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Roleplaying Faith in Dragon Age: Inquisition

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You don’t have to be familiar with Dragon Age to read this article, but there are major spoilers ahead!

Dragon Age: Inquisition, an action role-playing game released last November for PC, Playstation, and Xbox, has been touted by numerous publications as the best game of 2014. True to the roleplaying genre, which emphasizes narrative over combat, Inquisition calls upon the player character (PC) to make choices that affect the overall storyline – including in matters of religion and faith.

But although Inquisition compellingly builds a world ruled by religion, it leaves scant room for the personal faith of the PC to shape the story. Your character is asked on multiple occasions to profess his or her beliefs, yet those decisions have little bearing on the main plot. Thus, Inquisition renders your choices inconsequential – to the detriment of its gameplay – in miscasting faith as purely a matter of personal interpretation.

Before delving into Inquisition’s storyline, it’s worth taking a moment to distinguish between religion and faith. I’d define religion here as a set of organized practices performed as acts of worship. Faith, by contrast, is hope and trust in one’s relationship with God. Religious activity is of no value without faith—for example, Jesus Christ castigated the religious leaders of his day for adhering to religious rituals while neglecting faith and charity. Similarly, faith as mere abstract belief is dead and useless (James 2:14-26). Instead, Christianity teaches that what you believe must work in tandem with what you do.

As one might expect from a game with “inquisition” in the title, religion is the driving force behind the game world’s powerful institutions, allies, and enemies. In the religion practiced by the humans, the dominant race in the game, most people profess the reality of the Maker, his prophet Andraste, and the Chantry that upholds them. (There are clear parallels here with the Christian God, Jesus Christ, and the Christian church, though they don’t correspond exactly.) However, by the start of Inquisition, the Chantry has fractured, throwing the world into chaos. The Chantry’s military wing, known as the Templars, is now corrupt, and the mages who were under Templar control have violently rebelled. Divine Justinia, the Chantry’s equivalent of a pope, has gathered representatives from both sides for peace talks at the Conclave. Additionally, she and her two closest advisors, Leliana and Cassandra, have revived an organization known as the Inquisition, anticipating that it will be needed to restore the peace if the negotiations fail.

You, the player character, are at the Conclave when an explosion kills everyone else present and tears rifts in the sky, portals for demons to enter the world. (Stay with me here.) You wake up with a glowing Mark on your left hand that grants you alone the power to close these rifts, and no memory of how you survived. Others saw you talking with a mysterious woman during the explosion, whom they believe to be the Maker’s prophet, Andraste. Soon you become known as the Herald of Andraste, singled out by the Maker to prevent the end of the world. Eventually, you become the leader of the Inquisition, wielding considerable military, political, and – if you wish it – spiritual influence.

Thus from the start, the game asks you to roleplay the faith of your character. Do you believe you’re the Herald of Andraste? Or are you simply deceiving your followers, manipulating them to gain leverage? The issue is further complicated if you are an elf, qunari, or dwarf, since the various races profess different gods. With no less than the fate of the world at stake, Inquisition sets up the expectation your character’s faith choices will have significant consequences.

It’s too bad, then, that your character’s stance on Inquisition’s main god has hardly any impact on the plot. Regardless of whether or not you profess to have seen Andraste, or have led the Inquisition in her name, the outcome is the same: it is eventually revealed that it was not Andraste, but Justinia who saved your life. So much for you being the Herald of Andraste. You are still given the choice of declaring that that the sheer unlikelihood of what happened points to divine intervention, so in that sense, you must be the Maker’s chosen. But from this point it becomes clear that whatever you professed didn’t affect the storyline in any way— and won’t, going forward.

Furthermore, your character’s faith barely affects your relationships with the other characters. Their blips of approval or disapproval don’t do much, and oddly enough, you can still romance faith-driven Cassandra, who will simply say, “I believe you are the Herald of Andraste, even if you do not.” All this amounts to the assertion that faith is a private matter, something to cherish in your heart, perhaps, but not something that can bring about real change in the world. Believers will tell you that the reverse is true.

The game’s design also perpetrates a dangerous misconception: that faith is a blind leap, on the basis of no real evidence. For example, it’s convenient but a bit unfair that you start the game with amnesia, so that for much of the game, when asked if you’re the Herald, you truly have nothing to go on, grounds for agnosticism at most.

In matters of faith, we all look for evidence, even if it’s not the kind that can be obtained by scientific means. For example, you couldn’t conduct a repeatable experiment to test if your significant other loves you. Yet you surely rely on other forms of evidence, such as firsthand experience, to give you reason to put faith in your significant other. Faith in the Christian God is the same way. Old Testament figures like Moses and Elijah encountered God personally, hearing his voice and seeing miracles such as the parting of the Red Sea. Jesus’ contemporaries walked with him and ate with him; many were touched and healed by him. These eyewitnesses wrote the books that Christians today can take as evidence for their faith. In them are recorded many more promises from God: that he desires to be known, and anyone who seeks with him will find him (John 17:25-26, Jeremiah 29:13). Such seeking can take many forms. When a man asked Gerard Manley Hopkins what he must do in order to believe in God, Hopkins replied, “Give alms.” In a similar vein, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “Satisfy your demand for reason but always remember that charity is beyond reason, and God can be known through charity.”

The bottom line is that faith is not about holding beliefs in the dearth of evidence (or worse, in the face of it). Rather, anyone can and should seek out evidence and reasons for what they believe.

Could the search for spiritual truth be incorporated into gameplay? I’m no designer, but I think could be interesting to see if choices made in faith led to markedly different plot outcomes in an RPG. What if choosing to believe led to more and more confirmation? In the case of Inquisition, what if non-believing characters encountered the ostensible spirit of Justinia, while believing characters encountered Andraste instead? These different outcomes in turn could solicit different reactions from antagonists and allies.

Additionally, perhaps some kind of “faith” attribute could open up additional quests, dialogue options, and abilities, allowing your character to perceive things that others can’t. In the Shadowrun games, your character’s “etiquettes” open up exclusive dialogue trees; in Neverwinter Nights, paladins had to maintain a lawful good alignment to keep their divinely granted abilities. These are old school and somewhat ham-handed mechanisms, but it’s possible others could be devised.

One area where Inquisition does really shine is the degree to which it allows your character to influence your companions’ faith journeys. Both Leliana and Cassandra, whom you’ll recall started the Inquisition, come to you with multiple crises of faith. You can turn Leliana ruthless or mellow her somewhat, encourage Cassandra to rebuild her old religious order or leave it to fall apart. You can even decide who should take Justinia’s place as the next Divine. That’s as much a matter of politics as faith, but it is rewarding to have some sway over a decision that has tremendous consequences for the world of the game.

Christians know the joys and responsibilities that come with playing a role in someone else’s faith. It’s a pleasure to have this available to your Inquisition PC as well, and to see the thought that’s gone into creating multiple outcomes for Leliana and Cassandra that carry over from choices you made in previous titles.

Moreover, it’s in their storylines that you wrestle with what John Lennox says are the two most important questions: “Is God real?” and “Is God good?” What is his character, as revealed in history and scripture? What has he done? How then should we respond? These are questions that all of us should grapple with as best we can, both in games and in real life.

Inez Tan

Inez Tan is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program. She also works with the Augustine Collective (http://www.augustinecollective.org), a student-led movement of Christian journals on college campuses.