A piece of the whole and not the whole alone

Notes on Dragon Age: Origins #2

Many story games spend a great deal of time telling the player character exactly how special she is—Warrior of Light, Chosen One, Emissary, The Shepard (The Shepherd)—and Dragon Age does that as well. Even as an elf, with occasional reminders that elves are a bit closer to Harry Potter than Lord of the Rings, the Mages’ Circle tutorial establishes the character as having special potential, and maybe even special privileges. I betrayed Jowan, and the First Enchanter defended me when the Knight-Commander of the Templars wanted to punish me for helping Jowan destroy his phylactery.

[Is all of that English? Writing about fantasy can sometimes feel like speaking in tongues.]

But the results are the same, right? One way or another, I enter the storerooms with Jowan and leave the Circle for the Grey Wardens. I can be good or bad, a faithful friend or a good member of of the Circle, but whether through desire or necessity, I leave with Duncan.

By contrast, it was kind of nice to be nobody when I arrived in Ostagar. No one has time for you, and the people who join your party meet terrible ends. More than that, the battle against the darkspawn horde has what feels like a refreshing sense of scale. It’s not overwhelmingly huge (I’m sure that’s saved for later), but it involves an army composed of, say, more than a dozen and fewer than thousands. You see apprehension on their faces. And the player character isn’t at the center of things. It’s the army—war as a thing fought by people and not just one special soldier.

It feels right, especially compared to Mass Effect, which even when the Reapers are attacking entire planets, can feel kind of small, just you and your immediate party and maybe a handful of NPCs fighting around you. Strategy games might be really good at making the big picture functional and visible, but I like a story game that even just for a minute makes the player something other than the most important thing in the world.

And then—BETRAYAL (that’s exactly how I wrote it down in my notebook, all-caps).

Originally posted 3/2/15 on Medium