An Appropriately Epic Dragon Age Retrospective

Games Features

Kirk: I’m excited about Dragon Age 2, which is mostly due to the fact that I loved Dragon Age: Origins. I remember that before it came out, I was largely unsold on just about every aspect of the game. The graphics looked dated, the combat was dated, the story looked entirely unoriginal… and yet as I started playing I fell under its sway and sank a ton of hours into it, making my way across Ferelden and finally defeating The Darkspawn. Yes, the enemies in the game are actually called “The Darkspawn.” Shut up. It’s awesome.

The Dragon Age 2 demo is out, and I played through it at a press event a couple weeks ago and was more happy to see that the game looks and plays far, far better than its predecessor, particularly on consoles. I played the 360 version of Origins back in 2009, and after seeing the PC version in action I got pretty bummed out; clearly I’d spent sixty hours playing through an inferior version of the game. Moreover as I once loudly complained, the console interface was a mess, which is getting to be a bit of BioWare perennial. If the shift from Mass Effect’s horribly broken UI to Mass Effect 2’s comparably unterrible one is any indication, DA2 console players are in for a kinder experience across the board.

A breakdown of the mechanical tweaks and improvements on offer: For starters, the BioWare spokesperson at the event was still repeating that “Press a button and something awesome happens” mantra, which to my ear really does seem like a one-sentence summary of the console-ification of PC RPGs. That said, when I played DA2 on 360, I noticed that my LadyHawke Rogue attacked every time I pressed the ‘A’ button. Those who played Origins on console will know what a huge shift that is—and to be honest, it’s a shift for the better. I didn’t quite feel like I was playing Fable, but combat did feel much more visceral and satisfying. Past that, combat played out faster and more smoothly, and abilities recharged far more quickly than in the first game. Conversation, as I think we all know, has been moved from a list of specific responses to a radial menu of dialogue-approximations a la Mass Effect.

Perhaps more intriguingly, the entire game is presented as what’s known as a Frame Narrative—the story’s narrator is a wily dwarf named Varric, and the game follows his recounting of the legend of Hawke, the game’s protagonist. At times, Varric will take liberties with the truth, subtly altering the way the game plays before his interrogator brashly interrupts him and tells him to “get it right.” This happens early on in the demo, and it seems to open the door for some very interesting storytelling tricks.

Now that the demo has been released to the public, I thought it would be fun to have a discussion about it, and about the series in general. For as fun as my return to Ferelden was, it raised as many questions for me as it demonstrated promising improvements. In addition to being a great writer and editor, my friend Denis Farr is one of the internet’s foremost Dragon Age experts, so I figured he would be the guy with whom to break it down. Denis, what say you?

Denis: From what I saw in the demo, the cutscenes and combat are both more mobile this time around. A lot of the conversations in the first game felt like set pieces moving in a very conservative manner, but the BioWare focus on film here is peekingthrough yet again. Combat in Origins had a ‘move your chess piece here’ and then click buttons feel to it that is not as evident from what I’ve seen thus far in the demo.screenshot-07-aveline-p.jpeg

Now, the intro in the demo is interesting, but I wonder how often we’ll see sections where you repeat the story because it was too grandiose in the telling the first time. It seems like a one-off thing, and in a story that is as focused on action as this one (I didn’t press A, but almost every press of 1 and 2 had much more oomph to it this time around), I can’t see it being utilized too often, if any more beyond the demo/tutorial. I am curious, as it does seem like an interesting way to tell a story from different angles, or to give a different type of foreshadowing by putting us in media res.

Kirk: I agree, it’s a cool idea, and it was handled pretty cleverly. Little things, like the fact that Hawke’s sister’s boobs were ginormous in the first flashback and then much more normal (or at least, normal for Dragon Age) in the second one… if they can keep that kind of creativity throughout the game, it could certainly be a well to which they return throughout.

Denis: Which is also brilliant as it characterizes the storyteller, and his audience, moreso than just seeing him in the actiony bits. Ultimately, what we’ve been shown thus far has mostly focused on the action of the game, which I can’t even say appealed to me in the action-centric Mass Effect series. I’m excited to play a warrior moreso than I was in Origins now, but the combat in the first game was passable enough for me. Therefore, I have to wonder how they’ll juggle both having all these potential tools for telling a story in an intriguing manner with the goal of making the game’s combat not as stodgy as the first game.

Kirk:Yeah, and this is actually an area of concern for me. The thing I noticed when playing the demo was how restrictive everything felt; a consequence of a more-or-less linear demo I suppose, but I’m a little bit worried that even the full game will feel a bit claustrophobic? For whatever reason, I was able to get into the constant conversation/combat/conversation ebb and flow of Origins, but I think that might’ve been due to the throwbacky nature of the combat… combat now (especially on 360) plays a bit like a Fable game. And I mean, even those games feel restrictive, and they’re far more open than what I saw of Dragon Age 2. The pacing had been dialed up, but the nature of the encounters was very much a linear drip-feed. Maybe it’s just that new Skyrim trailer burning in the back of my brain, but for some reason it wasn’t quite enough for me.

Denis: Which is why I feel ambivalent about the demo—I believe this being a demo, it was primarily released to give fans and interested parties a taste of what has changed in a more broad sense. After all, Origins had no demo, and instead had a character creator. Even the story spoilers we’ve received? Anyone who’s watched the BioWare forums for a length of time will not be surprised—these are bits that have been consciously revealed, parts that have been shown in other places. They were very careful in what story bits they revealed, so anyone who was a fan of the story in Origins over anything else? This is not the demo for them.
Kirk: Right, and for both of us combat and gameplay mechanics aren’t really the heart and soul of these games. I gather that you’ve been replaying BioWare’s older games with an eye towards how their writers tell stories and weave morality into their games. I’m interested to know: what are your thoughts going into Dragon Age 2? Any specific expectations, hopes, or fears?

Denis: Well, you’ve hit on the largest two: story and morality. With narrative, the frame setup they’re using intrigues me. It’s obviously been done in various degrees with other games—Sands of Time and Alpha Protocol come to mind—but the unreliable narrator is a twist that I don’t believe we see very often (examples here would be Silent Hill 2 and Final Fantasy VII). Which is one of those things I was taught very early on as an English major: always question if you can trust the narrator’s view point—what are their goals and desires.

Kirk: I, too, am quite interested to see what the Dragon Age folks do with an unreliable narrator. It’s funny how so many Ubisoft games have used this trick—Sands of Time, as you mention, as well as Assassin’s Creed, though to a somewhat lesser degree. In fact, the unreliable narrator really seems to be getting some traction across the gaming board — for all the convoluted terribleness of its story, Call of Duty: Black Ops introduced some effective twists by framing its story as the flashback of a half-crazy, brainwashed Cold-War spook.

Denis: Then there’s the other bit I want to see further in action: friends and rivals. The previous game had the typical binary: negative or positive approval from a companion. In this one, that system’s being altered so that there is still that binary, but a negative rating does not close off those options, but rather opens a new one.

Kirk: Though it’s worth noting that in Origins, each character’s approval was only binary in the context of the protagonist’s relationship to him or her. In the broader context, the system was by far the least binary morality system of any BioWare game.

Denis: Right, so the companion approval system was the actual ‘morality’ in Origins—I certainly did things because I knew how certain companions who were mainstays in my group would react. Knights of the Old Republic and Jade Empire both had a Dark or Light side, Open Palm or Clenched Fist styles. In both of those games, we see the positive or negative points being gained, but instead of penalizing players for the negative, the game would just opens up a different way to experience the story.

Which, as regards that, I’m very curious as to how Varric, the narrator of Hawke’s story, will change the story based on our own relationship with him.

Kirk: Agreed. It should be really cool to see how creative David Gaider and his writers can get by making the narrator a character in the story who is influenced by Hawke (a.k.a. the Player)’s actions throughout. I too found Origins’s party-based morality system both more freeing and more interesting than the defined Paragon/Renegade (or Dark Side/Light Side, Close Fist/Open Palm) morality systems of Mass Effect, Knights of The Old Republic, or Jade Empire.Shale_1.jpeg

In addition to making it easier to play a morally grey character, it made the amoral and evil characters in my party much easier to relate to, even for my good characters. As you mentioned in a recent email, Gaider wrote the hilariously evil HK-47 in Knights of the Old Republic (who, I’ll remind readers, made Paste’s list of the 40 best robots of all time). HK-47 bore no small similarity to the golem Shale in Origins, but one big difference was that in KOTOR, when I’d laugh at HK’s murderous, misanthropic jokes, it felt at odds with what I knew of my light-side Jedi. In Origins, it felt far easier for all of my characters to get along with Shale, which was nice, since Shale was pretty much my favorite character in the whole game.

Denis: It’s a breath of relief, really, to have characters who are not beholden to a particular path of morality. Considering BioWare’s early games used the Dungeons and Dragons morality system, in which a person is solidly in place (there are arguments to be made here—generally speaking, people use it as a restrictive personality trait), they seem to finally be breaking free of that mold, though it took them a while. Even KOTOR, as you mentioned,and Jade Empire had companions who believed in one path or another, which often made alliances and romantic options hinge on your own morality. My memory of Origins is littered with moments where characters behaved differently than one would expect, because their histories were what informed them—Zevran and Shale in particular each causing me a moment of surprised reflection.
Kirk: You’re really hitting on what made Origins stand apart from other games with a morality system. The protagonist is, to varying degrees, a blank slate, and it’s the characters who offer the moral shading, the peaks and valleys of the narrative. What’s interesting is how this is particularly true of the games in which the protagonist is silent, and a bit less so in Mass Effect. Since Hawke now has a voice and is basically the new commander Shepard, it’ll be interesting to see just how much more Dragon Age 2 feels like Mass Effect.

Denis: It seems that it’s BioWare’s new method of NPC building—even in the Mass Effect series, the only person who is beholden to the morality system is Shepard. After all, we already know Shepard will be the hero, it’s just a question of how she becomes a hero (which sounds similar to the Champion of Kirkwall tagline for DA2). In Mass Effect, that translates to Shepard being able to gain points on both the Paragon/Renegade scale, rather than moving just along some line. That’s what the friend and rivalry system feels like: not punishing you for decisions, but a bit more bound in its rules as it’s an either/or situation: still defined, but more open than Origins.

Kirk: I’ve been playing The Witcher a bit lately, and am impressed by how that game manages to flip things around. The protagonist, Geralt, is a predefined character with no party at his side, and yet I feel as though I’m playing a role all the same. The game is pretty fundamentally different from Origins, yet the scenarios and decisions it presents feel similar, if a bit less scripted and more organic. Interestingly, by giving players a strongly-defined lead character, they actually make it easier to role-play in some ways. In Dragon Age 2, the emphasis on party-morality over protagonist-morality seems to have shifted a bit from the first one, and I’m interested to see where in the middle ground the game ends up.

Denis: To be honest, I cringe at the silent/blank-slate character in games that ask me to roleplay. My acting background means I want something from which to start, and if I’m an adult, there will always be a background I haven’t played. Which is why the question of age will also be intriguing to see. I’m not sure of your own life circumstances, but it’s sometimes difficult to see myself as friends with some of the same people I was friends with ten years ago. Or, looking at the friends I do have from that time period, it’s intriguing to note what kept us together, and what defines that friendship. So far, most games have felt as if they’re focused on such a narrow span of time—or at least one that is so straightforward that it feels compact—so that friendships often feel like they still have so much left to explore.

Kirk: You’ve hit on what, to me, is probably the single most interesting element of the story—the passage of time. We know that it takes place over the span of a decade, and I really haven’t seen an RPG (or any other game) handle something like that effectively. Ocarina of Time did, I guess, and there are probably a few others that I’m not thinking of. I very much want to see a game that feels epic not just in the scale of its spaces or the sweep of its story, but also in the scope of its timeline. Gaider and his crew seem as likely as anyone to pull that off.hawke-01-p.jpeg

Denis: Especially as the story here does not focus on some big bad. There is no Blight to worry about in this one. There is no Archdemon-dragon ready to raze everything to the ground. The thrust of the story is being advertised as how Hawke became a legend, and what decisions you made to get there. When we look at any of our heroic figures, it becomes fascinating to track their lives and see how they reached that point. Who were they before they became an icon, say ten years before they were thrust into the spotlight? It’s something they’ve been somewhat addressing over the course of the Mass Effect trilogy, but in this case, instead of discrete games we’re getting the whole question  in one. It seems that Dragon Age as a franchise is more about exploring the world and its key figures.

Kirk: Which is heartening, indeed. Awakening demonstrated the challenge inherent in creating a big bad that is then defeated; where to go next? By bringing the Darkspawn back in the wake of the Archdemon’s fall, the writers undercut Origins’s big climax a bit. I’m hopeful that they can stretch out and explore the world of Ferelden more without sacrificing too much narrative drive; after all, one of my biggest complaints about Mass Effect 2 was that even though it had a ton of great sidequests, the main narrative felt inconsequential when compared to the first game. I don’t doubt that Dragon Age 2 will feel significantly less epic than Origins (a representative on hand at the press event I attended told me that the game was closer to ME2’s 30-40 hour length, as opposed to Origins’s 60-80). But if Gaider and company take risks with their storytelling and really stretch out in how they explore the world and its characters, the game could really be something special. Then again, if they play it too safe, it’ll be a disappointment. After following the game closely, talking with the folks at EA, and playing through the demo, I guess I’m about 50/50 on how I think the final product will turn out. You?

Denis: At this point I’m cautiously optimistic—erring more on the side of positive. There’s a lot of potential here, and given what they’ve highlighted, I believe it’s something on which they can only build. This game does seem to be focusing a lot less on the epic: it’s shorter, there are fewer companions, the skills are more focused, and combat is streamlined. Many would point to this and say it’s dumbing down; at this point I want to believe it’s just producing less clutter so as to focus our attention. Which I feel almost needs to be done if you’re telling a story that is a decade long in scope.

Kirk: Well, in about a week we’ll all see for ourselves. Thanks for taking the time, Denis. For Ferelden!

Dragon Age 2 is being developed by BioWare and will be released March 8th for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Denis Farr is a games writer and critic based in Germany. He is an editor at both Critical Distance and Gay Gamer, writes for The Border House and blogs at Vorpal Bunny Ranch. He can be found on Twitter @aeazel.

Kirk Hamilton is Paste’s Games Editor. He is a musician and writer in San Francisco and can be found at and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at] PasteMagazine [dot] com.

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