The Tao of Dragon Age 2


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 editor@ontologicalgeek.com!

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.

thirdtime

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.

qunari

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.


Michael Elliott

About Michael Elliott

Michael is a writer at heart, though most of the time he doesn't act like it. He started as a columnist for The Cross and the Controller where he reviewed video games and talked a lot about the god in the machine. From there he contributed news posts and other articles to a few local sites: Geek Badge and Gamesparked. He is also the co-organizer of the WTF Game Jam (http://www.wtfgamejam.com). (Headshot credit: Andrew Ferguson

  • This was awe­some. Thank you for shar­ing it.

  • What is most inter­est­ing to me are the events that lead to the fight­ing. Some of the humans want­ed to fight the Qunari, but the lead­er­ship of Kirkwall want­ed to avoid fight­ing at all costs. The Qunari, on the other hand, had no “wants” so to speak, but rather had no choice but to fight once a series of events occurred. It didn’t mat­ter what the real­i­ty of the sit­u­a­tion was, the cer­tain­ty of the Qun required them to fight. Whether or not they all died, and whether or not inno­cent peo­ple were killed was irrel­e­vant given their col­lec­tivist mind­set since, of course, the indi­vid­u­al is not impor­tant to them. This is the dan­ger with such abso­lutists col­lec­tive views, and many of the real-world reli­gions have this men­tal­i­ty.