Dragon Age: Origins – Formulatic But Awesome

Just the other day I finished my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins and I must say that I loved it. I previously wrote that I was disappointed with Mass Effect and suspected that Dragon Age may be similar. Fortunately, Bioware did very well this time. Dragon Age did deliver all the entertainment it promised, and lived up to the hype – at least in my eyes. What I remember most about Mass Effect were the extremely boring side missions, and my annoyance with certain plot elements. On the other hand, Dragon Age in my mind, stands out as a great story with memorable characters and interesting plot twists. Mass Effect is a decent but flawed game – Dragon Age is an experience. This is precisely how I remember KoOR and Jade Empire as well. Awesome digital adventures.

Dungeon, check. Gigant spiders, check. Company of heroes, check. Magic spells that freeze anemies, check. Yep, it's a fantasy RPG.

Of course the game is not devoid of flaws. The most often cited criticism is that it is very generic. That it is a re-hash of rather bland Tolkienesque fantasy setting with an old played out story. A hero must save the world from an invading horde of inhuman monsters. You can’t really argue with that – that’s what the game is about. But I wouldn’t hold it against it. Let’s face it – some types of stories and settings just work. That’s why we go back to them time and time again. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you tell a story. If you think about it, there is actually a limited number of stories you can tell. If we really put our minds to it, we could break all books and movies ever made down to few dozen tropes, themes and plots – the storytelling building blocks if you will. The originality comes not from inventing new blocks, but from using the ones you have to build something worthwhile. You can experiment and arrange the blocks in unexpected way hoping to build something interesting. Or you can put a lot of effort in building a traditional but stable and reliable structure, and then finish it by adding a lot of interesting detail.

Dragon Age also features demons dressed like strippers with nipple tassles.

This is exactly what Bioware did fror Dragon Age. While the setting of the game is fairly generic, it is not entirely unoriginal. There was a lot of work done to actually make the game world seem alive, and bigger than it is. There are deep conversation trees from you can learn about the world’s history, neighboring countries and their customs, ancient legends and etc. And while the game uses very standard set of playable races and professions, they differ from the standard Tolkien template. Let me give you couple examples here.

In most Fantasy Elves are more or less “the awesome race”. They are tall, proud, stuck up – but they have very good reasons for it. They are simply better than humans in every way. They live longer, they are more agile, more limber, smarter, better at magic, more beautiful, more cultured, better at arts and crafts and etc.. They just radiate awesomeness. Not in Dragon Age. Bioware does something unexpected here and decides to portray elves as classless rabble – a fallen race which has no land, no status and is struggling to preserve the little culture and old customs they have left. They are much like Gypsies, or perhaps Native Americans. Those elves who live among men are treated as inferior race. They live in gated districts called “alienages” usually in poverty and often near starvation. Guards posted at the gates are there more to keep the elves from venturing out to the city and causing trouble, rather than from defending them from xenophobic city folk. Only lucky few that “make it” and manage to find jobs and homes outside the alienages – and even among those, large numbers return after their possessions have been robbed, and their families were ran out of town by lunch mobs.

Elves in the Allienage

Elves in the Allienage

Some elves leave human cities and try to reconnect with their roots. Still, their way of live is not easy and full of danger as well. Having no land of their own, the only place where they can live are dangerous forests and wastelands far from human settlements. Of course these places are also homes to dangerous beasts, bandits and other lawless men.

One of the Dalish Elf nomads

Mages got a very similar treatment. In most fantasy settings, magic users are powerful individuals that are both feared and respected. In Dragon Age, they are all essentially indentured servants of the Chantry – the equivalent of the Medieval church. Because of their power, and danger of being possessed by demons (who prey on magic users) all those who show magic talent must go live and study in the Circle of Mages tower. The tower is the only place where they are allowed to learn and practice their craft – and is heavily guarded by Chantry Templars. No one is allowed to leave the tower, unless they have a special dispensation. Furthermore, the Templars are authorized to execute any mages that show signs of possession and in worst case scenario “clense” the tower by sealing it off and killing every one inside. Needless to say, it kinda sucks to be a mage.

Templars making sure that all apprentices are properly tested before being inducted into the mage order.

Do you see what I’m talking about here? Details like this make the setting feel new and fresh. Same goes for the plot. Once you finish your Origin Story and the Ostagar section, it looks very similar to KoTOR or Mass Effect. You have a map with a few locations you can travel to. In each location you will have to undertake a series of quests which will culminate in a major boss fight. It is very formulaic, yes – but not completely devoid of unexpected plot twists. Each location has an interesting storyline of its own, and you will sometimes be asked to completely re-evaluate your position and your involvement in the conflict by the time you reach the final boss.

The order in which you pick your locations is up to you though and it will affect how the game unfolds. In some of them you will be able to obtain rare items, in others you will meet new companions. For example, visiting the tower of mages early on will allow you to recruit a healer who will be a great help in major boss fights. If you skip Lothering village you may not have access to a Rogue character, preventing you from opening some locked doors and chests. These characters will also sometimes butt in and add their own input to important conversations with NPC’s.

Oh hey, I wonder if the redhead will be a companion now...

All of this helps to create an impression of a fairly open ended world and flexible storyline. Of course if you play the game more than once, you will notice that this is not necessarily the case. The story is very linear, but that didn’t really bother me. I knew I was playing a Bioware game so I didn’t really expect to have a sandbox setting or anything like that. This gameplay mechanic worked for Bioware for years now, and I don’t really see the a need to change it. If the story is good, I don’t actually mind the linearity.

I was pleasantly surprised that the game had no karma system. You know, no slider that shows you how good or evil you are at any given time. God, I hate that game mechanic but almost every single RPG title released recently had it. Oblivion had it, Fallout 3 had it, Mass Effect had it. It almost seemed like there was no escaping it. Fortunately Dragon Age skipped it, and I think it was for the better. It gave it the much needed moral ambiguity and made a lot of the choices you make in the game much more interesting. I said it before, and I’ll say it again – every time you hand out good/evil points for moral choices you dumb down the game. There is no escaping it. For one, you must design dialog trees in such a way that they clearly express you malicious or benevolent intent. Two, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. Once you have this system in place, you tend to get into a habit of constructing every dialog and every quest around it. In Dragon Age, your choices don’t affect your imaginary karma bar. They affect your relationship with your companions. If you choose to do something they do not approve, they will like you less. If you do something valiant, brave or follow their suggestions they will like you more. Well, except Morrigan who is a bitch and as a rule she does not approve of anything you do. She likes gifts though, so if you keep giving her random shit, she will fall in love with you before the end of the game despite never actually agreeing with your decisions.

Morrigan is not pleased. She is never pleased no matter what to do. Unless you give her shiny gifts. She is ok with those.

Of course if you leave a particularly squeamish companion (or Morrigan) in the camp, then you are free to do whatever you want. They just won’t know about your decisions, and will usually never find out or ask about it. Unless if course it pertains to them in which case they might ask, and you have an option of lying. For me this is a more realistic, and much more entertaining than a stupid karma slider.

I want to keep this initial post spoiler free for those who haven’t finished the game. I will have another post somewhere down the line where I will talk about the end game – and it will be clearly marked as spoilerish. So please don’t discuss any major plot twists in the comments.

I will eave you with this question: which were your most and least favorite companions? I was particularly fond of Alistair and Leliana. I played with a male Dwarf warrior the first time around, and I really liked how he and Alistair became buddies and used to joke around by the campfire. I also liked how he tried to talk my character out of the brief fling with Morrigan. Speaking of whom, she was not only a witch and a bitch but also rather shallow and vain to boot. I showered her with gifts to offset the fact that she hated every single thing I did, gave her a few compliments and she basically threw herself at me. I have to say though, that despite being super annoying most of the time, she sort of grew on me. I actually laughed when she gave me a ring that allowed her to stalk me after I got her relationship bar to 100. The relationship with Leliana on the other hand was much more rewarding – probably because you had to work at it. It seemed to develop gradually. Also, Shmooples FTW. I was also fond of Wynne who sort of became a mother figure for the whole company.

Leliana is about to lip-sync the main theme of Dragon Age for me

My least favorite characters were probably Zhevran and Sten. The elf was just slimy, and I didn’t trust him. It also didn’t help that he kept hitting on my character despite me telling him to cut it out. Sten was just… Standoffish and distant. I never really took him along anywhere because I was playing a strong tank myself. I also didn’t really give him much gifts because Morrigan sucked up everything I didn’t save up for Leliana or Alistair. So he never opened up to me, I never did his quests and just allowed him to stay in camp and brood.

You know Sten, I pulled a lot of strings to get you out of that cage. If you gonna be like that, I'm just going to leave you here.

Shale looked like an interesting companion but I didn’t buy any of the DLC’s. Besides, I don’t think I would use him/her/it much due to the fact that I already had a tank character and also, having a companion who can’t use regular loot would be a waste.

How about you? Did you like the game? Did you hate it? Who is your favorite and least favorite character.

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13 Responses to Dragon Age: Origins – Formulatic But Awesome

  1. ah.. i can comment at last :-)

    How about you? Did you like the game? Did you hate it? Who is your favorite and least favorite character

    Best Game since NWN 1!
    Best characters: Morrigan & Dogmeat^Wthe Dog (^.^)

    As you said: a good point is that you can’t really play a (chaotic-)evil-character… it wouldn’t make sense. Someone who only cares about his own good wouldn’t fight the darkspawn.. maybe a litle for fun and there might even be a point where he/she would consider fighting this big evil dragon-deamon-thing, but going after this goal for months? rescuing all puppies, dwarfs and elves on his way through? i don’t think so!

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  2. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    [Grammatical nitpickery] “gave her few compliments” would emphasis the smallness of the number, as if it is smaller than the average number of compliments given. “gave her a few compliments” I think is more likely what you meant.

    (I know, different languages do different things with articles, and some don’t use them at all, but I thought I’d say)[/grammatical nitpickery]

    My interest is drawn to this relationship system as a karma replacement. I’m wondering if there’s ever a situation where you can make one choice, which negatively affects a relationship for not entirely predictable reasons, then a chance to change your mind after they express their displeasure, to get them back on your side. Maybe not… maybe that’s just what I would include occasionally with such a system.

    As gameplay mechanics go, “actions have consequences” is one that’s often claimed, but rarely fully implemented. I’d like to see something where that’s really well done. Or possibly, in the hypothetical future, be involved in the design of such a thing.

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  3. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Matt`:

    Fixed.

    Also, the game usually does give you the option to revise your decision based on the input of other characters. For example, every time Morrigan complains you are usually given a followup dialog option where you can side with her or stick with your previous plan.

    For crucial game-changing decisions which will affect whether or not a character leaves the party you will usually need to confirm your choice several times and have plenty of chances to back out.

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Interesting. I didn’t really like the dog all that much because it seemed like a waste of a character slot. With limited amount of items it could actually use, it seemed less useful than a regular party member.

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  4. The situation you describe with the mages sounds somewhat like it is in The Wheel of Time series. Very few people have the ability to wield magic (called the One Power). The male side of the One Power is tainted by corruption, so any men that can access the power gradually go mad and can do lots of damage (like the Breaking of the World, where all the male magic-users went mad at once and tore whole continents apart). When magic-wielding men are discovered the female Aes Sedai (mages) can cut them off permanently from the One Power, a process called “gentling”, taking away their power and source of madness. That sounds like the demon possession thing in Dragon Age.

    (The catch that’s the central part of the whole story is that only a certain, special male Aes Sedai can save the world from the Big Bad Guy in the final, epic battle. History always repeats itself, so this man, called the Dragon Reborn, is reborn each “age” to fulfill this role. But now that the male half of the One Power is tainted, which only just happened at the end of the last age (I think), this extremely powerful man will inevitably go mad. But he can’t be gentled until after he plays his part to save the world. So it’s a race against the clock.)

    For the women, when they are discovered to have the ability to use magic they are brought to the White Tower, the central place for all the magic-users, and trained there. They can’t leave until they’ve learned enough to not hurt themselves. Those who want to learn more can stay and become Aes Sedai themselves.

    Now that I type it out, maybe it’s not all that similar. :-P

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  5. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ Chris Wellons:

    It’s similar but different. In Dragon Age mages are connected to the Fade which is a parallel dimension that seems to be created and powered by human empathy – its the place where dreaming minds go when people falls asleep, and where raw emotions and urges coalesce into sentient beings known as demons. All people have some connection to the Fade, but mages have pretty much an open floodgate. They can draw energy from it to power their spells, but they are also a target for demons who can use this link to posses them and take over their bodies.

    Because of this all mages are forced to undergo a Harrowing ritual in which they are thrust unarmed into the fade and must defend themselves from any and all demons that choose to attack them. If they survive, they prove to the Circle that they are strong enough to resist being possessed in the future. If they fail and become possessed they are executed on the spot by Templars. If they take too long, the Templars will execute them just in case.

    Fortunately there is another option. Those who choose not to undergo harrowing can be made “Tranquil”. The ritual will strip them of all their magic power and make them inaccessible to demons. Unfortunately the ritual cuts one’s link to fade completely, which makes the Tranquil unable to experience normal human emotion. It’s a bit harsh, but most of the Tranquil don’t regret their decision, and are perfectly content with their stunted emotional state.

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  6. fae,or UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Hey you do realise Shale is free DLC? And she’s by far the best tank, if you do another playthrough I recommend being a mage and letting Shale tank :)

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  7. @ Luke Maciak:
    As seen in the first Mage-Quest: Not every Mage CHOOSES to become Tranquil, some just get told they should become Tranquils and not all like this.

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  8. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @ fae,or:

    Really? Well shit! I just started a mage origin story… I might be tempted to try and play it through Ostragar and Lothering just to check Shale out.

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  9. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Sten is my favorite companion, because the few lines he speaks actually make me smile (like : tell me about your people -> no, why not ? -> I don’t want to). He’s also the only one to question your leadership, a very good point as you have done nothing at all to deserve it. This trust people seem to place in you doesn’t ring true with the history of grey wardens and Ferelden, but this is a game and you have to be the hero…

    My least favorite companion would be Leliana, because her fake exagerated french accent was just too much to bear. I felt like I was back in high school during english lessons, listening to my classmates read a text they don’t understand… Listening to her talk was a chore, same with all Orlesian NPCs. Also, she’s pretty bad as a companion, and was only in my party to open chests until Zevran got enough levels to raise the skill.

    I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the game, but I expected a little more from the story. It’s really not epic until the very few last hours of the game. That, and the mandatory dungeon crawlings. Doing them once is fine. Replaying through them is annoying. The “choice” you can make for each main quest is usually after 99% of the dungeon is cleared, and only affects which enemy you fight in the boss battle, a few lines of dialogue and who you’ll be able to call at the end, so it was also quite lacking there.

    Now finished 2 playthroughs, seen all outcomes for the main quests and the results of two origin stories. I doubt I’ll play again just to see what happens with the other 4, but I’ve been modding the game for a while now and I quite like the toolset.

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  10. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    The replay value of this game is fine when you start with a different race and try the different opening quests – but once these are done, it can get old, very fast. The cool thing is you can fly through the PC version by using various cheats (start the game directly, not through the Launcher). In game you hit the tilde (~) and then you can type in commands (you won’t see them, so spelling is really, really important). My favs are “runscript killallhostiles” and “runscript zz_money 90000″ (the latter giving you 9 gold).

    I also tried “runscript addtalent x” where x is a 5 or 6 digit number (usually) related to a particular talent. Very cool to try different specs without going through the game a thousand times.

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  11. Steve CANADA Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Oh…and if you want to see something fun with Sten and Ohgren, try this:

    When you get captured by Loghain’s head soldier-chick person, and you are in the dungeon, choose to be rescued by Sten and Ohgren. Their dialog as they try to trick their way pass the guards is priceless.

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  12. jelloegg UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    “which were your most and least favorite companions?”

    I think I should be asked: who didn’t I like? I like Alistair because of his witticism (is that a word?). I like Zevran because……well, just because. I like Shale for his/her dislike of birds (too funny). I like Morrigan because of her snarky comments. I’m not sure what to say about the others, but I know I didn’t like Sten (I only put him in my party to give him gifts and for the occasional romp).

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  13. Barry Jamison UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Luke Maciak:

    According to the Chantry: The Fade is analogous to our ‘astral realm,’ and in DA lore, it was the first world created by The Maker, into which were created his ‘First Children,’ spirits (which include demons).

    After, he created humans, animals, the physical world, etc.

    When people dream, their minds enter The Fade. This is when demons can most easily tempt/possess them.

    Mages pull their power from the Fade. Lyrium allows one to harness the Fade. The Fade is tied to consciousness. Tranquils do not dream, and can not enter the Fade. Archons of the Emperium caused the ‘first fall,’ by physically entering the Fade… and were cast out, becoming the original DarkSpawn.

    PS. Dragon Age is one of the best video games I’ve ever played. Heroic, archetypal, and visceral. Nearly perfect for the genre.

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