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Dragon Age: Gazing into the Abyss

A study of the engagement with the shadow and the dialectic between game and play in Dragon Age: Origins

Taekwan Kim, Blogger

November 16, 2009

11 Min Read

Edit It occurred to me quite after I had posted this that, unless one is already familiar with Jung or had read my previous posts, the following is not necessarily apparent: I am here discussing certain concepts (the archetypes, the shadow, self, projection, etc.) as they are used in analytical psychology.

Before I get started, I must strongly warn that the following contains significant—indeed entirely plot revealing—spoilers. Please be advised when reading this post, especially if you have yet to complete this excellent, excellent game.

Baldur’s Gate begins with the favorite Nietzsche quote, “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” Given that Dragon Age is intended to be a spiritual sequel, it is entirely appropriate that this encounter with the shadow is also the central experience of the game. Before we go on, then, let’s take a moment to examine the archetype of the shadow.

The Shadow

Simplistically, the shadow is the aspect of the self which one would rather not acknowledge. Everyone has this aspect, and it is often projected onto others in that what we hate most about them is usually what we refuse to own about ourselves. This is likely very close to what Sartre indicated when he wrote, “Hell is other people.

Given the autonomy of the archetypes (they will inevitably express themselves the more they are repressed) and projection, Edinger notes, “That which one passionately hates is sure to represent an aspect of his own fate,” (Edinger, 76)—and this is entirely borne out by the record of public figures who say one thing (don the mantle of a “moral crusader”, for instance) and do quite another (the same “crusaders” are later caught toe tapping [a rather dated incidence, and there have been plenty more examples since, but the part in this article towards the end about “the breastplate of righteousness” is noteworthy]).

At any rate, accepting and reconciling with the shadow is a large part of the psychological maturation and development process. But, as with all archetypes and their Janus-faced natures, becoming too absorbed with the shadow for too long can be detrimental to one’s psychological health.

The Dangers of Shadow Identification

In Dragon Age, the shadow is clearly intended to be the oblivious, self-obsessed pursuit of power, most obviously objectified in the concept of Blood Magic. For instance, the oppressive efforts to suppress Blood Magic creates the situation of Uldred and the explosion of Blood Mages in the Circle Tower (that is, repression has the counter-productive effect of near complete identification with the shadow), and similarly, Branka’s enthrallment with the Anvil of the Void (a device of Blood Magic) causes a self-destructive behavior that makes her willing to transform her entire house into darkspawn for the sake of power (which is done under the guise of saving her race from the darkspawn—a parallel to Loghain’s self-deception that he is saving Ferelden from the Orlesians).

Even more indicatively, it is all together too fitting for it to be much of an accident that the character constantly goading the player towards Blood Magic (namely, Morrigan) is also the one embodying the Maiden (or more accurately, a Pan-like puella aeterna), while the bearer of maturity and wisdom, Wynne* (or the Mother, explicitly labeled so by Morrigan in her comment about Wynne being Alistair’s “surrogate mother”), stands constantly opposed to player choices which invoke Blood Magic, and directly warns as well that the mistake of thinking one is entitled to power only produces tyranny and suffering.**

That is to say, Morrigan, who is caught in the pursuit of self-interested survivalism (by necessity, but nevertheless subject to a lust for power), is simultaneously depicted as essentially child-like and naïve (because it is a pursuit born of necessity), or “innocent” and “everything that Flemeth once was” (most strongly represented by her story of the Golden Mirror). Her puerility is made clear by the writers who go to lengths to indicate Morrigan’s inability to cope with society, her strong desire to remain in a primal, animalistic state in the Wilds (of which Morrigan herself notes, “one can only remain a child for so long”), and that her worldview has been shaped by a severely stunted experience with human relations. In other words, Morrigan exemplifies the warning that while assimilation of the shadow is a necessity, an overly strong attachment to it also risks psychological stagnation and regression.***

Conflict between Game and Play

I noted before that a possible functional purpose of gameplay is the promotion of individuation—that is, psychological maturation. One could say that the process of individuation is coming to the realization that clinging too much to any given identity is the same as closing oneself off to further psychological development and progress. The best games cause the player to examine his assumed identity in the same fashion as the Socratic dialogues, and it is this tension between identity affirmation and deconstruction which generates the experience of gameplay.****

So then, one specific series of game events comes to mind which neatly summarizes how Dragon Age renders such a process with respect to the shadow. In the Elven Alienage at Denerim, the player can encounter a “Starved Veteran” who asks the player for money. A trusting player who believes that the game will reciprocate the effort can end up plunking down up to 6.5 sovereigns (yes, I did that) in a series of three encounters, only to realize there is absolutely no ludic return whatsoever—by the last encounter, a gaggle of beggars comes forward along with the veteran, one of them actually acknowledging that he doesn’t even need the money, he’s just there because he heard someone was handing out gold for free.

This creates a direct confrontation with the shadow: what kind of person really expects something in return for charity? Though it is a question which will be far less relevant to players uninterested in a “paladin” like role, many players will constantly find themselves similarly wondering how willing they are to compromise their play (that is, their assumed identities) for the sake of their game.

After all, Dragon Age is not exactly an easy game (and purposefully so). And unless the player knows precisely what he is doing, material gains are slow to amass. As monetary expenditures can directly translate to significant ludic gains (the skill and talent books, donations for the Allied Supply Crate, besides the considerable utility of potions and quality equipment), the challenge of the game makes material quest rewards, not to mention more specifically ludic offers of power such as in Warden’s Keep or with the Arcane Warrior specialization, appreciably difficult to pass up. And judging from forum posts, it’s clear that quite a few players ended up accepting the Fade Beast’s reward in Asunder (25 sovereigns!) despite it going against their play, for example.

Moreover, since no game metric indicating the player’s morality exists (besides companion approval ratings, which can be manipulated easily enough), nor do the attendant ludic bonuses for sticking to the high road (e.g., Light Side Mastery stat bonuses, cooldown time reduction for Paragons, etc.), there is, instead, a great deal of ludic incentive to compromise one’s narrative. Again, the player must face the shadow: if the game doesn’t really keep track of the player’s moral choices anyway (if a tree falls in a forest…), isn’t it “ok” to take a few short cuts?

Walking the Line

Perhaps I am making too big a deal concerning the conflict between game and play. Dragon Age is fairly difficult, but it is not so difficult that it can’t be overcome readily with due diligence. As well, such a serious investment in one’s play is by no means universal, and it can’t even be claimed that most players will follow a paladin type moral role. Chet Faliszek has gone so far as to state that moral choices don’t even exist in games as all in-game choices are ultimately strategic and immaterial besides (though I would strongly debate this position).

In the end, however, the game itself walks the fine line between addressing the shadow and being seduced by it—there are several points at which the game skirts perilously close to sacrificing internal consistency or player agency for the sake of crafting a dark fantasy. For instance, why is so much time spent on cautioning against the dangers of ruthless power mongering if the narrative ends up negating this in the outcomes of the reigns of Anora and Bhelen?***** Or why exactly did Loghain quit the field if he can so promptly capitulate his entire line of reasoning, and indeed take up the exact opposite position to it, after a single humiliating and very public duel?

Recall the idea that the experience of gameplay is largely akin to an invested dialogue—if the player makes a ludologically significant contribution, he expects a ludologically, or at least narratologically, significant return. Dragon Age, on more than one occasion, consciously withholds this right. And while this feeling of withdrawal and denial of expectations is precisely what makes the game so compelling and effective (this is, after all, the mechanism which triggers the ego/shadow confrontation), there is always the risk that it will simply alienate the player outright.

I have to admit that my own complete dissatisfaction with the conclusion of my first playthrough (Alistair wouldn’t let me sacrifice myself) was definitely a strong incentive to return to the game for a second go. And while, intellectually, I reveled in the decisions of the writers, emotionally, it took me quite a bit longer to come to peace with the results (which rather indicates that the game is working). It’s a far more confrontational approach to interactive storytelling than BioWare has demonstrated in its recent past.


* The bipolar nature of the archetypes expresses itself once again in the possession of Wynne by a spirit from the Fade. Wynne, on the one hand, mortally fears becoming an abomination (that is, being possessed by a demon), but on the other hand is literally being sustained and kept alive by the spirit which possesses her. And, as the game lore notes, there is actually no difference between spirits and demons in the game world except in their benevolence or malevolence towards humans—it is only a label to distinguish their dominant attitudes. Indeed, it can even be said that the spirits in Dragon Age, with their singular attachment to a specific facet of the psyche (cf. Codex Entry 89, “Beyond the Veil: Spirits and Demons), are simplified stand-ins for the archetypes of the unconscious.

** This, of course, makes Flemeth Hecate, and the strong constellation in Dragon Age of all three aspects of the Kore, not to mention Flemeth’s fascinating adherence to the child-sacrificing Earth Mother [cf. The Psychological Aspects of the Kore in CW 9i], is a topic which deserves its own post.

*** There is a particularly interesting exchange between Morrigan and Wynne in which Morrigan suggests that Wynne forcibly take on another spirit to extend her life. When Wynne notes that such an act would be pointless, Morrigan then agrees that Wynne’s life itself is actually pointless since it isn’t even her own to live (a case of “The lady doth protest too much”, or denouncing the “speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye”). To this, Wynne notes that at the very least when she dies, she will be satisfied with what she has achieved with her life, while Morrigan will die bereft and unhappy.

This is pertinent in that Wynne, here, has clearly accepted her shadow: she is reconciled with the fact that she must live under the gaze of the Templars as well as the fact that she will die. Morrigan, on the other hand, spends all her time seeking power (to the atrophy of her other aspects, such as social skills) in order that she might live longer, an obsession which actually makes her the same as her abomination mother Flemeth (Morrigan’s shadow [cf. Alistair’s comments that Morrigan’s nose looks exactly like her mother’s])—it is a goal whose achievement can never be fulfilled.

**** I should mention here once again that “identity,” or identification, can be as simple as attachment to a certain strategic approach to solving a problem. In this way, testing one’s strategy can often feel like testing one’s identity.

***** Though perhaps that is exactly the point; once again, overly supressing the shadow only leads to a disastrous expression of it.

Works Cited

Edinger, Edward F. Ego and Archetype. Boston: Shambala, 1992.

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