During my senior year of college, one of my English professors let me write about Dragon Age for a final paper. And not just about the storytelling or the writing, but a full on nerd out about the Bible’s influence on the game. At the time, I was in a class about the Bible’s far-reaching effects on literature; my professor allowed us to pick a piece of media (other than a book, if we wanted) to analyze.
I picked Dragon Age because the conversation around our cultural awareness of video games feels limited. In class, we discussed modern literature, and even touched on movies and TV shows, but not once did video games come up. In my spare time I’d play the Dragon Age games to wind down from studying novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz and Lila, but found myself thinking about the same discussions we’d applied to books. It warranted talking about, especially since fantasy—in all forms—has never existed in a vacuum, away from outside influences like mythology.
But first, some background.
In the world of Dragon Age, the majority of the humans identify as Andrasians and worship a god known as the Maker. There are other religions and philosophies to be found in Thedas (the continent the game takes place on), but the organization called the Chantry is far reaching and influences the world for good or ill in major ways. Andrastians believe the Maker gave them their holy text, the Chant of Light, through his bride on earth, the prophet Andraste.
During her life, according to the Chantry, Andraste led a rebellion against the Tevinter Imperium, a pro-magic country in the north of Thedas that allowed ownership of slaves. She was successful until she was betrayed by her human husband and burned at the stake. After her death, nothing changed in Tevinter, and the world’s anti-magic view was set in stone.
During my initial playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins in 2013, I didn’t know any of this. A friend of mine had to explain that Andraste was Dragon Age Jesus, and even then I didn’t completely understand the connection between magic users and the Chantry (and the disdain on both sides) until I actually played as a mage. Suddenly the first three and a half minutes of the game took on a darker tone, and I began thinking about video games as media that we can discuss the same way we talk about movies and books.
Dragon Age: Origins opens with an explanation about the creation of darkspawn, monster-like creatures focused on death and destruction. The first darkspawn were originally human mages from Tevinter who tried to “usurp God” and were punished for their crime by becoming the corrupted creatures. Their goal is to end all other life on Thedas, a driving plot in Origins and part of the underlying plots in Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
Watching this intro while in the midst of my Bible and literature class is when I had an “oh, video games have also been influenced by the Bible” moment. Suddenly, the darkspawn weren’t just monsters that needed to be blasted away with ice and lightning: they were also a physical reminder of the punishment for the mages’ sin of trying to attain knowledge that would elevate their status from human to something more.
In a similar vein, the creation story in the Bible also warns against disobeying one’s maker in the quest for knowledge. Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge and are punished for it through physical pain. Adam must use physical labor in order to produce food in order to eat, and Eve must endure the pain of birth to continue the line of man. They are punished for acquiring knowledge that made them too powerful, and the mages from Tevinter are also punished in physical ways.
Much like the fallout of a woman partaking of the tree of knowledge first, a very specific group of people are believed to be dangerous and unable to control themselves. In the Dragon Age timeline, Andraste doesn’t march against Tevinter for years after the darkspawn’s creation. It was Andraste, the Chantry claims, who said, “Magic exists to serve man, and never rule over him,” as part of a sermon that is included in the Chant of Light. As a result, mages do not have the same rights as non-magic users and are even subject to execution without proof of corruption or crime.
As soon as someone exhibits magical ability, they are taken away from their family and locked away in a tower for not only their own safety, but the safety of everyone around them. At least, that’s what the Chantry claims; the treatment of mages is generally justified by the darkspawn creation story. The Chantry’s claim that mages are too weak to control their own powers, and that unrestricted power caused the creation of darkspawn, repeats throughout the games. It reminded me of arguments using the Bible, and Eve specifically, to justify the oppression of women. Once I started seeing these connections, it had a very real impact on my in-game choices. The Dragon Age games offer decisions ranging from who gets to be king to whether or not you’ll trade a dead woman’s scarf to a hermit in the woods. Now that I understand the backstory and its connections to the Bible, I feel like an extra layer has been added to the lore. In some ways, this knowledge has made the in-game decisions I make carry more weight because I think about the ramifications differently.
Knowing that Andraste is a Jesus figure and that darkspawn could be a representation of sin makes the games deeper and more meaningful to me as a player.
Andraste and the Chantry are not just pieces of lore that can be disregarded; they carry weight outside the game as well as within it. Players discuss their feelings about mages and the Chantry with the same fervor they debate Dumbledore’s morality. At its heart, this is a game we love and take sides about why we love it. Our decisions in game feel real, and we get to know characters and the way their lives have been shaped by powerful institutions. It’s hard to ignore the pain and joy of well-written characters and easy to feel the impact for your player character.
For me, I see this as conversation about the power of information and who controls the narrative. The Chantry controls how much the mages are allowed to know, and by extension, how much players are aware of. You can play as someone who does not question the status quo, someone who actively rebels against it, or someone in-between. Even after the credits roll, I find myself wondering what would happen if I made a different choice.
But it’s just a video game, the critics may cry out, as they shake their fists at the sky. That may be, but it has the power to make a player feel something. How is that any different than a book having a strong impact on a reader? If I know that a book deals with themes of recovery, then that book will have more meaning for me as a reader than if I read it without thinking critically about what I just consumed.
Knowing that Andraste is a Jesus figure and that darkspawn could be a representation of sin makes the games deeper and more meaningful to me as a player. This isn’t for any religious reason; rather, it reveals how video games, like books, movies, and TV, borrow from our cultural consciousness to weave new versions of stories that we already have connections to, even without us realizing it.
Acknowledging that the Dragon Age series is more than game about magic and darkspawn, and yes, sometimes dragons, makes it a better video game. Playing a game creates an inherently different interaction than most other media. In some cases, we’re able to shape the story. We feel our decisions deeply, sometimes deeply enough that we have to go back to our last save because we regret it. Shouldn’t that be worth talking about? When we talk about entertainment as art, we too often leave out games. I think it’s time we restarted the conversation.
A writer based in the Pacific Northwest, Grace Cook is a freelance writer who finally admitted to herself she wants to be a writer.