The Consequences of True Choice – A Look at Decisions in Dragon Age: Origins

In the past, BioWare has been heralded for creating games with epic stories that were comparable to what you'd read in a fantasy novel, except the protagonist was your character and the narrative was derived from your decisions. But much of that narrative, depending on how you played, would be very similar to your friend's play through of the same game, albeit with subtle differences.

Dragon Age: Origins, however, looks to change that mold. At GamesCom 2009, the BioWare team pulled out all the stops and sat journalists down for what they described as "storytelling 2.0." They showed the gathered press two different versions of the same event, each of which had huge repercussions on that person's gameplay. Ten Ton Hammer was there, recording every detail.

“Contrary to what David felt at this point,” Laidlaw states, “my character is feeling that he’s staring down at what the Wardens represent in the world. They’re not just ridiculous butt kickers that can kill thousands of darkspawn. Yes they can do that, but is that the important part to the people?”

“No!” Laidlaw continues. “The important part of the Wardens is that they represent hope. The chance that they [might get through the Blight]. We’re not thinking, let’s destroy it. On the contrary, people need hope as badly as anything, and that’s what this represents.”

Life is full of choices. Any time we flip on the television or cook
dinner, we’re making a decision. What are we going to watch?
Will it be steak for dinner? Or pizza? Should I buy the PS3 or the Xbox
360?

We answer most of these questions in spontaneous choices that often
occur without much conscious thought, and yet many of our
life’s choices can alter our lives. Even something as simple
as watching TV might influence your future: Perhaps you’re so
intrigued by the latest iteration of Shark Week on the Discovery
Channel that you opt to go back to school to become a marine
biologist.  These consequences occur on a near daily basis,
and everyone around you is tempered by your reputation earned through
your previous encounters and decisions.

href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/72886" target="_blank"> style="width: 200px; float: right;" src="/image/view/72886" />

But what if you could see what it could have been like? What if you
could replay your life, making different decisions along the way?
Perhaps if you’d been friends with different people in high
school, you could’ve been a straight "A" student? Or maybe
your
decision to get married early in life led to a very profitable
lifestyle, yet kept you from your dream of sailing around the world?

These are the sort of dilemmas that BioWare is hoping to give gamers in
their upcoming roleplaying game, Dragon
Age: Origins
. While at GamesCom
2009, the Edmonton-based studio transported audiences of journalists to
the world of Ferelden – a dark, gritty world seeping with
cankerous outbreaks of a pestilence called “The
Blight.” It’s here that the gamer is placed, and
the character that you control exists as one of the lone saviors left
in a world almost without hope. Dispecable agents from all over
Ferelden are
trying to take advantage of the coming storm, and betrayals are
happening faster than you can blink. The demo began with a video
covering the basics of the world of Dragon Age, and two of Dragon
Age’s top developers lead the GamesCom 2009 adventures,
specifically
Lead Designer Mark Laidlaw and Global Product Manager David Silverman.
Both of these men are avid gamers – just like you and me
– and they wanted to ensure that players understand the sort
of
gravity that the gameplay within Dragon Age holds for potential fans.
 

“There’s hundreds of choices to make in Dragon
Age,” Silverman stated. “The cool thing about this
game is that every decision you make in the game has a rippling
consequence that will come back to haunt or help you.”

Now most people have seen choices in video games before, and they're
all over in
BioWare games. For roleplaying gamers especially, the notion of choice
isn’t anything new by any stretch of the imagination.
Even  MMOs like Age
of Conan
and Tabula
Rasa
have used choice
and storytelling as one of their selling points. But the Dragon Age
developers are looking to do something more with their iteration on the
mechanics of decision making.

“What you’re going to see if the 2.0 version of
choice,” Silverman continued. “It’s
[asking the gamer] what they would do if their morality was brought
into
question. What do you do when there isn’t a clear good or bad
choice? When it’s not just a question of kicking kittens or
saving babies?”

“Even in the origin stories,” Laidlaw explained,
“you’ll find these sort of decisions to make. There
may be a lean to them one way or the other, but you can certainly
justify the things that you do.”

For the demonstration, Laidlaw and
Silverman dropped the audience into
one of those moral choices that will affect the rest of the game for
the player. And, as Laidlaw explained, the choice was far from clear
cut.

“That’s one of the great things about Dragon
Age,” Laidlaw continued. “There’s a gray
morality to it. There’s no good or evil slider.
There’s no nemesis twirling his moustache [to declare that
he’s evil].”

href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/72896" target="_blank"> style="width: 200px; float: left;" src="/image/view/72896" />

The scenario that the developers dropped us into is about 10-15 hours
into the game according to Laidlaw and Silverman, depending upon how
the gamers push through the content. The audience found itself facing
the hero’s party, which included Morrigan, Wynne, and
Leliana. The hero was obviously a warrior of some sort, draped as he
was with a thick suit of plate mail and wielding a massive sword.
Again, the developers explained that the group was inside of an
important religious temple and was about to discover an incredibly
important religious artifact known as the Urn of Sacred Ashes, an item
thought to have been lost by the religious order known as the Chantry
of Andraste. The party had been sent to this location in order to heal
an important ally, Arl Eamon, and thus use his armies in the fight
against the Blight.

After making it through a rabid cult and a series of tests known as The
Gauntlet, the character stands in front of the Urn of Sacred Ashes and
that’s where the player’s choice suddenly jumps to
the forefront in a bold and stunning way. As the character stands over
the urn, both Wynne and Leliana proclaim their awe at being in the
presence of such a mighty item. On the other hand, Morrigan issues a
snide comment, clearly not impressed with such religious idols.

“This is really like finding the Holy Grail of Dragon
Age,” Silverman states. “[To Wynne and Leliana]
this is the discovery of a lifetime. They thought it was lost
forever.”

In this particular version of events, Silverman had our character take
a pinch of the ashes to hopefully heal Arl Eamon, but this leads him to
the moral dilemma surrounding what then to do with the Urn of Sacred
Ashes. Silverman presented one particular argument –
don’t worry you’ll hear about another version from
Laidlaw – but it’s important to note that
everything from party composition to character’s relationship
with the main character will influence how these sort of events play
out.

“So what do we do with the ashes?” Silverman asked.
“This is an incredibly powerful artifact. Not only does it
have significant religious benefits and effects, but it also has
practical magical purposes as well. These ashes can cure anything and
essentially grant you everlasting life. The Urn can make you
immortal.”

Silverman went on to explain that the Blight is on the move and
they’re amassing to destroy every living thing on Ferelden.
What happens if they got ahold of the sacred urn and the ashes within
it? You’d never be able to defeat the Blight, even with an
army of a half dozen nations. “That’s a high price
to pay to keep an object sitting around in a nice temple,”
Silverman said. “And what if man gets corrupted? You all saw
what happened in Lord of the Rings. Here’s a whole urn full
of sacred ashes where one flake of this stuff can cure a king where
none of the most powerful mages from across the land can do
it.”

With Silverman’s point of view
in mind, the character opted
to destroy the rest of the Urn of Sacred Ashes by dumping
dragon’s blood into the container. It may be a despicable
act, but surely the ends justify the means, right?

Almost as soon as the character begins to pour the blood into the urn,
both Wynne and Leliana nearly jump out of their skins. They
can’t believe what you’ve just done – two
of your very own party members – and it’s up to the
player to try to convince them that what you’ve done is the
right way to do things.

href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/72894" target="_blank"> style="width: 200px; float: right;" src="/image/view/72894" />

Unfortunately, things don't go so well for the character in the game.
Both
Wynne and Leliana are unable to come to grips with the situation, and
the temple’s immortal Guardian declares that
“Andraste must be avenged!” and lights into the
fight as well. You still have one ally on your side, the ever lovable
Morrigan, and the two remaining party members must fight off the three
religious zealots. By the end of the battle, you’ve massacred
two of your former party members, leaving them to rot on the stone
floor of the temple while you go on your merry way with only Morrigan
in tow.

“That didn’t turn out quite the way you
would’ve hoped,” Silverman states with a laugh.
“But it’s clear that your party members in Dragon
Age have a soul. They have their own emotions, their own motives, and
their own moral compasses. I had to make the moral choice that
– for the greater good – it was better to destroy
these ashes. Both Leliana and Wynne were willing to sacrifice their
own lives for what they believed in, which was saving this
urn.”

After that encounter, there was one more
person Morrigan and our
character had to talk to, the man who spent half his life trying to
find the Urn of Sacred Ashes. With the blood of our allies still
covering our bodies, Morrigan and the main character begin conversing
with him, hopefully to explain what happened and keep it secret.

But nothing can go according to plan. The religious scholar finds out
that we’ve found the urn and begins to make plans to tell
other pilgrims about the tale. Our character, on the other hand, wants
to keep it a secret and not turn the temple into Disneyland. Aside from
the ashes being destroyed, there’s a whole cult outside of
the temple that tries to kill anything that enters the area, so
it’s not exactly the safest place for pilgrims to be
meandering about. While the character tries to explain that it must be
kept from the public, the scholar again states that he’ll
spread the word “or die trying.”  
 
Which is exactly what happens.

href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/72895" target="_blank"> style="width: 200px; float: left;" src="/image/view/72895" />

I’m not going to give away the awesome death scene, but it
was one of the more surprising ways to
kill a man that has his back turned. Let’s just say the
audience laughed and then gave out a shocked groan.

“That’s probably the coolest death in the
game” Silverman finished.

With the blood of three innocent victims on our character’s
hands, this version of the demo finishes. Of course, Silverman explains
that the developers don’t have time to show us everything
that might have happened if we didn’t destroy the ashes in
the urn. Perhaps the darkspawn get ahold of the ashes? What if their
armies were then unstoppable thanks to our choice?

“The ends justify the means,” Silverman echoes.
“And now we’re one step closer to defeating the
Blight. This was clearly the right choice”

Of course, Laidlaw wasn’t so
convinced. 
“Or was it [the right choice]?” he asks.
“That’s the question. Taken from a completely
different point of view, going through the same sequence of events
could be completed very differently. The nice thing about
David’s argument is that it’s very compelling and
emotional… but it’s also a bit hyperbolic and full
of crap.”

And so the demonstration restarts just before the Urn of Sacred Ashes.
In Laidlaw’s version of the demonstration, his character
believe that he is not just a Grey Warden that has to stop the Blight
at all costs, but he’s there to protect the world from the
spread of evil.

href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/72893" target="_blank"> style="width: 200px; float: right;" src="/image/view/72893" />

Thus we’re thrust back into the Gauntlet at the end of the
third trial, and the test asks our party to undertake a true
“leap of faith.” It’s very much an ode to
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in that the characters are asked to
walk through fire without their armor or weapons strapped to their
backs.

Of course, Laidlaw’s character immediately strips down to his
skivvies and so does his party (which is quite compelling in a group of
females). In this act, Laidlaw truly shows his characters devotion and
comes away unscathed. He then has the character ascend the steps and
stare down at the alter.

“Contrary to what David felt at this point,”
Laidlaw states, “my character is feeling that he’s
staring down at what the Wardens represent in the world.
They’re not just ridiculous butt kickers that can kill
thousands of darkspawn. Yes they can do that, but is that the important
part to the people?”

“No!” Laidlaw continues. “The important
part of the Wardens is that they represent hope. The chance that they
[might get through the Blight]. We’re not thinking,
let’s destroy it. On the contrary, people need hope as badly
as anything, and that’s what this represents.”

And so, Laidlaw’s character merely takes a pinch of the ashes
and then proceeds to tell the scholar outside that he also wishes to
open the temple up to pilgrims. He’s not concerned about
their lives coming to the temple, because his character will take the
time to clear a path for those individuals.

href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/node/72897" target="_blank"> style="width: 200px; float: left;" src="/image/view/72897" />

All rhetoric aside, there truly is a tone that players can adopt for
their characters in Dragon Age. While Silverman’s character
was playing a darker path than Laidlaw’s, both men were able
to evoke the emotions of their characters into the game itself. Unlike
many of the games that have come in the past, the advancements in
graphics over the last few years truly make it easy to see the results
of your choices on the people around you.

When you first walk up to the Urn of Sacred Ashes, the facial
expressions and  voice work with Wynne and Leliana make it
explicitly clear that they have an almost fanatical reverence for this
object. Even if you’re playing a darker character,
it’s easy to feel a slight twinge of guilt when you pour the
dragon’s blood into the urn. And when you do – or
don’t – you immediately know how your actions have
affected your standing with your two religious compatriots. I believe
Leliana even calls your character – owing to her bardic
background – a "fiend."

Unlike the storytelling in previous BioWare games, Dragon Age: Origins
uses every tool that it can to push the story toward the player. From
the cinematic angles to the variety of choices in front of the player,
there’s a scale to the game that seems incredibly compelling.

And it gets even better. After the demonstration was over, Laidlaw and
Silverman took a few minutes to discuss the “what
ifs” to this scenario. Although the demonstration showed a
group composed of three women, Laidlaw stated that even if Leliana and
Wynne aren’t in the party with the character when he makes
his choice, they’ll still react to that decision when the
character chooses to put them back into the party. The repercussions of
the event are felt throughout Ferelden, and it’d be
inappropriate for the two most religious members of the adventuring
troupe to ignore the blasphemous act.

That said, Laidlaw also suggested that the outcome with Wynne and
Leliana can end differently depending on their approval rating with
the main character. Laidlaw wouldn’t go into specifics, but
if you’ve earned their trust, perhaps they can be convinced
that destroying the Urn of Sacred Ashes was the way to go.

The possibilities – if BioWare took the time to put them into
the game – are endless. The developers at BioWare have never
let me down before, and I don’t imagine they’ll
start a new trend with their latest addition to the fantasy RPG market.

And that's not all folks! At the end of the demo, the group encountered
a....*gasp*......dragon. But space here is limited, so make sure you
tune back in tomorrow for the rest of the story!


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Dragon Age: Origins Game Page.

Last Updated:

About The Author

Around the Web