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- “Men's hearts hold shadows darker than any tainted creature.” ―Flemeth
Despite being set in a fantasy world, Thedas echoes human nature at every turn. What I enjoy most about the Dragon Age universe is how real and relatable it's characters are, which is exactly why it kills me when BioWare does a 180 on everything I love.
So... yeah. Time for me to rant and nitpick about nonsensical shit.
The one thing that entices me more than anything else in the Dragon Age universe, (other than Isabella's skirt) was the feeling that I was dealing with real people in a fantastic place. It irks me then, when BioWare reverts back to "generic fantasy" clichés, if you can say that without irony. Fantasy settings are supposed to be radically different from our world, yes, but they're also supposed to remind us about our own world. At its core, the fantasy setting should resemble our own. When Dragon Age does that, it works; When it doesn't, it's just plain silly.
- “Fear makes men more dangerous than magic ever could.” ―Merrill
As usual, I like to get people's hopes up before crushing them down to my level of pessimism and cynicism. These are the things that Dragon Age did right when it came to character and conflict.
A World Rife With Strife
People in Thedas really can't get along, can they? Even with Dragons flying everywhere and Darkspawn ravaging the land, the denizens of Thedas can't ever settle their differences. That's part of what makes this world so interesting; it's full of political intrigue and drama. In the real world, it sucks. But in fiction, it makes the world come to life.
A lot of these conflicts may remind you of some goings-on here on Earth. That's because usually, these characters are driven by human emotions and relatable motivations. The Qunari may be extreme, but they're philosophy has a certain allure to it. It's hard not to draw comparisons between the qunari and radical religious movements, or the Chantry's domination to that of the domineering Catholic church.
What's My Motivation?
For the most part, characters in the Dragon Age series are pretty well motivated. Things like zealotry, pride, greed, religion, patriotism, redemption, and insanity, I can understand. Especially that last one. These are what drove some of the greatest villains in gaming.
Arl Rendon Howe was motivated by greed, a very human emotion, especially in the gaming industry. Branka may have been bonkers, but there was an understandable underlining cause. She would sacrifice anything, even the souls of her people, just to restore the Dwarven empire to its former glory. That's not just relatable, it's almost admirable. The Arishok was driven by his unshakable faith in the Qun. If you're at all religious or philosophical, you can empathise with his conviction, even if it is a tad extreme.
Meredith, the Knight-Commander of Kirkwall was another cunning villain I could get behind. Well, I could get behind her motives anyway. She was driven by fear and a need to protect her citizens. Through dialogue with her, we were shown that, like the qunari, she was accurate in her depiction of the city, but she's also a bit of an extremist.
In other words, she's bloody fucking mental, which is fine. Crazy is a very human thing (I'd go as far to say that we invented crazy!), and a perfectly understandable character motivation. As a man who has dealt with many a crazy bitch in is life time, I can say I relate to her characterisation.
The most sterling example of course, is Loghain Mac Tir. Easily one of my favourite villains ever, he was what drove me through Dragon Age: Origins. With my fanatical blood lust to push me onward, I burnt many a midnight oil during my first playthrough. Over the course of our hero's journey, it became abundantly clear that Logain had convinced himself he was right. He was fighting for his country; his two biggest motivators were fear and patriotism. His not-to-distant memories of the Orlesian Occupation, along with his pride and prejudice, blinded him from the true threat: the Darkspawn. He killed all my friends, including Duncan and the king, but even I gave pause when it came time to execute him. His touching last words to his daughter served to leave a bad taste in my mouth when I let Alistair kill him. Or maybe that was the champagne I was saving for the occasion.
The Not So Good
If you've read any of my other blogs, you may be familiar with this part. This is the part where I throw all caution to the wind, defenestrate any sense of fairness, and criticise BioWare for every mistake they make.
Clichés and Characters
I've already made my love for Loghain (as a villain), but the main antagonist of Dragon Age: Origins, the Archdemon, didn't really captivate me the same way. This is because she and the rest of the Darkspawn horde lack any kind of human characterisation, which is to be expected of such a bestial foe. However, unlike the Templars or even the Architect's Awakened, there's no sense of doubt to what I'm doing. Slaying Darkspawn is good fun, but it's too black and white for me. In Dragon Age II, we were instead given a dilemma; it was a grey conflict.
Another thing I wanted to touch on was the Lyrium Sword seen in Act III. Now, I did like how they made a throwback to the first act, and gave me some impression that my actions had impact, but it also made me question Meredith's characterisation. There's nothing really relatable about some magical corrupting artefact. Meredith Stannard was a crazy, but understandably so. The reasoning for her actions, I thought, was a mix of over-zealous vigilance and self-assured righteousness. Saying she was driven over the edge by some magical idol about which we know nothing (other than that it is evil) makes her less of a grey antagonist and more of a stereotypical black-and-white villain. It's like finding out that Darth Vader was driven to the dark side because of his lightsaber.
The Thin Line Betwixt Motivated and Maddening
I also wanted to talk a bit about... Anders. I know, I know, everybody loved Anders from Dragon Age II. In Awakening, Anders was a pretty cool dude. But then, somewhere along the line, he become an annoying, preachy, mage-rights activist. Everyone hated the new Anders, and whilst Hepler certainly didn't deserve the flak she got, it was at least well-founded. In many ways, his incessant preaching reminded me a lot of Dale from The Walking Dead. Many started to get annoyed by Dale when he started hammering in his morality into a group dilemma.
In Awakening, we got the impression that Anders advocated Mage freedom; it wasn't shoved down our throats. Even when he did get preachy, he was at least witty about it. His desire to free the mages was a facet of his character. In Dragon Age II, it was his character. Anders became the very embodiment of the Mages vs. Templars conflict, and at that point, he stopped being a character and started being a vehicle for the plot. That's where I think Anders went wrong.
Also, it may have had something to do with him suddenly becoming a terrorist.