Hero, Champion, Herald, & Inquisitor: Epic Storytelling and Dragon Age


By Kristin Bezio

This is the first post in The Learned Fangirl’s seminar series, and the first post which addresses the question of epic storytelling. For this reason, I feel justified in going into a bit more detail than is perhaps usual in describing what it means for a story—and, in this case, a game—to be epic.

Epic Stories

“Odysseus And Nausicaä – Project Gutenberg eText 13725” by Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.Project Gutenberg eText

The origins of our storytelling, our literature, and, in modern times, our movies, television, and videogames— the origins of our popular culture —all reach back to ancient songs and poems we call “epics.” The Epic of Gilgamesh may be the earliest, although epics like The Odyssey, The Illiad, The Aenead, and Beowulf are more commonly known, at least in the Western world.

What is an epic? Epic poetry (the written-down version of epic song) typically concerns a narrative of national foundation, whether in geographic or ideological terms. Most epic poems also center around a hero, like Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Aeneas, or Beowulf, whose journey takes him around the known and unknown world, possibly even to the underworld (or, as in Beowulf, to its equivalent, Grendel’s mother’s lair), on a quest to found a nation or find his way back to one.

We find these epic stories in all cultures, across all nations, and in all media. The examples above formed national stories for Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, and ancient Britain. Shakespeare created epics, too—the two-tetralogy sequence of history plays which begins with Richard II and extends through Richard III (and including 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Henry V, 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, and 3 Henry VI) establishes the foundations of the Tudor dynasty, now considered the founding of modern England.

Here in the Americas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sought to tell the epic Song of Hiawatha. In film, D.W. Griffiths’s Birth of a Nation, with its imbued racism, purported to be the epic film which told the story of the founding of the United States in both geographic and ideological terms.

But in a modern, Internet-connected, global economy, national epics have begun to fall out of style. We began to replace the national scope of our epic stories with ideological frameworks which cross geographic and cultural boundaries. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, draws upon mythological traditions from Britain, Scandinavia, central Europe, and parts of Eurasia. The contemporary film adaptation of the trilogy intentionally sought to replicate this cross-cultural mythology in order to appeal to a global public.

Epic Games

As popular media evolved to include digital technologies, we have adapted our epic stories to suit these new methods of storytelling. Hypertext and other interactive text-based platforms—such as Multi-User Dungeons, or MUDs—were the first of these new technologies to adapt to epic form, situating the user or player as the central hero in the narrative. Advancements in graphical technology in the 1980s caused developers to add visual representations to these user-focused epics, giving rise to the videogame industry. With the shift in the nature of storytelling to center around the user—the player—came a shift in the definition of epic.

In gaming, explains Jane McGonigal, “epic” comes from the context of an “epic win,” “a big, and usually surprising, success: a come-from-behind victory, an unorthodox strategy that works out spectacularly well, a team effort that goes much better than planned, a heroic effort from the most unlikely player.”[1]

Most games are centered around the idea of an “epic win,” a victory against impossible odds because, McGonigal explains, “in the face of ridiculous challenges, long odds, or great uncertainty, gamers cultivate extreme optimism.”[2] This is because games train gamers to think this way; games themselves present players with difficult odds, both mechanically and narratively, and condition players to succeed in spite of them, both through careful gameplay training and through the opportunity to try repeatedly for success in the face of failure. Both these elements are drawn from narrative epics: Odysseus failed repeatedly to get his men through obstacles, losing some to Scylla and Charybdis, seeing others turned into pigs on Circe’s island, and more. Beowulf lost men to Grendel before he succeeded in killing the monster. Frodo makes many mistakes on his long journey to Mount Doom—some of which cause others’ deaths.

But what unites all these epic heroes is perseverance, a refusal to give in or give up in spite of the obvious impossibility of the task to which they have set themselves. This “optimism”—or stubbornness, depending on perspective—is what enables them to succeed where others have failed. This same optimism characterizes gamers, because games—like epic narratives—are designed to be success stories. The player is meant to complete the game, which usually means that he or she has been successful (there are always exceptions—epic heroes sometimes die at the end of their stories, and players sometimes complete a game only to find out that they have “lost” in narrative terms).

In addition, videogames demand a considerable investment of time, which only enhances the feeling of “epic” in most games. The average videogame typically offers between twenty and sixty hours of gameplay, a significant difference between games and film, television, or even literature. As such, the experience of playing a game is considerably more “epic” than, for instance, reading The Lord of the Rings (which, according to the internet, varies between about six and twenty hours, depending on reading speed) or even watching the extended edition of the Peter Jackson trilogy, which comes in at around sixteen hours total (even if we were to include all three Hobbit films, the four-book sequence of films would still only reach about twenty-four hours, give or take, which is on the short end of the spectrum for one videogame).

Time is one of the key components—and selling features, in terms of “hours of gameplay”—of videogames, and is part of what causes significant investment in them on the part of players, many of whom spend up to one hundred hours completing all the secondary and optional missions in a game. This kind of investment contributes to the “epic” feeling of playing games, as players care deeply about the outcomes of stories in which they have invested so much time and energy.

Games thus reflect the most important elements of epic narrative: a journey or series of trials in which a hero (with or without companions) must conquer enemies and solve puzzles in order to found a new nation or save an old one. The key difference is that in epic games, the player becomes the hero, adopting the persona of a legend as they traverse the digital landscapes of their chosen worlds.

Dragon Age and Epic

The first thing one notices about Dragon Age is its title, which immediately evokes a fantasy realm and a magical beast which one—presumably—must slay as a part of a longer, more involved quest. And this, as it turns out, is true. The Dragon Age series as a whole encompasses a temporal age in the fictional world of Thedas, a world based loosely on our own, but with a layer of fantasy, magic, and modified mythology, not unlike Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

First, an overview of the series, for those unfamiliar with Dragon Age. Each installment in the series—there are currently four, although one of those is more of an add-on than a fully-fleshed-out game—takes a minimum of about thirty-forty hours of gameplay. In terms of length, the whole series offers approximately two-hundred to two-hundred-fifty hours of gameplay for a player attempting to complete all quests and DLC (down-loadable content). In days, that’s about ten-and-a-half, with no breaks for eating, sleeping, or other biological imperatives. In terms of time commitment alone, then, Dragon Age is already fairly epic.

The first game, Dragon Age: Origins (DAO) is the story of the Warden, a character whose name varies based on whether the player chooses a male or female player-character who can be a human, an elf, or a dwarf; whether that character is a mage, rogue, or warrior; and whether he or she is upper or lower class (and whose first name may be chosen by the player). The narrative of DAO follows the Warden from his or her inception into the company of Grey Wardens, an order of warriors whose sole purpose is to fight the Blight, an invasion of zombie-like Darkspawn, throughout the world. This specific story takes place in the country of Ferelden, from where the Warden hales, and includes the struggle for the kingdom’s throne. Dragon Age: Awakening (DAA) continues the Warden’s story, although in a side-narrative which takes place post-DAO and which is much more parochial, focused on the Warden’s struggle to maintain power in the Ferelden city of Amaranthine.

Dragon Age II (DA2) follows Hawke (whose first name only is chosen by the player), a human fleeing the Blight who takes his or her family to Kirkwall, a city-state in the Free Marches. Although the game begins in the same time period as DAO, it soon jumps forward and becomes focused on Hawke’s rise to prominence in Kirkwall as the city falls into anarchy due to being pulled in four directions by the Templars (a religious order responsible for supporting the religious institution of the Chantry); the mages (who are being oppressed by the Templars); the Qunari (an outside race of inhuman people in the city for their own reasons, but whose religious and social ideology clashes sharply with those of the Chantry and the city in general); and the city itself. In the game’s final act, Hawke must choose to side with either the Templars or the mages, as a world-wide conflict breaks out between the two factions.

Book in Dragon Age: Inquisition

Finally, Dragon Age Inquisition (DAI) follows the war between the mages and the Templars as Corypheus (a character from one of the DA2 DLCs), an ancient darkspawn, attempts to open a rift between the spirit realm (the Fade) and the mortal one in an bid to take over the world and restore the ancient and oppressive Tevinter Imperium (which parallels the Holy Roman Empire in
many ways). The player-character in DAI begins with the epithet the Herald of Andraste, usually referred to as the Herald, who can be a human, elf, dwarf, or qunari; a mage, a rogue, or a warrior; and either male or female, and whose name (like that of the Warden) shifts based on origins (surname) and player choice (first name). As the story progresses, the Herald is named the leader of the Inquisition, and becomes the Inquisitor.

Thedas is an epic world; every location within it requires the player—the Warden, Hawke, or the Inquisitor, depending on the game—to solve puzzles, fight monsters, and negotiate with other characters in order to save the nation, the city, or the world. Each game is a journey which begins with an origin-story for the player-character, leads him or her through a series of quests during which he or she develops talents and gathers followers, and concludes with a final battle against a monster (of either human or supernatural origin), the outcome of which determines the fate of the nation/city/world. In short, each game is itself a smaller epic—like The Illiad and The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s tetralogies, or Lord of the Rings—which combine to form a larger, even more epic narrative of ideological identity.

In each game, the player-character is a central figure whose primary objective is to save a nation, a city, or the world as a whole (sometimes more than one). As the series progresses from DAO through DA2 and on to DAI, the way the game frames this conflict becomes increasingly complex, starting with a more formulaic version of epic to a new, post-modern understanding of the world as being composed of unclear, non-static, and often contradictory ideological positions.

Origins as Traditional Epic

Protagonist Characters in Dragon Age: Origins

DAO begins with a clear black-versus-white formulation of good (the Warden) versus evil (the Blight), albeit one complicated by political ambition, greed, and self-interest. Although the Warden’s primary job is to save Ferelden (and Thedas) from being overrun by the Blight, he must do so by means of political alliances with various stakeholders in national politics, including nobles, the Dalish elves (separate from city elves), the dwarves in Orzamar, the mages, and the Chantry. (Note: For the sake of this discussion, I will talk about one of my Warden characters, Daesan Tablis, a rogue elf from the slums of the city of Denerim. As this Warden character is male, I will use male pronouns.)

The core of the game’s plot and gameplay rests on the Warden’s need to defeat the Blight and kill the Archdemon (a dragon) controlling the darkspawn. The game makes a clear distinction between darkspawn and people (humans, elves, and dwarves, in particular, although the Warden may also have allies who are qunari, golem, and werewolf), although it is possible for people to become infected with the Blight and become darkspawn. During a Blight, the darkspawn are driven as a mindless horde to overrun the surface world (their natural territory is subterranean) by a corrupt Archdemon.

Over the course of the game, the Warden must convince the disparate factions of races and regions to ally together in order to defeat the Blight, an alliance severely compromised by the treason of the sitting head of Ferelden, Regent Loghain Mac Tir, whose call of retreat at the Battle of Ostagar (an event early in DAO) caused the death of King Cailan Theirin. The Warden therefore has to negotiate for the support of the various Arls of Ferelden, some of whom choose to remain loyal to Loghain (having an elven Warden makes this negotiation more difficult, as elves are treated in Ferelden society as second-class citizens).

Ultimately, the Warden must determine the future of Ferelden’s crown, and may choose to grant it to Loghain’s daughter, Anora (wife to the late King Cailan), to Alistair Theirin (half-brother to Cailan and illegitimate son of King Maric Theirin), or to both Alistair and Anora. This decision resonates in all the subsequent games, as Alistair reappears in DAA, DA2, and DAI if he is chosen as King (with Anora in DAI if they co-rule). This decision also impacts whether or not Loghain is executed or conscripted into the Grey Wardens, a choice which can impact the game’s final outcome.

The ultimate end of the game is for the Warden to kill the Archdemon, as only a Grey Warden possesses the ability to do so. This distinction from “normal” people is another hallmark of epic, as the epic hero must be in some way unique or different. In DAO, the Warden is one of only two surviving Wardens in Ferelden (Alistair, one of the Warden’s companion-characters, is the other, but Alistair is characterized throughout the game as quirky and not particularly bright, leaving the leadership and decision-making to the player’s Warden). At the game’s conclusion, the Warden must decide who strikes the final blow, which is lethal to the Warden doing the act; this self-sacrificial trope is also one familiar to epic tradition, as in Beowulf’s fatal wounding in his final (victorious) fight with the dragon. In DAO, the player can choose from three Wardens: himself, Alistair, or (in some playthroughs) Loghain Mac Tir.

However, the Warden has an additional option presented to him by the mage Morrigan, daughter of the Witch of the Wilds: if one of the men sires her child (if the player’s Warden is female, she must convince either Loghain or Alistair to do it), she can keep him from dying when making the death blow—but the consequences of the child’s existence have the potential to complicate things further (and do—as Morrigan and her child, if she has one, reappear in DAI). The Warden thus has to choose martyrdom, the death of another, or the birth of a magical child with the soul of an Archdemon—all outcomes which have the potential to reshape Thedas.

In DAO, players have the ability to create a foundational narrative for “their” version of Thedas, shaping the story of the Blight and the Hero of Ferelden (as the Warden comes to be called in the final minutes of the game) as martyr, surviving hero and Commander of the Grey Wardens, or even (if the Warden is a noble human female) Queen. In addition to determining the ruler of Ferelden and his own fate, the Warden is also asked, at the game’s end, to make a significant policy decision:

If the Hero states that they only wish to continue serving the crown, they will be named Chancellor.

If the Hero asks for a title and the riches to go with it, they will be granted Loghain’s estate and wealth (even if Loghain lives), becoming the new Teyrn/Teyrna of Gwaren.

A Human Noble Hero may demand that Arl Howe’s family pay for the massacre at Highever. This results in Howe’s lands being gifted to the Grey Wardens.

If a City Elf Hero asks for the city elves to be treated better, they can become Ferelden’s first elven bann, representing Denerim’s Alienage. Alternatively, either Shianni or Soris may be installed as the bann.

A mage Hero may ask that the Circle of Magi be given its independence.

A Dalish Hero may ask that the Dalish be officially granted territorial sovereignty.

A dwarven Hero can request aid in battling darkspawn in the Deep Roads.

If the Hero states that the sacrifices of the Wardens should not be forgotten again, a statue will be erected in the Wardens’ honor.

The Hero may state that they have no need of anything further.

The Hero may state that they don’t know, and will have to think about it. (Dragon Age Wiki, “Epilogue”)

This decision, like every other decision the player has made, reappears in the later games, further reinforcing the significance of the Warden’s actions. For players who are aware of the resonance of their choices, the fact that BioWare creates continuity between the Dragon Age games increases the significance of player choice and contributes to the feeling of “epic” by making those choices have consequences.

Awakening and Epic Reversal

Although DAA is the shortest of the Dragon Age games—and is argued by some to be non-canonical—it is of interest here because of the way it complicates the straightforward narrative epic of DAO. The premise of DAA is that the Warden, who is now the Commander of the Grey in Ferelden (or a new Commander, if the previous Warden died killing the Archdemon), has been tasked with establishing Vigil’s Keep as the Wardens’ new home. Yet despite having killed the Archdemon and ended the Blight, there are darkspawn in the area which pose a significant threat to the new Commander’s rule over both the Wardens and the nearby city of Amaranthine. It is the Warden’s task to both manage everyday politics—nobles, farmers, merchants, etc.—and deal with the threatening darkspawn.

In many ways, the setup of DAA echoes the second part of Beowulf, in which Beowulf discovers that killing Grendel did not eliminate the threat to Hrothgar’s people, and he must now hunt down Grendel’s mother. In DAA, too, the main villain (although the Warden does not learn this for some time) is a darkspawn broodmother known as The Mother, and her children are more dangerous, semi-sentient darkspawn intent on destroying the surface world for purposes of their own.

In addition to the Mother, however, there is another “awakened” (sentient) darkspawn, known as the Architect, who is granting awareness and agency to other darkspawn in an attempt to fight the Mother so that he and his people might live in peace below the surface. The presence of sentient darkspawn muddies the proverbial waters of DAO by granting personalities and awareness to the otherwise mindless darkspawn, attributing them with emotions and desires in an attempt to force the player to consider the consequences of killing them—at least a little. Near the end of the game, the Warden must decide whether to allow the Architect to live or to kill him before taking on the Mother. The decision has minor repercussions in DA2, but implications which resonate strongly in DAI.

By complicating the apparently black-and-white formula of DAO, however, DAA introduces doubt into a narrative in which the player was otherwise a largely unquestioned hero. Certainly, DAO contained smaller choices—such as whether to side with the werewolves or not—which were designed to cause ethical consternation, but none at a global level; if all darkspawn have the potential for sentience, then the Warden has been responsible for mass genocide, hardly a heroic position. Although no such accusation is made—after all, the darkspawn in DAO were mindless, unawakened and under the influence of the Archdemon—DAA moves the series away from traditional epic and into the realm of a more modern, fraught epic in which the hero is less an obvious hero and more an ordinary person fallen into extraordinary circumstances. This shift from traditional epic hero to modern epic hero—from Beowulf to Frodo Baggins—continues in the remaining two games in the series (thus far), both of which focus on an otherwise ordinary individual who becomes extraordinary as a consequence of luck and strength of will.

Dragon Age II and Anti-Epic Storytelling

Varric Tethras

DA2 is unique among the games in the series in that the whole game itself is framed by an epic narrator; while the other games are linear, the action—the gameplay—of DA2 fits within a narrative frame as told by one of the game’s companion-characters, a dwarf named Varric Tethras. Varric is a novelist by trade (and a merchant, but his business interests seem largely in service of his storytelling), and has written the story contained within DA2, all told as a flashback during an interrogation by Chantry Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast. DA2 is thus self-conscious about the fact that it is an epic narrative, and deliberately calls attention to elements of storytelling, such as exaggeration, self-aggrandizement, and the importance of idolizing a hero.

Although told by Varric, DA2 tells the story of Hawke, a human who fled Ferelden during the Blight featured in DAO. (Note: The Hawke I played was a male mage, so I will again use the male pronoun in reference to Hawke, although the character can be male or female, and a mage, rogue, or warrior, although unlike in DAO and DAI, Hawke must be human.) The game—Varric’s story—is broken into three Acts, the first taking place shortly after Hawke’s arrival in the city-state of Kirkwall and the family’s struggle to escape the poverty endemic to refugees, the second concerning Hawke’s rise to become Champion of Kirkwall, and the third with Hawke attempting to cope with the rising tensions between the mages and the Templars.

As such, DA2 is a bildungsroman, a story of coming-of-age which follows its hero from the violent end of childhood innocence with the death of a sibling (based on the class the player chooses—if Hawke is a mage, his sister Bethany dies; if Hawke is a rogue or warrior, his brother Carver dies) during the escape from the Blight.

What makes Hawke particularly distinct as an epic hero from, for example, the Warden is that Hawke’s decisions are often questionable and not framed by a clear black-and-white formulation. In order to even enter the city—to progress in the game beyond the prologue—Hawke and Carver (or Bethany, but my Hawke is a mage, so his surviving sibling is Carver) must either become mercenaries or smugglers, neither of which is a particularly savory occupation. Most of Hawke’s actions, even those which are clearly ethical—such as stopping human trafficking—require a certain laxity of moral judgment about bribery, deception, breaking-and-entering, and homicide.

Hawke’s companions are also less motivated by a desire to save the world—like most of the Warden’s, with the notable exception of the assassin Zevran Aranai, who makes an appearance in DA2, as well—and more the desire to save themselves, in particular the former slave Fenris, ex-Warden Anders (from DAA), Dalish mage Merrill, and pirate Isabela (who appears in DAO to teach a rogue Warden how to duel). In Varric’s case, he seems to accompany Hawke in order to get a good story, which he writes and sells as a serial throughout the series, and which—compiled together—forms the book which Cassandra throws at him in the opening cinematic of the game.

In fact, the entire first Act of the game focuses on Hawke becoming wealthy—perhaps out of affection for his family (should the player make the more altruistic choices), or perhaps simply out of self-interest—by investing in Varric’s brother’s expedition to the Deep Roads in search of treasure. It is only after this venture goes horribly wrong—possibly resulting in the death of Hawke’s sibling (or his or her conscription into the Grey Wardens, if Anders is along, to save him or her from death due to the corruption of the Blight)—that the game introduces a significant moral component to the overall narrative arc of the game in the form of mediating between the city and the qunari who have taken up residence in one of the city districts. Yet even once this conflict is introduced, the game refuses to allow Hawke (or the player) a clear choice about which side is the less ethically compromised (as both are rife with ideological extremism and underhanded political maneuvering).

At the end of Act Two, the game forces Hawke’s hand by revealing that the qunari are in Kirkwall to obtain a stolen artifact—an artifact stolen by one of Hawke’s companions, Isabela. Based on Hawke’s choices and the level of friendship cultivated with Isabela (itself dependent on both action and conversation choices throughout Acts One and Two), Hawke must choose whether to take the artifact away from Isabela, to hand her over to the qunari, or to fight on her behalf. Given that Isabela and the qunari are both in unethical positions (the qunari have killed about half the city’s population, including the Viscount, by the time Hawke has to make this choice), there is no “good” choice to make. With a high enough friendship quotient with Isabela, Hawke can convince Isabela to return the artifact, and then fight the leader of the qunari in single combat in order to keep him from killing her and destroying the city. Without it, Isabela flees the city, leaving Hawke alone to deal with the qunari.

Although Hawke is able to resolve the situation and expel the qunari, becoming lauded as the Champion of Kirkwall, he is ultimately unable to resolve the final conflict between the mages and the Templars, a conflict which—we learn in the epilogue—is a microcosmic reflection of a larger war between mages and Templars raging across all of Thedas. As an epic hero, then, Hawke is almost completely ineffective: he isn’t able to save the Viscount or the city from the ravages of the qunari, nor is he able to broker peace between the mages and the Templars, since no matter which side he is forced to choose in the end, both betray him and open war breaks out. At the end of the game, Varric narrates a temporary peace in Kirkwall as Thedas descends into civil war, and Hawke and his companions ultimately splinter apart and disappear.

As a story, DA2 thus serves more as an anti-epic than a traditional one, in which its hero rises out of the common people only to vanish once again at the story’s conclusion, a legend rather than a myth. However, this is not the end of the story, either for Varric or for his hero, Hawke.

No One Expects the Inquisition


Companion characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition

By far the most expansive of the Dragon Age games, DAI nearly doubles the amount of playtime of any of its predecessors and spreads across far more virtual space, moving not only throughout Ferelden and the Free Marches (where Kirkwall is located), but into Orlais and the borders of Navarre and Tevinter (all neighboring countries). The companion-characters in DAI are more varied, as well, including characters from Orlais (Leliana, who appeared in both DAO and briefly in DA2, Vivienne, Blackwall, and Sera), the Free Marches (Varric, from DA2), Tevinter (Dorian), Navarre (Cassandra, also from DA2), Seheron (Iron Bull), the Dalish (Solas), Ferelden (Cullen, also from DAO and DA2), Antiva (Josephine), and the Fade (Cole, a spirit). The origins of the Herald-turned-Inquisitor (hereafter, the Inquisitor) vary based on the species and class choices made by the player. (Note: My Inquisitor for this example is a male qunari mage from the Free Marches, so I will again use the male pronouns.)

As such, the scope of DAI is much more epic than its predecessors, requiring more time, taking up more virtual geographic space, and requiring more complicated choices and awareness of the player-qua-Inquisitor. It is also more epic in terms of the agency it gives the Inquisitor; unlike Hawke, who ultimately had very little power over the outcome of events in Kirkwall, the Inquisitor, like the Warden, presides over a world-ending (or, at least, world-changing) conflict. A sentient darkspawn, formerly an ancient magister of Tevinter, named Corypheus has opened a rift between the spirit-world of the Fade and the mortal world of Thedas in a failed attempt to physically cross over into the Fade and become a god. The attempt failed because the Inquisitor—then a humble mercenary (or emissary, or spy, depending on the player’s choice of ethnicity and occupation)—intervened in the attack on the Divine Justinia (head of the Chantry), causing the spell to go awry.

The player takes control of the not-yet-Inquisitor as he awakens from the ordeal in chains, being interrogated by Cassandra because no one knows what happened, as everyone, except Corypheus and the Inquisitor, who was present was killed. The Inquisitor was marked by the spell with a green glowing brand on his left hand which can open and close minor rifts in the Fade—a mark which makes him useful to the Chantry forces trying to battle the demons coming through the rifts. The Inquisitor’s willingness to help (framed as a choice to be enthusiastic, neutral, or resentful) grants him a leadership position among the gathered forces, which become the Inquisition.

This over-arching conflict provides the black-and-white clarity of a traditional epic—demons versus mortal people—reflective of the circumstances in DAO, particularly given the presence of a darkspawn (Corypheus) and his dragon. However, BioWare adds to this seeming clarity the ongoing war between the mages and Templars which broke out during DA2, a war which has no “good” or “bad” sides. As a mage, my Inquisitor chooses to side with the mages (not because the game forces that decision, but because it made sense to me as a player), but in the interest of stopping the war and gathering forces to fight Corypheus. Regardless of the side the player chooses, most of the enemies the Inquisitor fights in the early stages of the game are both apostates (mages) and Templars, and some of his allies are both, as well.

DAI, like DAO, also requires the player to pay attention to the political machinations of those around him, although to a greater degree. While the Warden had to negotiate for support against Loghain, the Inquisitor must balance his allies—Tevinter, Antiva, Navarre, Orlais, Ferelden, the Grey Wardens, the Dalish, the dwarves, and the qunari—against one another, knowing that there are factions within all of them opposing the Inquisition, and that some choices require choosing one over another.

Despite its primary black-and-white narrative strain, then, DAI is much more like DA2 in terms of the smaller missions and secondary quests; although the Inquisitor is often the hero, he must sometimes also become a villain, choosing to support one corrupt politician over another, compromising truth or sacrificing lives or betraying allies in order to accomplish a mission, or vice versa. And, as in DA2, there are often no “correct” choices for the Inquisitor, as someone—or many someones—die as a consequence of his decisions.

However, the intricate complexities of the decisions the Inquisitor makes ultimately all fall in service of the game’s larger—more traditionally epic—goal: defeating Corypheus. In fact, the narrative arc of DAI has been built on the previous arcs of DAO, DAA, and DA2, putting the Warden and Hawke also in service of the defeat of Corypheus. The Warden is mentioned several times in the course of DAI, and Hawke—whom the player can customize to look like he did in their game—appears as a companion-character for several missions involving the Grey Wardens (in fact, the Inquisitor has to decide whether or not Hawke dies at the end of one of them). Thus, the Inquisitor is the ultimate epic hero of the extended Dragon Age narrative, taking over the mantle from the Warden, just as Frodo takes over as the hero of The Lord of the Rings from his uncle Bilbo, the hero of the smaller epic Hobbit.

Redefining Epic

The series as a whole—not yet complete, it is worth noting—serves to move forward the definition of epic as we understand it from traditional to post-modern, from national to global, from martial to ideological. In DAO, the Warden is not asked to make many large, ideological decisions. His purpose is, like Beowulf’s, to defeat the monsters and to save Ferelden. If he has to make some ethical choices along the way, they are more in service of the player’s investment in the story than they are in framing the larger narrative of good versus evil. As the series moves through DAA and DA2, by contrast, the player must struggle with ethical grey areas, come to terms with his or her own monstrosity, and make decisions (particularly as Hawke) that are ultimately meaningless despite their moral significance. From this feeling of near-helplessness, however, comes the Inquisition and its attendant vastness, both in terms of space and significance. DAI mixes the complexity of a post-modern, global world without clear borders and ideologies, fraught with extremists and beset by concerns which are both personal and universal, with a larger struggle against an obvious evil.

What is most significant about DAI is not that it returns us to the traditional epic framework—it is that it redefines that framework by offering a new definition of epic which seems to subscribe to the traditional form but which in fact uses that form to argue against the very nationalism which sits at the core of the traditional epic genre. Instead, DAI offers us a world—an entire world—united against the common specter of oppression and homogeneity as embodied in the vision Corypheus has of a restored Imperium. Instead, BioWare presents us—as players—with an Inquisition that is the diametric opposite of what we associate with the word: instead of Torquemada’s systematic torture and oppression in the name of a single religion, BioWare’s Inquisition is made up of peoples (human and inhuman) from across Thedas, a unity of sizes, classes, species, and genders (including Crem, one of my favorite characters, who is a trans man).

The hero of this epic is what the player wants him to be—brusque, kind, tolerant, partisan, gay, straight, bi, human, inhuman, male, female—but the Inquisition is always heterodox, always diverse, always fighting hegemonic oppression and extremism.

It is BioWare’s refusal to allow its games to be transcribed within a nationalist narrative that makes them, in a more modern sense of the word, epic. DAI cannot be narrow, cannot be bigoted, cannot frame a narrative arc that authorizes oppression or nationalist exclusion. It forces us—as players—to consider multiple perspectives, to listen to multiple stories, and to do our best to tie together the multivariate threads into something resembling a coherent whole. A new kind of epic in a world which desperately needs one.

[1] Jane McGonigal, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 247.

[2] Ibid., 248.

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Comments (5)

This is about playthrough times: it is pretty nitpicky and may contain errors since I didn’t read the part about Dragon Age Inquisition (I’m not through it, so I don’t want to spoil it for my self.)

Leaving out games that can’t really be played through (online survival games, League of Legends etc.), isn’t the average playthrough time of a video game way closer to 10 hours? Most FPS/TPS campaigns are 6-10 hours with the exception of free roamers (the Far Cry games) and open level games with resource collection aspects (Bioshock, Dishonored). Hack n Slash games, flying games, other action games, RTS, music games, tower defense games also gravitate towards 8-15 hours. Episodic games are per episode only a few hours, most cheaper digital games are also mainly under six hours whether they are Toy Soldiers Cold War, To the Moon or Alan Wake: American Nightmare (even an open world downloadable title like Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon only takes 7 hours to fully complete).

I will openly admit to not having the foggiest clue about sports games and their effect on the average.

The only games (which can be played through) that tend to come close to that 60 hour mark are RPGs and JRPGs as well as some sims (including racing). Even with something like Skyrim the average playing time on Steam was 72 hours, e.g. the average playthrough time of something like Mass Effect is 20 hours,

I’m generally on the slower side with my playthrough times but even then open world games like Sleeping Dogs and The Saboteur took me 35 and 45 hours to go through literally everything in the game. Other open world games like Crackdown, Infamous, Prototype, Saint’s Row are more in the 20 hours range. My sister did most of the things in Red Dead Redemption in 50 hours. On the huge side there is though Just Cause 2 (getting 100% in it would require at least 130 hours, I played through it with 35 hours with a 22,4% completion).

It simply seems to me like that there are so many short games that 20 hours being on the shorter side seems virtually impossible, if anything it would already be on the right side of the median.

Average times are not the best basis for how long it takes to play through a whole game–most players don’t actually complete games (even the main story), and those who do aren’t playing through all the optional content, either (there is a slew of data on this, although I don’t know how much of it is generally available, but BioWare has given talks on it at PAXes and developers have access to it). In addition, I’m assuming times for AAA games, not indie games, which fall on the shorter side. I’m looking at content hours (for AAA games) rather than average player times because of this. Players who are mining games for full content will have much longer than average playtimes–I put in over 100 for Inquisition and have logged almost that in Skyrim and am nowhere near done with it. All these things make for the discrepancy you’re seeing between the average and content times.

It is also the case that games five years ago were much shorter–I’m thinking explicitly about more recent games, which are getting longer in terms of content hours (especially with DLC)–so if you lump in things pre-2010, the typical playtime does start to drop. If you go back to 2005 or so, 10-20 was more typical, with far fewer optional quests and almost no DLC. But then players started demanding more content for their $60, and developers started including more time-sink quests and options for “replayability” so that they could start including more playtime in their marketing. That doesn’t usually mean that the average player will use it all, but it’s there.

Does that make more sense?

First: Thank you for the answer, it certainly makes clarifies the issue a lot. The long post following this statement merely indicates that you managed to get me interested in examining it a bit more closely. I hope that the tone doesn’t feel adversarial, it is at least not my intention.

It was these sections I was reacting to “”In addition, videogames demand a considerable investment of time, which only enhances the feeling of “epic” in most games. The average videogame typically offers between twenty and sixty hours of gameplay”” and “”the four-book sequence of films would still only reach about twenty-four hours, give or take, which is on the short end of the spectrum for one videogame””. It sort of gave me the idea that we were specifically looking at content part of the epic narrative (or at least a part of the same game mode), e.g. the average Call of Duty has 8-hour campaign assuming that the player plays on hard and that is all that game has to offer in that context. Now for instance Advanced Warfare also has the Exo Survival Mode as well as the downloadable Exo Zombies mode and multiplayer which can easily increase the playing time by a factor ten.

If my interpretation above was completely bonkers the remainder of my post can (even more) safely be ignored as it assumes that we are talking about the main campaign of the game and all the content within said campaign, while ignoring any adversarial multiplayer modes (outside of the campaign, I’d include it for titles like WatchDogs and Dark Souls) or co-operative survival modes.

The probably biggest question here whether we use the average amount of content or the median amount of content, given how the amount of content has a lower bound, but no upper bound, with set of extreme outliers I’d personally use the median.

I am a bit unsure how much the narrowing to AAA helps since some of the longer genres like RPGs and especially JRPGs don’t have many AAA candidates. For RPGs it is pretty much Bethesda and Bioware as well the Witcher series and Fallout: New Vegas, for JRPGs I’d include* only Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts as well as Dark Souls II, BloodBorne and Dragon’s Dogma. Additionally longer games like the Tyccoon-games and Tropico-series are not AAA (don’t know if Civilization V counts as AAA). Then again cutting out smaller downloadable titles will definitely increase the average and especially the median by a lot .

*one other question is who or what market area gets to define AAA, in Japan the Dragon’s Quest-series has Skyrim levels of cultural impact, while in Russia something like Space Rangers 2: Dominators (which came out in 2005 but looked like Fallout 1 merged with a 1996 outer space RTS) had publicity, hype and sales easily rivalling the AAA-juggernauts Halo 2 and Half-Life 2. New Super Mario Bros Wii probably didn’t have a massive budget but it also sold more on one platform than Modern Warfare 2, which was the frenzied AAA-blockbuster at the time, did on three.

“”Average times are not the best basis for how long it takes to play through a whole game–most players don’t actually complete games (even the main story)””

As far as I know the figure usually thrown around is 20-25%, Mass Effect 2 actually reached 50%, Avalanche Studios who develop the Just Cause-series said a while back that only 17% precent of the people who played Just Cause 2 completed the main storyline.

“”Players who are mining games for full content will have much longer than average playtimes–I put in over 100 for Inquisition and have logged almost that in Skyrim and am nowhere near done with it.””

While undoubtedly true, both of the mentioned games are on the extreme side in terms of content, despite a few hundred** AAA-games being launched between 2010 and now there aren’t many that can rival Inquisition or Skyrim in content (those few being the fellow RPGs Witcher 3 and Fallout 4, Kingdoms of Amalur**, perhaps Fallout New Vegas too with all the DLC included, the only action games getting anywhere close to that are Just Cause 2 and 3, but that requires extreme amounts of repetition). The gulf between full completion and bare minimum playthrough is usually a lot less extreme (e.g. Skyrim can comfortably be played through in ten hours, but gamers like you and me can easily spend ten to thirty times that on it).

**based the number it on the doc below, some of the chocies might be a bit iffy and there may be omissions.


***I always forget that this game even exists.

A non-trivial part of the AAA releases are still games like Call of Duty (6 games since 2010), Halo (3 new games), Battlefield (4 games), Tom Clancy’s action games (Conviction, Future Soldier, Blacklist and now Siege), Gears of War (2 games), Killzone (2 games), along with a bunch of hopefuls and sporadic continuations of old series like Homefront, Crysis 2 and 3, Portal 2, Resistance 3, Ratchet and Clank Nexus, Uncharted 3, The Last of Us, Alan Wake, Metro Last Light, Lost Planet 2, Resident Evil 6 (Revelations 2 is a bit iffy), The Order 1886, Army of Two 2 & 3, Dead Space 2 & 3, Medal of Honor 2010 and Warfighter, Red Faction Armageddon, BulletStorm, Max Payne 3, Darkness II, Syndicate, FUSE, Bioshock 2 and Infinite, Wolfenstein: The New Order, The Evil Within, the two Tomb Raiders. (This is alone 53 games)

The list above is also only focused on shooting games allowing for other genre you also get large influx of short games like action games DmC, Bayonetta 2, Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, Dante’s Inferno, God of War 3 and Ascension (I guess that Ninja Gaiden 3 was meant to be AAA, the two first definitely fit that category, but it got pounced so badly that I wouldn’t include it), spectacle racing (MotorStorm Apocalypse, Split/Second, Sonic and Sega All-Star Racing, various Need for Speeds) or high-budget narrative games (Heavy Rain, Beyond Two Souls). Dishonored is probably the trickiest case in recent memory since a combat playthrough can literally be a third of the time of a sneaking playthrough.

Though on the other hand going through the lists did remind me of the recent influx of hybrid genre games (Deus Ex Human Revolution, Borderlands, Dead Island, Dying Light, Far Cry 3 and 4) as well as AAA open world games (GTA, Saint’s Row, Assassin’s Creed, Sleeping Dogs, Infamous, Shadow of Mordor, the Batman games, Driver San Fransisco, Just Cause 2 & 3, WatchDogs), which would definitely support your view of the situation.

Additionally the are some question marks like the Lego games, which are definitely getting closer and closer to AAA-status (I’d personally argue AAA-status for at least Lego Marvel Super Heroes and Batman 3 Beyond Gotham).

In conclusion thank you for making me reconsider my point and thank you for the time you took to answer me (and sorry for clogging up the section with this post, I became a lot longer than I had anticipated).

Thank you for reading!

I’m not really sure what there is to reply to… your stats on completion of games look like those I’ve seen (an average of 25% or so), and, yes, how we define AAA makes a difference. Generally, I look at the “big grossing” titles in the US, Europe, and east Asia (Japan, Korea, India) together, although of course different games have different fan-bases and popularity depending on where they are made/sold and how they are marketed (my reason is simply that they are the biggest sources of income for gaming), but that’s still pretty fuzzy. I also tend to not consider games without significant press as AAA.

Because of all the things you state, I will always default to content hours–there are just too many factors otherwise. For multiplayer games, this probably includes times to play through all the maps (“content”), but given that most people replay those maps over and over, that’s probably okay.

Either way, the point of bringing it up in the article is that Dragon Age is on the far, FAR outside of the spectrum of playtimes, which is one of the reasons it counts as “epic.” No matter how you look at it, the series takes up a huge chunk of time, and even if you use an average of 10 hours, the whole Lord of the Rings film series (including the Hobbits) would be two games long, which still pales in comparison to the Dragon Age series, and we consider that (LotR) to be a pretty epic story.

Thank you for your patience!

“”Either way, the point of bringing it up in the article is that Dragon Age is on the far, FAR outside of the spectrum of playtimes, which is one of the reasons it counts as “epic.” No matter how you look at it, the series takes up a huge chunk of time, and even if you use an average of 10 hours, the whole Lord of the Rings film series (including the Hobbits) would be two games long, which still pales in comparison to the Dragon Age series, and we consider that (LotR) to be a pretty epic story.””

This will probably sound really silly, but I never had an issue with what the number was used for and I fully agreed with your point there from the get go. For me the question was always one about the numbers themselves, rather than the context where they were used. (One of the side effects of being interested in all sorts of stats in relation to playing videogames). In retrospect I probably should have clarified this.

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