When you get a “new post” alert from me, chances are you’re expecting a book review. I do a lot of them. But just lately, something has been stealing my time and imagination. And that thing is Dragon Age: Origins.
It’s not the latest release in the Dragon Age series. In fact, when most people are talking about Dragon Age these days, they’re probably referring to the title released last autumn: Inquisition. So why am I getting all excited about a game with graphics that have long been outclassed? That was released over half a decade ago? It’s simple, dear reader. It’s all about the story.
You’d think I’d be immune to, or at least expecting it. After a fantastic workshop session on Transmedia Storytelling from Yomi Ayeni a while back and two successful sessions of Online Games: Literature, New Media and Narrative from the wonderful Jay Clayton under my belt, what could possibly surprise me?
Well let’s start with the sheer complexity. If you’ve been used to games like Skyrim then you’re probably used to having one main quest which gets a huge amount of focus from NPCs (non player characters) and side quests that provide a bit of a break from the primary plotline, but aren’t enough to distract you for long. In contrast, DAO throws your experience as an exile from your own community into a steaming pot of intrigue including political machinations, religious feuding, multi-national espionage, family problems and working through the stages of grief. Oh, and there’s something about an arch demon and certain doom thrown in along the way!
Then there’s the characterisation. You can, of course, build your own character and get them to look largely how you want. But unlike the NPCs, your character does not have a set voice. You can only respond via text options. At first, I wasn’t sure about this. But having gone on to play a bit of Dragon Age 2, where your character is voiced, I think a silent protagonist is actually a strength. I hadn’t realised until I had a voice speaking “for” me in DA2 just how much I’d been unconsciously imbuing my Dalish Elf, Lyna, with a particular voice and expressions of her own.
I mentioned that the NPCs are voiced. I shouldn’t say voiced. I should say ‘played’ because this isn’t just a case of slapping in a sound file of someone reading a page of text they’ve never seen before out loud, just for an audible alternative to subtitles. No, these voices, especially Morrigan and Alistair, are of the quality you’d expect to see (or should that be hear?) in a big bucks movie. And the quality of the dialogue is so good! The choice of words and the way they’re delivered are exactly how you’d expect the character to say them. Except the bit about licking lamposts. That was unexpected but hilarious!
I’m not exactly an emotional stoneheart and I quite often cry when I’m reading books. (Hunger Games? Check. The Book Thief? Check.) But would you think badly of me if I admitted that I cried as I went to each of my companions individually to say goodbye to them before the final battle? You don’t need pages and ISBNs to tell a good story that captivates your audience, you know.