Canonicity and Storytelling in RPG’s
Some months ago now, as I was perusing the Dragon Age Facebook page, the DA team had posted a wonderful piece of fan art by a Deviant Artist named Alteya who’s other work can be found Here. I was initially very impressed with the piece of art, but what truly astonished me was the amount of controversy that this seemingly innocuous piece of art had managed to create. This depiction of a fan’s Hawke caused out cry about what constituted the “canon” Hawke in Dragon Age II. On one side of argument, we have a collection of players (mostly, if not exclusively male) that insist that Hawke is canonically male. On the other side, which is much less polarized by gender, arguing against the notion of male Hawke as being canon or the notion of their being a canon at all.
This got me thinking, did I believe in the idea of a canonical version of the story? My immediate answer was “no” but then I stopped to think about it. If we treat the game as a text, then the text has multiple narratives it can tell and each of those narratives have a host of different readings. The game itself adapts and changes based on the decisions a player makes at the time of character creation and more so throughout gameplay. My favorite initial character set up of “Female” “Mage” Hawke leads to different sorts of narratological interpretations then a friend of mine’s set up of “Male” “Warrior” Hawke.
If we consider the narrative as a sort of nebula of possibilities, each decision we make impacts the potential outcomes. At the outset, we narrow our narrative’s potentiality fairly significantly. The choice of mage vs. non-mage is rather important, it dictates which of your Hawke’s siblings survives and how your character will be perceived (as much as the game is capable of handling such things) in the world. Mage Hawke is just going to logically be more sympathetic to the plight of mages, while Warrior Hawke might be more anti-mage and pro-Templar (especially if the player chooses that specialization). While all of this is interesting, it still doesn’t really get us to the question of “canonicity”.
So back to the initial question, is there a canon? Well if we consider the continuous narrative mechanic that exists between DA:O and DA II we could say that there are several potential suggested readings. For those who don’t know, DA II offers players who didn’t play DA:O and DA:O Awakenings the option to utilize a pre-built version of the previous games story to populate the initial game state of their current run at DA II. With this model, then any of the pre-built runs could be considered a suggested reading of a sort. Sadly, each of these potential world states pertain only to the first game and as such only codify event’s from the first game and its expansion. So, while this aids in the establishment of a pseudo-canon for DA:O and DA:O Awakenings, it does nothing for DA II, which means back to the drawing board for us. Although we will be receiving similar stories for DA II with the release of DA III: Inquisition so there’s still hope for clarity I suppose.
So, if we ignore the idea of the “death of the author” and the enormous headache that comes with the idea of authorship of a video game (a text with many, many authors) then the question becomes; is it possible to say that Bioware produced a sort of “intended” reading of the game? When I asked myself this, I immediately remembered the teaser trailer for DA:O depicting a “Male” “Warrior” “Human Noble” Warden leading his party into the mountains in search of the Urn of Sacred Ashes. A little digging revealed that this is not in fact the first official trailer there was one for E3 and another for Gamescon and another that was released online that apparently got some air time as a commercial. Now the reason I’ve shown each of these is because here we can see Bioware backing a specific reading of the text at hand (the one where the player is the Male Nobel Human Warrior named Cousland) at least for marketing purposes. So my question became did such a thing exist for DA II?
The answer is yes, such a thing does exist. It will play if you leave the game sitting on the home screen for too long. There is a trailer for DA II built into the game that does propose at least a partial suggested reading.
This teaser would seem to say that Bioware at least in part suggests the idea of a “Male” “Mage” Hawke who also happens to be a blood mage and is in some way possibly romancing Isabella as the standard. So we have an, at least tacitly, suggested reading. But does that make it canon? I’m not so sure, and really I’m not sure I want to. The fact is that we the readers (players whatever) contribute to the creation of a canon. Sure, in this modern world where companies like to own their ideas and tell people exactly who can or can’t play in their playground the industry influences canonicity. But it is the fans of a thing that decide whether or not we’re going really accept an addition to that thing. I know that many players hated DA II, but the fact is that most of us played it and talked about it and legitimized it. To that end we made it canon and we let it become the foundation for the next installment in the franchise.
But on the matter of a canon Hawke, no such thing is possible. It violates the purpose of the form this game is intended to be a member of. This is a High Fantasy RPG that adapts the story to fit player choices. I would argue that every player has their Hawke, the one that perfectly embodies the reading of the story that most satisfies them. I feel that it is in finding the Hawke that provides this satisfaction that allows the most immersive experience of the game. To establish a canon and say “no, this is how you play the game” would break the spell and remove a player from the fully investedness provided by that state of immersion. For me, as someone who loves the possibilities of storytelling, I have many best Hawkes. But my most commonly indulged one is a “Preset (no blood smear)”, “Female”, “Mage” who utilizes blood magic and romances whoever happens to be the least annoying in that particular play through (Fenris or Merrill with surprising frequency Isabella on occasion almost never Anders his personality and single-mindedness grate on my nerves). I find that it is this Hawke who’s story most interests me. Then again, I’ve been many Hawkes and each of them are their own person and all were interesting. Except “Male” “Warrior” Templar Hawke, screw that guy he’s an asshat. But what about you guys? What do you think?