Having recently finished Dragon Age: Inquisition — the main storyline and pretty much all of the single player sidequests, that is — some aspects of the game’s approach to hunting animals and beasts keep sticking in the back of my mind. I’ll try to disentangle them here, briefly.
In the early stages of the game, hunting animals is introduced as an optional but beneficial and lucrative activity. First of all, there’s a quest in the Hinterlands where you are approached by a local hunter who asks you to hunt some wild rams to provide extra food for the refugees of the templar–mage war that have come to the area. The narrative clothing redeems this otherwise trite kill quest, and it alleviated any misgivings I initially had about going out slaughtering a herd of innocent animals.
In addition, the wild animals in the game are a source of leathers and skins which are used in the game’s crafting system. You’ll need a bunch of leathers when you want to make your own armours for archers and stabby rogues, but also as minor components in other items: weapon grips, armour straps, etc. Despite this item-progression-driven motivation to go out and kill animals, I found myself hesitant to do so, and basically only collected leathers from stashes, shops, and from aggressive animals such as wolves and gurguts.
It feels at times as if the game’s designers wanted to instil the hunter of wild game in Inquisition with a guilty conscience by making many of the animals extremely cute.* * The word game as referring to animals comes from the sense that they are animals caught during a hunting game, i.e. for sport. This usage dates back to the 13th century. See the Online Etymology Dictionary.The fennec foxes are obviously adorable, but I have a weak spot for pig-like beings as well. Nugs are super cute, as are tuskets, and I go crazy for snoufleurs, who are maybe the pinnacle of cuteness. Cruelly, the designers chose to grace the latter with one of the strongest and rarest kinds of leather in the game.
Hunting in Inquisition is not something explicitly undertaken for sport, in terms of representation. The player is free to use the party to kill wild animals, but there is no way to organise a mounted hunting party with hounds, birds of prey, spectators, etc. In that sense, the game suggests that hunting is utilitarian first and foremost, and optional to boot.
At the same time, the game encourages the hunting of innocent animals by explicitly making them the most copious source of leathers in the game, and by granting small amounts of experience points for the kill, unless the characters are extremely overlevelled compared to the animal. In addition, animals are the only ‘neutral’ targets in the game. Enemies are marked with red indicators, while allied creatures are untargetable and unkillable. The animals are a unique category, marked with a blue indicator. As soon as you attack them, these turn red and depending on the type of animal, they retaliate or attempt to flee. ‘Blue’ animals are also the only creatures who can be accidentally damaged by area-of-effect spells and abilities, much to my chagrin. It’s no problem at all if friendly people stand near an intense chain lightning: they are never hit. But when an animal happens to be near one, it’s fried, even if you didn’t mean to hurt it. They are always potential targets for your violence.
The ultimate moral hunting quandary of the game is presented by the ten High Dragons featured in the game. They are presented as magnificent, powerful creatures, queens among their kind, and each has a unique appearance, scale colouring, behaviour, etc. They are minor characters. Of course, dragons are dangerous and powerful, and they are framed as liabilities and threats on numerous occasions. This threat, however, doesn’t actually materialise in the game. It’s perfectly feasible to leave the High Dragons alone, as they never actually threaten the security of people in the game itself. They are perfectly content to hang around in their lairs, caring for their little dragonlings, maybe fly across the land once in a while.
But again, it doesn’t feel like the game wants you to leave them alone. The dragon fights, while not extremely difficult, are pretty epic to play and watch, and each dragon has a bunch of cool treasure. Furthermore, there are quests and other forms of progression programmed into the game for which killing one or more of the dragons is required. Finally, there is — of course — an achievement for killing all ten High Dragons.
There’s a strange tangle of emotions around these dragons. They are dangerous and seen as hostile, but at the same time presented as majestic creatures worthy of awe and respect. Yet this awe is channeled as a form of challenge, as well. These creatures, more than anything else in the game, are a match in power for the protagonist. Simply the fact that they exist, are powerful, and command a place of their own is felt as a challenge in the power-driven narrative of the game. You respect the dragons for their power, but you also want to take them down in glorious battle and prove yourself the stronger party. Out of all your allies, Iron Bull is probably the one who most explicitly expresses those very sentiments.
But there really is no reason to kill them other than for your own gratification and a bunch of loot. You skulk off to some hidden lair with your small party to do the dirty deed. In two cases, the dragons are even asleep. They don’t speak, they don’t flee; you either leave them alone or you kill them. They’re just oversized versions of some of the other animals in the game, and you can kill them for your (private) sport. It’s a morally filthy, imperialist power fantasy that the game wants to make you implicit in. But really, that goes for much of the rest of the game, too.
I killed all of the dragons, although I didn’t actually get the achievement afterwards. It’s probably a bug, but part of me likes to think the game might be making a point. The ‘achievement’ feels hollow.
Further reading (also for myself):
- John Cummins. 1988 . The Hound and the Hawk. The Art of Medieval Hunting. London: Phoenix Press.
All images are screenshots from Dragon Age: Inquisition.
This article was supported by the generous contributors to my Patreon.