Churches everywhere? Thoughts about Architectural Worldbuilding in Fantasy Games | Part 3

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Part 1 – Introduction & Zelda | Part 2 – World of Warcraft


4. Dragon Age

4.1. Game History

The Dragon Age series was created by BioWare. In 2018, it consists of three major games (Dragon Age: Origins from 2009, Dragon Age II from 2011 and Dragon Age: Inquisition from 2014) but the franchise includes also five novels (2009-2014), a tabletop role-playing game, a web series, an anime movie, diverse comics and other merchandise such as action figures. Two voluminous books describe the fictional world, its places, characters and history and show the incredible deep construction by the authors and developers.

4.2. The World of Thedas

Thedas is an acronym and stands for THE Dragon Age Setting. It is the only known continent in an unnamed world with rumors about other continents. For most Thedosians the continent is considered as the entire word.

Numerous kingdoms rule the continent with Orlais in the West, Ferelden in the East and the Tevinter Imperium in the North as the main blocks of power and main settings for most plots. There are different races inhabiting the continent: the majority are humans, but there are also elves, Qunari and dwarves. The old dwarf kingdoms built an entire infrastructure under the surface, called the Deep Streets, with cities, tunnels and temples1.

The world was, according to the dominant religious teachings, created by The Maker out of the silence in the beginning while saying the first word. This became the essence of everything2.

First, he created a world called The Fade, inhabited with his first children. They were ghosts without a soul and without the ability to create something new, despite being able to alter the world. The Maker was dissatisfied with them and left The Fade to create the world of Thedas with his new children, separating the worlds with The Veil. He was not aware that the ghosts could observe this new world and grow envious of it.

The most powerful and jealous of these ghosts found a way to whisper to those creatures of the new world who were able to practice magic. The ghosts convinced some of them to turn their back to The Maker and worship them as their new gods. The creatures with magical abilities, called mages, found a way to open The Veil and the ghosts took the form of huge dragons, letting the living bow down in front of this now-called Old Gods. With this Original Sin, The Maker turned again away from his creation in disappointment after imprisoning and cursing the Old Gods. In despair, he left the both creations and sealed the Golden City, the center of heaven and his seat.

For a long time the divine city was closed and empty. Then the seven high priests of the seven Old Gods, powerful mages of the Tevinter Imperium, broke open a passage to the Golden City with blood magic and moved there physically. Immediately the city turned black and the priests were cursed and pushed back to Thedas. They became the first Darkspawn, deformed monsters that spread like an illness in the undergrounds. Breaking into heaven was the Second Sin.

The Darkspawn increased continuously and heard the whispering of the imprisoned Old Gods. Once they found one of them and freed it, the Old God then tries to conquer Thedas, leading the Darkspawn. This Old God was ultimately defeated, in Thedosian history this happened five times.

In this time, Andraste appeared. She was a former slave, who became a military leader, a prophet and the spiritual wife of The Maker as his eye fell on her. Her teachings, the Chant of Light, became the foundation for the church giving it its name: Chantry3.

She was betrayed by her mortal husband who was jealous of her relationship to The Maker. She was burned at the stake. Her role as a prophet but also in freeing the slaves and other oppressed creatures and minorities convinced numerous people and turned them into her followers, making her the focus of the biggest religion in Thedas.

4.3. The Chantry

A cult known as the Cult of the Maker grew out of the legend of Andraste’s martyrdom. The cult had no central leadership and its followers were oppressed. Some composed the teachings into hymns, forming the Chant of Light4, which helped spreading the new religion dramatically. Kordillus Drakon, the founder and first emperor of the Orlesian Empire, formed out of the fragmented cult what is now the Chantry. The faith in Andraste and her teachings became the national religion. Three years later, the first leader of the Chantry, Justinia I., was elected 5. With the election of the first Divine, the title of the highest position in the Chantry, a new timing began with different named centuries, called ages6.

The Chantry controls the Circle of Magi with the help of the Templar Order as one of the main principles is that magic has to serve, not to rule7.

Also the Seekers of the Truth are under the authority of the church and serve as investigators, special agents and overseers of the templars.

Over the centuries, the Chantry became one of the most powerful institutions in Thedas, influencing all political classes and being the only authority to all believers8. By declaring an Exalted March, a crusade against the heretical enemies of The Maker and mobilizing thousands, the Chantry could intervene directly.

Only women are able to become priests as Andraste was female. The head of the Chantry is the Divine with her seat in the Grand Cathedral in Val Royeaux, the capital of Orlais. Her left and right hand are the next in hierarchy, followed by the Grand Clerics who are responsible for one country or a region. They also elect the new Divine after the death of the old one. Beneath the Grand Clerics are the Revered Mothers as heads of a local Chantry and Mothers who are in charge for their flock. Beneath the Mothers in hierarchy are brothers and sisters, consisting of three main groups: affirmed, initiates, and clerics9.

Main goal of the church is to spread the faith in Andraste’s teachings and in The Maker over the entire world. They believe that once the Chant is sung everywhere by an united choir of all peoples, The Maker will finally return to his creation and turn the world into a paradise.

4.4. Religious Buildings in Dragon Age

The institution called the Chantry and religious questions play an important role in the plots of the games and novels set in Thedas. The religion itself evokes on several levels Christianity and especially Catholicism with its templars, an inquisition, holy texts in form of chants, the prophet Andraste and an absolute ruling head of the church, the Divine. The creation myth, with a word by God creating everything, is close to the Bible. However, also historical references are obvious with an emperor using the unifying abilities of a monotheistic religion (the fictional Kordillus Drakon can be associated with Constantine the Great).

Besides the general religion influences on plot and quests, the Chantries are important and representative buildings in all smaller and bigger settlements in the world, with the same dominant position as churches had in medieval Europe.

The Chantry of Kirkwall (image 23) for example is a gigantic building with smaller towers holding the supporting arches for the main building with two higher, square-formed towers flanking the entrance and a fifth solitary tower in the intersection. The towers and the main building are shown as simple geometric forms that are combined. The walls are flat, only structured by small horizontal bands, alternating with arrow loops and decorative columns. This enormous but reduced design serves as a background for two huge metal statues showing hooded persons with scythes. They are placed on arcade-like structures and reach almost the height of the side towers.

23_Dragon Age 2_Kirkwall_Chantry 1
Chantry in Kirkwall, exterior, appearance in Dragon Age II, (c) 2011 by BioWare/Electronic Arts

4.5. The Grand Cathedral

Unfortunately the Grand Cathedral is not a part of the video games itself. It is mentioned and referred to but not shown. In the anime movie „Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker“ from 2012 it is one of the main settings. As the intention of the article is also to discuss fantasy worldbuilding itself, this important building should be shown as an example for architectural adoption.

The Grand Cathedral (images 24 to 26) is the heart and center of the main religion in the fictional world of Thedas. It is placed in the center of the capital of the most powerful country, the empire of Orlais. The capital, Val Royeaux, is also the founding city of the Chantry, initiated by the first emperor Kordillus Drakon. Religion and politics are closely tied from the beginning.

 

The beginning of the construction is dated even 15 years before the church founding by the rapidly increasing followers of the Cult of the Maker in Orlais. More than two hundred years later, the cathedral was finished. Because of its enormous double towers, the following century is called Towers Age10.

The cathedral area is located in the center of the city and is an enormous rectangle compared to the surrounding buildings. It consists of the outer walls with several quadratic towers. The so-created inner space contains the actual cathedral with half of the area and an open space with a cone-shaped monument in the middle of the whole site. The paving of the area shows a stylized sun with the monument in the middle and the sunbeams and decoration stripes connecting main parts of the site.

The cathedral consists of two parts: the rectanglular main building and the two wings coming out of it on the left and on the right sides of the main entrance. The arms and the space that they define together have the same size as the main building. The part with the main entrance is semicircular with an enormous balcony in its zenith over the entrance.

The second level on top of the ground level repeats the form of the base cathedral and the arms in a smaller form and recessed. The roofs of this two levels build large terraces.

The two rectangle towers flank a building in their middle with a square dome. The towers themselves have flat, pillared stone-made roofs and are standing on a substructure which is a smaller version of the second level. This level forms another entrance to the middle building together with the balcony to the main place.

The exterior walls are structured with arcade-like columns with an open space or a door in the lower parts and a round stone relief in the upper third part. The dimensions of this decoration is decreasing with every higher level.

The entire building is built of one greyish stone with only small parts highlighted with reflecting gold such as the tower crowns, small pillars and some statues. With its monumental sizes, the repeating arcade structure, the small color palette and the basic geometrical forms the Grand Cathedral seems to be one monolithic building.

4.6. Comparison

The whole setting can easily be associated with Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome and the St. Peter’s Square in front of it (image 27). Of course, the similarity is not evoked by style, decoration or architecture itself, but by the arrangement of the similar parts: an open space for masses of believers with a monument in its center (an obelisk in Rome, a curved object in Val Royeaux), embraced by two colonnaded wings leading to the main building. Also, Saint Peter’s Cathedral has in its zenith a balcony to announce to the people. The main cathedral itself is similar with a widely recognizable dome in Rome and two monumental towers there. As Saint Peter’s Cathedral is today a Baroque setting with its roots in Renaissance, the Orlesian setting provokes more of an association with the French Gothic cathedrals in Reims or Paris, especially the famous west faces with their monumental structures and stone-carved decorations (images 28 and 29). With Orlaix being loosely based on medieval France, this would not be surprising.

 

5. Conclusion

The three game examples should give a first idea of an architectural reception in fantasy games. Certainly, it is an analytical overview with general thoughts that ignored some other important games and aspects. However, it can also be stated that the reception of realistic architectures in games happens on different levels.

In the context of sacral buildings in games the orientation on Christian churches, styles and architectural motives is based on the players’ common knowledge about these architectural styles. Christianity is also one of the most influential religions with well-known, significant buildings all over the world. They are part of a common image memory, even if the historical or ritual contexts and functions are not common knowledge anymore.

The architectural Christian elements are used to represent special places and buildings in the games that were used as examples to create a sacral atmosphere or to connect the fictional believes and religions to known or at least associated similar types of architectures.

In the case of The Legend of Zelda, the religious component is not that obvious, even if there is a creation myth in the plot and the Temple of Time serves as a literal entrance to the Sacred Realm which can be seen as something like Heaven.

In the Dragon Age series the connection between fictional and factional religion is fundamental. From the myth of creation to the prophet Andraste and the establishment of a church with a divine leader there is a new interpretation of Christianity in the Roman-Catholic denomination. It is not surprising that the main cathedral in the most powerful city is clearly oriented on the Vatican City and the Holy See. But with the French association of Orlaix, a connection to Gothic architecture is also evident. The Chantry can not be seen as a copy of existing structures and buildings. Alienation, a playful reception and a subliminal criticism, based on a broad knowledge of Christian believes and myths, comes together in the world of Dragon Age.

The Cathedral of Light in World of Warcraft, on the other hand, is also obviously a sacral building, influenced by Christianity and the Mormon denomination. However, there is no religious belief system behind it, but rather a philosophical codex. The fact that real players of the online game are having weddings in the cathedral shows how strong the association between the church architecture and rituals still is, even if a religious connotation is not intended.

The discussed ways of architectural reception and inspiration in games are only scratching the surface. These structures, motives and functions can be found in all visual fantasy creations like TV-shows and movies but also in fantasy art, illustrations and book covers. The connections to especially European art and architecture through the last centuries are always present in the fantastic worldbuilding to give a fictional factivity and history. The monumentality and representative functions of sacral buildings are also a favored feature in the usage of their fictional versions and elements.

In conclusion it can be stated that to create convincing atmospheres and locations artists have to tap into the subconscious image memory of the recipients by referencing more or less directly the real world.

by Dominic Riemenschneider


Part 1 – Introduction & Zelda

Part 2 – World of Warcraft

Part 3 – Dragon Age & Conclusion (& Bibliography)


  1. In-game codex entry: Geography of Thedas, in Dragon Age: Origins und Dragon Age II.
  2. The following summary is based of the Chant of Light, published in Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2, Milwaukie 2013, p. 49 – 75.
  3. Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2, Milwaukie 2013, p. 11 – 15.
  4. In the Grand Cathedral, the Chant of Light is sung fully day and night. One passage takes two weeks. The overcome texts are printed in Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2, Milwaukie 2013, p. 49 – 75.
  5. Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2, Milwaukie 2013, p. 21f.
  6. All three published games and the novels are set in the current ninth age, called the Dragon Age.
  7. This rule is a result of the actions of the Tevinter mages, cursing the world with Darkspawn and disappointing The Maker. Every person with magical abilities has to join a Circle of Magi to be overseen, controlled but also protected from prejudices and violent acts. If the gifted person does not join a circle, his or her connection to magic gets destroyed or they get executed.
  8. Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2, Milwaukie 2013, p. 11.
  9. In-game codex entry: Chantry Hierarchy, in Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age II and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
  10. Every age covers a hundred years, starting with year 0. During the last year of an age, year 99, the leader of the Chantry seeks for a sign or special occurrence to name the following age. Referring to the architecture of the Grand Cathedral for one of the current nine ages emphasizes the significance of the building.

Bibliography

Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 1, Milwaukie 2013.

Berry, Joanna; Ang, Joy: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2, Milwaukie 2013.

Gombos, Michael; Himekawa, Akira: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia, Milwaukie 2013.

Pleet, Kathleen; Stickney, Anne: World of Warcraft: Das ultimative Kompendium, Stuttgart 2016.

Tanner, Aria; Hisashi Kotobuki; Plechl, Heid: The Legend of Zelda: Art & Artifacts, Milwaukie 2017.

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About the Author Dominic Riemenschneider

Independent scholar & PhD candidate in Art History with research about the Fantastic, its reception and roots in art and architecture. Also offering services, workshops and lectures about the Fantastic and the connection to real world events, society and developments.