As video games continue to blur the lines between big budget Hollywood and interactivity, story continues to become more important. For BioWare, who prides themselves on story and has since their inception, it is held at the same level, if not higher, as the basic tenants of gameplay.
For great story, you need great writers. As Mac Walters and Drew Karphyshyn took the world of Mass Effect and wrote it for games, comics, and novels, so David Gaider has guided the world of Dragon Age in both the games and novels.
We sat down with Gaider for a one on one chat at Comic-Con International: San Diego 2011 about conversation, story, the first downloadable content for Dragon Age 2 and what the implications might be for the future.Newsarama: David, what was the thought process behind inventing a new dialogue format for Dragon Age 2 instead of going with the established “paragon renegade” format in Mass Effect?
David Gaider: We weren’t necessarily saying we wanted to copy what Mass Effect did, but we did like some of the things they did with dialogue. The wheel specifically, just the way of arranging it. We wanted to make sure, however, that we kept the things that were important about Dragon Age. We don’t have a paragon/renegade system and we don’t really want to add one. Dragon Age is a lot more about grey morality and we didn’t want to make anything overly obvious saying, “this is right” and “this is wrong.” Or “this is what bad guys do” and this is what “good guys do.” So we didn’t want to do that. That’s why we came up with the tone system and we are probably going to expand on that a bit more as we move forward. Allowing the player ways to tell us what kind of Hawke they want to play. It’s more about personality than morality.
Nrama: Your companions affected the overall plot of Dragon Age II much more than in the past – is that something we can expect in the future?Gaider: Yeah, I think it was more when we started thinking about what companions we wanted. One mistake we sort of felt we made in Dragon Age: Origins was we thought more about characters we would like to write, as opposed to what we did in DA2: we started off thinking well let’s have some characters that play an important role in the plot – because there’s a few, Isabela, for instance has a particular role in the plot that she plays – but also characters that take a stance on some of the central issues. Having a character that doesn’t care either way doesn’t lead to conflict, right? And conflict is what you are looking for, so we have characters like Anders or Fenris who have a stake in the conflict that’s going on. Therefore when Hawke is doing things, especially in regards to those particular issues, those characters will have something to say. I think it’s important because sometimes these large issues of morality or things throughout the game like the mages and templars, some people choose to play as a mage so they have a personal stake in that conflict, but what if you don’t? The idea is that your followers are in a way a cipher for which the player experiences issues. They may not care about these large issues like saving the world, but you will care about saving one person. You may not care about mages versus templars, but if you care about Anders or you care about Fenris or your brother or sister, you might not but if you do that is another way for us to get the player engaged in the plot. Nrama: Many people enjoyed the family element in DA2. In DA2: Legacy’s description, it says we are going to “uncover the truth about Hawke’s lineage” – is it safe to say bringing your sibling along is a good idea?
Gaider: As long as your brother or sister is alive, they can come into Legacy. Even after Act 1, there is a story explanation for why they are involved. There is a good reason for them to be involved. As long as they are alive, this is something that if you bring your brother or sister along with you, it adds an extra dimension to what is going on. There are revelations about your father so that is going to interest them as well. If you are playing during a portion of the game where your mother is present she has some extra dialogue as well. Our idea was you can play Legacy at any point during the game, but that Legacy will react and change a little bit based on where in the game you actually initiated it.Nrama: The darkspawn in the video looks a good bit like the Architect in Dragon Age: Awakening - is there something other than looks linking these two together?
Gaider: There might just be. I don’t want to spoil that, but I mean, it’s pretty clear that they have something in common. You will find exactly what during the course of Legacy.
Nrama: Any Origins fan that hears there is going to be warden involvement with Hawke is going to wonder if their playable character will be mentioned or featured… So will Legacy feature “the Warden”?Gaider: No, there’s a particular reason for these particular wardens to be there. Some of the players of DA2 were curious as to “what were the Grey Wardens?” It was mentioned a couple of times that there was something significant they were doing and some of the players were like well what is that? You will learn that here, but it doesn’t actually involve “the Warden” from Origins.
Nrama: Are the Wardens going to make a prominent return in some of the major conflicts in the Dragon Age franchise such as the Mages vs. Templars or the Qunari?
Gaider: No, they have their own business going on, but that doesn’t mean we will be ignoring them. Probably in the future they will return to a more significant role. That’s as cagey as I can be.
Nrama: As the lead writer of the franchise, what makes Dragon Age so unique as a role-playing game? What is distinctly Dragon Age?
Gaider: It’s about difficult choices. I don’t like easy happy endings. I don’t like when things are all tied up in neat bows. I don’t like fantasy only being a morality play. What I like is presenting decisions where the player has to stop and may be isn’t quite sure as to what is the right thing to do. Really what you do says as much about the player and the character they want to play as it does about the decision itself.
Role-playing is about finding that character and maybe even something about yourself. I know lots of people, even with Knights of the Old Republic, which was about the dichotomy of good and evil, sure, but we did try even back then to make some of those choices not simple, and there were a lot of people, who came online for instance, and said, “Well I had intended to play an evil character, but I found some of the things that I would do just made me feel uncomfortable and I just couldn’t do it.” So I think those are excellent things that RPGs can do. It’s not just about escapism; it’s a little bit of exploration.
In a way, it’s the same as writing a novel, where it’s about engaging the player and getting them to care about the story, while in a game you have a unique aspect with the element of interaction and personal investment that you can’t really get some other passive entertainment. So it’s an opportunity to get the player to tell the story you want to tell and talk about different issues. At the very first breaths of a story, when we are talking about our ideas, it’s like, “What do we want to tell? What do we want to touch on?” I mean we are writers; we want to talk about our personal story. We don’t want to beat the player over the head with it necessarily, but we want that element to be there. There has to be that spark of inspiration. So this is a way for us to tell that story and to make our point and make it part of a game.