With games, the whole "ancillary media" thing is usually just not my style. I read and loved all of the Myst books, way back in the day, and for something like a decade that was it.
But then came Dragon Age. I'm one of those rare sorts who really enjoyed both games — not just the first or just the second — and I've been letting myself get sucked into the deeper world. Some friends talked me into reading Dragon Age: Asunder earlier this year, and so it came to pass that I happily took the chance to watch the animated film Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker after its release a few weeks ago.
Perhaps I should not have been quite so happy to take that chance.
Dawn of the Seeker fills in the story of Cassandra Pentaghast, the titular Seeker. We last saw Cassandra in Dragon Age 2, where her interrogation of Varric forms the narrative framework for the game. The movie takes place in the span left hollow by the game, the three-year period between the destruction of the Kirkwall Chantry and Varric being dragged in for questioning.
The film begins with an infodump that clarifies the roles of major groups in Thedas. The world is organised around the use, banning, protection from, and organisation of magic and the mages who can use it. The Chantry are the world's church, more or less, with an all-female clergy headed by the Divine, a papal figure. Circles are where authorised (registered, as opposed to apostate) mages live, and are headed by Enchanters. The Templars are the military arm of the Chantry, and the management of mages is among their duties. They are ruled by a Knight-Commander. And finally we have the Seekers, who report directly to the Divine and are not entirely dissimilar to the Inquisition. They work as intelligence units, as fighters, as Chantry internal affairs, and in more or less any situation where actions other than "swing a sword at it" or "pray at it" might be merited.
Dawn of the Seeker tells the story of an evil, and of a conspiracy. There are blood mages holding a young girl captive and using her powers to their own ends. Somehow, someone in the high ranks of the Chantry is tied into it, and frames Cassandra for the murder of her mentor. She and a young mage, Galyan, are thrown together and must solve the mystery, exposing the true villains and stopping a greater evil from potentially destroying the whole Chantry itself.
The role of mages in the society of Thedas, along with the deep examination of the elaborate way institutions and culture have evolved to deal with magic, are at the heart of what makes the Dragon Age games tick. Throughout both games, players are repeatedly asked to pause and truly examine that social structure, and to determine if they find it just or necessary. The games ask for moral judgment and wide-scale social examination, along with their more conventional monster-slaying. With a million different sword-and-sorcery RPGs for a player to choose among, that deep look at culture and institutions is what makes Dragon Age unique.
Dawn of the Seeker, for all that is speaks the language of Dragon Age, seems to be wearing the story's skin without understanding it's core. And even though it gives the big glut of necessary world-building information up front, it doesn't really follow through. The story is wearing a Dragon Age costume. Like two children playing at a dress-up wedding, it can look like the real thing without understanding the soul that makes the story work.
The film, on its own, gives no real sense of who anyone is, what their motivations are, or why we should care. Galyan has the most personality of anyone on screen, and even he falls flat. The more a viewer knows about the Dragon Age universe, going into it, the better off that viewer will be. The movie is not always particularly good about filling in the blanks: we're rarely given insight into why the Divine matters, or how much power she has, or what the presence of dragons in Thedas portends, or any other element that would give the plot a sense of urgency. Players who are already well versed in Orlesian drama and Chantry politics are likely to be the best audience.
But Dawn of the Seeker does that audience a disservice. Telling a generic story of power, authority, and greed strips it of the setting and concepts that make it a beloved or unique property to begin with. You can indeed weave a tale of corruption and war in any setting you can imagine. Without working hard to connect it relevantly to this setting, the story has very little meaning. As a result, plot holes seem a little larger, fireballs seem a little less impressive, and tropes and archetypes seem a little more worn and run down around the edges.
Now, a ray of hope: for all that I've heaped criticism on it, Dawn of the Seeker isn't terrible. There are many worse ways to spend 90 minutes of your time. Die-hard lore fans who want to know more about the Divine and the Chantry in Orlais should probably watch it. And I can't shake the gut-level hunch that Cassandra will show up as a party member in Dragon Age III, which would make all this insight into her back story highly useful.
The animation is lovely, walking the line it needs to between "lush" and "sinister." The enormous scope of architecture and the crowd at the climax convey the sheer size of Orlais and population of Thedas in a way that no town or city in the games yet has. Villains are appropriately villainous, heroes are appropriately hapless, and Cassandra herself is, in no uncertain terms, a badass warrior. She also gets a bit of actual character growth, changing from thoroughly unlikable and imperious to slightly more patient and less condescending as the story moves on.
So is Dawn of the Seeker a complete waste of time? No. It could have been better, but in the end, it tells its story competently, though not inspiringly. But the flaws in the telling make it one to borrow or rent, not to buy.