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

Updated Thu, Aug 20, 2009 by Cody Bye

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.”


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