The leaders of the Inquisition meet at the War Table, and they are all women, save the surly fallen templar. At first, I am thrilled. I have never seen so many women in power in a game, and all of them uncritically and unanimously welcomed into leadership positions by our followers.
But then the reality of running the Inquisition sets in and I am anxious. What does it mean that this reactionary power grab is driven and dominated by women?
[Mild spoilers follow.]
I'd been looking forward to the next Dragon Age game since I finished Dragon Age II. I longed for the return of my Hero of Ferelden, whom I had installed as Alistair's beloved queen, with all her companions alive and resolved. The City of Amaranthine had been saved and Vigil's Keep rebuilt. I considered Dragon Age II something of an extended side quest -- enlightening and moving, certainly, but let's get back to the main storyline now, please. (Although it was great fun dallying with Fenris.)
When the title was announced, I was intrigued. "Inquisition" conjured a world of darkness.* The word, in its most well-known incarnation as the Spanish Inquisition, recalled a specific and extended period of time when the ruling class exploited religious faith to silence political rivals and consolidate power. It denoted a time when the Church tortured in order to extract false confessions, then massacred people by sadistic methods.
Such a fraught historical context offers a variety of complicated power structures to explore, including the intersections of race, class, belief, political and economic power, and gender. Within that framework, one could critique ideas like the efficacy of torture or frame the Inquisition as a reactionary response to an increasingly multicultural and freethinking society (as Spain was in medieval times).
I wondered how the game would handle these weighty issues. I was interested, and I was nervous.
Dragon Age II gave us a taste of the brutal interrogation methods employed by the Seekers of Truth, so I was primed to despise them when I started Inquisition. I was certain that somehow my new hero (for it had been already confirmed that my Queen wouldn't be joining us on this adventure) would be the leader of the resistance against the Inquisition. As the so-called Herald of Andraste, she would inspire rebel forces to fight against this radicalized, militarized arm of the Chantry.
I got the game over Thanksgiving and spent most of the weekend immersed in it. Since then, I've finished a playthrough and started two other with different characters and different world state imports. So the game is compelling to me. In some senses, I find it deeply attractive.
It is also very troubling.
Early in the game, the interrogator of Dragon Age II asks -- commands, really -- my hapless Herald to risk her life for the greater good. Of course, my Herald doesn't know that her captor is the same one who held and tortured** Varric.
But I do. "Don't go with her!" I want to shout at my Herald. I don't trust the Seekers of Truth. They seem power-mad to me, operating on the same level as the worst Jacobins during the Terror or the Stalinists during the purges. Any group who claims to adhere to "one and only true faith" is suspect in my book, and dangerous. Because they are ultimately the only ones who get to decide what "truth" is, and therefore they control a monopoly on it. It's a hideous, if very familiar, method of ideological control.
When the moment came, however, my Herald did not say, "I refuse to join the Inquisition." She did not spit in the torturer's eye and say she'd rather die than be party to this monstrous operation.
She was conscripted against my will. She, the poor naive dupe, went along with everything her captor said. Even Varric, the dwarf who'd been tortured, seemed completely at ease with his experience, making me wonder if he suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. He seemed awfully cavalier about the whole business.
As the game went on, my Herald continued to advance the Inquisition's power and influence, metaphorically displayed on a giant map at the War Table. Areas fell under our control. We "pacified" them, wiped out resistance, and employed Leliana's skills to maintain control through a mix of subterfuge, assassinations, propaganda, and brute force. Everywhere we went we planted flags to announce that our forces had swept through here and now controlled the area.
Just as every dictator has done throughout history.
It made me ill. My Herald even started recruiting others to join her cause, often using the threat of blackmail, or sometimes exploiting their grief. She was completely corrupt.
And yet, I believe the game wanted me to believe that she was noble. She didn't seem to have any self-awareness of her actions. Time and again in the War Room she and her advisors spoke of the need for "stability" and "order" and "peace" -- justifications used by those in power over and over again to maintain their power. The mages who wanted freedom? Slaughter them. The templars who broke from the Chantry? Renegades to be hunted down. The Seekers themselves? Once the Inquisition comes to power, they are a threat that will be eradicated. The kingdoms of Orlais and Ferelden are brought to their knees in subservience to the Inquisition, and it has grown so powerful that the Herald can name the new Divine, the head of the Chantry. She can choose to nominate the torturer or the ruthless, vengeful spy.
Even more so than the choices in Dragon Age II, the options seem bleak. Thedas is in for a rough few decades.
I wonder if the game means for me to have this reaction to the naked and unethical exercises of power it sets me up to enact. I don't think so. I don't think so because the game is, actually, delightful in many ways. The banter between the characters is by turns charming, sweet, funny, and emotionally charged. The environments are lavish and invite the sort of deep exploration I indulged in during Skyrim. Many NPCs who aren't bandits or evil templars react to the Inquisition with respect and gratitude, which seems a bit unrealistic. Many of the side quests are about helping people with mundane tasks, which seems at odds with the grand and urgent mission of the Inquisition itself. Again and again we are told that the Inquisition is the One True Power that can hold the world together and fight off the enormous threat. (But we are never allowed to explore an alternative -- say, a coalition of nations, or a new task force that has no ties to prior power structures.)
The game never interrogates the Herald's actions. There are, so far, no negative consequences to any of her nefarious deeds. The game seems to be confirming that the end justifies the means, and that these methods are just the way politics and power work. The game normalizes these actions over the course of the sixty hours I've spent in it. None of my companions tell me I am wrong, none of them want to leave the Inquisition, even those who seem would be the most ideologically opposed to what we've become.
I wonder if the next game will be a reversal. The Herald will be demonized as a power-mad tyrant, the Inquisition as a behemoth, out of control, tramping over nations' self-determination, with the Chantry in its pocket. The Inquisition, thanks to the spymaster, has an unsavory reputation for quietly eliminating inconvenient protests.
I look around the War Table at the power brokers: Leliana, who has transformed from the sweet sister of the Chantry to an amoral, cynical mistress of espionage; Cassandra, the fanatic; Josephine, the compromiser; Morrigan, the opportunist (and ironically, given my prior history with her, the one I trust the most in this group). (Cullen is almost an afterthought, since Cassandra and the Herald are more than capable of commanding the troops). The Inquisition is driven by diabolical women.
In the next game, I fantasize, my Hero of Ferelden will team up with Hawke to take down the Herald of Andraste, and destroy the Inquisition once and for all. She will scatter its pieces to the corners of Thedas and bring the nations together to pledge that nothing like this will ever again be tolerated in the name of preserving the peace.
She's the only one who can.
*There is a great deal of mythology surrounding the inquisitions, which have made it difficult for historians to depict its true nature. There was a backlash against the Catholics, and Protestant movements created anti-Catholic propaganda that capitalized on the brutal methods used by inquisitors. However, there is still plenty of evidence that tens of thousands of people were executed or imprisoned.
**On rereading this essay, I realized that it is never made explicit that the Seeker tortures Varric, although we do see him dragged against his will into the interrogation chamber. Additionally, to me at least, the character of Cassandra was intense enough that I fully believed her capable of torture to suit her own ends, and at the time I played the game, I assumed that Varric had been subjected to such methods of interrogation.