One thing or the other

Notes on Dragon Age: Origins #9 — Choices and realpolitik, deep, deep underground

I have a complaint to make about the Orzammar section of Dragon Age: Origins, but I’ve been thinking about it for the past few days, and I’m not sure it’ll hold up until the end of this page.

When the Warden arrives in Orzammar, she finds the kingdom in disarray. The king has died, and two dwarves are contesting the throne. Dragon Age: Origins asks the Warden to break the stalemate, with the insistence that the dwarves cannot join the battle against the blight until a king is crowned.

I wasn’t given much more information than that before I had to take one side or another. So I chose, the noble over the prince, fighting over passing documents whose authenticity I had no way to determine. It was, for all intents and purposes, a flip of a coin. When the noble, Harrowmont, won the support of the assembly, the prince, Bhelen tried to take the crown by force. I killed him. Because why not? I didn’t have anything in particular against Bhelen, and Harrowmont seemed kind of shady too — I got the distinct impression that every accusation both sides made against the other was pretty much true, but then, how was I to know?

As big choices go, Harrowmont/Bhelen felt like the most arbitrary one I’ve had to make so far. As the Grey Warden, there isn’t really a win state — or the win state doesn’t really depend on any of the actions I took. Either Harrowmont or Bhelen will end up fighting the blight, even if I change my mind at the last minute and support the candidate I’ve been working against. But, again, there’s never any real basis for one choice or the other.

In a sense, this is realpolitik — forcing a choice because what I as the Warden need is for a choice to be made. There may be consequences to having chosen one way or the other, but not now, and not primarily for me. My hands are covered with dwarven blood, it doesn’t really matter whose. There are lives at stake, out there, somewhere.

Unlike many choices in Dragon Age, including the standoff between the elves and werewolves that I recently mostly defused, the choice in Orzammar is binary — one pretender will become king, and the other will die, but part of what gives the event its interpretive significance is the fact that BioWare often builds a third option into apparently binary choices. I didn’t have to kill the elves or the werewolves. I didn’t, in the end, have to choose between the Quarians and the Geth. I’d done my legwork. I’d built up enough influence.

So when Bhelen resorted to arms, it felt like he deserved what he got. I’m not sure I’d have felt the same if I’d gone the other way and left Harrowmont to face a judicial murder. I lucked into the right choice. Except that if I’d read the wiki ahead of time, I probably would have chosen the other way.

The downside of BioWare’s narrative ambiguity is that it can feel like a personal failure when you aren’t able to thread the needle and save everyone. This may, as an element of narrative design, not be an entirely bad thing. We don’t live lives where we can always make perfect choices.

Sometimes a third way is possible, and sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it’s possible but not for you.

Originally published 5/4/15 on Medium