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.
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.
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.
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.
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