Dragon Age’s Shifting Perspectives Keep Undermining its Personal Stories

It's not hard to finish one person's story before you hand it to someone else.

Yesterday, Bioware finally acknowledged the next Dragon Age game in a way that went beyond tweets for the first time in literal years. The developer diary wasn’t much, but it was enough to send the fandom screaming into The Breach. I was among them. I might’ve even thrown my lunch across my living room when Bioware General Manager Casey Hudson showed up on yesterday’s Gamescom stream

There was concept art, in-progress animation, and even clips of voice actors recording their lines like Gareth David-Lloyd reprising his role as party member turned surprise villain Solas. They were crumbs, but when we’ve literally heard nothing of substance about this game since it was announced at the 2018 Game Awards, it was enough to reignite the fandom. 

However, this also came with an update to the Dragon Age website, complete with the following text:

To most people, this doesn’t feel like much to read into. But for me, a person who has been not-so-patiently waiting to see just who the protagonist of the next Dragon Age was going to be, the phrase “new hero” is an immediate red flag to me that this fourth game is going to perpetuate what I feel is one of the series’ greatest recurring failings: its commitment to undermining its own characters’ stories by constantly changing perspectives before their stories are done. I’m not surprised, I’m just disappointed.

For context, every Dragon Age game has left behind its last protagonist for a new one, all in service of shifting its view to a different setting. In theory, this is fine. Good, even. The Dragon Age universe is vast, and there are stories to be told that can’t be if the series is focused solely on the perspective of one person. In games like Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition, both Fenris, a former slave in the magic-driven country of Tevinter, and Dorian Pavus, a mage who called Tevinter his homeland, told me stories about the inner workings of that place, but as long as I was playing as Hawke or the Inquisitor in that moment, I would never get to see it. So naturally, the best course of action here is for Dragon Age to be less about individuals and more about a world, right?

Well, that would be totally fine if Dragon Age ever meaningfully wrapped up these characters’ personal stories before sidelining them with some contrivance so they can hand their conflicts to someone else. 

Before we get into how this is an ingrained issue within the Dragon Age fiction, let’s set the stage for why the new game having a new protagonist is so worrisome to me. The following will contain major spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition, as well as its final DLC “Trespasser.” You see, after the Inquisitor, the nobody who ascended to the role of a leader of the Inquisition, a military/political/spy network branch of the church, defeated the game’s big bad Corypheus, it’s revealed that Solas, a character who has been a party member throughout the entirety of the game, was actually the instigator of the near world-ending cataclysm that set the events of the game in motion. He leaves the group after the final boss fight, with spymaster Leliana saying that there has been no sign of him since the group defeated Corypheus. Ultimately, there’s nothing to be done about it, and the Inquisitor proceeds to celebrate their victory. Meanwhile, we see Solas has grander plans, meeting with Dragon Age staple Flemeth, and seemingly absorbing the Witch of the Wilds’ essence. To this day we still don’t know what happened to Flemeth, but we’ve learned more of Solas’ plan.

In Inquisition’s final DLC “Trespasser,” Solas and the Inquisitor cross paths once more. As the Inquisition is undergoing political scrutiny about just what this massive military force is going to do now that Corypheus is defeated, Solas has been using elven spies to keep tabs on what the Inquisition is doing. At the end of the DLC, when the Inquisitor and Solas are able to have one more conversation, the elven mage reveals he is the Dread Wolf, the elven trickster god who is known in legend as having betrayed the old gods of elven culture. He explains that he once created The Veil, a barrier between the spiritual world of the Fade and the real world, to trap these gods there. But in cutting off the elves’ connection to the Fade, they lost their fabled immortality, and if you know anything about the lives of elves in the Dragon Age universe, you know things aren’t great. Solas reveals his plan is to tear down the Veil, which will grant the elves their immortality, but would leave the world in ruin for anyone else.

The Inquisitor can tell Solas they’re going to stop him, whether that be by any means necessary or by changing their friend’s mind. In a scenario where Solas has been the Inquisitor’s romantic interest, they’ll share a kiss. But regardless of their history, Solas magically removes the Inquisitor’s arm and the rift-altering anchor that has been the source of the Inquisitor’s power throughout the whole game. The DLC, and by extension all of Dragon Age: Inquisition ends with the Inquisitor and their companions asserting that they’ll stop Solas before dramatically stabbing a knife into a map that implies the group is heading to Tevinter.

In the end, “Trespasser” asserts that Solas is the Inquisitor’s problem. They’re rivals with personal investment in seeing the other fail. This is a former friend, lover, or at least begrudging co-worker, who threatens to destroy the world as we know it. The Inquisitor feels a responsibility to stop him, whether that be out of love or respect for him, or anger at his betrayal. It’s a perfect setup for a sequel. Dramatic, angsty, romantic, and rooted in relationships we’ve watched grow over the course of the game. An Inquisitor vs. Solas sequel is the natural bloom of a seed Inquisition planted in its opening hour. They’re a person with direct, personal ties to a conflict in this universe, and they deserve the opportunity to fight that fight…but will we get to see that story? It doesn’t seem likely.

If the Dragon Age universe is in need of a new hero to face the same foe, I find myself looking at my Inquisitor and wondering what’s wrong with this perfectly good hero right here? One who has been set up as the hero in this ongoing story? Is it because he lost his arm? The Dragon Age series doesn’t seem so primitive that prosthetics are out of the question.

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In literally any other franchise, what “Trespasser” sets up would have been a blatantly obvious sequel lead-in with its major players in place. But with Dragon Age, requests for a cohesive narrative where characters get their thematically appropriate conclusions get met with “but Dragon Age always changes protagonists, that’s just the way it’s always been.” But the trouble is, Dragon Age has gotten progressively worse about creating personal conflicts without wrapping them up in one game, and then sidelines the people involved for the sole purpose of facilitating a new player character. In Dragon Age II, protagonist Hawke discovers that his father was responsible for the imprisonment of Corypheus, who they fight and assume they’ve killed by the end of the game’s “Legacy” DLC. But when Corypheus is revealed to be alive in Inquisition and also the main antagonist, Hawke is brought in as a guest character for one quest line before they promptly wash their hands of things and leave it to the Inquisitor.

Also in Inquisition is the conclusion of the Mage and Templar War that began at the end of Dragon Age II with Hawke at the center. Through the Inquisitor’s actions, we essentially get to pick who wins this conflict, one that DAII spent an entire game focused on and establishing a dialogue about the oppression of an entire group of people. That entire discussion in this universe is silenced by the Inquisitor while Hawke is out doing other things. Hawke doesn’t get to finish their own story, and based on what we know about the next Dragon Age, the Inquisitor probably isn’t going to get to finish theirs, either.

Admittedly, the only time that Dragon Age has ever been able to pull off this was in the first game. Dragon Age: Origins wasn’t ever meant to spawn a franchise, so by the time it’s done, its protagonist, known colloquially as The Warden, has seen the end of their story. They stopped the Blight from overtaking Ferelden and there’s not much in the way of hanging threads. Sure, you don’t know what’s going to become of Morrigan and her blood magic baby, but that’s hardly a world-shattering event that would demand an entire game’s attention.

The more Dragon Age expands as a franchise, the more it’s lost sight of the importance of the people who live in this vast world. There’s something to be said about no one character being the most important person in the universe, but that assertion can only hold up if the stories told in that world are able to cleanly remove themselves from the individuals it wants to leave behind. If the fourth Dragon Age game is able to resolve the issue of Solas, then the franchise can and should leave the Inquisitor behind, but not before. We don’t know what role the Inquisitor will play in the upcoming game as of yet, but all evidence points to the thematically appropriate hero being sidelined in one way or another, all on the basis that this is the only possibility that the series’ philosophy can envision. The argument that this is what Dragon Age has always been and nothing better should be expected of it doesn’t hold up. Just because it has always been this way doesn’t mean that’s what it always has to be.

It’s obviously too early to tell, but how Dragon Age chooses to handle the Inquisitor will be what makes or breaks whether or not I continue to keep up with the series. I care about these characters and these conflicts, but I don’t see what good it does me to get invested in the people who exist in this universe if Dragon Age seems barely invested in most of them beyond when they first show up.