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Old 07-04-2010, 05:03 AM   #1
Zarmaka
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Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Many readers and staff on this site have praised Bioware’s high fantasy epic Dragon Age 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 gives 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 na´ve 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 sieze 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 badguy, 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.

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?

Last edited by Zarmaka; 07-12-2010 at 08:23 PM.
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Old 07-05-2010, 02:37 AM   #2
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

A super rigorous analysis of choice in Dragon Age. I liked this a lot. While I think your guidelines are a bit specific, I understand that they apply to massive games as opposed to smaller games less affected by choice (RPG vs. Brawler, etc).

Also, while I get your reasoning behind number 5...not sure if I would say "fully," since a nice little suprise/twist is always welcomed (at least by me). And 6 is good too, but more on a political level of understanding there's no such thing as objectivity (which I agree, they got across beautifully with Loghain). On a more basic level though, sometimes decisions are made in haste, in real life and in games. I approached Dragon Age like every other game, and I have this weird sense of pressure put on myself when faced with a choice that doesn't allow for slow calculation. Granted, no game has really made me contemplate a situation like Dragon Age, but because I was so mind boggled by this I decided to go with the flow and attempt to create a very contradictive character. But I can't really say "attempt to create" because I simply looked at everything how I would actually look at everything (with a little twist here and there haha), so no situation was ever ideal, but my character thought on his toes and never looked back to regret his decisions.

If there is no right or wrong choice in totality, then my character is neither absolutely right or wrong, thus the potential for rash decisions. I spent all game really liking Alistair, but then at the very last minute killed him and allowed Loghain to become a Greywarden! I don't know why...secretly Alistair was annoying me? In the heat of things my character saw the benefits of having a strategist like Loghain on his team over the innocently naive Alistair? It was hasty but I reveled in it. I started to think of my character as pretty inhuman, amoral, etc...but at the same time his overall intentions were for the best, just in the moment he was capable of some pretty horrid things.

This doesn't really dispute number 6, but is simply more testament to DA's amazing ability to incite very human responses to captivating situations. By allowing for simultaneously particular terror and/or objectively good deeds, the game raises interesting theoretical connundrums on what it means to be human, what it means to decide at all.

I think the only guideline truly necessary is that if choice is going to play as important a role in a game as it does in DA, then the developers better think long and hard about everything revolving around every possible decision a player can make. Your guidelines simply point out things that every choice entails, or things that every chooser would love to know prior to making said choices (which is hardly ever possible in reality...another thing to consider). Ha.
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Old 07-05-2010, 04:54 PM   #3
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Thanks for the feedback.

Regarding Number 5, you're right, surprises are good, but players shouldn't feel like they're shooting in the dark. That's why I said they should be aware of either the immediate or the long-term responses. This goes back to the Orzammar quest. Maybe other people got more out of it than me, but when it came time to choose a king, I knew neither the immediate nor the long term consequences of my actions. In the grand scheme of things, the choice didn't really affect the story until the epilogue, which made it even more forgettable. I felt like I was being asked to choose between maroon and magenta.

I like the point you make about characters being neither totally good or totally evil. A lot of games are still clinging to this idea that you can be good and save the world or you can be evil and...still save the world. I don't think it makes sense for good and evil characters do basically play the same game, but in the last fifteen minutes have different cutscenes. If i must have an evil/good slider, I'd like to see an RPG in which the good and bad "endings" were playable sequences several hours in length and completely unrelated to one another.

That was kinda tangential. With regards to morally gray characters, I think players feel more connected to their characters if they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. This is because in reality, most gamers aren't evil. If actually confronted with the proverbial burning orphanage, I think 99% of people would try to help in some way. That's why games that force you to choose between saving the world this way or saving the world that way make for far more memorable experiences than games that offer you the choice of saving the world or saving the world while being an unlikeable jerk.
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Old 07-07-2010, 10:50 AM   #4
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

My first thought with this article is that it needs more apostrophes.

My second thought is that you have the structure of this piece all wrong. You sort of wander over the various choices that the game offered, praising some and criticizing others, and then come up with a formula for compelling choices. The better way to write this article is to start with the formula and use the quests from the game to illustrate how obeying/violating the rules of the formula leads to more/less interesting decisions for players. The rules themselves will make for good section headings, which this piece needs because of its length. Also, the idea of introducing these rules will allow you to come up with a more compelling opening paragraph.

As for the rules themselves, I think (1) and (2) are aspects of the same idea and should be collapsed into a single rule. (6) is also similar in its ideas to these two. Come up with a phrasing that incorporates the ideas of all three rules and you'll have the right thing. (3) is great, and I think it's sufficiently distinct from (1), (2), and (6) to warrant its own heading. (4) and (5) are pretty closely related; I can see this going either way. For (5) I would say basically that the game should give the player something to go on in his decision. You're forced to choose between the two King candidates before you really know anything about them, and as a result the choice doesn't feel meaningful. You don't have to know in detail what will happen in the short or long term because of your decision, but you do need to have some idea of what it would mean to choose one person over the other.
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Old 07-09-2010, 08:43 PM   #5
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Sparky, you're right about needing to combine some of my guidelines, particularly 1 and 2, which I will do now.

With regards to the format and the structure, I considered placing the rules first, but I thought it might come across as kinda pretentious for me to claim that I know how it should be done without laying the foundation first. I'll probably revise this article at some point, and if I do, I'll probably change the structure somewhat.
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Old 07-09-2010, 09:01 PM   #6
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Well, you don't have to take my advice on the particular structure, but the one you have right now definitely won't do. Another way to approach it would be to deal with decisions that are similar in some way. For instance, you could talk about the satisfying decisions, and then in a different section talk about the unsatisfying ones, and then in the final section pull it all together. Right now you're just meandering. Remember, good organization helps you to write and it helps us to read.
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Old 07-09-2010, 09:11 PM   #7
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

I liked the idea of separating the good from the bad, so I did that. I think the article makes more sense now.
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Old 07-09-2010, 09:58 PM   #8
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

I agree. Just that simple change makes the whole thing read much better. I still think section headings would be a good addition. The one thing it really needs now is a stronger opening paragraph, something along the lines of

- DA widely praised for its interesting decisions and trade-offs
- actually, some are satisfying and some aren't
- close examination will show why some were good or bad
- what we learn will show us something about game choices generally

A paragraph with that information would explain what you're doing and provide a useful roadmap to the rest of the piece.

My advice generally is to always write your introduction last.
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Old 07-09-2010, 10:41 PM   #9
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Done. We have a nice piece of commentary on our hands. Thanks for the constructive criticism.
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Old 07-09-2010, 11:13 PM   #10
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

I like it a lot. It's a solid article with some good ideas. Glad I could help.
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Old 07-11-2010, 01:42 AM   #11
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Looks good to me too.
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Old 07-12-2010, 08:16 PM   #12
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Structure needs to be the writer's vision, otherwise he wont be able to communicate in his own voice.

However, it needs revising. You could cut this by 20%.

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell." - William Struck Jr., "The Elements of Style"

This is the most important passage ever written about writing.

The first paragraph, "Many readers and staff on this site have praised Bioware’s high fantasy epic Dragon Age 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, and hopefully, by the end of this article, you will have learned something about what makes story choices in a game compelling, and what makes them forgettable."

... would read better as thus...



"Dragon Age: Origins has received lavish praise on this site for its compelling story, intriguing characters, and moral dilemmas. Though it is a great game no one has examined the game's choices to discover what makes them great. Not all of these choices are as good as others. This article aims to teach readers what makes choices either compelling or forgettable."

Still not a great paragraph, I only cut the fat. It could still use to be reworded.

For example, the first paragraph comes off as arrogant and condescending. While you may know better what makes story choices compelling or forgettable, "hopefully you will have learned something" can feel insulting, as though you believe the reader would remain ignorant without your insight.

Last edited by adembroski; 07-12-2010 at 08:18 PM.
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Old 07-12-2010, 08:24 PM   #13
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Good tip, Adem. I cut down on the intro condescension. I'm currently working on reducing the overall size of the article.
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Old 07-12-2010, 08:29 PM   #14
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Quote:
Originally Posted by Zarmaka View Post
Good tip, Adem. I cut down on the intro condescension. I'm currently working on reducing the overall size of the article.
I realized I did not say what I liked about it in the first post, and I'm sorry for that. I didn't want to come off like I thought it was terrible throughout.

I thought your points were well hit and well explained. When I say cut by 20%, I mean that in order to open it up to be longer without being unnecessary filler. You could do much more with this article because it's a good premise for an opinion piece, and it's a subject worth discussion. This is especially true considering what we've heard about DA2 so far.
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Old 07-15-2010, 04:18 PM   #15
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Re: Please Rate this Article: Examining Choice in Dragon Age: Origins

Submission posted.
http://www.gamecritics.com/guest-cri...on-age-origins
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