Lazy Saturday: Dragon Age

Welcome to the second edition of Lazy Saturday. As planned, this week we’re going to focus on Bioware‘s Dragon Age, released in 2009. For those who aren’t familiar with the history Bioware, they started out creating Dungeons and Dragons based role-playing games (RPGs) for the PC back in the 1990s. Their games Baldur’s Gate and Baldur’s Gate 2 are rightly regarded as classics, as they represent the best of the genre up to that point, both in terms of game play and storytelling. They quickly developed a reputation for deep games with great stories.

Let’s take a break here and explain what a role-playing game means in the terms of a videogame, for those who aren’t familiar. To an outsider, it could appear that role playing is what you do in any videogame, as you take on the role of the character. Fair argument, but role-playing games are marked by some standard conventions, just as literary genres in fiction can blend and cross over, but the conventions define the genre. In an RPG, typically, you perform tasks – some mindless killing, some navigating labyrinthine conversations – to earn experience.  This experience helps your character grow. Some games do this better than others; some have implemented systems wherein a character only levels up in certain aspects if they practice that particular skill.

Take Morrowind by Bethesda Softworks.  You can choose to level up via points but they can also affect things such as their acrobatics by jumping regularly or become better at the sword by using it at more exclusively in combat. Typically in computer RPGs, however, the player distributes the numbers once he or she has leveled up.  I’ve been a fan of a certain brand of RPG for some time simply because it was one of the few genres to consistently offer a story, not that many early RPGs offered great stories; they just had some story to speak of.  Someday I may talk about the stories in those early RPGs, but back to Bioware for now.

The company’s real turning point came when they took on the Star Wars license and created the 2003 game Knights of the Old Republic. Knights of the Old Republic has aged not so gracefully, but it introduced a lot of new concepts to videogames that were exciting at the time, such as a morality system that afforded the player to choose whether they wanted to follow the light side or the dark side, with unique storytelling options for both. Unfortunately, where the limitations became inherent when you tried to play somewhere down the middle – the story became muddled and confusing and you missed out on a lot of perks. The choices were also very artificial, with most being a choice between Space Hitler and Space Pollyanna.

Still, the concept was fairly fresh and hadn’t really been attempted on this scale, especially in having player choices impact the story line.  Branching dialogue and storytelling wasn’t new to videogames (though it is one of the potential strengths of the medium), but this was a novel implementation at the time.

From this point, the company took those concepts and sharpened them, evovling them into the highly regarded sci-fi series Mass Effect, which has an intriguing sci-fi story that’s captivated me (for the most part), but it’s something we’ll focus on in the future as I have some quibbles with that series as well.

An early screenshot.

Back story out of the way, let’s look at this week’s game. Dragon Age was first announced in 2004 and went through an agonizingly long development cycle, taking likely much longer than its public development time of five years, given that it had spent some time in development before that initial announcement. It looked exciting, appearing to be a throwback to the Baldur’s Gate style of game play and storytelling, something that has completely fallen out of fashion since the  early 2000s.

Classic RPG gamers were excited to see that you were able to follow some of the same options and paths presented in the original Baldur’s Gate; it seemed to be a spiritual sequel, and looked to be a renaissance of classic PC RPGs. Anticipating seemed to be high.

So Dragon Age: Origins finally released on November 3rd, 2009, to a great deal of fanfare.  Apparently, however, it was a commercial flop. Why? Well, because there’s a reason that the dynamics used in Baldur’s Gate have fallen out of favor.  Most gamers prefer a more immediate, visceral experience, and Origins failed to deliver such an experience. For you non-gamers, imagine that flashy action films are the real moneymakers, and the films that take the more methodical story-telling approach the niche. Think Conan versus Game of Thrones.

All the more unfortunate is that the game’s story line was interesting, featuring an extensively realized world. The concept behind the game was that the player would pick one of a group of characters differentiated by race and class position within society, then play through the origin story for that character, a sort of prologue before being unleashed upon the full story arc.  These back stories and origins shaped the evolution of the tale and the game as the player progressed through the story.

Bioware refers to that main plot as a “dark epic fantasy” tale. In short, an ancient organization known as the Gray Wardens are devoted to wiping out demons, which have become something of a legend within the game’s world. As the game opens, signs are showing up that the race of demons are rising to the surface world once again, and the Wardens must confront these demons. Betrayed by a prospective ruler who believes he’s doing the right thing (and is one of the finest examples of a truly human villain in videogame storytelling that I’ve ever seen), the order is almost wiped out. Two or three members of the order remain, their task to wipe out the remaining hoard and settle the issue of this prospective ruler’s betrayal.

The player is one of those characters, and dictates the rest of the story via his or her approach to gathering the party that’s necessary to wipe these demons out as well as his or her choices in handling the subplots and side-missions that arise throughout the story.

It’s an interesting tale, but not entirely original. I chose this game not for the story itself but for the way that Bioware presented the variations upon the tale that a player can discover; it’s actually quite clever. The storytellers used elaborate branching methods wherein the  choices branch the player off into different story angles, exploring previously unseen options while leaving some angles unexplored for subsequent play-throughs.  Commercial failure or not, the game was very well-done from a plotting perspective and held on to my attention, driving me to play straight through it in something like a week, then going on to subsequent replays because no two playthroughs tell quite the same story.

Of course, there are also inherent limitations to this storytelling approach. Characters can’t refer to the player character by name, and the main character has to be mute as a result of the hundreds of hours of dialogue that would have to be recorded for each choice that the player makes. Overall, though, I think the strengths of the approach far outweigh the limitations. The market, however, disagreed.

Shortly after the release, Bioware announced that they were going to create a follow up, Dragon Age 2, and that it would be ready the following year. Given the delay in creating the first Dragon Age, you can see why this announcement was met with some skepticism.  How could they possibly create a branching story that rivaled the one in the original Dragon Age in such a short amount of time? Oh and what were these gameplay changes that they were talking about ?  Well, we’ll talk about that next week and see why the Dragon Age 2 experience became a debacle to rival the movie Heaven’s Gate.

Oh, as a side-note, the whole thing has a handful of novels, but I can’t comment on the quality. I might read them one day. I haven’t decided.

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  1. So…I am shamefully out of the loop on good video game selections, so I forwarded this to my sister-in-law to share with my nephew. For a “lazy Saturday” you sure wrote quite a post!

    Hope your weekend has been something special 🙂

  2. I think it’s great that you’re covering these wonderful titles. Dragon Age is one of my faves. I’m a huge fan of the sequel too. And, frankly, I don’t know what to do with myself while I wait for Mass Effect 3.

    I don’t agree with it being a commercial flop though. It sold very well (3.2 million, as of Feb. 2010) and developed a solid fan base–enough to spawn a third sequel. Those numbers are pretty darn good. It was also named RPG of the year by several publications. I don’t disagree that it had it’s detractors though. Even I was underwhelmed by its graphics and animations when it came out.

    Thanks for this great article!


    • Thanks! Well in industry terms DAO was a success, but my understanding is that internally it didn’t sell enough to cover dev costs. Not surprising given the time it took. Interested in how you feel about my take on 2. I loved the first act, and got progressively angrier as it went on.

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