After pressing start: Dragon Age: Origins
(After Pressing Start is a new series running on Nightmare Mode every Friday by resident narrative guru Tom Auxier. It focuses on beginning, on the stories that happen directly after pressing start, and how those stories influence the arcs of video games. A variety of games he’s totally never talked about before will be featured. This might be sarcasm.)
Games, like professional conversations, begin with a handshake, and that moment is critical to its success. The handshake sets the tone for the conversation. What happens directly after we press start, though, determines what we, as players, are supposed to look out for in a game. At heart, all stories are patterns, and the beginning focuses our attention on specific threads for us to follow through to the end. It differentiates a game from its peers by focusing the eye on different parts of the narrative
In general, video games focus the eye on one of two different elements: the player or the world (fiction, in general, also allows us to focus on character, but video games tend to lock us into the point of view of a specific protagonist). These are broad focuses, and all games will include bits of different elements, but their starting thread is always the same—it’s either developing the player or developing the sandbox the game is set in, the plot it’s telling.
Dragon Age: Origins is an extremely compelling case when viewed in this duality. Its name, Origins, implies a focus on character, but each of its introductions is meant to take the massive, complex world of Ferelden and shrink it down to issues for the player to latch on to. Each of its introductions are plot focused, allowing you to create a character and feel part of the world but never losing focus on how the world is working.
For instance, when I beat the game the first time, I played as a mage. The mage’s tower introduction focuses on a couple key issues: mage’s rights and trust. One of these themes is common to the game: every introduction, in some way, deals with the issue of trust: you are betrayed, given the option to betray, or are cast as an individual mistrustful (murderously so) of society in each and every introductory sequence. This is the necessary theme of the game, as it were, and it is driven home quickly.
The mage’s section focuses on mage’s rights, and it casts the game in a very different light than other origins do. If you’re a mage, you’re immediately put into this world thinking about how poorly mages are treated, about the complexities of the mage/templar relationship. This becomes your lens to view the fictive world of Ferelden, and the writers string this thread along through the game. Mages’ rights are certainly not at the forefront of the plot, but their influence is tucked into nearly every major event of the game. When you’re a mage, you’re looking for them, and you will find them.
Other characters, however, get different hooks. The human origin casts the conflict with Arl Howe, a relatively tertiary conflict for other characters, at the forefront. Instead of a game about oppression, it becomes a game of thrones (hah). The politics take center stage, because you’ve been informed about them: they are the angle you get into understanding the world. When Arl Howe and political discussion occurs later in the game, you’ve been invested. You’re inside the machine, and you can’t see outside of it.
This opens up a bigger theme: all of Dragon Age: Origins origins focus on trust and one of two other themes: either oppression or political bickering. The dwarven origins represent the divide. Dwarf nobles are cast into a bitter political feud that would make George R.R. Martin proud, while the commoner’s family is abused, her rights are stepped on, and she is treated like a piece of human refuse. Each origin profoundly impacts how you interact with the game world, and they do so in a relatively uncomplicated way, by giving you an easy way to access the complicated fiction of the world. By the same token, the human noble focuses on the politics, while both elves focus on oppression.
There’s a switch going on here, too. You begin the game in small quarters: even if you’re the daughter of the king of Orzammar, your concerns are very small, very provincial. You’re interested in Dwarven politics above all else. In the second scene of the game, however, you’re thrust into this massive war against an encroaching army of darkness, and this overwhelms your petty concerns. Yet it’s these petty concerns which color in most of the game’s conflicts: whether or not you’re an evil character or not, you feel like you’re the one sane person fighting against perpetual apocalypse.
It’s a very similar tactic to the one used in Bioware’s other epic genre piece, Mass Effect. The original Mass Effect begins with the same sort of bait and switch plot. You begin as Shepard on a relatively routine mission—you’re led to believe the game’s going to be all about you: it begins with a walk through the bridge with people saluting you. You win a conflict, though suffer a traditional Bioware Early Game Death Scene, and you travel to the Citadel, ready to put petty conflicts aside and kick some ass. Then the narrative throws four hours of as few guns as possible at you. Why? Mass Effect sets you up as a soldier, as someone who cuts through the red tape. You’re given an early conversation with Nihlus about becoming a Spectre, and you’re led to believe it’s all guns and glory. When you get to the Citadel, you’re ready to shoot people. It’s through a clever switch that Bioware gets you feeling like Shepard, someone totally out of their element in a fantastic alien place.
Mass Effect‘s introduction, though, is a heavier hand than Dragon Age: Origin‘s. It delivers its contrast over the course of hours, while Origins takes an hour. Origins does this by way of implied narrative: you are making a choice, early in the piece, about what your own background will be. This frames the narrative in ways we’ve established, but it also provides a powerful “what-if” situation that runs through the game: what if you were Dalish instead of a mage? What would the game have changed?
Dragon Age: Origins, then, plays itself as a third character in the conflict between character and world. The fourth wall, the external “what if” of its choices, provides a third pillar to the narrative. You are viewing the story through the perspective created by the game, but you are also an external figure, able to realize that the game would be different if you picked one choice over another. It gets you thinking about other possible paths, and in this way a smartly written game like Origins can get you to notice things that would have been highlighted by other choices you could have made. Further, by knitting together a world with so many common themes to its interactions, each of its six introductions offer enough similarity to your viewpoint to allow it to tell roughly the same story each time.
Dragon Age: Origins‘ introduction gives us a compelling glimpse at how video games are set apart from other media: while a novel could begin by focusing on the world and characters together (if the writer was skillful enough), Dragon Age offers us a plethora of alternate stories not told, letting us imagine what the world would be like if we didn’t pick a certain role. Our imagination runs wild not because we have to imagine the scenes (as we would in a novel), but rather because we’re offered so many possibilities, choices on choices, and we can ponder how each one would have gone differently. It keeps us engaged in the plot, even once all these introduction’s weight walls by the wayside.
This is, of course, to be expected from Dragon Age, one of the better written series of games being published today. It’s like I randomly picked the most purposeful, competent introduction in all of gaming! Next week we will, inevitably, look at an introduction less effective, and we will see how it matches up.