Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What Do Dragon Age and The Wheel of Time Have In Common?

I just read this kind of thought-provoking article by Richard Fife over on Tor's website and my mind wandered over to Dragon Age. Granted, this is not an uncommon occurrence. Many things make my mind wander over to Dragon Age. It is a game that tends to linger in the consciousness, especially when you are actually playing it.

Anyhoo, Fife's article (which you should totally go read, it is well worth it) was just a brief commentary on one of the cultures in Robert Jordan's series The Wheel of Time. Fife believes that the Seanchan culture is a dystopian one, and I have to say, I rather agree with the points he makes. I have often been irked, in fact, by the realization that the Seanchan actually have it pretty well put together except for the whole slavery and oppression of magic wielders they have going on. What the article suggests to me is that in a true dystopia, the majority of the population doesn't realize that it is in a dystopia. The regime is so completely successfully oppressive precisely because the people have willingly sacrificed their freedoms or don't realize that they have done so. All except for that select group that is the example group--the ones who are publicly put down so that the general mass knows what will happen if they do try to resist. In the case of the Seanchan, that example group is users of magic (it is actually a very specific subset of that group of people, but the Seanchan themselves don't realize the flaw in their system quite yet).

The basic history of the Seanchan is that three thousand years ago, the world was "broken" by the Aes Sedai (the users of magic). It was a huge global cataclysm. In the part of the world that became Seanchan, the Aes Sedai that survived the breaking spent the next two thousand years warring with each other. Then along came the army of Artur Hawkwing and they kind of took over everything. To protect themselves from the power of the Aes Sedai, they enslaved all of them, and over the next thousand years built an empire with the magic wielders as their servants. They did this because they were scared of what the Aes Sedai would do to them, to each other, and to the world if left unchecked. Because they were scared of that power, they found a way to control it, and to keep it from ever getting the upper hand again.

It is this history, which I had truly never really thought on very much while reading the series (there is a lot going on there, some aspects of it tend to slip through the cracks from time to time), which my mind connected to my current video game obsession.

In the world of Dragon Age, mages are widely feared by the general populace. Once upon a time, long before the games take place, the world was ruled by mages, but eventually the ungifted folk rose up and threw down their oppressors. In the era in which the games occur, mages are locked up in a Circle, which is guarded by the Templars (the army of the Chantry, the religious power in this world). The Templars have special magic-negating abilities and are thus able to keep the mages in check. While the mages are somewhat autonomous within each Circle, they are kept inside those Circles, and they are mostly kept apart from the general population. Mages who practice magic and do not submit to the Chantry rule are called apostates and are hunted down and brought back to the Circle or executed.

All of this is largely in the background in Dragon Age: Origins, but in Dragon Age II the primary conflict of the story is that between the Circle of Magi and the Templars in the city-state of Kirkwall. One of your companions is an apostate mage who is fighting not only to stay free of Chantry rule, but to see all mages with the same freedoms. To balance him out, you also have in your party a warrior who was once a slave in the Tevinter Imperium--a far off land where the mages not only still rule, but have also all given in to the use of blood magic, which is the cardinal sin a mage can commit in the eyes of the Chantry. It makes for a very interesting dichotomy. While I am not sure how well the story was carried out, or what the actual message the writers were trying to get across was in game two, the basic idea is a strong one.

In a fantasy setting with magic involved, there is always a fine line to walk. Either limitations must be put on the system of magic itself to prevent its wielders from being all-powerful, or societal rules come into play, with the users of magic either being the ruling class or the enslaved class. As a fan of fantasy, I think this might be one of my favorite aspects these days--seeing how the particular story deals with magic and keeping the scales balanced between those who have it and those who don't.

At any rate, when I play Dragon Age now, I have a feeling I will be looking at Thedas as what could be in a post-series Wheel of Time world where there was a new breaking and the Seanchan succeeded in enslaving the Aes Sedai on Rand's side of the ocean...

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