Music is a major part of any video game, but confines itself to either sweeping orchestral harmonies that accompany you on your grand video game journeys, electronic music, and occasionally the hits of days gone by (like the radio in Fallout) or random pop or rock hits. The best of the latter curate their playlists carefully to make sure that they fit the theme of the game (L.A. Noire was surprisingly good at this, so many of the songs on the radio in that game are very catchy happy sounding songs about murder), but it’s a rare event when fully lyrical original songs to make their way into a game world. Even fantasy RPGs, where the bard is literally a combat class a large proportion of the time, rarely have original music with lyrics. It’s a huge missed opportunity in my opinion, but a few recent games have attempted it to varying degrees of success, most particularly Skyrim and Dragon Age: Inquisition.
The bard has a long and storied history as part of the fantasy RPG tradition, but rarely do they actually serve the purpose that real bards ever did. In the real world (particularly in the British Isles), bards were poets and storytellers, many of whom were funded by the nobility to practice their art. Since pretty much every modern fantasy RPG is based off of Dungeons & Dragons, where bards are considered their own unique class, the bard is now found in most fantasy games as a rogue class, usually with stat buff abilities. In D&D itself, where combat is less of a focus than in modern video games, this can get pretty interesting. A bard can literally insult an enemy to death, for example. But the bard in the modern fantasy video game usually isn’t that interesting, though many franchises have put their own personal spin on it.
Bards are pretty much everywhere in Skyrim, for example, and it’s one of the first RPGs I’ve played where the bards actually sang songs and didn’t just play generic lute music. For maybe the first couple of hours of playing Skyrim, this is pretty novel. Walk into any bar in Skyrim and you’ll find one, you can even hire one to work at your houses in the Hearthstone expansion, and there’s even a large bardic college. The bard songs in Skyrim do tell you a little bit about the world and history of Skyrim. There’s both a pro-Stormcloak and pro-Imperial song, which provides important context for one of the major conflicts in the game. Naturally, there is a ballad about the Dragonborn, and there’s “Ragnar the Red,” a fairly generic myth of Skyrim song. There’s even one that doesn’t unlock until after you finish the main questline.
The problem with these songs is, frankly, they’re not very good. Well, maybe they are good, but there is no effort put into making them sound good. There are also only about six of them, so it gets repetitive fast. They do tell you about the world of Skyrim, but it’s mostly pretty generic stuff. There’s no nuance or hidden meaning here. Even the Bard College quests aren’t very good, and becoming a graduate doesn’t really have any effect on anything, not compared to a lot of the other guild-type quests. The pub songs in Skyrim feel like a hasty add-on rather than an intricate or interesting part of the game, and it’s a real shame. Not just because hey, the writers deserve better, but also because Skyrim is based on a culture where songs and stories are hugely important. In pretty much all of the historical contexts that fantasy worlds are based on where bards or traveling storytellers exists, they act as one of the main ways to spread news and knowledge. But more on that in a bit.
In Dragon Age: Inquisition, the role of the bard is completely different. Bards are no longer a rogue class in the series, but they are an intricate part of the world. A bard in Orlais is not the same thing as a bard in other nations in Thedas, and there is a more intricate explanation for their martial skills than in other games, but Inquisition is the first Dragon Age game where a bard, in the poet and storyteller sense, is included in the game. And she plays a pretty interesting role. The bard’s songs in Inquisition were a major surprise for fans, as nothing about her and her music was leaked prior to the release of the game. I remember coming across her the first time I played the game, hearing her music as I passed the small Inquisition tavern in Haven, and being like, “Who is that!?”
Unlike in Skyrim, there are more than six songs. A LOT more. Most are unlocked by simply going to to the tavern, but there are a couple that don’t unlock until certain plot events in the game happen, like “Grey Warden.” The bard’s songs tell you a lot about what’s going on in the world of Dragon Age: Inquisition, if you stop to listen. You can learn more about Leliana and her past and reputation, and most of them give the general tenor about how the common people feel about the Inquisition and the events that are happening around them. They even tell you things that you don’t know about the world. “I Am The One,” for example, sounds like it’s a song about the Inquisitor from the perspective of her followers, but once you finish the game it becomes clearer that it’s actually about Solas.
You can even listen in on Maryden trying to compose poems about the Inquisitor’s adventures, presumably before she goes out into the rest of the world to spread those tales around. She even gets her own War Table quest. The bard in Inquisition, while not the same kind of deadly spymaster as those in Orlais, is absolutely treated as an asset to the Inquisition as a means of getting positive information out there about the Inquisition and the Inquisitor. She’s a one woman propaganda machine. This is absolutely the role of the bard in the historical context, and it’s kind of awesome to see it in action in a video game world.
As mentioned earlier, bards were poets and storytellers who were often funded by nobility to write and spread stories and songs that made their masters look good. And if you were really good at it, you could live quite well. There is a reason that Shakespeare is called a bard, and that’s because the bulk of his plays existed to make the ruling Tudor monarch look good (and sometimes even not, though he was always incredibly careful about it.) The bard could be a position of great power, and getting on a noble’s bad side could potentially be very deadly.
Edward I of England pretty much dismantled the Welsh bardic tradition during his conquest of Wales, because he realized that while Wales was an incredibly fractious nation politically, the Welsh bards were the thing that held them together. They created the Welsh cultural identity and could keep a Welsh rebellion going through their words alone. It was thought for a long time that Edward burned 500 Welsh bards at the stake, though most historians seem to think now that he probably didn’t go quite that far. Dragon Age: Inquisition recognizes this political importance to the growing Inquisition, and that’s why it makes perfect sense to have a singer play a bigger role than they did in past games. The Inquisitor can choose to ignore that role or not, but I think a smart one doesn’t discount Maryden completely.
If anything, it could be said that Dragon Age: Inquisition learned from the mistakes of the bard songs in Skyrim, and made them a more cohesive and interesting part of the game. Inquisition also understands the role that actual bards played in medieval society, which fits in well since the game is about a growing political entity. It would be interesting to see the bard as a role in RPGs go from a standard roguish class to something a little more substantial, and back to their historical roles as an important mode of communication before mass communication became a thing. There is definitely a lot more video games could be doing with music, both in terms of worldbuilding and even gameplay, and it feels like Dragon Age has merely scratched the surface.