Dragon Age: Origins is one of my favorite video games of all time. It's not the greatest video game in terms of originality or gameplay but it does something which I give it a lot of credit for: it mastered immersion and mood. By the time you finished DA:O, you knew everything you needed to know about elves, dwarves, Fereldan, Darkspawn, mages, Templars, and a few dozen other groups.
But what I liked most about DA:O is that the setting sucked. One of the things which had always annoyed me about most fantasy RPGs is the, to quote Michael Moorcock, Epic Pooh feel. That cheerful faux-Medieval Renaissance Fair feeling that life was all sunshine and roses in the Dark Ages. I don't agree with Michael Moorcock that it applies to the Lord of the Rings, the subject of his article's ire, but I do agree that it applies to a lot of the LOTR knock-offs out there.
Part of the reason for the success of the "grimdark" movement in recent years is the search for authentic human experience. Old fashioned good vs. evil stories will never go out of style but they have to be grounded in genuine motivations. Most evil people don't believe they're the villain and the really committed ones almost always think they're righteous with a capital R.
|Kill Bill meets The Lord of the Rings is how best to describe the Elven Bride Origin.|
The game allows you to avoid doing most of this and achieve a mostly happy ending with the Human Noble Origin being the most traditionally "epic fantasy" arc. However, the stories like the City Elf Origin begin with your people being subjected to a monstrous crime while others showed you the bleak corrupt nature of Thedas society. Casteless dwarves, for example, were considered less than human just for the circumstances of their birth.
|You can convince your love interest to be a good noble nun or a sexy murderous assassin. Fun times!|
This trend continued in Dragon Age 2 with you playing the role of pseudo-Medieval Detective and mercenary Hawke. Any attempt to do the right thing in the game frequently led to disaster and confusion as all of Kirkwall's factions loathed one another with good reason. Hawke was frequently forced to take whatever side he felt closest to and, even then, that would often mean betrayal. DA2 was criticized for this, sadly, even as its major issues were its repetitious gameplay and environment.
That's not the case with Dragon Age: Inquisition. Which is not Dark Fantasy.
|In Inquisition, you're fantasy Jesus. No, seriously. Maybe fantasy Muhammad.|
I liked DA:I but I can't help but feel like the game lost a lot of its flavor in-between sequels. There's a lot of potentially interesting stuff in the game about faith, gods, morality, and what to do if you're a messiah who provides hope but it's all based on a giant big misunderstanding. The simple fact is the game never really goes beyond the idea of, "The Inquisition=Good, Corypheus Bad."
This is unfortunate because part of what makes the setting great is its moral ambiguity. The Darkspawn are a mindless collection of hostile monsters but they are treated as a force of nature rather than a true antagonist. Loghain, Meredith, and the Arishok, by contrast, were all people with understandable and sympathetic motivations. Even the Darkspawn got some character development in Dragon Age: Awakening where they appeared to be more like the Borg with a truly alien mindset versus genuinely evil.
|Corypheus in a nutshell--minus the charisma.|
It gets worse as there's actually plenty of places where they could have explored the moral ambiguity and darkness of the setting. One of the major choices in the game is between the noble Grand Duke Gaspard who is a military dictator who wants to resume war with Fereldan and Empress Celene that wants to reform the Empire but ordered a pogrom of elves to prove she's a hardass. There's also Briala, an elven spymistress who wants to make the Empire better for elves but is a scheming lying terrorist. Briala's also Celene's former lover who the former had the parents murdered of but which still loves her partner. Almost none of this is touched on in the game but only brought up in The Masked Empire novel.
|Which of these should rule? It doesn't really matter since all of them turn out well.|
We don't get to see the established racism of the Orlaisian Empire, how they abuse their serfs, or even the knowledge choosing Gaspard would mean a war with Fereldan. No, instead, that can be avoided even if it makes no sense. No matter which side we choose with the Mages vs. Templar War, the Mages get their freedom and the Circles are reformed. No matter who you side with, both the Templars and Mages survive the war. In short, the happiness of the narrative makes it feel less real and consequential. The light shines lesser without the dark.
Part of why I love David Gaider's world (acknowledging all the contributions of other writers) is because it's a setting built on real motivations, fears, and ideas. Things don't always work out and doing the "right" thing is no guarantee of success. Sometimes bad people are the right people for the job and good people screw up epically. Sometimes there is no good solution and everything will end up awful. Other times, compromise will benefit one group and screw over another. It's not quite "realism" when magic and monsters exist but it's certainly authentic.
|An antagonist, not a villain.|
Here's hoping the next game has some of its grit back.