Monday, May 6, 2013

Reexamining DA2: The Cardboard Chantry, Pt.1

At this point in writing I can probably declare myself to be over halfway through Dragon Age 2 [I took a number of weeks off due to other obligations].  Having collected all possible permanent companions, including Sebastian from The Exiled Prince DLC, and completed a couple of their personal quests, that seems to be a pretty accurate estimation.  I know I promised not to constantly complain about the game, after all this playthrough is all about giving it a fair chance. I also know that the subject at hand would probably be best discussed further on in the game as the main plot line comes to a head.  The problem is though, I'm getting to a point where not saying anything is becoming difficult.  There are a number of things that bother me in DA2 - spawning enemies, faux doors, dialogue wheels, the lack of an isometric camera.  While some of these drive me positively batty, they are not necessarily deal breakers.  The topic I currently wish to address then is not a deal breaker either, but is does fill me with significant disappointment and is quite possibly what I dislike most about DA2.  The manner in which Bioware handled DA2's Chantry is, from a personal perspective, significantly lower in quality than we saw with the game's predecessor. This may sounds like an odd complaint, but bear with me for a moment.

During my Dragon Age: Origins post Here Be Dragons and a Dwarf Reborn, I stated the following:
You know one thing I really appreciate about the depiction of religion in DA:O is its multi-dimensional nature. The story does not call the Chantry evil nor does it elevate it to a saintly status. Both good and bad priests exist, but the genuinely righteous priests out number those that are corrupted (Kolgim falls in with the latter). Throughout her journey in Fereldan, Perra [the PC - a dwarf commoner] meets individuals who are all in completely different places of their personal spiritual journey. Some like Alistair have a bone to pick with the Chantry. His issues, however, don't mean that he has denounced his faith. Some like Leliana have come to the Chantry late in life and found it to be a place of solace and refuge. Others, like Morrigan, will have nothing to do with it at all - ever. Even the player has an option of being completely devout, on the fence, completely against it, or anywhere else in between. As someone for whom religion plays a very important role in everyday life, I appreciate the manner in which Bioware wrote this aspect of the narrative.

In Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware did something that one doesn't see in fantasy worlds very often, be they video games or novels. The Chantry in DA:O was "human", for lack of a better term. The Maker's followers and their leaders were not not saint-ified, nor were they demonized.  While most Revered Mothers genuinely worked for only the best for their flock and the surrounding communities, others (like the Revered Father Kolgrim) did not. The Revered Mothers sought alms, harbored the poor, blessed soldiers, prayed for those affected by the Blight, and even blessed the PC if specifically asked. The last was always an option no matter what race, gender, or class the PC was.  While all Mothers were affected by the Blight and were clearly run down by the increased demands oon thier time and resources, none of them were cookie cutter NPCs.  The Reverend Mother at Lothering would bless "treasonous" Grey Wardens and even honor the Right of Conscription, but she would not openly aid the Wardens since doing so might endanger her flock.  Mother Hannah of Redcliffe, would likewise bless the Wardens but (unless skillfully persuaded) would not provide holy symbols to Redcliffe knights because it sharply conflicted with her personal view of the Maker. (Granter her view of the Maker was also the Chantry sanctioned one, but we see evidence throughout the game that "Chantry sanctioned" does not always equal "what everyone believes".) Mother Mallol of Castle Cousland similarly would lead the PC in prayer and bless the castle's soldiers, but unlike other sisters she seems to foster a more personal, less distant, relationship with parishioners.  This is seen when she encourages the PC to use her given name and drop the formal title of Mother.  Orzammar's Brother Burkel is extremely personable and seems more concerned about individuals than he does pageantry.  In stark contrast to them all, Father Kolgrim of Haven has become the leader of a cult.  He encourages his followers to kill outsiders and worship the dragon "Andraste" instead of focusing on the Maker (much to the Guardian's dismay). 

The extensive lore and mythology Bioware crafted for the Chantry was just as easily used for good as it was for evil, and DA:O was all the better for it.  It was clear, as seen with the Circle vs. Apostate issue, that some seemingly well intentioned laws had long since outlived their usefulness or had become twisted to benefit those in power. Even so, goodwill and honest men still resided amidst those corrupted by power.  Some followed the Maker blindly while others just gave him lip service, but  a third group truly thought about the teachings of Andraste before deciding where their spiritual loyalty lay. Even amongst the PC's companions, religion and spirituality became a "grey" entity. What I found fascinating though, is that even-though the companions had set opinions of the Chantry, the Maker, and Andraste; there was a general feeling that those beliefs were organic and potentially open for change.  This is not based on something anyone actually says or demonstrates in-game, but the sense was there all the same.
In contrast, the Chantry's depiction, and the relationship of characters with it, in Dragon Age 2 is no where near as personal as it was Dragon Age: Origins.  Overall it generally leaves one feeling ... well ... kind of flat.  I had originally wanted to put this all one post, but it turns out that there was more to say on the matter than anticipated.  (Either that or I'm simply long winded.) Part 2, which will be up later this week, will do its best to explain my overall feeling regarding this issue.  Out of necessity it will also dip its toe into the subject of character writing and possibly a couple other related subjects.  I hope to see you then.

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