Nov 272009

Last post, I mentioned that the tendency to choose segregation as a means to solve problems was a feature of many societies in the world of Dragon Age. Another, related motif appearing in many Thedan societies is the existence of a rigidly-defined social order in which a person’s status and even his occupation are set at the moment of birth. To varying degrees this kind of social rigidity appears in almost every social group in the game (except the elves). Through its dialogue and plot, Dragon Age: Origins repudiates these systems, but in its mechanics it supports them.

The most obvious example of social rigidity in the game is the caste system of the dwarves of Orzammar, which assigns occupation and status to a person based on that of the same-gendered parent. Caste systems in general serve to stratify and divide society, but this one is notable for its lack of mobility. Even marriage and childbirth do not result in an individual’s movement from one caste to another, although a low-caste woman may be adopted into a noble family if she gives birth to a noble’s son. Otherwise, a dwarf’s status and occupation is chosen for him by his birth.

In a somewhat ironic twist, the society of the qunari giants in many ways seems to resemble that of the dwarves. The game’s main qunari character, Sten, is often reticent about his own past, but is happy to share his views on the appropriate role of women and other people who don’t know their “place”. To him, it is mystifying that farmers want to be merchants, merchants want to be warriors, and warriors want to be nobles. Moreover, he simply cannot process the idea of women who fight in battle, even though the game’s most effective recruitable characters are all female. Qunari society is not explained in great detail, but Sten makes it evident that it is one of rigid divisions and roles.

The people of Ferelden also have a very stratified society, on the bottom of which reside the elves, who have been freed from slavery but not oppression. They are held in their position by ethnic violence — characters within the Denerim alienage point out that elves who move out often end up dead, their homes burned by humans. Above them is the bulk of humanity, and among the commoners it appears that upward mobility is at least possible, if not a regular occurrence. It is important to realize, though, that the human commoners also have a ceiling on their aspirations, for they will not become nobles. Teyrn Loghain is the exception that proves the rule — the breathless astonishment of the common soldiers for his elevation to nobility borders on disbelief. The treatment of his rise to power as a freakish occurrence speaks eloquently to the existence of a vast gulf between the two tiers of human society.

The game actually seems quite ambivalent about the social rigidity repeated throughout Thedas. In its fundamental structure, the story argues against strict stratification — the social and economic positions of the various origins are quite diverse, but they all end up in the same honored place as a mighty gray warden. Sten’s views on social and gender roles are easily punctured by a female protagonist, and mercilessly mocked by Morrigan whenever she gets a chance. On several occasions it is made clear that the dwarven caste system is slowly killing the culture that gave birth to it. From all this it would seem that this game, like the culture from which it emerged, explicitly rejects the validity of rigid social divisions.

The mechanics of the game, however, buy into the qunari ideals because Dragon Age features firm class boundaries and rigid character builds. A character cannot mix the skills of a mage and a warrior or rogue, and a warrior-archer cannot adopt the Ranger specialization reserved for rogues. A character chooses an occupation and is then locked into it and can never become anything different. He cannot even become a different type of his own character class. A player who fully develops a rogue archer and finds he does not like the build has no option for addressing his mistake other than replaying the game entirely because there is no way to respec.

The character’s real “birth” into the game world occurs when the player designs him, choosing an origin and a class. From this moment forward, his occupation is set. If the player later finds himself unhappy with his character’s lot, there is no remedy but to start over with a new “life”. In this respect, the mechanics of the game resemble the defined and restrictive social systems that appear so frequently in its world. Although many of the characters praise the idea of breaking the mold, and the game itself appears to argue against institutions like the dwarven caste system, any such message is undercut by the practical reality that the game actually employs such a system itself.

  5 Responses to “Chosen at birth”

  1. I can definitely see what you're saying here, but would you go further to say that the use of the rigidity is a commentary on the caste system or do you think it's mere chance that the two coincide?

    I'm not sure whether I'd say so, but I'm curious as to your opinion. I like to think that developers carefully consider their options when designing gameplay (similar to the illusion of choice aspect of Bioshock).

  2. Honestly, I'm just not sure they thought about it this way. Everywhere the writers use an explicit statement about social rigidity, either in dialogue or through the overall arc of the various plots, they argue against it. That makes me think that rejecting those definitions and barriers was part of their theme for the game. If that's the case, then the adoption of caste by the class system is probably either unintentional, or a rare case of game mechanics used as irony.

  3. I like your assertion, but I think you stop one step too early in your thought process. If your birth is the character creation, which is a metaphor I like and hope other games build upon, then you have to look at how it relates to the birth of other characters. People are born into their social stratification and are stuck there with few exceptions. But the idea that they are forced into what they are born means there is no choice, yet the player has the choice in their class.

    It is further exemplified by you, no matter what origin you choose, escae your class. You defy all class or caste by becoming a Grey Warden. I get the feeling that your character is an exception that proves the rule. At the same time it supports the theme of of argueing against such rigid social systems.

    Yes you cannot change your class, but the fact you chose it's more of a matter of live with your decisions than dictated social worth.

  4. Dwarves and elves (or in the case of much sci-fi, "aliens") are usually portrayed as separate species to humanity, their conflicts beginning in that insurmountable genetic divide. How does this relate to issues of the single sentient species Homo Sapiens, of which we are a part? "Race" as we know it is an illusion, the product of deliberate or incidental interbreeding between humans with similar genetic traits. It supports and is supported by tribalism or any attempt to divide humanity into convenient castes for the purposes of organization or extermination.
    In past centuries, isolated populations of the world gained mobility and began to encounter each other for the first time, often misunderstanding each other as creatures from whom they were separated by a force of divine/natural will. Absent in reality, this divine will is manifested in the rules of fantasy games. Developers, architects of the Universe, set race as an immutable concept in code. They do this without deliberate malice, but also without comprehending that in their fiction is an almost nostalgic yearning for a romanticized version of "race" as humans once imagined it (and as it is still imagined by proponents of "racial supremacy.") In that context, trying to speak to real-life issues via fantasy proxy is hopeless. The basic structure of your game undercuts any argument you might make.

  5. You know, JC, I don't agree with your conclusion. I do agree with the idea that the "races" of fantasy and sci-fi grant reality to a racialist delusion. Granting the premise does not mean accepting the conclusion, however. Supremacists of all stripes believe that race has biological meaning, and therefore one race should rule all others, we should be in a constant state of war against other races, etc. That line of thinking can be attacked by undermining the premise, or by tackling "and therefore". Simply imagining a reality to race doesn't undercut an equality argument unless you implicitly grant that the reality of race would mean we ought to behave like white supremacists.

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