Monday, September 4, 2017

The Herald, the Mark, and the Question of Belief

When playing for your Inquisitor, one of the biggest questions that will come up for your character is that of belief. Are they a loyal member of the Chantry and a devout believer in the Maker? Do they see the Mark as a touch of the divine, a blessing or a curse? Do they want to believe but experience doubts? 

Dear Maker, please make me better at flirting and social
interaction. Thanks so much! Love, Cullen
.
Or do they not believe at all, and look at the world more clinically and scientifically? Or perhaps they're elven, dwarven, or Qunari, with beliefs in their own culture and its gods, ancestors, or belief systems?

What your Inquisitor believes is crucial to the story because, remember, they are quickly raised up as a pseudo-religious symbol that is tied to the very success of the Inquisition itself. An Inquisition that was in fact created as a religious organization centuries back, and whose ties to that foundation cannot be entirely separated.

Which makes life quietly yet highly uncomfortable if you play (as I typically do) a disbelieving Inquisitor. It's also why my poor Inquisitor is usually trembling on her throne and waiting to be kicked back into the prison every once in awhile. Imagine leading a religious organization whose beliefs you do not share. Imagine being held up as a religious symbol when you yourself do not believe.

On the other hand, imagine being absolutely certain in your character's faith and beliefs, and that they are indeed touched by the hand of the divine... only to have that knowledge ripped away at a certain point. The game gives us that, too. And it does so with respect.

Refreshingly, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to belief in Dragon Age: Inquisition. There's just the question of what your character believes, and once you know that, everything that follows is seamless and organic.


If you embark on a career as a murderous, spying, singing nun,
a crisis of conscience is inevitable. If probably highly tuneful.
Choosing Your Path

Belief, unbelief, or something in between... All of these choices are possible in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and they provide the potential for truly fascinating character-building that will include moments of epiphany, realization, loss, and disillusionment. 

As you progress through the story of DAI, many of your choices will directly accumulate to point your character in a direction of either belief or nonbelief. This progression seems to work according to a hidden points system (similar to the one that leads to who becomes Divine in "Trespasser").

Some of those key scenes affecting your Inquisitor's "Belief" story trajectory include:
  • The "I'm the Herald/I'm not the Herald" choice early on in the War Room (for Belief, assert that you are in fact the Herald)
  • Your first big conversation with Cassandra at Haven (she will ask you point-blank what you believe—if you're seeking to pursue a devout "Believer" storyline, tell her you believe in the Maker)
  • The conversation with Josephine about what the Inquisition's stance should be about the events at the Temple of Sacred Ashes (take the Believer/religious interpretation)
  • The discussion with Mother Giselle after Haven (and before "The Dawn Will Come"). One of the options for a religious Inquisitor is to say "I believe, but is that enough?"
  • Dorian's early conversations about faith: Choose pro-Chantry options for Belief, anti-Chantry options for Unbelief.
  • Sera's conversations: Choose options in favor of Andrastian faith and belief when talking to Sera.
  • The numerous additional scenarios when characters ask you if you are truly the Herald, from Haven, to Val Royeaux, to Orlais and beyond. Answer devoutly if that's what you're playing.

The Players in the Drama of Belief


While the question of belief is a complex thread throughout the story, a few characters, specifically, are especially important in the "Believer" or "Unbeliever" storylines for the Inquisitor, and chief among those movers and shakers are Mother Giselle, Cassandra, Cullen, and Leliana (and, in her own odd way Sera).

I love the way our companions' faith shapes who they are and how they interact with us, and how it has no effect on their open-mindedness and acceptance of our Inquisitor as a whole. Cassandra's faith is something clean and pure; it practically shines out of her and affects every decision she makes. I'm always floored that Cassandra—the creator of the Inquisition and its primary mover—rejects a position of power or leadership within it because she feels it is not her correct role, and that she can serve better as a Seeker, soldier and military strategist. As Solas later notes in one of their banter conversations, this abnegation is truly remarkable and rare.

Cullen's faith is a beautiful and subtle character note, especially if you romance him, something that visibly sustains and nurtures a man still damaged by his experiences, and who is still seeking atonement and enlightenment. The scene of Cullen quietly praying for strength, in one final moment before the storm, remains one of my all-time favorite scenes within the game. It's moving and respectful, and feels so absolutely real and grounded. His fear and belief are equally palpable. 

Leliana's faith has on the other hand, in some ways, become twisted. She is a much darker character than the sweet if subtle girl we knew in Dragon Age: Origins, someone who acted as Left Hand, spymaster (and occasional assassin) for the Divine Justinia who died at the Conclave. I'm still gobsmacked that she cheerfully admits to lying, spying, and killing, for what was essentially Thedas's Pope. Yet here, too, is an example of real faith and unshakable belief at the core, however dark it has become, and that's never more evident than in Leliana's absolutely shattering final moments in the quest "In Hushed Whispers."

Treating the Question of Faith with Respect

In the 2015 NYU Game Center Lecture Series ("Bioware's Approach to Storytelling," and, yes, please go watch it immediately because it is just wonderful), there's a great discussion by David Gaider in which he describes his inspiration for "The Dawn Will Come" as a pivotal event. First off, he reveals the song as a major plot point, a vital dramatic moment that he was convinced at every single step would not actually survive to final inclusion (I'm so glad it did!). 

But David also addresses the importance of the question of faith in his discussion of that pivotal scene, as well as the goal to treat the issue of religion respectfully within the story of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

"When we were talking about the idea of faith in the game, we wanted to be even-handed," Gaider comments there. "I thought, what if we could find a way to show that there is value in faith, that there is value in hope? And that hope could be what sort of propels the player on to the second half of the game?"

For me, this entire idea is embodied in the crucial and intricately drawn character of Mother Giselle.

The Importance of Mother Giselle

There's a little bit more self-awareness and cynicism to Mother
Giselle than is apparent at first. She's smart and compassionate
but also perfectly willing to use PR to rally the people
.
I think people often miss what an important character Mother Giselle truly is. She's a key religious leader yet she does not judge or admonish the Inquisitor, even if they tell her flatly and repeatedly that they do not share her beliefs. She is strong, compassionate, intelligent, and kind. When she is questioned about the lore of the Andrastian religion, she is well-informed and able to respond in detail about what the Chantry promotes and believes.

It's very telling that when we meet Mother Giselle for the very first time, in the Hinterlands, she is soothing a wounded young Templar who is openly terrified of retribution, of magic or torture, and all she does is quiet and calm him. For Mother Giselle, there are no sides to this terrible conflict. She simply wants, like Cole, to help as many as she can on every side. The fact that she believes she is acting on behalf of a compassionate Maker is simply part of who she is. She even has compassion for Corypants, of all people, and in a key moment after the loss of Haven she tells the Inquisitor, "If [Corypheus] entered [the Black City], it has changed him without and within. The living are not meant to make that journey. Perhaps these are lies he must tell himself rather than accept that he earned the scorn of the Maker. I know I could not bear such."

Depicted as a truly gentle, selfless person, Mother Giselle is also a lot more subtle than she appears to be at first (for instance, starting the group singalong "The Dawn Will Come" because she recognizes that the people need motivating, and that just the right hymn will actually reinforce their commitment and belief). She accepts the Inquisitor's nonbelief, if it's there, but she won't let you off without really asking you to explore why you do not believe.

The only time Mother Giselle's halo slips just the tiniest bit is during an interlude involving Dorian at Skyhold. First, she colludes with his estranged father to try to get us to deceive Dorian into a surprise meeting at Redcliffe. Her motives and intentions here are truly good, but let's face it, it's certainly understandable that our wonderful Dorian justifiably does not want to see this person, given that he actually tried to magically change his son's sexual orientation. So, yeah, Giselle is wrong here. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But in her naivete, all she can see is the chance to bring a father and son back together.

Then, not long after, she once again puts poor Dorian on the spot by awkwardly confronting him and the Inquisitor about the rumors that they may be lovers. Speaking for myself, my Inquisitors are always delighted that this rumor is going around (I mean, have you seen Dorian?) and practically do a fistpump and a Snoopy dance right there on the spot (in my headcanon, Dorian watches all this and goes, "That's all fine, dearest, but next time perhaps do it without the sound effects...?"). 

This scene is notable, however, in all seriousness, because I think there's a subtext with a male Inquisitor that leads Mother Giselle to seem homophobic here, and I really don't think she is. I think she's equally prudish about the idea of a sexual relationship between the Inquisitor and Dorian no matter what their gender might be (although now I'm laughing while imagining Giselle's inevitably horrified expression at her realization, with my first Inquisitor, that my little blonde Disney Princess was happily romancing The Iron Bull in naughty ways on various furnishings all over Skyhold). Either way, however, it is a little satisfying to call Mother Giselle out on her shit here, and to say, "Stop that. You're better than this" on her potential slut-shaming.

But for the most part, Giselle is a good-hearted and interesting, intelligent person. She's also happy to discuss, in surprising depth, the issue of faith, the question of the Herald's title, and the teachings of the Chantry.

Cass's faith is one of my favorite things about her. It's a
positive force within her, one that strengthens her resolve
and enhances her compassion and loyalty.
The Crucial Cassandra Scene

The single biggest trigger for Belief/Nonbelief, however, seems to be that early and vital conversation with Cassandra while she's sparring practice dummies at Haven. Here, you can admit to your devotion to the Maker, or, if you choose the response "No more of this 'chosen' nonsense," you're on a hardline path to nonbelief.

Basically, as that conversation progresses, Cass will ask you directly to tell her what you believe, and your choice of answer will largely seal your path forward in terms of your Inquisitor's faith:

Cassandra: I'm curious. Do you even believe in the Maker?
Dalish Inquisitor (Special) I believe in Elven gods. (Elf only)
Qunari Inquisitor (Special) I'm Qunari, remember? (Qunari only)
Dwarven Inquisitor (Special) I'm a Dwarf, remember? (Dwarf only)
Inquisitor: Yes. (This answer will generate Approval from Cassandra, and will also establish your Inquisitor as faithful. If you lock this in, you won't be able to say you're forming the Inquisition for "order" or "to do what's right" in the coronation ceremony.)
Inquisitor: No. (Cassandra will Slightly Disapprove.) You will be tentatively locked in for an "Unbeliever" playthrough and will have those "order" or "rightness" options in the coronation.
Inquisitor: I don't know. (You can still proceed with belief or unbelief from here, but I think the default means that you'll stay on the 'Belief' path for the most part.)

Note: Interestingly enough, you can say that "Fanatical belief is to blame," under both the "Believer" and "Nonbeliever" dialogue wheels, but they will mean vastly different things at that point. I love that.

The Believer's Path and Coronation

The Nightingale and the Lion, two of DAI's most fervent
believers in the Chantry.
This "Belief" approach to the story will lead to a different take on specific scenes—for instance, during the scene (if you support the Templars) in which you rally the soldiers in "Champions of the Just," your Inquisitor will acknowledge being the Herald and will call the Templars to action for the sake of Andraste.

You'll also have different options at various other story points—for instance, you will be able to pardon the penitent Warden Ser Ruth after the events at Adamant by forgiving her in the name of Andraste, or you will have expanded conversations later on with both Sera and Cassandra about faith.

It's worth noting that even if you confess that you have lost faith or don't know whether you believe in the Maker, if you have nevertheless insisted you were the Herald, you will still be taking the "Believer" path throughout the DAI story.

Your "Believer" status will culminate in the coronation scene at Skyhold, and with the presentation of the sword to your Inquisitor. At that point, you will be presented with a dialogue wheel of options that includes the line "My faith is rewarded." As a believer, your final dialogue choice here will also allow you to proclaim, "I will be a servant of faith" as you raise the sword high before your followers.

The Nonbeliever's Coronation

If you want the "Nonbelief" storyline, deny being the Herald of Andraste at every point where you're given the opportunity to argue against the title. Whenever you are asked if you believe, say No. Do that all the way through, and your big coronation ceremony should end with the option for you to proclaim, "I'll do it because it is right," or you can also choose "I fight for order, not faith." 

If you're a Qunari, Dwarf, or Elf Inquisitor, you will also have the nonreligious option to note the importance of this moment for your people, saying that "A [dwarf/Qunari/elf] will stand for us all."

"By the power of Greyskull... No, wait, let's try that again..."
The Dalish Belief Story Path

If you're Dalish, meanwhile, you can also follow an interesting alternate "devout Dalish" story path, in which you deny being the Herald yet assert repeatedly that you believe in elven gods. This will not only lead to some interesting conversations with Mother Giselle and Josie, as well as Sera later on, but also with (of course) Solas, Abelas and eventually Flemeth.

And of course, if you play this storyline, your devout Dalish Inquisitor will also experience a quiet but fairly shattering loss of faith, as well, The gods your Inquisitor revered were nothing more than powerful and arrogant tyrants, and that Vallaslin they wore so proudly was nothing more than a mark of enslavement. And one of those gods was walking beside you (or visiting for occasional makeout sessions) the entire time.

It's interesting that, just beneath the surface of Dragon Age: Inquisition and its larger story, the search for faith and meaning is so crucial to so many characters. From Corypheus's outrage that the Maker's throne was empty, to Cassandra's horrified revelations about the deceptions involved in the powers of the Seekers, to the key conversations with Leliana, Cullen, Solas and Mother Giselle as they wrestle with a dark and changing world, belief in the world of Thedas is presented as being every bit as complex and challenging as it is in our own world. 

And that's just the way it should be.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent write up as always, but possibly missing some words in this sentence? "(You can still proceed with belief or unbelief from here, but I think the default means that you.)"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oops! Thank you for catching that! I'll go see what I did there and finish the thought...

      Delete

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