Dragon Age: Origins and the Uncomfortable Problem With Fantasy

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So I wanna talk about Dragon Age: Origins. Anyone who actually knows me beyond this blog knows that I…literally never stop talking about Dragon Age. I am in Dragon Age mode almost 24/7. Who wants to talk about Dragon Age? Me. The answer is literally always me. Let’s talk about Dragon Age.

That being said, I really need to talk about the less excellent aspects of the game(s). Mostly I’m going to talk about Origins, and there’s a couple reasons for this:

  1.  I finally convinced my long suffering bff to give the series a try
  2. Origins is the most fresh in my mind
  3. Origins is probably the most egregious offender in the “mainline series” (i.e. the main games: Origins, Dragon Age II, and Inquisition)

I’m not including things like the comics, because I haven’t read them for…..reasons…

pictured: reasons

pictured: reasons

I am also not including the spin-off novels which I have read and which do count as “canon”, Heroes of Dragon Age, nor Dawn of the Seeker because I haven’t, at this time, been able to sit through it.

Fair warning, there’s going to be spoilers for a huge chunk of Origins. I’m also going to slap a huge warning on here that I’m going to be talking about sexual assault and rape since Origins decided that was a thing that needed to be done. A lot. In addition to this there are passive mentions and references to suicide and self harm.

There are a couple of things I could start with, including but not limited to: the City Elf and Casteless dwarf origins, and 95% of The Nature of the Beast/Brecilian Forest questline. I might extrapolate on them in their own separate posts, depending on how well I feel I can cover what is pretty dense text, not to mention subtext.

So first things first: Bioware as a company, has some…questionable sexual and gender politics.


pictured: questionable sexual and gender politics

Yeah I know that’s unfair. I know it’s really unfair, considering Bioware is a company, not three people and a room of servers. Bioware is made up of ton of people, on a ton of different projects, and with that comes people with different opinions and backgrounds. So yeah it’s a little unfair of me to generalize, but I feel like I’m justified for brevity.

It’s also pretty unfair of me to use a picture of an asari dancer from Mass Effect, a game from a completely different team and a completely different genre but to be honest I have a lot of beef with the asari. Also otherwise this post would be nothing but pictures of Yavana and me saying “don’t do this”. Breaking my rules a little bit by using both the comics and the mobile game but I need to make a point here.

sidenote: don’t do this

sidenote: don’t do this

I feel like a lot of their problems with women in general crops up with…well honestly any female character in Origins. Morrigan’s character design, the way Shianni is treated, desire demons, everyone except Loghain and Morrigan’s reactions to the fact that a woman is a Grey Warden. Take your pick, anything is a great starting point, which says a lot in general. I’m going to follow up this post with a couple more simply because I didn’t cover enough with this one. So let’s dive in with the biggest, most obvious beef I have with Origins.

Case in Point: There’s a lot of rape. Like, a lot.

I struggled for about 10 minutes on how to word this more delicately, but I can’t think of one. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t try to make it delicate. The game doesn’t, after all, and I don’t think it should be something that’s taken lightly. I talked a little about rape as character backstory in a previous post, and while I do think I was a bit scattered I stand by what I said. This can be attributed to a couple of things:

  1. Rape has become shorthand for “dark fantasy” and an “easy” way to both garner sympathy and “set the stakes”
  2. Thedas was heavily inspired by Westeros
  3. Thedas and the writing team just weren’t that mature when Origins came out.

So the first reason: it’s become shorthand. Why? Why this sticking point? Well, part of it is the roots that the subgenres of dark fantasy and low fantasy have: Conan the Barbarian, Michael Moorcock, countless others. It’s a way to distinguish it from things like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis where battles definitely happen but it’s almost sanitized at times and mostly poetic. Dark fantasy and low fantasy have a lot less to do with lords, less “intellectual” things like wizards. Somehow this shakes out to “sexual assault happens like, on the daily” because it’s gritty. It’s also because Conan et all tends to be at least a little exploitative and revels in chainmail bikinis/pin ups.

I could go into this more, how this view is wrong and leads to misunderstandings. In the initial drafts of this I did, but I’ll just curtail the whole thing and cut to what bothers me the most: it’s lazy. This isn’t even touching on the awful implication that the victims (mainly women in Origins) are just walking plot points. I just think it’s lazy and bad. Crude wording, yes, but I can’t think of a better way to put it.

It’s lazy in the City Elf because instead of building up relationships with the supporting characters like in the Dalish and Mage origins, it relies entirely on the idea that “this woman you know got raped and now you know how dark and grim the world you inhabit is now.” It’s lazy because Shianni has no agency. She has no point other than your spunky friend who got raped because the world and the people – the humans- in control are corrupt. It’s lazy because there are a million other signals to how corrupt and awful the world is for elves in the game itself. It’s lazy because I’ve seen it done before, and I hate saying this, but I’m completely numb to it now.

It still hurts, it still makes me angry, but not for the reasons they think. Instead of going “i am really engaged with this”, I’ve since gone  “well i’m never making a city elf again”. I even had a pretty dim view of Origins and the series in general because of it. My first finished playthrough was still a city elf warrior, but I’m essentially never going to replay that origin, even if I’d glean more information about the world or make different choices; I have no interest in it. The other origins with the exception of casteless dwarf, I’ve gone through several times.

I’m not saying it wasn’t effective at the time: I remember thinking “this is stupid and awful but it’s okay because I’m going to gut Howe like a trout” and doing that. Now I just think “really?” and get angry that they decided that was the story they wanted to tell. That the great truth of Thedas according to the City Elf origin is that outspoken elves and women will be dealt with that way.

It’s terrible in the Nature of the Beast because again, it’s just lazy. It’s your second (or third depending on play order) major plot stop so you’ve had enough time to become immersed in Thedas. You’re finally getting a hold on everything, and engaged in the lore that Origins has built up. If you’re anything but Dalish, this is also your first exposure to elven culture firsthand, so there’s some excitement there. You’re finding out more about the world, you’re finding out more about the setting and the people.

I love that, I love how lived in Thedas feels, how it breathes and how it’s terrible and wonderful. I love every codex entry. I love the elven pantheon, I love Andraste, Flemeth, mages, the chantry, the countryside. I love that the actual plotline is elves vs. werewolves. Never in my wildest dreams could I think of such an absolutely absurd plot like “these elves and these werewolves are totally gonna have a throwdown”. I love the plotline, but I absolutely hate the execution.

Again there are two main reasons why I hate the execution:

  • The Lady of the Forest has a lazy, stupid character design and an entry-level fursona (Editor’s note: I still call her Faerie Rinoa because of the highlights in her hair. -Rachel)
  • Seriously, the best motivation you could come up with for yet another elven character was “well his daughter got raped and killed herself”. That’s it? Not the baked-in fear and distrust of wolves in elven culture, or werewolves as the manifestation of the id?

None of this is to diminish the real world ramifications of sexual assault or the experiences of survivors. As smarter people than me have said, rape happens and it’s awful. The use of it so cavalierly in fiction is bad not because it rings false as an experience but because it’s the only motivation and reduces victims -mainly women in these cases- to plot points, not people with lives and motivations.

The second and third reasons why this was so prevalent in Origins tie into each other, so I’m going to tackle them together. When I say the writers weren’t mature enough I don’t mean that the setting is lacking in originality or depth: it isn’t. I could wax on further about how much I love Thedas and it’s awful, wonderful people. What I mean is that there was caution to the writing – it took tropes that are common: elves, dwarves, humans, dragons, etc and subverted them….kind of.

In the years following Lord of the Rings, probably one of the most influential fantasy books, there have been several subversions of Tolkien’s work. Even just looking at the root story itself: The Hobbit is essentially Norse myth fanfic. A couple notable series that take inspiration Tolkien and change the formula are the hugely popular A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, Terry Brook’s Shannara Saga, and a series recently introduced to me by a dear friend, Steve Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. All of these aren’t exactly new though most have installments that came out in the oughts.

There’s some hesitancy to Thedas, some old ground covered in Origins. You have stock characters and stock plots, but they do things differently, but not too differently. You can see a Martin-esque approach with how there’s, quite frankly, hilariously over the top gore and death animations and the political power plays. You can see their influences with Loghain Mac Tir: a character most people don’t get to know but is deeply fascinating and layered, but still falls on old archetypes. Everything in Origins is a little grimy, and has a tendency towards browns which makes for an ugly game sometimes for the sake of “realness”. There’s also shades of the more exploitative predecessors with Morrigian’s godawful character design (she looks like a rebellious mall goth rather than a young woman who grew up in the wilds learning illegal magic), several of the female robes, and the fact that despite a desire demon being a desire for everything, not just lust it is still a traditionally attractive female in gold nipple tassels.

However, with all that, all the characters/archetypes presented have their own unique personality and not for the sake of subverting conventions. Where Thedas differs and impresses me is that everyone is sort of terrible. And not in overt, offensive for the sake of “realistic” ways like they’re outspokenly racist or sexist though that does happen (see: most of the party assuming your elf warden is/was a servant).

It’s little ways, like how even though Alistair is very nice he’s kind of a self absorbed dick. One that will, in fact, thrown down and leave if you don’t agree with him or tell him that his views are wrong. Sten openly questions why and how your female warden is a warrior and a woman, Morrigan is beyond misanthropic, you have two actual assassins in your party, and optionally a genocidal rock monster who talks about crushing humans beneath their feet at length. But while they are sort of terrible, they are also wonderful. They are human, more human than is the norm in fantasy and video games. No one is wholly good or wholly bad. They just are: and the series is about shades of grey and how people can be terrible and great.

Morrigan, a supposedly a cold, harsh person quietly asks you how you’re doing and offers her condolences. Zevran’s suicidal ideation and lack of self worth beneath his playboy assassin front. Leliana’s quiet faith, and her despair as she wonders if she really could change; if she was kidding herself when she left behind her past as an assassin.

In Origins there are the seeds of something greater. They set up fantastical plot threads, groups, and people. They don’t look down on fantasy conventions, or think magic is silly or makes a story lesser. Instead they look at these tools and take a more sci-fi approach to it, where they question societal norms. Which is why it’s so disappointing that instead of thinking up creative plotlines that I know they have, they fell back on lazy tropes.

The cavalier use of sexual assault, the skimpy robes, and the over the top gore are all, to me, earmarks of a rookie writer. They wanted to set up the idea that “this ain’t Tolkien” but weren’t confident enough to rely on their world building and visual storytelling (which are both excellent) alone. This is a shame to me, because Origins has so much to offer, but I was turned off from the series for a while because of my first exposure to it as a City Elf. That’s a problem: your entry point shouldn’t be something that makes people go “maybe this series isn’t for me.” I’m more than happy to admit that I didn’t really “get into” Dragon Age until Dragon Age II because of this. As I personally am replaying, and I’m hearing my BFF’s exploits in her playthroughs I’m left with this sick feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop when plot points are hit.

That shouldn’t be part of the experience. I’m not saying that bad things can’t happen! Far from it, the awful things that happen in the series are important because they leave an impact and make for good writing. But I shouldn’t be playing it and thinking “oh God I really hope there’s not nonsensical rape I forgot about here”.

This post originally appeared on Elyese’s blog, Gaslight Trousseau

Elyese has an unwieldy love of video games, books, comics, and movies. By daylight she is a sleepy art major; by moonlight she is a Hulk-like figure who critiques these things to tatters.

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