This one will be a little different.
What we here at Yawning Portal do is look at roleplaying games – past, present and future. We have also recently started following board games. What we have so far left alone and don’t intend to pursue are computer and video games. Sure, there has been the occasional dip of the toe into that pool but from an RPG perspective. I am an avid and lifelong video gamer, but that’s for others to write on.
There is something about a noted and very popular video game series that has really stuck with me for years now. Many of you will be familiar with the Dragon Age series of games. These are massive, high budget RPG games developed by Bioware who are if not the giants of computer roleplaying games (CRPG’s) then pretty damn close to it, having been behind Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect and of course Dragon Age among many others. Currently there are three games, Dragon Age Origins (DAO), Dragon Age II (DA2) and Dragon Age Inquisition (DAI), along with some lesser side projects.
Simply put, DAO was a massive commercial and critical hit and deservedly so. It had great characters, great gameplay and mechanics, tactical depth, fantastic lore and world building and an unbelievable variety of choice for how you built your character and his or her companions. It also had a feature that made it truly stand it out in that the background of your character made the intro completely different, so if you were a Dalish elf, you got a sylvan exploration story with mystical elements while a city elf had a gritty, urban story that showed how they were treated as second class citizens confined to a ghetto. I don’t know if this is unique, but I cannot think of another game where your origin played as large a role. It’s safe to say that DA2, while very successful commercially, was considerably more debated amongst both critics and players. It was far more focused on action and played very differently, reused the same maps frequently and was a lot more shallow game.
And I will fight to the death contending that it is in many ways the superior game for reasons that us roleplayers should appreciate.
Not for its gameplay. In that sense, it is the lesser game. Instead of tough tactical fights where placement and thinking ahead was key, it shifted to faster fights where abilities had cooldowns instead of using a regenerating resource (mana and stamina). There was no risk of friendly fire and your companions could, for the most parts, be relied upon to handle themselves on auto-pilot. It got very tiring to explore the same cave for the fifteenth time and the waves of enemies were also a bone of contention. The argument has been made, justifiably, that it was dumbed down.
But what a story…
DAO has incredible characters and the six unique origin stories is a brilliant feature. The endings are also highly variable and interesting. The main story is another matter. It is a rather boring, common- or garden hero saves the world story that is by now all too familiar. A horrible looming threat that isn’t taken seriously, only the hero and his companions truly understand the true danger. The heroes are the only ones that can save the world and must gather allies but most also make difficult choices along the way, always in an either-or fashion – such as choosing between the mages or the templars. For clarification, in the DA world mages are greatly feared and must stay in what are called circles and watched over by by the templars, an order of chantry (church) warriors that have special powers and resistance to magic and often quite zealous and hateful to the mages. Then the heroes gather the armies and fight the great threat in a huge and epic climactic battle. The end. Another problem for me is that your character, the star of the show, has no voice. Granted, that is a technical limitation that was still common back then, but has always been distracting to me. Don’t read too much into this though. I love DAO and the story is fine. It’s just a bit bland and familiar but it’s forgiven because the game is truly excellent in almost every way. I think it hasn’t aged all that well, but I don’t let that bother me – hell, I’m still regularly playing a game from 1996 that by today’s standard is an eyesore in its presentation. The good far outweighs the bad.
DA2 has a very different story, a kind of story these epic, huge games almost never explore. I’m even going to go so far as to call it a brave choice. It’s the story of one man or woman, their family and friends and the city they call home and it happens over a long time. Only at the very end do the things you’ve done and choices you’ve made become clear in the context of the wider world and have far reaching consequences that do change the world. And you barely see it yourself. In fact, the game even tricks you! You could argue with considerable merit that in the end, you were a pawn and one of your companions is the true main character of the story . Most of your companions in this story are fantastic. The standouts are Varric the dwarf, a storyteller and charming rogue who may not even be entirely telling the truth when he recounts your story and wields a mean crossbow, and the warrior Aveline who is the dictionary definition of a tank, she’s practically indestructible and soaks up damage like a sponge while drawing in the enemies. While the game is made when women in video games more or less came from the same mould, she is not the standard classically beautiful damsel but a tough, fit woman with sensible braids and a strong jaw. And, in a series noted for you being able to romance everyone, neither of them is remotely interested in being your paramour. Instead, they are great and true friends – you can even help Aveline in her rather clumsy attempts at wooing a man who may become her husband with your help. You also start the game with your younger siblings, the dour and jealous Carver and the innocent but powerful Bethany, but one of them (depending on your class) will die early in the game and your choices will greatly affect the other’s future. The other sibling will become either a rival or great friend, as siblings do. Then there is the apostate mage Anders, who refuses to be in a circle and operates as a healer in the slums and is far more than he seems. There are more, all pretty good and so are the NPC’s. For some reason I can’t stand Fenris, the magic resistant former elven slave with a giant chip on his shoulder. But he has many fans and this is just my opinion.
Both games have great characters. But what matters to me and the reason I’m writing about a game that is six years old on a site that doesn’t cover video games is the story and setting. The game is set in three acts plus a prologue over four years, with a one year break between each act. Almost the entire story happens in one city and its closest surroundings and the city is an important character itself. The events of the story are what happens to you, your family and friends. Of course there is more and there is the constant and slow buildup of tension for the world changing events of the ending. But the main focus is you and the relationships and events, often tragic, that you experience. Without spoiling too much this is more the less the track: You flee the war-torn and blighted country of Ferelden (while the events of DAO are taking place) and end up in the city of Kirkwall, penniless. You become a mercenary and slowly build up funds for a dangerous expedition that ends with you discovering great treasures, but also suffering tragedies. You have become wealthy but there is trouble in the city, as a group of Qunari (horned militant giants who follow a fanatical philosophy or religion) become closer and closer to open conflict and you are instrumental in resolving this. Now you are wealthy, respected and famous. In the final act, you are almost accidentally a vital participant in the rift between the oppressed but dangerous mages and the fanatical and brutal templars of Kirkwall and the outcome of that will change the entire world. In the end, Insertname Hawke (i.e. you, default first names are Marian and Garrett), is a name that in some circles is celebrated as a great hero and others as a ruthless terrorist and have been instrumental in a dramatic change in the world. And that’s where DAI takes off, which is all I’ll say on that. DAI is as far as I’m concerned a great game with some problems, most of which don’t bother me. It was highly successful and the inevitable fourth game is already in some stage of development.
I relate to Hawke, whether it’s he or she as a warrior, mage or rogue. They have a voice this time around and I feel their pain when the all too frequent tragedies occur. But note that while I’ve spent a lot of time praising the excellent story of DA2, there is something I haven’t mentioned. That would be the plot. Those two things are not the same and the plot of DA2 is a mess. There are some gaping holes and leaps of logic that even for a video game are a bit much, most of them because no matter what you do, the game must in the end lead you to a certain point. That means that there are occasions when you do feel that your choice, while dramatic and even difficult at the moment, didn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things and that can be quite jarring. However, I think plot always takes a backseat to story. Just look at the original Star Wars. Fantastic story, ludicrous plot. Or the Big Sleep (1946), often sited as one of the greatest written films of all time – there is a murder in the film that cannot be solved and is left a mystery completely accidentally. One of the scriptwriters, no lesser a name than Raymond friggin’ Chandler, was later asked about it and simply confessed that they just forgot and nobody even noticed.
Another problem that all the DA games suffer from is the necessary compromise with magic. Magic and mages are deeply distrusted in the DA universe, since it is basically granted by demons that can possess or take over the mage. Most people have never seen a mage and don’t want to. Yet, you and your companions can blast fireballs in a pub fight and nobody raises an eyebrow. If you play Hawke as a mage, you should through the first two acts be constantly in hiding because you’re not in the circle but an apostate and templars brutally hunt down apostates. There’s no way around this problem and I ignore it but I know many are bothered by this omission.
So what’s your damn point?
The lesson here, for us in the RPG crowd, is this: Many campaigns, especially the longer ones, have a wide scope with massive stakes. Every experienced player has saved the world many times. And then retired the character, created a new one and saved the world again.
But why not try a campaign with a narrow scope and a more intimate story, where it’s not about the fate of the world but the fate of you and the people you care about? Where your relationship with others and your home is more important than the shadow in the north or the blot in the sky or whatever? There will always be a threat to the world and pretty much all RPG systems have a save the world adventure ready for whenever.
The world can wait for a while. Your loved ones can’t.