Dragon Age – A Love Letter
Dragon Age: Origins is BioWare’s masterpiece.
In some ways, this is no surprise. This game has been brewing for an awfully long time, and represents a company operating at the top of their game in a genre they know backwards. That said, it didn’t always look good for Dragon Age. An awkward misfire of a marketing campaign combined with the overwhelming traditionalism of the world and the mechanics left a lot of people (myself included) really rather worried. Interested – but without investing too much. Did I really want to sink a few dozen hours into another elves ‘n’ dwarves ‘n’ wizards game, but this time with dancing intestines and Marilyn Manson laying down the beats?
Of course I did. I love elves ‘n’ dwarves ‘n’ wizards. I wasted my youth in the most middle class of fashions – with glue, plastic men, huge thick rulebooks and funny shaped dice. I waste it in similar fashion even as my youth dwindles. A BioWare game? One with orcs and dragons and stuff? Huge explodey spells? MAGIC ARMOUR? Let’s be honest – they had me at “Verily good morrow!”
It is actually something of a shock when you realise just how traditional Dragon Age is. This is a very old fashioned tactical roleplaying game, complete with burning hands spells and grease traps. Within the first two or three hours, there’s a very good chance that you’ll have wandered around an underground lair of some kind, have betrayed or been betrayed by a close friend, and even (would you believe it) have got into a brawl in a tavern. A brawl. In the very first tavern in the game. Maybe BioWare were trying to get it out of their system early.
Crucially though, those delightful episodes (and despite my affected cynicism, they really are delightful) are not sewn into the story you find yourself involved in. You’re first two hours have every chance of being radically different from mine, and even if you choose the same origin story (of six possible choices) the story is far from set.
Dragon Age is a magnificent game for many reasons. It’s bloody hard for one, in an old school Baldur’s Gate fashion (just how closely it cleaves to the Baldur’s Gate model of tactical combat is quite the surprise) and the scrapping is a joy. When so many gamers celebrate their RPGs for simple storytelling, when an RPG remembers to make the meat of the game an experience as thrilling as this, it makes me want to cry moist tears of gratitude. The Witcher, take note.*
That said, the true master stroke of Dragon Age: Origins is the story. Figures, eh?
Lewis Denby coins a splendid phrase in his review over at Resolution. Dragon Age, he declares, is not non-linear but multi-linear. Snatching the concept right out from under him, let’s examine that proposition briefly. Non-linearity suggests the loose, aimless wandering of your Oblivions, your Gothics, where lumps of solidly linear narrative are linked by plodding around on Shanks’ mule, maybe offing the odd wolf and chuckling indulgently at the bizarre Vitus’ Dance they lock into on dying. The story exists as muddy outcrops in a pond – solid, immovable, but fundamentally changeless. The manner of reaching them is where one finds the lauded non-linearity.
Dragon Age ain’t got time for that shizzle. As Denby points out, the freedom in DA comes from selecting which of several diverging plots you will follow. Eventually you reach the next divergence, then the next. The plot remains broadly the same, of course, but the story alters significantly.
What matters here though is not that my experience may or may not differ significantly. What matters is the power of the story, the sheer strength of a narrative that manages to be both gloriously epic and richly personal. To achieve this, BioWare have fully plundered a variety of sources, littering their world with fantasy archetypes. While most of these end up skewed into different patterns in a variety of ways, if the thought of drunken dwarves and elves living in a wood turn your stomach, you should perhaps steer clear of Dragon Age.
But Dragon Age transcends its roots in magnificent fashion. This is peerless storytelling, in a manner which is still terribly rare in videogames. This is an awful shame, as DA:O demonstrates just what the medium is capable of. BioWare are almost unique in that they are not just aping cinema, comics or novels. The interactivity of the story is what makes it so powerful. It’s no great spoiler for me to say that there is nothing here that will zap your brain with it’s originality – but that isn’t the point. The point is involvement.
Let’s divert momentarily to take a quick peek at the Enemy. The Enemy, in this instance, is Half Life 2. The Enemy is also CoD. The Enemy is every one of those games that behaves like a film, or a theme park ride. By that I mean the delivery of story as spectacle, and the removal of any authority from the hands of the player. In Half Life 2, whenever something huge and impressive happened, it had absolutely nothing to do with me. The boat level and the car level are the best examples of this. Huge, spectacular, adored by man and alien – but the entirety of interaction can be reduced to going forwards and occasionally shooting at things. Meanwhile, things collapsed, things exploded – things happened and looked terribly impressive. But the involvement of the player was minimal. We were reduced to spectators in the game.
The same can be said of the famous nuclear bomb death in CoD4. Hugely impressive. Affecting, even, but again invalidating player agency. Ever other time I died, I could hit F9 and have another go. If I fell over a grenade and died mere seconds before my scripted death, I had to reload. But now the game decides that quickload is no longer enough to save me. I may have died time and time again during the course of the game, but this one is the one that counts, because the designer says so. Just play along. Press forward. Press fire. Look impressed at the story we’re telling.
And that’s it with a bang. Whenever a game makes a song and dance about story, it is a story that is being told to you. Interaction is an illusion, a paper thin charade reassuring you that your actions have any effect. You are a powerless observer with the ability to shoot a gun and no more.
Dragon Age rejects that. It does this not simply by creating a plot with dozens of variations, but by telling a story that involves the player powerfully. The player’s actions have consequences and the game manages to make you care. The characters are superbly drawn, with depths and complexities that cannot all be uncovered in a single romp through the game. Choices must be made. Do I devote myself to winning Morrigan over? Am I more interested in the far more forgiving Lelianna? Do I listen to Wynne’s moralising, Alistair’s melancholy, Shale’s misanthropy? Each has layers, depth, story to be uncovered, and each feeds back into the central narrative. My story was about me, Alistair, Morrigan, Lelianna and Shale – but in your game, they may leave you cold. That’s fine – they can become supporting characters, leaving you to befriend Zevran, or Sten. By picking the characters you care for, you’re immersion is made that much more complete and the story belongs uniquely to you.
Then there’s the issue of choice. One of the central conceits of the modern CRPG is the ability for the player to choose their own story through the occasional plot point, a moment when you can choose how to resolve a difficult moral question – enslave the Wookies, or free them. Often these are implemented poorly, either through clumsily monochrome morality or through a simple lack of impact. BioWare are as guilty as any other company of this – perhaps more so, given their reliance on the moral choice in the games they have made up to now. Dragon Age changes that.
The choices in Dragon Age still do very little to alter the plot. The framework of the narrative continues with little alteration. These aren’t the Deus Ex choices, where one decision would leave you desperately battling robots and one would see you skipping lightly past danger with both legs still attached. The choices in Dragon Age affect the story. This is incredibly important.
The story of my Grey Warden was ultimately a tragedy. He was a man who believed in the best in people and was disappointed as often as he was proved right, and always at the worst moment. He lost everything, was betrayed by people he loved and forced into terrible confrontations he had struggled desperately to avoid. His ending was far from happy.
But that was my story. Yours can be unrecognisably different. Yes, you’ll still go to the elves and the dwarves. You’ll have the same fights (mostly). But you can end the game a far happier person than me. I chose desperate tragedy and heroic sacrifice. You don’t have to. You can make the game, the world, the story your own.
The combination of brilliant story telling with responsive interactivity is what makes Dragon Age so special. It never fails to be emotive, to be compelling. It never fails to elicit a response, and by the end of the game it has defied the player’s expectations again and again. We are used to being able to talk our way out of really difficult decisions, and DA:O plays with us by allowing this, once or twice. Come the crescendo of the game and everything changes, and suddenly we are face to face with the consequences of our actions. It is absolutely breathtaking. In Dragon Age, there are no easy ways out.
Of course, you may play the game and hate the dialogue, the characters, the story. Real greatness is always subjective, I’m afraid, and those unwilling to be seduced by Dragon Age will be proof against its charms. Anyone who bought it after those trailers is in for a disappointment, and if you dislike the BioWare model of RPGs, for all its brilliance Dragon Age is unlikely to convert you.
But that doesn’t matter. Dragon Age: Origins is a rare, beautiful gem of a game and like all the best games, a very personal experience. It is, without a doubt, the game of the year and possibly the game of the decade.
Even more importantly, it is a beacon for what story in games is capable of. We do not need to be satisfied with Half Life, CoD, GTA. Dragon Age shows us something better. It shows us that games are the perfect medium for a new, thrilling kind of storytelling. Just like we always knew.
*Not that The Witcher has a good story either. It does have boobies though, so there’s that. If you’re twelve.