Like comics, video games are a community in which I dabble but have never broken into in a big way. I take the good experiences where I can, however. The point has been made often enough, by Yahtzee Croshaw among others, that when a game is story-driven, with you as the protagonist, it can create an emotional engagement that is unique.
I’ve been reflecting on this sadly ever since the dust-up over Mass Effect, but I got a crash course in the concept via one of my Christmas presents: the first game in BioWare’s other flagship franchise: Dragon Age: Origins.
Like Mass Effect, Dragon Age is a Roleplaying Game, but whereas ME is a science-fiction graft over a fantasy roleplaying dynamic, Dragon Age just is the fantasy roleplaying dynamic.
The basics are simple enough: a quest-based story featuring a group of characters with abilities representing the RPG class trinity of warrior, rogue and mage. In the age-old tradition of fantasy, you also choose your race: human, elf, or dwarf, with different impacts on your backstory and particular abilities.
Regardless of how you start out, the setting is the Kingdom of Fereldon, and it is under attack by an army of corrupted horrors from beyond called Darkspawn who will consume all things good and wholesome if not destroyed.
I decided to buck the obvious trends to play as, say, an elf prince. So I began the adventures of Sereda Aeducan, daughter and military officer of the dwarven king.
Sereda has to spend her life negotiating the knotty political plotting that characterizes dwarvish nobility. When, in the flush of a victory against the Darkspawn, she’s framed for the murder of her brother as part of a power-seizing scheme, she’s exiled to die in the Deep Roads, only to be found by her allies in the Darkspawn fight, the Grey Wardens, and she joins them.
From here, the story melds with any of the several I might have started with: crisis strikes as the Grey Wardens are betrayed by the usurper Teyrn Loghain who wants to concentrate his power in the kingdom to make it a bastion against Darkspawn or neighboring powers. As one of the few Grey Wardens still standing, you must pull together various fugitives and free agents, and travel the country to raise support to restore order in Fereldon and drive back the Darkspawn.
So: dragons, evil armies, usurpers, finding allies, quests, and the double trinity of race and class. On the face of it, Dragon Age is the least original game one could reasonably ask for.
Despite that, I found myself getting quite caught up in it. Part of it, I think, is that the writers developed an effective set of politics and social structures following semi-historical lines, that keeps it original enough, but left the world itself in a basic fantasy setup so that learning about it didn’t become too intricate and dense a process. They do just enough to freshen it up and no more; the Darkspawn and their fall-from-grace origins replace staid old orcs and goblins; elves are an underclass a bit reminiscent of Romani (at least as they appear in literature); dwarves are Machiavellian instead of Viking-esque by nature.
The gameplay is quite interesting. You can zoom in on your character and follow them in a third-person combat style or zoom out to a bird’s eye view of your character, support characters and enemies, deploy your forces, and turn it into a small strategy game! The graphics are on the low end of BioWare’s quality, which is still agreeable, if a bit plasticky. I kept noticing how ludicrously big the swords are in this game. As a novelty, since I played a dwarf, I must say it took quite a while before I was able to get Sereda a decent axe.
The game suffers from classic RPG clutter. Enemies drop items like potions, but there are so many kinds for situational things like cold resistance that I quickly just discarded them and stockpiled health potions instead, and every trip to the market was spent selling off the vast amount of second-rate armour and weapons I’d picked up. You accomplish quests with three comrades (drawn from a pool of nine) and can control one at a time, with the others handled by the computer. You can program the others with tactics so that they’ll automatically do action X if situation Y arises in battle, but at a lower difficulty anyway it’s just an exercise in micromanagement.
Mass Effect had side quests that might involve navigating a negotiation, or racing against time to defuse a bomb. In Dragon Age, almost every side quest centres on combat. I often got fed up with finding a dozen cultists hiding in every last broom cupboard. I played through the first half of the game on standard difficulty but after a while I dropped to easy because I was tired of having my combat prowess challenged at every turn and just wanted fun hack-and-slash action instead.
The roleplaying aspect is necessarily diluted: in Mass Effect, you’re always Commander Shepard. Decisions just dictate what kind of person Shepard is. In Dragon Age, you can be a whole range of possible characters. Among other things, that means that you can’t have a voice. You just pick a dialogue option and then get a response. Recording full dialogue for that many possibilities would be impractical.
The dialogue system itself is a little confusing. The custom in RPGs is to have three options for replies in conversations: a friendly/positive response, a blasé/neutral response or a badass/unfriendly one. That basic dynamic is in here but sometimes there are as many as eight dialogue options. It’s great as far as range of choice goes but it also means it can be hard to predict what reaction you’ll get. Since your relationships with other characters are dictated by what you choose, it can be a little challenging to make up your mind.
In a way, though, that’s part of the brilliance of Dragon Age. Mass Effect was very good at this, but in that series the way you behaved was measured by its effect on you. In Dragon Age, your interactions with characters changes their ‘approval’ level. Get it high enough and new powers are unlocked, along with conversations as your friendships deepen and maybe even blossom into love. But some of them have motivations that mean their approval can be hard to buy with a clear conscience. In short, your game experience is shaped directly by your effect on other people. Combine that with the deep, witty, if sometimes pedantic writing and the superb voice acting for the other characters and a simple mechanic engages you and makes these characters into real people who you begin to appreciate through your character’s eyes; care about, find funny, get mystified by…
Your own self-image evolves as you go through this too. My earlier description of my character, Sereda, is just the game’s own bare-bones breakdown of who she is. Through the dialogue options, there’s a kind of intuitive process as your imagination sculpts them further. Sereda, I thought, was proud and kind but blunt and resented the dishonesty and politicking she was expected to practice. Her quest was a discovery of the range of people in which she could find nobility, and the finding of a place where she really belonged.
While it has been said that the main story of the game is pretty much the same after playing your character’s specific starting mission, the different little nuances of banter, approval shift and other little moments stand to give it a variation that should keep it fresh. I often agonized about which party members to bring and how to combine them based on what little character touches might shake loose, given what I knew about them and the situation.
One thing I’ve learned to accept in RPGs is that you will never have a perfect play through. You’ll always make one out-of-character choice because you want to see what happens down that path, and if you get really into it like I did here, deliberate with yourself as to whether it was the ‘right thing to do.’ If you’re interested in characterization and plot, then it’s a neat tool for exploring the process in a prepared setting.
So Dragon Age: Origins has been a very pleasant surprise. I was expecting a by-the-numbers fantasy game, and while it was built on one, the experience is one of depth, character-driven story and the great emotional engagement that a well-written roleplaying video game can offer. It’s a great exercise for the imagination, offering a range of choices and paths to try out, but they share a common focus and it doesn’t become an open-ended time sink, a quality that has always turned me off the big open-world RPGs like Skyrim.
Even if you only play it once, if you allow yourself to immerse in it, you’ll find it a satisfying experience, despite any issues of mechanics or difficulty. But I suspect that, if you’re anything like me, every little dilemma or doubtful call you made will compel you to try and refine your approach the next time. I look forward to my next run at it, and proudly, but wistfully, bid farewell to Sereda: Grey Warden, hero, lady and officer!