I Don’t Remember the Last Time I Disliked a Character This Much

So, I’ve been playing Dragon Age: Inquisition for about two weeks now, and it’s quite good.  If you enjoy games by Bioware, then you will enjoy this one.  Go play it.

Now, moving on from the review portion of the post (that was fast), I want to get to the point: I really don’t like the character Vivienne.  She bugs me.

A lot.

Let’s back up a little bit.  Generally speaking, I’m usually quite fond of the casts of Bioware games.  They’re always a diverse bunch who have differing views on various in-universe issues, which is fine because they’re all well-sketched, and the same is true for Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The rest of my party members are incredibly interesting, and even when I don’t necessarily agree with their outlooks on issues, I tend to still like their personalities.  Not so with Vivienne.

Vivienne’s defining trait (as far as I can tell after about thirty hours of gameplay) is that she’s a dedicated Circle mage.  In Dragon Age lore, mages are treated as highly suspect due to their inherent magical abilities, scapegoating in the dominant religion’s creation story, and vulnerability to possession by malevolent spirits.  In order to curb the animosity that all these factors engender towards mages, the Chantry (the religion that vilifies mages in the first place) has a system of what are effectively cloistered monasteries where mages can live in seclusion from the rest of society.  Vivienne is a major proponent of this system, and sees the protections that it offers mages as well worth the diminished freedom that comes from being wards of the Chantry.

The problem is that Vivienne’s part of a small minority of mages who chose to stay with the Chantry following a vote that the Circles carried out in order to decide whether or not they would leave following the catastrophe that kicks off Inquisition‘s story.  In the course of events, you get the option to work with the rebel mages, and even choose to ally with them as equals, taking the position that they really should be allowed to live free from the Chantry.  I went with this option.

Vivienne tarot

The fact that Vivienne is also the only black character to join your party complicates things in unusual ways. Dragon Age’s world doesn’t suffer from prejudice due to skin color, but her status as a mage still marks her as a member of an oppressed minority that she actively seeks to keep tied to the institution that caused much of the oppression in the first place. (Image credit: Dragon Age Wiki)

Ever since I went with that option, every conversation that I have with Vivienne revolves around her disapproval of the alliance and her concern that the mages are a potential danger without direct supervision of the Templars, a branch of the Chantry who are trained in combating and containing mages.  It could be an interesting dynamic, since my character constantly butts head with Vivienne, but I have a hard time sympathizing with her when she’s speaking from a place of privilege within the Circle system (Vivienne’s backstory explains that she thrived in her Circle and rose to a place of major political power which ensures she enjoys significant freedoms that other mages aren’t necessarily afforded).  Vivienne likes to argue that she believes in the Circles because they’re the only way to ensure the mutual safety of mages and non-mages, not only because unsupervised mages really can be dangerous, but also because people with no magical ability can be extremely hostile towards them.  I understand the argument, but I find it utterly repugnant because it overlooks the fact that much of the hatred that’s directed towards mages comes from the Chantry’s own teachings.

The biggest reason all of this rubs me wrong is that I see some similarities between the situation that the mages face and the one that minorities in America have to deal with.  While mages in the Dragon Age universe do have real destructive power, they’re denied significant social power in the same way that oppressed groups are in the real world.  It’s a factor that does limit the analogy somewhat, but I think it’s still worth pointing out as the real problem within the game world of mages being potentially dangerous dovetails with our fictional narrative in the real world of minorities being actually dangerous.  I see problems with this aspect of Dragon Age‘s world-building because I think it reinforces that real world fiction in subtle ways.

I talked with Rachael some about the topic for this post, and she pointed out to me that there are some complications in criticizing Vivienne’s position.  If she’s an analog for people who argue for a certain way of dealing with minority oppression (the one that most immediately comes to mind in light of all the events out of Ferguson is Charles Barkley) then it’s important to remember that she also has the benefit of being someone within the group who’s discussing the issue, and that merits her some grace from an outsider who disagrees with her position.

I still don’t like her though.

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