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.” You can read the rest of the Dragon Age preview by clicking here!

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.

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].”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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