifically act out what a character in this situation would do as one might in, say, an MMO like World of Warcraft. Most Eastern-developed RPGs rarely give you the chance as their stories are predetermined from the second you hit start. But that’s not the kind of game that BioWare makes. With so many characters to treat with and conversations to have, I've found it hard over time to not have any sort of emotional attachment to the people I meet and the kibitzing I get to do with them. So, while still taking into account how I would most likely react to a given conundrum, I was making it a point with my first playthrough of Inquisition to really take the elves' side this time. They've had it kind of tough, you know, and since I knew that I was probably going to save the world no matter what, I made a conscious decision to let every human walking around to know that you don’t have to love me, but you better listen to what I’ve got to say. Call me a pragmatist.
But that's just where things started to get weird. Over the course of the game, my followers grew and the constant, nagging question of whether I believe that I’m the chosen savior sent by God itself—or hell, if God really even exists—made me soften my granite, pointy-eared heart. By the halfway point, people kept asking me the question: are you the Herald of Andraste? Are you sent by the Maker? You know, I’m not really sure. Um, yeah, maybe?
Religion in games is a tricky situation. On the one hand, you don't want to offend people that really believe in a higher power that might be purchasing your game. On the other, you don’t want to talk down to people that don’t buy into it whatsoever. Getting back to most RPGs, and most video games in general, organized religion winds up being antagonistic at best and a Machiavellian evil at worst. The Dragon Age games are written differently, though. Much like the rest of their lore, copious evidence that both proves and disproves the existence of a God or even multiple Gods exists, as do robust characters that have deep crises of faith by the time the events of Dragon Age: Inquisition take place. Much like our own world, the various religions in the Dragon Age universe are deeply intertwined in its history and politics, but has always walked a very fine line between definitively saying that yes, this exists or no, this is all baloney.
According to Dragon Age series writer emeritus David Gaider, this kind of ambiguity was always the plan. "This dates back to some of our earliest conversations about the setting," he tells me via an email Q&A. "In some fantasy worlds, the existence of divine beings isn’t really in question — they exist, they appear on a regular basis, they grant powers to their worshipers, things like that. You can’t really explore ‘faith’ in that kind of context. Faith requires an element of doubt, and if the gods obviously exist then you can’t really doubt them without coming across as some kind of reality-denying lunatic.”
Faith specifically is a central point of a lot of character motivation in Inquisition. He says that “[faith] is indeed something we wanted to explore, so that meant setting up a world where the big questions don’t have ready answers. Nobody knows for certain what happens after you die. Nobody knows for certain if the Maker exists, or what the truth of the ancient past really was. There are different viewpoints, and we wanted to make sure that each of them could be held by a reasonable person. Dragon Age: Inquisition was the first time we allowed the player to express how they personally related to those viewpoints, in a way that didn’t force them to one decision or the other. That was, in fact, one of the fundamental parts of our theme.”
As you would imagine, this process of making sure that faith can be questioned and doubted is some serious work. There's always evidence in both directions that prove/ disprove religious concepts (ie- some of the mystery surrounding the Christ-like Andraste's now-vanished ashes). In building a world as dense as DA, I wondered if the writing team made a point to do this from the jump. Gaider says that, "we've always made sure to present Dragon Age’s history as being subjective. It’s never ‘this is how it happened and there’s no question about it’, but rather ‘this is how the author believes it happened.'"
I immediately wondered if they had a checklist floating around, as if they had to always have to disprove something once they’ve given evidence of implying that it exists. “We assume the role of whoever’s writing that lore and color their perception of events with their culture and beliefs... as well as an understanding that, like a game of telephone tag, things get misinterpreted and misunderstood the more they're related. It makes it easy for us to maintain a bit of mystery in our lore, and the only time we’ve had to consciously stop something from going into the game is when it would answer something too definitively. That’s not how history works."
"We assume the role of whoever’s writing that lore and color their perception of events with their culture and beliefs... as well as an understanding that, like a game of telephone tag, things get misinterpreted and misunderstood the more they're related."
But there are a lot of religions in Thedas, though, and many of them have differing ideas of how the world was made and how their deities live and die. Knowing how important the different sets of characters and their religious affiliations are in the game (The Chantry vs. The Qun vs. The Imperial Chantry vs. what we now can see as old Elven gods), Gaider gave some thoughts as to how to keep all of these kind of disparate faiths in the air and having them interact with each other: "I think you just have to maintain the idea in your head that each of the cultures and characters who hold these beliefs do so sincerely. If you can imagine them defending their faith and explaining why it’s important, and they can do so as a reasonable and rational being, then you can keep them straight in your head even in the face of change."
It’s tougher with some specific characters, though. Recurring series character Leliana is practically defined by her religious beliefs in Dragon Age: Origins, but takes a decided turn for the skeptical in Inquisition. I asked about writing a character with a crisis of faith like Leliana, and Gaider was surprisingly specific. “When it comes to a character like Leliana, it wasn’t about first deciding that she was having a crisis of faith and then wondering what might have caused it.” He says that "for her, it was knowing what she had been through in the previous games and the beginning of Dragon Age: Inquisition and then wondering how that made her feel. She once felt the Maker had chosen her for a purpose, and now here came the Inquisitor who, it appears, was also chosen. Does that mean she was misguided in her earlier belief? Does that mean nobody’s chosen? The writing team will talk together about what’s going on in a character’s head, and that will eventually lead to something concrete we can springboard off of to write that character’s personal arc. It doesn’t always have to relate to faith, but when it does it can be quite powerful."
Truth time: I grew up in what you might call a TurboCatholic family. Mass several times per week, confession at least once a month, a fair share of rosaries prayed on the regular, the works. Though I’m not quite as practicing a church-goer as I once was, I find as I get older that I don’t really have any beef with God or religion, but it’s been kept at arms’ length for a quite a while now. Though, it’s been a challenge to reconcile how video games portray organized religion versus how I grew up with it. One of the takeaways I’ve always had with the Dragon Age saga is that it’s cool if you believe in this stuff, and it’s cool if you don’t. This, again, isn’t exactly a common stance in the gaming space. I brought this up to Gaider, and wondered if this was always the motivation in crafting such a religiously diverse universe He puts it very clearly:
“We didn't want to force players into the mindset that their characters must be faithful or become faithful in the course of the story – not everyone’s going to think that’s fun, and it would also fly in the face of the ambiguity we’ve built up in Dragon Age’s systems of faith. So, for those people, we wanted to provide the ability to question what was going on and maintain a healthy level of cynicism and that this would be okay. On the other hand, we also didn’t want to shoot down the idea of faith as a positive thing. It would be a very easy thing to present faithful people as being gullible dupes, or suggest that faith itself serves no real purpose.”
"We thought it would be interesting to allow the player the possibility of exploring and embracing faith in the game,” he says, "and not be punished for doing so." That sounds about as holy as any endeavor gets.