Dragon Age and Narrative Structure (Part 1)

I've just finished my first play-through of Dragon Age: Origins. Oh my heavens I cannot express how much I love this game; it should be telling that I'm actually talking about playing through it again at all. As a general rule, I hate watching reruns, I rarely reread books, and once I'm done with a game I'll think of it fondly, but I won't go back to relive the glory. 

But I want to go back to Dragon Age. And not just because I have a mad crush on Alistair, whose endearing combination of sweet, funny, and kind of awkward reminds me of... well, of my husband, actually. (Shh, don't tell him!)

Playing Dragon Age again could be a substantially different experience, depending on what I put into it. Almost, but not quite, like playing an entirely different game. That''s because the game is an exquisite work of craftmanship on the part of the writers. I need to play it again to see how the trick was done, to know how it works, to do it myself.

This is the rare gem in the game world:  a game that presents to you meaningful and morally ambiguous choices, which effect the outcome of things small and large through the rest of the game. It has sparkling dialogue, deep characterization, and it delves into racism and takes strides toward gender and sexuality inclusiveness with uncharacteristic grit (though that's been covered extensively elsewhere.)

Let's take a look under the hood and see what we can learn, shall we? There will be spoilers ahoy, so beware.

Moral Ambiguity

In the world of Dragon Age, it's rare for you to see one clear, correct path forward. But this isn't the Fable faux-choice of two basic modes to play the game, the "good" mode and the "evil" one. No, these are true dilemmas, where there is never a win without a loss. Every choice you make, as in life, opens one door and closes another.

An example, from early in the game. I played through as a mage, because... well, because I'm like that. Something about hurling lightning from my fingertips appeals to me.

In the mage origin story, you're almost immediately confronted with such a moral dilemma: your best friend is accused of practicing forbidden blood magic. He is soon to be punished for it -- forced to participate in a ritual that makes him functionally a robot. He asks for your help escaping.

You have to make a choice. You can help him, or you can turn him in. But do you trust him? He's already been deceiving you on one front... he's been engaging in a forbidden romantic liaison. Might he not also be deceiving you on whether he practices illicit magic? But can you really allow the self to be removed from your best friend, a repugnant punishment at best? Anything you choose to do is a gamble and a betrayal. Do you choose friendship or justice, knowing that either may be flawed?

These choices crop up again and again. Who do you trust? How much mercy do you temper your justice with? Does it change if it affects your relationships with those around you? Do you choose what's you've been taught is morally right, what you believe is right in your heart, or what's needful in the moment? What if the life of a child is at stake? What if it's the life of your beloved? 

(On that note: Playing through the ending as a female Warden in a relationship with Alistair is vastly more compelling romantic drama than I have seen on film or in text since... ever. More powerful than the same story on any other medium, because it is me grappling with the potential consequences, and me making the final call.)

The stories that touch us deepest are the ones that look at people making these morally ambiguous or personally difficult choices. This is the heart of drama. This is quite possibly the greatest weakness of games writing. 

Creating Meaningful Choices

And yet this should be the greatest strength for stories in games. That's simply bringing the interactive, isn't it? The place where games should naturally excel is in allowing you, the player, to make choices that feel significant in the moment. 

This is the alchemy of gaming. This is its power. A game introduces an interesting plot point, and increases its power an order of magnitude over other media. Because it feels like it's happening to you, and not a character who you might be entirely sympathetic to, but who you are not actively driving.

Games are, by and large, filled with clear and simple definitions of good and evil, or hard-wired choices where one path leads to certain death. You rescue Zelda or you lose the game. You kill the zombies or you die. The moral judgements you are called upon to make are often peripheral, or few. That's if you even get a choice at all -- often the only choice you get is simply not to play the game.

But Dragon Age doesn't just put you in the position of making choices; these choices have genuine ramifications throughout the course of the game, in how people treat you, in paths opened or closed, in long-term consequences. The amount of writing effort that has gone into this game is just mind-boggling, and I feel like I need to buy a round for the team because they did such a great job on such a monumental task.

Methods

The specific technique Dragon Age uses appears to be limited branching. For many of these knotty moral choices, you're ultimately fulfilling the same basic game mechanic no matter what you choose. In the mage origin, that's going through the motions of helping your friend escape -- either out of legitimate friendship, or because you're forced to through the political machinations of your mentor. Maybe it's destroying a criminal cartel on behalf of a politician, to give your chosen ally additional popular support -- but which ally is up to you. 

It's a clever way of repurposing the same content. You create a different charge of meaning based on a fine web of intentions and consequences that exist mostly in the mind of the player. You'll clear the same dungeon, but do you parley at the end or do you just kill? Well, that's up to you. And changing the meaning of your actions depending on the choices you have made creates a depth that is frankly impossible in non-interactive media.

This is where games should shine. This is where all interactive media should shine! And yet so few experiences have the overarching depth or sense of choice found in Dragon Age.

In the next part of this blog post, I'll take on the ARG angle and examine what we as writers and designers can emulate from Dragon Age, and grapple with the particular problems we face that make it more difficult to provide a player with meaningful choices.

This post is continued in Part 2.