Years Later, the Ending of 'Dragon's Dogma' Remains Wonderfully Weird and Subversive
You know that fantasy epic about breaking the cycle of power you were looking for? Well...
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Spoilers ahead for the ending of Dragon’s Dogma.
The inciting incident of Dragon’s Dogma is a deal with a dragon. It plucks the still-beating heart from your created character’s chest and sets the newly-declared Arisen off on a quest to become a hero and rid the land of that same dragon, lest the world be thrown into darkness and destruction. Short of the heart stuff, this is familiar territory for fantasy games, and you’d be forgiven for missing this game from 2012 that’s recently been re-released in an enhanced form as Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen for the Nintendo Switch.
But the deeper you delve into it, a generic fantasy plot turns into a tale about the claustrophobia of destiny. This isn’t just a fantasy game. It’s a game where every paranoid concern about your life, that it truly isn’t your own, comes true. And it’s about making decisions knowing that fact. Stick with me for a moment while we work through the plot, I promise that I’ll get there.
To dig into why Dragon’s Dogma is so special, it’s best to start at the end. The grand finale of the game has very little to do with that giant dragon who stole the heart of the Arisen. That dragon is merely a way of setting a certain chosen figure down a familiar pathway, one filled with mythical monsters to fight, skills to learn, and, eventually, a seemingly climactic battle against that same Dragon. But after you defeat it, the world around you is changed for the worse, and you realize this was only a diversion on your trip.
That path eventually takes the Arisen to the throne of the Seneschal, a god figure who seemingly controls all of time, space, and creation. Less a person and more of a title, the Seneschal is a divine watchmaker type who puts things in the world and sees how they play out. It is an engine for chaos, but it’s the type of chaos that makes the world go ‘round.
When you finally reach the Seneschal and Dragon’s Dogma, you can choose to fight it. If you defeat it, you’re told that this is what it wanted the whole time. God wants to die, to be free of the responsibility or the obligation or whatever, and you must take its place. The successful Arisen will always become a Seneschal. This is the wheel of the universe. This is fate.
And obviously this fits beautifully into the structure both of fantasy and video games. Critic Matt Lees once said that Dragon’s Dogma is “hobbity as all fuck,” meaning that its familiar cadence of chosen ones, dragons, dukes, ogres, soldiers, forts, and sorcerers are all part and parcel of the traditional fantasy puzzle. Similarly, the idea that you are an important person with more skills and better capabilities than your average dirt farmer is the basic structure of role-playing video games. Like Dark Souls only a year earlier, Dragon’s Dogma uses the common anchor of the special protagonist to make the player feel settled in a world they think they know. Then they pull the rug out from under you.
There’s a famous article by Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” where he analyzes the right wing movements of the day (the 1960s) and the trajectory that gave them their particular shape. He argues that a critical element of McCarthyism, its predecessors, and its inheritors, is an extreme reaction to perceived conspiracies. Jewish bankers, the Illuminati, and communists filled out this imaginary for Hofstadter; George Soros, pizza parlors associated with the Clintons, and the forces arrayed against the mysterious Q might constitute it in 2019.
This reference to a big pillar of political thinking from 50 years ago might seem a little odd in conjunction with Dragon’s Dogma. But on some fundamental level, Dragon’s Dogma speaks to, and depends on, a deeply conspiratorial image of the world as much as it does our normal ideas about fantasy and the specialness of Chosen One player characters. The game world, all of its enemies and obstacles, are brought together and tuned perfectly to stand in the way of player progress.
As I said before, Dark Souls is another game that comments on this, and embraces conspiracy, in a similar way. In that game, an elaborate tale of the Chosen Undead is seeded through the land, which fills undead individuals with the desire and power to make their way to Anor Londo, the City of the Gods, and get a quest from the god Gwynevere to obtain a number of powerful souls and stoke the fire that fuels this age of the world. Astute players learn that Gwynevere is merely an illusion and that they are simply pawns in a worldwide conspiracy to desperately jumpstart a dying world.
The Chosen Undead’s life, their fate, is not their own. Similarly, the Arisen of Dragon’s Dogma is part of a vast calculus of which they are but a tiny part, and during the game we meet a few characters who have been the Arisen in the past. There’s the Duke who, once we slay the dragon, is withered into old age and accuses the Arisen of being part of another conspiracy to take political power. There is the mysterious Dragonforged, a beacon meant to push the Arisen towards the final battle, but also someone who might have slain the dragon in a previous age and yet, somehow, failed to rid the world of it. Our player character, our Arisen, is plainly just another cog in this machine, another spoke in this wheel.
Looking from the finale backward, though, with all the knowledge of the Seneschal and everything else, the truth that you come to is that there was a concerted effort to put you in this position. The fulfillment of a journey is really the completion of a set of markers. The right stance to have toward this is one of paranoia. The world was out to get you the whole time, and it took all of that destruction to get us there.
In his discussion of the power of paranoia, Hofstadter claims that it functions as a way of engaging with the world simply because it turns the paranoid person into someone who thinks they’re constantly at war. And thinking of oneself in war allows for all sorts of behavior that wouldn’t be acceptable otherwise. “Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable,” Hofstadter writes, “he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.” The position of the political paranoiac is a simple morality play that you might find in any fantasy video game: Everything is acceptable under the conditions that the protagonist has been put in. There is no overkill, and as Hofstadter writes later, it’s because the paranoid actor fundamentally believes that the conspiracy against them controls the entirety of the world. Everyone else is part of “the mechanism of history” and “tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.”
Hofstadter is, again, writing about an approach to politics, but he could just as easily be writing about fantasy storytelling in games. Our player characters always have magical, horrible powers arrayed against them, and anything they do is justified as a mode of breaking that system and triumphing over it.
What I am saying is that the forces arrayed against the protagonist of the fantasy video game turn the player into a conspiracist whose conspiracy is proven to be true. Sauron really was out to get Frodo, Geralt was thwarted at every turn by The Wild Hunt, and Cloud’s destiny was always intertwined with Sephiroth’s so that the final battle in the crater had to happen. The mechanism of history in these games is a thousand pathways in which your progress was difficult and your enemies were one step ahead of you at every turn. There’s something evil right in front of you, just out of sight in the darkness, and you’ve got to hold the lamp high and double down on your beliefs because they’ve got the advantage. So says the striving political actor; so says the struggling fantasy game protagonist.
(It’s worth noting, though, that there are people doing work to undermine this big political system of understanding the player in video games. “You Are Not The Dragonborn,” for example, transforms the player from a special chosen one to simply some person who wanders around the world and does whatever they want without any innate and unique special powers. The world isn’t warped around you in quite the same way, and the political conspiracy fundamentally transforms into something different that doesn’t depend on paranoia to operate.)
The problem of paranoia, of course, is how alluring it is and how easy it is to get trapped in the mire of it. Hofstadter aligned paranoid politics with the right wing in the 1960s, but that easy alignment is over, and spending ten minutes reading Twitter political threads and national news publications alike is an act of checking out competing conspiracies. These are the real interests being served by this policy, that action is the true erosion of democracy, this candidate is the one that is sizing up the competition with a new version of 18-dimensional chess. As a political mode, paranoia is contagious.
That contagion is already all through our fantasy games, as I’ve said, but what makes Dragon’s Dogma so special is that it has a mechanism for thwarting it. If it depends on a conspiratorial framework, it also has a mode for rejecting that framework.
Once the Arisen becomes the Seneschal, they have a choice in front of them. First, they can continue to live as god, becoming the new engine of the world. As the Dragon's Dogma Wikia describes:
The world draws its sustenance from the will of the Seneschal, eventually draining it and becoming stagnant. In turn, all life loses its volition, leaving everything as an empty shell of false life. In order to grant the inhabitants of the world their own volition, their own true life, the Seneschal sends in a Dragon from the Rift to find the next Arisen. Those who are chosen as Arisen by the Dragon display courage by confronting the beast and more importantly, display the will to survive. Of the few Arisen who reach the Seneschal, the ones who do not have the force or strength of will needed to sustain life, fall and become a Dragon, destined to seek out the following Arisen.
It's a miserable cycle, and one that explicitly punishes the player in a way that few games do. Yes, the Seneschal, theoretically, is a being of great power. But in reality, becoming the Seneschal is a curse. As god, you can only sit in your throne or visit one of the two major settlements in the world of Gran Soren, no longer able to explore the wilderness of the world you've explored for the dozens of hours previous. And when you visit those places, you're invisible. You're a god no one can see. You just need to wait and watch over this indefinitely long era of humanity's slow decline.
Or, you can choose another option: leave. Break the cycle.
By using a sword of self-destruction, the Arisen can (as far as I can tell) destroy the job of Seneschal altogether. There’s no longer a manager of the world, no multiverse to manipulate and control, and instead there is the absolute chaos of nature. If the Seneschal was the conspiratorial enemy, then the Arisen can destroy that whole mode of engagement. No more Chosen Ones, no more Dragons meant to shake things up, no more grand patterns.
What, then, do we do about it? If paranoia is so incredibly bundled up in our video game stories, then how do we take that and do something with it?
The Arisen doesn’t make it out of this system intact, and so I think what developers and writers and critics might do well to focus on is the Pawn, the trusty, inhuman companion that the player designs in the first few hours of the game, and who follows you around as you slay bandits, skeletons, and, yes, dragons.
When the multiverse collapses, when the Arisen chooses to destroy their very being instead of continuing the cycle of the Seneschal, they also give freedom to their Pawn. For me, this is the thing to hone in on, and for game developers, the thing to think about emulating. The Pawn is a sidekick through all of this, but at the end the Arisen removes themselves from the equation and lets the Pawn take over their life. The paranoia is confirmed, sure, but the chaser to that is that the big conspiracy can be undone—not by defeating the bad guy pulling all the strings, but by undercutting the system all together. Sure, you’re still a savior, but you’re the final savior, so that no other saviors can follow. The followers aren’t sidelined into sidekicks any longer.
And so the powerful ending to Dragon’s Dogma really does hinge on the potential for Pawns to become people, for Chosen One stories to eradicate themselves in their telling and prevent those like them from gaining ground again. The Pawn might live on. The Pawn might die. But they have their own life, their own existence, uncoupled from the conspiratorial web of the fantasy video game plot. And those stories might be the ones worth delving deeper into.