Let’s Talk About Dragon Age!

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The Hobbit found me in second grade and it was love at first page. Tales of wizards, Dwarven gold, Elven swords, secret doors, and most of all DRAGONS, spoke to me on a level that Beverly Cleary and her gearhead mice never could. From that moment on, I was a fantasy and mythology nut. From Lloyd Alexander and Robin McKinley to Terry Brooks and Dragonlance. Pocket change would be offered up to Gauntlet. Ren Faires became a tradition. My earliest computer, an IBM XT Compatible beast, purchased from the 4H revenue of two suffolk lambs (and a generous parental subsidy), was basically a device for mainlining TSR Gold Box games and King’s Quests. #NoSwordsNoThanks.

By the time I entered high school, I was still seeking out sagas of fellowship and barbarian life, but the high fantasy tropes had lost some of their lustre, especially when it came to PC games. In fantasy fiction, I could still find characters that spoke to me and tantalizing worlds to dream of exploring, but fantasy games seemed content to send my same generic party down into the same generic dungeons. Enough was enough. That’s when she came in.

Villains were tragic. Heroes were flawed. Also, airships.

Right from the start, she was a breath of fresh air. No exposition, I was on airship with sky-shattering powers and stats big enough to make a dungeon master blush. There were love stories, betrayals, self-sacrifice, climaxing with a trip to the moon. And that shock of blue hair. Of course, I’m talking about Final Fantasy 2 (née IV in Japan) on the SNES – not my first JRPG, but the one that would spark a new passion that would last a decade plus and guide me into my early career editing manga. I might still dabble with a Might & Magic or Ultima here and there, but they couldn’t hold my attention like a Square melodrama. As Gandalf advised, I looked to the east for my heroes.

Whereas RPGs in the west featured an overabundance of heroes-in-waiting who hung out in inns, eating stew and drinking ale between dungeon dives; JRPG characters had love lives, jobs, and friendships. Your fellowship wasn’t just a mix of combat roles optimized to get the job done – they were surrogate families with all the drama of a real family. Villains were tragic, heroes were flawed. Also, airships. JRPGs gave me the sweeping melodrama I missed out on by avoiding popular music in my teens (Uematsu was my Nirvana).

But people grow up. JRPG heroes became overtly younger to the point where they were making me feel old. JRPGs bloated in their cutscenes in inverse proportion to my patience. By the time the PS2 and XBox came out, I thought I was through with the RPG genre and that the first two thirds of Final Fantasy X would be the last console RPG I would ever play. Enter Jade Empire.

She didn’t dress up in designer labels. She was articulate, well read… and Canadian? Jade Empire came from Bioware, the people who made Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic – games that friends swore by that I never played. Instead of the same fantasy and sci-fi worlds that we’d seen in games a thousand times before, Jade Empire featured a lush landscape inspired by Chinese mythology. Its characters had families and foibles. There was ambiguity to the storytelling that required your attention and respected your intelligence. You could ruin a marriage and bring down a god. Oh, and airships. Got to have airships. I was in love again.

Jade Empire also featured Bioware’s signature morality system, here represented by the way of Open Palm or Closed Fist. The longer I stuck with the game, the less satisfied I felt with it. I didn’t know the phrase at the time, but I was suffering from a severe case of ludo-narrative disconnect. All the subtlety of the storytelling was shoehorned into this black or white model of morality. While not every choice boiled down to “save the baby” or “kick the dog,” it might as well have for the way the game systems rewarded choice. The game effectively punished you for trying to think for yourself, as unlocking abilities depended on commitment to one path or the other. Good drama is based around arcs — tragic falls, tales of redemption. By encouraging the player to commit to a path as soon as the system is introduced, choices become a prison. My character felt like a phony and this would have spoiled the game for me entirely were it not for the amazing companions, like amnesiac inventor Kang the Mad or the demon-possessed girl Wild Flower.

While not every choice boiled down to “save the baby” or “kick the dog,” it might as well have for the way the game systems rewarded choice.

Flash forward a generation to Mass Effect. This wasn’t just the next Bioware game, (which after Jade Empire would have been enough for a day-one purchase), this was the most anticipated AAA, console RPG of the new generation. Expectations were high all around, and for the most part, Mass Effect lived up to the hype. As much as I enjoyed my time with Garrus, Wrex, and Tali, Mass Effect suffered from the same bifurcated morality model as prior Bioware games. Key moments might offer a blue Paragon or red Renegade option and players can experiment with both without impacting the other as this time they aren’t zero-sum. In order to unlock the most dramatic outcomes and combat bonuses, however, the player must seize every opportunity to follow their preferred path. Once again, the big choices come down to the NPCs. Who dies? Who do you sleep with? These were the hard choices. But ultimately I felt like they were wasted on a wet noodle like Shepard whose own path is practically set in stone the first time you go red or blue.

If it sounds like I’m being hard on Bioware, it’s only because they raised the bar for game storytelling so much higher than other RPGs, only the narrative game systems that keyed off of choice and role-play couldn’t keep up with the amazing work coming from the writing team. When Dragon Age: Origins was announced for a release in 2009, Bioware had my attention, but, I definitely wasn’t expecting it to become one of my favorite games of all time.

First impressions don’t do Dragon Age: Origins any favors. The overwhelmingly muddy color palette, scowling generic faces, and inelegant tunics bordered on ugly. Most of the race-specific prologue stories went out of their way to highlight nastiness and reinforce a hard “M” rating. Once the disparate openings dovetail into the start of the main story, the shadow of mediocrity loomed even greater with a good hour more of exposition dump and learning combat with a party of ren-fair rejects, culminating in a last-stand battle that felt like a low-rent Battle of Helm’s Deep. For all the dark hearts and Darkspawn being thrust in my path, there was nothing really human to hold onto. Alistair, that self-righteous goodie-two-shoes? No thanks (not yet). Pretty much the only thing that kept me from disengaging completely was the fact that one member of my party was a dog.

mabari

Enter Morrigan. Here is where Dragon Age really begins. Finally, we meet someone with fashion sense and good hygiene who acts like they actually want to be here. And more importantly, Alistair has someone to talk to who actually talks back instead of just your silent protagonist. Let the sparks fly!

Making Alistair and Morrigan your starting companions is a brilliant move for Bioware because these two embody the dual moral codes we’ve come to expect from the developer without the baggage of labels. Instead of picking an arbitrary Paragon/Renegade flagged prompt, you find yourself looking at choices and asking “what would Alistair want me to do?” or “Will Morrigan lose respect for me if I say this?” These two are fire and ice, making choices pretty easy to parse. And during the slower moments when the player isn’t making choices, the banter between these two has the energy of a classic sitcom.

As your party grows, things become more nuanced. You’re joined by the always optimistic bard Leliana; Ohgren, an alcoholic dwarf whose vulgarities hide a soft heart; Sten, a Qunari warrior who has all but given up on life; Zevran, an elf assassin raised in a brothel; and if you opted for the DLC, Shale, a tragically abused Golem driven to killing her master. (What’s that? There was a healer? I don’t remember a healer. The only healer I encountered died protecting demon children. Definitely not the type of riffraff you’d want in your party.) Putting any combination of three of these people together all but ensures that, at tough junctures, someone’s going to have their feelings hurt.

The many trials you face aren’t about forging your own identity, but, rather, establishing a peer group.

Instead of a binary morality model, we have one with eight overlapping dualities. You still get extrinsic rewards by taking each of to the eight relationships to one or the other extreme, but you can mix and match based on how you feel about your companions. If you want to please everyone, you need to make amends for your offenses. What Bioware has effectively done has turned the RPG into a friendship simulator. The many trials you face over the course of 40 hours aren’t about forging your own identity, but, rather establishing a peer group. Sure, you can game the system with gifts, exploits and walkthroughs, but where’s the fun in that?

Of course, none of this would matter if these characters weren’t people you wanted to befriend (or antagonize), and Bioware more than delivers on that front. The main quest line for each character provides the expected high fantasy melodrama with enough grounding in the human condition (or Qunari condition as the case may be), but it’s the little moments in camp, the banter on the road, and the gifts that really make Dragon Age come alive. As the characters open up, they tease and flirt. They are open about their sexuality and their feelings about religion. Sure, the world is in danger of apocalypse, but they still have time to coo over pets and tease each other. These moments reminded me of the Ten Forward scenes of Star Trek: TNG. This honesty combined with the high degree of responsiveness to player inputs results in that rarest of qualities in a video game: Empathy.

This pays off in a big way during combat, or at least it did for me, as I felt like it was my job to protect the team. I always took control of the healer where a good half of my time was spent keeping Sten alive. The rational part of my brain understood that as long as I won the fight, everyone would stand up and brush themselves off, but I just cared too much about my virtual friends to treat them like pawns.

And of course there’s the sexy bits. I’ve heard Bioware’s romance system compared to a vending machine model where you insert coins, get sex, which is fair criticism. But in Dragon Age: Origins, there’s no illusion that things are building up to storybook love. Characters flirt, show jealousy, and roll their eyes at public displays of affection. Sex isn’t treated as a mature taboo, but it’s just something grown ups do. Even the infamous brothel with the “surprise me” option doesn’t feel salacious so much as an extracurricular activity that’s out in the open for your fellow adventurers to judge you by.

For most of Dragon Age’s main story, my party was made up of Morrigan, Sten and Leliana. In old school D&D parlance, you might label them as Chaotic Neutral, Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Good. Morrigan and Leliana respected those who respected themselves. Morrigan and Sten agreed shared a cynicism about organized power, especially religion. Leliana and Sten were both idealists in their own way. So there was this Urn of Andraste. Weird cultists were urging me to defile the ashes to resurrect the prophet in dragon form. Sten and Morrigan didn’t care much for superstition and were urging a pragmatic course. Also, I sort of wanted to see more dragons in a game nominally about their Age. So I ignored Leliana’s contrarian view about sacrilege and did as the crazy people asked. Suffice it to say, Leliana wasn’t bluffing. In the aftermath, I was heartbroken. Because I callously ignored her feelings, a friend was dead. This was the one and only time I used an earlier save point to undo a choice, and it’s haunted me ever since.

When I finally put down the controller, it was with a heavy heart. I didn’t care that I’d saved Ferelden – I’ve saved the world in dozens of games before and since. I wasn’t proud of mastering the fickle combat system – the spells and attacks were variations on those I’ve been playing with since grade school. I really didn’t want to say goodbye to these characters… these friends.

Dragon Age: Origins’ generic avatar isn’t the hero so much as she is the glue.

No, that’s not it. My love for these characters wasn’t true friendship, and not just because I’m a real person and they’re not (sorry, Morrigan). As a silent protagonist, my avatar was never really one of them. Mass Effect is definitely Shepard’s story. Dragon Age: Origins’ generic avatar isn’t the hero so much as she is the glue. The whole Grey Warden/ Darkspawn epic story is largely tripe. Any reader of fantasy has seen these tropes a thousand times. At the risk of bringing back traumatic TV memories, it’s not about the island – it’s about the bonds between people. Something about the genericness of the world made the friendship that much stronger.

Then there’s Dragon Age II. You would think the sequel would double down on the namesake dragons, maybe add some dragonriders, some dragon songs, maybe the odd dragon drum. Turns out, not so much.

Dragon Age II takes the franchise to strange new places. The first thing one notices is the fresh coat of paint that trades up the muddy environments and often charmless designs for a wholly original and often beautiful aesthetic. Most striking though is the narrative structure, which abandons the prior game’s largely sandbox model for an episodic one. The scope of time expands while the world contracts. Instead of heading off an apocalyptic external threat, the player is put in the middle of political conflicts. The last time a major franchise traded in swashbuckling for trade disputes, it didn’t end up so well, but I commend Bioware for the effort. It was a bold choice that, despite some missteps, advances the genre in very interesting ways.

The idea that real heroes are only forged in the face of apocalypse is both overplayed and disingenuous. Raising the stakes to absurd levels – “the entire world is in the balance!” – makes the act of fighting less courageous. It taints the tough ethical choices characters face, by justifying means that wouldn’t hold up for any other ends. It’s just lazy storytelling, and I’m glad to see Bioware move away from that crutch. The installment reminds me of Taran Wanderer, the fourth volume of Lloyd Alexander’s classic YA Prydain books. That book taught my younger self that growing up doesn’t require a catalytic epic quest or battle – it happens when you meet new people and learn about viewpoints different from your own. Dragon Age II still has plenty of magic and mayhem, only it’s set against the backdrop of diaspora, class struggle, and prejudice, as applies to a single city over the course of many years. The player starts a refugee and ends up a two-fisted politician. It is the Deep Space Nine to Origins’ TNG. (Or maybe DS9 to classic Trek considering the Klingon level upgrade in Qunari makeup.)

Dragon Age II also replaces companions sharing a camp with friends, associates, and sometimes lovers as fellow homeowners. Plenty of games offer some form of player and NPC housing, but not like this. Here, housing helps reinforce the often large gulfs between even the closest of friends. If Origins were college, where sexy things happen behind tent flaps and everyone talks about changing the world together knowing they’ll soon drift apart, the sequel is the adult world where relationships mean you’re probably going to be sharing toothbrushes and mirrors and the problems of the world are too big to solve before spring break.

Pictured: College

[Ed. Note: Frankly, this looks a whole helluva lot like college to me.]

Ultimately, Dragon Age II didn’t have the same raw impact on me as its predecessor, mainly because I just didn’t feel as close to the characters. Part of this comes down to subjective writing and character designs, but I have a feeling a bigger reason is that the player’s character, Hawke, is more explicitly defined. Instead of a short tight bond, the fellowship of NPC planetoids in this instance keeps a wider orbit around the player’s sun. The forced intimacy of a shared camp in Origins yielded an intimacy between all of the NPCs, but this time out I never quite believed that this ensemble would have maintained ties, were I not always calling on them for help. The occasional ambient exchange could not bridge the gaps of time and class. Instead of college, college reunions.

With the Dragon Age franchise, Bioware is bridging the gap between fantasy novels and gaming in a way that thirty years of D&D-inspired RPGs and JRPGs never have. It does this in much the same way that the best of TV dramas do – by focusing on characters first, and trusting the audience to stick around through bold narrative choices that defy convention. At the same time, the games take a page from fan fiction, allowing moments of earnestness, intimacy, and kink to take the spotlight. Most importantly, Bioware weaves the narrative into the mechanics with interesting choices driven by relationships and moral ambiguity.

Forget winter. Inquisition is coming. I can’t wait to make new friends and reunite with old flames. How about you?


JakeJake Forbes is a writer and game designer. He is the author of Return to Labyrinth, the official sequel to the Jim Henson film, and editor of over 50 manga series including Fullmetal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, and Chobits. Most recently he worked on the Versu interactive fiction platform. One of these days he’ll get back to blogging again, but for now he’s excited to join Marie’s crew.

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