One of the great strengths of a game like Dragon Age is that it wisely shied away from strictly good or evil choices with a few exceptions (I think it is safe to say that letting a demon keep possession of a child is probably an evil choice, for example). The world of Dragon Age thrives on grey areas for your Grey Warden to find himself navigating, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the various political situations that seem to get in the way of stopping that whole “Blight” thing that seems so urgent. It is a cynical view of a cynical business, and where the game really shines is in its absolute refusal to give you any one safe choice. These aren’t paragons of virtue; they’re generally people with goals that may seem noble but are really just interested in plays for power or else they are despicable people who happen to have noble goals. As a disclaimer here, I should explain that I played through the game as a dwarven commoner, and that particular origin influenced at least one of my decisions a good deal more than I thought it ever could.
Let’s start with the political landscape of Fereldin post-Ostagar. There’s a civil war going on, the King is dead, the Queen’s father has made a power-grab and seems increasingly unstable, and the dwarven city of Orzammar is also newly bereft of a leader. There are not one but two civil wars going on in the game, and both of them have opposing sides who are—if not equally reprehensible—far from perfect. This is a real break from the usual landscape in many games, where one faction is a group of baby-kicking rogues while the opposition may very well be run by Jesus Christ himself (see: most Final Fantasy titles, the Russians in just about any FPS ever, etc.). Even Dragon Age has the Darkspawn, which are literally corrupted shadows of the “good” races led by the corrupted shadows of dragons. However, the other races all prove themselves to be more than capable of their own horrifying acts of brutality towards one another (perhaps most obviously demonstrated in the treatment of the elves).
Orzammar’s political scene is perhaps the most interesting political arena—in part because of the caste system of dwarven culture. The choice between potential kings seems to be a fairly cut and dried issue: On the one hand, you have Lord Harrowmont, who is an upstanding wise elder type who has the support of the people because he is such an honorable dwarf, while on the
This guy is a jerk
other hand, there is Bhelin, the king’s son—a man who from all accounts is just waiting to get his hands on the throne so that he can become a dictator, and, oh yeah, it’s very likely that he had his own brother assassinated in order to ensure that the throne would be his. Should you decide to assist Harrowmont in his quest to gain support for the throne, you will be asked to fight in the arena as his champion, uncover evidence of Bhelin’s assassination plots, and finally, to find the lost Paragon in order to convince her to come back and give Harrowmont the throne. By contrast, Bhelin asks you to pass forged documents to convince some of Harrowmont’s supporters that he is a cheat and kill off the Carta because it is interfering with Bhelin’s own attempts to forge stronger ties with surface merchants (there is also the optional quest to implicate Harrowmont in smuggling by planting more fake evidence at the scene). A clear choice, right? The honorable old man or the cutthroat would-be tyrant is not exactly a difficult decision, is it?
It’s more difficult than it appears. Harrowmont may be the more
This guy is also kind of a jerk.
honorable of the two, but he also happens to be the more conservative. He is devoted to the isolationist policies of Orzammar and what’s more is that he believes strongly in the caste system. Any attempt to better the lot of the casteless dwarves would meet with failure. In fact, the attitude of Harrowmont is so conservative that it is difficult to even imagine him sending aid to the Blight (he does, of course, because some things cannot change in the narrative). For most players, Harrowmont’s conservatism means nothing; he is clearly the more honorable of the two, and so he must be the “good” choice. As a casteless dwarf, however, I found myself disinclined to allow Harrowmont on the throne. Bhelin’s supporters claim—at least—that he is interested in reform and a gradual movement away from the caste system, which makes it even more tempting to put him on the throne instead.
To be honest, however, my own personal desire was to put a third party on the throne because I couldn’t really bring myself to support either party. When I set out to find Branka, I’d hoped that I would be able to bring her back to the kingdom and put her on the throne because surely a Paragon would be a better ruler? Alas, the Paragons are either suicidal or insane, and so I was left with a choice between two rulers, neither of whom I was especially fond of. I wound up choosing Bhelin, again influenced by my own background and the fact that my sister would likely suffer if Harrowmont were to take the throne, but I remained conflicted about the decision for the remainder of the game, wondering if perhaps there had been a better way to resolve the situation. As is so often the case in politics, there was no good choice, and the only solution was to go for the leader who was more likely to at least do one thing that I agreed with. As a side note, I would probably have not been so quick to destroy the anvil if I were not convinced by my experiences at the beginning of the game that casteless dwarves would have been pressed into service as golems. If I had been convinced that there would be only volunteers, it is likely that I might have supported Branka.
The real power of this whole political quest and its storyline is not just that the player discovers what a dirty business dwarven politics can be but that it also dirties your own hero a bit. If you are attempting to play a “good” guy, you’ll find it impossible to do as neither side is truly good. Harrowmont wants to keep the caste system intact, which is an oppressive system that makes birth mean everything (apart from the impossible dream of becoming a Paragon and transcending caste), but he also acts with honor in his move for the throne. Bhelin is a progressive, but that progressive streak comes with an almost Nixonian political sensibility (let us not forget that choosing Bhelin causes Harrowmont to be executed on ginned up treason charges). The responsibility for that fallout rests squarely on the player’s shoulders—indeed, the Warden participates in these acts of deception and forgery should he decide to support Bhelin. Supporting Harrowmont does not get your hands dirty immediately, but the fallout from Harrowmont’s closed minded conservatism is equally damaging, placing Orzammar in danger of being overrun by Darkspawn with no allies to come to its aid.
No matter what choice you make in your playthrough, your decision is going to damage someone else’s life. There’s no good decision in Dragon Age when it comes to the larger political questions, and in that way, Bioware has managed to hold up a mirror to the real world’s political scene in a way that is both cynical and hopeful at the same time. After all, my own Warden’s decision to put Bhelin on the throne was at least partially motivated by the hope that it would cause the least amount of damage to the dwarves in the long run, which according to the game’s epilogue may have been the right move. One hopes that similar decisions are made that way in the real world.