This post contains a lot of spoilers for Dragon Age 2. Click here for more of my thoughts on the Dragon Age series
Something lurks under Kirkwall. Unnamed, unknown, but powerful; it infects the minds of all who dwell near it. Hawke, a refugee of blight-destroyed Lothering and eventual champion of Kirkwall, are among the very few to glimpse what is really going on. This may look like a political struggle between cruelty and terror. It is not. Whatever is corrupting Kirkwall is using the life and death struggle between mages and Templar as a means to it’s own end. The story of this entity is what Casandra pulls out of Varric. She trades him lie for lie, and comes out the victor.
From the standpoint of game play mechanics, this is a fascinating choice. There are two stories being told. One that Varric is telling, and one that Cassandra is hearing. There is the story that the player is unraveling, and the story the designers are hinting at. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game developer hide the real story of a game within the narrative fiction of a game before.
In the theology of Dragon Age, humanity attempted to storm the gates of heaven; literally turning it into hell. From this hell, the darkspawn were born. It is the darkspawn which search for and unleash the Old Gods, causing the Blights. It is the Old Gods which constantly call out, begging for release. The Old Gods who taint and corrupt anything which happens too near.
In Dragon Age, demons are a real, tangible presence. They infect the sentient beings who inhabit Thedas, turning them into abominations. In Dragon Age Origins, Abominations were rare. Each was a tragic story happening to a named character who the Gray Warden may well have known. Certainly the Gray Warden knew the story behind the creation of each Abomination (save the ones that were encountered in the Fade). Contrast this with Kirkwall. Abominations were plentiful. They occur not simply in the mage’s tower, but in warehouses, fields, streams, gullies, the chantry… I’m honestly not sure there’s a place I didn’t stumble into several of them. This tells us that either the designers were lazy, or:
There’s something wrong with Kirkwall. It was purpose built as the center of the slave trade for a massive empire. Untold millions of sentient beings were herded through it’s streets to begin their new lives as chattel. Below Kirkwall is a Dwarven Thaig. Before the Champion’s expedition, that Thaig had sat untouched for centuries, and unused for millenia. The contents of that Thaig would be an archeological marvel, a chance to learn much about Dwarven history, perhaps the very history of the Fall itself. Would be, that is, were it not for the small fact that those who go down there tend to go mad.
There is so much insanity in this game that it would be easy to overlook the true craziness that happens Down Below. In the normal distribution of human personalities, we would tend to expect a murderer for every couple of saints. Given that this is a game about extraordinary people, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the people are more monstrous than average. It’s worth drawing attention to the fact that twice we see dwarven expeditions into the primeval Thaig, and twice we see brother turn on brother over a trifling trinket or a pocket of gold. These are the incidents in which we see cut-scenes of Varric being questioned by Casandra. The game calls far less attention to your slaughter of a dragon than it does to the disposition of Varric’s brother.
The artifacts pulled from the Primeval Thaig are tainted. That much is clear. The sword wielded by Knight-Commander Meredith is made from such an artifact. Her strictness with the mages became outright paranoia and hostility. She herself becomes something akin to an abomination. It is possible that her paranoia is justified, at least insofar as it encompasses the mages of Kirkwall. I believe that the only mages who do not end up being possessed by demons are Hawke and Merrill. Every other mage in Kirkwall gives in to their desire for power– if only the power to keep themselves safe– and becomes an abomination.
Kirkwall is not a safe place for the souls of mages. It will seduce them and destroy them. Nor, does it seem, is this a safe place for the psyche of non-mages. It isn’t merely Knight-Commander Meridith who goes mad. The Arishok of the Qun also rampages through the city. After a half-decade of mostly-peaceful settlement and waiting, the Arishok eventually grows despondent over the corruption and filth of Kirkwall. So despondent, in fact, that he decides only blood and fire can purge the city. The similarities between these actions and the Right of Annulment cannot be overlooked.
Among your companions is an abomination. The mage known as Anders holds within himself a spirit possessing the qualities of justice. This spirit was bonded to this mage, and together the pair sought to find a better way for mages to integrate with Thedan society. Throughout their time in Kirkwall, the pair became darker. They brooded on the evils done to mages until finally they felt compelled to act. In a stunning act of terror, Anders and Justice used Qunari technology to destroy not merely the Kirkwall chantry, but also commit the purposeful murder of the one person who could have possibly reconciled the mage and Templar. With enough time in Kirkwall, even Justice became perverted, and turned into vengeance.
There is something lurking under Kirkwall. It might be an Old God clawing to the surface, or– terrifyingly– something even more cunning. Through it’s influence, Thedas has been set ablaze. Mage and Chantry are in a state of war against one another. The Seekers are trying to discover the whereabouts of the one person who has emerged from this opening salvo with soul unscathed.
For all the cut corners the designers took with the production of this game, for all the paring down the mechanics suffered, the story itself was rich and well told. So well told, in fact, that many players might not have noticed the slight of hand. Varric seems to have missed it himself. Whatever flaws we can point to within the game, Bioware did something bold and new with regards to storytelling within games. That is worthy of a song.