Dragon Age: Origins (Xbox 360 Version)
Bioware, 2009

A LESSON IN GAME WRITING

In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, the screenwriter William Goldman describes the difference between writing for TV and for the movies:

"[In TV] they need a hook. And they need it fast. Because they're panicked you'll switch to ABC. So TV stuff tends to begin with some kind of grabber.
But in a movie, and only at the beginning of a movie, we have time. Not a lot, but some.
Time to set up our people.
Time to set up our situation.
Time, if you will, to set up our particular world."

"Casual" games might be like TV in this respect, but the games I want to play are more like the movies. And I wish more game developers would learn this. Too many games can't wait to throw me into a fast-paced action scene — but what's the hurry? Who is going to switch to ABC? Not me: I've just dropped $50 on a triple-A gaming spectacular, and I'm hardly going to fling it into the trash if I'm not shooting zombies in the first sixty seconds. Hey, game developers: you can take your time at the beginning of a game. I'm not going to leave; I'm on your side; I want to experience your game world.

The developers of Dragon Age: Origins understand this, and this is why it's such a pleasure to play the game's opening scenes. Dragon Age begins with one of six possible "origin" tales, each an hour or two long, each unfolding at a gentle pace. In these sections, you get to look around, talk to people, absorb the atmosphere. You don't just get to know the game mechanics: you get to know a great deal about your character and the world they're in. You become invested in what happens later on.

It takes confidence to begin a game this way, the confidence of a master storyteller, a confidence that communicates itself to the player. "Trust us", the developers of Dragon Age are saying, "we'll get you there in time. We're going to take you on a journey, an epic journey, and you're going to be enthralled every step of the way." From the moment the game begins, you know you're in safe hands.

But then, even before the game begins, Dragon Age is already oozing competence. The intro sequence is the best I've seen in a game, with beautiful animation and spectacular cinematics; it deftly establishes a background story and an aesthetic style. With its gory, epic battles and all its "Celtic" elements — the Irish-y names, the wordless warbling on a faux-orchestral soundtrack, the knotwork in the loading screens, and the braids sported by every second character — Dragon Age is clearly aiming for the feel of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. This is not my favourite aesthetic by any means, but I'll give credit where it's due: the game nails it down. Watching the intro of Dragon Age, I get a sense of artists in full control of their medium, artists truly achieving their vision — which is not something I could say for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

Of course, I would have preferred if the artists' vision were something truly fantastic and not the world's millionth Tolkien retread, but I've got to acknowledge that game developers are limited by commercial concerns on the one hand, and perhaps by their own tastes on the other. Even if the boundaries of their imagination weren't dictacted by risk-averse bean-counters, I've a feeling a lot of today's fantasists would prefer to stay within the securely established confines of generic sword-and-sorcery. Nevertheless, I respect Dragon Age's attempts to breathe life into the nuts and bolts of its Tolkienesque fantasy. Sure, the game has elves, dwarves, mages, and a story that's basically "horrible dark people invade Europe"; but given these parameters as non-negotiable, its developers have made some effort to make the game world fresh and interesting. The vaguely-medieval human world has been built with far more attention to detail than is usual in fantasy games; it feels plausibly like a medieval Britain that never had a Saxon conquest. The elves are an underclass living in urban ghettoes — an acknowledgement of the racism of medieval society, something I haven't seen before. Mages are in touch with the spirit world and liable to be possessed by demons at any moment; they are strictly supervised by a religious order of knights, who are empowered to kill them — that's new, that's potentially interesting. For all I know, these are common tropes in genre-fantasy lit — I don't read that junk. But I do know that they're done well here.

ANOTHER LESSON IN GAME WRITING

Dragon Age really shines in its characters. For a bunch of rolled-up RPG staples, your quest companions are far more interesting and surprising than they have any right to be. They often come out with quips that make me laugh; they consistently defy expectations.

Take Sten, a blue-skinned giant who joins your party, a taciturn warrior from the mysterious Qunari people. In a conversation menu, you're given the option to mine him for information. "Tell me about your people," I said to him, bracing myself for five minutes of dreary backstory. "No," he replied. End of conversation.

At that exchange, I had to cheer aloud!

Sten wasn't the only character to impress me or defy expectations. While Morrigan's costume seems designed to appeal to male masturbation, her character is more subtly drawn than her cleavage would suggest: she remains intriguingly weird and aloof and contrary to the end. Alistair, uniquely among Bioware's "hunk" characters, is genuinely charming and funny. Oghren is a perfect execution of the drunken warrior comic-relief trope; the dog is perfectly adorable; and as for Wynne — sure, she's a "motherly" stereotype, but has an elderly woman ever had such a positive or prominent role in a major computer game? In the deeply misogynist world of gaming, that's got to be worth a lot.

As interesting as these characters are individually, they really come alive in their group dynamics. A bunch of fantasy heroes with big egos, your companions have strong opinions about your behaviour and each other; keeping them all as a happy unit can be quite a challenge. It's fascinating to listen to them interact with each other, and see how they develop as the game goes on. And yes, the characters in Dragon Age do develop, sometimes in surprising ways.

All in all, the characters are a winning aspect of the game, and give it the potential for wide appeal. I have plenty of anecdotal evidence that Dragon Age draws players and admirers from outside the usual pool of hardcore gamers, and this is mostly because its characters have something to offer beyond your typical tough-guy hero who saves the universe. There's a lesson here for game developers: if you want your games to be anything other than a niche interest, invest them with characters that someone other than a self-obsessed nerdy asshole could identify with.

TECHNICALITIES

Dragon Age has technically the worst graphics of any big-studio game I've seen on the Xbox, but as always with graphics, it's what you do with them that counts. I really like the art design of this game. In contrast to the chunky kitsch of Oblivion, or the over-muscled meatheads seen in dozens of other games, Dragon Age imbues its visuals with a graceful, willowy look, which brings to mind some favourite Fighting Fantasy illustrators like Ian McCaig, Bob Harvey and Russ Nicholson.

For some reason — perhaps to accomodate the isometric view available on the PC version, perhaps to simplify pathfinding — the maps in Dragon Age are all topologically flat: you can never go over and under the same bridge. While this ultimately limits their interest as game spaces and spectacles, the designers do their best within these limits. They inject a surprising amount of verticality into their flat maps, creating dramatic vistas in settings like Ostagar and Redcliffe. I enjoyed simply looking around in this game; its visuals put many games with a better 3D engine to shame.

The battle mechanics of Dragon Age are a bit too Warcraft for my liking, and don't really work on the Xbox 360 anyway. But in a game with such powerful storytelling and characters, a failed game mechanic isn't such a big deal, provided it doesn't get in the way. And fortunately, on casual difficuly level the battles pretty much take care of themselves, at least until the awful final boss. (Yeah, dragons are tough — we get it. Just show me the end of the story already.) The other RPG mechanics in Dragon Age are solidly implemented — the loot, the experience, the pleasure of seeing statistics increase — which given some disasters I've seen, is apparently quite an achievement.

All in all, I enjoyed Dragon Age: Origins a lot — a personal top ten game, easily — and I'd recommend anyone to check it out, even if they don't like computer games, or fantasy. For hours at a stretch, it took all my cares away, which is as much as I could ask for.

That's the praise out of the way. Now, time for some complaining.

THE DWARVEN PERIL

One big stain on Dragon Age is the chapter set in Orzammar, the home of the dwarves, which is overlong, ugly and boring, and contains some of the game's lumpiest writing. I actually had high hopes for Orzammar. After being impressed with the game's novel treatment of elves and wizards, I had no idea what to expect of the dwarves, the elusive subterranean race who keep to themselves as much as possible. I held off visiting them until last, in the hope of seeing something really strange and alien.

Instead, I got Klingons.

Yes, it turns out that the Orzammar's dwarves are just another rehash of the irrational, warlike, honour-and-tradition-obsessed caste society. Poor dwarves: whatever the story, whatever the game, it seems like the little guys are doomed to be the bearers of Western prejudice, of one kind or another. The dwarves of Dragon Age trade the anti-semitic stereotype of Tolkien's Wagner-inspired fantasy for an orientalist stereotype beloved of Cold War crapmeisters like Gene Roddenberry and Frank Herbert. The game labours to show us the rigidity of dwarven society, the stupidity of its violence, the injustices of its caste system — but this stuff isn't just cliched and boring, it's also borderline offensive.

You might say that in giving their dwarves a "Klingon" identity, the creators of Dragon Age had no intention of perpetuating an orientalist stereotype. But intentions are no defence. Creative types should take some responsibility for the stereotypes they employ, and be aware of their history; very often, the prejudices behind them aren't as moribund as they might think. Orientalist stereotyping is particularly problematic in the world of computer RPGs, where a distinction is so sharply drawn between "Western" and "Japanese" variants, and where fans of the former routinely toss out the word "Japanese" as a term of abuse. I don't seriously think the developers of Dragon Age meant to stick the finger to Final Fantasy and the like, but they might as well have done. With the dwarves of Orzammar, they're certainly doing their little bit to keep old prejudices alive.

In Orzammar, the world-building of Dragon Age also falls down in more mundane ways. I realise the dwarves are supposed to be master builders, but I can't believe that their symmetric, bevelled, over-precise buildings belong in the same ramshackle world of Redcliffe and Denerim. Between that and the Klingonism, Orzammar at times feels like the intrusion of a bad sci-fi game into Dragon Age. And there are aspects of silliness to Orzammar, too, like the way the dwarves light up their environment with pools of luminous custard. At least, I think it's luminous custard. I know it's not magma, because if you were standing that close to that much molten rock, you'd fry to a crisp in a few seconds.

Things don't get much better when we descend from Orzammar into the Deep Roads, the adjoining network of caves and tunnels infested by darkspawn and other nasties. This section of the game is disproportionately long and tedious, one damned corridor after another without much of interest to look at or do. The storyline that emerges — about Oghren's wife, her lover, and some Lovecraftian horrors — doesn't help; it's mediocre stuff that thinks it's edgy. All told, it's a relief to put it, Orzammar and the Deep Roads behind and get back to the fresh air of the rest of the game.

POWER FANTASIES AND DATING SIMS

"BioWare [...] proves itself a master of context, making every step you take feel important. [...]. Make a difficult decision, and you're constantly reassured that you've made the right choice. Elsewhere, characters will frequently let you know how honoured they are to serve under you, that you're the only one brave and capable enough [...]. It's hugely empowering."

So writes a generic game hack, approvingly, about Bioware's dreadful Mass Effect 3. But why is it good for a game to be "hugely empowering"? In particular, why is it good for today's gaming audience? Look at the population of XBox Live: these are the last people on earth I want to be empowered. In fact, these are among the people I want to be disempowered, repeatedly; my idea of Utopia is one in which these guys get their noses rubbed in their own shit, again and again, for eternity if need be, until they see the error of their reprehensible ways and opinions.

Dragon Age: Origins is orders of magnitude better than the Mass Effect sequels, but still it's a Bioware game, and it takes its player empowerment very seriously. It asks you to decide on almost everything about its story, including things your character has no business deciding, like the succession to the human and dwarven thrones. You're presented with a series of big moral choices, and even though your companions can disagree with your ultimate decision, you'll feel empowered whatever happens; in each case, whatever your choice, someone is going to reassure you that it was the right one. Wherever you go, whatever you've done, someone will be there to express their unending gratitude for it.

"Empowering" games are pandering to your inner reptile: an anti-social control freak who wants everything its way, wants to be celebrated for everything it does, wants its every decision to be endlessly validated. Computer games have always had this element, and I've always been bothered by it. Back in 2000, I wrote a little game that was designed to throw expectations of empowerment back in your face. But the kinds of game empowerment I meant to subvert in Rameses: the ability to go anywhere, say anything to anyone, take any object you find — are pretty small fry compared to what one can expect in a Bioware game. Bioware players can expect to be told how awesomely awesome they are a thousand times before a game is over. Empowerment is taken to almost pornographic extremes.

This is especially disturbing in combination with the "dating sim" aspect of Bioware games. In Dragon Age, it turns out, roughly half your party are desperate to have sex with you. And as your fame and power grows, so does their desperation. You can play your suitors like puppets. You can two-time them, bang one and then the other, provoke them into a showdown for your affections, all the time jerking off about what a sex god you are. Old Wynne might tut-tut about your libidinous ways, but in time even she can be persuaded of the justice and urgency of your genital activities.

In fairness, you can easily ignore this aspect of the game, or fail to notice it in the first place.* But it's harder to miss or ignore the problematic aspects of Bioware's dating sims: the apparent equation of attraction with power, and use of sex as a reward for gaining power; the portrayal of so many characters as willing and available for your pleasure, and yours alone; the portrayal of a romantic interest as a "lock" to be opened by the right "key" (or sequence of conversation options). Given all the above, it's quite fortunate that most Bioware romances are so clumsily written that it's difficult for anyone to take them seriously. I'd dread to think of what goes through the mind of people who play them for any reason other than laughs.

(Comments)

*After I finished my first Bioware game — Mass Effect — I was astonished to read that all those really cheesy dialogue options I ignored were supposed to initiate a romance and eventual softcore sex scene. I had thought they were supposed to elicit a slap or a groan! Needless to say I went back and replayed the game immediately to see what I missed.

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