Tuesday, January 26, 2010

I Have No Dialogue Option, But I Must Scream

Like a great many other game-playing people, I’ve spent a good deal of time playing Dragon Age recently. In fact, like a great many other game-playing people, I’ve played it more than once. With all the different story paths to explore, it seems like a waste to not play Dragon Age more than once, with big, dialectic choices to be made, and tiny little grace note choices, all coming together, though me and my experience, in interesting ways. It’s a kaleidoscope sort of experience—the beads in the tube remain the same, but when I tumble them around, different edges catch on the mirrors and prisms, giving my eye a different experience with just a subtle shift of the hand. Most of those shifts are very obvious, but some, one in particular, actually, hit in unexpected ways. I submit the obligatory spoiler warning….now!

Obviously, key to this moment was my investment in the events that were unfolding, the story I was helping to spin. How do you create that investment? Some amorphous form of alchemy, and if I could command it perfectly, believe me, I would. In the case of me and Dragon Age, the alchemy involved a setting with a rich history, and the variety of characters off whom I can bounce my own character in interesting ways. Much of Dragon Age is characterization accomplished through interaction—always the best way to characterize.

So after a first venture through as a curious, well-intentioned swordsman who was equal parts bumbler and hardcase (aka “The Crichton”), I decided my second would be a brilliant and bubbly mage girl of immaculate ethics. What Swordboy called acceptable losses, Magicgirl would not accept. Where Swordboy struggled to find the right path, Magicgirl would be constantly certain. Where Swordboy grappled with realpolitik, Magicgirl would build moral consensus. Where Swordboy demanded his companions fall into line, Magicgirl would be at peace with all. Swordboy entered a tumultuous affair with a troubled sorceress destined to betray his heart. What would happen to Magicgirl would be much more tragic.

Central to recreation of a pop-fantasy epic Dragon Age attempts is the management of your character’s relationships with the motley crew gathered over the course of the game. And no recreation of a pop-fantasy epic would be complete without a love story stapled it? By no means is it a deep love story, but it’s present, in keeping with the genre tradition. Early on, I decided which path Magicgirl would take. A foundational component of the Dragon Age universe is that magic is dangerous—so dangerous an entire order of knights trained expressly for the purpose of killing rogue mages exists. A former member of this order, Alistair, is part of your party, a romantic option for female characters. Can’t you just taste the angst? I could, and it gets better. Near the end of the game, a series of choices arise—your character can take a dangerous chance, betraying Alistair’s feelings in the process, or your character can take the high road, which will ensure that someone must die.

Now, I know how these things are supposed to work—there’s no way Magicgirl, who is all heroism and sweetness and light, will let anyone else, particularly her true love, take a bullet, and I went into the game’s last moments preparing for that. It turned out, however, that Alistair reads the same stories and watches the same movies I do, and stole that last decision from me, dying in the place of his beloved Magicgirl (his last statement, “You say that like I’m giving you a choice,” a final Fuck You as he threw a wrench into my plans).

If you know the tropes of the sort of narrative Dragon Age is spinning, you know what happens to the heroes who walk away—they get a party. In my previous playthrough it was very gratifying to chat with my cohorts one last time, as they shared their future plans and intentions, politely avoided saying much about any deals my character made to get them there, and commiserated over a job well done. My first character left the epilogue emboldened and resolute of purpose—his quest for the sake of the world finished, his compatriots inspired him to undertake a greater quest, for himself. Surely Magicgirl would find succor from her loss with her friends, right?


Alistair is the first character to join your entourage, and yet, his passing merits a solitary mention, and it was a mention I had to hunt for. His relationship with Magicgirl goes unmentioned, despite it being a well known, much discussed fact by the other characters, and his sacrifice for her and their world is unmarked by those closest to him. With some of the characters—the hardened warrior, the drunken lout, the free-loving assassin—it would have been grossly out of character for them to have made a big deal of Alistair’s death. They were easy to gloss over. But the wise, good, old wizard woman who warned Magicgirl it would all end badly had nothing to say? And through it all, Magicgirl kept her roiling emotions buried under a thin veneer of the most clipped of dialogue options I could find.

Now, it’s perfectly obvious what happened—for whatever reason, the good folks at Bioware just didn’t include dialogue relating to the relationship. With all the possible permutations and shadings involved, it’s easy to understand why, and while this gap is a bit of a flaw, I can’t hold it against the writers, because my reaction to it was so interesting.

See, because I was invested in this narrative that Bioware and I had spun, I didn’t feel a gap in the story, but a redefinition. I’m always impressed by how quickly and effectively the brain will fill in a story’s spaces when there’s that investment—usually piddly little plot bits. “Jack Bauer really has all that in his manpurse?” Sure, why not? In Dragon Age’s case, my brain filling in the spaces completely altered the way I’d viewed that particular play of the game.

Magicgirl made all the right calls, solved all the right problems, made everyone happy, never took an easy way out, and made the world a better place. For that, she lost everything that mattered, and found that no one cared. She was sad, angry, hurt and betrayed by the blithe indifference of her companions, but she kept it all inside, because I was never given the option to let her scream. It turned the theme of that playthrough much darker, more interesting than the one I expected my storytelling song and dance with Bioware to carry, and it reared its head after the actual game was technically done, and all because of a moment not added to the text, and that I cared enough to justify why it wasn’t there. Pretty remarkable experience, I have to say.


  1. Scott / GWJ BullioncubeJanuary 29, 2010 at 3:58 AM

    What a great write-up. And as complete an experience as both those playthroughs sound, there are several other scenarios you could try that would be just as unique. Loved the perspective you brought to your game.

  2. Thanks for the input, Scott. I've been back into DA quite a few times by now, with varying results. Magegirl's experience was easily the most striking, though.