today’s mental writing exercise

This is totally cat-vacuuming — it’s unproductive speculation on something that probably won’t ever happen, and even if it did, I certainly wouldn’t be involved — but I started it on my walk to and from the post office, to keep myself occupied, and it’s an interesting exercise in thinking about story structure. Spoilers for the video game Dragon Age: Origins follow below the cut.


How would you go about making DA:O into a movie?

It’s possible someone will try to do this; after all, Hollywood loves adaptations, especially in the hideously expensive spec-fic genres. They like to start from a pre-tested foundation. So when you have a very successful high fantasy game built on a strong narrative base, you have a property that somebody will at least think about adapting.

The first thing you have to do, of course, is cut the thing down to size. DA:O takes about 60 hours to play on the short end; my own run-through went for over a hundred. Of course, a lot of that is monster-mashing, but presuming this is a single movie rather than a trilogy, you still need to hack practically everything out of it. So good-bye to the filler content, i.e. the Chantry board quests, the work for the Mages’ Collective and the Blackstone Irregulars, and the companion quests, along with most of the companions. Fantasy may love its Motley Band of Heroes, but you don’t need a whole herd of them. Alistair and Morrigan are the only ones who are structurally integral to the plot; they’re the ones you keep.

You also, I think, have to cut the treaty quests. If you try to include them in reduced form, their plot-coupon nature will be stripped of its disguise, because you’ve taken away everything that makes them more than just items on a checklist. So no Paragon of Her Kind, no Nature of the Beast, no Circle of Magi. At most, I think you keep the Arl of Redcliffe line, minus the Urn of Sacred Ashes detour — interesting as that is in game terms, the High Dragon kind of dilutes the impact of the Archdemon, and it complicates the plot unnecessarily. You also probably eliminate Conor’s Desire Demon, and just stick with the poisoning of Arl Eamon. But maybe not even that.

So what you’re left with now is: recruitment, Ostagar, Lothering, Denerim, Landsmeet, Final Battle. That’s a much more manageable skeleton to work with. Now we pause for a moment and think about where we’re beginning, and where we’re ending.

Ending first. Presuming you stick with the game material rather than pulling something out of your ear (which you could do), there are four options for how to gack the Archdemon. Morrigan’s ritual, quite frankly, I think is impossible. Sketchy sex magic to turn her unborn child into an Old God? NOT HAPPENING. You can’t have the Warden do the honors (presuming a male hero); it’s too dubious. Can’t really have Alistair do it for the same reason. Loghain could, but then the conclusion of the plot has been taken away from the protagonist. So it’s going to be a Warden’s death instead, and the question is which one. Heroic self-sacrifice is a powerful choice, but I doubt Hollywood would do it, especially if they want the option of making a sequel. Alistair could die if you have a male Warden marrying Anora (since of course you need to resolve the kingship issue as well), but personally I favor Option C, Loghain. Rewrite things so Loghain’s made a Warden without Alistair leaving the party, then have an argument between Alistair and the protagonist as to which one of them will go down in flames, but at the last moment Loghain redeems himself Darth Vader-style. (Maybe because of a scene with Anora — if you sell us on the idea that he cares what she thinks of him, he could be motivated to do the right thing. Or make convincing him be the protagonist’s job.)

A lot hinges, though, on who the protagonist is. And that’s probably the big challenge of this adaptation; DA:O deliberately leaves that mostly open, because they want to give the player as much freedom as possible. This works well in a game, but not so well in a movie. So before you can answer the question of screenwriter toddalcott (“What does the protagonist want?”) you have to figure out who the protagonist is.

Well, which origin are we going with? I’m thinking not mage; you’ve already got Morrigan in the party, and the only time I can think of that I’ve seen wizard-as-hero is when everybody’s a wizard (e.g. Harry Potter). If we’ve chopped out the treaty quests, it seems random to go with either of the elven or dwarven origins. Which leaves a human noble, and that works well, because it gives a personal motivation to go alongside the more general one of “stop the Blight”: the protagonist wants revenge on Arl Howe, who betrayed his/her family on Loghain’s orders.

His or her? I’d love to see this done with a female Warden, and it adds a nice bit of pathos to our hypothetical ending: Alistair trying to insist he’ll be the one to die to save the woman he loves, her trying to do the same thing for him, and then Loghain does the right thing to make up for all his crimes and you end with heroine and king living happily ever after. Unfortunately, Hollywood would almost certainly point to Morrigan as sufficient female presence in the movie, and go with a male Warden instead. A male human noble fighter (seeing as how a backstabby rogue is not sufficiently heroic, especially when there are no treasure chests to be picked open), out to get the guy who murdered his family.

But hell, this is my hypothetical screenplay, so screw Hollywood. I hereby decree that our protagonist is Teyrn Cousland’s tomboyish daughter, and Arl Howe will rue the day he let her survive.

The difficulty of that origin, of course, is that it’s a weak justification for becoming a Grey Warden. Unlike (say) the city elf or mage, recruitment doesn’t save the heroine from being executed for her crimes. And becoming a Grey Warden sort of screws over her ability to inherit the teyrnir, what with the infertility thing, but you probably have to sweep that under the carpet regardless given that any way you slice it, you’re ending up with a Grey Warden King at the end, and maybe a Queen, too. So you probably have to rejigger the origin entirely — maybe she doesn’t know who’s responsible for the betrayal, or it’s staged in a way to make her look like she’s to blame, and the only way to save her is for Duncan to conscript her.

From there, your through-line looks like this. Zip through the Korcari Wilds stuff; at most, have the heroine and the other two recruits collect their darkspawn blood as part of their test. But get to the Joining ritual as fast as possible, with maybe a cameo entrance by Morrigan somewhere in there. Then the Battle of Ostagar — OMG, Loghain’s betrayed us — then rescue by Morrigan, leaving her mother out of it. Once the heroes have recovered, head for Redcliffe, intending to tell the sympathetic Arl Eamon that Loghain’s lying about the Wardens having betrayed Cailan. Arriving there, they discover that oh noes he’s been poisoned; maybe bring in a demon here, but have it be linked to Jowan, who’s (of course) in Loghain’s pay. Fix that problem, and tell the recovered and grateful Arl the truth about what happened at Ostagar. Onward to Denerim, having to dodge Loghain’s people along the way, because now he knows two Grey Wardens have survived, and is trying his damnedest to get rid of them. Somewhere in there, bring up the fact that Alistair is Cailan’s illegitimate half-brother; this could happen before or after Redcliffe. Oh, and there should be encounters with the darkspawn, too — basically, create a sense that all the world other than Arl Eamon is out to get them, and that their time to stop the Blight is running out. In Denerim, stage some variant on the Rescue the Queen quest, and get useful information about Loghain from Anora; also perhaps gack Arl Howe along the way. Then a nice exciting scene where our heroine confronts Loghain with his crimes, using the Arl Howe thing, info from Anora, and proof of what happened at Ostagar. (As opposed to the way the game runs it, where bringing up Ostagar actually hurts your cause, because then it’s he-said/she-said.) Duel Loghain — of course you have to duel Loghain — defeat him, turn him into a Grey Warden, and then have the Archdemon attack Denerim, without the Redcliffe detour. Morrigan possibly makes the offer of her ritual, especially if you set her up as a dark-horse ally, somebody you’re not entirely certain you should be trusting; if the screenwriter is efficient enough (and you de-psycho-bitchify Morrigan enough), you could even have the heroine worry earlier about Morrigan’s designs on Alistair. But the ritual is rejected, and then Loghain sacrifices himself at the last instant (after the heroine and Alistair have brought things to the brink), and Ferelden lives happily ever after.

I’m not sure that plot’s actually condensed enough to fit into the time allowed, and a lot would depend on the smaller details weaving everything together. You’ve also lost a great deal of what makes the setting interesting — the qunari, the history of the Chantry and the Tevinter Imperium, the elves as an oppressed underclass, the dwarves’ situation in the Deep Roads, and most notably the issue of where darkspawn come from. I do think you could have an encounter in Lothering, on the way to Redcliffe, where the Chantry and Templars try to grab Morrigan as an apostate; that would let you bring in the problematic mage situation, while also expanding her as a character. Possibly there could be another scene or two of that sort for the more important bits, like the darkspawn origin. But working all of that out would require taking this exercise way past the point of an afternoon’s entertainment, so I’ll leave it where it stands.

Thoughts? Addenda? Would you be interested in a Dragon Age movie, if they made one and it didn’t look like complete crap?

0 Responses to “today’s mental writing exercise”

  1. beccastareyes

    I don’t know the game, but I’m always interested in scripting imaginary movies (and TV pilots, and 13-episode anime series, and plays) in my head. It’s fun, and helps me understand how different media differ from one another (and how to edit stories since taking a game or a series down to something that can be done in two-three hours is about utility.).

    • Marie Brennan

      I’ll also take things that I think didn’t work and imagine how I would have restructured them. Off the top of my head, I did this with both the Star Wars prequels and the seventh season of Buffy. I actually think it helps me when it comes to revising my own work; I’m better able to imagine radical changes on someone else’s story, but once I’ve learned how to do that, it’s easier to apply it to something closer to home.

  2. coraa

    I think a female Warden would be ideal, not only because I love female protagonists but also because (IMHO) the Alistair/Warden romance is extremely satisfying. Especially since it ties into Alistair’s secret heritage and the emotional resonance of the Warden sacrifice. (But then, I’m weak to Alistair, so there you go.)

    (The other option, I think, would be to center the game around one of the party members. Alistair seems like a natural, both because he’s a Warden and because he’s tied so firmly into the politics, but I kind of cringe at the idea of making it a… a man’s story, when the original game doesn’t have to be. Alternately, a story centered around Morrigan would be very interesting, but the locus of the story would be weirdly off-center: it’d probably focus around the Flemeth quest [and to make it satisfying you’d have to change it so she was present for the final confrontation against Flemeth]. The backstories of the others feels a bit thin for a movie plot. Given all that, a movie centered around a female Cousland Warden would probably be the most satisfying after all. To me, anyway.)

    (But oh, I’d be sad to see the inevitable scene where Morrigan and the female Warden have a jealous bitchy bickering session. In my imaginary version, that doesn’t happen, and the movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.)

    I would totally go to a DA:O movie, but I do think that a lot of the things that make the setting interesting (vs. standard high fantasy) would be at risk of being squeezed out. The status of the mages, the nature of the Fade/demons, the elves as oppressed underclass (with the complicating factor of the Dalish), all are a huge part of what I think makes the setting pop, and I can’t imagine there’d be room for them.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think a female Warden would be ideal, not only because I love female protagonists but also because (IMHO) the Alistair/Warden romance is extremely satisfying. Especially since it ties into Alistair’s secret heritage and the emotional resonance of the Warden sacrifice. (But then, I’m weak to Alistair, so there you go.)

      I am, too. <g> It’s also a better romance than the other standard het alternative (Warder + Morrigan), since Morrigan’s a psycho bitch. That would be diluted, of course, by the removal of side quests (where her being Chaotic Stupid is the most obvious), but it’s still not going to be a Happily Ever After scenario. And Leiliana and Zevran, even in the het configurations a movie would probably insist on, are too peripheral to the story to really work.

      The other option, I think, would be to center the game around one of the party members. Alistair seems like a natural, both because he’s a Warden and because he’s tied so firmly into the politics, but I kind of cringe at the idea of making it a… a man’s story, when the original game doesn’t have to be.

      You also lose the structural advantage of a protagonist who doesn’t already Know Stuff. Unless you made more radical changes, and started with Alistair being taken from the Chantry as a new recruit, not knowing he’s Meric’s bastard son — but then you either need to keep Duncan around, or pair Alistair with someone else more experienced (to fill his own former role, basically). I suppose you could, in theory, have there be only one surviving Warden, but then the movie’s resting on a base of protagonist!Alistair + Morrigan, which feels decidedly unstable. <g>

      Alternately, a story centered around Morrigan would be very interesting, but the locus of the story would be weirdly off-center: it’d probably focus around the Flemeth quest [and to make it satisfying you’d have to change it so she was present for the final confrontation against Flemeth].

      She just isn’t protagonist material, unless you completely rewrite her personality. A heroic fantasy movie needs someone who’s at least partially inclined to save people.

      (But oh, I’d be sad to see the inevitable scene where Morrigan and the female Warden have a jealous bitchy bickering session. In my imaginary version, that doesn’t happen, and the movie passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.)

      In Happy Hypothetical Movie-Land, I think you could use Morrigan to complicate the romantic plot (which is useful) without it being standard-issue bitchy bickering. I will blithely ignore the likelihood that it would not be executed that well.

      I would totally go to a DA:O movie, but I do think that a lot of the things that make the setting interesting (vs. standard high fantasy) would be at risk of being squeezed out. The status of the mages, the nature of the Fade/demons, the elves as oppressed underclass (with the complicating factor of the Dalish), all are a huge part of what I think makes the setting pop, and I can’t imagine there’d be room for them.

      I did think briefly about structuring it as a trilogy. The first film would build up to the Battle of Ostagar, the second would be a radically restructured stand-in for the treaty quests (probably ending with the rescue of Arl Eamon), and the third would be the Landsmeet and Final Battle. That would allow for more breathing space, and some elaboration of the elves, dwarves, and qunari. But I don’t think that’s nearly as likely as a single film.

      You do still get the darkspawn/Archdemon thing, though, which is at least moderately original, and I think with Morrigan in the plot you could do at least some work on the mage end.

      • coraa

        Yeah, I agree wrt protagonists. You’d also have to contract/condense the player character party; I suspect there are just too many characters otherwise, but if you get rid of all of them you lose some important possibilities for conveying information. (For instance: Wynne is Yet Another Mage, but she also serves an important function as a wise backstory-and-advice character. OTOH, her role could be hybridized into Leliana’s, since Leliana does some of the same with her storytelling.)

        You do still get the darkspawn/Archdemon thing, though, which is at least moderately original, and I think with Morrigan in the plot you could do at least some work on the mage end.

        True, although you’d have to be really careful to set them (the Darkspawn) up as something other than bargain-bin orcs. But then, that can be done at the same time as establishing the mages for a two for one bonus, since the backstory (or at least the Chantry-approved backstory) of the Darkspawn has to do with the mages, which in turn ties into why mages are so feared and restricted.

        Of course, one of the biggest challenges would be the fact that (at least to me) so much of the charm of the game is in small incidental conversations, interpersonal relationships, and moral choices. That’s what, in a big way, sets it apart from yet another quest to save the world from wicked monster-men. I’ll assume that we get a really fantastic scriptwriter to convey some of that in the truncated and condensed format of a single movie. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        • Marie Brennan

          Yes, this is Happy Hypothetical Movie-Land. Of course we have a fantastic scriptwriter who manages to preserve (or rather recreate) those elements. ๐Ÿ™‚

          I actually figure you cut all the companions aside from Alistair and Morrigan — no Leliana, Sten, Oghren, Zevran, Wynne, or (if you include DLC) Shale. (Okay, maybe you can keep the dog.) They might appear in passing as secondary characters, especially where they could be used to elaborate on various points of the plot, but they wouldn’t be ongoing members of the group, traveling with the core three to deal with Loghain and the Blight.

          • coraa

            The dog can stay, yeah. Partly because he’s, well, a dog, even if a very smart one, and so doesn’t constitute an additional face that people have to remember, nor does he take up a lot of lines. But I think it would actually be very valuable in terms of not making the movie a total mired pit of Doom. (Although Alistair helps with that, being a goofball. And the Alistair-Dog-Warden conversations always lighten things up.)

          • Marie Brennan

            Exactly — the dog can act as a bit of leavening, without really expanding the plot any.

            I would have no interest in a Dragon Age movie that included Alistair but somehow dropped his goofiness along the way. That’s 90% of his character’s appeal; take it away and he’s Ye Olde Generic Heir to the Throne.

          • coraa

            Totally. He is not the kind of character I usually fall for; it was purely his personality that turned him into my favorite. Of course, Bioware generally writes very good characters (I was very taken with a lot of what they did with Knights of the Old Republic, back in the day, and even Baldur’s Gate in the hazy mists of time), but Alistair really stands out. I think largely because the combination of someone so goofy and kinda sweet with the standard knight trappings was unexpected to me, from a tropes standpoint.

          • Marie Brennan

            He’s an interesting cross of several types. They based his personality on Xander from Buffy (no, really — and Zevran was based in part on Spike), but he’s also the Heir to the Throne/knightly archetype, and then an odd layer of Templar thrown in to give him a sheltered choirboy aspect. (Which hit more or less the same buttons in me that Joscelin does in Jacqueline Carey’s books. And that sure didn’t hurt any.)

            It’s Bioware’s commitment to character, moral complexity, and narrative focus that makes their games ideal for adapatation. I never played KOTOR, but from what I’ve heard, if that hadn’t been a Star Wars game it would already have been turned into a film. People were giddy over its plot twists, and how often does that happen in a game?

          • coraa

            Oh, you know, that’s interesting—I don’t know Buffy at all, but I have read the Kushiel books. And I hadn’t thought of him as being similar to Joscelin, but in a lot of ways he is. And, yeah, I loved Joscelin too.

    • Marie Brennan

      I should also add that I think you could practically turn the treaty quests into movies of their own — I thought the dwarven society was really interesting, with the castes and then the Paragon thing cross-cutting it, and going after Branka is a pretty good quest narrative in its own right. The reveal with Caridin, and the moral choice of what to do with the Anvil, were more interesting than some movies (or heck, novels) manage in their own right. (The one thing I would change is to set it up so the political struggle in Orzammar isn’t a choice between two flavors of Unsympathetic Bastard.) But a movie consisting entirely of dwarven politics and adventure is unlikely.

      • coraa

        I agree, and I think the Aeducan origin is also very strong, interesting and in many ways not your bog-standard fantasy protagonist background. You could make a whole movie about those two elements… if, as you say, you’re okay making an entire movie about dwarves. Which unfortunately I think would be a very hard sell.

        • Marie Brennan

          I haven’t played any of the dwarven origins (or the Dalish elf one), though I know in broad outline what they’re about. But yes, a dwarf-only movie is a hard sell, and I imagine the same is true of a dwarf (or even an elf) as the protagonist of a mostly human-centric film.

          • coraa

            Both of the dwarf origins are very well done, actually. I recommend them. The noble dwarf origin is particularly touching at various points if played as a female character. (The Dalish elf one isn’t bad at all, but it’s not one of my favorites.)

  3. Anonymous

    I assume that by “cat vacuuming” you mean this:

    — CEP

  4. leatherdykeuk

    Fascinating! I want to play the game now!

    • Marie Brennan

      Bioware makes good games. They pay a lot of attention to narrative as an important component, with all the ancillary requirements (good character, setting, etc) that requires.

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