So. Dragon Age: Origins. I’m a pretty big BioWare fan, though more on their action RPG side: Jade Empire was the game where I fell in love with them, and of their two recent games, it’s not due to chance that I played Mass Effect 2 first. But I enjoy their games in general, and I’ve seen more interesting blog posts about Dragon Age than any other game I can think of, so certainly I was going to play it when I had a bit of free time in my gaming schedule. And any game that Kateri thinks so highly of has to be rather good: her liking it doesn’t necessarily mean that I will, but it almost certainly means that I’ll respect it.
Which I do. But I also have no idea what to say about it! So I’ll fall back on my favorite technique of free-associating; and, given the scope of the game, that will be a lot of associating indeed.
Let’s start off with the “action RPG” label that I mentioned above. Dragon Age isn’t an action RPG, but a lot of the time its combat plays like one. Which is mostly good: it means that you don’t have to spend more time than necessary on the simple battles. (It’s possible for a turn-based RPG to have similarly fast battles—see Chrono Trigger—but these days the style is for turn-based RPGs to spend too much time animating you into and out of combat.) Though that does raise the question: what is the point of the simple battles, exactly?
For the hard battles, though, the battle system started to fall apart. You really want all of your party members to be working well together; for better or for worse, however, I’d reacted to the action aspect of the battles by only directly controlling my primary character, which meant that I had very little idea of how I wanted to use my other characters’ abilities, and the interface left me with no desire to actively switch between them. (Incidentally, one aspect of the “Leliana’s Song” DLC that I enjoyed was having an excuse to try out playing as a rogue.) Maybe the tactics controls would have left me with sufficient control to pull that off without pulling out my hair, maybe it would have worked better if I’d been playing on a PC instead of an Xbox; as it was, I just fell down to easy.
There were a lot of items to pick up; I bought all the backpacks I could, but on the long dungeons, they still got full, which just increased my annoyance at said long dungeons. There were, potentially, some interesting choices to be made in my choices of items to keep, of armor sets to target; I didn’t feel like thinking about that too hard or looking up the community’s recommended courses of action in that regard, though.
I was expecting to look forward to learning about the history of the world. Thinking back, though, I skimmed most of the encyclopedia material in Mass Effect 2, so perhaps that falls under the category of something that I think I’ll like more than I actually like it. (I do think that building a history for your world makes it richer, but that doesn’t mean that you benefit from making that material available to players.) I can’t say for sure one way or another, though, because Dragon Age combined a huge amount of material with an interface that made it impossible to find bits of lore that you hadn’t read: there’s no way to tell unread lore from previously read lore unless its entry happened to be on the first screen.
Which all adds up to a feeling of meh. Is that fair? Maybe I should look at the game through my musicals analogy: embrace the set pieces? I don’t think that analogy is really relevant here: that analogy suggests that I shouldn’t worry too much about the overall narrative structure, but here my feeling is that the set pieces don’t hold together particularly well. (They certainly don’t have the crispness of a good song in a musical).
Failing that, what about the Bohemian Rhapsody analogy? Embrace the overwhelming nature of the game, its ungainly aspects, the ways in which it sails past convention, heedless of the sharp corners that result?
But, of course, Dragon Age doesn’t sail past convention: that’s exactly the problem! In a weird way, though, there’s something here nonetheless: the game was so overwhelming in its adherence to RPG tropes that I ended up ignoring them, ended up going through them and coming out on the good side. If it broke me of the habit of reading through history, of opening chests just because they’re there, of swapping out party members and going through endless conversation trees just to see all of the choices and answers that ensue, and that’s all to the good. I don’t entirely approve of the methods there, but the outcome was curiously pleasing.
Relationships and Story
Speaking of choices and conversation trees: I was a female city elf mage. The most interesting part of my origin story was Jowan: I can’t remember the last tIme I’ve felt so conflicted about a quest in a game. Normally, I jump at a chance to be helpful, but what a drip!
And then Ostagar, and Alistair. Whom I was charmed by immediately, with his self-deprecating humor. Followed by the arrival in short order of Morrigan and Leliana: I really enjoyed being around all three of them, in particular Morrigan’s bickering with the other two; by the time other party members showed up on the scene, I couldn’t imagine swapping out any of those three.
(Side note: Leliana’s entrance, covered in blood spatters, is ridiculous. I read those omnipresent blood splatters as the strongest signal that the game is intentionally going so deep into genre and game conventions as to point out the absurdity and come out on the other side. But the game doesn’t manage to do that wholeheartedly (far too little camp for that to be the case), so it comes out as yet another sign of the game not making up its mind. Which, in its own way, is perhaps the strongest argument for viewing it through a Bohemian Rhapsody lens: the game throws in everything, you make of it what you will, and don’t expect consistency. I just wish there had been more fevered dreams, or indeed any fevered dreams.)
And characters kept on surprising me, and my attitude towards them changed. Sure, Alistair’s revealed as the potential heir to the throne; oddly enough, I reacted to that by mentally withdrawing somewhat. Which ended up making a lot of sense when I reached the part of the game where that really mattered: yes, I could have put Alistair on the throne, but to me the queen fit much better there. (Incidentally, I really appreciated her behavior towards me when I botched one aspect of her rescue.)
And then there’s the approval system. I could have tried to keep everybody’s approval as high as possible; I ended up completely ignoring it when choosing my actions. But I still really liked having the approval system in place: it was an accurate feedback mechanism for how I and the various characters approached the world differently. And it helped me notice that I was much more on the same wavelength with Leliana than with Alistair; I’d been charmed by him initially and assumed that I’d go on to romance him, but I ended up with Leliana, and I think she was a much better fit.
Morrigan generally disagreed with my actions; somehow, though, that never mattered to me, and I found that I really respected her and never questioned her fitting in as a member of my party. So when, towards the end of the game, she made two rather serious requests of me, I did them without thinking twice (or with only a little bit of thought): she was a party member, I had faith enough to go along with what she wanted.
And then there were the fringe party members: I was fond of the dog, certainly, but I never got to know Oghren, Zevran, Sten, Wynne. (Though I did end up disliking Wynne from what little contact I did have with her.) I was a little surprised when Zevran turned on me, but I’d been ignoring him the whole time, so I certainly can’t blame him.
I have no idea where this all ends up. I’m still ambivalent about RPGs in general, and about a lot of the details of the mechanics of the game. The game seems to some extent aware of those flaws, and I’m not sure if that makes matters better or worse.
But, ultimately, the characters make up for that. Not completely, but enough so that I’m happy to have played through the game. It’s similar to how I feel about Persona 3: too long, too much of a slog in places, but it lets me view relationships between characters that I’ve never seen before in a game. And, in both cases, I wish the game went all-in on what makes it special. But I’m also a little scared of what the results would be of doing that, because I don’t feel I really understand the virtues of RPG slogs.
Time to play some shorter games, I suppose.
This post has not been revised since publication.