Games

'Dragon Age: Origins' and A Few Notes on Class

In games, we always play as middle class. We just occasionally start out in peasant drag.

My first attempt at Dragon Age: Origins fell short before I left the prologue. I was bothered about having rolled a dark-skinned city elf only for my family to turn out to be all visibly white, and I was further bothered by the city elves' oppression compounded by the casual rape and murder exacted by our human "betters." I closed the game and re-rolled as a rough and tumble thug within the dwarven underclass of Orzammar. My sister was still a prostitute, but at least this opening lacked the tinge of endless rape and degradation of the city elf origin.

I really enjoyed playing that casteless dwarf. I wore my Dust Town brand with pride when I crushed the best warriors in the city beneath my armored heel. On the surface, no one noticed my class and often enough tended to forget I was even a dwarf by the time that I was running them through with a blade. Dwarven merchants Bodahn and Sandal never commented on my tattoo, which I thought was plum nice of them. In no time at all, I was wooing prince's hearts, running around in King Cailin's armor and converting to Andrastianism, so satisfied I was that the game gave me openings to defy the constraints of the dwarven caste system without shunting me back into another system of oppression.

This perspective changed when I returned to Orzammar later in the game and my status as a former casteless was hardly remarked on. I had been fearing the worst. People spitting at my feet, perhaps, or trying to behead me. Yet even their grudging respect for my position as a Warden didn't seem especially grudging. Despite my class being quite literally branded onto my face, it seemed that barely anyone in Orzammar (or, indeed, all of Thedas) cared about my humble origins -- even those who were best positioned to be appalled. After so many hours being informed by the game that biases can't be overturned overnight, that bigotry will find a way to outlast pretty much any good intention in the world, suddenly, my class was invisible to everyone but me.

This sort of class transcendance is far from rare in videogames and increasingly has come to bug the hell out of me. These rags-to-diamond-dragon-scale-armor tales of paupers turned legendary heroes are just one facet to the role-playing game's "longing for a never-extant perfectly pastoral world" in which trust is easy, your misdeeds are ephemeral, and everything aligns itself just so to shape you into the hero that the epic narrative calls for (K. Cox, "The Chatty RPG", Your Critic is in Another Castle, 19 May 2011). In these games, I am Luke Skywalker from my small ranch on a backwater planet; I am Hiro, peasant graverobber and lover of moon women; I am Cloud, army dropout and slayer of godlike beings. No one cares where I'm from, only that I look damned heroic right now.

My point is that though several game narratives exhibit an awareness of class, race, and the intersections of those two, the games themselves as systems display an exasperatingly predictable upper middle class image of social mobility, reliant upon fantasies of self-made wealth achieved at the expense of others and the local ecosystem.

I don't wish to belabor this analogy, as the medieval capitalist fantasy has its origins much earlier than the modern RPG. But I should hope that the models of profiteering and social passing are not lost on the average gamer. Wealth, prestige, and access are interconnected with class as well as with race, the complex politics of which don't happen to lend themselves to the comparatively easy mathematical functions of accumulation and free movement games use.

Few games will keep doors eternally closed to you. If the king won't see you right now, come back when you've made more of a name for yourself. If the head of the church won't lower herself to interact with someone of your race, chances are she's evil and you'll have to kill her -- serves her right. In these games you are entitled to the key to every door and chest, provided you labor hard enough using the methods prescribed. The system will not choose to deny you a weapons upgrade because of your character's skin color or what her parents did for a living. It's all about you, the self-actualized hero, transcendentally unattached and unresisted as you float through life gaining friends, wealth, and property.

This, of course, is part of the attractiveness of games: that they are fairer and simpler than reality. Gaming is "about constants and conditions" (Tadhg Kelly, "The Enclosure Problem", What Games Are, 26 May 2011). A game which is infinite, which has a history of breaking with its own rules, of double standards and contradictions, is not the sort of game that we're typically drawn to, largely because we already experience it in our day to day lives.

To return to my Dragon Age playthrough, I believe part of why I found my casteless dwarf's story so captivating is that I could buy her transition into a world of mobility. In the human world, class still existed, but her place within it was markedly different from the society she had just left. Moreover, her integration into this new culture was neither expected nor required, though she was working to protect a great deal of people that she didn't honestly care for. She was mobile because she was sufficiently detached, not beholden to anything around her.

I couldn't do this with my elf character. She was the subject of an enormous apparatus of oppression that would continue operating after I left the prologue. It made no sense for her to "pass" thanks to her status as a Grey Warden and to the way that I was characterizing her. She wasn't likely to tolerate it.

We speak of ludonarrative dissonance often as coming through in small systemic things, like enemies ignoring certain plot points, forgetting that Clint Hocking's original application of the word to BioShock was in comparing Objectivist philosophy to the game's overall play sensibilities of "rational self-interest" ("Ludonarrative Dissonance in BioShock", Click Nothing, 07 October 2007). Is there any ludonarrative dischord greater than the capitalist, white, middle-class attitudes of unrestrained play coming into conflict with issues of class and race so utterly failed by these biases? The class- and race-obliviousness of these pastoral, easy, and free game worlds don't reflect the lives of the serf characters that we so often assume but reflect their lords instead.

In games, we always play as middle class. We just occasionally start out in peasant drag.

 

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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