The last time that I’ve written about a computer game dates quite a while back. I don’t know what took me so long, but I guess I was simply busy playing the games rather than writing about them. Dragon Age Origins, however, made me feel about a game like no other did before and I just have to tell you about this.
First off, did you notice a theme here? I like RPGs. I even enjoyed The Witcher 1 + 2 in the meantime and maybe after The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, I’ll dedicate a few words to this franchise as well. It’s certainly worth it. But this is about Dragon Age Origins and why it made me write about a video game again. Like all the games I just mentioned, it is an RPG and except for The Witcher it differentiates in one key aspect: it establishes a strong emotional bond with the characters.
In Torchlight you have no connection at all. You can select a class and give it a name. That’s it. Apart from the gameplay – i.e. your skills – it doesn’t matter. This game only needs a puppet – and you are its master (music reference, got it?) – in order to make it run around and smash things.
Diablo 3 goes quite a step further and lets the hero and the NPCs you interact with talk. It tells a nice story that serves as the reason for you to beat things up. It’s really well done, with a rather bitter ending once you look past the fact that you’ve killed the lord of the underworld. But somehow it doesn’t matter. The important thing at that point are the items that are dropped. This is just the way how Diablo works and has always worked.
Lastly, there is Borderlands. This series of games only cares about one thing and that is fun. The story, which is surprisingly well told in Borderlands 2, is just a tool to get badass heroes to kill badass enemies. It’s full of trash talk, curses, testosterone and seriously disturbed black humor which makes for a very entertaining time killer (pun intended). But, in the end, through the way the protagonists and antagonists are shown, you easily forget them once you quit the game.
Not so much with Dragon Age Origins. This game is purely character driven, despite the fact that it has a very extensive skill tree. Bioware, known for a lot of great role playing games, is presenting you with a fantasy adventure you’ll only forget if you are a robot of some sort. If there is a little bit of empathy in you, you will care – or think I’m crazy otherwise (robot it is then).
Now, why is it so special? In the grand scheme of things the story is yet another canvas to present battles on, good versus evil, like in all the games I just mentioned. The difference is, it creates a world as big and rich as Tolkien did with middle-earth or George R.R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Dragon Age Origins contains so much written and spoken word that it’s probably enough to fill an entire book with. A lot of it has to do with the game and its ultimate goal, the other is complementary information, like history about how certain things came to be or rather “uninteresting” writings like poems or songs. Although I say uninteresting, it shows just how much attention to and love for detail has been invested into creating an immersive fantasy world.
Spoiler alert! If you’ve not played the game and care to do so, be aware that the following will spoil the ending. It’ll not just tell you how it ends, it really spoils it, twice (there are several possibilities)! With that out of the way, what’s it about?
It’s about a group of heroes bonded by coincidence, fate and plan. They have to defeat an invasion – The Blight – of so called Darkspawn that is ravaging the lands of Ferelden. Its leader is a spirit called the Archdemon and in its physical form wreaks havoc as a huge and fearsome dragon – hence the name of the game. There’s a small band of brothers (TV reference, got it?) devoted to stopping this recurring Armageddon and they are called the Grey Wardens. Your character will become a member of this group of mighty monster slayers, but not without a price (more on that later).
Here’s the first difference to all the other games: not only can you create your hero in every little detail like race, class, skills and looks, you also get to play an origin story based on your selection. Unlike in Diablo, Torchlight or Borderlands (The Witcher doesn’t count because it’s always Gerald you are playing) you don’t just begin your journey where every other character does. There’s a backstory to almost every combination. Some are shared, I think, but it’s a lot for you to discover. Once you start a second play through with another hero, you’ll really become aware that they all are basically happening at the same time.
The second difference lies in the interactions with the world. Diablo 3 for example allows you to select individual topics of conversations, but it doesn’t let you play an active role in them. Dragon Age does and in many cases your “behavior” influences how your companions see you and interact with you. They also often express their personal opinion when it comes to decide on how to handle a quest, all based on their own identity. Depending on how you assemble your squad, this can result in very interesting arguments among them. You can even talk to them individually to gain trust or lose trust, mostly about personal matters. If you go too far you may even drive party members away, for good. It all depends on how you choose to answer to direct questions and quest topics and the individual’s personality. There are good characters that try to help wherever they can and there are those that prefer a survival of the fittest approach, something you’ll discover early on. When you are on the road, they chat with each other, either in kind, sometimes joking around or simply flat out mean, depending on who is talking to whom. Very entertaining and a sign of attention to detail on part of the developers.
Through your actions you can forge strong friendships, gain respect among feared warriors and even take part in romances. At a certain level of friendship your companions open up to you and reveal more and more of their backstory. From what I’ve experienced so far, all have a personal quest in store. Once you’ve completed it, it’ll boost your status with that “person”. The Witcher has some of these mechanics as well, but among the core characters the relationships are pretty much set. Dragon Age Origins gives you as much freedom as possible to assemble your preferred team of monster slayers, be it purely practical in order to have the most effective group of killers or through a personal preference of “people” you’d like to have by your side on this dangerous adventure. You can mix and match however you fancy with the only limitation being that your fellowship can merely have a total of four (yourself included) fighters when not in camp. Oh, and there’s the totally devoted dog if you elect to help in the first place and take it with you some time later. “Chat” with it in the camp and you’ll get quite a few good laughs out of it.
The story itself is presented using pre-rendered videos, in-games cut scenes and through spoken dialogs. The videos are of a generic nature and apply to any kind of hero you have created for yourself. The in-game scenes are used when your character actively participates in the action, which make them more personal because it’s the guy or gal you made up. What they all have in common is good directing and great voice acting. The same is true for all of the dialogs. Every character of importance, and there are quite a few, has been outfitted with a very good voice actor. On top of that, the game engine renders very believable facial expressions. This combined with these awesome speakers make conversations feel as realistically as possible in a computer game. The characters really come to life. For me, this is what puts this game over the top. Although The Witcher is a close contestant, Dragon Age feels more personal. It doesn’t even matter that your own hero doesn’t talk himself, something that has been rectified in the sequels.
(Mind you, this applies to the English version of the game. The German localization is decent enough, but nowhere near the original.)
Whether it is a one-on-one conversation with one of your party members, any other NPC or a hearing in a town hall where alliances are decided and traitors are to be exposed (The Landsmeet), it feels like you are in the middle of it, partaking. But you don’t get to just watch. You select from a list of different answers and therefore decide on the outcome. On occasion, the decision is not an easy one to make. The result might be a battle or the opposition giving in because you are too convincing. The options that are available may depend on the skills you have selected. If you put enough points into the Cunning attribute and skill Coercion you may sway even powerful foes through persuasion or intimidation. Either way, from time to time you have to make sacrifices, no matter how silver your tongue is.
This was especially true when I was almost through the game. Not long before you head into the final battle, a big secret of the Grey Wardens is revealed. From the joining ritual you know that a Grey Warden is linked to the Darkspawn by drinking its blood. This connection is crucial when it comes to defeating the Archdemon. Upon physical death, the demon’s spirit tries to find another vessel, some other Darkspawn creature, to continue to exist. With the Darkspawn blood flowing through a Warden’s veins he becomes a target host for that spirit. The only difference, the Warden has its own spirit whereas Darkspawn has not. It is basically just a fancy name for a zombie. Since two spirits cannot inhabit one body at the same time they both eliminate themselves in the process, killing the Archdemon and the Warden.
The way I have played the game, my character (I called him Drölf, because “elf, zwölf, drölf…” nevermind) was in a relationship with Morrigan, the group member that was there because her mother (the infamous Witch of the Wilds) had a plan. On the evening of the final battle she approached Drölf and offered him a solution where no one would have to sacrifice himself. Conceive a child with her that, through its innocence and then still unborn state, would be able to absorb the demon’s spirit without being harmed. The only downside to this Dark Ritual is that she’d immediately vanish as soon as the dragon’s dead. If the Warden were to decline this proposal she’d even leave before the battle. This is totally consistent with how that character was portrayed throughout the game, a strong, pragmatic, slightly dark and cynic, self-confident woman (I found that very appealing). In my case though, Morrigan cared for Drölf at that point. It wasn’t just a mission any more.
Since I had invested about 60 hours of playing time up to this event, all spent by killing monsters and honing virtual relationships, I was caught by surprise and couldn’t respond at once. I really had to think about it. Since she’d be gone either way, I chose to be a hero that lives and by that also save the one other party member that was a Grey Warden, Alistair, who had been part of the group from the very beginning. What pushed this moment over the top was the aforementioned great voice acting and facial expressions. I could see and hear that at that point it wasn’t an easy decision for Morrigan either. When it finally came to selecting the four warriors that were to fight the dragon, all group members expressed their last thoughts and Morrigan’s part, once again, was so emotional it really conjured up mixed feelings.
For one, it was an overall dire situation with the main city being overrun by a Darkspawn horde led by the Archdemon. There was chaos and death everywhere. The city was in ruins and fires were burning all over the place. People were screaming and the sound of war was around every corner. Then there was the emotional burden that a beloved character would vanish into thin air when all is said and done, with your hero’s unborn virtual child. No other game had me feel like this before. I was caught in between wanting to finish this sucker off and not wanting to do it at all. In the end, curiosity and the urge to get to the end gained the upper hand and I pushed myself through.
On my sister’s play through it all went differently. She played a female character and hers was in love with Alistair. Morrigan, being in the group for a reason, still proposed the idea of the Dark Ritual but was declined by my sister. Instead, when it came to ram a sword through the dragon’s skull to put it down, an argument among those two characters broke out about who were to sacrifice himself.
Being madly in love, Alistair ignored my sister’s choice to end her own character’s life and so he did it himself. I mean, wow. Two different outcomes, both extremely emotional and sad. I wonder if there is any luck to be had in getting a happy end.
Once the dragon went down, Bioware didn’t just show the credits and call it a day. That’s something Gothic 4 did and it really ruined an otherwise entertaining game. Dragon Age Origins lets you reap your rewards, given that you survive. For my Drölf I witnessed a nice ceremony and speech by then king Alistair (only if you play in a way where he becomes king and lives at the end). Afterwards you can have short chats with the remaining companions to collect your praise and ask about what they’ll do in the future. A nice touch is that when asked by Alistair what I’d do next I had the option to answer with “I’ll try to find Morrigan”. The game ends when you walk out the door of the ceremony hall to show yourself to the cheering folk as The Hero of Ferelden.
To finish things off, future development of the story’s main plot points and characters is told using short texts on beautifully rendered background images, e.g. that the dwarves fell back into a political cold war among themselves, Alistair was a loved king but he didn’t love being king, that the other group members went their separate ways and, through a ring Morrigan gave Drölf and I kept on my character, he could feel her and how she was sorry for how things had to end.
Still emotional, still sad. But wow, I care about something like that in this game where I did not in Diablo 3. Do you remember what happens shortly before the end? A young girl, Leah, finds her long lost mother through the help of the hero, only to be sacrificed by her witch-mother to become a vessel for the Lord of Darkness, Diablo. And no one cares about that when that ugly beast goes down.
With around 65 hours spent in the fantasy world of Ferelden, travelling with different companions and deciding on how to talk to them and with other people while having them around, I really formed an emotional connection where other games or movies or books failed. The fact that you play an active role in conversations instead of just doing the fighting makes the big difference. It also helps that the character development and relationships are very well designed and coherent throughout the whole game. It is all so real, all the while being just a game. In movies or books you are more or less a passive consumer and only a few were able to draw me in this far. Fringe is an example of a TV series and the Inheritance saga (Eragon) when it comes to books.
I haven’t really mentioned the gameplay but that doesn’t mean it does not deserve any credits. If it were bad, I don’t think I would have made it through to the end. As said at the very beginning, there’s an extensive skill tree for each class from which you can pick and choose to suit your preferred playing style. Unlike the other aforementioned RPGs, looting is not the biggest factor in this game. You’ll find a lot of gear and you’ll upgrade from time to time. But it’s not like you’ll find one mind blowing uber-monster-smasher after the other. Mostly you have to be content with what you have and use your group’s skills wisely instead. You can select from a range of offensive and defensive powers and even specialize in poison or trap making, or herbalism which enables you to brew your own health potions. Of course there are mages as well. That lot can heal or conjure up powerful firestorms, blizzards and the like. It’ll never get boring and if you don’t play on easy, you’ll really need those skills. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to take out a group of enemies with a powerful mage by casting a few environmental catastrophes and just stand there and watch.
With Dragon Age Origins being a text book role playing game and not just some sort of action adventure, you will find a huge amount of side quests that help you amass experience to level up your party and also earn and find gold and loot with which you can finance new gear and crafting materials. All those side quest also help to maintain the illusion of this vast and living fantasy world. They tell random stories or sometimes tales of the past that are activated while you explore the world and find some item, note or a specific place. There is a lot to do and it is fun doing it.
I also played the expansion pack The Awakening. There you can import your character from the main game (or create a new one) and play another story that continues right where the first one ended. In this adventure you are the commander of the Grey Wardens that are trying to regroup, but are surprisingly attacked by remaining Darkspawn forces that, for whatever reason, didn’t flee when the Archdemon was defeated. I have met three characters from the main mission, and only one (the one I most disliked) can be part of your party.
The game still feels the same and plays the same, only with even more skills. But when you try to think yourself into your hero’s situation you become aware that somehow it is not the same. It is as I would imagine it would be after succeeding in such a big undertaking. Just as in real life, e.g. once you graduate from school, everybody moves on with their own lives and you’ll probably only see very few of your old mates again. That’s how the addon feels. It’s still very fun playing it, but again, after so much invested time I somehow became attached to my previous group and the new one couldn’t get near that experience in any way. The short encounters with King Alistair and Wynne simply mimic how life works. At some point all good things come to an end, even if they are as dreadful as a Blight.
The Awakening is not really necessary from a story perspective. It gives a little insight into what triggered the Blight, but as already mentioned, the character interactions are not as satisfying. Maybe it feels different if you don’t import a character (or have yours die by killing the Archdemon) and start fresh. I can’t really tell though if anything that happens in the expansion pack has any relevance in Dragon Age 2 or Dragon Age Inquisition.
Lucky for my character there is also a DLC called Witch Hunt which provides closure for all of those that chose to perform the Dark Ritual. If your character was in a love relationship with Morrigan they can be together or, if you just wanted to save your sorry ass, you can attack her for running with the child. I’m not sure how it goes if you refused the ritual. I guess I have to find out by playing the game at least one more time.
I hope I was able to convey what kind of an impact this game had on me. I really think it is a piece of art! It is a very well told story that takes place in a well crafted fantasy world and is combined with exciting character skills and game mechanics. This is a must-buy if you are into this kind of stuff.