I am posting here some analysis I’ve written over the last few years about my experience of Bioware games, slightly edited from its original form.
I came fairly late to Bioware games, playing Origins for the first time towards the end of 2010, and without having played Mass Effect before. It quickly pulled me in to fairly obsessive gameplay, but I also became fascinated by how the game works, its actually extremely complex and self-conscious play with narrative choice, world-building and player satisfaction. I shall now proceed to theorise about this at length, and probably over several posts, so feel free to stop reading if you’re (a) not at all interested in the process by which computer games grapple themselves to your brain with hoops of steel, or (b) you’re planning to play Dragon Age Origins at some stage and don’t want a half-brick spoiler wrapped in random academic analysis to hit you in the forehead.
Origins is a role-playing computer game; its basic premise is that you don’t just play the hero, bashing your way through hordes of enemies (here, darkspawn) in a fantasy landscape, you also control a group of fellow adventurers who are companions, skills compliments and in some cases potential romances, of which more anon. The classes tend to boil down to Warriors, Mages and Rogues; it’s all terribly D&D, comfortingly familiar, and in practice much less of an agonising cliché than you’d imagine given the way the class definitions are supported by the world-building. Your interactions with both companions and NPCs are not just lines of textual conversation choices on the screen, they’re voice acted, and extremely well so – as an immersive technique it works spectacularly. The straightforward quest-narrative, hack-and-slash, kill-the-boss component of the game is thus mitigated and complicated by issues of personality, response and the ultimately quite complex process by which you end up constructing your own hero’s character in interaction with those presented to you.
The game is thus predicated on choice, to an extent which ramifies its possible outcomes to an unbelievable extent, and makes me wonder how the hell it can possibly be cost-effective for Bioware to commit the time and production costs to the raft of detailed alternatives given that a single player only experiences a fraction of them. You can start not just with any class or race, but with six possible backgrounds and starting scenarios. What you choose impacts seriously on the possible outcomes to the meta-game; in a sense, from the first click which chooses your background, you are already narrowing the possibilities in a way you can’t possibly be aware of until much, much later.
This instrumentality of choice is really one of the defining features of the game ethos. There are multiple points throughout the game where an apparently minor choice of dialogue shapes your experience extremely profoundly much further along, to the point where it’s honestly not worth reloading and replaying. This sounds as though it should be frustrating, but in fact it’s supported well enough by the general shaping of choice that it’s more satisfying than anything else. Origins has this disconcerting way of feeling real, and the limited ability to predict outcomes is an integral part of this. (You can, of course, cheat by looking it all up online and playing accordingly, but you thereby rob yourself of a fairly specific kind of immersive pleasure).
It may sound a bit odd to talk about an unabashed middle-to-high fantasy computer game being “real”, but in fact it does present in these terms, not just in narrative consequence, but in the frequent absence of clear-cut choices and obvious moral polarities. Despite the centrality of “kill the Evil Darkspawn”, this is in fact an intensely political game far more than a heroic one – in this it’s a beautiful contrast to the far more clearly heroic structuring of something like Fable. It fascinates me that Origins so often presents you with a narrative scenario in which there are no perfect choices – everything is compromise, settling for the lesser evil or the pragmatic option or accepting the unpleasant consequences to a gesture of principle – surprisingly more like real life than computer game. I end up chewing over the options for days – do you support the total bastard whose political plans will intersect well with yours on the meta level, or the honourable, upright, reactionary dude whose closed-minded virtue will reduce trade with you? Do you secure your own life or that of someone you care about at a morally dubious cost which may have nasty consequences later? A lot of this, of course, happens because as a gamer I skew to goody-two-shoes with horrible inevitability, and I’m sure the game is a lot more clear-cut if you are inclined towards the murkier depths of cut-their-throat-no-problem, but I’m charmed and impressed by the extent to which the game doesn’t allow me to pretend for an instant that it’s all gas and gaiters if I’m Simply Nice To Everyone All The Time. (And some of your companions are extremely morally dubious, and get all miffed if you don’t do the pragmatic thing, so even a clear-cut decision in moral terms may make difficulties for you in terms of party approval).
The deliberate undercutting of heroic expectation takes place in the world-building as well – Ferelden is an entertainingly-constructed sort of dogged-British-culture in the midst of louche pseudo-Italian assassins, slightly fey quasi-French invaders and weird Germanic types up in the cold north, but it’s in no way an idealised fantasy setting. I particularly love what they do to elves, who are a downtrodden minority who live in ghettos and are the subject of casual racism and discrimination – the antithesis of Tolkien. (I tend to default to mages and often Elves for racial bonus reasons, but I don’t actually think you want to do that here. I didn’t follow the Elven mage I generated very far, her life was sad and unpleasant and rife with downtrodden dysfunctionality which I found horribly true to life.) But it’s more than inverting obvious racial stereotypes – the religion, while pleasingly centred on a female rather than a male prophet, is nastily closed-minded and given to crusades, the Templar order who suppress mages are downright frightening in their zealous bigotry, and the landscape is littered with entrapped, marginalised, desperate, death-centred groups (Grey Wardens, blood mages, Legion of the Dead, Andraste knows what else) whose adherence to ideas of “glory” and “sacrifice” is beautifully undercut on an ongoing basis.
Ultimately I’m surprised at how well Origins gets away with the gritty bit, given the necessary balance in computer gaming between immersion in a “real” experience and the basic function of wish fulfilment. We don’t really want to play games in order to mirror real life too closely, we want to be heroes with actual agency, and to be able to Win, to Set Things Right. The trick is to infuse the heroism with difficulty and consequence to the point where the stakes are high enough for victory to actually mean something. Even complicated, ambiguous victory. I think they nail it.