This post will feature pictures of a woman looking at things while wearing a succession of funny-looking hats. The things she’s looking at are runestones (and in one case, a wooden column), the hats she’s wearing are mage hats, and the mage hats look funny because she’s in Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), where no one wears normal clothes, least of all normal hats.
Runestones aren’t central to DAO at all, you come across a couple of them when dealing with dwarves. The example above is pretty typical, a slab in the dwarven city of Orzammar that says “Runestone” and which you can interact with. Doing so gives you a codex entry, written in the same style as most codex entries in the game. Codexes (or codices, if that makes you happier) (in which case you probably write “lacunae” as well) are of course a common way to give the player background information about a game’s world without forcing them to read it all if they’re not that interested.
In Dragon Age, the preferred shape of a codex is as an actual book, and the style of the entries tends to be very bookish: a bit long-winded and academic, and often in the shape of a quote from some imagined larger source. It’s efficient in giving the impression of a vast world you as a player are only a small part of; you’re only seeing snippets of centuries of literature and history from different cultures. One thing I think is a shame though, and this is not just in Dragon Age, is the many missed opportunities for connecting the object you find in the world to the text supposedly written on it. Sure, you’ll often find a Crumpled Note or something on a dead body, and those will have a note-like quality to them (“J – I’ve hidden the MacGuffin under the Super Obvious Tree. Try not to die right next to it. – M.”), but the basic codex entry is generally the norm. The runestones, as well as other carvings, in DAO would feel much more like runestones if the text on them were more like the kind of text you find in inscriptions.
So what do you write on a stone or carve into a wall in a city? Nothing long, firstly. Carving is hard work. Secondly, runestones and wall carvings of the kind you find among the dwarves are very public texts, and that is the whole point of them. What you want to write in that medium is something official and monumental, a declaration or memorial of some sort. So when runestones function as codexes in a game, the information they give the player should be like that: famous names or events in the culture, an idea of what official propaganda looks like. In later Dragon Age games, statues are sometimes used like this, and it would add more depth to the world if the codex entries were more connected to their material – especially if you actually saw the text in-game.*
*Academic terms avoided in the above: materiality, linguistic landscapes, all kinds of things about semiotics.
The other kind of runestone in DAO has absolutely nothing to do with writing.
(To be specific, this is from the DLC Awakening, but still DAO.) In this case the runestone is part of a puzzle in which you match the rune on the wall to the rune on the slab. The developers could have chosen any symbols for this, but they went with runes. In fact, they went with actual runes. The purple one is an older futhark m and the less visible, yellow one is an l. The runes in the puzzle don’t actually spell anything (my first, overthinking, thought was that they should be arranged in a word), so they really are just symbols rather than writing. Any time you put a puzzle or other minigame into a roleplaying game, it needs to be at least superficially justified as a part of the world, and that’s what the function of the runes are here. Sure, they look like they’re projected in neon lights, but they do their job as Ancient Symbols. You can just about imagine some olde magick working in this dungeon.
Finally, and only slightly related to the above, I just wanted to point out that DAO uses Scandinavian imagery and aesthetics in other ways as well, to give certain areas a rustic, Northern feel. That includes, as in the picture above, carvings from Urnes stave church, which has given name to an entire style of art (called, well, Urnes style). That room happens to be a small supplies closet in a castle. Which is apparently decorated with some really, really, really, really high-end carving.