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



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12 Comments on "Examining choice in Dragon Age: Origins"

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Limorkil
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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… Read more »
David (Milwaukee Video Game Examiner)
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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… Read more »
Jonathan
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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… Read more »
Kateri
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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… Read more »
Anonymous
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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

Jonathan
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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?

falar
Guest
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… Read more »
Jonathan
Guest
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… Read more »
Anonymous
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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.

reason49
Guest
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… Read more »
Jonathan
Guest
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… Read more »
Sparky Clarkson
Guest
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… Read more »
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