Embracing Dragon Age’s Source Material

(The game’s) unvoiced goal is to revive the old days of role playing games. As much as it can, it attempts to cop the vibe of classic titles like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, Dungeons and Dragons based properties

dragonheaderIn the past week, I’ve jumped back onto the train of videogames’ most prominent epic fantasy: I’m smack in the middle of a second playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins.

It’s a bit of folly, replaying a sixty hour game. Origins is effectively Game of Thrones mashed up with the big battle sequences of Lord of the Rings, and casts you as a Grey Warden, a society of individuals who gather together to fight against Originsversion of Uruk’hai, the Darkspawn.

The series has produced two main-line games—Origins and its sequel, Dragon Age 2—as well as an expansion: Awakenings. All of this on top of a number of tie in media, including comics, novels, an animated film, a web series, and infinite more merchandise.

But replaying Origins is a curious experience. As a game, it’s unvoiced goal is to revive the old days of role playing games. As much as it can, it attempts to cop the vibe of classic titles like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment, Dungeons and Dragons based properties created by some of the same people. As such, it eschews modern amenities: your protagonist doesn’t talk, battles can be conducted from a top-down, “strategic” perspective, and you’re given plenty of choices for any conversation.

Dragon Age 2 modernized the series, as these things go: it gave you a playable character, rather than letting you be a random individual (for reference: I’m playing a “casteless” Dwarf rogue, which makes them completely distinct from every other video game protagonist by default), it gave you a voice, and made you play from a more action-oriented perspective. Popular opinion holds that the second game was a dive in quality, and it’s prompted people to discuss whether or not the series died a dishonorable death.

Replaying Origins, however, a couple years after Dragon Age 2 and even more since playing it for the first time, has shown me a couple things. Maybe it’s not the enviable product of old-school imagination mixed with modern technology. Maybe it’s a bit of a relic.

dragonBecause Origins doesn’t remind me most of Baldur’s Gate, the seminal classic RPG recently remastered for modern audiences, but instead of Jade Empire, the perpetually awkward but fascinating game made previously by OriginsBioware team, or of Mass Effect, the company’s sort of off-balance first stab at the stereotypical “science fiction” part of science fiction and fantasy. There’s a bunch of great parts, but in the end we’re stuck with pretty much the same old game.

A problem videogames have, compared to other media, is avoiding the typical tropes of level design. When I’m writing fiction, or reading fiction, I don’t usually see the same sentence constructions outside of individual authors. Sometimes I might read something particularly sharp and adopt some of its form into mine, and I know I read a few too many authors who’d read a little too much Tolkien as a kid, but, for the most part, form is form: it’s good, or its bad.

Origins, meanwhile, has its greatest problem in how it’s structurally the same as pretty much every other Bioware game. After an introductory three hours where at least one of your bland companions dies to raise the stakes, you’re given four or five places to go to, each largely independent of the others. Small, or sometimes large, stakes-raising cutscenes happen between them, but the order rarely matters.

It’s the videogame equivalent of a collection of short stories on the same theme.

dragon2It works well for some of Bioware’s games. Mass Effect, for instance, gives you a mystery and a bunch of places to go to look for clues. Dragon Age 2, actually, beggars belief much less, because while collecting a certain amount of money to go on an expedition is pretty boring, it necessitates that all the other actions be overall independent of one another.

Origins, meanwhile, gives you four objectives, each unrelated, but each achingly, immediately important. It gives you a countryside overwhelmed with Darkspawn who, bless them, will take their time looting and pillaging while you solve your problems.

The characters are an even bigger problem. You, specificially. My dwarf rogue feels out of place in nearly every conversation and interaction. People talk about their surface gods, their surface politics, and treat my interaction with them the same as when I played the game as a bland human. Sequences that feel patently impossible—my dwarf being forced into a dream-realm when the lore establishes, since dwarves can’t be mages, they don’t go to Fade—dot the landscape. I’ve never felt more an alien in a videogame I’ve played.

Which would be good if, you know, it wasn’t all accidental. And if it wasn’t all negative.

That all said, there’s still something magical about Origins, something that makes people fawn over it like the last bastion of good big-budget videogames. Few videogames are as unapologetically fantasy as Dragon Age. There’s something about its embrace of tropes, its love of the source material that makes the game compelling.

That love for its material is what tends to keep me coming back to media: I want stories where the authors want to be there, and they want us along for the ride. And that’s the feeling I always get from Dragon Age, and it’s probably what’s stuck the series so firmly in our collective minds for years, and possibly for years to come.

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