Posted at June 27, 2020

A Belated Defense of John Epler

In 2018, John Epler, the Creative Director of Dragon Age 4, said on Twitter, “Dragon Age has always been about belonging – about realizing that family is more than blood and celebrating our diversity and differences.”

Some people supported this sentiment. Others became irrationally angry. Even now, some treat his statement as proof that current Bioware developers “don’t get” the franchise many of them worked on for close to a decade.

Before we go much further, it’s worth pointing out the context of his statement. You can read the actual tweet here if you’re interested. It came in response to the accusation he is inserting too much politics into his games. He was arguing that Dragon Age has always pushed messages of equality and inclusivity and goes on to say he believes all art is in some way political.

But we’re not here to talk about how political Dragon Age is and has always been. I want to talk about how, despite what many fans seem to think, John Epler is 100 percent correct in his belief that family is a big part of Dragon Age, and has been from the beginning.

Let’s look at Dragon Age: Origins, the one where this statement is arguably the truest. That’s right, Dragon Age II, where the player character’s family features prominently in the story, arguably has less to say about family as a concept.

Each of the ten party members is an outcast when you find them. This is more literal for some than others, but even the dog loses his original owner in five of the six origins. In fact, let’s spend some time breaking each one down.

Alister is the first permanent companions the player meets. He is also the one who’s personal quest is the most explicitly about the nature of familial bonds. The bastard son of the previous king, Alister has no memory of his mother or any relationship with his father or half-siblings. He found his real father figure in Arl Eamon, who raised Alister for most of his childhood. That ended when Alister was given to the Templars.

Alistair gained a new father figure after Duncan recruited him into the Grey Wardens. It is repeatedly mentioned in his dialogue that he saw the other Wardens as part of his family. He loses them after the battle at Ostigar.

Incidentally, I should probably address the argument that Duncan’s character disproves Epler’s interpretation. “He is your father figure,” some will say, “but he kills Sir Jory in cold blood and makes you go through a dangerous ritual with full knowledge it might kill you.”

The problem with that argument is that Duncan is not your character’s father figure. How could he be? You barely know him. It’s up to the player if their character even likes the guy. You might think he’s an asshole taking advantage of your character’s situation. Duncan’s not your fatherly mentor. He’s your commanding officer and never says or does anything to indicate he sees your character as anything more than a talented subordinate.

But getting back on track, Morrigan is the second permanent party member. Her mother, Flemeth, is still alive when the player meets both of them, but they don’t exactly have the best relationship. The discovery that Flemeth has achieved immortality by stealing the bodies of her daughters did not exactly help.

Leliana was born Ferelden but grew up in the Orlesian court. In a way, this makes her both a native and a foreigner of both countries. Her mentor Marjolaine, with whom she had a semi-romantic relationship, ended up framing her for treason. After escaping, she thought she found her calling as a Sister in the Chantry. However, even there she was treated as an outsider and was mocked for her beliefs.

As for everyone else: the closest thing Zevran has to a family is the Crows, who want him dead. Ditto for Sten, who faces execution if he returns to his homeland. Oghren’s wife went crazy and sacrificed the lives of their entire noble house for the sake of her obsession. Wynn’s role as the team mom is her way of making up for having failed her first apprentice. Shale is a golem with no friends or memories. Loghain is a deposed dictator whose own daughter was willing to betray him.

All of them have lost something, and most lack a real home to return too. And the same is true of the player character. Each of the six prologues ends with the Hero of Ferelden being separated from their home and family. It isn’t always literally their blood relatives, but if by “family,” we mean the people who raised and care about them (which I would argue is the only definition that matters) it’s true regardless.

But what happens when you bring them all together? They start to work as a team. There’s tension at first and not everyone gets along, but they still have each other’s backs. Your character builds relationships with your party members. You become friends with them, and they become friends with each other. They find a place within the group and build a community. One might even call it something like a family.

Sure, Morrigan and Alistair fight, Sten is perpetually dour, and Oghren annoys Leliana, but that’s how families are. You cannot deny the sense of kinship the game worked hard to build just because a few characters are prone to bickering.

And the same holds true through the rest of the series. Each time you gather up your ragtag misfits and outcasts and form a team whose members would do anything for each other. They become a family.

Is that the only thing Dragon Age is about? No, obviously not. I’m not saying that. Epler definitely wasn’t saying that.

Is that the central theme of the series? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s definitely an important one, and it’s one that’s been there since the beginning.

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