Not so long ago I finished my (first) playthrough of Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI). It was a wonderful and rich experience, mostly. Right up until the last fifteen minutes where I went from busily trying to prepare for the inevitable attack on Skyhold to slaying the Would-Be God Coyrpheus in an unremarkable battle. I’m not entirely sure what happened to the end of DAI. It is like the final act (or what I thought would be the final act) was built by a lonely level designer left behind after the rest of the team had turned out the lights and left the building for end-of-week drinks. What was shaping up to be an epic and ethically challenging struggle against an army of Darkspawn, Demons and Red Templars ended up being a short sequence of single combat with the The Big Bad Guy.
Which is a great shame because by this stage I really felt the anxiety the Inquisitor and her companions would have been feeling in the final stages of the struggle, worried that I hadn’t upgraded Skyhold or done anything to bolster its defenses, unsure of where I had come from, what my purpose was or what I was really supposed to be achieving. I was certain there would be an attack on Skyhold. I’d even felt the need to keep some of my companions at arms length emotionally because I didn’t want to lose them in the inevitable mess of casualties and/or betrayal I would experience in the final conflicts (Mass Effect 2 haunts me to this day in that regard). The final battle, even at Hard difficulty, was a cakewalk. Challenge only coming from some arbitrary power of Corypheus to heal and teleport to a new set piece. I’d struggled against far less significant opponents in the game. To find myself defeat the greatest threat to the world on the first attempt was both surprising and unsatisfying. It felt a little bit like the Knights of the Old Republic 2 end-game all over again.
The unsatisfying and rushed ending was doubly disappointing because Corypheus seemed like he was going to be a really interesting antagonist rather than a cookie-cutter villain. It seemed Corypheus had a lot of work put into him and his background that the developers, for whatever reason, couldn’t quite realise in terms of the overall narrative.
Corypheus: From Antagonist to Villain
In Mary Shelley’s science fiction classic Frankenstein two stories are overlayed (well, three, but primarily two). The first is that of the creator, Victor Frankenstein, who made the monster, and the second is the monster itself. In this structure both characters play as antagonists to the other, each propelled to action by the other, through fear, sorrow, compassion and anger. Neither character is a hero or a villain, though both do things which could be ascribed to either category. The lack of a typical villain is one of the reasons the story so memorable. The defeat of either character is not a cathartic victory for the forces of good over evil but instead a melancholic and nihilistic resignation to disappointment.
Like Frankenstein’s monster, Corypheus is seeking something from his creator(s), and like the monster, Corypheus finds only disappointment and despair. For both their place in the world is undone with seemingly no hope to rediscover it. Their makers either lied to them or for one reason or another are unable to give them the answers they seek. The gods, the makers and creators, are supposed to be the transcendental arbiters and guarantors of meaning in the world and they have been proven inadequate to the task. Even gods despair when they gaze into the abyss.
Before the events of DAI unfold Corypheus is heading in the direction of the monster, starting his journey as a more complex, conflicted antagonist (like the monster, Corypheus is a disfigured creation, a unnatural combination of fallible and mortal parts). He is also courageous, even arrogantly so, because in the face of meaningless he creates his own purpose. In a decidedly Nietzschean turn, Corypheus confronts the absence of the gods as an opportunity to exert himself beyond them. As Zarathustra came down from the mountain after many years, so to Corypheus returns to Thedas, renewed and having moved beyond. With the guarantors of meaning gone, perhaps never existing, Corypheus recognises that their mythology alone is powerful, but incompletely so. While mythology might spur the races of Thedas to action, only a god can correct the world. Corypheus then must take the empty throne of the gods for himself. Only he is capable.
I have gathered the will to return under no name but my own. To champion withered Tevinter and correct this blighted world. Beg that I succeed. For I have seen the Throne of the Gods, and it was empty!
Throughout the Dragon Age series the nations of Thedas are either on the brink of or involved in warfare against each other. Great hordes of Darkspawn threaten from the depths of the world, demons flow out of a hole in the sky, blood mages threaten to unravel the fabric of time and space. The world seems to lurch from catastrophe to catastrophe. What is lost by the emptiness of the throne of gods? Meaning. The Maker (or the Old Gods) act as the underwriters of meaning against nihilism. Each catastrophe Thedas endures centers around a complex relationship with The Maker whether the Maker is angry, pleased, loving or spiteful, the disasters are made meaningful in that they are directed by the all powerful. The peoples of Thedas can make sense of the terrible things in their world if they carry with them intention, meaning, purpose. The great horror is if these terrors serve no purpose, are not guided by the Will of the Maker but rather spontaneous, inexplicable nightmares. Nightmares that are no longer outside the boundaries of the normal, everyday but are those things directly. There is nothing beyond them.
What drives Corypheus’s particular hatred of the Inquisitor is that this purpose is stolen from him. Like Agent Smith in The Matrix series, purpose is “what created us… what drives us… what binds us”. Agent Smith in the second and third films of the series is on a journey for purpose. Neo took purpose from him by removing Smith from the constraints of The Matrix, and Smith now sees a world without purpose, a world without a place for him, a world where there is no guarantor for meaning. Smith’s mission, to the very end of the series, is to understand why and how one persists in the face of this abyss of meaning or purpose. In his final speech to Neo Smith is not gloating in victory, nor craving power and control. He is angry, frustrated, even afraid. He still wants something from Neo that he can’t discover himself. Smith is filled with a nihilistic rage to destroy every construct of the Other’s purpose around him. Agent Smith is never a villain, he is always an antagonist.
So much seems to be built up in Corypheus’s past and his early writing suggest these themes of anger, anguish, despair andnihilistic rage and so on would come forward yet somehow by then end of the game, and especially in the last acts, this purpose has transformed from a rage towards meaning, into a cookie-cutter villain’s motive – to be the big bad power hungry evil guy. I don’t mean this in the sense he undertook a kind of internal ethical change but rather his function in the narrative changed. A villain is a character that does bad things which compels the hero to take action to stop them. The important thing about the villain is that they carry little or no ethical ambiguity. A villain can only do bad guy villain things because that is what a bad guy villain does. Villain’s aren’t necessary bad for narratives and are more or less mandatory in some genres, but for a deep and lore-rich game, which spends so much time building complex characters the player can interact with, a villain seems to be a poor end point. Corypheus positions himself early on as a flawed saviour. He wants to fix the world, set it straight, even if what he imagines this to look like is… evil. Perhaps he considers, like The Operative from Serenity, that evil must be done to make the world a better place.
” I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin … I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.”
This Corypheus-as-Saviour scenario is in a way far more terrifying than the scenario of a simple power-hungry villain. It confronts the possibility of the pure myth of the Maker – yet it also does something that the lore of the series explores repeatedly – the power of myth and faith alone. The Inquisitor (and by extension the player) is confronted with the mythology that surrounds them. Are they the Herald of Andraste or were they simply an accident. Armies follow them and people seek their protection based on this myth, regardless of whether it is true, because the belief is itself enough.
In a sense, as Neo is like Agent Smith, and Victor Frankenstein is like his monster, the Inquisitor and Corypheus are alike – “awoken” into a world where they must by will alone take the fate of the world upon themselves. All are given great power, and they are confronted by the ethical ambiguity of power, and tormented by the uncertainty of what they do with that power and the haunting, creeping horror that power itself is not enough in a monstrous world with no purpose, no meaning. Both Corypheus and the Inquisitor face the same problem – they take on a duty that they neither understand in full nor have certainty about its purpose. They may even be acting in sense knowing that the mythology that surrounds them must be embraced, even if they know it to be untrue. He knows, perhaps more than the Inquisitor, that the faith of the known world is a scam. An empty myth that does nothing other than perpetuate itself. What value is a truth that no one dares believe nor empowers anyone to prevent disaster? The narrative opportunity here is that the journey of the protagonist mirrors that of the antagonist. Corypheus and the Inquisitor are not opponents but competitors, or more likely, their narratives act as answers to a question of meaning, purpose and place in the world.
Perhaps that is where the series will take us. There is no certainty that Corypheus is gone for good, and there are other threads in play to unravel. Someone is playing a very, very long game indeed. I hope that Corypheus is still around and that he is given a more proper treatment in any future storylines.