Two weeks ago, I indulged myself in conducting a historical tour of one of my beloved fantasy worlds, that of BioWare’s Dragon Age franchise. While I immensely enjoy the historical inspiration that can be found around every corner of Thedas, my historian’s love of Dragon Age extends far deeper, to the way its stories have been revealed, piece by piece, as the player delves deeper into the games. It feels, in fact, like an idealized study of history itself.
From parental reveals to resurgent enemies to betrayals and everything in between, every story has its twist. Dragon Age certainly has its fair share, and in the first two games they’re of fairly standard variety. The third, however, turns nearly everything you thought you knew about the history of the world on its head. Old legends you thought were simply flavor text take on a whole new meaning; explanations you thought were simple are far more complex, if not outright wrong. Some might consider such storytelling retconning, or the changing whims of different teams of writers, but to me, it felt like the best parts of our calling as historians.
One of the first things you learn in an historical methods class is that we will never truly understand the past. Our sources—not just documents but stories, legends, traditions—obscure what really happened even as they give precious clues, especially the farther back you explore. We will never know if there really was a Trojan War that inspired Homer’s Iliad or how true the story of Julius Caesar’s adventure with Mediterranean pirates is. In the fictional world of Thedas, however, surrounded by magic and dragons, I can find those moments. I can glimpse the truth behind the veil of myth, even if it only causes more questions than answers. Until we discover the key to time travel and can observe the history of our own world firsthand, this is the closest I can get to that ultimate, unattainable goal of the historian.
And I can’t get enough.