Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Music of Dragon Age, And What It Actually Says

Come in! Have a seat, and let's talk about music. Specifically, the music of Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is beautiful and fun and lovely and very helpful, and which is also heavily recycled and manages to undermine the game it is meant to support in tons of small and large ways.

This conversation has BIG FAT SPOILERS for basically everything that ever happens in the Dragon Age series, across all games to date.

(It is also a very long post with a whole pile of embedded video. Fair warning.) 

*   *   *   *   *   

I have often said, when talking about the music of something like Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings or even Mass Effect, that themes and motives work upon the story and the audience like a big black Sharpie, drawing clear aural lines between people and plot elements.

Thus it is when you hear one theme, you know the movie is talking about the Ring, and when you hear a different theme, you know the world is mad.  Themes for The Force and for The Sith tell a story as much as characters, actors, sets, and dialogue.

Dragon Age in many ways does the exact same thing -- but in slow motion, in such away that it takes a few years to notice. And unfortunately, in so doing, Inquisition manages to undermine a lot of its own dramatic pauses.

Let's talk about a minstrel.

This is Maryden Halewell, from Dragon Age: Inquisition. She joins the Inquisition in her own informal way: first you find her in the pub in Haven, and then she comes with the nascent organization to Skyhold and beyond, showing up even at the Winter Palace.

And she sings.*

Like many a fictional bard and troubadour before her, she sings the news of the day, composing and sharing songs about the heroes and villains and current affairs of Thedas. There's a lot going on in Thedas these days, what with the Breach and all, so she has a pretty comprehensive lute playlist.

Conveniently, she has an identical twin, of the same name and costume, who lives in Val Royeaux and sings the same popular tunes in French Orlesian. This matters more than you'd think.

And then of course, there is the actual game score: all those orchestral and choral moments that float around the menus and the various game zones. Those matter, too. And it's hard to organize, so let's just take it one thing at a time.

Framing the Inquisition: The Dawn Will Come

By the time Corypheus has attacked Haven and sent the Inquisitor fleeing into the mountains, the player is a solid 10-30 hours into the game, on average. That means we've heard the game's main theme a number of times, over interminable loading screens and also, in variations, over cut scenes and in the environment.

But it takes until one pivotal moment before we learn something critical about the theme that, musically, holds the entire game together: it's a hymn. A well-known, beloved Chantry hymn, that anyone and everyone in Thedas can sing.

It is a hymn of hope and of faith, guiding these wanderers in the darkness as it has no doubt guided generations before them. It is also, explicitly, a martial hymn. This is a hymn for a Chantry that, if pushed, will spread its faith by force:

Bare your blade
and raise it high
Stand your ground

the Dawn will come

The night is long
and the path is dark
Look to the sky
for one day soon,
the Dawn will come

Comfort from one hand, and a sword in the other: that is the conflict of the Chantry, and that is the plot and thread running through all of Inquisition, as it wove slightly more subtly through Dragon Age 2 before it.

By making this hymn the main theme of the game, Inquisition reminds us of that thread -- and this moment on the mountain -- constantly. And it's also worth noting who doesn't sing (Dorian, Cole, Solas, Varric, etc.), and who the Chantry therefore excludes.

All About Orlais: Empress of Fire and the tunes of Halamshiral

There's a civil war on in Orlais, have you heard? The empress, crowned these twenty years, is fighting her cousin tooth and nail as he tries to usurp her throne with a legitimate-enough claim.

Empress of fire,
In the reign of the lion,
Eclipsed in the eye of
The empire of we Orlesians.

This song likewise exists in Orlesian, as well it should.

C'est ton règne que nous honorons
Par cette chanson, dans tout Orlaïs
Nous glorifions ton nom

Here's the thing, though: if you read through the French (Orlesian) version and translate it literally, it's much more pronounced and explicit about the nation's feelings for its queen than the English (Freldan) version is:

Your reign honors us
With this song, in all Orlais
We glorify your name.

No matter the season
We will defend you
And our scars
Thanks to you, will be still

...and so on.

In either language, but more directly in the French, the song clearly supports Celene. And if you were seeking an in-universe historical deep-dive, you could also pretty clearly posit that the words are new, but the melody is old and well-known in Orlais -- and accepted, and promoted, by the crown.

Because, hey, does the melody that plays literally everywhere at the Winter Palace, and also as the waltz music in the ballroom, sound familiar at all?

So, hey, that's cool, right? There's a song uniting the warriors loyal to the crown, and it's being sung in taverns around Val Royeaux and Skyhold, and that ties together the whole world nicely. You, the player, will likely hear this song dozens of times before setting a single foot in Halamshiral.

And that makes it super duper awkward to support Gaspard.

The game is telling us very strongly in the music -- aside from our advisors' speeches and explanations -- that it supports Celene in this war, as the rightful empress who should be able to knock aside the usurper, with your help.

Supporting Gaspard is, and remains, a choice, and the Inquisition can certainly do so if it wishes. But to do so creates a heightened tension against the very fabric and texture of the constructed world the Inquisition inhabits.

Mages, Templars, and Rebellion: Samson and Other Problems

Samson, leader of the Red Templars, has done some very bad things.

Samson, Templar fame / Raise your shield of shame
Samson's letter caught / Left unfought defamed.
Armor laced with blood / Shall reclaim his name.
Samson's broken heart / Shall revoke his claim.
Samson knight in red / He hath lost his way
Samson martyr rage / Soon the world will pay.

Samson is badly fallen, as Cullen can tell you. The two men faced similar trials but Cullen managed to emerge stronger for them; Samson, alas, was not so fortunate. He does eventually find a purpose, trying to save the templars and honor their choices even if it means selling out to Corypheus.

Tragic figures and terrifying nemeses make great tavern song fodder. No wonder Maryden has a song to sing about him. He's so important that the "Samson" cue plays as a horn solo while you're exploring overland zones in Ferelden.

Except... if the player chooses to head to Therinfal Redoubt instead of to Redcliffe at the end of Act I, Samson is a non-entity. Cullen never speaks of him. The villain to challenge is a woman named Calpernia, who does not have a song written about her.

Maryden doesn't just have a Templar song; she has a mage song, too.

A time has come for battle lines.
We will cut these knotted ties,
And some may live and some may die.

Enchanter, come to me
Enchanter, come to me
Enchanter, come to see
Can-a you, can-a you come to see,
As you once were blind
In the light now you can sing?
In our strength we can rely,
And history will not repeat

"Enchanters," too, has an Orlesian counterpart.

Enchanteur, c'est l'heure,
de surmonter nos peurs,
de nous libérer des chaînes,
de nous délivrer de nos peines.

And, as with "Empress of Fire," the French version, translated directly, is slightly more severe than its (already unsubtle) English counterpart:

Enchanter, the time has come
to overcome our fears
to liberate ourselves from chains
to deliver ourselves from our troubles

There is a deep power in protest songs. They give a mass voice to those who are perhaps otherwise voiceless. The mages of Thedas have risen out of their oppressive circles into open, fierce rebellion and this -- in the languages of both nations -- is their unified battle cry, their willingness to fight, to the death, for their freedom.

Which, again, makes it really very weird to have chosen to side against the mages before, during, or after "In Hushed Whispers" / "Champions of the Just."

The combination of the two songs, neither of which has a counterpart for an alternate choice, very strongly suggests one "correct" narrative interpretation of events: the Inquisitor sided with the mages, supported the rebellion, and had to fight Samson.

The paths themselves as game choices are fully supported: Calpernia has a fascinating arc and "Champions of the Just" is every inch as fleshed out as "In Hushed Whispers," though in a different way. But in a subtle way, through the music, DA:I pushes the player more strongly down one path than the other. 

Leliana and Her Sorrows: Nightingale's Eyes and Leliana's Song

Cullen is the sympathetic lens through which the player revisits ten years of Thedas's history, but he's not the only one who's been around the block a few times. Leliana has been present, either front and center or behind the scenes, across all three games to date.

And by the time the Inquisition is founded, she is scary as shit.

Nightingale's eyes
What will they find
Left behind?

Craven master spy
With heart remiss
For those who could not find the truth

Minstrels sing of the Left Hand -- string-puller galore -- in Orlais, as well.

Gracieux rossignol
de quoi sont faits tes secrets?

Les larmes que tu verses
sont douces-amères
Tes intentions sont-elles sincères?

Gracieux rossignol
que caches-tu sous tes plumes?

As in the other songs, the French version of this is also more direct with its meaning, literally translated:

Gracious nightingale
what are your secrets made of?

The tears you cry
are bitter-sweet
Are your intentions sincere?

Gracious nightingale
What do you hide under your feathers?

Before the Herald of Andraste came to town and the Inquisition kicked into gear, dear Leliana -- also known as Sister Nightingale -- was the Left Hand of the Divine, listening to what the little birds had to say and delivering the right news to the right people at the right time.

She had an entire DLC to herself in Dragon Age: Origins, relating her back story -- from thief to bard to sister -- and how she met Dorothea, who would later become Divine Justinia V. And in that DLC, aptly called "Leliana's Song," we hear this music, called "Sorrow."

Speed it up, add comprehensible words, and change the instrumentation, and "Sorrow" becomes "Nightingale's Eyes" decades later in her life. In other words: sorrow has literally followed her, all these years. Given what we learn about Leliana throughout Inquisition, it's apt.

The same melody also appears as a track literally called "Leliana's Song," this time in an arrangement pointing to action:

And speaking of Leliana's song and Leliana's Song, her music gets recycled quite a bit among games. Many of the cues in her Origins DLC use the melody and instrumentation captured in "Marketplace":

...which should sound incredibly familiar to players of Dragon Age II (go to the B-section at the 50-second mark).

Leliana's presence during Dragon Age II is mostly a secret. Only in the last moment before the closing credits do we learn that in the present day, she has been working with this mysterious seeker, Cassandra, who so rudely demanded the story from (potentially unreliable) Varric. And yet in a way, in the pubs and taverns where the Bards have ears, she was there all along.

I Am The One Who Can Recall This Song From An Earlier Game

The Breach is an existential crisis, and the people of southern Thedas are terrified of it. This is apocalyptic shit. Demons are falling out of the sky all over the place and there is literally one person who can apparently do something about it, but this age does not have mass communication and so the fact that there is anyone out there, and who she might be and where, is a matter passed from mouth to ear, whispered over drinks, captured in the warm light of a welcoming tavern.

Existential fear breeds sadness and nostalgia.

I feel sun / Through the ashes in the sky
Where's the one / Who will guide us into the night
What's begun / is the war that will force this divide
What's to come / Is fire and the end of time

I am the one / Who can recount what we've lost

I am the one / Who will live on

And, yes, following our pattern, the Orlesian version here is even more bleak as well, although still similar:

Le soleil dans le ciel s'est évanoui
Qui saura nous guider dans la nuit ?
Meurtrière est la guerre qui trahit tous nos serments
Sanguinaire le feu de la fin des temps

The sun in the sky has faded
Who will guide us through the night?
Murderous is the war that betrays all our oaths
Bloody the fire at the end of time

But, see, the thing about Thedas is, aside from the Chantry and the empires and the politics, it has magic. And dragons. And gods. And the Blight. And all kinds of, as Varric would say, really weird shit. Existential crises are, well, not new.

In fact, Thedas faced one just 11 years before the Inquisition brought down Corypheus: the Fifth Blight.

"I am the One" is a track from Dragon Age: Origins. Get to the 35-second mark and listen from there, and it should sound awfully familiar. Much as with Leliana's "Sorrow," you just need to speed it up, drop the orchestra, and add words and hey presto, it's Inquisition.

And as for those first 35 seconds, before the melody kicks in: you may have heard them, stretched and processed, while trying to work out some constellations.

Likewise, "Rise:"

Find me, still searching
For someone to lead me
Can you guide me
To the revolt inside me

The Breach

The Breach
In the sky

...which is in fact not only borrowed from an earlier game, but is the main theme of the first. Or at least, the introduction to the main theme. Much as with other adapted songs, speed up the original, change its instrumentation, and give that singer English words to make it Maryden's tune.

Of Companions, Just And True

Maryden is no fool: she sings about the good guys, too. In the main game, she has a song for Sera:

 And in Trespasser, adds one for fan favorite scout, Lace Harding:

But also in Inquisition, Maryden will triumphantly and wistfully sing about the Inquisitor's entire party: all twelve of them, including the advisor trio, with the notable exception of Cole.

Dorian rebelled against countrymen
A mage from the Tevinter Imperium
Charming and suave and just slightly suspect
These are the early days we defend


Iron Bull's loyal indulgent one
A past brilliant agent of those who run
The Bull's Chargers now stay in his sight
But he still finds the time to roar through the night

Both verses make perfect sense if you sided with the mages -- bringing Dorian to your party first, before Cole -- and chose to save Bull's Chargers during Bull's personal quest.

If you did not make those choices, however, Maryden's tale of the Companions is incorrect, and instead reflects your personal path not taken instead of the choices you actually made.

Looking Forward...

When you look at the pile of possible outcomes from Inquisition, and judge against what we know with certainty will be involved in the eventual, as-yet-unannounced fourth Dragon Age game, it becomes clear why we have the detached, cloud-based Keep: it is a crapton of data, choices upon choices, outcomes upon outcomes.

It makes sense in every way -- financial, logistical, artistic -- that the game would only have one soundtrack, and that it would tie back to earlier games and re-use existing musical assets where possible. But that practicality undermines the tapestry of options that DA:I allows us to believe we have.
*and speaks exclusively in iambic pentameter. Yes, BioWare, I see what you did there.


  1. I haven't finished the game (in the midst of Here Lies the Abyss), but I am so glad to have found your post about the ties of music to the game. I agree with most of your analysis, except your premise--that the music undermines. I cannot disagree more on this point: sure, the music hints at an established narrative, and the players are encouraged to go on a certain direction, but the game doesn't give less to the other arcs, as you said. Just because the writers think we should go one way, doesn't mean the world that results from the player's choices are not "real."

    I love that the music serves as a plot device and ties in different games. I sided with mages, let Celene ruled, and keep Bull's Chargers though, so I guess I only know the "intended" storyline so far. Still, I can't stop visiting the tavern just to hear the songs.

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