Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dragon Age 1's Blood Motif

Thanks to my sister and Ecclesiastes for their assistance with proofreading, and for the term “Tarentino imagery” and a reminder of the dark ritual’s relevance to this rant, respectively.

I’m still not sure I’d call Dragon Age 2 an actually bad game, but there’s no denying that at its very best it’s mediocre, and that it is completely inferior to its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins (which I refer to as Dragon Age 1 because I like the simplicity of numerical classification when possible). The reasons for this are varied and many--characters of lesser quality, a narrative that stumbles over itself trying to establish which of its two major parts are the more important, an ending that’s just complete trash, and a plot whose ultimate crucial point is a choice between competing moral ambiguities, not to mention, for those who care about such things, quite a few problems with the actual gameplay (most prominently the dungeons just being recycled over and over again).

One thing I think is overlooked when assessing how DA2 fails where DA1 succeeded, though, is that DA1 has a recurring theme that runs throughout its story that provides both a literal and a metaphorical backdrop to more or less the entire story: the motif of Blood. Dragon Age 2, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything of the sort--the closest you get are the questions of spirit that the Qunari raise, which are squashed to irrelevance with the abrupt and somewhat meaningless conflict with the Arishok at the end of Act 2, and questions of controlling a few potentially dangerous individuals unfairly for the good of society that the Templars vs. Mages conflict raises, a conflict which raises so few positive points and so many negative points on each side that it becomes, as I said above, a choice between moral ambiguities. Honestly, I feel like after the credits of DA2 there should be that clip from Mystery Science Theater 3000 of Crow saying, “We hope you’ve enjoyed No Moral Theatre!”

But while these DA2 ideas are present for most of the game in one form or another, they’re handled rather clumsily overall, and don’t have the symbolic presence that Blood does in DA1, anyway. So, why don’t people add that to the standard laundry list of problems DA2 had compared to DA1? Well, I imagine it’s probably because most people, while able to recognize and appreciate the narrative benefits of the Blood motif over the course of DA1’s story, don’t really realize that it’s there to begin with. Thankfully, though, The RPGenius is here to inform! Because I’m just that kind of nice guy. Also, I’m bored and I like talking.

So! Blood. Blood is a big thing in Dragon Age 1. This is obvious at the very most basic, surface level, of course--it’s all over the place. When people die in DA1, there’s blood. Lots of it! When your characters kill enemies, they get splattered with the stuff. Head to toe. When a Blood Mage cuts himself to power up, it’s like a blood-filled water balloon just exploded. Hell, the very moment you start the game, the game developer logo intro has a dragon made of blood flying around!

But funnily enough, it’s this excessive amount of actual blood shown in the game that clued me in at first that there was something more to it. Because believe it or doesn’t actually seem gratuitously violent or gory! I know it sounds crazy, but seriously, hear me out on this. The blood in DA1 isn’t like the blood you see in movies and games and such that are clearly just trying to be gory for the shock value. With those, it’s just an ichor, a load of red liquid, sometimes more like red glop, that streams and gushes and spurts from the wounded and dead, there to create a reaction in the audience rather than to serve a necessary storytelling function. It’s what I like to call Tarantino imagery--all shock value, no substance. But the blood in Dragon Age 1 isn’t just bodily ichor, it’s a force. It’s not bright and attention-getting, it’s deep-hued and accessory to the act that has called it forth. It doesn’t flow, it roils. And it’s never, to my recollection, joined by body parts and internal organs and such, as is often the case in situations of gore for gore’s sake--the blood is the only reactive evidence of injury or death because the blood is what’s important.

And why does the blood seem less like an escaped fluid and more like a liquid force? Because Blood is a force--it is the single most recognizable physical symbol in human culture of a living thing’s life force. And this meaning of Blood, that of its being the symbol of one’s own life, one’s own being, is probably the most common and important use that Dragon Age 1 has for it. The most literal use of this is, of course, the fact that when a creature dies in the game, they bleed, while their killer will then have that blood cling to him or her. The game even has a moment early on, in the City Elf origin story, where a villain tells his guards not to needlessly provoke the protagonist, the to-be Grey Warden, because she* is covered in blood--the blood is the visible residue of lives that have fallen before this individual, a warning that this is an individual not to be trifled with. And yes, this IS still a fairly pedestrian use of blood that any particularly gory movie/game/whatever could use to do the same thing, but still, the difference is all in how it’s presented. The excessive gore of a horror movie villain being covered in his victims’ blood is not the same to me; the horror movie uses it as a way to shock and frighten, a way to provoke an emotional response, wearing an excess of it for its origins, while DA1 uses it as a visual confirmation that lives, many of them, have been ended before this warrior. It’s a symbol of conflict overcome, that makes the wearer formidable, not gratuitous.

More importantly, though, DA1 equates Blood as a life force symbol by way of Blood Magic, and the Grey Wardens’ taint. Blood Magic is interesting when you view it through this more metaphorical lens. The idea of Blood Magic is that the mage is using his/her own life force to fuel and enhance his/her spells, shedding blood and calling upon its power as it flows. As it figuratively does in our world, Blood has literal power in the world of Ferelden--in fact, Blood Magic is seen as the most dangerous of all magics! It’s interesting to think about what interpretation is meant to be taken from this, if any--perhaps that one who is willing to give up anything, including his own life, to achieve his own goals has a power that no other has, and is the most dangerous of all ambitious individuals? But I’m not interested today in exploring too deeply the Blood motif, merely in recognizing it and pointing it out. Blood Magic is also notable in that its most famous ability is to allow its practitioner to gain control of others. Again, we see the link between blood and one’s very essence--if Blood Magic is the use of blood to manipulate blood, then the implication in being able to use it to control others is that one’s actions, one’s decisions, one’s personal being is dependent on and linked to it. Twice over does Blood Magic use Blood as a symbol of life force.

Similarly we see the induction ritual of the Grey Wardens use blood as a life force--and more than that, a representative life force. What separates the Grey Wardens from regular humans is that they have consumed the tainted blood of the Darkspawn (and lived through the process), after which they gain heightened awareness of Darkspawn (in other words, the ability to sense where they are), as well as the ability to permanently kill the Darkspawn horde’s leader by fatally taking the leader’s essence into themselves. Again, we see Blood as synonymous with one’s life force and personal power, as it is through consuming the Darkspawn’s blood, taking it within themselves, that the Grey Wardens gain their essential abilities. This, of course, harkens back to the ancient and gross idea that by consuming the symbolic parts of another person, you can add that person’s qualities to your own (as Futurama’s Professor Farnsworth puts it, “And if you kill anyone, don’t forget to eat their heart to gain their courage. Their rich, tasty courage.”). Just what effects the Darkspawn blood has for the Grey Wardens is also telling. The abilities gained, as well as the process’s detrimental effects, are, after all, not so much power as awareness, and even identity. The ability to sense other Darkspawn, the ability to take their leader’s soul into oneself, the eventual loss of oneself to the Darkspawn’s call, the connection through dreams to a Darkspawn group consciousness of sorts...becoming a Grey Warden, drinking the Darkspawn blood, is to actually become part Darkspawn. Again, the Blood is seen as the container of one’s very essence, and to take another’s Blood into oneself is to combine it with one’s own essence, to have one’s own identity become a mixture of the two.

The motif of Blood is also used in DA1 in a couple of different ways, as well, beyond that of being symbolic of life essence. Blood is also, for example, used as a corruptive force at times. Often in literature and other forms of cultural expression, Blood is equated with a loss of innocence, a destruction of something pure, a vessel for corruption. I’ve always found this a little bit interesting in that this symbolic use of blood actually has, in addition to its spiritual basis, medical precedence--there are some particularly nasty maladies which can be transmitted through contact with another’s blood, most famously HIV/AIDS. DA1 shows us this idea of Blood as corruption a few times, such as during the quest to obtain Andraste’s Ashes. During this quest, you are given the option to, if you are a titanic asshole, pour a dragon’s blood into the ashes and ruin them utterly. It’s pretty straightforward--it’s the use of the Blood of this most savage and grand of beasts to corrupt and destroy the pure, divine remnants of Dragon Age’s equivalent to Jesus.

The most plot-relevant and recurring example of Blood as a corruptive power, of course, is the Darkspawn taint, the illness from being exposed to the Darkspawn too long that sickens one and eventually turns one into the Darkspawn. The people of DA1 say that this taint is carried within the blood, and this statement is verified by both the Grey Warden induction ceremony (since the Darkspawn essence they take into themselves will, eventually, drive them to the darkness themselves) and by the quest in the game to recruit the Dog character. During this quest, the Grey Warden protagonist encounters a dog who has become sick because he ingested some Darkspawn blood from a prior battle. The Darkspawn taint has been carried into the Dog by that blood, and will kill him if the Grey Warden doesn’t find some medicinal herbs to help him.** Symbolic of the Darkspawn’s life force, Blood becomes the carrier of their taint, and a force of corruption.

The last major way that Blood is used as a motif in DA1 is as it’s related to heritage. A classic way of describing one’s family history, nationality, and breeding is to indicate that they’re found in one’s blood. Those descended from royalty are often said to have royal blood. A dog whose predecessors were all notable hunting dogs might be said to have hunting in his blood. Regardless of the country of one’s birth and residence, one might be said to have, say, the blood of an Irishman, if one’s family origins can be traced back to Ireland. And so on and so forth. For us, Blood is used as a metaphorical indicator of heritage and legacy.

Interestingly and ironically enough, this theme of Blood which is entirely symbolic and non-corporeal in real life has the most actual, practical influence on the events and world of Dragon Age 1. Heritage and lineage are huge parts of the Dragon Age setting and the game’s plot. Many parts of the societies of Thedas revolve around lineage--the human nobility functions as largely through birthright as our own real-world nobility does, and family history determines very nearly every major part of the dwarven society. In addition, the events of the plot very often incorporate lineage (and thus Blood) as being very important. Most of the origin stories for the Grey Warden, for example, relate to the Warden’s family history in one way or another. The werewolves in the quest for the elves’ allegiance are forced to carry a curse for the actions of their ancestors, a punishment inflicted upon them for their Blood rather than their own actions. A DLC sidequest adventure sees the descendant of Sophia Dryden, a Grey Warden of the past, attempting to learn the truth of his ancestor and reclaim her fortress--in other words, a quest to know and reclaim the heritage of his Blood. One of the major crisis points in the character development of Alistair revolves around his expectations of the connection he has to his half-sister, a connection forged solely on a shared lineage.

Perhaps most prominently, a major plot event of DA1 revolves around whether Anora or Alistair should become ruler of Fereldan--Anora is queen by marriage to the late King Cailan, and has both a ruler’s intellect and experience (as she basically was ruling the kingdom for the fun and good-natured but clearly not politically gifted Cailan) but Alistair is Cailan’s bastard half-brother, meaning that he has actual claim to the throne through his Blood. The big lynchpin in the Warden’s plan, midgame, is to put forth Alistair as the rightful king and oust Anora (and by doing so oust the villain Loghain, who is using his daughter Anora as his royal puppet).

And let us not forget the last but potentially most important plot event of the game, Morrigan’s dark ritual, which is an act of creating a spiritual legacy of the old gods and material legacy of either the protagonist or Alistair in the form of a child, which is heavily implied will be a major part of the future of the Dragon Age series. This is an instance of Blood as heritage whose importance will no doubt only grow; Bioware was certainly very hyped about playing its importance to the future up, even making DA1’s last DLC entirely about pursuing Morrigan, promising to answer our many questions about the child and the ritual and to tie up loose ends.***

It’s unclear to me what, if anything, Dragon Age 1 means to say about the lineage of Blood--one could say that Bioware paints it in a negative light, as the werewolves suffering for their ancestors’ mistakes is clearly unjust and the dwarven society is clearly declining badly because of its crippling traditions of heritage, but one could just as easily argue that there are parts of DA1 that verify the idea of Blood’s lineage as legitimate, such as the fact that Duncan’s decision to recruit the City Elf Grey Warden (assuming that’s the origin you pick for your protagonist) because her mother was an impressive warrior was obviously the right idea, what with her going on to save the country and all. At other times the issue’s not so simple, such as with Anora and Alistair--Anora’s the better ruler for her intellect and abilities, which is a point against Blood, but Alistair is a better person for his compassion and bravery and other moral values (which is also important in a king), which could be said to be a point for Blood. But like I said before, I’m more here just to recognize and display the Blood motif, not to analyze it too deeply, so I’ll leave that up to you to think over. Regardless of what conclusions can be drawn on the subject, though, it’s clear that Blood as a symbol of heritage is a tremendously important part of Dragon Age 1.

And that’s about all I’ve got for you today. It’s completely possible that there are more ways in which the motif of Blood is tied to DA1, ways both subtle and even obvious that I’ve missed completely--in fact, I’d be very surprised if I hadn’t missed at least a couple. I’m a far ways away from perfect. Nonetheless, I think you can see from even my limited observations that DA1 has worked Blood into its essence in several very important ways. And I think that it really makes a positive mark on the game, gives the story some symbolic backbone, helps to subtly but strongly tie its many elements together into one cohesive work. It’s the touch of art upon the game’s storytelling, perhaps the last touch of art Bioware was ever destined to give, and it’s one of the many elements of Dragon Age 1 that elevates it to the ranks of great RPGs.

* You can choose the gender of your protagonist in DA1, but some of the origin stories are clearly meant to have one gender over the other. In the City Elf origin’s case, you’re clearly meant to be playing a female.

** With said herbs, however, the Dog survives and joins the party, which has always made me wonder if the Dog doesn’t also count as a Grey Warden. I mean, he basically did the exact same thing that the Wardens do to make them Wardens--drank Darkspawn blood and didn’t die from it.

*** Note: Answers, clarification, and an actual attempt to resolve anything whatsoever not included.

1 comment:

  1. One thing that came to mind some time after reading this was the difference between the Human Noble's Mabari hound and the Mabari from Ostagar. Where the Ostagar hound ingests Darkspawn blood and survives, the Noble Mabari is stated in the codex of having a pedigree that apparently goes as far back as Ferelden's history. I do have to agree that Ostagar hound seems like it *should* have some distinction above a Very Loyal Dog. Or maybe the Darkspawn blood is what allows it to match an unreasonably well-bred specimen in the first place. They function identically, so trying to pick out details between them is fruitless, and like you say, this isn't a dissertation. But Blood does play a role in either case, and pointing out the Ostagar hound is quite fine enough for your purposes. Ironically, neither dog is exceptional, but that's neither here nor there.

    To speak generally, I think the concept of Blood was intended to be a pervasive, general idea, where the negative or positive representations do little to define it. It's just there, and meanings are attached to it in many different ways.

    PS: Tarentino imagery. Love it.