This month, the Ontological Geek has a theme: religion and/or theology in games. We have a great bunch of articles lined up, from the very personal to the deeply theoretical, from both regular OntoGeek contributors and several guest writers. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts on specific articles and the month as a whole – comment freely and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The Qun is not the best realized religion to be crafted and set inside a video game. Within the Dragon Age series itself I think that title would have to go to the Chantry, the dominant, theistic religion that provides the majority of fiction and plot hooks throughout the two games. With the Chantry, the writers and designers at BioWare took the basic fundamentals of some elements of Christian dogma and myth, and gave them enough twists and original content that it appeared as something quite apart from its inspiration. It gave color to a world that was a pleasure to play through.
But the Chantry didn’t sell me like the Qun did. The Chantry was well put together, but the Qun did more than make me admire a well-crafted religion, it almost converted me. It did this by combining one of my favourite religious stories, the story of the early life of the Buddha, with one of my favourite religious philosophies: Taoism. Not only that, but it skillfully created a juxtaposition between the teachings of the Qun and the actions of its followers that allowed me to appreciate its dogma, but still see the Qunari as villains that needed to be stopped.
To understand why I appreciate the Qun so much, I’ll have to first talk about the Buddha, known as Siddhartha Gautama. Specifically, the story of how he came to become the founder of Buddhism. Siddhartha was a prince, born to a wealthy and powerful family. His father kept him locked away in their palace, surrounded constantly by young, beautiful, smart people. He was not concerned for his son’s health or education so much as he was about a prophecy, delivered to the king after the birth of his son. If Siddhartha saw suffering in the world, the seer said, then he would become a holy man, a great spiritual leader. But if he did not, and took up his father’s title, then he would become a great ruler, with authority over lands unimagined by the king.
And so it was that Siddartha was imprisoned in his own home, denied all but the best humanity had to offer. It was not until after the young prince had married and had fathered his own son that he became restless, and sought the novelty of the outside world. Hiding, or perhaps disguising himself, he set out in a chariot with his driver Channa. Over three separate trips, Siddhartha saw the pain and suffering common to every human being. He saw sickness, old age, and eventually death, each of which Channa did his best to explain to the ignorant prince. But on his fourth trip outside the palace walls he saw a travelling mendicant, a man who owned nothing but robes and a begging bowl, attempting to find enlightenment and escape from the world through the renouncement of possessions.
Upon his return, unable to reconcile the material wealth of his life with the emptiness he now felt after his four trips, Siddhartha gathered a bowl and some robes, and snuck away from the palace. He left behind his family and all that he knew, to try to find that limitless peace and contentment that the wandering monk had sought.
Of course it took some time for this man Siddartha to become the Buddha, to find that the only way out of the suffering of existence is to cease desire entirely, but this is all that we need of his story. Because now we can see how close it is to the story of the origins of the Qunari.
Long ago, the Ashkaari lived in a great city by the sea. Wealth and prosperity shone upon the city like sunlight, and still its people grumbled in discontent. The Ashkaari walked the streets of his home and saw that all around him were the signs of genius: triumphs of architecture, artistic masterpieces, the palaces of wealthy merchants, libraries, and concert halls. But he also saw signs of misery: the poor, sick, lost, frightened, and the helpless. And the Ashkaari asked himself, “How can one people be both wise and ignorant, great and ruined, triumphant and despairing?”
So the Ashkaari left the land of his birth, seeking out other cities and nations, looking for a people who had found wisdom enough to end hopelessness and despair. He wandered for many years through empires filled with palaces and gardens, but in every nation of the wise, the great, the mighty, he found the forgotten, the abandoned, and the poor. Finally, he came to a vast desert, a wasteland of bare rock clawing at the empty sky, where he took shelter in the shadow of a towering rock, and resolved to meditate until he found his answer or perished.
Many days passed until one night, as he gazed out from the shadow of the rocks, he saw the lifeless desert awaken. A hundred thousand locusts hatched from the barren ground, and as one, they turned south, a single wave of moving earth. The Ashkaari rose and followed in their wake: a path of devastation miles wide, the once verdant land turned to waste. And the Ashkaari’s eyes were opened.
-Dragon Age 2, codex entry
I enjoy the Buddha’s story because it does a great job of highlighting what I think is valuable in religion: the pursuit of immaterial wealth, of spiritual contentment. It works because it clearly shows that all the gold and power in the world cannot stop the basic facts of the human condition, and coming to terms with these facts of existence is a worthwhile goal. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal called it a, “question of ourselves and our all.” And so seeing these parallels in the story of Ashkaari Koslun almost immediately sold me on the Qun.
It also ties in common themes found in stories about other religious founders. Like the Buddha, Koslun leaves a place of great wealth and prosperity to seek enlightenment. Like Muhammad, he sequesters himself away from the rest of the world, determined to find a solution. Like Jesus, he seeks a universal truth, to give hope and lift up everyone, not just a chosen few. And like all of them, he seeks an end to the suffering and discord in the world.
The way Koslun’s story is written, it is obvious that it was influenced by the history and myth of real religions, and that this is part of what makes it feel so real and so tempting to me. But there’s more to the Qunari than Koslun.
Existence is a choice.
There is no chaos in the world, only complexity.
Knowledge of the complex is wisdom.
From wisdom of the world comes wisdom of the self.
Mastery of the self is mastery of the world. Loss of the self is the source of suffering.
Suffering is a choice, and we can refuse it.
It is in our power to create the world, or destroy it.
And the Ashkaari went forth to his people.”
-Dragon Age 2, codex entry
This is one of the precious few excerpts from the Qunari holy book, sprinkled as codex entries throughout Dragon Age 2. I really enjoy this writing, not because of the further tempting comparisons that can be made to Buddhism, what with the reference to knowledge of the self and avoidance of suffering, but to another Eastern religion: Taoism.
To understand others is to be knowledgeable;
To understand yourself is to be wise.
To conquer others is to have strength;
To conquer yourself is to be strong.”
–Chapter 33, Tao-te Ching
Much like the previous canto from the Qun, Taoism is centred on knowledge of the self and one’s place in the world. The word Tao basically means “the way”. The doctrine of Taosim is simple: there is one way, a path or way of being, for everyone and everything, and this is their natural way. Things act best when they are on their Tao, and become confused and twisted when they cannot see it, or act against it. We are thus content and happy when we find our Tao, or more precisely, stop acting against it, and accept it. For example, let’s look at another excerpt.
To rarely speak- such is the way of Nature.
Fierce winds don’t last the whole morning;
Torrential rains don’t last the whole day.
Who makes these things?
If Heaven and Earth can’t make these last long–
How much the more is this true for man?”
–Chapter 23, Tao-te Ching
The Tao paints the unfortunate events of the world as purely natural occurrences no more offensive than the flowing of a stream. The rain and wind do not know they are a storm, they simply are. Taoism encourages us to see the world and the forces in it not as antagonistic forces, battling against us and each other, but natural flows, moving along their designed paths. It in turn encourages us to see our lives as similar natural phenomena, moving like water around obstacles, filling and flowing, rather than breaking and forcing.
When the Ashkaari looked upon the destruction wrought by locusts,
He saw at last the order in the world.
A plague must cause suffering for as long as it endures,
Earthquakes must shatter the land.
They are bound by their being.
Asit tal-eb. It is to be.
For the world and the self are one.
Existence is a choice.
A self of suffering, brings only suffering to the world.
It is a choice, and we can refuse it.”
- Dragon Age 2, codex entry
Again we see similar lessons in the Qun. Earthquakes and locusts destroy the land. It is what they do. They do not do it maliciously, they do not do it opportunistically, they simply are. This, Koslun concludes, is the source of the disparity and suffering he sees in the world. It is our inability to see what is essential to ourselves, to see what we are. This is our Qun, this is our Tao, our natural way that will cause no break, that will flow naturally around other Qunari, like locusts against the wind. Koslun posits that it is within all of us to find this cause, this way, and to do otherwise risks causing suffering to ourselves and all those around us.
Sounds nice, right? I certainly think so, and I would happily embrace the Qun if I could figure out a way to tell my friends that I had found religion in a video game. But the Qunari practice is, interestingly, far away from how they preach. Throughout Dragon Age 2 your character is told, through codex entries, cutscenes, and random encounters, that the Qunari are not a race of peace-loving introverts, focusing on finding their own inner Tao. The way that the Qun expresses itself is very, very different.
Qunari society is a theocratic meritocracy. It is governed by the principles of the Qun, interpreted and ruled by those who show themselves best suited for the task. Each Qunari’s role is determined by their skills, their pedigree, and their sex. Women are rarely warriors, men are rarely caretakers. A warrior practices combat his entire life until he dies or is no longer useful, a baker makes bread until he or she can no longer knead the dough. Not trusting everyone to find the Qun on their own time and in their own way, the Qunari form a society in which everyone can find what they are best suited to do, and do nothing but that thing for their whole life. Thus, like so many dystopias, their people are free from any want or desire, other than freedom.
As the player in Dragon Age 2, you are treated to several examples of the Qunari abusing and discriminating against non-Qunari, and members of their own people: those cursed with the gift of magic, a source of chaos and dangerous unpredictability in Qunari society. Their contempt for the suffering they see around them amongst the humans and dwarves makes conflict between the Qunari and the rest of the world seem inevitable. Yet they do not act out against the city of Kirkwall, the setting of much of Dragon Age 2, until they are provoked. Several events play out through the first two thirds of the game, many designed by agents of the Chantry to antagonize the Qunari, before they finally decide to spread the wisdom of the Qun by taking the city by force. It is easy to see the conflict coming, not just because of how the game is designed, but because of the beliefs of the Qunari.
What’s interesting is how the game is laid out to provide ample opportunity for the player to identify and investigate the philosophy of the Qunari before the conflict reaches a tipping point. You are told the story of Koslun while you are still getting to know the Qunari, and the few cantos I shared with you make up the bulk of your knowledge of the Qun. That’s it. No grand injunction from Koslun on the evils of freedom and autonomy that plague society, no admonishment to imperialism or war that makes up the majority of the Qunari’s history with other societies. It’s a simple philosophy, reminiscent of some of our most introspective faiths, and it lets the player judge the Qun on its own merits, rather than through the lens of an oppressive villain getting in the player’s way. It also paints the Qunari as ideological villains, not demons seeking power or wealth, or invaders seeking more land. Their problem is with how you’re living your life, and by the time the match strikes the powder keg, you know exactly what their problem is, and you may even be inclined to agree.
Which leads us to this moment.
This is a Saarebas, a Qunari Mage, doomed to a life of servitude and ostracism because of the unpredictability of their magical powers. Without his Arvaarad, his master, this Qunari has no more purpose. He is no longer a useful tool, he has no more reason to exist. The player is given many opportunities to reason with this particular Saarebas, and all of them fail, because the Qunari has made his choice, and he has chosen to die. You can see him struggling with the thought, maybe even against indoctrination, and it’s the same struggle I went through as I watched the scene unfold. Do you stop him and infringe on his freedom to choose to exist, or let him die? Is this years of indoctrination talking, or did he actually accept the Qun? Would stopping him give him any happiness in the future? In the end these questions cannot translate to actions by the player, it’s a scripted scene where you have no choice but to watch the Saarebas die. But the fact that a video game got to this point, where you watch as a person self-immolates because of his convictions, is remarkable in and of itself.
Watching this scene, open-mouthed, all I could think of was he philosopher Albert Camus who said that “there is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental problems of philosophy.” Whether you could find for yourself a reason to live, a cause, a way. The basis of the Qun is that it makes everyone consider this, about what it means to choose to exist.
The Qun is a brilliantly realized religion. It combines themes from other religious stories into a philosophy that is compelling and simple, and uses them to tell a believable story about a religion that while attempting to make all men equal takes away something valuable in the process. Like the best villains, the Qunari show you what you’re willing to fight for, while at the same time getting you to ask important questions about a person’s autonomy and free will.
I love the Qun, and like people who have a religion or a faith that gives them joy, I can’t help but share it.