In this installment of Religion in Games (assuming there will ever be future installments) we take a look at the varied perspectives brought about by Dark Souls’ modern representation of a Greek Pantheon-esque class of Gods, and Dragon Age’s Catholic-inspired Chantry and especially the way that Inquisition talks about the responsibility of religious symbols and martyrs.
Obviously, if you’ve not played either game you can anticipate MAJOR SPOILERS for both. This is an in-depth analysis. We can’t really talk about this without getting into the endings and lore of both games.
So here we go.
Dark Souls: If you could continue the old world’s views, would you do so, or would you walk away?
The Souls series is all about the exploration of a fallen world. You are a lone “hero” tasked with making some sort of change, typically, you’re here as a solution, someone with the power to change the state of the world which has arrived at a sort of end-game scenario. In Lordran, the setting of Dark Souls, the lords of the land still exist but have fallen from grace. Gwyn, the veritable God of the realm, and leader of a race known as Lords has long since sacrificed himself to the ideals of his kingdom: the preservation of the First Flame, from which all the life in the kingdom has spawned.
The story of Dark Souls is primarily concerned with Gwyn’s legacy. The Lords and their home were the results of Gwyn’s leadership, prosperity, protection, and heroism. He gave his life for this fight, these beliefs that the preservation of an origin of life and its worship were the most important things. It is also this legacy that wraps up the “chosen hero” our character into a deceitful game.
The opposite of the Flame is the pitch-black Abyss, a force also born from the Flame, and the result of the spread of humanity, tiny sprites that collected make up one of the Great Souls, the Dark Soul. As the First Flame dies, the Abyss spreads more. As the Abyss spreads, mankind gains power through corruption of their core essence, the said humanity. Humankind is infected with the darksign, a flame branded on the skin that connects them to the bonfires. This causes a state of living known as being undead, where it’s impossible to die, constantly respawning at the nearest bonfire, and eventually turning into a Hollow, an undead who has lost their purpose for life.
You play as the “chosen undead.” You’re given the task of ascending to Anor Londo, the land of the Gods, in order to collect the Lord Souls and rekindle the First Flame, so that the Age of Light can continue on and so that the Abyss can be held back. It is a purpose given to you personally by the daughter of Gwyn whenever you arrive in Anor Londo. And as you go through the game you destroy the Lords, representing the forces of nature, the corruption of immortality, and mankind’s warped nature in the Abyss. You arrive, finally, at the kiln of the first flame, an ashed over landscape of apocalyptic architecture, and slay the long lost Gwyn in front of a barely lit bonfire. You slay him with ease, this great Lord, this leader of the Age of Light, and take his place.
It’s a fairly straight forward narrative, unless, you do things a little different.
There are two beings in the game known as Primordial Serpents. The one you meet in the normal course of the game is Kingseeker Frampt, allied with Gwyn, his daughter, and tasked with guiding you on the quest of lighting the First Flame. What you don’t know is that Gwyn’s daughter isn’t real. She existed but has long abandoned Lordran. Her figure in Anor Londo is an illusion. If you attack her, the sunlight fades and reveals that the land of the Lords is not in perpetual sunlight, but a permanent darkness. It’s a complete prop. It’s a deceit. It’s a lie. They are simply funneling you, a random undead, to throw yourself into the fire that may or may not be perpetuating an orchestrated curse on all of mankind, causing their undead state to perpetuate while the now dead Lords of Light attain their goal of constantly feeding the flame with more and more sacrifices, all for the sake of artifice.
You meet the other Serpent, Darkstalker Kaathe, in the abyss assuming you haven’t placed a giant urn known as the Lordvessel with Kingseeker Frampt at the door to the Kiln of the first flame. When you meet Kaathe, he informs you of the deception, informs you of mankind’s ancestral link to the Abyss. He tells you how the Age of Light is an artifice created by beings that hated you, sought your meaningless sacrifices, and propped up this quest and legacy so that you would throw yourself at the flame, as you may have already done in a previous game cycle.
Everything about the preservation is a lie.
In the DLC, you travel to Oolacile, a kingdom that fell to the Abyss before hand. There you see what the Abyss does when it drives humanity out of control. Men become horrid beasts, humanity expands into life draining monstrosity. Light cannot exist within its grasp, but neither can a recognizable human life. The Abyss is as corrupting a force as the First Flame. Neither the Lords in the Anor Londo, nor the Demons in the fiery Chaos below, nor the absence of any moral standard, good or evil, in the Abyss, give an answer or savior to human life. All life is doomed, and no matter which direction you take, the reality is that your journey has taken something away. Your completion of the undead’s journey marks the potential loss of the orchestraters of the cycle. There may never ever be an undead who makes this journey, meaning you may be the last sacrifice to the First Flame.
So given this choice what do you do? Do you sacrifice yourself to artifice, a system that is meaningless to you, or do you usher in the Age of Dark, a corrupting influence that will lead to a possible evolution?
It is an absolutely existential question of religion. Do you believe in something you’re told is good for you? Or do you try to find your own answers, a new path, something new? And at the end, doesn’t it all add up to the same thing?
It’s heavily implied by the mechanics of the New Game+ cycle in Dark Souls, that you just continue. That it all repeats in endless cycles. That there will be a new Gwyn, a new Age of Light, a new Abyss, a new Undead. There is no way to avoid the pomp and circumstance, the push and pull of meaningless existence or potential through reset and death.
And Dark Souls doesn’t push an answer, it just asks that question.
Dragon Age: If you are chosen, whether by God or by the People, to be a savior, how can you say no?
The world of Dragon Age has always held within it one of the perfect set-ups and willing discussions of religion in the real world that I’ve seen in any fantasy universe. The church, an entity known as the Chantry, is essentially a big female-run Catholic institution, with its parallel of Pope, Priests, Churches, and Jesus. The gender swap is less important than the understanding of the real world parallel.
Mages, on the other hand, are a group of individuals oppressed by the church because their powers come with the catch-22 of having the potential of being possessed by Demons. The Demons come from the Fade, a literal dream world. Everyone (except for Dwarfs) go to the Fade while asleep, but Mages can consciously enter and explore the Fade. A powerful country of mages known as The Tevinter Imperium once had a collective of Mages who entered the Fade with the intention of finding out the truth behind the existence of The Maker, a God parallel and the one prominent male figure in the Chantry. His Golden City is said to be in the Fade.
Well, the Imperium did indeed enter. The mages who went are said to have corrupted the city and changed it from gold to black. It’s visible in the games whenever you enter the Fade. The result is said to have been a corrupting force known as the Darkspawn. Darkspawn are creatures, humans, and other races, infected by this force. It kills lesser beings and permanently transforms hardier ones. The Old Gods of the Tevinter Imperium, dragons, are turned into Archdemons who cause an invasion known as a Blight. The first Dragon Age game takes place during one of these occurrences.
The DLC of the second game, Legacy, gives us a primary antagonist in Corypheus, one of the original Tevinter Magisters who entered the Golden City. Up until this point in the series, the story of the Tevinter Magisters was easy to read as a nationalistic fable, one that made opposition to the slave-driving, non-religious Tevinter Imperium easily. It’s a radical shift in interpretation when you come face to face with a being who claims to have been there and by all accounts isn’t joking.
Corypheus is the primary antagonist of Dragon Age Inquisition as well. He breaks the barrier between the Fade and the Real World, entirely intending for the world to accept him as the closest thing to a God, at one point remarking that he saw the Throne of The Maker and saw no Maker.
Your character in Inquisition is a character who was at Corypheus’ initial attempt to break the barrier. You were guided out of the Fade by a being made entirely of Light, who as it turns out, was the Revered Mother, the veritable Pope of the Chantry, and a woman who was murdered by Corypheus during the event. Her light figure is seen in the portal where you fall out, and only you have the power to close the rifts between the real world and the Fade. This leads to people calling you the Chosen of Andraste, the Jesus parallel of the Dragon Age World.
And the thing is, you don’t know that you aren’t exactly.
Dragon Age, being a Bioware game, offers dialogue choices at various points in time. Anytime the topic of you being chosen comes up you have the option of embracing it, ignoring it, or fighting against it, often by arguing skepticism and logical explanations. There’s a logical explanation for almost all of it, and the game gives it to you. However, it’s in talking with the other characters, especially a priest character, that brings the true point of all this thematic language to light.
It doesn’t rightfully matter. The people have believed since early on that you were some sort of chosen one. And the reality of whether you’re chosen by The Maker, The Revered Mother, Andraste, a satanic voice in the Fade known as The Nightmare, or even Corypheus’ mistakes itself, doesn’t matter. The possibility of it all being destiny exists, the possibility of it all being accident exists, and what’s important is that you have been elevated to be a figure of great importance. You will be the savior of the people whether it was designed or chaos. And the game wants you to embrace it.
Dark Souls v. Dragon Age: Nihilism v. Opportunism
Dark Souls points out that it doesn’t matter who our saviors are, or even if they lie to us about all of it. Life can be a struggle against the Light or a struggle against the Dark, and it doesn’t quite matter. It has been repeated throughout history.
Dragon Age’s major question is one of whether or not actual religion exists or is right. It doesn’t matter it says. There are people with extraordinary influence at periods of time who have a lasting impact or grant hope to the people in ways sometimes entirely out of their own control, and the only thing they can do is sort of answer the call.
Both games feature a certain expression on religion nihilism. It strikes at the core of two ways to feel about a reality in which there are multiple ways to answer a question that has no evidence on either side. It isn’t asking whether God exists or not, it’s asking what do we do with the world the way that it actually is?
Dark Souls says that we search for meaning, but that the cycles that lead to an inevitable emptiness in asking what to do next ultimately lead to the same place. Each person makes a choice, but those choices won’t change the bigger systems. We will ask the questions again and again.
Dragon Age, on the other hand, seems to take an opposite stance. The possibility of truth exists in all interpretations, but the reality is that people are given cultural power by the people, and defined by the fame ascribed to them. It’s that person’s choice on what to do with the power they are given to wield, and the end result will be a world forever thankful for the guidance or forever hateful for the lack of it.
In one game your role is personal, at an end-game where your choice is meaningless. In the other, your role is public in a place where your choice is everything. Both you have next to no control over it. There is a sequel to Dark Souls 2 but it zooms into a micro discussion about its own world. There has yet to be a sequel to Inquisition, but the final scene of the game cliff hangs hardcore on a more interesting reveal about the world of Dragon Age.
And at the end of the day, these are important questions to consider for yourself. If you are in a cycle of perpetual repetition, what choice can you make that affects it? If you are suddenly thrust into a position of power, how do you use it to your advantage?