Full Course: Dragon Age: Origins

Okay, before I get heavy into this, let me address the elephant in the room.

*ahem*

How the fuck is Morrigan straight?

No really, how? She’s a swamp witch who dresses like a goth, practices forbidden magic, and constantly makes snarky, emasculating comments. She couldn’t be coded more queer unless you had her express an interest in Sailor Moon. Now I will give Bioware points for giving her a femdom fetish and giving an ending where she fucks your boyfriend to save your life, but come on. You have two bi characters in the cast! Why can’t I have my girl kiss the Satanist goth girl!?

This article took 130 hours of play to prepare for. I am taking this one indulgence.

*cough*

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Bioware is probably the single biggest name in the world of RPGs today, at least when it comes to current relevance. Square-Enix has begun to survive mainly on nostalgia due to a chronic inability to actually finish their new genre pushers, and Bethesda’s formula is wearing out its welcome and only ever feels meaningful every few years with a new Elder Scrolls. Outside CD Projekt Red’s critically acclaimed work with The Witcher series, nobody else has managed to stay in the public consciousness as regularly as Bioware has. It has a huge fanbase behind it, but it’s also a company filled with controversy and production meddling out of their control. We’re reaching the point where the bubble may pop after how much the new Mass Effect has been savaged by pretty much everyone, but they earned their place in the culture through a long string of crowd pleasers and critical darlings.

Dragon Age: Origins, alongside Mass Effect 2, feels like the last big hit they had that seemed to please everyone. That was even their goal with the project, to try and make something that would please classic fantasy fans and those more into “realistic” fantasy that concerned itself with political squabbles and social issues over adventuring and wild concepts. After pouring in so much time with it, I can safely say that yes, they really did succeed at making a game that seems perfect for most every fantasy fan. There’s a little something there for every fan type, and the game’s first hours do a fantastic job making that perfectly clear.

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After plaything through an origin story for your character, known simply in canon as “The Warden,” you’re drafted into a group of warriors called the Grey Wardens to fight monsters called the Darkspawn, creatures of pure corruption born from a demon that were once great wizards that tried learning the secrets of the universe and destroyed themselves. Within the first few hours, you meet a humorous side character, discuss thievery with a would be deserter, see a king and his commander bicker, help cure a dog (if you didn’t pick human noble), and went off to the woods to murder some monsters, come across corpses strung from bridges, and meet a powerful, loopy witch that likes playing head games with everyone for shits and giggles. It’s a wide swath of moods climaxing with a fight for a tower, a sudden betrayal from the commander leaving his king to die, the man who saved your life dying horrifically, and resolving with your fellow surviving warden to create an army, unite the land, and stop the darkspawn’s coming blight.

Dragon Age: Origins has a great understanding of stakes and tone, easily its strongest narrative aspects. Your party is made up of colorful but morally complicated characters, including a lizardman from a society with no value in free will, a bisexual hedonist assassin, and, most shockingly, a mage that’s also an old woman. Literally did not realize you could put old people in starring roles during this period in the gaming landscape. The game makes great use of having a wide variety of perspectives, as your team will comment on your choices and discussions as you travel with them, and not always in the ways you’d expect.

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Leliana, a former spy turned Chantry (the ruling church) devotee, is the best example of this. She seems predictable as the one who wants to constantly do the right thing, but her particular line of thinking being so focused on mercy or freeing people from pain leads to situations like thinking letting a demon who has possessed a templar go is the right course of action because he’s doomed no matter what. It might as well be in a situation where he’s in an illusion of happiness. Her past self was also a far different person, a manipulator who slept with plenty of people on a regular basis – and probably killed more than a few of those partners. It ends up giving her a slightly detached view on death, even with her new moral compass.

Perhaps the strongest element of your companions is that almost all of them are outcasts in their own communities, with some exception to Wynne, whom is a significant figure within mage society. They all have critical perspectives of their homelands and the groups that helped raise them, or they were fine with the way things were and broke from the mold because of what their societies demanded from them. Sten, a member of the lizard-like Qunari race, came from a society that valued the community over the individual, and those in it rarely questioned their role. He only speaks of his country proudly, but when you meet him, he states that he had murdered an entire family and does seem to regret the act.

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By becoming closer to him, he eventually reveals the murders happened in a panic. He had been saved by them when he and his companions lost in a battle, but freaked out when he realized he didn’t know where his sword was. His sword, handed down to him in order for him to perform his duties as a warrior, was like apart of him. That resulted in a stress break, and though the game never says it outright, it’s clearly showing that Sten suffers from some serious PTSD. His trigger was an unfamiliar situation – being shown kindness by complete strangers after failing his duties. Talks with him have him defend some of his societies more worrisome practices, like cutting out the tongues of mages, but he shows real signs of appreciating other cultures as the game goes, not to mention showing respect for the Warden. Despite many of the toxic elements that make up his culture and lifestyle, there’s a person under the seemingly heartless exterior, and some of his beliefs have genuine merit.

The game is so good at revealing these hidden depths, sometimes in predictable ways, and other times in genuine surprise. Oghren, a dwarf berserker, is pretty much exactly like how he presents himself, but talking with him shows that his drinking and immaturity are how he rebelled against his caste obsessed society that decided he had to be a violent killer, only to put contradictory restrictions on him right after. Zevran and Alistair both have legitimately tragic origins, but where Alistair used comedy as a defense mechanism to hide his easily brought out insecurities, Zevran embraced hedonism and accepted things as they were, deciding if he couldn’t change his rotten life, he could at least enjoy it. They bot have hidden pain, but they deal with it differently while sharing somewhat similar stories. The only major difference is that Alistair turns out to be someone of significant importance because of his father’s identity, and he’s thrust into an important position, while Zevran has few expectations put on him and instead seems to want to be seen as useful to the Warden and others.

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Shale is an inhuman golem, and even with knowledge of their origins gained later, they remained emotionally detached from most people. They spent decades trapped as a frozen statue and forced to watch villagers live their boring lives, was basically a slave before that, and when awakened and given freedom, they have no idea what they wanted to do. For all Shale’s jokes about squishing humans, its clear Shale just wants to make a connection without sacrificing the way they are now. The idle dialog Shale has with a few companions, mainly Sten and Leliana, is really interesting in how they try understanding others without trying to please them. Shale never apologizes, but does try to consider what others have told her. It makes them more than a monster or a construct.

Wynne and Morrigan are basically total opposites, but not in the ways I expected. Morrigan is an apostate, a mage living out of the Circle, a church backed organization dedicated to both teaching mages and keeping them under watch. Wynne, on the other hand, has a high position within the circle. Morrigan is young and Wynne is old. Morrigan acts cynical and cruel, while Wynne tries to be kind and understanding. Morrigan’s magic relates to the wild and weakening others, while Wynne controls the elements and supports her friends. Morrigan is free and Wynne is a prisoner …or at least you would think.

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It’s revealed as you get closer to her that Morrigan’s mother, Flemeth, has been lying to her. Flemeth is the legendary Witch of the Wilds, a centuries old woman talked about in countless myths. Turns out she grooms girls she kidnaps to become her new body whenever her current one grows too old, and Morrigan is not exactly happy to find out about this. But just talking with Morrigan is enough to reveal that her cruel personality is due to how Flemeth raised her. Morrigan was never allowed to be a child, even gaslit and emotionally abused by Flemeth for ever showing interest in anything besides power, and her character arc centers around realizing this.

Wynne, on the other hand, was a prisoner in the tower, but has nothing but good memories. She truly believes in the Circle and has dedicated her life to helping other mages learn to use their powers for the greater good. Even her memories of the templars taking her to the tower have some kind nostalgia. While Wynne is a tad naive, not doing anything to help mages gain their much desired freedom from the crushing weight of the Chantry and the templars, she’s lived a happy life and tries to understand and help everyone she meets. As long as they don’t use blood magic, mind you. Her arc comes from her age, realizing she doesn’t have much longer and wanting to use what time she does have to do something meaningful. She even tries to give the Warden advice regularly, and what she teaches speaks volumes about her own experiences.

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It’s also possible to recruit the main villain Loghain, who reveals himself to be an aged, wise man often ruled by his passions. He truly did care for the king her abandoned, but the many horrors he’s witnessed and his own sense of importance led him to try and take power for himself and steer the country he loved so much in a proper direction to save it, despite every single action he made only made things worse and made him out to be a dictator. Despite everything about his design and early actions suggests he’s a mustache twirling villain, he’s really just an ambitious soul who tried too much and couldn’t handle the weight he put on his shoulders.

It should also be worth pointing out that every single character that joins you besides Alistair or Loghain is a minority (though Alistair and Loghain have lived in powerless, sub-servant situations). Sten and Leliana come from different countries with different values, and neither’s country is particularly liked by Ferelden (where the game takes place). Morrigan and Wynne are both mages, beings with the natural ability to command magic that are commonly rounded up by the Chantry, and Morrigan is an illegal mage at that. Oghren comes from a caste based society that cast him out for his inability to conform to their standards, Zevran is an elf and therefore has the cards stacked against him in pretty much every society, and Shale is both an inhuman automaton and has only just recently gained free will. All of this has an important point.

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Dragon Age: Origins has a lot of commentary on xenophobia, religious fanaticism, and the dehumanizing nature of politics, and it uses your party to great effect to constantly keep those themes in play. Everyone has a different reaction to a situation, especially those who are more than familiar with discrimination, and there are always moral lines for them that they refuse to cross. Despite his jokes and constant innuendo, Zevran makes it very clear that he’s not okay with elves being victimized, no stranger to that treatment himself. Morrigan is incredibly distrusting of the Chantry, not just because their teachings don’t mesh with her own, but also because they have a habit of destroying or restricting knowledge that doesn’t fit with their wold view. Characters like Alistair and Leliana also have a bad habit of showing some toxic ideas they’ve unknowingly absorbed, especially Leliana if you’re an elf. The game is strangely realistic in portraying racism and the defensive attitudes many minorities grow from living within an unjust world.

As you play, you end up visiting all the cultures native to Ferelden, and then get to see all their worst problems up close. The Dalish, or free elves, are incredibly distrustful of humans due to how their ancestors were enslaved and most of their culture eradicated. You can even speak with a tribe story teller, who will be very openly hostile to a human character and make some truly uncomfortable and honest points to why his anger is justified. City elves, on the other hand, end up being heavily mistreated by human society, even to the point where a late game quest reveals that a plague in their alienage has resulted in the current governing body making a deal to cart them off into slavery or becoming subjects to experimentation.

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The dwarfs are in the middle of a political struggle due to how succession works, revealing a society filled with elitism and loathing over the most ridiculous things. Their horrid caste system created an entire village of beggars and criminals who have no other way to survive, and results in a lot of closed minded decision making, robbing the young of agency and casting out other cultures. Even their focus on honoring scientific achievement that helps their society grow ends up resulting in their current living Paragon given the means to use her entire house as living test subjects for her mad ambitions. Despite their polite manner, they completely ignore their society’s many problems and blame it on low status, something nobody has any control over if born lowly.

As for the humans running most of Ferelden, its xenophobia at every level of policy. The Chantry basically imprisons mages with a private army, an army they control with a rare drug they control the supply of. Many nobles have no problem treating city elves as toys, and the many ruling families tend to be too busy trying to off each other to focus on the coming blight of darkspawn. It actually gets so bad that your warden has to step in and deal with countless political squabbles to get anywhere. There’s also the issue of their politics being based on the need of royal blood, which can result in an unprepared Alistair taking the throne just because he has the right blood.

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That doesn’t even get to the countries you don’t get to see, which from what you hear about from their own citizens, are even bigger disasters. I’ve mentioned Qunari society being ridiculously authoritarian, but Leliana’s Orlais and Zevran’s Antiva aren’t paradises either. Orlais has a love for art and knowledge, but the people in charge use spies to murder their rivals without a second thought, even treating like a game. A shopkeeper in Denerim, the capital of Ferelden, also mentions that normal humans that rank low in the society are just about as bad off as elves, who just have it terrible everywhere. As for Antiva, what you hear of it makes it sound like a dangerous rat hole with rampant slavery and a crime rate so high that it has made being a criminal a full time job.

Despite this, the world is still lively and rich. Every single culture lives in what feels like their own little world, each with something interesting to explore or take in. Dwarfs are master craftsmen and have created awe inspiring structures in a place you’d never expect it. The Dalish’s reverence for nature and their ancestors give them an interesting inclination towards naturalistic craft, while their forests hide all sort of strange and interesting creatures (just wait until you meet the Grand Oak). Visiting the Circle reveals a large collection of knowledge and a trip to the Fade, the land of magic, dreams, and demons. Human society has boundless cultures living together, showing influences of every other culture among them in some fashion. The Chantry is home to both fanatics and kind souls just trying to do good, while the elf alienage has its residents making the best of a bad situation and showing a sense of community not too unlike their Dalish brethren. You get to see the best and worst of these people, and none of them feel like an absolute villain. Even Ferelden, which has treated the elves cruelly, shows signs of changing with a slavery ban, and has been victim to its own brutal subjugation just decades ago during an Orlaisian occupation. There’s a sense of hope mixed in with the harsh reality, a fantastical reflection of real world culture clash I haven’t seen portrayed so well before.

…which makes it frustrating when the game does something so dark that it becomes either comical or disappointing.

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For the most part, the warden origins you can pick are really well written, and can even give new context to certain parts of the story. The mage origin turns a random blood mage you find in an erl’s castle a tragic figure you want to see have some form of redemption. Dwarf origins change how you see the power struggle in the city of Orzammar. The human noble origins is a strong, classic motivator, and the Dalish origin may be the strongest of all, creating an alienating feeling once it finishes and you’re taken somewhere you’ve never known.

…and then there’s the city elf origin.

Boy oh boy, is there ever the city elf origin.

This was the first origin I tried playing way back, and it left me with a vile taste in my mouth. Basically, in order to establish how difficult things were for city elves, instead of showing the casual discrimination they deal with or injustices from man’s law, they decided the best way to go was to have a dick son of a noble to come down and have a rape party with his men.

I’m serious.

One of his lines is actually “Grab a whore and have a good time!”

He gets chased out, but he comes by again anyways to abduct some elves and take him back to his castle, and you eventually run into him again while there with one of the female elves crying in pain. Also, one of those elves was about to be married.

So yeah, this is one of the worst stories ever put in a videogame ever.

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Pointless victimization of women, a bad guy so cartoonish that you have to wonder why nobody has done anything about him before (meeting the nobles later in the game reveals them to be pretty level headed people, even if they still have prejudice against elves), and the use of rape as a lazy motivator. It does nothing to build the world, especially when compared to the far better written other origins. It leaves a permanent stain on the game that can’t be easily wiped away. Unfortunately, the game still has little moments sprinkled around that use sexual assault as shorthand for evil, and about the only time it feels like it was used appropriately is in the Deep Roads, when you find out about the Broodmothers. Its a genuinely fucked up sequence that feels like something inspired by H.R Giger art.

Oh, and since I brought up the Deep Roads, FUCK the Deep Roads. They’re a series of ruins and caves in the dwarf lands, and they are almost nothing but near endless padding. There’s enough dungeon in them to fill up an entire other game, and none of it is interesting. There’s no character development or world building of any significant interest, and the few interesting encounters down there are spread thin and far. They go on for HOURS, and Orzammar itself is little better. There’s a lot of load times just moving around the city, and there’s very little to do compared to a hub like Denerim. It does not help that raiding a criminal organization base is one of the most grueling, boring sections of the game. The entire dwarf section is basically a long series of fun stop signs between somewhat interesting segments.

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This is a running problem within the rest of the game world as well. There’s this old AAA game development philosophy that large worlds mean good games, when the real mark of a good world is stuff to do. Bioware tends to forget that. The first areas of the game, the army camp and Lothering, do a good job at giving you stuff to do and prepare for the coming challenges. Circle Tower, which should always be your first stop, has the incredibly inventive Fade segment, which allows you to transform into different forms to solve puzzles, rewarding you with stat boosts. However, it’s layout is dull and repetitive outside that segment, though it makes up for it with a strong final boss.

The Dalish segment has a great central conflict, working in a lot of well made race relation stuff with the werewolves, tying everything together into a tragic tale of hatred and suffering. It doesn’t have too much in the way of side quests, but what’s there manages to tell pretty strong stories. I especially love everything with the Grand Oak and the Mad Hermit, easily two of the best characters in the whole game for sheer entertainment value. Sadly, it ends with a thud rather than a bang, no matter what you choose. It feels like this was the most underdeveloped segment, failing to give a truly satisfying ending note.

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I think I’ve established that Orzammar is just the worst, but Redcliff fairs a little better. The initial preparing for a big battle stuff if fun and offers the game a chance to show off a lot of diverse townspeople, but the battles in Redcliff castle are dull dungeon crawling, plus include a fight with a high level enemy called a Revenant. An enemy that requires preparation before engaging it, or else it will wipe the floor with you before you’re even aware of it. If you choose to do this section first, prepare to scream. A lot. But this does lead to the Sacred Urn quest, one of the strongest segments of the game, having the party learn more about the Chantry religion and how the other cultures fit into it.

As for late game quests, Eamon’s dungeon has a nice change of pace with a stealth section, while the alienage segment feels unfinished. There’s not much interaction with the locals to speak of, a massive missed opportunity. It also continues the obnoxious victimization narrative, which is just bizarre after the elves already staged a rebellion just a short while ago, robbing them of their agency. You, someone not of their people (unless you picked that god awful city elf origin) just solve all their problems for them. It left a bad taste in my mouth, even in slaughtering slave traders is always cathartic.

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The best side quests are all centered around Denerim, but there are other strong quest lines that go on throughout the game. The Blackstone Irregular missions aren’t terribly interesting, but they end on a strong note and make you reconsider your actions accomplishing past quests. The Mages’ Collective retains everything in subtext, but it puts you in a position where you can choose to go with or against the Chantry. The bartender missions are similar, as you never really get the full picture on what the rogues involved are really up to. You get a lot of stuff like this, and it makes the world feel much livelier. Despite the Blight going on, everyone has their own stuff to deal with, their own fights that can’t be put on hold.

A problem that’s impossible to ignore, however, is that a lot of these quests are obvious padding. Collect said number of x, go kill y, press button at z spots, ect ect. The best strategy is to find all the quests you can once you reach a new peaceful hub area, and complete them as you go (oh and quick tip, never sell garnets, they’re rare and you need ten to complete a bartender quest). There are some good challenges to be found, especially in the Antivan Crows quest line or from the Chantry board, but the large amount of quests at hand are just busy work. Others are simply go talk to x about y, which are fine enough …unless you’re somewhere like Orzammar, which is divided into four segments and is plagued with loading screens every transition. And you transition a LOT there. So many of these quests feel like they don’t have a point, or forgot to make a compelling narrative to go with it. Some have the framework there, but never really do much with it, like helping a dwarf girl go to the Circle to study magic theory.

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The character quests also aren’t too great, but mainly because of what you need to do in order to unlock them. Bioware doesn’t have a good/evil system here, but a reputation system. How your team views you, positively or negatively, affects bonuses they get, along with raising the chance that they may try defecting. If you want to raise your rep with them, though, your choices are either some dialog options, or giving them gifts. Some gifts are cleverly handled, rewarding you for listening to the stories of these characters, but it mostly comes down to “give them nice thing and they will like you.” It’s a really lazy after thought.

And then there’s combat itself, the greatest example of the game’s best and worst qualities put into mechanical form. I honestly think DAO’s combat is brilliant in most every respect. It’s a solid mixture of on screen action and careful planning, allowing you to pause at any time to give your team direct orders and get a lay of the land, see what all you have to deal with and what in the environment can be used to help or hurt you. For example, if you want to give your mage a shot at surviving a Revenant, put them behind a solid objects so that they’ll still have some distance once the thing tries a force pull. If you see a large group coming down on you, order your team to freeze, have tanks use skills to draw attention from party members with less defense or armor, give out some status buffs and pick of each enemy in groups of two. Death can come at you fast in this game with just a single bad decision, so every fight is based around preparation, caution, and knowing how to best make use of a moment.

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Where the combat becomes frustrating is that the game keeps having sudden difficulty spikes. There are a lot of enemies you don’t always see coming that will surprise you, and a love of mages with AOE spells that you need to kill or stop as fast as possible, and they’re not always easy to see coming. Save often, because if you don’t, expect to lose hours of progress to one genlock emissary hiding behind a few ogres and canon fodder enemies to blast your party line to pieces. Being slow and careful can help a lot, but sometimes this shit can’t be seen coming and requires a fast retreat you may not get.

The idea that your decisions really mean something keeps the fighting engaging and memorable, even in the smallest skirmishes, but goddamn if the game doesn’t love pounding down on you for no good reason. The fights in the entire Orzammar section are the worst, because not only do you have a mess of enemies with natural magic resistance, they have strong armor and defense, turning every fight into a grueling, obnoxious slog. A few lights like this would be fine, but nearly every fight here is like this. It just gets tiring after your 25th battle of attrition in a row. And really, that’s this game in a nutshell.

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Dragon Age: Origins is incredibly ambitious. It creates a rich, lived in world filled with interesting characters and conflicts, mixing politics and myth with a near perfect mixture of darkness and levity. I also have to give it points for having two bisexual characters in the main cast (but seriously, how is Morrigan straight), and for the incredibly strong villain in Loghain. He’s so easy to hate, but his motivations for his actions are sympathetic and understandable. The story told is large and exciting, but also clearly part of a larger, more interesting history you want to see fleshed out. It’s a great introduction to Bioware’s own fantasy world …but the casual use of rape as a lazy character definer, the large amounts of padding, unfinished side stories, and finicky difficulty makes it a fantastic game I have almost no motivation to replay. I tried playing Awakening for this article, but upon getting fire blasted by another bloody genlock emissary within the first few minutes, I decided I had enough. Alpha Protocol would have probably benefited from a larger scale and some more focus on the technical skeleton, but Dragon Age: Origins just needs to cut out some fat and maybe cut it out with the rape. Seriously. Come on guys. Enough with the rape.

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