Good Foundations

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


Allow me to pretend for a moment that my recent Dragon Age 2 bender is somehow virtuous, by talking about what story-related thing the game designers have done very, very right.

For those who aren’t aware, Dragon Age is a fantasy video game. Also an expansion, a sequel, two novels, a Flash game, a Facebook game, a tabletop role-playing game, a comic book, a six-part Penny Arcade strip, a set of action figures, a Web series, and an upcoming anime film. It is, in other words, a franchise, taking the increasingly common path of spreading itself across multiple kinds of media.

Often that path annoys me, because it feels like a half-baked marketing scheme, churning out disposable content in a cynical attempt to maximize profits. You can tell when the story and the world are being stretched further than they can really go, or when new additions are being tacked on like afterthoughts. Having not consumed all the media listed above, I can’t tell you whether all of it is good — given the length of the list, I’d be surprised if it were — but I can tell you this: Bioware laid the right kind of foundation, back when they first started to develop the original game.

They built a world full of conflict.

The premise of Dragon Age: Origins (the first game) is fairly standard epic fantasy. There’s a world with humans, elves, dwarves, and qunari (a DA-original race). There’s a bunch of subterranean monsters collectively called darkspawn who occasionally boil up to the surface in what’s called a Blight, led by an Archdemon. There’s a military order called the Grey Wardens, who fight darkspawn. There’s a hero (or heroine) with a motley band of companions, and together they save the world. Original twists show up here and there in the plot, especially in the expansion Awakening, but on the whole, the strength of the story is in its execution: good characters, witty dialogue, some genuinely interesting moral choices for the player to make.

Dragon Age 2? Has almost nothing to do with what I described above.

The second game starts during the Blight in Ferelden, but doesn’t stay there long; the heroine (or hero) flees to a different part of the world, and the game covers ten subsequent years in the city of Kirkwall, with only occasional appearances by darkspawn. It isn’t DA:O stuffed in a microwave and nuked into a semblance of freshness; it’s a new story, with new conflicts, and the awesome part is, it doesn’t come out of left field, because right from the start, Bioware built their world with that kind of scope in mind.

It’s easy to slap on a quick veneer of scope, having characters talk about other countries and customs and so on. Maybe even have a token character or two from those other countries. Doing it right, though, requires more than a colorful paint job; it requires conflict. You see, in order for it to be believable, conflict requires difference, and also history — which cause the world to feel more real. And once you have your foundational conflicts, you have an engine with which to propel a whole fleet of narrative vehicles.

Grey Wardens vs. the darkspawn is a perfectly servicable engine, and works just fine for DA:O. But you can’t use it forever; Blights are supposed to be rare, world-threatening events, and if you keep on trotting a new one out for every story, they’ll soon lose their impact. There are other Grey Warden-centric stories you could tell, but only so many before killing darkspawn starts to look repetitive. Bioware knew from the start that they wanted this to be a franchise, so they provided themselves with more options. One of the central conflicts in DA2 has to do with mages: how is their power to be kept in check, and what about the danger that mages are so easily possessed by demons? In DA:O you learn that in most countries, the Circle of Magi is controlled by the Chantry (i.e. the Church), with an order of Templar knights to keep them in line. Anyone practicing magic outside their control is branded an apostate, and usually hunted down. There are some side plots about that in DA:O, but in DA2 it takes center stage, as the strife between mages and Templars heats up and threatens the Chantry’s power.

There are political conflicts: the qunari are invading from the north, posing a military threat that in some regions is just about as bad as the Blight. There are social conflicts: elves in this world are an oppressed underclass, in ways that echo the treatment of Native Americans, Jews, Roma, and other marginalized groups from real-world history. And there are always interpersonal conflicts, because Bioware knows that good characters make for good story.

Tasty, tasty conflict. A world like that, full of divisions laid at different angles to each other, is a world that can support games and novels and comics and all the rest. It doesn’t guarantee those things will be good — that comes down to the execution, which is always variable — but they’re unlikely to feel repetitive. It’s a lot of work up front, but it pays off in the long run.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I have some quests to finish . . . .