Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Game of 2009: Dragon Age: Origins

For a game that is so heavily story based I think I can still place my fondness of it on its gameplay. It had been a while since my last party based RPG. Yet, it felt familiar. As if I had switched on the light in a room I hadn't been in for years, and everything was still the way I left it.
Dragon Age (DA) feels like the distilled gentlemen's version of what a party based RPG should be. It's for people who grew up playing Baldur's Gate, Icewind Dale or Neverwinter Nights. Or for the hardcore MMO players of today. It's for people who enjoy a methodical approach to combat, who enjoy tactics with an abundance of skills and spells. There's somewhat of a contradiction in there though. The thing that is most striking about this game is the evolution it shows. An evolution that has been made in the MMO genre. And it's quite a simple one at that. It's what a lot of MMO developers call the "holy trinity". It's the steady base upon which party tactics are built. The tank, the DPS and the healer. These classes are mirrored in the base classes of the game. The Warrior (tank), the rogue (DPS) and mage (healer). Of course there's plenty of cross-over so Warriors or Mages can have a DPS build, and there's class specializations that push characters into a certain direction, change party tactics or just make a class excel even more in what they are supposed to do.
But it's no wonder that Dragon Age has been called a single player MMORPG. And that's a good thing. A single player game can sidestep most of what is (almost) impossible to do in an MMO, and that is to have a lasting effect in the game world. Cause and effect is also one of DA most remarkable features. From beginning to end there are choices that have to be made and most, if not all, have some sort of effect, either small or big, later in the game. No other company but Bioware has been quite so adept at crafting a narrative structure like this in such a cohesive and new universe.

Congratulations Bioware, again! Dragon Age: Origins is my personal Game Of The Year 2009. Other possible contenders were Team Fortress 2, Street Fighter 4, Dawn Of War 2, Modern Warfare 2 and Torchlight.

There's a few more thoughts I'd like to share about DA. There seems to be an overarching storyline, regardless of the player's chosen origin and it's that of mages versus the Chantry. In modern terms one would call it Science versus Religion. A theme that really speaks to me. The mages being represented by the Circle of Magi and several independent more experimental mages. The Chantry is a matriarchal church lording over the Circle with an army of Templars. Who are basically Paladins - church warriors - who've been conditioned through indoctrination and Lyrium, the game's fuel for magic, to hunt down Rogue or dangerous mages. Their partial immunity for magic stems from training and lyrium addiction but destroys their mind in the end. The setup for this hierarchy of powers is because Mages have the potential to bring Demons into the physical world if they are not able to resists their seductions in the fade. The fade is the game's version of the dream world into which mages can enter with full awareness. For those who've read any of Terry Pratchett's discworld novels the fade will sound familiar, it really is quite like the dungeon dimensions.
Not only that but mages are blamed for the existance of the Dark Spawn, the games main evil force. It has been told by the Chantry that the quest for knowledge, power and a mission to usurp the Maker (The Chantry Deity) from his throne in the fade has transformed these mages into the first of the Darkspawn as part of a godly punishment. However, if so, where do new darkspawn come from? The games only shows mages transforming into abominations, either physically or mentally. Whether the crime and punishment is symbolic or not, the events are still pinned on mages without actual proof. Later in the game the player character discovers that darkspawn are actually born through a brood mother, like a spider giving birth to live offspring. Further claims of Chantry lies are found in ancient records. Potraying it's most important figurehead, the Prophetes Andraste (the game's equivalent to Jesus, Mohammed or maybe more accurate: Jeanne d'Arc), was not a chosen by the Maker but in fact a very powerful Mage with a political agenda. To further justify the credibility of the claim, it was found in the Shaperate. The Dwarven records of History who have no truck with the Chantry. Their spiritual system being based on ancestors rather than Gods. If all this turns out to be true, and it propably will, in this game universe, that means the Chantry is indeed lying to its followers and duping everyone fortunate enough to have magical talents.
This leads me to believe that in further Dragon Age stories the Chantry will turn out to be the hidden evil pulling strings in order to maintain its power and control. The motivation to keep mages down is the fact that they could ascertain the truth about the makers place, or lack thereof, in the fade. A truth that would shatter the Chantry's credibility. There's even more. The player is almost always able to choose an Atheïst answer whenever religious questions or favors are asked. Answers that range from scepticism to mockery.

This might be a crackpot theory but... The Chantry's setup seems synonymous to the Roman Catholic church and its imperialism of the western world. It may well be that Humanists everywhere might have an ally in the Bioware docters, Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk, and their colleagues as voices in this ever more powerful medium. If you want some more proof, please remind yourself of Mass Effect. Where dogmatic belief in the Protheans was dispelled by the relevation of the Reapers. Where near-holy artifacts fall into the profane because facts deemed them to be. Baldur's Gate and Knights of the Old Republic had equally shocking revelations. Discovery and disillusion has been a trope in Bioware games for some time.

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