Friday, May 17, 2013

Reexamining DA2: The Cardboard Chantry, Pt.2

"So, a drunk says the grand cleric funded a rogue templar. And here we are."

Today's post largely centers around Bioware's portrayal of party members' relationship with the Chantry.   It also comes with a major asterix attached.  For the sake of discussion, I will argue that most of my impressions are true ~98ish% of the time.  There is always an odd event or character comment that breaks the mold, but these instances are not the norm.  Out of necessity, today's post concerns a Sabastien-less DA2, and I am aware that I'm only touching the surface here.  Opinions have been very streamlined for brevity's sake. Please note that this is one of those subjects I think about a great deal while in game, but I've never actually tried to vocalize it before.  Hopefully you can at least get the gist of where thoughts were going.

Characters' Relationship with the Chantry:

Excluding Sebastian, who I will discuss next week, recruitable NPCs in DA2 have a very one dimensional relationship with the Chantry ... if they have an opinion on the matter at all.  This is particularly striking since the mere concept of organized religion is divisive at best, and it can easily leave people with very firmly set positive or negative views.  Even those who choose to not even think about religious institutions at all seem to have some kind of opinion.   This is especially true when priests and corrupt politics mix, something that is not an unusual occurrence in Kirkwall.  Because of this, it seems exceedingly unusual that among the six base recruitable NPCs, (Sebastien is acquired via DLC and I have not experienced Mark of the Assassin's Tallis yet) that every one of them would be antagonistic, atheistic  or simply ambivalent when it comes to Fereldan's only officially recognized religion.  Even Hawke, the PC, doesn't have a great deal to say on the matter.  In fact, the only NPCs that really have any opinion whatsoever are the human mages in your party - Bethany and Anders.

Bethany is very fearful of the the Chantry as an institution, but seems to have little opinion on its attached belief system. This is of course thanks to the Templars. The Templars are the arm of the Chantry which polices the Circle and hunts down apostates.  Having been an apostate all her life, Bethany's fear is well founded. It is disappointing though that Bethany did not take a moment to consider the Chantry as individuals vs. the Templars/Chantry as a collective.  As a former resident of Lothering, both Bethany and her family would have observed and received Chantry relief as the Blight approached and refugees poured into the town.  We know from DA:O that Lothering's Chantry had a considerable presence throughout the town, but the Reverend Mother was not an unreasonable woman.  The sisters seemed to care about the town's physical (not just spiritual) welfare, and acted accordingly.  The prominent Templar presence would have certainly placed all of Hawke's family on pins and needles, but they would have had to be blind to not see the good that the individual priests were doing. I'm not saying that those efforts would have changed her views, but  acknowledgement that the Chantry as a whole did not necessarily 100% = the Templars would have been nice.  Party banter between Aveline and Bethany does intricate that she is curious about mages in the Circle, but one still gets the impression that she is inquiring more out of fear, as opposed to genuine curiosity about how a healthy/ideal Templar/Circle relationship functions.

Anders, much like Bethany, equates the Chantry with the Templars.  While hers is a relationship of fear though, his quite obviously is one of relentless antagonism.  Part of me wants to give Anders a pass here for his all-or-nothing approach to the subject.  After all, he does explain that his hate of the Templars has warped Justice's sense of ... well ... justice.  Hawke sees Anders and Justice feed off of each other's strong emotions regarding injustice a number of times, and both times the situation gets pretty out of hand.  This is where my "impressions" come in though.  No matter how many times I've played this game I still can't shake the feeling that Anders' all out antagonism towards the Chantry was the easy way out.  Not only does he assume that Chantry = Templars (I'll get to that in a second), but this single minded obsession is a mentality Bioware echoed in other companions throughout the game. For example, Fenris so completely hates Denarius (and through him, Teventir) that there is no room in his mind for the concept of a "good" mage. Isabela is so focused on her sexual escapades that literally every companion banter conversation somehow centers around it.  She is either regaling the others with her adventures, using her prowess in an attempt to impress others, or using her experience to shame/embarrass others (most specifically Sebastian who is celibate).  Fenris and Isabela concentrate on issues other than death-to-all-Templars, but the concept is the same. Bioware's modus operandi in DA2 was to take one particular characteristic and make that single thing encompass the entirety of a NPCs personality.  On one hand, this makes perfect sense for the Anders + Justice relationship.  It transforms their combined emotions into all out antagonism towards the Templars and anyone related to them.  This means that Anders is taking a clearly defined, unquestioned role in the Main Quest storyline. On the other hand, doing this is a major cop-out, and an excuse to not examine the apostate/Templar/Chantry relationship on a deeper level.  DA2's writers made Anders representative of all disenfranchised apostates. He is essentially spokesperson for one side of the story's central conflict, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.  Bioware, however, really does the game an injustice by not using Anders' place in the mage/Templar conflict to give DA2's story more emotional and intellectual depth.

As for the other recruitable NPCs, few of them seem to even think about the Chantry at all.  I have a couple feelings about this. First of all, as mentioned a few paragraphs ago, I find this really odd.  The Chantry is Fereldan's primary religious entity and so everyone,  be they religious or not, is bound to have some kind of opinion on the matter.  Secondly, it is one thing to be unopinionated due to purposeful ambivalence.  This at least is "human".  It's another, however, for a character to be unopinionated because they were written to simply not care.  Does that make sense? The latter is nothing other than flawed character writing. Isabela is too sex obsessed to have an opinion about the Chantry (except when mocking clerical abstinence of course). Fenris is too eaten up over his past slave-hood to think about anything unrelated, and Merrill is too busy being (adorably?) obtuse to have much room on her character sheet for anything else.  Admittedly, Merrill does give a small glimpse into the Dalish spiritual construct during her companion quest.  She advises the spirit of a dead hunter to be careful of the Trickster.  She also blesses another hunter's soul, and wishes it well in its journey.  That is pretty much about it though, and no larger context for her actions is provided afterwards

"I'm pretty sure that any decent priest who prays for Bartrand would burst into flames."
The only two base characters that are believably ambivalent to the Chantry, are Aveline and Varric.  Yet, this appears to be more due to the fact that they are actually well rounded characters, and less due to any kind of intentionality on Bioware's part.  I, as the player, assume Aveline has vaguely pro-Chantry views since she was once married to a Templar.  By extension one can believe her to retains mostly positive views of the Circle, but it really isn't an issue that comes up much.  Occasional companion banter gives a glimpse into her thoughts on the issue.  I'm generally left with the impression, however, that while Aveline respects the Chantry as an institution, she has few significant religious ties holding her to it.

As for Varric, well, he has a couple of things in his court on this.  One, despite his status as a Surfacer, he is still a dwarf.  One can forgive a dwarf for not really caring about human religious constructs.  When combined with his seemingly cavalier nature, Varric's ambivalence is pretty believable.  If the Chantry does not bother him, then why should he bother doing anything with it?  Secondly, Varric is just so good at being concerned about ... himself (plus close friends, family). It would be odd to see him spouting religious rhetoric about the Maker and Andraste, with no way to fit his "strong and handsome and so very smart" self into the story. To be honest, I get the impression that, if following dwarvern tradition, he were to worship the ancestors ... then he would only consider doing so because ancestors = family.  Religion is not all that important to him, but familial ties are something on which his character places a great deal of value.  Since ancestors are part of one's family, Varric probably would be able to rationalize ancestor worship.
In the next week or two be looking for part three.  At that time I'll give my impressions of Sebastian.  Some companions suddenly start having thoughts about the Maker/Andraste/The Chantry once Sebastian is introduced into the active party. I hope to touch on that. 

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