Today’s splendid student essay from our Theology 101 Bible in Popular Culture takes us into the world of video games. Although this has previously been a neglected area within academic research, it’s good to see a growing interest in the cultural and religious significance of this genre of popular culture. The recently published Exploring Videogames with Deleuze and Guttari (Routledge, 2015) by Colin Cremin (senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland) analyses the content of videogames – including their narratives around gender and violence – and the social and cultural context in which they are played. Meanwhile, postgraduate student Emily Foster-Brown at the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS, University of Sheffield) is just embarking on an MA thesis that explores the ways videogames engage with Judaeo-Christian conceptions of Jesus within their female character leads. So we are pleased to add to this new discussion on the Auckland TheoRel blog, by introducing the work of Brianna Vincent, a first year Arts student who is doing a double major in English and Writing Studies. Brianna is fascinated by the ways different mediums (books, comics, tv shows, video games etc) engage in storytelling; she was therefore delighted that our Bible and Pop Culture course gave her the opportunity to write about videogames and thus add her voice to the academic study of this fascinating form of cultural narrative. So, whether or not you are a gamer yourself, give yourself a treat and read Brianna’s excellent essay on contemporary messiahs in the hugely popular game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
By Brianna Vincent
The American Monomyth and the concept of a messiah are found throughout contemporary popular culture, and Bioware’s video game Dragon Age: Inquisition is no exception. When the fantasy world of Thedas is thrown into chaos a protagonist rises up who incorporates three of the central themes surrounding messiahs and the American Monomyth; mysterious origins and powers, resurrection, and uniting the land against evil. The protagonist, first called the Herald of Andraste then the Inquisitor, functions in their context not merely as a hero figure but that of a holy saviour. As the game progresses we see the Inquisitor fulfil their Messianic role as they are confronted with their purportedly divine origins and powers, experience a sacrifice and resurrection arc that is reminiscent of the Judeo-Christian messiah figure of Jesus, and unite the lands of Thedas in a way that parallels the Tanakh’s understandings of a messiah. The character Varric declares near the beginning of this journey that “Heroes are everywhere. I’ve seen that. But the hole in the sky? That’s beyond heroes. We’re going to need a miracle” and indeed the protagonist needs to become more than a hero. The protagonist needs to become a messiah that can deliver Thedas its miracle – the protagonist needs to become the Inquisitor.
At the beginning of the game the Conclave at the Temple of Sacred Ashes was meeting to try to mediate peace between mage and templar factions currently embroiled in civil war. The sudden explosion which destroyed the Conclave, killed the Chantry’s holy leader, and tore a dangerous hole in the sky was as mysterious as it was destructive. This sets the world of Thedas in the common monomythic trope in which “The world seems out of control and people lose any sense of order or meaning” (Aichele 2011, 263), and it is in the midst of this mystery and chaos that the protagonist emerges. The protagonist falls out of the hole in the sky, called “the Breach,” with no memory of the incident and appears to have been saved by the divine figure of Andraste. The protagonist begins to follow in the traditions of the American Monomyth hero who “is distinguished by disguised origins, pure motivations, a redemptive task, and extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47).
The contention within the game over whether or not the protagonist was truly saved by Andraste codifies the protagonist as being “distinguished by disguised origins” (ibid) as well as having a “least-likely hero beginning” (Scheub 2012, 144), which is another key theme is the monomythic paradigm. The protagonist, now bearing the title “Herald of Andraste,” possesses “extraordinary powers” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47) in the form of a magic welded onto their hand (called the Anchor) that will enable them to “defeat the forces of evil or overcome great challenges” (Clark and Clanton 2012, 118).
Another aspect of the American Monomyth, the “hero as outsider” origin tradition, is fulfilled as the protagonist becomes “both in the world but not of the world” (Kozlovic 2002, 10) as they are set apart from everyone else by “virtue of his unknown origins” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 47) and by the unique magic they possess. Thereby “the Chosen of Andraste, a blessed hero to save us all” is mired in mystery from the beginning as they, following the American Monomyth traditions, “find a new life amongst strangers” (Kozlovic 2002, 2) by joining the Inquisition, and embark on their “messianic rescue mission” of the world (Clark and Clanton 2012, 119).
A key element of the American Monomyth is “the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) and the protagonist fulfils this aspect of their role during the quest ‘In Your Heart Shall Burn’ which ties into themes of sacrifice, death, and resurrection found in the New Testament and in the American Monomyth.
The town of Haven is under siege by the villain Corypheus and his army and “there are no tactics to make this survivable.” The Herald goes to confront Corypheus to buy time for the Haven citizens to escape, in essence sacrificing themselves for Haven, and during the confrontation the Herald triggers an avalanche and is buried under the ice. In this sacrifice the protagonist not only incorporates the American Monomyth traditions of sacrifice but the biblical understanding for a messiah “to suffer and make himself as a ‘guilt offering’” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 117) and the following “resurrection” of the protagonist continues these allusions. “Jesus experienced a resurrection from his grave site, Superman was resurrected from his grave site” (Kozlovic 2002, 7) and the Herald follows in these traditions as he or she rises from their would-be grave of ice and just as “Superman emerges from the water and, in another symbolic rebirth, regains his powers” (ibid) the Herald now emerges with a new power called the “Mark of the Rift.” As Scheub suggests “The movement of the hero is through a difficult terrain marked by tests and tasks, by villainy and traps, by various experiences that test his heroism and shape him” (2012, 144) and this heroic confrontation with the villain acts as a test that transforms our protagonist from the Herald into the Inquisitor as they are, after this trial, chosen to be the official leader of the Inquisition. The American Monomyth pattern of “persons depart from their community, undergo trials, and later return to be integrated as mature adults who can serve in new ways” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) is therefore fulfilled as the Herald departs to sacrifice themselves, undergoes the trial of the confrontation with the villain, and then returns to the Inquisition ready to take on the task of being its leader. This resurrection also solidifies the Inquisitor as an ordained figure regardless of what the protagonist may personally believe:
“Our leaders struggle because of what we survivors witnessed. We saw our defender stand…and fall. And now, we have seen her return. The more the enemy is beyond us, the more miraculous your actions appear. And the more our trials seem ordained.”
Through this resurrection the Inquisitor has become a messiah figure to the people of Thedas, a hope against the threat of Corypheus who escaped the avalanche, and the messianic overtones in the subsequent “The Dawn Will Come” scene highlights this. After the avalanche the survivors of Haven sing while bowing, saluting, or otherwise showing reverence to the Inquisitor in a song that echoes verses in Isaiah. The song lyrics “The night is long and the path is dark. Look to the sky, for one day soon, the dawn will come” use similar imagery to that which surrounds the messianic prophecy “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). These biblical allusions to a messiah overlap and combine with American Monomyth traditions around sacrifice and resurrection to create the Inquisitor not just as a hero but as a messiah figure within the world of the text.
The uniting of a community is another key aspect in the American Monomyth and the Inquisitor unites Thedas in a way uses those monomythic traditions as well as echoing the Tanakhh’s concepts of a political and military messiah. As Aichele notes, “The monomyth hero is typically solitary, and although she may have allies, she often performs her great deeds alone” (2011, 269) and these allies supporting the Inquisitor include a group of twelve companions, a parallel to the twelve disciples of Jesus, and the eventual support of the most powerful institutions of Thedas. The amount of power the Inquisitor gains through these allies has Biblical parallels where we can see such power described in verses like “and to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all people, nations and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14; quoted in Aichele 2011, 264). That political and military power gives Inquisitor the ability to make world-altering decisions like who shall rule Orlais, whether to banish the centuries old institution of the Wardens, and who should be the next religious leader of the Chantry.
This powerful leadership also mimics the leadership of the American monomyth hero who “offers a form of leadership without paying the price of political relationships or responding to the preferences of the majority” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 48) and how the monomythic hero “finds an answer in vigilantism” (ibid). The Inquisition is itself a vigilante institution, that was instigated when the Chantry failed to contend with the threat of Corypheus, and through it the Inquisitor has become a “combination of a heavenly judge and a king- or warrior messiah” (Trost 2010, 128). The Hebrew word Messiah is interconnected with the idea of “The Anointed One” (Satterthwaite, Hess, and Wenham 1995, 88) and the Inquisitor has been “anointed” by Andraste in the eyes of Thedas and operates within the three offices associated with the Tanakh messiah; the prophet, the priest, and the king (Barclay 1962, 93).
As the Herald of Andraste, this figure fulfils the offices of prophet and priest and as the Inquisitor ruling the Inquisition they incorporate the office of the king. The Enoch picture of the messiah is “a completely otherworldly figure of divine and majestic and superhuman power, destined to conquer and to judge all, to obliterate sinners and to exalt the righteous” (ibid) and the figure of the Inquisitor, sitting on the throne within their fortress Skyhold, endowed with religious authority and the magic of the anchor on their hand, while dispensing freedom and judgement as they see fit conforms to this interpretation of a messiah. Upon appointing the protagonist as the Inquisitor the character Cassandra says to them “I would be terrified handing this power to anyone. But I believe it is the only way” and it is with this terrifying power that the Inquisitor unites Thedas to stand against Corypheus wielding the political and military power that draws on the tropes of the American Monomyth and the Old Testament concepts of the Messiah.
As Scheub notes, “The hero’s journey… moves on the earth but it has mythic overtones and consequences” (2012, 143) and the Inquisitor’s journey of mysterious origins, sacrifice and resurrection, and uniting the land is rich in messianic and monomythic overtones. In the Inquisitor we can see “elements of the selfless servant who impassively gives his life for others and the zealous crusader who destroys evil” (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6) that makes them a messiah within the world of Thedas and a fascinating character study outside the world of the text. The protagonist’s dual functions as ‘Herald of Andraste’ and ‘Inquisitor’ interweave different facets of a popular messiah figure; the monomythic beginnings, the Christ-like resurrection, and ideas of a powerful leadership by an ‘anointed one’ put forward by the Tanakh. It is these Biblical and American Monomythic conceptions and themes that combine to create the multi-layered contemporary messiah that we see in Dragon Age: Inquisition. A saviour that transforms from stranger, to chosen one, to a messiah who can save Thedas.
Aichele, George. “The Posthumanity of “the Son of Man”: Heroes as Postmodern Apocalypse.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23, no. 3 (Fall, 2011): 263-275. Accessed October 10. http://ezproxy.auckland.ac.nz/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/906100044?accountid=8424
Barclay, William. Jesus as They Saw Him: New Testament interpretations of Jesus. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
Campbell, Heidi and Grieve, Gregory P. Playing with religion in digital games. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.
Clark, Terry Ray and Clanton, Dan W. Understanding religion and popular culture : theories, themes, products and practices. Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012.
Gaider, David. Dragon Age: Inquisition. Video Game. Developed by Bioware. Electronic Arts, 2014.
Kozlovic, Anton Karl. “Superman as Christ-Figure: The American Pop Culture Movie Messiah”. Journal of Religion and Film 6, no. 1 (2002). Accessed October 10. http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/superman.htm
Lawrence, John Shelton and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Satterthwaite, Philip E, Richard S. Hess, and Gordon J. Wenham. The Lord’s Anointed: Interpretation of Old Testament Messianic Texts. Carlisle, U.K: Paternoster Press, 1995.
Scheub, Harold. Trickster and Hero: Two Characters in the Oral and Written Traditions of the World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012.
Trost, Travis D. Who Should Be King in Israel: a study on Roman imperial politics, the Dead Sea scrolls, and the Fourth Gospel. New York : P. Lang, 2010.