Obsession of the week, eh? More like the year. I started playing Dragon Age fairly soon after it came out but quickly realised playing it to completion would mean failing my last year of classes, so I relucantly shelfed it. Until august when I finally got to play  the best RPG in a fairly long time (I’m dissing you, Mass Effect!). After reaching the game’s epic conclusion, I just couldn’t let it go. The only way to make room in my head for otherimportant things was to spew forth this cathartic spoilerous mass of words about Dragon Age. So here we are. Spoilers, ho!

One of the best things about Dragonage was it made you want to roleplay it. Though your character only has a set amount of reply options and only a few ways to deal with moral dilemma’s, there’s still enough room to create your own character concept and to play it consistently throughout the game. Almost everyone I spoke to has done this while playing, and I think more so than with other RPG’s.

I made a human noble and ended up with a very pretty, dainty looking avatar, unnervingly so. She looked very highborn, pretty much the polar opposite of the burly gore-covered Wardens. I hadn’t intended to play her in a specific way, but now it was clear to me that she was a true noble: refined, spoiled, uneducated about the real world, good with etiquette, polite to a fault, innately good but with no ambition to save the world. Ladylike, definitely not a tomboy.

In the prologue my character concept was chafing at the reigns a bit. The first scene my dad and his good friend Arl Howe told me that they were going off to war and that I couldn’t come like I undoubtedly wanted to, and that this Warden was in the castle and that I couldn’t join him either like I wanted to as well. Am I adopted?

I was pretty happy for them to go off to war while I made floral arrangements in the castle and had secret liasons with other nobles and/or their servants. Anyhow, I was able to give the least enthusiastic reply and be done with it. Coincidentally, I was super nice to Arl Howe which made him shift uncomfortably. I even offered to meet his son who was looking for a nice girl to get married off to. He actually looked guilty for destroying my family and home the same evening, lethally interrupting my evening’s nude entertainment.

I spent a while fighting my way through the castle, ending up at the feet of my dying father in a room about to be overwhelmed by enemy soldiers. Conveniently, Duncan arrives and promises my dad to get me to safety, but only if I join the Wardens. “But I don’t want to,” I say. If I can’t make pretty things and secude nobles in this castle, I’ll do it in some other one thank you very much. My blood-soaked father begs me to join the Wardens. Gah, emotional blackmail! I can’t help but point out that this really doesn’t feel right for me, so Duncan uses the right of conscription. For the rest of the adventure my character thought Duncan was a HUGE, HUGE dick.

So me and my evil stepdad travel to Ostagar and meet the king and my new thieving and raping co-recruits who turn out to be fairly nice, so hey, this isn’t so bad, right? And there’s this Alistair guy who who’s funny and I needed a laugh what with my family getting killed by my ex-future-father-in-law and my getting kidnapped by crazy end-justify-the-means beardy man. Even adventuring isn’t so bad since I have a bow and can stay miles away from the baddies.

Then we do the joining ritual. My rapist buddy drinks from the cup and dies instantly. My thieving buddy gets cold feet and refuses to drink so Duncan beheads him. Dude, all he needed was a time out and some strong liquor! Did I mention Duncan is a HUGE dick? Still, I like my head where it is, so I drink from the cup and don’t die. Yay?

At the battle of Ostagar, Alistair and me turn out to work well together and Duncan dies, definite yay! Unfortunately we lose the war and are nursed back to health by Morriganwho insists on coming with us. I don’t like the floozy one bit but I’m very nice and polite anyway because that’s what I do. After that, we head on to the mage tower because I know I can pick up a healer there.

Enter the two themes that Dragonage wants you to make up your mind about: Magic and Religion. Those are fun because you get to voice your own opinion at every occasion without falling into the saint Theresa/babykiller spectrum. My character is very accepting of magic, siding with the mages and sparing evil mages’ lives. This changes when she runs into a group of four blood mages with thugs in a rundown house in Denerim. After hours of frustrating reloads, my character decides magic is just too dangerous, and leaves a bloody trail of mage corpses behind her for the rest of the story.

Anyhow, mage tower. I meet Wynneand instantly like her, except for the constant complaining about how old she is when she clearly has the body of a 20 year old. Wynne is great. When you talk to her in camp she takes the classic pc-npc relation for a spin by asking YOU about YOUR background, giving you a great opportunity to play your character, and becoming an advisor of sorts. A very cute way of building a relationship and showing why it’s different from your other npc relationships.

So we destroy the demons, I let the mages have their tower and we go off to greener pastures. I get attacked by a fairly incapable gigolo assassin. Of course I spare his life. Killing him wouldn’t be very nice and my party needs more DPS. Though his randy adventures are amusing, we never really build up a bond of any kind, even though he’s the only one to stick with me after the end *eerie foreshadowing*.

We go to Redcliffe and run into Lilianaand her little lisp who I thought was fairly annoying but she does bring in the religion side of things, culminating in finding Andraste’s Sacret Ashes. You get a lot of freedom to abandon or embrace religion (even more so if you’re a dwarf). My character was a bit religious but mostly respectful of other people’s religions and so got along with everyone.

The ashes allow me to heal uncle Eamon and get to Alistair exposition-ville, so now we can get into why Alistair is so cool. For starters, think back to other Bioware male npc romances, a disproportionate number of which featured Paladins or paladin-wannabe’s. Knights in shining armor, baby! Except they weren’t, they were either boring or total dicks:

  • Ajantis (BG I) boring and a dick,
  • Anomen (Baldur’s gate II, the only choice for a female pc!) – total dick.
  • Kaiden (Mass Effect, boring!),
  • Carth (Knights of the old republic) – boring.

The non-paladin choices (Jade Empire’s Sky, Baldur’s gate’s Coran and Xan) were better, but they still weren’t the kind of characters you got attached to, or stories you were touched by. You just play along because, hey, who wants to play a character that can’t even get laid?

With the previous NPC romances, you often had to play the part of the nice girl, affirming their beliefs, encouraging their convictions, giving compliments whenever possible (worst example being Persona 3, where you actively had to encourage people to sink further into their disfunctions in order to become friends with them). Often it meant picking the most boring answer from your choice of options, hidden between tantalizing insults and sarcastic remarks that would end your romance instantly. With Alistair, no such thing. He actually liked it if you cracked a joke at his expense every once in a while. Sure, he worshipped Duncan as a demigod, but my character was too polite to complain about the dickish dead. And besides, being able to poke fun at someone goes a long way.

Alistair was well written, had an actual personality (admittedly voice acting gives it an additional advantage over BG1&II), and allowed for really cool interaction. What makes interaction really cool? Basically, stuff you wouldn’t expect. Exceptionally good, original, dialogue is part of that, as are the small touches. In Jade Empire at the eve of war, Sky would refer back to an answer I picked out of a list of options about four hours or gameplay ago, and explained how that answer affected him. It’s a simple trick but I found it was very touching.

With Alistair this kind of specialized interactivity happened in the sense that you get to make a fair few decisions about Alistair’s fate – once again decisions that aren’t right or wrong but that you can motivate from your own character’s point of view. I was utterly smitten with Alistair from the start, so my character’s motivation was (uncharacteristically for a PC) to please him. I waited an excruciatingly long time for him to initiate bedding (because doing it myself had bad results), I didn’t make him king because he didn’t want to be king (and because he would be a horrible one anyway), and I didn’t make him do the nasty things Morrigan wanted him to do because it was the last thing he wanted to do. It was a nice touch of irony  that all this protecting got him killed in the end.

I figured I could sacrifice myself heroically, I’m always up for a good heroic sacrifice. But since Alistair was my only tank I had to take him along and he won the race to self-sacrifice. Which was, again, pretty touching. Afterwards I had to sit through oodles of cutscenes showing how great our victory was and the Alistair-shaped hole in the background made the ending wonderfully bittersweet.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, forgetting to mention the coolest parts in the game. My prime motivation throughout the whole game (you get plenty of opportunity to declare this to your party members and others) was taking revenge on Arl Howe for killing my family. Bloody optional but appreciated. Very near the end of the game the story brings me to Castle Howe and I enjoy myself immensely killing every soldier around before finally getting to the main prize. Howe calls you out, and is haughty and arrogant even after you shoot him through the throat with the special arrow with the rusty end you’ve been saving just for him. It wasn’t Inigo Montoya but it was good vengeance, and this satisfied me more than any Archdemon trophy on my bedroom wall.

My character had started off sweet, polite and kindhearted but had hardened a fair bit along the way, declaring war on blood mages and fostering a maddening desire for vengeance. We took to the Landsmeet and convinced the Bannorn (in a spectacular ‘every persuade roll should be like this’ way) to support me over the reasonable evil Loghain (yes, you read that right. Most reasonable evil villan ever. How awesome and still plenty scary) and he challenged me (or rather my Champion – guess who that was) to a duel.

As Alistair was fighting him, I made up my mind about yet another thing the game wants to you to decide: Loghain could not be permitted to live. Alistair defeated him and I expected a little talk to pop up where (as usual) everyone important goes “Well, what should we do?” and then expectantly looks to you with big doe eyes. Except they didn’t. There was a scared silence, Alistair exchanged a look of agreement with my character and in one mighty blow beheaded Loghain. Which is a set outcome for fightingthat duel with Alistair, but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that ALISTAIR HAD READ MY MIND.

Which was the most immersive, “Fourth wall? What wall?” moment I can recall from a lifetime of computer games. Oh, I’ve cried about them, had nightmares about them,sacrificed my social life to them. But I never wondered whether the game was reading my mind. Which is why Dragon Age is awesome.