Newsarama Note: As this is an analysis of interactive dialogue in gaming, there are SPOILERS for the Dragon Age series of games. Major spoilers. If you haven’t played the games and want to without being SPOILED first, do not read on. If you’re good to go, enjoy!
A common myth among the gaming community is that combat is the only “fun” form of gameplay and that it is the point of most games. With the rise of more sophisticated storylines, shooting without context is no longer the reason why many gamers play video games. Instead, players literally want to ask questions first and shoot later. Video game developer BioWare, in particular, has presented players not only with compelling storylines, but also the ability to create your avatar’s appearance and personality throughout the game. In addition, intriguing non-playable characters (NPCs) interact and form relationships with the player based on the choices they make. At PAX East 2011, Daniel Erikson, lead writer on Dragon Age: Origins and the upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic, asked the challenging question when it comes to interactive dialogue: “How do you make conversation as fun as combat?” The goal is moving interaction to a level where the avatar has a clear personality – created by the player – and the relationships between the avatar and NPCs become gameplay. This seems simple but many important questions arise: How much freedom do you give the player? Should they say anything they want at any time? Or should they be given limited control so that the dialogue fits with the context of the game? In the Dragon Age franchise alone, BioWare has given us two different types of interactive dialogue. Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II each possesses strengths and weaknesses as the developers are continuously trying to create new kinds of interactive dialogue, but while neither is perfect both have helped to create this new style of gameplay.
Dragon Age: Origins presents you with a numbered “menu” of dialogue. The menu structure allows for more choices and you can see word for word what your avatar is saying, though you will not hear it spoken. Therefore, any emotional context comes from you internally and the reaction of the NPCs. Not knowing the emotional context can make choices difficult if you do not wish to offend an NPC. For example, in a discussion the Warden, the player’s character, can have with the NPC Leliana, she tells the Warden of her more liberal ideas in comparison with the Chantry. This ruling religious body believes the Maker “cannot possibly have love for all – the sick and weary, the beggars and the fools.” The Warden, in turn, has four dialogue options:
1. I don’t really want the Maker looking in on me anyway.
2. What did you say to them?
3. I prefer your ideas to the ideas of the Chantry.
4. But you must earn the Maker’s blessing!
If the player wants to win Leliana’s favor or even the opposite, he/she now has to wrestle between which option to choose. One is the humorous option, but since we do not know the tone of the Warden Leliana may act differently than expected. Two is probably the safest choice because we are directly asking for her reaction without really giving one of our own. Three is vying for Leliana’s favor, but since this is early in the game, it might not be clear whether or not she likes sucking up. And four is a little aggressive, but since Leliana was a part of the Chantry it may not be as negative as it seems. Without any emotional direction dialogue can be tricky, which is why many players save before having conversations with their party members, just in case they don’t like the reactions their choices received or if they think they acted out of character.
How can you act “out of character” if you define the character? The lack of a voice along with the many dialogue options the menu structure presents does allow for the player to fill in the gaps and imagine the personality of their warden. If the Warden is able to express his or herself, you choose precisely what they say. While your chosen origin – elf, human, or dwarf – does play a part in how NPCs react to you and presents you with different dialogue options, there is still not a direct change or constant build when it comes to the Warden’s personality. The origins offer more choices initially, but they limit the depth of the Warden’s character overall by denying the player the instant reaction that a voice can give. We lose cinematic opportunities with the voiceless Warden; it’s like playing ping-pong against a wall instead of another person. Take for example the major romance scene with the former slave and now companion Fenris in Act 2 of Dragon Age II. Without a voiced Hawke, your character in the sequel, the player would see an impassioned Fenris walking around the room, waving his arms, and ranting about the news that he not only has a sister but that she is alive… and Hawke just stares blankly at him. When the dialogue option to start the romance appears, how strange would it look for Hawke to reach out to Fenris but say nothing audibly? The romantic tension of that scene would be lost.
By having a voiced character, Dragon Age II puts an emphasis on emotion over deliberate dialogue. Instead of knowing word for word what your character, in this case Hawke, is going to say, you guide your conversation on a basic idea and the tone behind it. This means the lines coming from Hawke’s mouth can elicit a surprise. For example, during a conversation with another companion, Merrill, the line, “Safe is boring” with the “Charming” icon actually becomes “It will be alright, Merrill.” The line itself is surprising and in some cases, if the line is a bit snarkier or more aggressive than intended, there is a brief moment of panic. Luckily, the NPC usually acts the way you originally hoped – giving you a second surprise. The surprise you feel when Hawke delivers a line, whether it’s what you thought it would be or not, increases engagement in the gameplay of interactive dialogue. You can’t just idly make a choice because you have less information – you really have to think about it.
This is especially true when not all options have icons to guide you. Quite often, the “choice” icon appears and instead of an emotional queue, you have an image of arrows twisting in different directions. The lines Hawke delivers from the choice icons are based partly on the blurb of dialogue given and on a stacked system of the dialogue choices made so far. For example, when Hawke gives Isabela a Rivaini talisman that turns out to be for fertility, one of the options, “I knew what it was,” is delivered as, “I knew it was a little crude. I just thought you’d appreciate it. You like… vulgar things.” It’s delivered in a humorous tone because up until that point the player has chosen more humorous/charming options making it their Hawke’s dominant personality. There are opportunities to change Hawke’s personality at the start of each act, which is important because the game takes place over the course of a decade, with many devastating events, including personal loss, occurring in the process. This all leads up to the end of the game, which leaves you with a crucial decision. Watching Hawke’s personality, and in a way the player’s, develop is the intended experience. More than ever, in a BioWare game, the NPCs play just as large a role as the character the gamer controls directly in shaping the world around them.
The Warden’s interactions with party members in Origins are judged on an Approval/Disapproval scale. The player could gain Approval/Disapproval points based on their actions in the game (when party members are present), conversation, and gift giving. Disapproval is generally seen as a bad thing. For certain characters, if you reach particular crisis points in the game and your approval rating is not high enough, that party member may attack you. This is the case with the flirty elf assassin Zevran when Taliesen, another assassin, appears and tells Zevran to come back to Antiva. If you have not achieved a high enough Approval rating, Zevran will attack you. It is not terribly difficult to gain 100% Approval ratings from all party members. You can literally spend hours going from companion to companion in the party camp, just talking to them about their past or smaller things… like shoes, in Leliana’s case (she loves shoes). Each companion has around eight character specific gifts, although only one or two of those have cutscenes. There are general gifts to help you reach 100% if you are having trouble. Party members will reveal more details about themselves once they trust you, giving you more incentive to gain Approval points. More conversation bringing a higher Approval rating also unlocks character missions. For Leliana and Alistair, the Warden has the option to change these characters’ personalities by “hardening” them during their character missions. In the case of Alistair, if he has a “hardened” personality, he will act quite differently at the Landsmeet, the location of a climax of the game. Where before he did not wish to be king at all, he will actually be more inclined to take the throne. There is a clear change of tone in his character from goofy to stern that you directly affect through your conversation choices. While this is adding more variety in your interactions with your party members, the point is still to gain 100% approval. On the whole, it is a very linear and singular form of relationship.
Developers created a new kind of interaction with NPCs in Dragon Age II with the Friendship/Rivalry scale. Rivalry points are not considered bad, just an alternative kind of relationship. The goal is to gain either 100% Rivalry or 100% Friendship – there are only major consequences if you do not achieve 100% by the end of the game. In a sense, this creates a game within a game, driven mostly by dialogue. Like the pacing of the story, the developers cut down conversation time to the most interesting and important topics to the overall plot. Since there are less gifts and conversation, you are forced to switch up your party members in an attempt to gain the points needed for 100% Friendship/Rivalry. This really makes you think about whom to bring on what quests. This system allows for different kinds of relationships. If you disagree strongly with Fenris’s vehement anti-mage stance, you can certainly be honest about your opinions without the risk of him leaving your party. However, it can be frustrating if you are only five points away from 100% and there are no more available conversations/gifts to give to achieve those five points. Sometimes you are forced to make decisions you wouldn’t normally make, just to appease an NPC. This actually shows the strength in the system. If you sacrifice an entire clan of Dalish to gain friendship from Merrill or rivalry from Fenris, then your feelings for the characters are coming first making you an actual character in the game.
Romance has always been a large part of interaction in the Dragon Age franchise. Both Origins and DA2 have characters with varying degrees of difficulty in achieving a complete romance, but DA2 has adapted it to the Friendship/Rivalry scale. Rivalry doesn’t prevent you from having a romance with your companions. On the contrary, there are different “rivalmance” cutscenes so that it fits the relationship Hawke has established through dialogue with that companion. For example, in Anders’s “Questioning Beliefs” quest during Act 2, if you are on the Friendship path he will be setting out a bowl of milk for cats and will tell you how “you’re the kind of leader we [the mages of Kirkwall] need.” If you choose the flirtatious dialogue option he will tell you, “You’ve seen what I am, but I’m still a man. You can’t tease me like this and expect me to resist forever.” If you once again choose the flirtatious option, the romance will begin in earnest. On the Rivalry path, this conversation goes quite differently, but doesn’t prevent the romance from occurring. Hawke finds Anders writing his manifesto on the mages’ plight, and the companion tries to convince “someone like you that the Circle is abusive and unjust.” Once again, if you choose the flirtatious option, Anders will tell you how he feels about you, but this time says, “I swear, I don’t know whether to kiss or kill you. You’re everything I hate, but I can’t stop thinking about you. For three years, you’ve haunted my sleep. I wake aching for you. It is madness. This can only end in ruin.” The romance begins either way, but fits with the relationship path that you have chosen.
In Dragon Age: Origins your decisions and interactions with NPCs helped build worlds, but in Dragon Age II you and your companions change that world. When looking at the overall plot of the Dragon Age franchise, a particular quote from the long running British science fiction television show, Doctor Who, always comes to mind: “Some things are fixed, some things are in a flux.” Neither Origins nor DA2 is a “God Game.” There are things you have control over, things you can change, and there are things that are “fixed” that you can only react to after the fact. In most games, your avatar is the catalyst for change in that world. When you play Halo, you as Master Chief have the fate of the universe directly in your hands. In Origins, you decide not only who takes the Ferelden throne, but also who becomes the Dwarven king in Orzammar. In Dragon Age II, however, you share the glory, and the blame, of your choices with your NPCs.
Hawke is betrayed several times throughout Dragon Age II. Two of those times are by companions and their betrayal does not only affect Hawke, but all of Kirkwall and Thedas. The first of these companion betrayals is at the end of Act II, when Isabela reveals that the relic she has been obsessively searching for is the Tome of Koslun, basically the bible for the Qunari, a rigorously structured warrior race, and the reason why they cannot leave Kirkwall. Despite telling you otherwise multiple times throughout the game, she has known this all along, but has kept it a secret to save her own skin. All of this information is presented to you during the “To Catch a Thief” quest, which must be done if Isabela is to remain a party member. There are other requirements if you wish for a future with Isabela. First, you must reach 50% Friendship or Rivalry and complete her “Questioning Beliefs” quest before “Following the Qun,” the last quest of Act II. Second, when she finally tells you what the relic is, you must agree to give her the Tome of Koslun and not return it to the Arishok, the Qunari leader. Third, even when she leaves the party for a period of time, you must remain true to her and not give the Arishok any information about Isabela or turn her over to him. The point is that these are all reactions. No matter what you do, Isabela will have already stolen and lost the relic and her ship before meeting you in Kirkwall. You decide her fate through interaction, but the Qunari are there because of her actions. No matter what your relationship status is with Isabela, she will always leave after stealing the relic back, whether she returns depends on your level of Friendship/Rivalry. If you hold a grudge against Isabela for bringing the Qunari to Kirkwall and withholding information from you about the relic, you can certainly hand her over to the Arishok. Or you can fight to save her. Either way you become the Champion of Kirkwall – that point in time is fixed as well. What is in flux is whether or not Isabela remains at your side until the end of the game.
The greater betrayal of the game is by Anders in the last quest of Act III. Throughout the game, the Mage-Templar conflict has steadily risen to a boiling point. Tired of the oppression of Knight Commander Meredith, the leader of Kirkwall’s Templars, and fed up with the obedience of First Enchanter Orsino, the head of mages in the Circle, Anders decides to take matters into his own hands. He blows up the Chantry with the Grand Cleric inside. Prior to this, during the Act III companion quest, “Justice,” Anders asks for your help in creating a potion that would supposedly separate Justice, a spirit that he has merged with his soul, from himself. Later he asks for one more favor: to distract the Grand Cleric while he does something in the Chantry, which he is unwilling to tell you about. You can refuse to help Anders, but it is his destiny to blow up the Chantry – that point in time is fixed. “I removed the chance of compromise, because there is no compromise,” says Anders after Hawke, Orsino, Knight Commander Meredith, and all of the major players of the game watch the Chantry leveled to the ground. Because of Anders’s actions, Knight Commander Meredith invokes the “Right of Annulment” to execute all of the Circle mages and Hawke is left with a choice: Side with the Templars or help the mages. No matter what your previous actions have been, you can choose either side and Anders’s fate is left in your hands. This is a devastating decision, even if you did not romance Anders. He is the designated healer of the game – very valuable tactically – and he is a character from Dragon Age: Awakening, so long time fans may have particular attachment to him. As you stand above him, trying to make a decision, Anders pleads his case, “The world needs to see this. Then we can all stop pretending the Circle is a solution. And if I pay for that with my life… then I pay. Perhaps Justice would at least be free.” The tension here comes not from a sword being swung or a spell being cast, but the words being spoken. It is a battle of arguments, of morality, that the player now has to fight.
Interactive dialogue is still new as gameplay. It is far from perfected, but even gaming mainstays like combat, movement, and camera control are constantly being improved upon. Here we have discussed two games that elicit emotion from the player. They are no longer only thinking about the stats of an NPC, but also their views on social and political conflicts. Lead writer on Dragon Age II, Jennifer Hepler says that for her “the ultimate achievement as a game writer is to make a player willing to make a disadvantageous decision in a game just to keep a fictional character from suffering.” To experience this emotional attachment, the player must feel like their avatar has a strong presence in the game both visually and audibly. Origins began this journey with the Warden and the power it gave the player in making key decisions in the structure of the world. Dragon Age II went further in allowing the player to really craft a personality to their liking. Comparing it to the words of Anders, “There can be no half measures. There can be no turning back.” Interactive dialogue as gameplay is now a vital part of many gaming experiences; hopefully other developers will recognize this and make the right choices.