Personalizing Race in 'Dragon Age: Inquisition'

Amid the game’s palatial estates and ancient ruins, I found a story that hit much more close to home than I expected. With remarkable subtlety, the world of Dragon Age creates a personalized experience of race.

Warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Dragon Age: Inquisition.

My Inquisitor is a Dalish female with white hair. See, I try, whenever possible, to make game characters unlike myself. I want to roleplay in worlds with a different perspective than my own, and what better opportunity than in the blight-infected lands of Dragon Age: Inquisition? But even amid the game’s palatial estates and ancient ruins, I found a story that hit much more close to home than I expected. With remarkable subtlety, the world of Dragon Age creates a personalized experience of race.

I cannot imagine what Dragon Age: Inquisition is like for a human. In my world, being Elvish and specifically a Dalish elf, is fundamental to the story. It informs my character’s reaction to questions about religion, prophecy, and right and wrong. It comes up in conversation with companions and with strangers, and it is the ever present backdrop to the politics of the Thedas. I am not just the Inquisitor, I am a Dalish Inquisitor.

To “be” something, to actively identify with a racial or cultural identity is a deeply personal act, albeit one informed by external realities. Identities, as I have said before, are multitudinous. As a second-generation Mexican, I grew up in a tumultuous cultural environment with a blend of beliefs and traditions. I was raised and now identify as Chicano, a politically charged concept unique, in some ways, to the the borderlands of America. The inbetween experience of Chicanismo informs me.

The races of Dragon Age: Inquisition

It sounds silly, almost insulting, to compare that powerful term to the elves of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I know -- but the points of contact are everywhere. The cultural divide in the Dragon Age lore is between Dalish elves and city elves, the latter of whom have moved on from some of the ancient Dalish ways. When elvish lands were taken by force, some survivors tried to eke out a living in human settlements while others attempted to salvage something of their past as nomadic tribes.

Embodied by Sera, the city elves have been forced to build lives outside the fantastical woods of legend and largely in the urban squalor owned by the human elite. Sera’s aggressive attitude and anger towards the rich and privileged exists in this context. When my character essentializes her “elfhood,” Sera understandably disapproves, not wanting to be defined by her race. She too lives in the borderlands and her behavior, while sometimes flippant, resonates with me.

In Drink Cultura, José Antonio Burciaga, describes the process of identification for myself and so many others well when he writes: “We were caught on the razor sharp edge of two vastly different cultures, and in trying to identify with each side, while condemned by both sides, we denounced both and identified as a third alternative with a little and a lot from each side. We became Chicano.” My own experience was shared but also one forged in small personal experiences.

It is this personalized experience of race in Dragon Age: Inquisition that I find so fascinating. Early in the game, my Inquisitor’s Dalish tribe was entirely slaughtered. Even in this fictitious world, I had no permanent root to return to, no immutable “people” to rely upon. My identity as an elf then shifted. It became fluid as I responded to conversations with others.

One of the more interesting characters of Dragon Age: Inquisition

Sera’s reaction informs my own perceptions of my Inquisitor’s Dalish identity, but so does Solas’s opinion. The elven mage doesn’t actually identify himself as elvish as much as other city elves. His fascination with ancient elven traditions reveals that even Dalish elves have lost much what you might consider “true” elven culture. Likewise, when encountering other Dalish in the world, they find more camaraderie within their own tribe and not my own. These perspectives make me question what it means to be Dalish, as so many real conversations have made me question what it means to be Chicano.

To be Dalish, then, like Chicanismo, is to be a race caught in transition, a culture that has transformed anew in reaction to oppression and division -- and it is certainly not the only one of it’s kind. Even so, the racial subtlety here is lost in the presence of those outside the struggle for this particular personal identity. During one of the game’s core missions in Orlais, the nobles socialize at a royal gala and whisper crude references about the Dalish and elves in general. At the beginning of the mission, the game offers this warning: “Orlesian nobility looks down on elves. The court watches you with a critical eye.”

To take a slight tangent, there is a delightful irony in the masks that all the nobles of Orlais wear while socializing. They hide their identity, play the part within the culture of nobility, and blend in. One in-game book on Orlesian theatre even mentions that, while wearing a mask, even an elf can play a king. However, outside that realm of acting, there is no hiding my elven heritage. It is a point of conversation among many but importantly not the only one among companions.

Romance in the game is also informed by race. Solas is only interested in elven women and cannot be romanced by any other character. I initiated an interracial relationship (all too rare in games), and largely due to the importance of race in all other circumstances, I was deeply moved by how little race meant in the matters of love. While empress Celene’s tryst with an elven lover is treated as a scandal among the Orlesian nobility in the private quarters of Skyhold there is only affection.

Masked nobility of Dragon Age: Inquisition

Outside the fictional bedroom, I continue to ponder race and how my Inquisitor might react to the world around her. As the supposed herald of a human god, I am still uncertain how to react to the demands of religion, both my personal beliefs and those of others. Again, as in real life, Inquisition treats these issues of identity with a surprising amount of subtlety. They are both matters of life and death and issues wrestled with internally.

Case in point, I found this letter in Skyhold recently that I really appreciate:

I know it's hard for you to see an elf in a position of such power, but I think it's time for you to think about why you feel the way you do about them. Don't you remember the stories of Andraste and the elves who helped her? If the Inquisitor is really Andraste's Herald, maybe it's Andraste sending us a message, telling us to let go of our foolish hatreds.

The letter is from a soldier to his mother, encouraging her in terms that she understands to reconsider race, to contemplate her beliefs. In a way, Bioware is asking us to do the same, to consider what race means for individuals as well as nations. No, of course, they don’t accomplish this with perfection, but I find their effort moving. For once, I have a deep personal connection to my character through race, and it’s amazing.

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