Trials of Faith: ‘Dragon Age: Inquisition’ and Crises of Meaning

“Cast the Chantry aside, and new problems replace old ones. We will learn nothing from history.”

We blink our eyes, unsure as to where we are. Inky fog has enclosed all about, and a great nothingness seems to extend in all directions. We are then brought to our senses with a rush of panic. Finding ourselves all at once in the Fade, the realm of spirits and demons, pursued by the scuttling creatures we later come to recognise as ‘fearlings’. But within the space of this opening scene, there is no sense to be had — only the overwhelming sense of the need to flee. In media res, Dragon Age: Inquisition begins with a literal flight from fear.[i] Though we are not quite yet abandoned, there is a luminous figure calling out to us in warning. Her voice gives us direction — delivers us from this incongruous realm of shifting dust and shadows. We reach out to one we can only see as a saviour, though never do our hands quite meet. Then there is only rubble as we collapse back into reality, into the aftermath of a great cataclysm.

Through the deliberate construction of its narrative, Inquisition does not fully contextualise its opening scene until midway through the game. Our character is defined by a personal discontinuity, a rupture in their memory and their connection to the past. As far as others know, we have fallen out of the Fade, guided by the luminous hands of Andraste (Dragon Age’s messianic figure) herself. Though we know not how we came to be there, we are at once thrown into a world faced with a crisis of meaning, a crisis of which our character forms a singular locus.

The Inquisitor Tarot Cards — Dragon Age: Inquisition

Following our flight from fear, we awaken in a cell, our hands bound and a curious light intermittently emanating from our left palm. It is within this cell that we meet Seeker Cassandra Pentaghast and Sister Leliana, the respective right and left hands of the Divine. No greeting is offered, only the words “Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you know”. At once, an account is demanded, and the price of failure is the loss of one’s life. Yet we have be severed from our past, left with fragments of our passage through a realm of dreams and spirits. We have no answers to give.

Within Dragon Age: Inquisition, the very walls of reality are breaking down and we witness Thedas as it undergoes a period of great upheaval. This upheaval fractures faith, calls into question the very bedrock that belies the world we have become acquainted with in the previous two games. Inquisition presents us with a crisis of faith and creates a space in which we can produce an answer to the questions this raises.

In the words of Flemeth, the great witch of the wilds:

“We stand upon the precipice of change. The world fears the inevitable plummet into the abyss. Watch for that moment… and when it comes, do not hesitate to leap. It is only when you fall that you learn whether you can fly.”[ii]

Significance Unto the World: Man as Maker

Herald: “Whatever you are, I’m not afraid!”

Corypheus: “Words mortals often hurl at the darkness. Once they were mine. They are always lies.”

The individual discontinuity experienced by our character at the outset of Dragon Age: Inquisition, is reflective of the upheaval faced by the world of Thedas within its wider narrative. We enter into this narrative mere moments after a great explosion has devastated the Divine Conclave. Between Inquisition and the previous game, the war between templars and mages has disrupted much of the world’s political and spiritual order, with this Conclave representative of the last hope of resolution. Whether by unfortunate accident or vicious terrorism, Divine Justinia V — the head of the Chantry that has provided the world with religious and historical cohesion for several centuries — is dead. The very sky has split open and the walls of the world are crumbling. Demons stalk the earth and only the mark on our hand can stem the tide.

Divine Justina’s Tarot Card — Dragon Age: Inquisition

Much like the Breach in the sky, the Chantry fractures — the cohesion they once brought to the world immediately lost. The Grand Clerics fight amongst themselves, each vying to retain as much personal power as they can, the Templar order that has been seen to protect the common folk from uncontrolled magic has abandoned its vows and those very mages, feared and reviled for so long, are loosed upon the land, along with all of the chaos their magic can bring. All that remains of the Divine is a single writ, calling for the establishment of an Inquisition to restore order to a world gone mad. But with her death, only Cassandra and Leliana (her right and left hands) remain to see her wish granted. It is thus that a handful of the faithful and an amnesiac with a magical scar set out on the path to bring the world into order.

The very existence of our character presents a religious and political problem. We are hailed as the ‘Herald of Andraste’, exalted as one who is guided by messianic hands. Our Herald can choose to embrace this title, proclaiming themselves a spiritual authority, speaking with the voice of God himself — or equally we can choose to doubt, to deny and reject the title.

Dragon Age: Inquisition presents us with a world that is seeking answers to questions of faith, truth, and value. The game creates a space in which these questions can be posed, in which various characters provide their own answers but ultimately the only answer that matters is that of the player character, which is to say, that of the player themselves.

Corypheus’ Tarot Card — Dragon Age Inquisition.

Regardless as to our initial answer, we have a job to do: mend the broken sky and restore the world to order. All goes well until we encounter an unforeseen foe: Corypheus. Much like our Herald, Corypheus’ very existence challenges the structures of power and faith upon which the world has been build. It is written in the holy scriptures of the Chantry, the Chant of Light, that the ancient magisters of the reviled Tevinter Imperium committed ‘the Second Sin’ when they used their magic to assault the seat of the Maker: God himself. It is said that this action turned the Maker’s golden city black, brought the blight into being and along with it the darkspawn, that it poisoned the world. Much like the fall of man from Christian scripture, these magisters brought evil into God’s creation. The Chant depicts the Maker’s angry response with the following verse:

And so is the Golden City blackened

With each step you take in my Hall.

Marvel at perfection, for it is fleeting.

You have brought Sin to Heaven

And doom upon all the world.

-Threnodies 8:13

Corypheus is one of the original magisters who assaulted the throne of God. His presence both affirms the (at least partial) truth of the Chant of Light, but also summons up all of the fear that such affirmation contains. For many, Corypheus — a Tevinter Magister, a darkspawn and the originator of primeval sin — is the devil cloaked in flesh. The ultimate evil incarnated before them. And yet, that he yet lives casts doubt upon the Chant, upon the foundations of the world. Corypheus is a living fragment of history, capable of disrupting the narratives into which the past has been collapsed and ossified — and capable of disturbing the ambitions of those who sought to write history to their own advantage.

The Darkspawn Tarot Card — Dragon Age: Inquisition

But deeper than this, Corypheus represents something worse than the affirmation of a horrific truth contained with the Andrastrian faith or the doubt of an established order — his account is an alternative, a rejection. He espouses a tale that has the power to shatter the foundational mythology of the Chantry, the shared beliefs upon which so much of the world depends. Corypheus is defined by this desire to rupture the established order of faith, for upon our first meeting with him he declares: “I have seen the throne of the Gods and it was empty.”[iii]

Corypheus has himself undergone a crisis of faith. Before his corruption, he was a High Priest of Dumat — the ancient Tevinter God of Silence, the first and most powerful of the Gods. As we learn more of Corypheus’ memories, we discover that Dumat and the other old Gods of Tevinter whispered into the hearts of the highest of their faithful, and enticed them to besiege the Golden City at the heart of the Fade. As Corypheus tells us: “I once breached the fade in the name of another, to serve the old Gods of the empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption, dead whispers.” They were promised Godhood and instead they unleashed chaos. When Corypheus truly returns to the world (having been dormant and then imprisoned for a time), he finds Tevinter a relic of what it once was and his God no longer speaks to him. The foundations upon which his life was built have fallen into ruin and he is lost.

“Dumat! Ancient ones! I beseech you! If you exist — if you ever truly existed — aid me now!”

Inquisition’s crises of faith are demonstrably similar to Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God.[iv] At its core, this idea is not a banal assent to atheism, but is instead representative of a transformative moment in history that renders belief in a Christian God, for Nietzsche at least, impossible. Nietzsche’s concern here is with the transformation of society such that the power of the historical Christian Church crumbles, that the God that was seemingly possible during this time can no longer provide the foundation for society. For Nietzsche, this raises serious ethical concerns and the need to defend oneself from encroaching nihilism.[v]

As in Inquisition, the fragmentation of the Chantry is not depicted as a great triumph over an oppressive power structure (which, given its pervasive racism and hatred of mages does at least partially characterise the Chantry) — instead it is cause for widespread panic. Nietzsche’s death of God is no triumph of reason over superstition, it is no cause for celebration at all — it is instead a time of great loss, within which the world loses its cohesion leading to widespread disorientation. The Divine dies and few, if any, cheer — instead all recognise the ramifications this has, the turmoil her loss creates.

Corypheus has faced such a crisis already, and his response to it is characteristically Nietzschean. Having encountered his own chaos, he actively seeks to bring about the collapse of the Chantry — killing the divine. When asked why, he replies “The chaos will empower me and ensure that we no longer beg at the feet of the invisible.” In the absence of a God, whether the old Gods of Tevinter or the Maker, Corypheus has decided to give the world his own meaning, to seek the power to impose his will upon the world. Corypheus faces the empty throne of the Gods and decides to assume it himself.

“I once breached the fade in the name of another, to serve the old Gods of the empire in person. I found only chaos and corruption, dead whispers. For a thousand years I was confused — no more! I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own.”

Having witnessed the breakdown of religion, Corypheus rallies against the Gods “to assault the very heavens.” When faced with a world stripped of divine meanings, a world that appears to be on the edge of slipping into an unfathomable chaos, Corypheus decides to intervene. In so opposing the onset of nihilism, he comes to embody an exaggerated form of Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’, literally seeking the magical strength to claim the divinity once promised to him. Corypheus sees Thedas as a world in need of a God to lead it, and he sees no others worthy of the task but himself. Corypheus conducts himself as a pseudo-Nietzschean acolyte of individual authenticity, as one who ascends beyond the rank and file of ordinary men and becomes a truly great individual. He shapes himself into this singular desire, an affirmation of his own individual willpower and drive to exist and give meaning to the world. And thus, he comes to describe himself as “The will that is Corypheus”.

Dragon Age Inquisition presents us with a villain that answers the crisis of faith by becoming a hideous caricature of a Nietzschean “übermensch”, an individual devoted to his own power and authenticity at the expense of all others.

“Tell me, where is your Maker now? Call him, call down his wroth upon me! You cannot, for he does not exist. I am Corypheus, I shall deliver you from this lie in which you linger.”[vi]

Seeking Truth: The Knight’s Leap Into Faith

Yet Corypheus’ misguided answer to the crisis of faith is not the only solution we see within Inquisition. Among the many that we encounter, I shall focus on the kinds of faith embodied within the aforementioned right and left hands of the Divine: Cassandra Pentaghast and Sister Leliana. Both of these characters can inherit the role of Divine, becoming Divine Victoria, and despite their many differences of opinion their experiences of faith bear much in common.

Cassandra’s Tarot Card — Dragon Age: Inquisition

Both Cassandra and Leliana have left their respective duties behind, Cassandra having renounced the order of seekers and Leliana having left the chantry in Lothering to join the hero of Ferelden in the Dragon Age: Origins. Despite their respective periods of doubt, and the desire both feel to back amends for unfulfilled duties,[vii] the very narrative of Inquisition hinges on the willingness of these two women to abandon established structures, to embrace a personal faith.

Leliana’s Tarot Card — Dragon Age: Inquisition

This personal faith is made possible through only through their respective experiences within the Chantry, yet in both cases is only able to fully express itself as a response to this Chantry’s very collapse.

We can think here of Kierkegaard’s philosophy of religion. A devout Christian, Kierkegaard places great emphasis on an individual faith, upon a personal encounter with God — as opposed to one which is purely social. Through his critiques of Christendom — a political reality which is dominated by Christianity in appearance only, wherein everyone professes to be Christian and yet in which none truly are — Kierkegaard earns the moniker ‘father of existentialism’. For Kierkegaard, the profession of belief alone is not enough, but it is all that was required within ‘the crowd’ of contemporary Christendom. For Kierkegaard, the Church comes to serve as an impediment to true faith.

Both Cassandra and Leliana have deeply personal religious experiences that enable them to maintain their faith even in the face of the total collapse of the Chantry. In truth, it is the fragmentation of the Chantry that enables their respective experiences of faith to truly blossom, for no longer can either of them continue to cling to its structure and orthodoxy, which both of them were intimately involved in sustaining.

Leliana’s experience is a dream she had whilst cloistered in the Lothering chantry,[viii] followed by the flowering of a long-dead rosebush in the Chantry garden — an experience she took to be a miracle sent by the Maker himself. She understands this as the Maker speaking directly to her soul, commanding her to have faith. And yet she knows that this distances her from the Chantry. “I know what the Chantry says about the Maker, and what should I believe? What I feel in my heart, or what others tell me? They said my ideas were blasphemy.”

Cassandra’s experience is not so straightforward, nor is it something she is fully conscious of until her discoveries during the course of Inquisition. As a Seeker, Cassandra possesses the ability to ‘reinforce reality’ against demons and other works of magic. Such abilities are shared by the Templars, though in their case they come at the price of an addiction to lyrium — a magical mineral that provides great power at great cost to one’s health. Cassandra does not need lyrium, but it is not until her personal quest is completed in Inquisition that she discovers the origin of her powers: an induced encounter between her mind, made tranquil after an extended vigil, and a spirit of faith. Though the technique by which this encounter was achieved was passed to her through her order, the order itself predates the Chantry as we see it in the Dragon Age games, and the rite itself allows Cassandra to experience something that is wholly beyond the hierarchy of the Chantry.

Fear Tarot Card — Dragon Age: Inquisition

Both characters have their experiences shaped and made possible through their engagements with the Andrastrian Chantry, through their service to the Divine. However, in both cases something transcendent is pointed to.

Within his own philosophy of religion, Kierkegaard divides the religious life of mankind into three distinct yet interwoven existential stages, each giving way to the next. The first of these is the aesthetic: wanton individualism and immersion in the sensory world of egoism.[ix] The aesthete is an escapist who perpetually exhausts the objects of pleasure that they consume, though can never find satisfaction. This gives way to the ethical: the realm of social norms that are then drawn upon to contextualise and justify human activity.

Within Dragon Age, the ethical is the social world in which characters move and act. Specifically, for our discussion, it is the Chantry itself: the institutionalised structure of the beliefs and values that provide the context within which the characters make sense of the world. Chantry law both shapes and is influenced by the social norms of the day, for example its harsh treatment of magic has led to the widespread fear and suspicion of mages and serves as a justification for their mistreatment.

Yet for Kierkegaard, the ethical gives way to the third and final existential sphere: the religious. The religious can only be attained by passing through the ethical, and yet it fundamentally leaves the ethical behind. Rather than concerned with norms and dogma, the religious is instead concerned with the individual believer’s subjective passion which cannot be reduced or constrained by ‘religious’ institutions or hierarchies. It is through suspending the concerns of the ethical, the concerns of society, that one is able to address the absolutely foundational questions of faith. Faith is concerned with questions of value and of significance — those which can be sustained and repeated by the ethical institutions of Church and Government, but which can only be authentically experienced and chosen by the individual.

With the collapse of the Chantry, both Cassandra and Leliana are forced to confront their own need to answer these questions. No longer can either alleviate their personal doubts through Chantry rhetoric, each is forced to come to her own conclusion, to embrace her own experience and to form a personal faith. It is only once each freely choose to believe themselves that their faith becomes authentic, and genuinely religious in a Kierkegaardian sense. Through embracing the consequences of this faith, each is then able to become (in Cassandra’s case somewhat more literally) a Knight of Faith. Such a Knight is one who has, with complete faith in herself and in the divine, is able to authentically embrace the truth of their own faith, of their personal answer to the fundamental question of ‘what matters?’

“If we are to spread the Maker’s word across the world, we must do so with open hearts and open hands.”

Cassandra comes to witness the ways in which the Chantry has manipulated history, and she rallies against such falsehoods in pursuit of truth. Should she become Divine Victoria, she seeks to right the wrongs of the past, and to create a Chantry that provides hope and genuine faith. In turn, Leliana dismantles the structures of oppression set deep into the Chantry, liberating the mages and demanding a high standard of devotion from those who would profess themselves as followers of Andraste.

It’s not the pseudo-Nietzschean individualism of Corypheus we see here. He is led to abandon his faith when faced with the contradictory silence of the world. He is left only with a void, unable to endure his sense of abandonment and thus he choses to worship himself and seeks to fill the role of God himself. This path ultimately leads to death and destruction, including his own.

In an interview Nerd Appropriate, Dragon Age writer Patrick Weekes describes Corypheus as a “dark mirror”[x] of Leliana, for both are ‘burned believers’ who have been confronted with a crisis of faith. Though both are attempting to reconcile themselves with the absurdity of faith, it is clear that one is successful whereas the other fails. Whereas Corypheus’ faith proves fragile, leading him down a path of personal power dictated by his need for self-assurance, Leliana (and Cassandra) are able to reconcile themselves with this crisis, to welcome the paradoxes of faith and to go on devoted the values they, as Knights of Faith, have freely chosen to embrace.

The Inquisition Tarot Card — Dragon Age: Inquisition

Notes

[i] BioWare and others, Dragon Age: Inquisition (Electronic Arts, 2014). The opening cinematic can be viewed here.

[ii] This cinematic can be viewed here.

[iii] This cinematic can be viewed here.

[iv] See: F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. by Bill Chapko, trans. by Thomas Common (Feedbooks, 2010).

[v] See: F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966). and F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998).

[vi] This cinematic can be viewed here.

[vii] Cassandra, for example, feels that she still has a duty to protect the order of seekers (see here), and Leliana spends much of the game occupied with her fear of having failed Divine Justinia (see here).

[viii] This cinematic can be viewed here.

[ix] See: Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or

[x] See: ‘Inside Inquisition with Patrick Weekes’, Rated NA, 2014 <http://www.nerdappropriate.com/2014/12/31/rated-na-184-inside-inquisition-with-patrick-weekes/> [accessed 8 March 2018].

Works Cited

BioWare, Mike Laidlaw, Jacques Lebrun, Matthew Goldman, and David Gaider, Dragon Age: Inquisition (Electronic Arts, 2014)

‘Inside Inquisition with Patrick Weekes’, Rated NA, 2014 <http://www.nerdappropriate.com/2014/12/31/rated-na-184-inside-inquisition-with-patrick-weekes/> [accessed 8 March 2018]

Kierkegaard, Soren, Either/Or

— — — , Fear and Trembling

Nietzsche, F., Beyond Good and Evil, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966)

— — — , On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swensen (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998)

— — — , Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ed. by Bill Chapko, trans. by Thomas Common (Feedbooks, 2010)

Works Consulted

Gaider, David. Dragon Age: Asunder. New York: Doherty, Tom Associates, 2011.

— — — . Dragon Age: The Calling. New York: Doherty, Tom Associates, 2009.

— — — . Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne. New York: TOR BOOKS, 2009.

Gelinas, Ben. Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 1. United States: Dark Horse Comics, 2013.

Gelinas, Ben, and Nick Thornborrow. Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2. Edited by Cameron Harris and Cori May. United States: Dark Horse Comics, 2015.

Merciel, Liane. Dragon Age: The Last Flight. New York: Tor Books, 2014.

Weekes, Patrick. Dragon Age: The Masked Empire. United States: Tor Books, 2014.

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Benjamin Carpenter

Benjamin Carpenter

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Doctor of Philosophy— Identity, Recognition, Space. Researching self-hood online. Fantasy enthusiast. Writing about philosophy, politics, and video games.