Dragon Age: When Narrative and Gameplay make Fun

I think I fell in love with Alistair the moment I came out of Flemeth’s hut and he was so happy to see me alive. I knew it was just because he was relieved to not be alone in the world, but I was still head over heels.

Narrative in a game has the power to be so much more than just a framework of a universe or a generic plot to satisfy the genre. Game narratives can help create emotional experiences.

In Dragon Age:Origins, superb voice acting, fabulously animated facial features, developed histories, and consistent moralities somehow combine into a magical, sparkling, non-vampire known as Character. Alistair is sarcastic, playful, good, strong, sometimes conflicted, always gorgeous, loyal, and … interesting. I gave him some kind of runic symbol and he looooved it.

Why? Why does he like runes? Maybe I just hadn’t spoken to him enough to find out, but I knew there must be a reason and I was going to dig it out of him – I was going to get to know him.

Alistair is just one example of great character design in DA:O. But, is that enough to make a great game? Couldn’t I just go read Tolkien or Jordan or Martin if I wanted a good fantasy character? (Shhh, let’s only think of the first few Jordan books – let him rest in peace.)

I could. I don’t need to play a game for good narrative and if that’s all I wanted, I’d probably read a book. But we play games because we also want to have fun. We want to act. We want to play and I firmly believe that no amount of even superb narrative will, on its own, make a good game. A good game also needs good gameplay.

What is about DA:O’s gameplay that’s good? How does it interact with the narrative to create a seamless “game-goodness”?

One of the ways is I think the game’s focus on moral choices. Not only do they influence how the story plays out, they also influence whether your party members stay and fight beside you. Some class specializations are only unlocked by certain moral choices. NPC interactions vary dependent on choices you’ve made that have influenced them. Some preferable choices simply can’t be made because you haven’t worked on your character’s cunning and Coercion skills. The entire game can simply not be completed 100% on one playthrough, not just because there are different class/race beginnings, but because you will experience different parts of the game dependent on the choices you make.

It's not what it looks like...

All right, moral choices, but how does that influence the buttons I push and my heartrate in combat? Well, it may not influence the buttons you push for your main character, but it does influence what buttons you can push for your other party members. As I mentioned, some may leave you if they don’t agree with you, but also, their own abilities directly match their character as developed through the narrative. Of course, Alistair is a tank. Of course, Oghren fights with a two-hander. Of course, Wynne is a healer. Etc., etc.

Sometimes, narrative may even help make up for less-than-superb gameplay. The dwarven main questline is too long by most players’ estimation, but we know Branka must be out there so we keep searching, and the longer we search, the greater the suspense builds. Had I been a real adventurer, I would have assumed the darkspawn ate her and went back much earlier than I actually did. It dragged on and was the only area I left partially unexplored. At the end, though, I was rewarded with great narrative and a good battle. It wasn’t just a dungeon crawl – it was an epic search for lost Paragons and legendary technology.

The game is fun for more than just Alistair (and his very dreamy…mm). It’s fun to fight in this game. It’s fun to find class specializations and new recipes. It’s fun to get new spells and discover spell combos. It’s fun to give gifts. It’s fun to hear my characters talk to each other. It’s fun to open chests and find love letters. It’s sad to see characters leave or die. It’s exciting to recruit someone new. It’s scary to fight the Broodmother.

I could go on and on. The important thing to see is that it is almost impossible to separate the threads of narrative and gameplay in this game. Either they are so fine, I just cannot discern the boundary, or else they are so finely done, they merge.

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Longasc
    Nov 23, 2009 @ 19:32:43

    Now I know the reason why so many ladies like Dragon Age. ;) Alistair seems to be the obvious romance for female DA chars, he seems to be quite present. Someone’s husband calls him a tit now and then, btw.

    I hope there are some nice romances possible for male human nobles. Morrigan seems to be a very special person, probably only enjoyable ingame.

    OK. One month and a day, and I will play DA:O, too. After installing Windows 7. ;)

    Reply

  2. Uilleand
    Dec 03, 2009 @ 19:56:33

    It’s funny…this game has gone beyond ‘fun’ for me, especially considering the completely traumatic ending I created for myself. (My post-game therapy consisted of chocolate and tequila … not necessarily in that order…) But, even as I was screaming obsenities at my PC’s monitor, I was loving every minute. The *experience* was intense and visceral, and lodged somewhere between my heart and my throat.
    Other random points:
    * Your Cousland looks like my Cousland *fistbump*
    * Niii-iiiice screencap. *drools*

    Uilleand/Chable

    Reply

  3. Xavier Morgan
    Jan 09, 2010 @ 17:28:40

    Love this game. We intend to replace NWN with it in class if the toolset is up to speed.

    Reply

    • Adarel
      Jan 09, 2010 @ 18:05:22

      I downloaded the toolset, but haven’t had much of a chance to play around with it. Looks pretty extensive, but I never used the Neverwinter Nights one so can’t really compare.

      Reply

  4. betty
    Jan 28, 2010 @ 09:53:33

    Just love Alistair! He’s sooo cute!!!

    “And you? Have YOU ever licked a lamp post in winter…?”
    :-D

    Reply

  5. joshua riness
    Feb 09, 2010 @ 13:58:04

    Lovely Dr. B. I hate when I find myself playing to reach the narrative, because it’s so much better than the gameplay. I have never isolated that fact, even in thought. cool.

    Reply

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