Moral Conflict, Character Development and Consequences: A Dragon Age Origins Review

Posted by Will Ooi | Posted in Gaming | Tags: , , | Posted on 09-03-2010-05-2008

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RPGs tend to always intimidate me before I start one: upon estimating the hours I’m going to need to commit towards understanding the equipment system, not to mention navigating all those menus and grasping the fictional history as well as figuring out the combat tactics, it worries me ever so greatly and yet, strangely, I am never sufficiently put off enough to avoid the genre altogether. The worry stems from a selfishness: a concern borne out of a fear of what will happen to me if I actually like the game. Or rather more specifically, what will happen to me if I actually, sincerely, love the game.

Despite all the great reviews DA:O has received, that wariness still existed in the back corners of my mind, particularly after my last attempt at an RPG – the ever-frustrating Lost Odyssey –  ended with me angrily cursing, switching off and trading the game in after having to put up with one too many twenty-minute-long ‘random encounters’ despite my best efforts to excuse them. The short story ‘Dream’ segments unlocked in the game were amazing and beautifully written, but they were way too few and far between amidst such an archaic turn-based RPG gameplay system filled with uninteresting, lacklustre characters and a completely forgettable plot seemingly incongruent to those bonuses.

Dragon Age Origins, on the other hand, was developed by Bioware, responsible for completely captivating me with Mass Effect and many others prior with the Baldur’s Gate series and that ever-mentioned beloved acronym, KOTOR, and I really should have seen the impact of DA:O coming from a mile away given the developer’s reputation as I picked the game up more out of curiosity than anticipation: an epic story, well-written and realised characters, and most impressively, an entire backstory of Tolkien proportions. So amazing in fact that it’s produced yet another variation of that RPG fear of mine: a simple question of whether I will have the time to play through as all the different races to fully experience all the variation in the titular ‘origin stories’ this game has to offer, not to mention going through all the DLC… and then there’s still that Mass Effect 2 second playthrough I’ve been meaning to get through continuing to tease and tempt me in the background.

I adore a great story and the experience of a quality game. I love being transported into that fictional world, becoming as one with my on-screen character. I get disappointed when game stories are terrible, akin to awful Hollywood movies all about explosions and visuals without even a hint of a soul in sight. A soul, you ask? In a game? Perhaps I do have unrealistically high expectations of video games and am often left pondering their true power as a medium, but then something like DA:O shows up with not only a soul, but also a heart in the form of its characters and an entire in-game history to be studied.

And I mean studied, too. Given the number of codex entries in the game, even dwarfing that of Mass Effect, I couldn’t help but realise that this was the digital equivalent of Tolkien’s Silmarillion. Indeed, the main story and Darkspawn enemies are reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, but it’s how all those individual story elements and themes are brought together for Dragon Age – the races, the mythology, the history; the way it all collides and the conflict caused as a result – which has really touched me. Every single aspect of the game comes with its own explanation and backstory where discussions on racism and discrimination (both across as well as within races), religion, and class are all presented from both sides of the coin and presented in the form of difficult decisions accompanied with much moral conflict, with it being up left solely up to the player which path they wish to choose. As a result not only has my faith in quality RPGs been restored, so too has my belief that the medium can continue to achieve an unmatched form of emotional power.

The relationships you form with your recruited allies is incredible thanks to excellent voice acting, with the conversations and interaction between all the 3-plus-yourself combinations of party members a particular standout. Taking a break in-between quests at your party camp not only offers a reprieve from the often-difficult but rewarding combat itself but also serves as the perfect opportunity to get to know the characters in the game. Even non-playable characters possess charm and presence, my particular favourites being Wade the armourer and his impatient shop-assistant in Denerim. There is a deep sense of attachment in DA:O which improves on what was offered in Mass Effect 1, but is sadly missing in Mass Effect 2 as the latter game favoured action setpieces ahead of the original’s purer RPG character development elements. Not to say that ME2 is lacking story and character-wise, but playing it after DA:O I do feel as if ME2’s characters and their motivations weren’t as well-defined or expanded upon as they could have been.

Dragon Age Origins is the kind of game where pictures, or in this case screenshots, cannot do justice to the content on offer. The impact it’s had on me is really something I didn’t expect, and never have I felt so touched in a video game as during the Urn of Sacred Ashes quest when the Guardian revealed the very essences of my character and those of my party, in particular, Leliana. An Orlesian bard who had placed her complete faith in the Chantry – i.e. a female songstress who had given up a shadowy past to become a devout believer of the Maker, the game’s representation of the Judaeo-Christian God and its delivery through Catholicism – and being told that her faith was misguided, deluded and selfish, was an incredibly powerful and almost soul-destroying moment. It was also the instant when I understood how deep this game really was.

Similarly with the game’s choices, never before have I come across a title which has really nailed the idea of consequence and regret. Fallout 3 almost did it to me when Dogmeat died and I felt compelled to load up my last save game and lose several hours of play just so he could live again, and also when Jericho was finished off after we were ambushed in the Wasteland by multiple albino radscorpions, but ultimately it was too personal and individual a game in that everything I did essentially only affected myself and my own feelings and style of play. Mass Effect 2’s imported files from the first game offered little more than brief cameos of the outcomes of my actions in the first game as the sequel focused mainly on the new story. In both cases there was no tangible sense of dwelling on and acknowledging that a mistake had been made if or when the repercussions came back to haunt me.

By the end of my first playthrough as a ‘good’ character I had become so attached to my party members that all of my choices were based entirely on a sense of responsibility which had slowly evolved over the course of the game, whereas the second time round in being a ‘bad’ character my poor and inconsiderate decisions led to Leliana and Alistair leaving in disgust, several others rebelling, and me greatly regretting the course of my actions. To compare it to Mass Effect, these harsh consequences were no doubt inspired by the confrontation with Wrex in ME1, but even considering the finale of ME2 where the lives of your crew were at stake, there was never that fear throughout the game that you could hurt or offend someone so irreversibly that they would hold a grudge against you for good. In other words, being responsible for lives being lost is one thing. Being responsible for betraying someone you had become attached to while they still lived is quite another.

For a game to make me believe in the fantasy and to then make me feel something from it is a rarity. My choices were hardly ever beneficial for everyone concerned, and there were many occasions where I wish I had said or done things differently because of the consequences that followed. That fear of playing an intimidatingly large RPG has translated into a fear of hurting a character’s feelings, and it is a credit to the game that multiple playthroughs as different races produces a different experience as, for instance, background characters encountered in previously end up being your close friends the next time you encounter them, completely changing the context of your actions. To be drawn to the story and the characters so much that choice becomes an emotional effort rather than a curious novelty of the game is Dragon Age Origins’ greatest strength, leaving me with yet another important decision: determining when next to dedicate the time to play through it again, just to see what other outcomes and ramifications are on offer.

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