Saturday, January 23, 2016

Why is Dragon Age moving away from Dark Fantasy?


    Dragon Age: Origins is one of my favorite video games of all time. It's not the greatest video game in terms of originality or gameplay but it does something which I give it a lot of credit for: it mastered immersion and mood. By the time you finished DA:O, you knew everything you needed to know about elves, dwarves, Fereldan, Darkspawn, mages, Templars, and a few dozen other groups.

    But what I liked most about DA:O is that the setting sucked. One of the things which had always annoyed me about most fantasy RPGs is the, to quote Michael Moorcock, Epic Pooh feel. That cheerful faux-Medieval Renaissance Fair feeling that life was all sunshine and roses in the Dark Ages. I don't agree with Michael Moorcock that it applies to the Lord of the Rings, the subject of his article's ire, but I do agree that it applies to a lot of the LOTR knock-offs out there.

    Part of the reason for the success of the "grimdark" movement in recent years is the search for authentic human experience. Old fashioned good vs. evil stories will never go out of style but they have to be grounded in genuine motivations. Most evil people don't believe they're the villain and the really committed ones almost always think they're righteous with a capital R.

Kill Bill meets The Lord of the Rings is how best to describe the Elven Bride Origin.
    Dragon Age: Origins had a clever set-up with the Gray Wardens existing for the purposes of stopping the Blights that could and would destroy the world. Rather than paint them as heroic good-guys, the games make it clear the Gray Wardens can and do terrible things to achieve their goals. They're a group of ruthless antiheroes who will break any oath, violate any creed, and work with any scumbag to get the job done.

    The game allows you to avoid doing most of this and achieve a mostly happy ending with the Human Noble Origin being the most traditionally "epic fantasy" arc. However, the stories like the City Elf Origin begin with your people being subjected to a monstrous crime while others showed you the bleak corrupt nature of Thedas society. Casteless dwarves, for example, were considered less than human just for the circumstances of their birth.

You can convince your love interest to be a good noble nun or a sexy murderous assassin. Fun times!
    In many cases, the game challenged you morally with there not always being a "good" option. The most famous of these being placing Bhelan Aeducan on the throne of the dwarves despite the fact he's a murderous fratricide and dictator. The only reason he's the better choice is because, well, he's a reformer for the Casteless as well as a canny military leader.

    This trend continued in Dragon Age 2 with you playing the role of pseudo-Medieval Detective and mercenary Hawke. Any attempt to do the right thing in the game frequently led to disaster and confusion as all of Kirkwall's factions loathed one another with good reason. Hawke was frequently forced to take whatever side he felt closest to and, even then, that would often mean betrayal. DA2 was criticized for this, sadly, even as its major issues were its repetitious gameplay and environment.

    That's not the case with Dragon Age: Inquisition. Which is not Dark Fantasy.

    At all.

In Inquisition, you're fantasy Jesus. No, seriously. Maybe fantasy Muhammad.
    The premise of Dragon Age: Inquisition is the Darkspawn Tevinter mage Corphyeus is going to destroy the world in order to become a god. The heroic Inquisition, led by the player character, must assemble a ragtag band of misfits in order to fight them. After visiting the hellish future which Corypheus won and fighting off his demonic army of Red Lyrium-created mutants, you kill him in an epic battle and save the world.

    The End.

    Really?

    I liked DA:I but I can't help but feel like the game lost a lot of its flavor in-between sequels. There's a lot of potentially interesting stuff in the game about faith, gods, morality, and what to do if you're a messiah who provides hope but it's all based on a giant big misunderstanding. The simple fact is the game never really goes beyond the idea of, "The Inquisition=Good, Corypheus Bad."

    This is unfortunate because part of what makes the setting great is its moral ambiguity. The Darkspawn are a mindless collection of hostile monsters but they are treated as a force of nature rather than a true antagonist. Loghain, Meredith, and the Arishok, by contrast, were all people with understandable and sympathetic motivations. Even the Darkspawn got some character development in Dragon Age: Awakening where they appeared to be more like the Borg with a truly alien mindset versus genuinely evil.

Corypheus in a nutshell--minus the charisma.
    Corypheus? He's basically just a Dragon Age version of Skeletor. No, scratch that, Skeletor is actually more interesting because Frank Langella oozed menace while the cartoon version had a sense of humor. Even in the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, which had the main villain want to eradicate reality with the Devil, we got to see him make a paradise dimension for the souls of his followers. It would have been nice to see a hint Corypheus was anything more than the one-note bad guy he appears to be in the game.

    It gets worse as there's actually plenty of places where they could have explored the moral ambiguity and darkness of the setting. One of the major choices in the game is between the noble Grand Duke Gaspard who is a military dictator who wants to resume war with Fereldan and Empress Celene that wants to reform the Empire but ordered a pogrom of elves to prove she's a hardass. There's also Briala, an elven spymistress who wants to make the Empire better for elves but is a scheming lying terrorist. Briala's also Celene's former lover who the former had the parents murdered of but which still loves her partner. Almost none of this is touched on in the game but only brought up in The Masked Empire novel.

Which of these should rule? It doesn't really matter since all of them turn out well.
    The choices are robbed of all gravitas as the game makes it clear no matter what you choose, the results are mostly good. There's a general feel-good attitude to the narrative which robs it of consequence. With no "bad choices" or negative consequences, the game feels like you can do no wrong and everything will just get better because of your actions. Which, ironically, makes the accomplishments lesser.

    We don't get to see the established racism of the Orlaisian Empire, how they abuse their serfs, or even the knowledge choosing Gaspard would mean a war with Fereldan. No, instead, that can be avoided even if it makes no sense. No matter which side we choose with the Mages vs. Templar War, the Mages get their freedom and the Circles are reformed. No matter who you side with, both the Templars and Mages survive the war. In short, the happiness of the narrative makes it feel less real and consequential. The light shines lesser without the dark.

    Part of why I love David Gaider's world (acknowledging all the contributions of other writers) is because it's a setting built on real motivations, fears, and ideas. Things don't always work out and doing the "right" thing is no guarantee of success. Sometimes bad people are the right people for the job and good people screw up epically. Sometimes there is no good solution and everything will end up awful. Other times, compromise will benefit one group and screw over another. It's not quite "realism" when magic and monsters exist but it's certainly authentic.

An antagonist, not a villain.
     Why is Dragon Age moving away from grit and darkness? I suspect some of this has to do with the fact Dragon Age 2 was received poorly in some quarters for the grimness of the storyline. I also suspect it's because they wanted to make the player character feel like a Big Damn HeroTM. The problem with that is if you have to handhold them for that, then there's no point in doing so. While some would argue we already have grim and dark gaming in The Witcher 3, I'd argue that good storytelling is good storytelling and we shouldn't toss away what is already a well-established franchise to differentiate it from another successful one.

     Here's hoping the next game has some of its grit back.

5 comments:

  1. Sometimes I wonder if Dragon Age was really dark fantasy or if Bioware were simply doing a darker take of High Fantasy for Origins and 2. Then decided to go full high fantasy for Inquisition due in part to how DA 2 got received.

    That and the fact Bioware keep using the same plot formula in their games since the days of Balder Gate. That and their fondness for using the third option to benefit all sides has been in their games since mass effect one.

    I talked about in the comments of your review for Inquisition what I felt about the game, namely how the open world felt empty and the game padded out with lots of filler.

    I think what made the origins choices and moral greyness work as you said was partly cause all decisions weren't binary of all good and all bad. But as well in how the set up to them was done, take Ozammer where you get to deal with Bhelen and Harrowmont and see their positives and negatives firsthand. Then the game let's you decide which one you feel would be best for the city. As they show while Bhelen is underhanded and ruthless, he wants to change the broken system of the city and also trade more with the outside world, while Harrowmont is nice and honourable, is completely traditionist to the point where it is a flaw and he is racist as well to the casteless and outsiders.

    In Inquisition we simply don't get enough build-up for the choices to feel impactful, oralis being the main one. As unless you have read Masked Empire you won't really have a clue on the characters and why they are fighting one another apart from bit's and pieces you get from them.

    The choices from Oralis actually do have mixed results, with the one to get them to work together being implied to be the worst outcome. The one I didn't like was the Celene and Bralia getting back together, overall it didn't seem like Patrick Weekes wrote that quest despite having wrote the novel that involved the mentioned characters.

    Tresspasser does seem to have been written at points to forecase some of the decisions weren't as good as they seemed to be. But whether it will be reflected in the next game is something I'm waiting to see.

    As for Corypheus? Yeah I agree he was a villain I personally thought Bioware haved moved away from doing. Though Bioware tried to make a bit of effort with him in his notes if you choose the Templars with him being in denial about his role and confused and a bit afraid deep down of seeing his old world gone and wanting it back, making him similar to solas' in that regard. But they didn't focus on it enough for it to deepen him.

    With the next game in the mage capital of the world, it will be interesting to see if Bioware do bring some of the grimdark back. With Weekes now running the DA team after Gaiders departure, I have confidence since Weekes wrote most of biowares greyest characters and storylines in Mass Effect like the Quarian geth war, Tali, Morden and Solas as well.

    I'm guessing you worte this piece in light of Gaiders departure form Bioware, I respect the man for his work on the characters and years at Bioware, though I think he suffered from repeating himself too much and having Joss Wheden's flaw of relying too much on snarky dialogue for characters that undercuts tension in some scenes.

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  2. The difference between Dragon Age: Inquisition and Dragon Age: Origins really, to me, is based on the fact the world seems much more full of "dungeons" than full of people to interact with. The best part of Inquisition was, for me, the Masked Ball because that was a primarily social engagement but it seemed much-much smaller than the vast territories like the Hinterlands and the various battlefields which inhabitants were scarce. It's hard to do human stories of horror, misery, sadness, and love if almost everyone you encounter is trying to kill you.

    What's doubly sad is there's signs that this wasn't the way it was originally supposed to go. At one point in the development cycle, there was an advertisement about how you had a choice between saving a fortress full of your soldiers or the village of Crestwood. Cassandra would advise you to save the fortress because she's all about loyalty to her men and a Mother to them while Varric would want you to save the villagers. That's a simple but fairly direct and proper moral choice with no "right" answer. It's also one which ends in tragedy either way.

    Perhaps Dragon Age 2 went a little too far in the direction of, "nothing you do matters" but I can't help think there's more of a balance to be struck here. I also feel like I did with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings that the "missing" segments of the game in the Templars vs. Mages would have been better available to both sides rather than an either or choice. If you're going to have Mages and Templars both survive the war then why not let everyone play the whole of the content? The game treats you as having chosen the Mages anyway since Red Templars are always your foes.

    I can't help think the game also, essentially, skipped over the Mage-Templar War when that was one of the easiest sources of interesting drama in the franchise. "Rocks fall, everyone dies" seems like a fairly silly ending to it all. If anything wa dying for an actual sit down and negotiation or dictating of terms like Skyrim's Legion vs. Stormcloaks at the Graybeard's then this was it. I mean, hell, we had the Landsmeet--politics is nothing new in Dragon Age. So, again, it feels like moral ambiguity and actual "authenticity" of politics takes a beating.

    And yes, the Briala and Celene make-up comes off as romantic in the game but sick if you know the backstory--which I'm not sure is true in Inquisition since there's no mention of, "Celene had Briala's entire family murdered to prove she's a ruthless psychopath to Gaspard's dead wife." It's also a much better and juicier secret to blackmail someone with than the somewhat tepid secrets you get anyway.

    Oh well, David Gaider's absence from Dragon Age makes me think that this is the end of the "real" Dragon Age and the beginning of pastiches. Probably very well written pastiches but writing teams can and do never replicate the same sort of world as the original. Assassins Creed 1, for example, is different from the Ezio Trilogy, is different from the Kenway Trilogy and so on.

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    1. I get the sense that Bioware were going to get more time inquisition, but EA made them release it at end of 2014 due to wanting a big game out at Christmas time.

      I agree on your points above for the most part, though whether Gaider's departure will affect the quality of future games will be a wait and see, but since most of the writing team is still there, along with Weeke's now running the team and being bioware's strongest writer I think.

      We may see improvements in the area's above.

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  3. I got Just Cause 3 and it suffers the same. The rebels are not scum working for their own benefit while mouthing platitudes about freedom, socialism, or nativism. The only reason to support them is that they are better than the complete monster Baby Panay.

    They are so far the good guys. Di Ravello gets more screen time though and is truly despicable. Then again with the executive meddling that happened during development it is amazing there was a main campaign at all.

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  4. First of all, I really like what I’ve seen from your site, but I haven’t had a chance to look at it in depth because I’m actually supposed to be working. I’m also making the unforgivable error of commenting without reading your post in depth because I haven’t played “Trespasser” yet, and I’m afraid you might reference some spoilers. So consider my comments to be on the general premise that Dragon Age is getting away from its darker roots.

    I personally don’t see this as a problem, even as I’m not sure I agree with the premise. I’m a little worn down with the “grimdark” trend, which I think jumped the shark with Man of Steel. (Your post on “grimdark” touched on this.) I think it’s gotten to the point of lazy box-checking where gritty = well-written. I think some derivative writers are racking up body counts for manufactured drama. A setting like Dragon Age is more realistic because it has humor and noble sentiment and generally good people in it. Besides, I don’t believe realism and moral ambiguity are necessarily good things in and of themselves. Good fantasy speaks to the human condition in real life, but it doesn’t have to reflect it exactly. I like how Dragon Age comments on discrimination with the mages and the elves, but I wouldn’t want them to show stark displays of anti-gay animus because I’ve had to deal with that enough in my own life. Frankly, I’d rather they hadn’t gotten so close to home with Dorian’s personal quest. My primary goal in video games is entertainment and escape.

    A lot of the commenters on the BSN forums seem to think that, to be good, all video games have to be the same kind of game, but there’s nothing wrong with the yearly incarnation of Call of Duty because that’s what resonates with some players. Dragon Age doesn’t have to be the Witcher any more than the Witcher has to be Dragon Age. They are different types of games. I think Inquisition had plenty of gritty elements and difficult choices where no option was ideal, but it also had the lighter, brighter spots that have been part of the franchise since Origins.

    I’m personally sanguine about a post-Gaider future for the franchise for a couple of reasons. First of all, The Masked Empire was a excellent novel in my opinion, so I have high hopes for Patrick Weekes being at the writing helm. Plus, I think that Gaider, as much as I enjoy and respect his work, would keep the series working the same grooves and treading the same ground. I’m hoping some fresh perspective will breathe life into the setting as I’m hoping for many more DA games in the future.

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