Proposed: Thedas is not a ‘medieval’ setting
I don’t know about you, but when I was first considering the overall state of Thedas, mostly for worldbuilding purposes, I was semi-consciously thinking of it as a fairly typical pseudo-medieval-Europe. And that’s natural enough, because in Origins, Ferelden really did look like that. Thatching, half-timbering, nobles in fortified castles, a fairly monolithic church around which much of society was built.
The further you go into the franchise, though, the more problems you encounter with this. Kirkwall as a city doesn’t give off a particularly medieval vibe, nor does its government. You have sailing ships that are more advanced than Europe saw in the middle ages, you have the Qunari with their mind-altering drugs and poison gases and explosives, you have a popular novelist. A popular novelist requires printing presses, paper manufacture, relatively widespread literacy, and fairly complex shipping systems to exist. The first European novels were published after the medieval period. Come Inquisition, we have the almost Baroque Orlesians, broadsheet newspapers, and a lot of things most people probably didn’t notice, like cast iron cookstoves and Bianca Davri’s steam-powered thresher.
Here’s the thing. Okay here’s a lot of things. I once had pages of notes trying to work this out, and I’ve tried a dozen times to make a post about it, but it’s too much. I give up being organized. So here’s some of the things:
- Ferelden is a poor backwater. I know, I’m a rabid Fereldan too, but to the rest of Thedas, it is canonically the arse end of nowhere. It is no more a good example of the overall technological state of Thedas than the hills of my Appalachian home (where people lived without power or indoor plumbing well into the 20th century) in the 19th century were a good indication of the state of things in 19th century Boston, even though they were only a few days’ ride apart.
- Thedas’ history and development is in no way like the real world. It’s a place where the world faces a potentially fatal apocalypse ever few hundred years. Again, the first game is pretty misleading in this regard, because we neatly wrapped up that Blight in, supposedly, a year, without it ever escaping the borders of one country. The First Blight lasted over a hundred years and ranged across all of Thedas. Far and away the shortest Blight besides the fifth still lasted 12 years and destroyed entire kingdoms. That’s five huge periods of world war and cultural destruction.
- Magic. I mean, obviously. Now, the tangible existence of magic and demons in the Dragon Age arguably has a lot to do with the strength of the Chantry, which has set itself up as a protector from these evils, thus providing an excellent excuse to accumulate military power and suppress dissent. It doesn’t really effect everyday life much for anyone but mages in the Dragon Age–most people have never seen a mage, and only the wealthy can afford enchanted items. But of the five empires Thedas has seen, only two (dwarves and Qunari) put any emphasis on technology, and the earliest two (Elvhenan and Tevinter) relied very heavily on magic, and thus presumably had very little incentive to develop technology.
- The Qunari deliberately suppress at least some technological innovations in the south. Remember your friendly neighborhood dwarf who liked to blow shit up from Awakening? His name is Dworkin Glavonak. You meet his cousin Temmerin in DA2 during the Finding Nathaniel questline, and he tells you that Dworkin’s been driven into hiding by the Qunari. (video) Certainly sheds new light on why no one outside of dwarves seems to have explosives or gunpowder in the south. Orzammar dwarves may be the exception here because a) they use lyrium in their explosives, thus making them self-limiting due to the restricted access to lyrium, and b) since Orzammar is a closed society and you cannot come in from the outside, the Qun could not easily place spies in Orzammar society anyway.
So let’s look again, not starting from Origins but look back from Inquisition. And this time when we look, we find a world that
- has steam technology, albeit very new–steam-powered threshers were invented around the 1850′s
- has cast iron stoves such as were not invented in our world until the 1850′s
- has a canonical reason for lacking gunpowder–which, in turn, completely changes the nature of warfare (or more accurately, doesn’t change it, since it’s guns and cannons that put an end to armor and swords and siege weapons)
- clearly has printing presses, even if we don’t see them, because there are popular, cheaply printed novels and broadsheet publications and banned book lists
And it’s not quite all from later games, either. Branka was made a paragon for the invention of ‘smokeless coal’–which isn’t actually a thing in itself but rather a process which removes the impurities from the coal so that it then burns cleaner. Which, as far as I can ascertain, is a process that was developed during, you guessed it, the 1800′s.
Now, I’m not trying to excuse all the inconsistencies in technology or claim that the devs did a good job of following through on all the implications of things they stuck into Thedas. Frankly, I think it’s a weak point in their worldbuilding. BUT it’s really going to keep not making any sense if you try to insist that the setting is more-or-less-medieval-Europe. In fact, I think it’s futile to try to match Thedas up to any period of real-world development, partly because Thedas’ history is just too wildly different, and partly because a lot of the worldbuilding is done by sticking a bunch of cultures into a blender and picking out what they like. But if you start thinking about it as a place where technology has continued to develop in places to something roughly congruent to the western world in the 1850′s, but with none of the socioeconomic conditions that created the Industrial Revolution, you might be a bit closer.