Dragon Age Origins (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows) signals Bioware’s grand return to fantasy role-playing, a genre it’s been conspicuously absent from since Neverwinter Nights in 2002. It’s Bioware’s third shot at drafting an entire world from scratch, an unidealized fantasy preserve the company’s described as “dark heroic fantasy” inspired by realistic fantasy fiction writers like George R.R. Martin, whose widely acclaimed Song of Ice and Fire series many consider the yardstick for the genre.
It’s also one of the few (and perhaps only) RPGs to offer multiple ways in as well as ways out. Instead of drafting a character whose abilities or occupational choices only receive cursory mention during the narrative, players in Dragon Age choose from any of six detailed origin stories, stories–according to BioWare–designed to echo throughout the experience and alter it in fundamental ways.
But can the company pull it off without leaning on fantasy clichés?
I’ve suggested storytelling in fantasy role-playing games “sucks.” In the following interview, Dragon Age lead designer Mike Laidlaw explains why the story in Dragon Age Origins won’t.
This is Part One (Part Two, Part Three)
Game On: Tell me about David Gaider. He’s your lead writer on Dragon Age Origins, but he’s also written a prequel book set in the Dragon Age universe.
Mike Laidlaw: Dave is a world-builder at heart. He loves creating a space that feels very real and has a density beyond just “Okay, we need these answers for the game.” He created a space in Dragon Age that I think goes well beyond that, and by creating the world in advance, it let him write the novel with the history in mind. He wasn’t cutting it from whole cloth when he was doing the novel, in other words, so it let him explore the characters and their relationships on a level he might not have been able to if he’d had to do all the heavy lifting from scratch.
GO: You have a pen and paper version of the Dragon Age world coming out somewhere down the road by the guys who landed George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire license. Does Gaider have anything to do with that?
ML: No, Green Ronin’s been spearheading that, and they’ve been working off a lot of our source materials and grabbing from our lore because we have extensive documentation for the entire Dragon Age property. But Dave’s not been directly involved in that.
I’ve been working on an approvals level with the Green Ronin guys myself, and they’re really excited to see how much source material Dragon Age offers them, but Dave’s been focused on the novels and of course Origins itself.
GO: Will Green Ronin’s system be similar to the one you developed for the video game? Or are they taking your system and doing something different with it?
ML: They’re basically translating the rules set and design that drives Origins into a pen and paper format. It’s a custom system, similar to what we produced when we sat down to develop the rules.
GO: You’ve called Dragon Age Origins “the HBO of RPGs,” implying that you’re after something much more nuanced and reality-grounded than your prior work with Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. Talk about some of the fantasy genre tropes you’d like to upend.
ML: HBO obviously targets a more mature type of storytelling. They’ve moved away from the sitcom models and the more tried-and-true…what you think of as the mainstream network thing. The safe stuff. So to my mind, Dragon Age does a couple of things to break away from what we think of as classic fantasy, and I think some of these are similar to what George R.R. Martin’s doing in his books.
Specifically, we wanted to remove the sense that the fantastic is casual, and to present the fantastic as something that for the common man, for the everyman is still very much fantastic. Almost terrifying, in fact. One of the key tropes we’re trying to upend is that lightweight lack of consequences feel that can happen in fantasy. It’s like “Oh, he’s dead… But it’s okay! Because we resurrected him!” No one ever talks about the near death experience or the tunnel of light or like in real life, the survivors going “Oh my god!” You know, we’re talking an inconceivably intense experience.
While we were defining the world and game, then, we said “What are some of the things we take for granted?” and “How do we do them differently?” How do we do a darker, realistic approach? That’s what we mean when we say “dark heroic fantasy” and a more mature experience as what we’re after.
What if we did something different with elves, for instance? Elves are always nature dwelling, kind of ethereal, usually regarded as this pinnacle and maybe fading race. You can even go to Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40k universe and the Eldar are top tier technology and stuff, but they’re still a dying race. Elves seem to be elves no matter what. We said, how could we change that? How could we do that but still maintain the fact that they’re elves?
So with our elves, the casualness of immortality and the idea that they live a thousand years was something we wanted to move away from, though it didn’t mean it had to be stripped out of the lore. Similarly elves as these powerful, wizardly beings that control great, ancient magic didn’t have to go away, but it didn’t feel right for the now, for the time period we wanted to set Dragon Age in with its darker tone.
As a result, our elves had an empire, but it’s fallen, and they’ve actually been enslaved. They’ve only just gotten out of that situation. They’re a good three generations into being emancipated, and they live in ghettoes in the cities for the most part, except for the few that live out in the wilderness, are very xenophobic, and enraged about the crimes committed against them. They have a history of violence and betrayal that goes back, event after event after event, where the elves are almost persecuted for something no one remembers. And of course that’s one of the great mysteries of the game, what exactly happened there.
That gives them an edge. It gives them something fresh. You still recognize them as elves, of course. Pointy-ears, lithe, you know, fairly dexterous, good with magic. But the fundamentals of it are such that once you get past that initial “Okay, it’s an elf,” you start seeing the differences. And we present them very clearly using the origin stories. That’s where the game succeeds at becoming more than just typical fantasy. It’s by giving you the expected, then chipping off the edges.
GO: You let players choose from any of six origin stories, stories you’ve suggested resonate throughout the play experience. How pliable or reflective is Dragon Age’s game world respective of those choices? Do they change the way the entire game plays out, or just invoke the occasional narrative nod?
ML: Origins for us are such a key element of the game that we appended the word to the title. We knew we wanted to do these right and make them a hallmark of the game. We could have done a cursory approach, certainly, but instead we thought, “Okay, what’s gratifying about having an origin that’s playable?” That’s where I think it starts–knowing that you get to experience a focused start to the game that gives you perspective and a different flavor when you’re finally starting into things.
With that in mind, we made a concerted effort throughout the rest of the game to call out the different elements of your origin, the important part being that we do it at appropriate points. If the game constantly flogs it, it’d lose any sense of being special. Instead, we made sure there were moments in the game that not only point back to “Oh, you’re of this origin,” but actually reintroduce characters from that origin and have them iterating realistically based on how you acted during it.
It echoes forward as well, in terms of the larger plot points you’re dealing with. If you come out of the mage origin story, when you eventually return to the mage tower, which is one of the things you’ll be doing as a Grey Warden later in the game, characters there will remember you. They’ll remember the way you acted on your way out. They’ll remember the kind of decisions you made during your initial testing and react accordingly.
Where the origins system really shines, I think, is that a character who goes to the mage tower, say a human noble, can encounter these very same characters and they’ll react differently. They won’t recognize you. Your character won’t have any interplay. So there’s a level of depth and granularity that’s added in when you have these secondary encounters, which occur in more than one place. It’s called out multiple times. As a result, you get the feeling that your origin’s not just something people occasionally mention, but also something people are reacting to accordingly, based on the way you acted and the choices you made. It’s the pay off of, “Gosh, it’s been 20 hours, I’ve finally managed to return to this place, and people are still pissed at me,” or “People are incredibly happy to see me.” It’s not just a cursory mention, but a very specific callback to the way you forged your character in those early days.
Follow me on Twitter @game_on