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Examining choice in Dragon Age: Origins




Examining choice in Dragon Age: Origins - Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

Many readers and staff on this site have praised BioWare's high fantasy epic Dragon Age: Origins for its compelling story, loveable characters, and nail-biting decisions. Truly, it is a great game, but no one has had the time or focus to closely examine each of the games major choices in an effort to discover what makes them so great. A closer examination reveals that not all of these choices are nearly as good as the others. This article aims to teach what makes story choices in a game compelling, and what makes them forgettable.

Where Dragon Age Succeeded

I'll discuss the game's choices by talking about the good ones first. My first major quest was at the camp of the Dalish. You are given three options, side with the werewolves and kill all the elves, side with Zaithran and kill all the werewolves, or break the curse by killing Zaithran (and by extension, the Lady of the Forest) and allow the elves to live and the werewolves to live on as humans. If you were playing as a "good" character, there are basically two less than ideal options, and one choice that allows life and freedom to flourish. On the surface, this seems like typical choice, but to bring about the scenario that allows you to kill Zaithran, you have to go through a rather specific set of dialogue options. Good-guy characters are initially confronted with choosing between two terribly unjust massacres, and are rewarded for taking the time to negotiate a new solution.

The game's most complex and varied choice occurred in Redcliffe, where I actually had three sets of choices. The first was to kill Connor or free him of the demon possessing him by entering the Fade. If you chose to free him, you could do so by sacrificing his mother or by gathering more mages to increase the power of the spell. "Gathering more mages" is dependent entirely on the Mages tower quest, and if you sided with the templars, this option will not be available to you, since all the mages will be dead. It's a nice touch that makes the whole world seem very connected, and helps you realize that your choices matter. Regardless of how you choose to free Connor, at the end of the Fade quest, the Desire Demon gives you yet another choice. If you let her live, she will give you either the Blood Mage specialization, or an extra spell/talent point (there are two more options for gifts, but they're not as compelling). Even though I was playing as a good-guy, I couldn't resist the call of another spell since talent allocation was permanent, so I let her live and took my reward. I set out to play a good character, but I was successfully tempted by the demon, making this an unforgettable quest that set the standard for temptation in games (at least for me).

Note: There is another set of options for if you choose to "wait to make your decision" about Connor that revolve around whether or not you let Connor's mother kill her own child. I personally did not experience these options in my playthrough, but I am sure they would be just as compelling.

Examining choice in Dragon Age: Origins - Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

The game's best choice occurred at the Landsmeet. Throughout the game before and during the Landsmeet, cutscenes give us an amazing understanding of Loghain. He fears an old enemy, the Orlesians, whom he grew up fighting and learning to hate. When the previous king, Maric, died, he left his kingdom to the naïve and inexperienced Cailan. When the darkspawn attacked, Cailan was open to requesting aid from Orleais, the occupiers whom Loghain spent thirty years overthrowing. He realizes that the only way to protect his precious Ferelden is to seize power by betraying Cailan and hunting down the young warden (you) who would dare to consort with the enemy. I can't duplicate it, but the game does a beautiful job of establishing Loghain as more than just a traitor, but a deluded, paranoid over-reactionary whose true motivation is the protection of his kingdom. He's a bad guy, but he's not evil; he's just wrong, and I really connected with Loghain as a character because he's logical, but his judgment is severely impaired by his own pre-conceptions. He is, hands down, the best villain ever conceived.

The sympathy I felt for Loghain caused me to think deeply about whether or not I should kill him or make him a Grey Warden. I killed him because Alistair meant more to me than he ever could, but there's a fundamental flaw with these options that I can't overlook. I tried to work the dialogue trees so that I could let Loghain live without making him a Grey Warden, but that's not an option written into the game. Granted, it made for a compelling choice, but the whole thing felt very contrived. If he lives, why must he become a Grey Warden? Why can't I throw him in prison instead of executing him? These questions are asked by every player, but the game refuses to answer, and I walked away from the quest with an artificial taste in my mouth.

Where Dragon Age Failed

We've established what made Dragon Age good; now let's talk about where it could use improvement.

The Mages' Tower contained the most polarized choice in the game. I could either take the risk of some mages being turned into abominations and fighting against me (an event which can be prevented by using an item during the boss fight), or I can slaughter dozens of innocent men and women. Since I was playing as a good-guy, the choice was so obvious that by the end of the game I had literally forgotten that I had another option. The situation is made even less compelling by the fact that the second most important character in the game, Alistair, constantly voices his dislike for the templars, and any mages you have encountered previously have done the same. A below average ending to an otherwise interesting quest.

The choice I had to make while searching for the urn was okay, but not universally good. In my search for the urn, I am given the option of defiling this sacred artifact and turning Leliana and Wynne against me in exchange for the Reaver specialization. Perhaps I would have cared if I were playing a Warrior, but since I was an elf mage, unlocking the Reaver meant nothing to me. If this quest had also offered me the chance at a few extra spell/talent points, I would have thought long and hard about my decision. The Desire Demon's choice was compelling for everyone, but the Urn's choice really only mattered for Warriors.

Examining choice in Dragon Age: Origins - Dragon Age: Origins Screenshot

After dealing with the urn, I headed to Orzammar, where two choices awaited me, one of which was stupid and pointless, the other being black and white. The first one was to pick which dwarf I would support in his effort to become king. Honestly, they did not tell me enough about the two kings for me to care which one was placed on the throne, so I just sided with the old king's son. There are repercussions for this choice in the epilogue, but the game did a really poor job of letting me know the pros and cons of my decision. At the end of this quest line, you are confronted by the creator of the golem anvil and a female dwarf who wants to use it. I could either destroy the anvil, thus ensuring it can never again be used for its unique combination of murder and slavery, or I could betray my commitment to allowing life and freedom to flourish. My choice to destroy the Anvil was simple, made even easier by the knowledge that not destroying the anvil would cause Shale to leave the party. Other than the vaguely understood notion that golems would join my army in the final fight, I didn't really have any reason to keep the anvil.

Finally, we get to the final choice in the game, who lives and who dies. This in theory should have been awesome, much like in Mass Effect 2, but it ends up being disappointing and feeling cheap. To kill the Archdemon, you can either sacrifice yourself, sacrifice Alistair, or have sex with Morrigan. This choice was interesting in theory, but ultimately it was the most disappointing aspect of the game. Here's why; regardless of whether or not you impregnate Morrigan, she will leave you. Furthermore, if you are in a relationship with another character, that relationship is no way affected by this decision. I honestly expected Leliana to slap me after the final battle, but she doesn't even talk to me about it. She's not even aware that it occurred. The game makes it out to be this huge decision with unknown repercussions, but sleeping with Morrigan is literally a free pass. It might mean something in Dragon Age 2, but that doesn't excuse it from being a complete waste of my time in Dragon Age: Origins.

Conclusion

All things considered, the game had some of the best characters and choices in gaming, and the best villain. There were a few spots where the options felt like they didn't matter or were contrived, and BioWare really should tried to make every choice compelling for every. However, if you want to play a game that really forces you to care about its characters and its world, you can look no further than Dragon Age: Origins.

What we can take away from all this, assuming you stayed with me to the end, is that there is a formula that can be derived for designing choices in a game. I do not mean to say that game stories should be cookie-cutter copies of one another, but perhaps a list of guidelines should exist to help designers create compelling experiences. Such a list might look like this:

1) The choice should be more than just "good" or "bad", but if there is an "ideal" choice, it should be hard to execute, but still have some form of negative consequence.
2) redacted
3) Choices should be compelling regardless of what type of character you are playing.
4) There must be consequences for the choice either immediately or later in the game.
5) Players must be mostly or at least partially aware of either the immediate repercussions, the distant ones, or both. Surprises are good, but players should never be totally in the dark.
6) When a choice involves siding with one faction over another, the player should have legitimate reasons for his selection, but should still feel sympathy for the other side.

What else do you think belongs on the guidelines?

by Jonathan Wilson


Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): BioWare  
Series: Dragon Age  
Genre(s): Role-Playing  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Game Design & Dev  

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Orzammar

Since your analysis of the Orzammar question has two parts, I get to say I agree and disagree. The question of which claimant for the throne you support really isn't a choice at all (unless you're playing a Dwarf noble, I guess). You're forced to choose long before you have a real sense of who the would-be kings are, and the consequences of the choice are told to you in the epilogue, rather than shown. What is done well there is that from what little you learn, neither of the possibilities is really ideal. One of the candidates is honest but backwards, the other is basically evil, but open to desperately-needed social reform.

I think the analysis of the golem forge choice leaves something out. One thing that's made very clear during the whole Orzammar segment is that Dwarven society is in its last days. The rigid caste system and constant warfare against the Darkspawn are destroying it. The choice for king addressses the first factor, and the choice about the anvil addresses the second. The golem process is horrifying and essentially enslaves a soul for all eternity as a living weapon, but an army of golems could protect the dwarves for a long time. It doesn't seem too likely that Orzammar will survive otherwise. So, I felt like this choice was a little more nuanced than you depicted it. If you're playing a purely angelic character then there's really only one option, but if your character is at all pragmatic then you have to consider the option of keeping the forge. Preserving the Dwarves' freedom doesn't matter if they all get killed by Darkspawn as a result.

The real problem with the choice is that Shale leaves your party if you preserve the anvil, and that's just too much of a loss, no matter how many golems you have for the final battle. From the perspective of a player of the game (rather than a character in the world) the benefit therefore swings heavily to one side. This can easily put role-playing in conflict with game-playing, which is something to avoid.

re: Sparky

Thanks for letting me know about the Dwarf Noble origin. I imagine that would have made the quest much better, but only for a fraction of players, which the same flaw found in the quest for the Urn.

I suppose I was looking at the anvil decision in a slightly biased way, but I still believe (like you said) that players will tend to swing in my direction.
One addition that could have made this quest excellent would be if a dozen or so dwarves had followed you into the cavern at the last second and demanded the opportunity to protect their families by being made into golems. If that had happened, the element of personal sacrifice would have been added to a decision that featured the themes of pragmatism and morality. If that had happened, it would have been a much harder choice for me, and I might have gone the other way.

Choice in Ferelden

I had a few issues with Dragon Age: Origins' handling of choice.

All of the big choices (with the exception of the child in Redcliffe) take place at the end of your quest line. Either directly before or directly after, you will engage a character who spells out the choices that are available to you. It's generally, "you can kill this guy, or you can let him live." If you're like me, and you like to see the way your actions play out, all you have to do is make a save file right before this encounter (which is usually pretty foreseeable,) and reload it after you've made your first choice. While I understand the importance of letting the player become aware of what is at stake, I would have liked to see the quest branching much earlier.

While choice often adds replay value to a game, it does little here in Dragon Age. Essentially, you'll play the same exhaustive quest line, but the last 5 minutes will differ next time around. You might get a few extra people to fight with you at the end, and you'll read a different epilogue bit during the credits.

With the exception of the Landsmeet, most instances of choice felt forced and arbitrary. And don't get me wrong, I love Dragon Age, but after playing Alpha Protocol, I've been thinking a little more about how choice should change the experience and not just the cut-scenes (figuratively speaking.)

Also, interesting that you say that Loghain is the best villain in video games. I never really thought about it, but I kind of agree. I'm not sure if there has ever been a villain that is so dastardly but so easily sympathized with. He's not so likable, but he's definitely a well crafted character.

Good points . However, about

Good points . However, about Shale , if you have maxed your persuasion/coercion skill , you CAN still get Shale to stay with your party if you pick the right dialogue options, but only if she wasn't in your party during the fight with the last Golems. I always chose to preserve the Anvil myself, since I find having a handful of Golems to help me fight the Archdemon really helpful.

re: reason

I totally see what you mean. Most of the good options are at the end of each quest, and only really affect the epilogue. Most of them don't feature a lot of variation in the middle. However, I think what's important to note is that there are so many ways for you to lose party members, that the replay value could come in making decisions that force you to play the game with a whole different cast. Still, a more robust branching system would be really cool.

I'm Glad you agree with me about Loghain. I put that part in there after reading IGN's list of greatest villains. They chose Glados as their number one, which is a decent pick, but Bowser was their number two (if I remember correctly). Based on the way we evaluated Loghain, Bowser is the worst villain ever conceived. I know Mario games aren't about their story, but the complete lack of narrative makes them hard to play for me.

Anon, thanks for clarifying things regarding Shale. I didn't use him too much, so I didn't know everything about him. That opiton makes the quest a little better, but the game doesn't do a good enough job of making it known to the player.

I think Kreia from KOTOR 2

I think Kreia from KOTOR 2 was really good too, and Ravel from Planescape Torment. I liked Logain a lot, but I think calling him hands down the best villain ever is a little exaggerated. And I completely agree that there should have been more choice about his fate at the Landsmeet.
As for the dwarf anvil question, I also had to keep the Anvil because I believed it would save countless dwarf lives, and I thought it was a suitably complex decision. However, your point of view is strengthened by Shale's threatening to leave the party and the viewpoints of the other NPCs, who treat it as a no-brainer, pure-good or evil decision. Even Oghren, the only companion that I have found supports keeping the anvil, does so out of love for his ex, and not the larger reason that it may mean the survival of the dwarves.

re: falar

I may have been taking a few liberties with my praise for Loghain, but if I hadn't made that bold statement, we wouldn't be thinking about it or having this discussion. I never played Planetscape, but Kreia was interesting, although it's been far too long for me to remember the details of that game. What exactly did you like about Kreia?

Morrigan makes her case to

Morrigan makes her case to keep the anvil and how foolish it would be destroy such a powerful artifact that could swing the tide of battle

Different choices are compelling for different characters.

What's interesting to me, reading about your experience of the choices in the game, is that it's not always accurate to say that one choice is, or is not, compelling. It depends on the player, and the character they are choosing to roleplay.

For my Dwarf Noble, the least compelling choices were the Dalish Elves and Redcliffe, because there was so clearly a Perfect Outcome, with no need to sacrifice anything (since she had already saved the mages) and the Desire Demon only makes her tempting offer to Mage PCs who enter the Fade, so that's not something many players will even experience.

More interesting choices were Orzammar's rulership (vested interest due to origin!) and the Landsmeet, where my character knew what she wanted (Dead Bhelen and a ruling Queen Anora), but wasn't sure what the consequences of achieving them would be, and if they would be positive or negative.

And the hardest choice that left me a total nervous wreck was Morrigan's ritual offer. Because she had to push her boyfriend into fathering a possible demonchild on a witch OR one of them would die, and as a player, I was well aware of the unwritten narrative rule/romantic cliché that if you have characters choose the path of pragmatism instead of FAITH in TWUE WUV to SOLVE ALL and DEFEAT DEATH, they get punished. So that was rather a nailbiter, not to mention Highly Squicky. And let me tell you, I was relieved that the writers apparently don't buy into that particular romantic cliché. ;)

None of which is to say that you're wrong, because you're right - about your game. I've played other characters too, and am always surprised by which choices turn out to be compelling; it's not always the ones I expect. While I do agree that some decision points have certain failings that could be improved, I think the way decision points can work very differently in different playthroughs is a major part of the genius of Dragon Age.

re: Kateri

I like your take on it, and to be honest, I didn't play all the way through as all three races, so when I wrote this article, I had mostly only the elf perspective to go on. Regardless, because players like myself don't play games multiple times, I feel like it's a flaw to say that "choice X is compelling for character Y." Why not make every choice compelling for every character by giving more non-class-specific option, and if they give us race-specific options, give us the necessary background to make an informed decision.

With regards to their being "perfect solutions" for the Elf and Denerim quests. I totally see where you're coming from, but I'm glad that the perfect solution at least took a little bit more effort. Ideally, it would take a lot more effort, but developers have time constraints.

Loghain is a bt overdrawn

Personally, I didn't really like Loghain as a villain at all. To me, he comes off way overdrawn--from the very first time you meet him, his character design simply screams *EVIL*.

That said, I really like how David Gaider portrays him in the prequel novel--very sympathetic. The game rushes into Ostagar and the PC's introduction to Cailan (frankly, an idiot) and Loghain (did I mention how evil he looks?) way too quickly. I could see that something was clearly up--and Loghain's betrayal isn't given enough context early on.

Plus, I found it rather odd that more of the NPCs didn't see how Loghain was becoming increasingly unhinged. Yes, I know it's rather easy to beat him at the Landsmeet, but considering just how negative I viewed him, I found it surprising that it took as much convincing as it did.

I more or less agree with your analysis

Thanks for a well thought out analysis of the choices and consequences in DA:O. I pretty much agree with you. There were two game mechanics that I felt spoiled many of the choices in DA:O – (1) Large approval boosts from gifts and (2) specializations only have to be unlocked once, ever. The former meant that you really did not have to consider your companions’ reactions except for a few key events. The latter effectively limited the impact of some choices, notably the choices given by the Desire Demon at the end of the Redcliffe quest (do I unlock Blood Mage or get an extra talent point or kill the demon) and the choices at the end of the Sacred Ashes quest (where unlocking Reaver is the only real benefit of one choice). The fact that you can unlock a specialization and then reload and make a different choice compounds the issue still further.

As you mentioned, I think too many choices had a single option that was clearly better for the player than the alternatives. Losing a companion is a big deal, other than in the end game, so there needs to be something to balance that. Having certain items only available with particular choices presents the same problem. There needs to be equally good rewards for the alternatives. For example: the best bow in the game is only available if you chose not to rescue someone. This means that an archer character has to rationalize not rescuing the person, or pass on the best item for their character. I do like the concept that not all rewards are available based on choices, but there needs to be some balance to avoid the situation where a particular character has only one real choice. For example: if getting the best bow meant passing on the best leather armor the choice would be less obvious.

I particularly dislike the all too common option (in many rpgs) to have your cake and eat it too: you can join both sides and get all the rewards, usually with the excuse that you are a “double agent” or “double crosser”. That is just lame in my opinion. I felt the elf/werewolf quest and Urn of Sacred Ashes had this problem, but I was glad to see it was not a frequent option in DA:O.

Overall I felt DA:O handled choices very well. You pretty much noted all the parts where I felt the game failed. When I did the Broken Circle quest my character had definite anti-mage feelings. However, the way the option to side with Templars or Mages is presented made me side with the Mages. The Templars just seemed like a bunch of paranoid bigots and there was a sense that the problem with abominations was uncommon and that I had just fixed it. There was no real reason to kill all the mages and, somewhat obviously, mages would be handy for fighting the Blight. Had there been some uncertainty that the mages might all go crazy and end up not helping – even siding with the Darkspawn – then the choice would have been more profound. It would have helped if Alistair had been more pro-Templar as far as this particular choice went.

Like you, I felt too little information was provided before I had to choose who to support for king in Orzammar. I kept wandering around talking to people, assuming that I had missed a few people who would voice an opinion. What information was available painted a picture that the Prince was evil and that the Lord was good or at least neutral. The very few supporters of the Prince you can talk to, such as the merchant, are very obviously self-serving and often rude, whereas the supporters of Lord Harrowmont are polite and talk a lot about ensuring peace and helping all dwarfs. There was a hint that things may not be so clear cut, but nowhere to go to get more information. Even the initial quests supported the obvious view of a choice of evil or good : persuading some nobles using (possibly forged) documents or partaking in an arena fight. There is absolutely no apparent benefit to choosing the Prince. I think the choice would have been more interesting if it was more clearly suggested that the “evil” Prince was more likely to help the Grey Wardens than the “good” Lord. That would have led to a decision of morality over duty. Or at least present Lord Harrowmont as an equally dubious character.

I think I was most disappointed by the Nature of the Beast quest. The initial image that the elves are “good” and the werewolves “bad” was not sufficiently countered later on. Worse, from the perspective of a Grey Warden seeking allies there was no real hint that there werewolves could be relied upon, whereas the assistance of the elves was pretty much guaranteed. It would have been a more difficult choice if it were clear that the werewolves would be more effective allies than the elves. But the real choice killer was the ability to help both factions without any downside.

I agree with your conclusion. The one thing I would add is that designers need to think more about the existence of walkthroughs and guides. To some extent there is no point having a “better” choice that is harder to achieve, since anyone glancing at the Internet will immediately learn how to pull off the best result and get the best reward. The most secret game elements are the ones most publicized on the Internet. Where a game like DA:O would benefit more is by having no best choice. It is hard to avoid having some choices work better for some characters, but the “rewards” for choices need to be carefully balanced.

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